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CIS: The Generation That Never Knew The Soviet Union

Inga Ghukasyan was born in December, 1991 (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, December 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine gathered at a site in the Belarusian forest of Belavezhskaya Pushcha to declare that the Soviet Union was dead.

In its place, they announced the formation of a new alliance, the Commonwealth of Independent States. For those who lived through it, it was a heady but uncertain time. Hopes of social change and political freedom mixed with fears of economic freefall and the disintegration of state institutions. But what about those with no memory of that time?

RFE/RL spoke to young people born in December 1991 and living in the former USSR about their experiences as the first post-Soviet generation.

"I had heard that the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991. My parents tell me about that time a lot," says Jangyl Tashbayeva, who was born on December 27 in the city of Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. "There was a lot of hardship at that time. Instead of helping each other, people at that time thought only about their own fate. It was a very hard time."

"I know about communism through what I heard from my parents and grandparents," says 15-year-old Ayrat, who grew up in Tatarstan. "I heard that in the Brezhnev era, life was easier because it was a calm time. But if you consider the period before Brezhnev, for example the Stalin and Lenin eras, it was harder for people due to mass repression. So I'd choose the Brezhnev era to live in, because that was the calmest time."

Born thousands of miles apart, the only thing these teenagers share is their month of their birth -- December 1991.

Soviet Collapse

It was the month the Soviet Union collapsed, the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed, and life as many people knew it was changed forever.

Inga Ghukasyan was born December 4 in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where she still lives with her parents -- her engineer father, Edik, and her mother, Marina, a mathematician.

A pretty 15-year-old with long dark hair, Ghukasyan is growing up in a different world than her parents.

She studies English instead of Russian, is already intent upon becoming an economist, and looks to herself -- rather than the state -- to ensure her success in a highly competitive educational environment.

"I have heard from my parents that getting a higher education was easier and living conditions were better then than they are now. I think when my parents were my age, they had more privileges than I do. Living now is a struggle; you have to work hard to succeed," Inga says. "In their school years, my parents had no problem entering a university and gaining a profession with the base knowledge they acquired in school. But for me, though now I study hard at school, I can't enter university unless I have private classes to get prepared for my entrance exams."

Looking Back

Other CIS teenagers have inherited similarly positive notions of life in the Soviet Union.

Jangyl's father was a tradesman in Soviet times, but now owns a store in Bishkek. Her mother, likewise, gave up her Soviet-era career as a nurse to work as a shop assistant.

Jangyl, the second of three children who says her favorite hobbies are music and dancing, says her parents sometimes speak fondly of the Soviet Union.

A family photo shows a younger Jangyl with her father

"They say good things. For instance, before 1991 they were able to buy a lot of things for one som [Soviet ruble.] It was much better than the prices we have today. A box of matches was just a tyiyn [Soviet kopek]. For one som, they used to be able to fill an entire basket. They could buy all their food for one som," Jangyl says.

For Aleh Sushko, a 15-year-old living in Belarus, it wasn't money that was a problem for his parents. It was finding something to buy with it.

"They've told me that the situation in 1991 was very difficult. In order to buy food, they needed to stand in very long lines. At that time [people] had money, but there was nothing to buy. And now it's the other way. You can buy almost everything but you don't have the money to do it," Aleh says.

Aleh's birthday is December 8, the day the Soviet Union was formally declared defunct. He lives with his parents in a modest two-room apartment in Zialony Luh, a suburb of Minsk. The family does not have a car or a dacha, but they do have several bicycles, a piano, and shelves filled with rows and rows of books.

Good And Bad

For children born in December 1991, the 15 years of post-Soviet life are all they've ever known. But what was it like for the parents who saw their children come into the world just as the USSR was falling apart?

In Yerevan, Inga's father, Edik Ghukasyan, said it was a difficult time to bring a child into the world.

Aleh Sushko

"I remember December 1991. Awful times.... We had no electricity, it was very cold, and we had very bad living conditions. The Soviet Union had collapsed and Armenia had become a newly independent state," Edik says."Everyone in Armenia was going out to join street protests. We wanted to be independent, and then we were, and we were very glad for that.... We didn't stop to think about the impact it would have on our children's lives. It was something that needed to happen, and it happened."

Belarus under autocratic leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has, more than other former republics, maintained a Soviet-style characteristic. But it has seen dramatic changes as well.

Aleh's mother, 41-year-old Iryna, says the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union have been a mix of good and bad: "Everyday life has perhaps become better when we compare it to the perestroika years. At that time it was so difficult to get food and clothes for babies; you could only get them with coupons. But morally, it was better at the beginning. [Now] the Soviet [state] symbols have returned, Stalin has once again become a hero in Belarus, [and] history and the constitution are being rewritten."

In Kyrgyzstan, Jangyl Tashbayeva's parents say that despite the difficulties of the time, they're happy to have brought a child into a rapidly changing world.

Jangyl's mother, Maria, says she and her husband saw an independent Kyrgyzstan as a chance to give their daughter a secure future.

"Now every person has started to fight for his own life. If Kyrgyzstan can stand on its own feet, we hope it will be good for the lives of our children. Now we have both the good life and hardship, coexisting at the same time."

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