I love talking to children. They are so unaffected and they can tell you so much more about a society, and in a much more nuanced way, than famous politicians, experts, journalists, and the like. They are even better than taxi drivers who tend to provide such a deconstruction of the social and political life of their country that sometimes I want to say to them - please, take me back to the airport!
Once in Dushanbe airport at 4 am, having cleared passport control, I sat down in a quiet corner of the departure lounge and settled down to snooze until boarding was announced. All of a sudden, a girl of two or three, wearing Tajik national dress, raced passed me, followed by a boy, a couple of years older, and began to play about noisily and cheerfully. I waved good bye to the idea of catching some sleep and began to watch them instead.
Clearly, the girl realised that I was watching her and she began to get closer and closer. The children's mother turned up and sat down not far from me - and children's father was close by.
The girl grew quite bold, trying to attract my attention, coming up to me and with her head bowed, as it to show off her golden pierced ears. I voiced my admiration and envy - and so we got talking. Just like any adult, I have a number of set questions for children - how old are you ?, who do you want to be when you grow up ?, and so on - and I realised recently that the answers to the last question in particular are a strong indication of the state of a society and the prospects for its future development.
The girl was too small to answer my silly questions, but her brother turned out to be a rather interested interlocutor. In answer to my question of who he wanted to become in the future, he told me that he had already become, that he was already working. 'Sure', I hastened to nod. 'Going to school is a very important job indeed !'. But he insisted that he was already working, and as proof took several 50-rouble notes from his trouser pocket and proudly showed them to me.
I laughed at the resourcefulness of my dear little companion, but then his mother joined in and said that he was telling the truth, that he did not go to school. My surprise was clearly written on my face, as she related that the whole family worked and lived in a vegetable warehouse. The father unloads onions, the mother puts them into bags, the boy holds the bags up for her while his baby sister with the gold earrings separates the bags and handed them to her brother... The family had been visiting their native Tajikistan to attend a relative's wedding and were now travelling back to Russia.
In Soviet times, most of the boys I was friends with, wanted to be astronauts while the girls dreamt of becoming doctors, teachers and ballet dancers. I remember how one of my classmates was convinced that he had worked out the formula of a perpetuum mobile and engaged in long and lively discussions with our physics teacher, trying to prove his concept to him. I found all those formulas and drawings incomprehensible because of my total lack of any technical abilities, but the discussions themselves were fascinating. There was a cult of education, culture and creativity in the world I grew up in. Despite the threat to peace presented by the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, hardly anyone wanted to see themselves in uniform when they grow up.
Those Soviet dreamers grew up to become pretty good scientists, doctors, engineers, artists and simply decent and creative people that kept the country going. However, it must be noted that the excess of education among the elites - if one can talk about education this way - was also behind the origins of the dissident movement - considered to be a real threat to the Soviet regime. It appears now that this lesson has been learnt all too well.
This summer I travelled to the North Caucasus in Russia and there the boys I met wanted to become FSB (Federal Security Services) officers, customs officials or join the special forces, while the girls aspired to the job of public prosecutor, like the glamorous lady prosecutor from Crimea, who is always on the Russian TV.
Of course, I cannot claim my observations are based on scientific research, but it got me thinking about the future of Russia and the former Soviet republics that remain in Russia's orbit both for economic or political reasons, but also because of the inertia of Soviet-mentality.
I do not want to idealise my childhood or our dreams of adulthood. Similar to today's children, we, too, had aspirations of a good life in the future. But the whole point was that good life was supposed to come about by way of education. We knew that professors, for example, earned incredibly good salaries, enjoyed special privileges and a lot of respect in society.
Now, if the four-year-old Tajik boy who holds the bag to be filled with onions, has already become something, what awaits his society or the society in which he has already become?
And if Russian girls and boys want to be members of security forces, is this demonstrative of a need for aggression - to protect and to win? Or is it just a more pragmatic approach to accessing prestige and material resources than the old-fashioned dream of becoming airplane pilots, doctors and so on?
I think children are well aware of what is going to bring them the maximum benefit in their life under the current social structure. And I do not see much difference between the wishes of the four-year-old boy from Tajikistan and the dreams of Russian children. The boy working at a vegetable warehouse wants to make a lot of money and wants to spend it in his native country. Russian children want to be dressed in the uniforms of security services when they grow up. But essentially their dreams are the same. It is just that the Russian children's desire to make a lot of money is dressed up in powerful patriotic rhetoric, the desire to control, to identify criminals, to punish and to ensure justice in the world.
But is there and will there be an understanding of what justice means for the brother and sister who live and work in a vegetable warehouse?
Image: A child at a market in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (summer 2015)