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The 20 Years that Shaped Modern Russia, a Reflection

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Five years have passed since we finished the first, Russian, edition of our book, A Crate of Vodka. Next week we're launching the first English edition of Crate in New York. As more time passes, the more I'm amazed by the accuracy with which we defined the window of the "liberal renaissance." Exactly 20 years passed from the death of Leonid Brezhnev to the terrorist attacks on New York on 9/11.

Leonid Brezhnev was the last Soviet leader to have worked with Stalin, and George W. Bush was the first American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to have to deal with an enemy attack on America.

The death of Brezhnev and 9/11 radically changed not only Russia and America. Those two events changed the face of the entire world. It will never be the same.

The period between those two events encapsulated my youth -- from twenty-one to forty. I was so many different things in those years. Student. Graduate student. Janitor. Steeplejack. Mason. Worker in a secret laboratory. College instructor. Mayor of a city. An official responsible for privatization, first in St. Petersburg and then throughout Russia. Deputy prime minister of Russia. Accused of criminal acts. Businessman. Bankrupt. Businessman again. Manager hired for a hostile takeover. TV host. Head of a failed election campaign. Journalist. Traveler. Writer. And besides all that, a husband, son, and father. All that fit into 20 years.

When I was younger, I was amazed that the elderly recalled the Brezhnev period with such delight. They said things were better then. I remember those days very well. At the time, I saw nothing good in them. The stores and people's heads were empty, and the emptiness was filled with propaganda. Not like things were later, in the late eighties and early nineties, I thought.

But I finally got it. That was their youth, and so they recall it with pleasure, as I do mine. Perhaps my youth, viewed objectively, was no better than theirs. Crime, inequality, old people dumped in the garbage. Soldiers begging in the streets. The most abject poverty next to the most outrageous wealth. How is that better than Brezhnev's imposed leveling and grave-like silence?

Could I have no arguments? Was it really a question of taste and subjectivity? I was almost ready to agree when I suddenly realized: We were free! Free. For 20 years we were free. And no one can take that away from us. When a man spends 20 years of his youth being free, he will never again be able to play the game called, "How sincerely I love the president and his policies."

We are the first generation of Russians whose youth came at a time when you could say what you thought, do what you pleased and choose what corresponded with your ideas of good and evil. No one before us had that gift. No one had that experience. And that makes it even sadder that the meaningless and ruthless Russian regime has once again laid its heavy hand on our frail shoulders.

Could liberty be nothing more than fashion? The seventies saw the flourishing of totalitarianism. It only seems that the regime lightened in comparison to Stalin's day. No, it did not; it was the people who adjusted. The most intransigent were killed and others just left. The rest, who were more obedient and easygoing, learned to live with the system and hide their objections in their fist.

I remember myself. I was thrilled to become an Oktyabrenok and Pioneer (children's Communist social organizations). I had no serious doubts about joining the Komsomol (Young Communist League) and it was only in college, in my senior year (and that was 1983), that I started to understand a few things. I started comparing what my grandmother and grandfather, my aunt and uncle and finally my parents had told me with what they were force-feeding us at school and college, and I discovered that they were lying to me either at college or at home.

My entire family came from the countryside; they were simple peasants over whom the twentieth century rolled with special force. The Civil War, collectivization and industrialization, the war and subsequent famine -- they experienced it all. And they told me about it.

Now I am describing my youth in this book, the way my ancestors once told me about theirs. Comparing their tales with mine, I see yet again how lucky I was to have those 20 free years. Freedom with new force will not return to Russia soon. The majority does not want it nor understands what it is for. May the next generation at least get an idea from our book of what freedom is. Although, of course, describing freedom is as impossible as describing sweet or sour. It has to be tasted. It has to be enjoyed.

I relished that pleasure. And no one will take it away.