WHEN I was kid, the only Russia I knew existed in books or the movies. It was a 19th-century landscape woven by Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky, populated by aristocrats and serfs who had no clue that communism was coming. Or it was the cold headquarters of diabolical spies like the intelligence chief in “From Russia with Love’’ who stabbed James Bond with a knife in her shoe; the home of that boxer in “Rocky IV’’ whose soulless ambition and artificial muscles embodied everything we imagined the Soviet Union to be.
Since the end of the Cold War, I have missed Russia, which seemed to recede even beyond the reaches of my imagination. News reports about oligarchs who gobbled up public companies, journalists who turned up murdered, and elections that got rigged always leave me bewildered and struck by a vague sense of guilt. We were so confident that capitalism would give Russians a bright future. How could everything have gone so wrong?
Recently, I got a chance to meet four young prize-winning Russian authors on a tour of the East Coast. (Tomorrow, they will be at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.) They are the first generation of writers who never knew the Cold War; who feel no nostalgia for the lost Soviet Empire; who grew up with everything possible and nothing guaranteed. Their stories give a glimpse of the real Russia.
Alisa Ganieva, 26, wrote about her native Dagestan, a mountainous region rocked by Islamist insurgency. She told me that religious extremism has become a form of rebellion among the youth, as fashionable as a trendy nightclub.
“In the 1990s, religion became popular in Russia,’’ she said. After the fall of communism, “people finally got an opportunity to pray. Young people went to Egypt to study Islam. When they returned to the motherland, they started teaching their parents. Now girls my age want to wear the hijab and their mothers don’t allow it, so they hide their hijab in their bags.’’
Two other authors — Irina Bogatyreva, 29, and Igor Savelyev, 28 — wrote about hitchhiking, another popular youth subculture in Russia. To them, Siberia is not a gulag, but a vast, adventure-filled expanse waiting to be explored alongside the new Trans-Siberian Highway, which connects Russia to itself for the very first time.
I asked the writers about the most popular book in Russia today. “Steve Jobs’s biography,’’ they said in unison.
I asked about their favorite television show: “Desperate Housewives,’’ Igor replied.
I asked if they have ever seen “Rocky.’’
“Of course,’’ replied Dmitry Biryukov, through a translator. “We watched ‘Rocky’ when we were tiny kids. We didn’t look at it as Russians vs. Americans. But recently I watched ‘Rambo.’ It’s funny to see how we were portrayed.’’
I asked what it’s like to be a writer in Russia, following in the footsteps of the greatest names literature has ever known. They told me that interest in reading has plummeted in Russia, just like in the United States. So few Russians read fiction now that the government doesn’t even bother to censor it, they told me wistfully.
“Right now, writers in Russia get much less attention than they used to,’’ Igor said. “It’s not even considered a profession. It’s more like a hobby. . . It’s good, in a way. I do what I like without added pressure from society or the government.’’
Finally, I asked about the tens of thousands of people who poured into the streets of Moscow to protest election fraud in the first mass protests of post-Soviet history. Is it like the Arab Spring?
“Many people said there could be something similar in Russia, but political meetings in Russia look more like Wall Street protests than the Arab Spring,’’ Alisa said. “They are people who wear suits. They have never participated in meetings before.’’
Then, suddenly, for just a moment, these young writers sounded like old people shouldering the burden — and the wisdom — of the past.
“Nobody wants a revolution in Russia,’’ Irina said. “They just want an honest election.’’
That makes sense, I thought. Maybe everything hasn’t gone wrong in Russia after all.