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Ambitions of Young Ukrainians
At the age of 4, we say, My mommy can do everything!
At the age of 8, we say, My mommy knows much more than your mom.
At the age of 12, we say, Well, it turns out my mom does not know that much.
At the age of 14, we say, I see clearly now she does not know so many things.
At the age of 16, we say, Mother? She’s living in the past.
At the age of 18, we say, Mother, it’s high time she retired!
At the age of 25, we say, She seems to know a thing or two.
At the age of 35, we say, Before taking the decision, let’s seek advice from Mother.
At the age of 45, we say, I wonder what my mom would say.
At the age of 65, we say, I wish I could talk with my mom about it.
After I celebrated my umpteenth (exaggeration here — I’m still quite young) birthday, I suddenly discovered that this piece of old wisdom — si jeunesse savait, si vieiless pouvait (if youth only knew, if age only could!) — is not so banal after all. When we are young, full of energy and have experienced no more than a handful of little setbacks, we don’t want to listen to advice, we don’t trust “clever books” too much, and we want to learn by trial and error. And we shun responsibility as much as we can. Are such attitudes universal for all times and all societies, or are they typical only for our times and our society? Recently, I heard an old woman on a bus in which I was riding, grumble in great annoyance about “the youth these days being so different from the youth of the time when I was young.” I heard variations of this trite remark many times before, but this time I felt an urge to investigate the issue of “youth being different” and see how much actual truth was in this complaint. But ahead of anything else, I wanted to make it clear to myself — What are the typical features of the young people today?
I have discovered that being and feeling independent and free to do what we want to do, not what others want us to do, are probably the most characteristic features of the young people today. But feeling free to put on most bizarre clothing, or dye the hair into a most garish colour, or shave the head bald is only one facet of this feeling of independence, and by far not the most important one. There are different ways of self-expression, and the appearance is only one of them. If we go beyond appearances, we’ll discover that the feeling of independence and freedom comes from the realization that we live in an independent state. Recent sociological surveys show that the young Ukrainians cannot imagine living in a country which would not be independent. According to one of the polls, 70 percent of young people of Ukraine (in this country, demography defines “young” as being within the 16–28 age bracket) would support their country’s independence in a referendum held now (in other words, they would support the proclamation of independence which took place in 1991), and only 6 percent would vote against. However, 37 percent of the young people look into their country’s future optimistically — and 42 are pessimistic about their country’s future. The young people of Ukraine believe that their actions can have an impact on the state of things in this country and that is why 70 percent of young people take part in the elections — only 8 percent do not care to go to the polls. In spite of the tough economic situation in Ukraine, and the high rates of unemployment, 58 percent of young Ukrainians are against suspension of the reforms and return to the communist principles of running the economy, with only 13 percent supporting such a reversal.
The young people of today have more established views than several years before on the course of foreign policy of Ukraine. For more than 300 years Ukraine was under the domination of the Russian and then Soviet Empire, and since she has been independent for only the past thirteen years, it is very hard for very many of our grandparents and parents to fully accept independence from the imperial clutches. By contrast, most of the young people of Ukraine — 60 percent — are convinced that relations between Russia and Ukraine must be built on terms of complete equality with each country pursuing its own interests. 11 percent of young respondents would rather see Ukraine and Russia united in a single state, and 6 percent of young Ukrainians are for having as little to do with Russia as possible.
Joining the European Union is a much more attractive proposition for young Ukrainians — only seven young people out of a hundred do not support Ukraine’s movement towards the EU, with 57 percent being in favour of Ukraine’s European orientation. Young people’s attitude to NATO is also indicative of their pro-Western orientation. 40 percent agree that Ukraine should take further steps towards becoming a member of NATO. Every fourth young respondent is of the opinion that Ukraine should not join NATO.
An easy access to information is probably one of the characteristic features of today (particularly, if compared with the greatly limited access to information under the Soviets). There are many new opportunities opening in education, in jobs and in personal life. Many new subjects are being taught at colleges; many new colleges have been opened; many new forms of education have been introduced; many new chances exist for going into different occupations and for starting businesses. New books (whose publication was absolutely out of the question in the Soviet times), new music, new art, new hobbies — the choice is vast indeed.
Unfortunately, new problems have also arisen. The level of corruption in higher education is very high; in most cases you have to pay a lot for acquiring college education, and not too many families have enough money to send their children to college. Good jobs with decent salaries can be found mostly in major cities. Though the situation is far from being an easy one it is not hopeless or desperate.
Yes, in most cases you have to pay for college education (there is a certain percentage of students enrolled for whom tuition, budgeted by the state, is free), but you can get it in stages, paying for each semester separately, earning your Bachelor’s degree first, and then, if you so desire, progressing to Master’s. Also, you can earn money doing some odd jobs for private business. In the Soviet times, there were very few chances of finding part-time jobs with more or less decent wages; girls could do some menial jobs at dormitories; boys could unload freight trains at night (in those time, a proverbial thing to do), or work in construction in remote parts of the country where wages were higher. There were some other things students of both sexes could do, but the range was pretty limited.
There are other problems that the college students of today face. Smoking, alcohol and drugs abuse, and AIDS are among the most worrying. The media and secondary schools do address themselves to these issues but good advice and warnings coming from the more sober-minded older generation are not always heeded by the young. Youth is the time when you want to try a lot of things, ignoring possible consequences. Other factors, such as social disadvantages — or the other way round, affluence, family problems, “bad company,” lack of support and others may contribute to aggravating addiction and other problems.
On the one hand, the state should provide help in these matters. There are many government institutions, boards and committees that deal with “youth problems,” but their work does not seem to be very effective. On the other hand, there is growing evidence of the young people taking the tackling of “youth problems” into their own hands.
In order to better understand how young people deal with problems they face I talked to several people and below I present samples of what I found to be rather typical cases.
I met Yevhen Minko at the opening of an exhibition held at the L-Art Gallery. In a booklet, released for the press, I read that the curator of the exhibition was “Yevhen Minko,” and when, as a journalist, I wanted to interview him, I discovered that the curator was quite a young man. He told me that he had had an ambition of doing something in the sphere of art when still a teenager, and after finishing secondary school, he worked as a lab assistant in the same school he had graduated from, and later found jobs at art agencies and art galleries. At the age of twenty, he graduated to being an organizer of the first exhibition in his career and he was quite happy with his success.
“The main thing is to be really eager to work well and to be in constant search of how to do things better,” said Yevhen who finds time both for studies at a college and for work. He finds that the young people of today are not inhibited, they are open-minded and ambitious. He thinks that it is “ongoing democratization of this country that is conducive to the development of personality.” At the same time, he is more sceptical about the young people who are two or three years his junior: “They seem to be a bit too far-out and offbeat, and they don’t seem to have any worthy goals to attain.” In Yevhen’s opinion, the urban youth have more opportunities than the young people living in the rural areas, but “if you want to achieve something and if you really try hard, then you can overcome any obstacles.” He believes that if the state helped the young people more in getting education, finding jobs and getting apartments to live in, it would be of great help. “This help could be in the form of some privileges or credits on easier terms.”
Yuliya Kravchenko is the head of the Science Department of the Students’ Parliament of the Kyiv Shevchenko University. The Students’ Parliament is a student body set up to coordinate and encourage students’ research, deal with some problems and help organize leisure. Yuliya volunteered to join the Parliament a year ago and since then several major projects have been carried out: a students’ scientific conference; Ukrainian-Polish students’ forum dealing with students’ self-government; participation in the UN students’ summit; cultural, educational and sports events. Students, seeing the work done by their parliament, began to come forth with their ideas and offers of help.
“We believe in changes. As they say, water never flows under settled stones, or nothing ventured, nothing gained. We, students, should initiate changes, since people of older generations may not know what we, young people, need or want. We must make our voices heard, we must express our opinions,” Yulya says. She is convinced, “Those who have ears, will hear, and the results of good and useful work are self-evident and are an excellent encouragement.” She has learnt a lot from Polish students whose system of self-government is much better developed than in Ukraine, and is supported by college administrations and by law.
Yulya finds that young people are vulnerable to propaganda and their opinions are easily influenced by politically-biased information propagated by the mass media. “Advertisement sets certain standards and stereotypes of what you have to have or to do to be ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ — drinking-that-brand-of-beer-or-having-the-latest-model-of-the-cell-phone-puts-you-among-the-jet-set sort of thing.” She thinks that young people spend too much time watching television or playing electronic games instead of reading or doing sports.
Yulya’s involvement with the Students’ Parliament interferes in no way with her studies. She is studying for her Master’s degree at the Department of Philosophy and is at the top of her group. For her academic achievements, she has been awarded a scholarship by the Kyiv Administration.
Recently, I read an interview with the PR manager of the international advertisement agency Brand New Momentum Artem Zeleny in one of the leading Ukrainian newspapers. The name looked familiar and it turned out that he was the same Artem whom I had met as a fellow student at the Department of Philology during my studies there. I remembered that back then he had wanted to go into advertisement. He would agree to do the simplest jobs offered by advertisement agencies. We were sceptical of his prospects and even made fun of him. He hailed from the village of Yabluchnytsya, the Carpathian region, Western Ukraine, and we thought he might have problems of adjusting to urban life. But he worked his way up, from an advertisement agent to a journalist writing for leading Ukrainian and Russian newspapers and then to a PR manager in one of the biggest advertisement holdings in Ukraine.
When I met Artem recently, I asked him whether he found problems that the Ukrainian young people faced five or seven years ago different from the ones they are facing now. “I think that basically problems have remained about the same, but the world outlook of young people has changed. Earlier, young people were more romantic and less pragmatic. They looked at the world form a different perspective because there were more possibilities of expressing themselves and fewer limitations. These days I come across young people who more often than before know for sure what they want to do, who set goals for themselves and work hard to achieve them. But they seem to be rather simple, concrete, down-to-earth goals, lacking in what a pop song calls ‘Reaching for the Moon!’” He also finds that the Ukrainian young people of today are “better educated and more advanced.” They have more job opportunities, they are more cynical and less romantic. But they have to combat their “laziness, negative attitudes, bad moods, slovenliness and sloppiness, and lack of global thinking.”
Since Artem is from Western Ukraine and has been living for many years now in the east of the country, I asked him whether he sees any differences between the young people of Western and Eastern Ukraine. He replied after thinking my question over for some time. “Yes, there are some differences, and there are several things that determine these differences. One of the most important factors is the language. Western Ukraine predominantly speaks Ukrainian whereas in the east of the country the language used is predominantly Russian. And the language we speak is a system through which we perceive the world and express our attitude to the world. Language is a philosophy. Every language is a world in itself, and having different languages in our heads we have different views of the world to live in” says Artem, and adds that young people in Western Ukraine are “healthier physically and morally,” in the sense that their life styles are healthier, “drugs and alcohol abuse are much less of a problem”; they attend church more often, “they can recite the prayer Our Father in heaven…”, and so on. Artem also thinks that “the national awareness in Western Ukraine is higher than in the east, and the continuity of history is felt much more acutely. Grandparents of the young people of today remember the times before the communists; many of them fought against the Soviets for Ukrainian independence during the Second World War and later.”
By Natalya Rudnichenko
Photos by Roman Shyshak,