Julia Ioffe writes: He doesn’t know where to take me when I meet him at the hotel by the train station, so we just start to walk down the dusty summer streets of Nizhniy Tagil, a sputtering industrial city on the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains. His name is Sasha Makarevich, a 24-year-old cement worker, a blond ponytail falling down his back, a Confederate flag stitched onto his cutoff denim vest. “I thought it just meant independence,” he explains when I ask about it.
We walk past a small, one-story cube of a building covered with images of red Soviet stars and the orange-and-black St. George’s ribbon that holds imperial, Soviet, and Russian military medals. “We could go in here,” Sasha shrugs. “But it’s full of people who survived the Nineties.”
Sasha survived the Nineties too. In December 1991, just months before he was born, the Soviet flag came down over the Kremlin and the Russian tricolor went up, ushering in the decade that hangs like a bad omen in the contemporary Russian psyche. The expectation that Russians would start living like their prosperous Western counterparts gave way to a painful reality: It would be a hard slog to turn a command economy into a market one, to make a democracy out of a society that had lived under absolute monarchy and totalitarianism for centuries.
I never got to see those Nineties. My family left Moscow in April 1990. When I first returned, in 2002, the era of President Vladimir Putin, the antidote to the turbulent Nineties, was in full swing. Since then I’ve been back to Russia many times and lived there for several years as a reporter.
Most of the Russians I know have, to some extent, been shaped by the 74-year Soviet experiment. We know in a deep, personal way our families’ small histories and tragedies within the larger tragedy of that history. But this generation coming up knows only a Russia traumatized by the Nineties and then tightly ruled by Putin. This year—25 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse—I went back again, to meet these young people like Sasha. Who are they? What do they want from their lives? What do they want for Russia? [Continue reading…]