To understand the Russia of today requires a basic understanding of the Soviet Union of yesterday. Freedom in the USSR was a personal identity that was derived from collective unity. Soviets had something in common that was not generated by the people’s attempts to express their uniqueness; it was created through shared experiences; Soviet culture was grounded in what members contributed. After 1991, Russia then dove into a severely contradictory identity when it adopted the Western approach, which thrives on what members consume.
An inevitable identity crisis has ensued as the country passes from one political paradigm to the next. The implications of this chasm are especially pronounced between generations. The old generation’s nostalgia for Soviet times weighs upon the ripening flock of young Russians, defenseless against the imposition of the new.
One day this summer, my mom and I were searching for some posh new restaurant on Staleshnikov Pereulok, a side street in the heart of Old Moscow transformed into a potpourri of minimalistic-indie coffee bars and hair salons. My mom reminisced about the grand Shokoladniza, (or “Chocolateria”) that had been transformed into a standoffish Italian boutique. Disappointed and lost, we identified an old babushka who might guide us. After several lengthy descriptions, my mom finally broke the unspoken barrier between acquaintance and friend: “Where the old bakery used to be!” she exclaimed. The babushka’s face rose, she smiled and let out a long, compassionate laugh. “Remember those fresh bulochki, only four kopekii!” she beamed. And off they went into a world from which I am generationally and ideologically locked out. My motherland seemed at that moment the orphan of hopeless nostalgia.
Meanwhile the younger generation has become accustomed to passively accepting whatever is commercially introduced. During one rush-hour scramble down the metro, 25 energetic girls and guys in short red overalls emerged from the street. They exuded self-assurance as they bounced around offering mini cans of Coke to people going down the escalator.
This sight on the platform – typical of metropolitan advertisements today – was inconceivable 25 years ago. A man stooped over his folded grocery display kit - sipping on a Coke; the young rustic blond with a poetry book - drinking a Coke; a young couple in love – sharing a Coke; and two braided girls - gulping Cokes. Within five minutes the little red cans chimed in aluminum unison across the station. Was this the experience of Western freedom?
The Coca-Cola that symbolized freedom to Russians in the 1990s today continues its symbolic victory over the people. But what Coke representatives seek in Russia, and indeed in all their foreign endeavors, is a market for revenue. How consumers get the money for their Coke is none of the company’s “business.”
It would be relevant now to reveal that most of those iPods and Nooks on my first metro ride weren’t authentic. They were likely made in an electrically- saturated building called Gorbushka, Moscow’s largest electronic flea market. The Gorbushka boys take foreign parts – a Chinese power converter, an American iPod part from eBay – and reconstruct those into a modified version of the original concept.
These products function well for about a year but eventually fail because the created structure does not match its original purpose. Since there is no practice of receipts and warranties, the boys take no responsibility or ownership for their products. Has Russia adopted democracy with no warranty or ownership?
Freedom in any nation stems from a balance between national identity and unity. As Russia’s past is comprised of values antithetical to the well-spring of American culture—the pursuit of individual freedom and personal wealth—a Westernized national identity continues to fumble in its fulfillment.
Masha Goncharova is a sophomore at Georgetown University and an editorial assistant for the Georgetown Journal’s Books Section. She is a native of Moscow, Russia.