November 21, 1999

NYT - In Eastern Europe, a New Generation Is Shifting Priorities


BUCHAREST, Romania -- In the Vox Maris discothèque, Graziela Tache extended one leg even farther out from under her tiny slit skirt. "You know what these boots cost?" she asked. "They were $250. You know what that waitress earns? Maybe $100 a month. There are two levels in society."

Ms. Tache, all of 19, is one of the young in the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe who have made it in the post-Communist decade.

She earned her money the new-fashioned way: capitalism, and connections. She did well in her three years of stylist school and snagged the wealthy boyfriend seen by many young women in the post-Communist world as a prerequisite for success. With his help, she opened her own salon and has five women working for her.

"When my mother sees me spend so much, she does like this," said Ms. Tache, clawing the perfectly blended base makeup on her cheeks. "But I am the big happiness in my family. My parents say they would rather have a lot in the refrigerator than to buy clothes, but I don't get this mentality."

Since the fall of Communism 10 years ago, a generation gap has opened up across this part of Europe. Those who came of age in this new era have little or no memory of the old and little or no ability to conjure up their parents' childhood in the red neckerchiefs of Communist Pioneers, the old excitement of trying to dial past the jamming to hear Radio Free Europe, or the tedium of studying an artificial history from books larded with wooden language and airbrushed portraits of unknown but all-powerful political leaders.

Their parents , conversely, struggle to understand the new vista of choice and -- for the fortunate -- the material joys that eluded them but are open to their children. Many of the older generation pine for the vanished sureties of Communism. They are in shock, lost in a world that values attributes and accouterments vastly different from those they were raised to appreciate; their children listen to hip-hop, exchange e-mail with foreigners and compare Nike sneakers and possibly even Alpine vacations.

"I think 80 percent of the people would give up democracy to have the secure life they had before," said Marian Stanescu, 39, sipping beer at a roadside stall in impoverished rural Romania, where a third of the country's 22 million people live on less than $2 a day and the national government is going deeper into debt this winter to buy heating oil for the urban poor.

Under Communism, this poverty was masked under the rigid, meager securities of uniformity. Now, the gap yawns between men like Stanescu and Alin Teodorescu, a former statistician whose daughter attends medical school in Texas on the profits from his private company in Bucharest.

In the old days, Stanescu conceded, "There were restrictions: no passport, you couldn't go anywhere. But there was respect for labor. The average salary had purchasing power. My father was a steel-mill foreman his whole life and retired with a double pension; I just visited him, and he had disconnected his phone, his lifeline to the family. He can't pay it any more."

In the Communist days, the warmth of those kinds of family ties, of good friendships cemented by endless chats and much alcohol, by political jokes told around kitchen tables, helped compensate for the often drab rhythm of daily life. Usually, it was only in this private sphere that anyone was forced to assume responsibility for actions, or was judged as an individual.

Outside the home, many decisions lay with the Communist Party; wangling one's way past the absurdities thrown up by a system that tried to plan everything became a way of life; the opaque and corrupt operation of power and a system that came to depend largely on lip service rewarded deviousness, not honesty.

Cynicism Has Spawned Ultimate 'Me' Culture

The young of these nations inherited the ruins of that failed ideology. Over time, Communism had changed the way that its citizens thought and operated -- so powerfully, in fact, that even the common culture of Germany cannot overcome the many divisions between its formally reunited citizens in East and West.

The cynicism and deceit of the old system -- many of whose foremost families have also become prominent, and rich, in the Wild East of post-Communism -- have combined with the new material opportunities to create, in many of today's East European young, the ultimate "me" generation.

In the chase for the good life, the self is paramount, said Janos Balazs, a Hungarian sociologist who said his surveys of values had found a huge upsurge of selfishness in the young, manifested in many ways: rude driving in the powerful cars now available, rising juvenile crime and the notion that honesty with friends is less important than it once was.

"For us, the middle-aged generation, solidarity at the workplace was once very important," Professor Balazs said. "Nowadays, everybody is secretive about their extra income, about their problems. Recently, for economic reasons, my university laid off a female professor who was perfectly good. No one stood by her. For us, this is unusual. For the youth, it's normal. They are more self-dependent."

This lack of empathy, combined with the chaotic and often corrupt politics of this part of Europe, feeds disdain for the kind of political and social engagement on which democracy thrives.

"I'm bored by politics. I'm disgusted by them. I don't want to get involved," said Svetoslav Velkov, 20, a business student in Sofia, Bulgaria, who -- along with many other young people in the former Communist world -- turned down his first chance to vote, in a mayoral election held this year.

His mother, Lydia, a 41-year-old history professor, was pained. "We argued," she said. "I told him that democracy requires participation and support. He was only 10 when the end of Communism was announced, and in fact it began to decay five years earlier. He takes democracy for granted. Because it was always around him, he thinks it will be there forever."

Similarly, Andras Bajkor, 17, a high-school student fluent in English who wore an American lumberjack jacket at Morrison's Music Pub, a Budapest youth bar, has little idea, he said, how to relate to two of his father's most formative experiences: poverty and the suppression of his Jewish heritage. His father learned he was Jewish when he was 16, and by accident. Having hidden from the Nazis and fearing another outbreak of anti-Semitism, Bajkor's grandparents simply never told their son.

In the new democratic Hungary, the younger Bajkor is proud to be Jewish and bothered that one of his friends had converted to Christianity as a child because of taunts. But he admitted that, like most of his peers, Christian and Jewish, he is not religious.

His father's memories of poverty seem to come from another world.

"My dad lived on the 10th floor, and even if he had luggage, he would walk up, because you had to pay the elevator guy," he said. "He would buy bread with the money he saved. Sometimes, he went to the neighbors to ask for bread.

"It comes back to him when we are eating now. He says he'd like to cry, because he is so lucky that we can eat meat."

His parents, he said, sometimes complain that families are less close nowadays. "When I get a present from my parents, it's normal," he said. "But they don't see as much happiness as in the old times. In those days, for anything, for the most little thing, even a Matchbox car for Christmas, the children would stay with their parents for hours and hours, thanking them for the present."

Video Games Replace a Good Tolstoy Novel

This feeling that something in the social fabric has been lost is widespread among the middle-aged of the post-Communist world, and even more prevalent among their parents -- today's grandparents -- who grew up in the devastation of World War II and were simply glad to have survived and to have a system that provided for them.

One of the most common complaints of parents and grandparents about their offspring is that the young no longer read. In the boring old Communist days, a Western book, a good Tolstoy novel or -- more rarely -- a piece of samizdat, forbidden literature hand typed on thin sheets of paper and passed around to avoid the censor, were a welcome relief from everyday life, a window on a world that could be conjured only in the imagination. Now, they grouse, their children play mindless video games and watch movies like "Die Hard," and talk soccer, not politics.

Of course, families can still be close. Children are not the only ones to have profited from the new freedoms; parents, too, have parlayed talents suppressed under Communism into new-found prosperity -- although the experience can vary widely: a doctor in a state-run hospital can earn, without the near-ubiquitous bribes on the side, only $40 a month, much as she did a decade ago. A dentist who starts a private practice can make $65,000 a year.

Ten years ago, as a statistician, Teodorescu, now the Bucharest businessman, earned half the salary of his neighbor, a tire-plant worker, because the state, which set salaries, lionized manual labor. Both suffered because their state-owned apartments were heated only four hours a day, and food and medicine were scarce.

Teodorescu had another problem, for a researcher: the state restricted access even to the public library.

Now his neighbor is out of work because his inefficient plant was closed; he tried to get a job as a policeman, "but even they want young men who can speak English," Teodorescu said.

Teodorescu has a daughter going to medical school in Texas; she and her husband cannot afford the tuition, so Teodorescu is paying it. He can manage it because his profitable market research firm was, he says, the first Romanian company to go public.

"I was at a conference of researchers the other day," he said. "And they were all in the same crazy situation -- Romanians sending money to America for children in school. I calculated that, among us, we were sending America $1 million. I said 'Guys, for $1 million, we could start a nice small university here.' But they didn't want it."

His daughter, like many other young Romanians, has emigrated knowing there is not enough work. In his father's generation, many Romanians are miserable on tiny pensions, although a lucky few are getting back buildings or other property seized by the Communists 50 years ago.

Teodorescu himself is satisfied, he said, because he retooled himself to cope with changing times.

Nikolai Milev, 50, has also made it. He is chief of research at the Bulgarian state gas company. Asked what his 14-year-old son, Nikolai Jr., owns that he did not have at that age, Milev started naming almost everything he had ever wanted.

A tape recorder was at the top of his list, he said. He could listen to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Cream on Radio Luxembourg and Radio Beirut, but could not buy their albums, so there was no way to take their music to parties. The only recorder available in the shops, an East German model, would have cost his father two months' salary.

"Now he has several," he said of his son. "Last month we changed his Walkman for a new model." His son also has a 21-gear mountain bike. He did not realize there was a time when bikes had only one gear, and his father would work as a porter in a brewery for two months to earn the price of a Russian-made one.

On Sexuality the Gap Is Clearly Drawn

For the young, particularly the women, of these countries, who mostly can only dream of the kind of equality and opportunity achieved in recent decades by their Western sisters, sex is one area in which the generation gap is most tangible.

As in the old Communist days, there is no behavior homogenous to Eastern Europe, whose countries have richly varied histories and took different paths to Communism, as now to capitalism.

In sexual relations, for instance, Poland had more liberal abortion laws under Communism than in the present, when the Roman Catholic Church wields enormous influence. In the old days, urban Albanian teenagers put the concrete bunkers littered over their land by the paranoia of the dictator Enver Hoxha to use for sexual trysts; today, those bunkers are more likely to be inhabited by the very poor, who have migrated from the mountains of northern Albania seeking something better than subsistence.

In Hungary now, most students said they receive regular sex education; those in Bulgaria said they have had none.

After pausing to think about the greatest difference between her mother and herself, Reka Mihola, 20, a law student leaving a University of Budapest disco night with her boyfriend, asked: "Can I tell you? It's personal. In their day, you didn't go to sleep with a boy the first time. But now it's rather accepted. My mother can accept it, but it was hard for her the first time. She asked us only, 'Was the bed too small for you?' "

In the center of Bucharest, no such gap seems to divide Georgiana Marin, 17, and her mother, Dorina, 44.

They remember huddling together behind a bed when a bullet smashed their apartment window during the chaotic street-fighting that followed the overthrow of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu 10 years ago.

In a sense, they still huddle together; they are matched even in a certain naïveté. Both are afraid of drugs rumored to be coming into Georgiana's high school -- particularly marijuana, which they both have heard is injected by needle and which, Georgiana says she has heard, "leads to harder things."

Both are disgusted by the huge percentage of Georgiana's classmates who smoke. Both are bothered that parents are now so indifferent or busy that one of Georgiana's classmates is repeating sophomore year without her parents realizing it -- which would have been unthinkable under Communism, Dorina said, because the principal would have called them repeatedly.

Both are glad that doctors visit the school to talk about birth control. When Dorina was young, abortion was the primary means to prevent unwanted births. In 1968, Ceausescu, obsessed with having a larger Romanian population, outlawed it; the birthrate quickly doubled. In 1989, those 21-year-olds swamped the labor force.

In one of the ironies of history that abound in these countries, it was, among other things, the anger of these young, underemployed people that led to the routing of Ceausescu, who was executed only days after his fall from power.

"In my day," Dorina said, "people were ashamed to talk about sex. Now, some shameless teenagers brag about it in front of their parents. I'd be hurt if she did that, but if my daughter wants to have a sex life, she can. I'm glad Romania woke up to a world in which virginity is not obligatory."

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