Sergei Komarov, 26, found a way to evade Moscow's legendary rush hour traffic. He hired a driver, "a man in a uniform," who drove a car with a blue light on its roof, which permits the car to zoom past stalled traffic by using the center lane of Kutuzovsky Prospekt -- traditionally reserved for the most important government officials.
Komarov, who manages the computer systems of a Western company in Moscow, is an adventurous, post-Soviet Russian. He wasn't sure who this driver worked for the rest of the time -- it wouldn't be diplomatic to ask. But he liked the service, which he used to go to and from work.
Russians Komarov's age were 12 years old when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, and 18 when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991. Like Komarov, many of them seem liberated from the mind-set of their parents' generation, which grew up assuming that the Soviet state and the Communist Party would organize everyone's life. Sergei Komarov is a free Russian, organizing his own life as resourcefully as he can.
A visitor to Russia curious about how the country is changing nearly eight years after the end of Communist rule can learn a lot from Sergei Komarov's generation. Nearly 30 conversations with young Russians in recent weeks suggest that the passage of time may be the single most effective guarantor of meaningful change. Komarov and others aged 18 to 28 don't all share the same opinions, but many do share one telling realization: "We'll become what we make of ourselves," as Komarov put it, speaking in nearly perfect English, polished by five years of working for English-speaking foreigners.
For Russia, such self-reliance is unprecedented. "No one could tell us how to live, we found our own path," said Artyom Lebedev, 24, explaining why he abandoned his university studies to open his own company, Studio Artyom Lebedev, Russia's leading designer of pages for the World Wide Web. He and his 20 employees have designed Russian Web sites for the Russian Central Bank, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard and Nissan, among many others. Lebedev usually starts his work day at around 6 p.m. and works through the night.
But if no one can tell him what to do, Lebedev quickly acknowledges that forces beyond his control -- particularly incompetent and corrupt politicians -- can make a hash of his hopes for Russia's future. "The communist elite is still in power now," Lebedev said, referring to members of the nomenklatura who have remained dominant in the new Russia. Only after the demise of those old communists will people like him be able to change Russian reality, he said.
Meanwhile, he tries to ignore them: "Anyone who gives up TV, radio and newspapers will discover that life is really wonderful!" Only by following the news, Lebedev said, can that pretty picture be spoiled.
His brand of fatalism seems widespread among younger Russians. It is most pronounced when the discussions turn to politics and politicians. Young Russians have no apparent heroes among public figures. Nor do many of them hold any of society's institutions in high regard.
Leonid Alexeyev, 25, a carpenter who builds theater sets, summed up the general cynicism with his own proposal for solving Russia's problems: "We should let every Russian be a member of the Duma [the elected parliament] for two weeks -- just enough time to fix himself up for life."
None of those interviewed for this article had the slightest interest in being elected to the Duma, though the group included a disproportionate number of ambitious and successful young Russians. Politics is utterly discredited in modern Russia, emphatically so by young people. "I have a friend who works in the Duma," said Maria Eryomenko, 19, a Moscow State University student. "She tells us funny stories about . . . the clowns there."
At least clowns don't look very threatening. Ask these young people what things will be like five or 10 years from now, and the answers are tentative, vague: "Probably things will be about like today," replied Tikhon Kotrelyov, 23, an editor for Affisha, a new weekly magazine listing entertainment and cultural events in Moscow. He emphatically did not expect a dramatic step backward -- a coup by fascists or communists, say. Why not? "Everyone realizes that this would require using the kind of force and violence of the October Revolution [of 1917, which brought Lenin and his Bolsheviks to power], and that can't happen now. . . . You'd need real will, real determination, and those just don't exist."
Not in the political arena, anyhow. But signs of determination among young Russians abound.
Sonya Fetisova, 25, is a an interior designer. She was interviewed at her latest project, a bowling alley and billiard hall located in an old industrial building several miles from the Kremlin. The previous occupant, she said, was a secret military enterprise that made re-entry vehicles for Soviet ballistic missiles.
"The Big Lebowski," the Coen brothers' movie, set off a bowling boom in Russia, she explained, and inspired this establishment, which features Brunswick automatic pinsetters from the United States. She has given it a bright decor with wavy lines of color along both walls parallel to the eight bowling lanes.
"I've never had to find a client," she said with obvious pride. "They all found me. Now people call me out of the blue." She has designed exhibits for businesses, private apartments and a supermarket. She hopes next to redesign a nightclub in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the most Russian neighborhood in America.
Her business was clobbered by Russia's economic crash last August, when many banks failed and the ruble collapsed. For three or four months afterward all her projects were suspended. "I read books all fall," she said. But she remained determined. "I heard a new saying after August: `When everybody's crying, someone's going to make money selling handkerchiefs.' " Early this year, business began to pick up again.
"In my lifetime, it will never really be calm here," she said, calmly. "It's truly a country for adventurers. . . . To live and work here you just have to put fear aside."
Not all her contemporaries can match Fetisova's brash confidence. Like many of their elders, members of the younger generation are subject to anxiety about the uncertainties of Russian life, and about its dark sides. Numerous young Russians worry aloud about narcotics, which have flooded the country in recent years.
"I know a whole group of people who have died from drugs," said Irina Sarokina, 20, a professional model who is studying opera at the Institute of the Vocal Arts in Moscow. Everyone knows where to buy drugs, she said -- outside Apteka (Pharmacy) Number One on Lubyanka Square, or on the campus at Patrice Lumumba University, among many other markets.
Varvara Baranskaya, 21, a ballet dancer, recounted stumbling across a young man who had apparently collapsed from a drug overdose in the entryway to her scruffy apartment house near Belorussian Station in Moscow. The emergency medical personnel who responded to her call said she had saved the young man's life by finding him.
A total breakdown of predictability is an important change distinguishing the lives of younger Russians from those of their parents. "We don't feel in control of the situation," said Dmitri Dunilov, 20, who just graduated from the foreign languages institute in Nizhny Novgorod, 240 miles east of Moscow. Communism provided "predictability and order. We've lost that now." Dunilov has no clear plan for his future after a summer job as a camp counselor -- on Long Island.
In the Soviet Union there was a clear connection between education and work. Those who went to a college or university picked a specialty at 18, studied it then worked in it. "You were guaranteed a job, and in your specialty," said Nadezhda Vtyurina, 27, who studied at a chemistry institute and now works in the marketing division of a firm in her hometown of Vladimir, 100 miles east of Moscow. At least it's a chemical company, she grinned.
Young people are now using education to prepare for careers in the stumbling market economy. At Moscow State University, the country's most esteemed, the hierarchy of departments has changed profoundly in the '90s. Once physics, mathematics, literature and history were the most prestigious. Today, according to Sergei Rogov, 22, who graduated in June, the most sought-after departments are economics, law, sociology, psychology and foreign languages -- all subjects that can lead to jobs in the business world.
Education is one of many realms in which young Russians are exposed to their country's now ubiquitous corruption. At Moscow State University, Rogov said, "everyone knows who will get into the law faculty before the exams are taken," beginning with the sons and daughters of judges and prominent lawyers.
Mikhail Romanov, 20, a student at the Moscow State University of Commerce, said it was possible to buy admission to his school by hiring a faculty member as a personal tutor to prepare for the entrance exams. Lessons can cost $50 each, and six months of lessons guarantee admission, he said. Once in, you can buy your way through. "It costs $100 to pass any exam," Romanov said.
Alexander Solnikov, 26, a professional body builder and personal trainer at a Moscow health club who spends his spare time on the computer, explained some economic facts of life: You can go the movies and (in a handful of theaters) enjoy a big screen and Dolby sound, or, for the price of one movie ticket, you can buy two or three pirated videos of Hollywood movies. You can pay $500 for a legal copy of the Adobe Photoshop computer program, or you can pay 60 rubles (about $2.40) for a compact disc that contains a pirated copy of Photoshop plus several other nifty software programs.
"Of course that's bad," Solnikov said, "but it's normal economic development. The people who need the programs just couldn't afford them" at legal prices.
Videos, computer software and music (also pirated in vast quantities) are close to the hearts of many young Russians. This is the first generation freely able to participate in the international youth culture, and it eagerly seized the opportunity. Olga Artyomeva, 24, a journalism student and published short story author, said her 16-year-old brother and his contemporaries don't realize how quickly things have changed. "They can't imagine that once I could only dream of owning a pair of jeans," she said.
At her age, Olga's parents could not have imagined the scene at Propaganda, one of Moscow's most popular discotheques, at 2 o'clock on a recent Sunday morning. Built in a two-story industrial space in a building near the old KGB headquarters, Propaganda is famous for its all-night partying. People were jammed onto the dance floor like so many spears of asparagus squeezed upright into a tin can. The funky music blared; dancers only had room to bounce up and down in place to the relentless beat. The bar, 20 yards away, served up vast quantities of beer and other beverages, but the crowd seemed relatively sober and extremely good-natured. This did not look like a scene from a country in crisis.
But Russia faces many crises, from a declining population in poor health to crime and corruption almost everywhere to a discredited political structure. These and other problems have convinced some young Russians to seek their fortunes abroad, and the possibility of emigration is much discussed by young people with language skills and professional experience that might be attractive to foreign employers.
Even those who say they wouldn't dream of emigrating have settled into a view of their country's future that implies only slow change for the better, or maybe for the worse. "It's going to be a very corrupted country, like Italy," said Konstantin Chernozatonsky, 24, a journalist who is now co-editor of the Russian edition of Playboy.
"The population is depressed -- to me that's the biggest problem," said Andrei Sheleg, 26, the son of a coal miner now working as a trader for a foreign investment bank. Sheleg saw a large gap between the successful, ambitious young and other Russians. He thought that many older people were very uncomfortable with a reversal of generational roles that leaves people like him supporting their parents.
"Not we, but our children will benefit fully" from a democratic, capitalistic Russia, predicted Sonya Fetisova, the decorator.
Irina Usatcheva, 27, trying to make a living in the movie business, wondered how anyone could predict the future after living through the amazing changes of recent years, but she too shared the view that a better Russia may lie somewhere ahead.
"We have some kind of strange hope," she said.
CAPTION: Interior designer Sonya Fetisova, 25, says Russia "will never really be calm" during her lifetime.
CAPTION: Sergei Komarov, 26, who manages the computer systems of a Western company in Moscow, believes that Russians of his generation will "become what we make of ourselves."