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20 September 2018

  The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.

Soviet Redux

Author: Maria Silina
Translation: Maria Antonova

Jan/Feb 2015
Social Issues
Page 52   ( 8 pages)

Summary: It seems the more removed in time the USSR becomes, the more nostalgia grows for its symbols and traditions. Increasingly, these elements are worming their way back into Russian life. If they ever left.


Multiple large-scale reforms enacted in Russia over the past year made it seem as if the state was resolutely moving away from the ineffective Soviet system of management and borrowing from the experience of other countries.

In health care, which is becoming more and more like that of Europe, doctors are being retrained as family physicians. American standardized tests similar to the GRE and TOEFL are being phased in at state schools; universities are switching from a five-year Soviet system to the higher education framework used by Europe. Academics are being evaluated according to international scholarly indices. Even municipal services of various kinds – a scourge of every Russian accustomed to waiting in lines for hours to replace a passport or pay for electricity – are now introducing online services.

Surely in five or ten years time Russians could look forward to a much tighter integration with the West.

Yet activities in the cultural sphere tell a different story. Here the emphasis is on Russia’s uniqueness, and there seems to be an effort to isolate the country from the rest of the world.

Traditionally tightly integrated with Europe, Russia is drifting away: the Ministry of Culture’s latest “cultural policy” concept (being finalized) declares that Russia is a “unique civilization.” Early drafts leaked to the press in 2014 stated that “Russia is not Europe” and blasted such “foreign” concepts as tolerance.

Curiously, this notion of Russian exceptionalism has its roots in two seemingly opposite, in fact adversarial, historical eras: prerevolutionary imperial Russia’s era of religious conservatism and the era of Soviet Russian communism. The mindsets of these historical periods echo and amalgamate in bizarre ways and comprise the bouquet of ideas that shape the worldview of ordinary Russians.

The common denominator, of course, is the positive imagery that came out of both of these eras. And that is understandable: prerevolutionary Russia and the USSR had rich histories and generated tremendous cultural contributions. The problem is finding how to properly reconcile the two. The tendency to draw on both traditions at once can create curious situations.

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