The Russian Teenager-Eastern or Western World View, or Both?
Spanning 11 time zones and sharing borders with the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, and the Pacific Rim, today's Russian Federation (the monstrous, mysterious, enigmatic country that once led the Soviet Union) defies stereotype and description.
Visitors to this land leave amazed by the contrasts and touched by the mixed bag of people that are known as “Russians.” Trying to describe a typical teenager, let alone a “Russian” teenager challenges not only the foreign missionary but also the national youth worker trying to know his audience and contextualize the gospel for this mostly pagan postmodern target group.
One of the issues in understanding this segment of the population is getting to the core of the Eastern or Western mindset debate. Although older generations are more likely to be at one end of the spectrum or the other, today's young people live at both ends. Nevertheless, finding the coordinates of a Russian on the Slavophile-Westerner continuum is all in a day's work.
A look at Russian history demonstrates the impact of both the Oriental and the Western in Russia. First, the impact of the East: a thousand years ago, Russians were tribal nomadic farmers and hunters, pagan and illiterate, mostly cut off from the rest of the world. Centuries of Turkish, Tatar, and Mongolian attacks and settlement resulted in a mixture with these Slavic people, bringing other customs and mindsets into the cultural blend. Then came centuries of a feudal system, which trapped multitudes of people in poverty and oppression until the beginning of the 20th century. Even when the Socialist revolution promised a reversal of such stagnation, the Iron Curtain blocked out Western influences that the Party considered a threat to its control, which meant it prohibited almost everything that wasn't purely Russian.
Western influences have historically made few marks on the outer façade of Russian life. The Enlightenment never quite reached Russia, except within the small aristocratic society that reveled in their perceived European posture. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky novels tell the stories of such society circles that created a Western exterior to their lives but whose hearts revealed their inner Eastern thought processes.
A century ago, at the cost of many lives and freedoms, Soviet engineers initiated a mass movement of Westernization resulting in a world superpower with an influence all its own. Russia managed to look somewhat like the West, at least as far as industry, military, and education went, but any other sphere of life lacked anything remotely resembling what the Americas or Europe had to offer.
The world came to Russia and Russia went to the world when the wall fell more than a decade ago. America and Europe led the way in business, political, and religious ventures to capitalize, democratize, and Protestant-ize their former enemies.
The worldwide homogenization of pop culture is creating a culture gap between the Russians of the older generation and the world-culture new generation of “any-teen,” i.e. the kid with the baggy jeans, ball cap, backpack, and cell phone that can be found on the streets of China, India, France, Argentina, and Russia. The media industries of Hollywood (the obvious leader) and Europe penetrate TV and cinema screens across Russia.
Music of all styles finds a place on the radio, on Russian-version MTV, and in the rows of mostly pirated cassettes and CDs for sale on the streets. Russian-dubbed television varies in programming from The Simpsons toTom and Jerry, from Friends to Sex and the City, along with a plethora of Latin American soap operas and Russianized take-offs of Western reality shows.
Rabid consumerism (only fools save money) feeds the economy with continual buying and selling that wasn't available in Communist days when goods were rationed and distributed through a system of “connections.”
Remote villages are becoming ghost towns as young people flee to regional and urban centers where they can have more exposure to the things that typify the contemporary lifestyle. As the older generations of post-Soviet Russians die off, the younger generation will continue to spread the redecorating of Russia in Western garb. The frenzied perestroikaintroduction of the global village to Russian citizens will hardly slow down as the subtle motto of “keeping up with the Joneses of the West” has taken deep root into hearts that are filled with envy and greed. Russians have much to be proud of in their Slavic roots; but having found out they lost the Cold War and were deceived by an empty promise of Communism, the new generation of Russian young people isn't going to be outdone this time.
But while Russia is taking on a Western look, there's still an Eastern-ness on the inside. It doesn't take long to find out that a typical Russian teenager isn't all about being an American wannabe. One of the refreshing things about youth ministry in Russia is that it doesn't require all the bells and whistles that programs in the West seem to need to attract young people. Creating an atmosphere that emphasizes the bond we can have with God and building a strong community with one another seems to come naturally.
Sitting around the kitchen table for hours drinking tea and telling one's life story, debating controversy, and teaching conversation-style (devoid of pat answers) is the bulk of what youth ministry is like in this land with its Oriental heart. Well-prepared speeches, outlines, and fill-in-the-blank handbooks don't cut it with Russian teens. I can't get the guys in my discipleship group to do their lessons in advance, but each meeting is full of conversation that mixes Biblical truth with real life.
Sure, teenagers worldwide are yearning for close, vulnerable, and sacrificial relationships, but these traits are all over the Russian's radar screen. Rugged individualism is deplored, while community is honored. Playing a game where there's only one winner rarely works, because the teens begin to make it a group effort and help each other out. Someone eventually wins the prize, but in reality, everyone contributed to the victory and is equally happy for the “winner.”
Relationships are meant to be lifelong, not restricted to seasons-of-life programmed groupings. When our teenagers become young adults, we have trouble getting them to move on from the youth group into other age-appropriate ministries. It's “their” group, and although there's a new generation of teens who are at the core of what we do, most choose to become leaders so they can stay together while ministering to the younger ones. Our youth group recruits our best adult leadership from the alumni who found a home there—and stayed.
Although Russian young people have sketchy plans about the future, they're bursting inside with fear and discouragement. Even in the light ofperestroika, life's realities are hard and unpredictable, and growing up is hard to do. Although teenage birthday parties appear to be a celebration, honest confessions reveal that losing one's protected and golden years of childhood is depressing, and the guest of honor is often not so joyful inside.
Entering the university is expensive, and scholarships are few. Finding a stable, adequate paying job is all the more difficult. Kids are pressured by their parents to “make it” in life so that they can support the older generations in retirement. Young men have mandatory two-year army service at age 18, where they experience intense hazing, malnutrition, and the possibility of having to fight in Chechnya. Young women want to find a rich husband so badly they'll do anything to win him, including sacrificing their dreams of real love.
Lack of housing means that many will never leave home, instead raising their own families in the same multi-generational crowded conditions in which they were raised. In a land always divided by the haves and have-nots, they know that being in the latter category is most likely their destiny. No wonder so many young people turn to crime, prostitution, workaholism, alcoholism, or drug addiction—and some just give up and don't even try, living in depression, without any ambition or hope of change.
Western success norms and Eastern hindrances to reach them create a paradox that paralyzes. Youth ministry becomes a place where reminders of hope, purpose, and trust in God require determined cultivation in the here and now in order to build a strong bridge to adulthood during these challenging rites of passage.
The “you got chocolate all over my peanut butter/you got peanut butter all over my chocolate” messiness of understanding Russian teenagers today does result in something intriguing. My colleagues and I see the battle, and we attempt to reach the young people and train the leaders who will help them in this frustrating time of life. Each one of my 12 years of youth ministry in Russia improves as my level of understanding continues to come into closer line with reality. Russian teenagers, using another chocolate candy metaphor, are Western on the outside, Eastern on the inside.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.