When I was 20 years old, all I did was read Cosmo, Elle and Marie Claire. I also believed that studying was useless and stooooopid and that the only worthy pursuit was to make lots of money to help one become a true Cosmo girl.
I didn’t arrive at this worldview by accident. It was a product of my experiences in the Ukraine of late eighties and early nineties. The years between 1986 and 1990 were a moment of a great intellectual awakening in the Soviet Union. This was the era when intellectuals had their long-awaited opportunity to read, think, debate, and feel very appreciated for doing so.
Every day brought new publications of authors that had been censored before perestroika. My parents subscribed to so many magazines and newspapers that it was weary work to drag them all out of the mailbox every day. Earth-shattering revelations about our history awaited us each morning. People gathered in the streets to discuss a new novel, film, or article. I remember many occasions on which I would be walking down the street with either of my parents only to have them stop and start delivering an impassioned speech on politics, literature, economy, etc. to admiring crowds. The Soviet intellectuals finally felt completely relevant and appreciated. They believed that now they would get an opportunity to have a say in where our country – or, hopefully, our many new independent republics – were heading.
And then all that came to an end. The nineties brought us bandit wars, organized crime, violence, fear, hunger, and insecurity. Most of the intellectuals never managed to find ways to inscribe themselves into the new economic reality. The hunger for material goods that everybody (except the Communist party leaders and their lackeys) had experienced during the Soviet era proved stronger than the need for intellectual nourishment. A veritable orgy of materialism overpowered the FSU countries. You either could inscribe yourself onto this really scary version of out-of-control, wild capitalism or you couldn’t.
For most of the intellectuals, this was a truly tragic moment. The new reality had arrived but there was no place for them in it. They had no tools that would enable them to deal with the demands of the free market. Looking for a job, starting a business, competing with others, being rejected when you apply for positions – these were skills that neither they nor their parents and grandparents ever had to develop. And it’s not an easy task to learn to adapt to this way of being from scratch.
(To be continued. . .)