Russia's 'Generation Nyet' finds nothing to be for

In the middle of August, three days before the crisis that brought the Russian economy to near collapse, MTV, the world's biggest music television network, started broadcasting in Russia.

While the Western media reported this as a new jewel in Russia's drooping capitalist crown, MTV's target audience - the masses of Russian youths - are indifferent. Even if there had been no economic crisis, MTV, as a product of the American music industry, arrived too late in Russia.

Young Russians already know all about American pop culture. It once played a positive role, crushing the dull Communist ideology, and flooded our lives with temptation. But it failed us and we're fed up with the Western-style democracy it stands for in this country.

Many foreigners who arrive in Moscow or St. Petersburg still think the well-dressed, English-speaking young people they meet are followers of an "American Way of Life." But we are not.

Several years of so-called reform, a weak and incompetent president, the incessant threat of the military draft, and economic hardship have forced thousands of Russians in their early 20s to question the Russian path to democracy, and the West's urging us down that path.

The question for us is: If this is democracy, is it really worth it? Was it worth the bloody war in Chechnya, or firing on the "bad guys" in parliament in 1993? It is not for chewing gum and blue jeans that we fought when we stood by Boris Yeltsin back in 1991 as he stood up to coup-plotters and ended 70 years of communism.

I'm a 23-year-old Muscovite, and I call my peers "Generation Nyet" - Generation No - because all we have is "no." We don't want what we have - a troubled Russia - but we have no good ideas for what we want. Some of us turn to religion - we wear crosses and can repeat clichs from religious pamphlets, but few have read the Bible. Some of us turn to the radical chic of dangerous new sociopolitical movements; we like the romantic railings, but we have no realistic programs. Wherever we invest our thought, we feel bankrupt and apathetic.

Many of my friends who once supported Mr. Yeltsin and Anatoly Chubais, the mastermind of Russia's infant market economy and privatization, now see things differently. They see that they are once again being manipulated as they were during the Communist era, when they were considered "the driving force of the Party."

A perfect example of this manipulation was the 1996 presidential campaign, when Yeltsin's reelection campaign, "Vote or You Lose," had hundreds of pop stars call upon their fans to support the "right" man, to save Russia from Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov.

While many of the stars spoke of courage and patriotism, it was the money to buy exposure that was the deciding factor in the campaign. It was orchestrated by Sergei Lisovsky, a young Communist boss-turned-successful advertising executive, known for opening Moscow's first Western-style nightclub. During the campaign, Mr. Lisovsky was caught leaving government headquarters with a box holding $500,000 in cash. He was never charged, and in September 1998 he ran for a seat in the Duma but lost. While he blamed his political enemies, his defeat clearly showed that his Western trappings of success aren't so popular among young voters.

Russian political reformers' lack of morality toward - or even love of - their own country has turned many younger voters against them, paving the way for more nationalistic politicians such as Alexander Lebed, the tough-talking former Army general. In 1996, many young people - including me - thought voting for Mr. Lebed was the only way to escape both evils: the hypocritical "democrats" and the boring Communist fuddy-duddies.

Ironically, by voting for Lebed I was, for the first time, in full agreement with my stepfather, an ex-KGB colonel in his 60s who also viewed Lebed as the strongman Russia needed. I thought the eternal father-son battle was over, but soon my pragmatic father started to realize that Lebed, who views the Russian economy as his own military unit, would bring nothing positive to Russia's development.

We all were mistaken viewing Lebed as the Russian de Gaulle. In fact, he is just a cruel GI Joe. But at the time, he was the only answer for Generation Nyet, a generation that has had enough of Yeltsin and doesn't want the return of communism, but has no viable choices before it.

As the glitter of democracy and capitalism has faded into economic hard times and political uncertainty, many of Generation Nyet have turned to various extremist groups fashionable in today's Russia. One such group is the National-Bolshevist Party, which combines radical right-wing and left-wing ideology. The movement is headed by Edward Limonov, a talented novelist who wrote "It's Me, Eddy," an autobiographical account of the adventures of a young Russian in New York. Mr. Limonov, who spent half his life in the West, rejects both Soviet communism and Western democracy and finds a common language with Generation Nyet. His politics are a sort of Stalinist totalitarianism of youth, in which anything "old" is equated with the bureaucratic ills of communism and should be swept away by the young.

It's hard for a romantic young person to escape the influence of such radicalism - especially in a country that has given its young people so little. To appease a potentially explosive Generation Nyet, Russia will need more than MTV.

* Alex Bratersky is a freelance reporter for the English-language Moscow Times. Raised in Moscow, he spent a year at Albany High School in Albany, NY.

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