Memories & reflections

CBC Radio Sunday Edition

Generation Next: reporter's view

Eastern Europe's next generationFor Eastern Europe's 'Generation Next' like the street youth of Odesa, life is just a bowl of Cheerios. (CBC/Karin Wells)

CBC Radio journalists Karin Wells and David Gutnick traveled to Eastern Europe in the autumn of 2009 to see how the post-Berlin-Wall generation views the past, present and future after Communism. Their three-part Sunday Edition documentary series is called "Generation Next: Young Minds, Bodies and Souls after Communism. From Ukraine, Romania, the Czech Republic and Hungary"

Generation Next

It was a schoolteacher in Kiev, Ukraine, who I first heard use the term "generation next" when talking about the post-Communist youth of Eastern Europe. She was talking about a class of 15- and 16-year-old, middle class kids at Secondary School No. 19. The boys wore suit jackets and ties to class. The students were articulate, thoughtful, forthcoming and the joy of this teacher's life.

There she was, a tiny woman in her 60s with a mop of grey hair and big amber earrings, talking Hegel to teenagers, challenging them on the ethics of history.

"I teach them not just information but how to think," she said. They have a lot to think about.

There is still a statue of Lenin in downtown Kiev. Someone chipped a piece off his nose recently, and the government has shrouded him in a protective green net. But he is still there.

The kids growing up in the countries of the former Soviet East Bloc are dealing with a complicated past and an uncertain future.

1989 — just another year

David Gutnick, The Sunday Edition's Montreal-based producer and I (from Toronto) visited Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania. We wanted to talk to people who had come of age in the last 20 years and find out not only how they saw the past but how they saw their present and their future.

The collapse of Communism was schoolbook history to them.

An entire high school class in the Hungarian capital of Budapest shrugged their shoulders when I asked them what they knew about 1989. One said her mother told her that under Communism, they had to learn Russian at school and that the Russian teachers were really mean. So much for the monumental change triggered by the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Their biggest concern was getting to university on a full scholarship. If they did not get good marks, their parents would have to pay — which would be hard to do for many in Hungary, Ukraine and Romania.

Double-whammy for Ukraine

Ukraine, unlike Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania, the other countries we visited, was part of the Soviet Union. When Communism and the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Ukraine had to come to terms not only with capitalism but also with political independence.

"My father is a military man," said one young man. "He told me, in the Soviet Union, every military man got a big flat. Now, my father has been waiting for a flat for 20 years. We got that flat two, three years ago. Independence influenced my father in a worse way."

I spent one very depressing day in the pediatric neurology ward in Kiev. The government in Ukraine only pays for 40 per cent of health care. Parents have to find the other 60 per cent. All over Eastern Europe, the time-honoured Soviet tradition of bribing doctors persists.

Then I spent a second, even more depressing, day down at the docks in Odesa on Ukraine's southern coast. Street kids congregate there, cooking up their own amphetamines, sharing needles and living underground huddled against the steam pipes that heat the city. The rate of HIV/AIDS is 27 per cent among these kids.

I did not see one ad for condoms anywhere in the country.

Left, right; here, there

In Hungary, I met a young Roma woman about to become a cardiologist.

"I don’t know if I will stay [in Hungary]," she said. She is a very pale-skinned Roma woman. "My boyfriend, he looks like a Roma man. He is dark. The racism in Hungary means I think we should leave."

David Gutnick spent an afternoon in a coal mining town in the Czech Republic with two young gay men, happy that in the new, post-Communist Czech Republic they could now kiss in public.

Contrast that with Hungary, where the young far-right movement is growing by leaps and bounds. I drank tea with a 20-year-old in Budapest who boasted about beating up gay men. He called it self-defence.

The most consistent debate among the twentysomethings in Eastern Europe is whether or not to leave. It was everywhere.

In a Bucharest high school, a young Romanian woman mused about going to Argentina.

In Kiev, when I asked the class of 15- and 16-year-olds at Secondary School No. 19, "How many of you want to leave?" half of the students put up their hands.

"We need a new government," said one student.

The wise old teacher shook her grey hair and her earrings and shouted at them.

About the radio documentary

LeninStone cold: statue of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin looks into a democratic future for Ukraine. (CBC/Karin Wells)

On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was smashed. That marked the beginning of the end of a dream — for communists. For many people who lived under Soviet domination, it signaled the end of a nightmare.

Almost overnight, capitalism bloomed. Whole economies were redesigned. Free speech flourished. Unemployment soared. So did interest in organized religion. Billionaires popped up. Social safety nets were shredded. Neighbours found out who had been spying on whom. Real elections were held. Here was democracy, or something like it.

Now, from the ashes of the old — still warm, still combustible — the young are building new worlds in Eastern Europe. Theirs is the first post-Soviet generation. They carry the weight of the past, its secrets and lies. And like the young everywhere, they dream about a different future.