So what is the difference between “us” – the youth of today, and “them” – the youth who came of age in the Soviet UNI0N? To find out, I take to Khreshchatyk to get the cross-generational view. According to 59-year-old Tatiana, life as part of the USSR was more ordered, but there were fewer opportunities. “I have to say, despite the strict regime, all people worked, there was not such unemployment. We finished school and worked, only the smartest or richest children entered university, others immediately went to work with their parents at the factory. We didn’t have such a variety of opportunities, unlike today’s youth.”
Then came independence, and Ukraine faced choices – to live as the country had lived before, to embrace change, or to strike a balance? The result was chaotic, Ukraine transitioned from communist to capitalist so rapidly it was ill prepared to cope. While people were proud of the fact that they had witnessed a major step in the development of Ukraine, the acquisition of autonomy was marred by economic contraction in the 1990s more devastating than the Great Depression, the powerlessness of ordinary citizens and the continued corruption and plundering of state institutions.
Irina, 39, lived through it. “Oh, I definitely remember that period. It was a really hard time. Collapse, crisis, changes in currency... In the stores [there was] nothing; salaries were handed to you in large blocks of cash. When I gave birth to a daughter, we needed more money so my husband worked a lot and my mother went to work in different countries. Thus we lived.”
Then To Now
Like Irina’s daughter, I am a child of those times – I was born 18 years ago, four years after independence. A full 22 years have passed since the declaration was made, and during this time Ukraine has been ruled by four presidents, none of whom will win any prizes for management.
I ask a man, who would not give his name, for his view of independent Ukraine: “ I enjoy my life nowadays – it is not a perfect country, but it’s my motherland, my home. We don’t have a good government, but what can I say – it’s our fault. We chose it. In this time, we have to do almost everything on our own. You will be protected only by your parents. Only they will help you achieve something better in life. We can have everything or nothing,” he says, and like Tatiana he also mentions greater opportunities. “Can you imagine how many people from the USSR were allowed to study abroad? I also cannot. It was not a large amount. Or seeing youth in nightclubs? Or girls dressed up in short skirts and dresses? Of course you can’t. Today we see them almost everywhere. I’m not saying that’s bad. It’s just more permissive, you can make your own future.”
Generations change and moral attitudes are also changing in society. Young Ukrainians, like many of their peers around the world, are more plugged in to global trends, more interconnected within and between their local communities, and more vulnerable to negative events abroad than any previous generation. They use the Internet nearly as frequently as their American counterparts, often over the fast networks with the latest mobile devices. Unlike the last generation they are not eager to prove the inferiority of American-style free-market capitalism – in fact few of them even question it. Instead, they devour consumerism with veracious appetites. Welcome to Ukraine’s “generation me”.
Young people have always wanted to forge their own unique identity. More and more, young Ukrainians are moving away from the uniformity of dress and behaviour of older generations – whose role was simply to “blend in”. Our youth fashion and use of jargon often shocks our elders, who were brought up on clear, moral – Soviet –principles. We are from two different worlds, yet all generations are interdependent on each other – each “stands on the shoulders” of the previous.
But is it easy to be young in Ukraine? This is more of a rhetorical question, and one people can only answer for themselves. To answer it myself, if I think about how our youth lives, where their interests lie, their hopes, aspirations, and priorities, I don’t always see good things. Basically we are selfish. Temptation surrounds us, and if we see something, we want it and we get it, be it fashion, or technological gadgets – we live for now.
We’re also a digital generation. We’ve always had communication and media technology like the Internet, instant messaging, text messaging, MP3 players, and mobile phones. All of these things have changed how we communicate. Social networks have a strong hold on our youth – we’ve begun to live virtual lives and our attention spans have suffered. Ukrainian youth in the 21st century rarely visit the theatre, the conservatory, have little interest in ballet and the opera, and are less fond of poetry, art in these forms holds no relevance to us.
Our parents are interested in politics and follow the goings-on in the Rada avidly. But how do their children relate to politics? The answers given to me by young people on Khreshchatyk did not surprise me, they were totally as I expected – we are jaded and cynical.
“Politics?” Twenty-six-year-old Igor questions: “I’m not interested in it. It doesn’t give me a better life; I have to do everything by myself.” Twenty-five-year-old Oksana agrees: “Ukrainian politicians do nothing for us to have a better life, they play their own game, like chess. People are pawns; politicians are trump figures, the president – the King, [Mykola] Azarov – the Queen. That’s all. Look at Khreshchatyk. There are a lot of rallies, but why do they sit here and starve? It makes no sense, makes no difference. It only gets worse.” The curtest answer comes from 18-year-old Yuriy: “I’m not interested in politics, I have bigger problems.”
I can’t help but see the contrast to say, my American friends. They are real patriots, they love their country, they are proud of it, they try to make it better, and they try to help it develop. Not here, it seems our youth are more focused on their exit strategies than on effecting change.
I ask the simple question: “Do you love your country?” One guy answers he wants to go abroad, to go to more developed countries such as Canada or Italy. Another tells me it is easy to live in Ukraine, but he doesn’t like this life, and he cannot do anything to change his situation. On one hand, it is the mistake of Ukraine’s youth and the mistake of their parents. On the other hand, it is the government’s fault, because they are unable to engage youth in any meaningful way.
Ukraine has a rich culture and history, and one day our youth will be part of that legacy. Youth might be the future, but for now they really don’t care.
by Oleksandra Obushna