The Eternally Wonderful Present, or Russia’s need for a new culture

The USSR aimed to create a “multinational Soviet culture”, but in post-Soviet Russia national culture has become the goal — while Soviet nostalgia is beginning to wear thin. Русский

Кирилл Кобрин
18 November 2016

Russia’s first monument to Ivan the Terrible was recently unveiled in the town of Oryol. (с) Howard Amos AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth in a series of essays by Kirill Kobrin on the death of the post-Soviet project. Read part one here. Stay with us for further installments.

The experiment in creating a “national culture” has worked in some places and not in others, but I think it is only in Russia that it has been completely successful. Here, of course, we need to define the concept of “national” in this context, not to mention the concept of “success”.

In this series of essays I have often referred to Lenin and to his ideas — we can’t talk about “post-Soviet” in isolation from the person who created the “Soviet”. Our discussion of the ideological and social elements of the “post-Soviet project” has already touched on the fact that “post-“ in this context actually means “anti-“, albeit disguised under a sense of continuity with the previous period.

But where culture is concerned, these relationships are more complex.

Let’s start with Lenin

In one of Lenin’s best known works, his 1913 article “Critical Remarks on the National Question”, there is a statement that is depressingly familiar to anyone whose childhood, youth and even part of their adulthood was spent in the Soviet Union. Here it is: “We say to all national-socialists, ‘there are two nations in every modern nation. There are two national cultures in every national culture. There is the Great Russian culture of the Purishkeviches, Guchkovs and Struves – but there is also the Great-Russian culture represented by the names of Chernyshevsky and Plekhanov’.”

If you dust these statements off and forget that they were used to mentally abuse several generations of Soviet citizens, you will find their content exceptionally interesting. On a superficial, banal level, Lenin divides national culture into “the culture of the ruling classes” (reactionaries such as Vladimir Purishkevich, a member of the “Black-Hundreds”; the “Octoberist” Aleksandr Guchkov and the former Marxist turned “liberal conservative” Pyotr Struve) and “democratic culture”, represented by the democratic revolutionary Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Marxist theoretician Georgy Plekhanov.


CC BY 2.0 Cheburashkina_Svetlana / Flickr. Some rights reserved.It is interesting that Lenin refers to “the culture of the ruling classes” as a whole, disregarding the huge political gulf between, say, Purishkevich and Struve. In this, Lenin was amazingly insightful, as though he knew that Struve would towards the end of his life adopt an ultra-monarchical vision reminiscent of Purishkevich (although without the open nationalist and racist element).

So here we have “two national cultures” — the undemocratic culture of the oppressors and the democratic culture of the oppressed

So here we have “two national cultures” — the undemocratic culture of the oppressors and the democratic culture of the oppressed. This distinction ignores everything else, including the contrast between “high culture” and “low culture”. Also, the "popular culture” so graphically described by the philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin bears no relation to Lenin’s definitions — neither the intellectual Chernyshevsky nor the intellectual Plekhanov have any relevance to it.

What Lenin effectively does is describe two kinds of “high culture”: the culture of educated people, such as reading, writing, reflecting on various matters using the instruments traditional to this social caste. The only difference is that one culture “transmits” the wrong values and world view to the masses; the other - the right values and views.

These were what initially formed the basis of Soviet culture: it was less a question of “who” than of “what line they took”. The cultural revolution proposed by Lenin after the October Revolution and the Civil War assumed the extension of the country’s “cultured class” to include its entire population.

Thus, the Bolsheviks’ mass literacy programme was mainly aimed at making communist propaganda accessible to all, exemplified by a picture of a peasant reading the party newspaper “Pravda” in his spare time. This was why cinema was hailed as “the most important of all the arts” and eminent Bolsheviks were involved in the development of radio services. “Culture” as a mass propaganda tool with no intrinsic value in itself — that was Lenin’s legacy to future generations. 

“Culture” as a mass propaganda tool with no intrinsic value in itself – that was Lenin’s legacy to future generations

After Lenin, this vision was transformed in, moreover, a reactionary, romantic direction. The “national” element returned — it was tolerated only within strict limits, and required to serve the ultimate goal, but it was nevertheless permitted and given official support. 

Lenin’s vision of a homogeneous international Soviet culture was replaced by a patchwork quilt stitched together out of multicoloured national pieces. “Soviet” disappeared as an intrinsic “content”, and instead became a framework, a horizon, a goal, an ideological intent. 

But one national culture, that of Russia, was designed to stand out in the pattern of the quilt — placed in the middle, it defined the positions of the other elements.

Nostalgia for Soviet pop culture

If we, however, return to the idea of “high culture” and “low, popular culture”, in the USSR’s later years the first category seemed to embody a purely “national” idea, and the second an “international”, indeed properly “Soviet” one. Classical literature and classical music, “serious” theatre and visual art all enjoyed incredibly high status, bookmarked as “cultural legacy”. The classics were not just dead stuff, but things produced within a national culture (Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian or whatever). 

The fact that the Russian people were the “big brothers”, and so their culture was higher and more important than other peoples’, was another matter. What it meant was a total rejection of Lenin’s conception of culture, a much more serious rejection even than those relating to economic and social issues. 

If “the classics” consist of dead stuff elevated to inaccessibly aesthetic and moral heights, the USSR’s “pop culture” was, on the other hand, lively and international. This is the culture behind the “Soviet” image that inspires the nostalgia we find among people living in the post-Soviet space today. 


1954: leaders of Soviet agricultural production meet in Moscow. (c) Anatoly Garanin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.These people don’t elegise the ostensibly Soviet Hermitage and Bolshoi Theatre, or academic collected editions of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky’s works — no, they long for the return of 1970s comedies and romcoms, the Samotsvety pop group and the young Alla Pugacheva. This was the sphere where Soviet internationalism worked best, mixing everyone and everything — a young Moldavian singer from Ukraine with a Leningrad film director, a Georgian song with the inside of a Moscow restaurant. 

Here everyone was equal and the ubiquitous slogan about “the friendship of peoples” rang true. And it couldn’t be otherwise, for pop culture has to aim at universality — otherwise, it’s not “popular culture”. The hatred and contempt of “Russian patriots” of the time, such as “serious writers” from Viktor Astafyev to Vladimir Chivilikhin, towards popular music and other symptoms of decadence was a reaction to the lively outpourings of the custodians of the corpse of “Great Russian culture”.

It’s strange that these late Soviet naysayers had no idea that their “great culture”, which in their opinion was something special and elevated, was dreamed up by Stalin in the year of the country-wide commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s death, otherwise known as the terrible year of 1937.

Western pop culture, which had grown out of a specific public-political and socio-cultural context, tantalised Soviet citizens as something distant and barely accessible 

All this finally ended in 1991, when a new, very different era began. The 1990s, and particularly the first half of the decade, were the backdrop to an exceptionally interesting experiment when one type of culture — rather complex, hierarchical and subject to strict controls — was replaced by something totally unlike it, decentralised, focussed on pure profit and, most importantly, alien.

Western pop culture, which had grown out of a specific public-political and socio-cultural context, tantalised Soviet citizens as something distant and barely accessible. It embodied their secret dreams about real style, real beauty and real sexual freedom. As an object of desire seen darkly in bad photos through the glass of Alexandr Kukharkin’s ideologically unsound book Bourgeois Mass Culture and the few songs, novels and films that somehow got through the Iron Curtain, it looked wonderful.

But the image of this culture changed when it arrived in the former USSR and settled down as though it owned the place. It was a culture that appealed to general, universal, mass-produced people. But post-Soviet people suddenly found themselves longing for something special. Post-Soviet man and woman wanted to define themselves through culture — and reading War and Peace and listening to Prokofiev’s opera based on it didn’t do the trick. So they had to create their own, national pop culture.

In today’s world, pop culture is rooted in universal principles, but its content is national 

There was nothing new in this — the same thing happened long ago in India and Japan, and a little later in China. In the countries of the “first world”, even in Europe, pop culture, or mass culture as it is also known, has become not just “national” — it is a marker of national identity and even nationalism.  The mass readership tabloid press and lowbrow TV channels are cornerstones of xenophobia in today’s world. In this sense, post-Soviet Russia is not exceptional. In today’s world, pop culture is rooted in universal principles, but its content is national.

The main condition for creating or constructing a pop culture is a general consensus on a number of issues. Firstly, it’s a question of aesthetic and ethical values and perceptions, and also measures of social identity. This consensus is usually a result of long tradition, though it can also be a consequence of recent turmoil, as in post-war Germany.

Post-Soviet Russia has not gone through anything along the lines of German denazification and rejection of the horrors of the past. There was no “old Russian pre-revolutionary tradition” to fall back on, whatever romantically-minded Russian patriots may say. 

But there was a consensus, and it was based on Soviet pop culture — the only real living value inherited by post-Soviet Russians (and most post-Soviet people in general). So this is what provided the content for the new post-Soviet mass culture. It’s amusing that a former cornerstone of Soviet internationalism should have turned into an embodiment of our national identity.

Soviet culture is a finite resource 

This culture is “lowbrow”, “mass”, “popular”. But what happened to “high”, even “highbrow” culture? In contrast to what was happening before 1991, this suddenly became international, a part of “world culture”. In fact, highbrow culture, which is by definition “anti-democratic”, paradoxically became a haven for those (both its creators and its small audience) who espoused democratic, “liberal” values.

Here post-Soviet Russia can take pride in its avant-garde credentials — this process started earlier here than it did in the west. The British have only just got their heads round the fact that sophisticated intellectuals, Guardian newspaper readers who despise the tabloid press, pulp fiction and Justin Bieber, are the chief defenders of the “people”. The “people”, meanwhile, aren’t interested in defending themselves and see no need to: they’re too busy reading the Sun, watching soap operas and hating foreigners.

In Russia, it’s as though the ultra-right populist Fox News has become the state broadcaster, aired as it is, with a few variations, on every channel 

If we substituted the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta  or the Colta.Ru online journal for the Guardian, and Komsomolskaya Pravda or Life.Ru for the Sun, we would see that in Russia this all happened a lot earlier. 

Television journalism is, of course, the exception. In Russia it’s as though the ultra-right populist Fox News has become the state broadcaster, aired as it is, with a few variations, on every channel. (I can imagine how Lenin would have hated it.)

This is the main reason for considering the post-Soviet period at an end in terms of culture. It has been 25 years since the collapse of the USSR. The very concept of “Soviet”, and Soviet pop culture in particular, is wearing thin — both in terms of a physical space and as an essential element of national identity. It can’t last forever, especially since the exploitation of this late-Soviet cultural resource is as barbaric as that of Russia’s natural resources. 

Most of the heroes of this pop culture are no longer alive; nor are their fans. Their function has been assumed by the “1990s” and even the “2000s”. (The perestroika years were too traumatic for Russia’s national consciousness and so have been relegated to a distant corner of collective memory.)         


CC BY 2.0 Sergei Norin / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Finally, our present rulers have also realised that this particular seam of cultural value has been exhausted and is looking back into the past in search of something new. Some of them are trying to find a consensus in the Stalin era; others to revive sentimental rubbish about “eternal Russia, destroyed by the non-Russian Bolsheviks” and call for a return to “the Russia we have lost”.

The Russian Federation’s multi-ethnic population is, however, unlikely to buy into the idea that this “we” has anything to do with them.  Having rapidly exhausted the cultural reserves left over from the Brezhnev era, post-Soviet Russia will now have to either a) dig deeper into its history or b) cobble together a conception of an “Eternally Wonderful Present”. 

The first option won’t hold anyone’s interest for long: who needs rusty tin cans? The second requires an enormous gift for self-persuasion, or more precisely, an enormous gift for persuading the public. It’s clear that the “present” of this poor, backward Russia, split by social inequality, is not eternal and is far from wonderful. And it seems unlikely that Russia’s culture minister Vladimir Medinsky and his minions possess the gift of persuading the public — this kind of talent isn’t something you can find in an amateur dissertation by a nobleman, defended at a serf academic council.

However, whatever kind of culture we end up with, it will, like the society it serves, no longer be a “post-Soviet” one. And bearing in mind the huge gap between the rich and poor in Russia, I would advise a close re-reading of Lenin’s “Critical Remarks on the National Question”. And not just to residents of Russia.  


Missed the start of Kirill Kobrin's series on the death of the post-Soviet project? Find it here.


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