Russians Have Reunions Too

It is time for that high school reunion!

Moscow Times, 15 July, 1998

Ten Years Gone By, Children of Change Reunite

By Julia Solovyova

At the age of 10, Andrei Bodrov was a plump, jovial boy planting tacks on
fellow students’ seats and giggling in class. At 22, he was struggling through
his third year at Perm Technical University and hating it.

That was the last time I saw him. But recently Andrei, now a respectable
manager at the Moscow office of the cosmetics giant L’Oreal, called me to
say that our class was getting together to celebrate the 10th anniversary
of graduation. I was fascinated by the opportunity to see what my old schoolmates
had done with their lives during the most unpredictable years of Russia’s
recent history. Twenty of the 36 people in my class showed up.

The tradition of high school reunions is strong in Russia. Nobody wears nametag,
so you have to guess correctly the names of your classmates even if they
dyed their hair or gained weight. Needless to say, the first sight was a
shock for ill of us, but soon we saw the people we knew as teenagers.

In fact, this lack of dramatic change struck all of us the most.

We went on a boat trip on the Kama River and had the best lime together in
the 20 years we’ve known one another. We chatted, danced, and felt comfortable,
even enjoying that dull German disco Modern Talking, the soundtrack of our
childhood, which played over and over again.

Russians in their late 20’s are perhaps the bridge generation. We still keep
a link with older people, sharing the cultural knowledge that all Soviet
citizens shared. To those who are only five years younger, references to
certain Soviet realities seem straight out of a textbook, and they certainly
can’t join in the chorus when their parents start a Soviet song at a party.

Our high school years fell toward the end of the communist reign. We wore
the red lies of young pioneers and collected hundreds of kilograms of old
newspapers and metal trash in competition to become our class’ first Komsomol
members. We graduated in I988 during perestroika, which for us meant new,
less conservative school uniforms and an end to boring Cold War “political
information” lessons. Alexander Soizhenitsyn’s and Valery Dudintsey’s books
exposing the terrors of the Stalinist regime were included in the Russian
literature program at the time, and recent history was taught front newspapers
rather than textbooks that became antiquated with head-spinning speed.

Brought up in the atmosphere of lies and boredom of the Brezhnev era, we
were perhaps one of the most apathetic generations. Nobody was particularly
interested in politics or social activism. No one dreamed of becoming an
astronaut anymore. Teachers talked us out of trying to enter colleges in
Moscow and St. Petersburg, saying that even the brightest students from the
provinces couldn’t compete with the better-prepared graduates from the capital
cities. Most of us believed this “wise” advice and didn’t bother applying
to universities outside Perm.

We graduated from a school that specialized in the French language. But only
three people studied languages afterward. Most girls entered the Medical
Institute, while boys commonly chose the Technical University – the two colleges
easiest to enter and most likely to guarantee jobs afterward. For some, entering
college was t practical move. Boys could avoid military service. Others cared
about the prestige of a college degree. Our classmates who dropped out after
eighth grade to work were outsiders. Some of them did well, however. Sveta
Zhikhor, for example, owns a beauty parlor.

The structure of Soviet higher education left too few course choices up to
the students. To get around that, seine of us spent days and nights on campus,
attending courses on our own time. Others, like Andrei Bodrov, jumped from
one faculty to another. After the fourth year, Andrei was lucky to get a
one-year stipend to study at a business college in France, which helped his
fast promotion at L’Oreal.

In some ways, it was easier for the girls to make it through these years.
Many chose to get married, have children, and stay home. Russian women generally
get married earlier than their Western counterparts, and the majority of
the girls from my class did get married and have children. I am one of just
a few who hasn’t married, instead concentrating on my journalism career.

Lena Kinyova, who was among the best students in our class, graduated as
a physician find married a businessman, They have two children, and she never
worked at a clinic. Now,’ she’s finding life as a housewife less than satisfying.
“At a certain moment I realized that I’m nothing else but my husband’s wife,”
she said. “Entrepreneurs’ wives are often total nobodies. What did I achieve
in my life? I’d like to he able to support myself and my children in case
I have to do it without my husband.” But now, Lena said, she will never work
as a doctor – a job that rarely pays more than $ 100 a month in Russia –
while the monthly fee for her daughter’s kindergarten is $75. She plans to
take a law or management course and open her own business.

Lena Kaznacheyeva, also a doctor, sells clothes at a Perm marketplace because
she can make more money doing that t bin treating sick people.

The market economy caught us unaware, and our parents were unable to ad ‘
just.4uickly enough to advise us. We entered colleges, following the usual
pattern, and graduated still unprepared for capitalist realities,

Some have been trying, unsuccessfully, to sell professional skills the Russian
economy has rejected, at least for now. Life in the provincial vacuum was
especially hard for those of us whose parents lost their jobs themselves
and had no means or connections to support their children. Pasha Gvozdik,
a heartthrob with raven-black hair and transparent blue eyes, is the saddest
story. He worked as a driver after the army, and one night last fall he was
found shot dead in his apartment building. There are rumors of mafia connections,
and he often played the role of mediator between conflicting gang, b t nobody
knows why he was murdered. He is the only one of my classmates who has died.

Andrei Zhulanov is one of the few people from our class who does what he
was trained to do. His face tanned to the color of bricks, he supervises
workers building the roads. Another Andrei, Andrei Pustoyik, is a chemist
at the PNOS oil refinery, a joint venture with oil giant LUKoil, and one
of the best employers in town. Igor Ryumin, trained as a plane mechanic,
works at a car repair shop in Lithuania.

There are two academics in our class, Vitya Seniyonov, and Nina Petrova.
Vitya always has been incredibly smart in sciences but not worldly. A
post-graduate ichthyology student, he has never had d job and never applied
for a grant to study abroad, where he would have done well. In ailing Russian
academia, his future won’t be lucrative, but with a pregnant wife, he is
reluctant to risk a radical career change.

Nina was the only one to get all As in our class. She graduated from the
math faculty at Moscow State University and married a wealthy economist.
She is among four of our classmates living in Moscow.

Of those who stayed in Perm, some managed to adjust to the new times. Those
who were smart enough to go into business – no matter what education they
received – got the best jobs.

The enthusiastic gingerhead and natural leader of our class, Kostya Ketov,
graduated as a mechanical engineer and is now a real estate agent in winter
and a tour operator in summer. He is not a New Russian (none of us are),
making just enough money to get by, but he believes everything worked out
right. “I’m a happy man,” he says.

“My life depends only on myself.”

Julia Solovyova is a staff writer for The Moscow Times