St. Petersburg: The Future of Russia

When I first saw 16-year-old Vanya Vedernikov this week, my first thought was that the impish six-year-old from 1995 had turned into a pretty impressive young man. He's tall and athletic, speaks English well, and is polite enough to gamely field questions from the American journalist who shows up once every 10 years. In response, all he asked for was a decent translation of a White Stripes song title: "What does 'Seven Nation Army' mean?" he asked me. "I can't figure it out."

Here, I thought, is the embodiment of the Russian future. Vanya was only two when the USSR collapsed; his is the first generation with no memory of life under the Soviet Union. He and his classmates at the Gymnasium for Global Education No. 631 have traveled extensively abroad. They're Internet-savvy and fluent in European and American pop culture. They've got the world at their feet, and their whole lives ahead of them.



Photo Gallery: Sixteen-year-old Vanya Vedernikov is part of the first post-Soviet generation of Russians. (David Hillegas)

So, when I met Vanya and three of his classmates to talk about Russia's future, I thought I knew the script in advance. I expected to hear them say that things were good in Russia, and destined to get better. My own experience in the last three months had led me to believe this was the case -- why wouldn't a group of worldly, well-traveled 16-year-olds feel the same way?

But as we sat talking at a Chinese restaurant near their school, the students -- Tonya, Pasha, Misha and Vanya -- sounded much more wary of what the future might hold.

Pasha, a young man with close-cropped hair and an upright, almost military bearing, said, "In the USSR, the government was very attentive to people, and to their interests." For example, he said, "Education was free for everyone. If you passed exams, you could go to any university you wanted. But nowadays, it's difficult to get in."



Photo Gallery: Misha, Vanya, Tonya and Pasha (l-r) are in their last year of high school together in St. Petersburg. (David Hillegas)

Tonya told us that today, as opposed to in Soviet times, people have to rely more on themselves. "The first that has changed," she said, "is the mind of the people. Now people just think about themselves -- there's no united country anymore."

All the students expressed concern about Russia's economic situation. "Practically all the economics in our country are influenced by the course of oil prices," said slender, mustachioed Misha, "And now we're exporting to practically every country. So when fuel oil runs out in our country, it will be a very big problem." I wasn't under the impression that Russia's oil reserves would run out any time this century, but the students were convinced otherwise. "I saw it on the Internet," said Pasha at one point.

Hearing their litany of worries, I was prompted to ask: "Are you all really as pessimistic as you sound?"

"I think we're not pessimistic," answered Misha. "Just realistic."

"There will be pluses and minuses in the future," added Vanya, "perhaps more pluses." As to the question of pessimism, he said, "Some people are pessimistic -- or realistic -- but still they will try their best to keep Russia strong."

This was one point the students all agreed on: No matter what Russia's future held, they expected to be living here, and to be a part of it. Misha and Vanya could see moving abroad if circumstances dictated -- if, for example, they couldn't find decent jobs here in their future professions. But Pasha said he wouldn't leave for any reason. "I want my country to be the best country," he said. "You can find a great job, and have good money in Russia, if you work hard."

Next week: The Russian Chronicles - 10 Years Later comes to an end!

By Lisa Dickey |  November 18, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: St. Petersburg: Five Generations | Next: Looking Back -- and Ahead

Comments

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Hey, guys, thanks for the photos. However, one question: Where are the people?
Without people your photos are cold and distant.
Frank Lloyd Wright once said: We construct buildings, then they shape us!
Looking at those photos one can't help but wonder how true Wright's words are.
The photos show, in a rather interesting way how, perhaps, the Russian character has come to being.

Posted by: ED | November 18, 2005 07:03 PM

Thank you so much for this article. I came to the U.S. from Belarus and lived here for 9 years. Almost everybody I talk to think they know the script of my answer about the future Russia in advance. Just like you did, they expect to hear me say that things are good in Russia, and destined to get better. Misha noticed correctly, we are not pessimists, but realists. Being realistic is what makes the future of Russia stronger.

Please keep up the good work. Americans need to learn more about the new Russia.

Thank you.

Posted by: Yuriy Yavorovskiy | November 18, 2005 09:54 PM

I was in St. Petersburg with a conference of mental health clinicians for ten days in September. I found it to be a lively city full of young people like your pictures show. Everyone has a cell phone and there are plenty of traffic jams.
We found some excellent restaurants and the food is great. It's as if the city never sleeps....many clubs, restaurants, internet cafes, etc.

However, it helps to be in good shape as neither the university nor our hotel had any elevators and everyone walks - and walks fast. With over 200 palaces, there is beauty everywhere. The five star hotels are truly marvels. I would love to go back when I could spend more time.

I listened to Russian language tapes before I went and was actually able to say a few phrases and be understood. The Russians were open and pleasant for the most part.

Lindaganga298@msn.com

Posted by: Linda Ganga | November 19, 2005 08:27 PM

I was in St. Petersburg with a conference of mental health clinicians for ten days in September. I found it to be a lively city full of young people like your pictures show. Everyone has a cell phone and there are plenty of traffic jams.
We found some excellent restaurants and the food is great. It's as if the city never sleeps....many clubs, restaurants, internet cafes, etc.

However, it helps to be in good shape as neither the university nor our hotel had any elevators and everyone walks - and walks fast. With over 200 palaces, there is beauty everywhere. The five star hotels are truly marvels. I would love to go back when I could spend more time.

I listened to Russian language tapes before I went and was actually able to say a few phrases and be understood. The Russians were open and pleasant for the most part.

Lindaganga298@msn.com

Posted by: Linda Ganga | November 19, 2005 08:27 PM

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