I LOVE Russia. Alone for 10 long months in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, I grew to love passionately one of the most dirty, wretched, uncivilized places on our planet. In inhumanly crowded public transportation, struggling to get enough to eat, and horrified by the way men treat women, I nonetheless found a better side to the Russians: strength, determination, and a love of truth. A real democracy may one day rise from the ash of the Soviet regime.
As a student in the history department at Irkutsk State University recently, I often gathered with friends to defend our views and challenge others.
Vasiliya is a raging nationalist, waving newspapers in my face and yelling that neither communism nor democracy is suitable for Russia. Only a strong dictator in a unique new form of government can save his people from the ominous West.
Sergei slumps in the corner in a state of apathy and depression; but he still feels communism will soon be revived. It wasn't too bad under Brezhnev, he says; anything is better than a pathetic attempt at democracy.
Slava has read every work written by Marx, Engels, and Lenin and believes they were all geniuses, but assures that such inhuman unrealities will never spring forth from the pages of political philosophy.
Andrei and Natasha just laugh; their own lives are so confused and hectic they don't bother to decipher the mysteries of Russia's destiny.
The people of my generation, those in their teens and 20s, seem hard hit. Raised and educated on communist propaganda, which many of them believed, they are now denied a past and don't see a future. Their parents' generation must provide the wisdom and strength to guide Russia into a new era.
A common understanding of middle-aged Russians is that they must tighten their wallets, rethink their budgets, and prepare for a long, hard journey to a democratic future - a future they may not live to see, but must obtain for their children and grandchildren.
Boris and Lena, both in their mid-40s, are journalists now organizing an all-Siberian news agency to report on ecological problems. Vladimir left his top position in the Irkutsk branch of the Academy of Sciences to create an international gene bank of endangered plant and animal species. Luba is a respected English teacher and wants to start her own business housing and guiding foreign guests and students. They are typical - unsung heroes of their time. They want to blaze trails for generations to come.
Is this a romanticized view? After all, there is growing crime, empty shelves, rising prices, sick and dying children, and an absence of governmental control or ideology. But the dreams of these people seem genuine; and it is from dreams that progress, ideals, and new beginnings often spring.
I PHOTOGRAPHED small communist marches in Irkutsk and stood in a June crowd of nationalists, communists, and monarchists in Moscow as they screamed "Yeltsin is a murderer!" and "Moscow is in chaos! Transfer power to the Mossoviet!" Families were divided by support or hatred for Boris Yeltsin - and hope or apathy for tomorrow. I witnessed crime on the street and feared for my own safety. For some 300 days I was living in confusion, too dedicated to pack my bags for America and too defeated to undertake an other day of Russian filth, complaining, bickering, and depression. It was all too easy to feel the forces of failure, collapse, or revolution all around.
I am not an expert or a professional, but a student who feels a deep friendship with Russia. I listened for hours as Russians poured out their hearts. I think I understand that the older generation is not capable of making the transformation to a new mentality and system. That, however, will present no obstacle. The middle-aged people will bicker and complain, but in the end will find the endurance and belief to survive a possible second coup attempt and unprecedented economic reform. Their children will
remain on the outskirts, struggling to understand their fate, yet focusing on the personal rather than the political or national.
Mr. Yeltsin's time may be limited. Various communist, nationalist, and monarchist parties may join forces and attempt to seize power. Pensioners face another hard winter. Autonomous republics in Russia will continue to press for sovereignty.
However, nothing equals the most basic human desires for freedom, a safe future, and a better life. My friend Tanya says: "Everything is horrible! I never imagined it would get so bad, but I also never imagined such progress and freedom. If you can look beyond the rising prices and this whole chaotic mess, it's really a lot of fun. We are wearing the clothes we always wanted to, criticizing the leaders and system we always despised, watching foreign films and experiencing other cultures, and talking and dreaming about absolutely anything we want. I'd never go back, even if the shelves were stocked six years ago."