New Internationalist

We expected better

Issue 366

KATYA never really knew her father. He had been in and out of prison for a decade. But she felt she had everything – her mother and elder sister looked after her, with no major life-decisions hanging over her. Hers was a Soviet childhood. Katya had resources for sport, recreation, culture and travel, and status as a young bearer of the glorious communist future.

She was in her early teens when communism collapsed; financial difficulties forced her mother to arrange an exchange or flat-swap. The move shook them all: unfamiliar neighbourhood, different coping strategies, new school. ‘This was where I met my friends. Whenever I was with them I just stopped caring.’ Katya got up to things she prefers not to discuss and the local authorities sent her off to a reform school in Bashkortostan, a Turkic region skirting the southern Urals. Two years later her sister came by train to collect her. No-one else was sober enough to make the journey. Her father was out of prison and had sold most of what they owned. Only her sister was working.

The shouting and drinking at home made me giddy. I didn’t know what to do – how to get out. I took up smoking, then tried heroin with a friend. We got into it. Then they suggested I push it. They said I’d never be short of nice things. While I was pushing I was never hungry. They caught me in October, soon after my birthday.’1

Katya’s testimony comes from the Novyi Oskol educational colony in the Kursk region of central Russia. In correction centres such as this, young people under 18 slouch around in dressing gowns and overalls, receive four hours of poor-quality schooling daily and spend up to six hours a day at hard labour. Katya is lucky. The regime at Novyi Oskol is comparatively benign and her AIDS test was negative. A few doors up the corridor is a room where the HIV girls are held. There are nine of them. Their faces are grey and their eyes wise. They make people wary. No-one really knows when or how it happened, but Russia has more than a million cases like them: 80 per cent under 30; 90 per cent intravenous drugs users.

In Russia, as in other areas of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eastern Europe, old bonds of stability have been broken. To survive, to get a grip, to be up to speed, you often have to move. People relocate to cities, to affordable housing, to countries where they hope to feel more secure. Economic shortages, ethnic conflict and war have driven millions to migration. Young people who have lost their roots and failed to find a niche fall into begging, homelessness, illness, drug-addiction. The desire for community feeling and peer solidarity and the need to experience any kind of satisfaction – however brief or chemically induced – are overwhelming. The region is choked with stories of broken bonds and severed relationships. Since the 1980s more than two million under-18s have been forced to leave their homes.

Young people have been some of the transition’s greatest victims

In countries where people once spent decades passively bound to a single institution or job, and typical success was a ritualized progression from Octobrists to Pioneers, to the Young Communist League and then the Party, this scale of instability and social dislocation is unprecedented. Of course, conditions in different regions vary. Students in Eastern European capitals talk about great chances, great choices. Here, globalization, travel opportunities and the promise of entry into the European Union have opened channels and spaces for self-formulation that have enhanced and expanded the lives of some. In the streets of Warsaw, Prague, Budapest or Tallinn there are young people in safe and stable lifestyles. Many see themselves as active participants in global youth culture with something of their own to offer.

But most of the youth of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are not nearly so optimistic. Everywhere, social services have collapsed, life expectancy is down, and in parts of the former Soviet Union incomes cannot cover basic necessities. Pawning and selling possessions and homes are common. Katya’s parents are not exceptional. Overall the number of young people in low-income households has doubled since the 1980s. State orphanages are overrun – 700,000 youngsters have been affected by the early death of parents. In Moldova 40 per cent of young people are living in poverty. Just 14 per cent of Russian children are healthy. Half of all Russian boys finish school with a chronic ailment. Poor nutrition is a major factor.

Andrew Kokotka
The youth of Yerevan: rough start in life, sleeping four to a bed. Andrew Kokotka

Young people have been some of the transition’s greatest victims. According to UNICEF about half a million youngsters aged between 5 and 14 who were living in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989 are no longer alive today. Infection, malnourishment, problems with pregnancy and childbirth are as much responsible as accidents, violence, murder or suicide. Analysts refer to psychosocial stress. In Russia, Belarus and Lithuania, suicides of men aged 15 to 24 doubled between 1990 and 2000. As the note left by one of three boys who jumped 78 metres off a railway bridge in the former East Germany said: ‘We had anticipated something better.’

In rural areas throughout former communist Europe there is no access to information, training or employment, and often no cinema or railway station. The best youngsters can hope for is the interest of extremist groups scouring the area for kids with nowhere to go, and offering them instant identity, someone to blame, secret codes, a cause, a buzz. ‘The far Right sits there in youth centres and bus stations’, says Friedemann Bringt of Kulturburo Sachsen, which monitors fascist groupings in Saxony. ‘Young people crave to be in a group and want short easy answers. These people satisfy that need.’

The skills and social values by which today’s adults lived under communism are now irrelevant. There is talk of a rupture of generations. Yet teens in Eastern Europe are still notable for their deference to elders and their docile acknowledgement of the rites of kinship. Unless forced out, they live at home, closely guided through schooling and career choices with their dinners prepared and their clothes laundered. It is only when the existing kinship system falls apart – if someone loses their job, leaves, drinks, gets violent, or there isn’t enough for food and clothes – that young people risk taking off.

Olesia’s history is a tale of the times. She finished school and trained as a cook in Kirovsk, Ukraine. Her father worked in a mine. Everything was clean and neat. ‘As a family with many children in the Soviet Union we even had special privileges – a TV in every room.’ In the mid-1990s her parents started a business. It failed, they got into debt, so they left and moved around until they ended up in a Moscow suburb. The parents found jobs in a Turkish construction company but they also stole company furniture for their flat. They were sacked. They tried selling fruit in the market but couldn’t make ends meet. Her father started drinking and battering his wife. They tried to force Olesia to engage in prostitution with Turkish workers. She left home, slept at train stations, chose her companions as best she could until she was approached by a woman in the metro who offered her accommodation and regular sexual customers. She is now 17 years old. 2

Prostitution is one way through which the young and destitute attempt to regain some control over their lives. Crime is another. Risking a casual job offer in a big city is a third. ‘Natalia’, a Moldovan teenager, left her village after meeting a young man who offered her and her sister jobs in the capital, Chisinau. Their mother was delighted. Within hours the girls were separated. Natalia was taken to Romania, trafficked to Serbia, then held prisoner in a house. ‘ There were many girls – we couldn’t escape. The guy told us he’d find us even if we went to the police. He knew them and could bribe them… One day a taxi driver drove us to a wood where we were supposed to meet our new buyers. We had to put on a lot of make-up and sexy dresses. Then they told us to get undressed. We were sold to four men. They took us to a new house. I was raped by each of them – to taste the merchandise, they said.’

An estimated 6,000 teenagers under 17 are trafficked from Eastern Europe every year. Enslaved youngsters are the most outrageously abused – but most young people in Eastern Europe remain powerless. They are widely viewed as irresponsible, violent, even dangerous. In public discourse, the economy and politics, they are all but invisible. Yet the collapse of communist regimes was brought about largely by the young. They were the ones who went to demonstrations, meetings and led the strike action. Now their children are disappointed and mistrustful of politics. Average youth unemployment is twice the general level. Many feel they have been failed by the adults who promised beautiful living and freedom that, for many, has turned into poverty, fear and loneliness.

Irena Maryniak covers social and cultural issues in post-communist countries from Budapest.

  1. Testimony collected by Lyudmila Alpern. Translation Irena Maryniak.
  2. Svetlana Stephenson, ‘The Abandoned Children of Russia’ in Education and Civic Culture in Post Communist Countries, Palgrave and SSEES, London, 2001.
  3. Excerpts from interview by International Organization for Migration (IOM), Kosovo.

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