Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz

Fellowship Title:

The Alienated Generation

Zofia Smardz
August 10, 1986

Fellowship Year

When the young generation, free from the malevolent influence of the ‘old’, arises, everything will change….We must postpone our hopes to the remote future, to a time when the Center and every dependent state will supply its citizens with refrigerators and automobiles, with white bread and a handsome ration of butter. Maybe then, at least, they will be satisfied...

In the TeePeeFive, a trendy wood-paneled bar, dark-haired Tina sits in a corner booth, puffing like a countess on a Benson and Hedges Light. Perfectly coifed and expertly made up, a Mediterranean beauty swathed in blue silk scarves and golden chains, she looks much older than her 19 years. Only her surroundings, and at the moment, her dialogue betray her. The electric strains of a Dire Straits song fill the air, her best friend Aneta bounces lightly in the seat beside her, and Tina launches busily into giving a visitor instructions on the local disco scene. “The best is Amadeus,” she says, in a tone that brooks no argument. “But of course they don’t let everybody in. You must look acceptable.” Pause and puff. Anita bounces and nods. “What you wear is very important. It must be good clothes. Benetton jeans, for example, or silks.” Her hand with its manicured scarlet nails lightly touches her scarf. “Quality materials, you know. It’s not for everyone.” Puff.

Tina is a daughter of privilege, a pampered only child of well-to-do parents who give her everything. She has “no problem” getting into Amadeus and goes there frequently. That she is unmoved by the exclusion of others, who can’t afford silks like herself, might ordinarily be dismissed as a symptom of youthful callousness. But there is a twist of irony in Tina’s case. She is a Yugoslav, and Amadeus is a discotheque in Belgrade, capital of a country where, in the Western mind, the leveling creed of communism prevails. Yet Tina is genuinely surprised when the question of equality and unfairness at the disco door is raised.

“There are differences between people and there always will be differences between people,” she says with vehemence, stabbing out her cigarette in punctuation of her words. She shoots an impatient look across the table and again her looks assume a veneer of maturity that belies her age. “There will always be rich people and poor people, but you can’t explain this to the common people. Maybe communism would work if there were a different kind of people on earth. It’s for people who are like this.” She seizes two glasses on the table before her and plunks one down in front of Aneta and one in front of me. “Here, you have one glass, you have one glass, and I have one glass, too. Now we are all happy, yes?” she lets out ,a short, sharp laugh. “No, not the Yugoslav people, for sure, because they want all the glasses in the world for themselves.”

It seems surprising thinking coming from a young woman born, raised and educated in a communist state, supposedly free from the malevolent influence of the old. Yet Tina is far from what Marx and Lenin envisioned as the “new socialist man,” living for the good of the whole and stripped of the selfishness of individualism, happy with his single glass. Instead, she is restless and self-interested, fashion-conscious and money-mad. (“You have to have money if you want to do anything,” she says simply. “Without money, you are nothing.”)

In these attitudes, Tina is joined by most of her contemporaries in Eastern Europe. In contradiction to what the socialist system stands for, today’s young East Europeans, experts agree, are politically disengaged and self-involved, scornful of official ideology and the ceremonial trappings of the state, fiercely materialistic and naively fascinated by the West, to a degree that mocks the region’s heralded ties to the Soviet Union and the East. They prefer Lennon to Lenin and the Marx brothers to Marx, and seek out discos over discussion groups, rock concerts over party rallies. “The system doesn’t offer them anything that’s attractive,” said a Western diplomat in East Berlin. “The whole youth culture, everything teenagers or young people find intriguing, comes from the West. So that’s where they look to.”

None of this is lost on the leaders of Eastern Europe. Nearly 40 years after the advent of communism in the region, all the East European regimes, from independent Yugoslavia to the satellites in the Soviet bloc, find themselves grappling with an acknowledged “youth problem” of disturbing dimensions. At central committee meetings and in parliamentary sessions, in the official media and in secret party documents, communist authorities are devoting special attention to youth issues and the search for ways to reverse the trend of alienation that marks the current generation of teenagers and young adults.

“We are faced with the danger of a ‘lost generation,’ wrote Zycie Partii, an internal organ of the Polish Socialist Workers’ Party, in December 1985, “and the appearance of a gap in the commitment to building a socialist Poland.” The same circumspectly-voiced concern echoes among the top leadership of the neighboring parties. Worries over how to replenish the party cadres with fresh blood and good minds are very real, as only a tiny fraction of eligible young adults joins the party each year. The Hungarian and Bulgarian communist youth organizations recently underwent a restructuring in response to criticism from party organs, charging them with ineffectiveness in organizing, controlling and “politicizing” young people. At its 17th congress last March, the Czechoslovak communist party central committee experienced a similar bout of soul-searching over its relationship with young people, and found it sorely wanting. Faced with “the bad example of adults, various influences from the West, the cult of violence and disrespect for social values,” young people have grown politically apathetic and their relationship to the party will continue to deteriorate, warned central committee secretary Jan Fojtik in a speech to the North Bohemian party branch.

At the same time, worsening economic conditions throughout the socialist world are causing increased restlessness and dissatisfaction among young people, who question the socialist system’s ability to provide for their futures and offer them a full life.

I traveled across Eastern Europe last spring and heard dozens of young East Europeans talk about their hopes and beliefs, in meetings arranged by friends and acquaintances, and in random encounters in bars or cafes, student and youth centers. They showed me many different faces, these members of Eastern Europe’s young generations, yet no visitor would have failed to note the sameness of the expression they wore. It’s an expression that speaks of a lack of faith in existing institutions, deep uncertainty about the future, and widespread cynicism about politics, policies or the possibilities of change. In their circumscribed world, young East Europeans learn to hold back hard on hope.

On a warm April evening in Budapest, the Fregatt bar is packed by 6:30 p.m. A privately-owned watering-hole for trendy young Hungarians, the Fregatt is fitted out to look like an English pub and is a hot late-night hangout, boasting one of the latest closing hours in this city of two million–11 p.m. But if you want to get in a full evening of eating, drinking and socializing–and find a good seat–it’s wise to arrive as early as you can. Peter Fodor and his wife Eva (not their real names) are there at 6 this Friday night, and quickly stake out a prime table for themselves and several friends. They order beer and fried chicken livers and are in the middle of enjoying them when the lights suddenly go out. A moan of annoyance echoes through the darkened bar. Twenty candlelit minutes later, the lights are restored, and Eva quickly explains that such blackouts aren’t uncommon, energy is expensive and in short supply, that’s why Budapest’s beautiful neogothic Parliament building, the one you see in all the pictures, is only illuminated at night during the tourist season, for instance.

“Ah yes, our wonderful Parliament building,” chimes in Peter, punching a cigarette out of a pack and lighting it (the health-consciousness of America not having invaded Europe yet, nearly all young East Europeans smoke heavily; when I go home later that night, my clothes reek of cheap tobacco.). “Richard Nixon came to Budapest once and toured our Parliament, and afterwards he said, ‘You have such a beautiful Parliament, it’s a shame you can’t use it.’ ” Peter’s voice drips with irony. “How very right he was. But let’s not talk politics,” he says, taking a swig of beer, “let’s have fun.”

The Fregatt, says Peter, 27, is his one real diversion after a work week that has him toiling an average of 12 hours a day as a lawyer for the Justice Ministry, plus doing private work for friends and other clients on the side. Working hard, he and Eva, 25, who is a psychiatrist, can earn a decent living together–up to 20,000 forints ($400) a month. But even with that much money, which is four times the average Hungarian salary, they were unable to buy an apartment of their own. For three years after they married, they lived with Eva’s parents. Last year, Peter’s mother and father finally managed to buy them a small two-room apartment outside Budapest.

Now they are comfortable enough, as their visits to the Fregatt testify, since many young Hungarians wouldn’t be able to afford the prices there. And Peter is a shrewd calculator of finances and funds, and understands the power of capital. He peppers visitors from the West with questions about prices, salaries, the size of houses, the makes of cars, and explains his morbid interest in the material with a shrug: “I am Hungarian,” he says, “so my brain thinks in terms of money.”

But he admits he and Eva still don’t have the money to travel much, which they dream of doing, and they are putting off having children “indefinitely” because they fear the burden of the extra costs, and because they are worried about the empty future that would face their offspring. Their own dependence on their parents, their inability to fend entirely for themselves, plagues Peter. “I think I should be able to run my own life, build my own house, control my own fate,” he says. “I would like to achieve something in my career. But that’s hardly possible in Hungary, unless you belong to the party.” He stares at his plate of chicken livers and his brow furrows. “The worst thing is, I can’t see my future. I just can’t see it.”

With its experiments in economic reform and private enterprise, Hungary is ballyhooed as the economic Wunderkind of the East bloc. But the emphasis on the monetary and the consumerist has skewed values so that most people’s brains, like Peter’s, think in terms of money. This is particularly true of young people under 25 who, in a recent national survey of values conducted by the Budapest Institute of Social Sciences, were found to be overwhelmingly hedonistic and consumer-oriented. The roots of this, said socialist Arpad Szakolczai, who helped conduct the survey, “probably lie equally in the discreditation of official ideology and the realities of daily life.”

The positive effects of the economic reform that have filtered down to young people are decidedly limited. The housing crunch is so severe that many young adults, including young couples, have no recourse but to live with their parents for long years, or to rely on them for funds to buy an apartment. In 1984, 25 percent of young couples were unable to own an apartment even after eight years of marriage, reported the party monthly Tarsadalmi szemle. This situation has left Hungary with one of the world’s highest divorce rates. For the same reason, fewer and fewer couples are having children, driving the birth rate down (in 1985, there were 17,000 fewer Hungarians than in 1984).

Overeducated university graduates drudge away in low-skilled jobs because they can’t find work in their fields and because, as often as not, the unskilled jobs are better paid. And overlaid on everything are the rules of the East European game: that you don’t get far without a shrewd ability to navigate the by-ways of manipulation, bribery and corruption. The psychological burden for young people starting out in life can be disabling. “What is so difficult for me and my friends is the neurosis of life here,” says Peter. “What I want is to make a good life, but I can only do it by doing bad things.”

Echoes Maria, a 28-year-old graduate student: “Hungary is not a good place to live if you want to be straight with yourself and other people. You can’t be happy here if you want to live life honestly.”

The unwritten compact between the East European governments and their people–a forfeiture of political and other rights in exchange for higher living standards–is in danger of disintegrating as the economies of the region deteriorate. The relative prosperity of the 70s, much of it financed by heavy loans from the West, is dissipating today and leaving disillusionment in its wake. The suppression of Solidarity in Poland, coupled with the country’s massive economic problems, has made prospects for young Poles the grimmest they have been since the end of World War II. The average wait for an apartment is 20 to 25 years; wages are low, prices high, and consumer goods hard to come by. “There’s no real perspective in Poland,” said Stanislaw Jalowiecki, a former Polish socialist who now works for Radio Free Europe in Munich. “Young Poles feel they must sell themselves to get ahead, they must look for ways to adapt to reality, they must live with bribes and cheating and stealing, they must live with no money.”

Even Yugoslavia, the free agent of East European communism, can no longer offer its young the economic well-being that has satisfied them in the past. A $20 billion debt has wreaked havoc on the economy and created two million unemployed, half of whom are young people under 30. University graduates wait six to seven years to find employment in their chosen fields; meanwhile, they work at menial labor or don’t work at all, spending their time in coffeehouses and living off, and with, their parents.

The frustrations of joblessness, and young people’s sense of having missed out on the brass ring, have exacerbated tensions among Yugoslavia’s various nationalities and led to street brawls among unemployed youths in towns like Split, on the Dalmatian coast. And they are giving economic concerns extraordinary importance. “Young Yugoslavs’ priorities are simple,” said a Western diplomat in Belgrade. “They want to find a job, to travel, to live well, to go skiing in the winter and to the seaside in the summer. And they’re afraid they’re not going to be able to do it.”

In the face of such anxieties, there is little time for or interest in the slogans of the party and its call to arms. Milos, a 24-year-old art history student at the university in Belgrade, sprawled on a black vinyl couch in the students’ cultural center one afternoon, killing time before the pop concert he was going to attend that evening. “I don’t know any young people who are into politics,” he said indifferently. “The [Socialist] youth league tries to whip up enthusiasm, but no one pays any attention to them. All that singing and flag-waving, what a joke.”

“I’ll tell you what life is here,” he said. “It’s two streams. One stream flows within the party; the other, the bigger stream, outside it. Some people work within the system because they realize it’s the only way to make money and get ahead. But most people ignore the system and just live their own lives.”

Hundreds of miles away, in Budapest, Peter voices the same thought. “The system exists on another plane,” he says. “You have your own life, here”–he extends his left hand, palm down, before him–”and the political life is here.” He places his right hand four inches above the other. “They are parallel, like this, but they never touch.”

“Live your own life” could be the credo of today’s young East Europeans. Detached from the petrified ideology of the state and the governments that bear its standard, many young East Europeans practice what the East Germans call “internal emigration”: an escape into the alternative society of passive opposition and immersion in private life, buttressed by family, religion and growing feelings of national identity. They look for ways to enhance their lives in the back corridors of society and eschew the stock in trade of the state. “Young people sense the hollowness of the system and what it offers,” said a Prague mother of three young men in their 20s. “So they are turning elsewhere, to the church, to the family, for something to give their lives meaning.”

The search for an alternative ethic has led many young people back to religion, the archenemy of the system. “Faith has not died here,” said the Rev. Atanasije Jevtic, a dean at an Orthodox theological seminary in Belgrade, “and the crisis in the East European countries is reawakening it.” When the Catholic Church held a religious festival in Croatia last year, an unprecedented four million people, many of them young, were reported to have attended. The same year, some 450 sons and daughters of communist party officials reportedly asked for and received baptism in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In a recent poll of 750 high school students in Yugoslavia, 52 percent said they considered themselves religious, while only 16 percent said they would join the communist party. Asked to select their favorite personalities from a list of 24 prominent figures, they placed Mother Teresa first, Pope John Paul II third, and Lenin last.

Similarly, university students polled in Poland recently chose the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski as the person with the greatest positive impact on contemporary Poland.

The Catholic Church’s “Light and Life” movement draws thousands of young people into church-sponsored activities–weeks of Christian culture or summer religious camps–that emphasize the separateness of the private and spiritual life from the public sphere and offer an escape from the drabness of daily life. In the same way, the Lutheran Church in East Germany offers a haven and a neutral meeting place for young people interested in issues from peace to the environment. In Czechoslovakia, the Catholic churches that a few years ago were attended chiefly by the elderly are now filled on Sundays with teenagers and young adults. Jaroslav, a 21-year-old children’s counselor in Prague, worries that his wife Helena, an elementary school teacher, insists on attending Mass every Sunday. But Helena, he says, is willing to take the risk of losing her job, the price she would almost certainly have to pay if anyone were to see and report her. “She knows the danger,” say Jaroslav, nodding, “but she feels it’s worth it.”

Other activities, tied to history and tradition and abandoned when communism, with its anti-nationalist, wipe-the-slate-clean doctrines took over, are also making a comeback. Young Czechs and Slovaks have revived the native tradition of “tramping”–hiking through the woods and hills and camping out for days at a time, living off the fruits of nature. Young Hungarians have recently found pride in their national past, and a new sense of community, through a grass-roots folk-dance revival movement. Opposed at first by a skittish government that worried it would raise the specter of nationalism, the movement was finally given official sanction, but not until after it had become a craze among young people hungry for entertainment and searching for their roots. Now, on most evenings in Budapest, several hundred young people gather at the tanchazak, or dance-houses, for lessons in the csardas, or the stately regional dances of Transylvania, or a spirited gypsy dance. The movement has filled up drab community centers that stood largely unused before, as the lectures and ideological discussion groups of official organizers failed to lure any audience.

Street musicians in Budapest.
Street musicians in Budapest.

Coincidentally, the Hungarian regime has had to deal with nationalist feelings on another level. Curiosity about their past has focused young Hungarians’ fascination on the events of 1956 and the October revolution that was crushed by Russian tanks and troops. Born, for the most part, long after it took place, the teenagers and young adults of today’s Hungary nevertheless display an inordinate thirst for information about this cataclysmic occurrence in their history. For years, the regime of Janos Kadar made the subject taboo; but recently, with the 30th anniversary approaching, it has shrewdly lifted the lid and allowed a proliferation of literature on and discussion of the revolution. Articles, books, plays and movies centered on the event have appeared and been eagerly seized upon by the young. “They love it, they indulge in it,” said a Western diplomat in Budapest. “They’re tremendously curious about this event, which they see not only as a historic failure that separates them from the older generation, but also as the watershed that cut them off from the West.”

Their sense of separateness and isolation from the West is a looming factor in the thinking of young East Europeans. It manifests itself in a kind of Drang nach Westen, a yearning for the colorful, exciting life they see reflected in Western television and movies, in the music and fashions that filter across the frontier. It’s marked, frequently, by a naiveté born of limited knowledge of the complexities of Western life and insufficient understanding of the drawbacks that mingle with the delights of freedom. The tendency to chalk up a simplistic equation–Western equals good; Eastern equals bad–is strongest in those countries where personal access to the West is most restricted. Young East Germans, for instance, are never allowed to travel to the West, although they are tantalized daily by the difference between their lives and the lives of their West German counterparts which they see on the West Germany television programs that reach all parts of the East. Czechoslovakia likewise, severely restricts visits to the West by its young citizens, allowing a trip only with an invitation from a relative in the West. Yet Austrian and West German television and radio penetrate most of the country.

Discos and Benetton Jeans

The infiltration of Western culture on however superficial a level serves to point up the dearth of a comparable youth culture in the East. In the vacuum of attractive options surrounding them, teenagers seize aggressively on the latest fads that make their way to them from the West. Every East European capital is dotted with discotheques that aspire to the decadent Western model, although their decor and lighting design are distinctly 20 years behind the high-tech glitz of New York, London or Paris nightspots. Native rock bands are improving, and their numbers are multiplying, even in a country like Czechoslovakia, which tries to limit exposure to Western music by allowing only six Western rock albums into the country each year (this year, young Czechs and Slovaks can finally officially buy the soundtrack to the Beatles movie “Help!”). In fashion, young people strive for a Western effect, the ubiquitous Levis of yesteryear replaced by Calvin Kleins or Benetton jeans dispatched by relatives or friends in the West, and the trends of London and Paris copied in homemade styles. Sometimes, the aim is undeniably to make a political statement, political apathy notwithstanding, as in the case of young East Germans and Poles who sport the outrageous plumage and paint of punks in open defiance of official disapproval.

In the politically-charged gulf that separates the rulers from society, however, a political confrontation can develop even out of an innocuous passion. John Lennon, the murdered Beatle, has become a cult figure in Czechoslovakia, where an impromptu memorial to him was started up in Prague near a city wall. There, young fans would place lighted candles, flowers and pictures in memory of their dead hero throughout the year. Periodically, the candles and flowers would disappear overnight, removed by the police, only to reappear again gradually in a few days. Each year, the anniversary of Lennon’s death is commemorated by young people coming together for a candlelight vigil. Two years ago, in an attempt to halt the unauthorized gatherings and the commemorative activities once and for all, police broke up the vigil by force and arrested numerous participants. But last December, several thousand undaunted young people, more than ever before, gathered for the ceremony and marched through the city for more than four hours, singing Beatles songs, shouting slogans and passing around an anti-missile petition for signatures. Nervous and uncertain, the police held back this time, insisting only that the marchers disperse by 9 p.m. In subsequent days, some of the leaders of the demonstration were apprehended and questioned, but none were put in jail or even thrown out of school.

The success of the Lennon Day march in Prague points up the dilemma facing East European regimes as a new generation comes of age, a generation personally untouched by the lessons of the past and resistant to indoctrination in the present. If the authorities relax restraints, they fear the spread of pernicious Western influences that work to erode the foundations of their rule; if they tighten restraints, they run the risk of explosions, even if minor ones, that likewise weaken the fragile struts of the state. “The whole problem confronting these societies today is how to make a square of a circle,” said a Western diplomat in Budapest. “How far can the regimes go in meeting the demands of the people, especially the young, and still remain masters? How far can they go and not have their chains jerked by the Soviets?”

Pressure from society has forced gradual changes in the structure and nature of the East European socialist systems over the last 40 years. While cynicism and resignation cloak the public from without, the pressure persists from within. Today’s young generations, looking for avenues to the future and a release for their frustrations, continue to apply it, whether through boldly open or clandestine acts. In Czechoslovakia last year, a mysterious underground letter addressed to “The Older Generation” protested the emptiness of existence in the country and complained that Czechoslovak parents had failed to bequeath their children anything of which they could be proud. In Hungary, restless youths seized an opportunity last March 15, the anniversary of an 1848 Hungarian revolt against Hapsburg rule, to stage a spontaneous anti-Soviet march through Budapest that led to skirmishes with the police and set the party on the defensive. In television interviews, communist youth officials blamed the disturbances on “a group of disaffected youths” who, they charged, were going around the country “plotting the downfall” of the regime. In Poland, high-school students publish anti-government underground newspapers, and an incipient movement of draft resisters known as “Freedom and Peace,” is challenging the age-old tradition of unquestioning military service–and embracing imprisonment and official ostracism–by refusing to take an oath that binds them in obedience to the Soviet Army.

Isolated and impromptu, such acts are only small prods at the regimes and diffuse demands for change, but they have their effect. “It’s a challenge for the leaders, and a difficult one,” said a State Department specialist on East European affairs. “How do you deal with a generation that up to now has not known what it is not to have, at least within the limited possibilities of the system, and who are disappointed in the parents, who they think acted cravenly in the past?”

For this generation itself, the biggest challenge is knowing what it wants for the long run, beyond the scant concerns of moving safely from day to day. But that is the imponderable question, shrouded in mist. Urged to confront it, some young East Europeans attempt a thoughtful, if vague, response. They don’t demand a wholesale change of the system; some elements might be retained in a more democratic framework, like that of Western Europe, they suggest. “What I think is just that Marxism was a personal ideology of one man, that may have been valid in his time but isn’t anymore, and that it can’t last through the centuries,” says Catherine, 25, a Hungarian student. “Maybe parts of socialism can be saved, the humanitarian parts, that the state cares for those who can’t care for themselves, and so on. But the rest” she stops in exasperation. “The hardest thing is having no choice, being forced to live a certain way and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Softly, she says, “We just want to have a choice.”

Even thinking that far is more than most young East Europeans attempt. For most of them, the future is a void they enter into one day at a time. “What future?” says Zdenek, a young Czech carpenter, sarcastically. “When you live in a vacuum there is no future. Like Sid Vicious says,” and he sings out the line, “No future for you or for me.”

From beneath the cynicism, nevertheless, an occasional, impetuous flight of youthful fancy can still work its way to the surface. One windy April day in Prague, a young art student from the university lays out his original drawings and etchings to sell at the foot of a statue on the old Charles Bridge. Tourists and passers-by stop to look. One English-speaking tourist picks up a small black-and-white etching of the bridge and the artist, a short, blond boy, nervously smoking and pacing, suddenly stops and smiles. “Yes, that one, perhaps you will like it,” he says in good, confident English. “It expresses a little bit my fantasy. Here.” He points to the upper right hand corner of the picture. There, above the houses and statues that line the foot of the bridge he has drawn a large, dark cross that doesn’t exist in reality. And sketched into the clouds beyond it, indistinct at first but growing slowly recognizable, borne on the wings of an eagle, waves an American flag.

©1986 Zofia Smardz

Zofia Smardz, reporter on leave from Newsweek, is reporting on the young generations of contemporary Eastern Europe.

Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz