The years since Gorbachev’s perestroika in Russia have shown – to those not only “with eyes to see”, but to many of those with eyes at all – many revealing moments in the transition from the Soviet system to Dollar Russia. Recently I, while waiting for a typically late Russian woman, observed two confronting symbols of the transition...
Some decade ago...the first, “unprofessional” TV commercials (rather than state propaganda) in post-Soviet Russia...the first billboard near Pushkin Square in Moscow advertising Mars candy bars (in English!) in the early 1990’s...the awkward, scattered laughter and murmuring in the Moscow Conservatory when a commercial sponsor to a concert was announced (this still sometimes occurs in 2001)...the first young teenager entering the subway car, pretending to be nonchalant, while knowing full well that he was one of the first to wear the then-new (soon common) American-style baseball cap backwards (-spring 2001)... Transitions...changes...from one social culture to another.
Now almost all of the inane (and sometimes intelligent) TV programs and shows (talk shows, game shows, serials, comedies, etc.) that exist in “the West”, or “Westernized” world, are to be seen daily in Russia by the millions across eleven time zones! I am not sure if they, here in Russia, have copied (with their own, unique “Russian” angle and mentality, of course) all of the good, bad, intelligent and vulgar TV programs one can see in the USA (and other parts of the world), but it is now fully clear that they eventually will!
Russians daily walk by “old”, Communist monuments, symbols, statues, wall-reliefs...of Lenin, Marx, Engels, the Hammer and Sickle, etc, like unnoticed wall-decorations. (Most of the movable red propaganda slogans were removed long ago!) They notice them much less often than visiting “Westerners”.
A recent advertising campaign in Moscow for a brand of popular Western cigarettes has the lead slogan (in Russian): “Fight Boredom”: “Pall Mall has determined that boredom is hazardous to your health”, therefore one should battle boredom by smoking Pall Mall cigarettes (which, incidentally, “the Russian Ministry of Health has determined is bad for your health”). This is perhaps the first time in all of Russia’s history, that “boredom” has been used to advertise. (I guess it addresses the ennui of the masses.)
Here is one instance where the “high”, bodily life of the consumer culture (once an impossible word combination in Russia) of the “West” replaces the ideals of the USSR. The ideals of communism – defeated and discarded on the “ash-heap of history” – stand, rather stood, in contrast to the 18th century ideals of the (European and American) Enlightenment: democracy, equality, freedom, the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The consumer “ideals” – “trans-national”? (subnational?) – apply most often not to the mind and social aspirations of mass individual and/or collective men and women (e.g.“Workers and Peasants of the World Unite”?), but to their bodies: consume, enjoy. (“Consumers of the World Unite”?!)
The “ideals” of consumerism are in this instance to my mind in a way even lower than those of communism: fight boredom by smoking these (cancerous) cigarettes. (Someone should write a cultural history of “boredom” in Old Holy-, Soviet-, and Dollar Russia – indeed a history and philosophy of “boredom” in the world’s cultures and classes!)
Pall Mall cigarettes ads here in Russia are generally “primitive” – like old Communist slogans – even to those one could not call “intellectual”; so that the current advertising campaign is hardly surprising in its character. But in one metro (subway train) station in Moscow one can see a clear example of the contrasting ideals of man and society – “communism” vs. “consumerism” – confronting each other. Of course, the Soviet ideals are dead and gone (they were actually “dead” long before they were “gone”), and the symbols remain often just due to a lack of sufficient $$$ to remove them! But on the walls of this Soviet-era subway station is to be seen a colorful red and gold mural praising the Soviet Army in its united campaign battling against the fascists during “the Great Patriotic War” (World War II). But now the Soviet symbols of war with the fascists face, in mock battle, as it were, the... “fight boredom” ad campaign of the new social order in the Russia of the consumer society.
Russians really rarely notice the Soviet symbols around them anymore. Routine daily life does not often demand reflection on the changes in which most are still often passive, forced participants, just trying to survive. As false and illusory as the Communist, Soviet ideals were in reality, or came to be...the ad campaign of Pall Mall cigarettes seems though even lower as a human ideal – even if it is a more real, practical gift from the West than oligarchic, corrupted politics and “(un)free market economics” – though surely as false and unreal.
First published in English, #05, 2002, p. 12.