The Post-Communist Generation
by James Petras
Z magazine, May 1998
The Soviet Union has transited from a repressive and authoritarian
communist regime in which social welfare, full employment, and
a secure old age predominated to a savage capitalism in which
a small minority of Mafia business thugs, ax-communist bureaucrats,
and new rich speculators have pillaged the economy leaving 60
percent of the population in poverty and the vast majority of
The dominant class and their acolytes in the mass media present
the successful in the new society as role models to be imitated
by the young: new multi-millionaire business executives surrounded
by their bulky bodyguards signing business deals with Mafia bosses,
the new owners of the privatized former public enterprises.
Most observers, apart from the public relations officers of
the Western foreign relations department, would characterize Russia's
transition to capitalism as catastrophic in terms of its economic
performance and social consequences. To take only one example:
life expectancy in Russia today is six years below what it was
in the last years of the communist regime.
Cultural decline is no less striking than the socio-economic
decay. Prostitution, gambling, and violent crime have skyrocketed-as
have suicides, AIDS, and murder. Gambling casinos employ 400,000
workers, full-time and part-time prostitutes number in the millions,
and the new rich employ a private army of close to a half a million
A rigorous study by one of Russia's most reputable scholars
professor Bores Ruchkin, head of the Russian Institute of Youth's
Research Center illuminates how the Russian transition to capitalism
has impacted on the values and norms of the post-communist generation,
those who have come of age during the transition. The survey questioned
3,839 people in three age groups; 17, 24, and 30.
Almost 50 percent of the sample believed it is acceptable
to take what you want by force. No doubt President Yeltsin's bombing
of the congress in 1991 to consolidate his power grab was an exemplary
act, as are the ex-party elites grab of the lucrative oil and
gas enterprises. Mafiaism has become a hegemonic ideology, seeping
down from the top echelons of power to the new emerging generation.
The newfound liberty praised by Western academics includes the
freedom to mug your neighbor on your way up the social ladder.
The pervasive corruption that defines the nature of post-communist
business and government dealing is also seen as normal by the
new generation entering the market economy. The study found that
over 50 percent of 17-year-olds saw nothing wrong with looking
for a job where they stood a chance of being bribed. Among this
group almost 20 percent stated they would vigorously pursue jobs
that were susceptible to bribe taking. Given the level of corruption
it is probably the case that most better paying jobs involve corruption.
So the recognition of corruption by the new generation can be
interpreted as part of reality. In terms of personal relations
the Russian transition incorporates the worst features of Western
commercial society. Over two-thirds-said they would marry for
money and over one-fourth said they would agree to sex for pay.
The official line of post-communist society emphasizes the
rhetoric free market and political democracy. On the practical
level, the values that inform everyday life subordinate personal
and intimate values to the crassness of the marketplace. Everything
is for sale including adolescent sexploitation. Close to three-fifths
said that money was the most important thing in life.
This generation has been described by Western pundits as the
first to accept liberty as normal. The Russian professor who directed
the study concluded: "Young people are better adapted to
the conditions of a market economy. They don't want a return to
The old arguments that all the evils of post-communist Russia
are hangovers from the old Soviet period don't have a leg to stand
on. This generation is of and by the post-communist period. The
older group, age 30, may have become cynical as a result of the
double discourse under the communist regime, but for the most
part the norms of communist ideology at least put some constraints
on the practice of pillage and corruption, while providing lifetime
jobs and basic social services. The transition to capitalism has
blown away these constraints and all the crude material cravings
at the top of the hierarchy are now given full play. And imitated
at least, in fantasy, at the bottom by the new generation.
The reality is, however, that only an infinite fraction of
the new generation will become the commercial bankers, corporate
executives, and Mafia bosses that most aspire to. The most they
can realistically aspire to is becoming a security guard, a low-paid
scientist, or one of the ten million small traders plying the
streets and alleyways of the new Russian market economy.
James Petras is a writer and also teaches sociology at SUNY,