This story appears in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
He doesn’t know where to take me when I meet him at the hotel by the train station, so we just start to walk down the dusty summer streets of Nizhniy Tagil, a sputtering industrial city on the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains. His name is Sasha Makarevich, a 24-year-old cement worker, a blond ponytail falling down his back, a Confederate flag stitched onto his cutoff denim vest. “I thought it just meant independence,” he explains when I ask about it.
We walk past a small, one-story cube of a building covered with images of red Soviet stars and the orange-and-black St. George’s ribbon that holds imperial, Soviet, and Russian military medals. “We could go in here,” Sasha shrugs. “But it’s full of people who survived the Nineties.”
Sasha survived the Nineties too. In December 1991, just months before he was born, the Soviet flag came down over the Kremlin and the Russian tricolor went up, ushering in the decade that hangs like a bad omen in the contemporary Russian psyche. The expectation that Russians would start living like their prosperous Western counterparts gave way to a painful reality: It would be a hard slog to turn a command economy into a market one, to make a democracy out of a society that had lived under absolute monarchy and totalitarianism for centuries.
I never got to see those Nineties. My family left Moscow in April 1990. When I first returned, in 2002, the era of President Vladimir Putin, the antidote to the turbulent Nineties, was in full swing. Since then I’ve been back to Russia many times and lived there for several years as a reporter.
Most of the Russians I know have, to some extent, been shaped by the 74-year Soviet experiment. We know in a deep, personal way our families’ small histories and tragedies within the larger tragedy of that history. But this generation coming up knows only a Russia traumatized by the Nineties and then tightly ruled by Putin. This year—25 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse—I went back again, to meet these young people like Sasha. Who are they? What do they want from their lives? What do they want for Russia?
Inside the windowless bar, all linoleum and fake-wood paneling, Sasha and I get some thin beer in thin plastic cups and find a seat among the heavily tattooed, red-faced men in tracksuits and sandals, blasting reedy Russian pop from their phones.
Nizhniy Tagil, Sasha says, “is all factories and prison camps.” Once famous for manufacturing the Soviet Union’s train cars and tanks, it’s now famous for its idled factories, unemployment, and Vladimir Putin. When Putin announced, in 2011, his intention to return for a third presidential term, protests broke out in Moscow and other large cities. The protesters were largely from the young, educated, urban middle class, and that winter a factory worker from Nizhniy Tagil told Putin on national TV that he and “the boys” were ready to come to Moscow to beat up the protesters. Putin demurred, but the city has come to be seen as the very heart of Putinland.
Now Nizhniy Tagil has a new mayor, whom Putin sent in to beautify the city, and a local magnate has built a fancy health care clinic, but life is still tough here. Sasha went to school for welding and worked in a factory making good money until crashing oil prices and Western sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine sank the economy. Sasha stopped getting paid. He spent a year looking for work before he landed a job in a Boeing factory two hours away. Now he makes 30,000 rubles, or $450, a month—about the local average.
I meet Sasha after a long workday, and he is tired, his hands dirty. He doesn’t feel totally comfortable—or safe—in this bar with the survivors of the Nineties. The city he describes is a violently conformist place. “People here are very aggressive toward anyone who doesn’t look like them,” he says. It’s a local, working-class uniform: tracksuit, buzz cut with a hint of bangs. His peers, Sasha says, are often children of ex-cons. “They don’t respect the law,” Sasha says. “ ‘A real man is either in the army or in jail.’ My sixth-grade teacher told us that.” So Sasha learned to fight, with fists, with knives. Once he walked home after a fight covered in someone else’s blood, and he is strangely, beatifically cheerful as he tells me all this.
What Sasha really wants to do is escape to cosmopolitan St. Petersburg and open a bar. He’s been there a couple times; it’s where he feels most at home. But his girlfriend won’t move unless he buys an apartment there. Between his salary and hers, his dream will likely remain just that.
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