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LOOKING AHEAD
08.05.2009

April 28, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)

Marine Voskanyan

WE SHOULD NOT LOSE EUROPE

The crisis erodes mutual cultural influence of Russians and Europeans

THE EUROPEANIZED RUSSIANS

For the Russian middle class, the successful pre-crisis years brought more advantages than mere increase of consumption. A significant part of young and well-to-do people has also absorbed "European manners". In today's European airport, it is not so easy now to single out a Russian in the crowd of passengers. Though you still meet aggressive ladies equipped with heavy makeup, fur coats, stiletto heels and huge shopping bags, most middle-class Russians have learnt to wear modest and democratic casual clothes, and appreciated the European cuisine and home design. They have got accustomed to the convenience of purchasing everything one needs in daily use – from fresh greengrocery to wintertime rubber; to comfortable economic-class cars; to a trip to Western Europe during vacation.

A modest birthday party of year 1999 involved an Olivier salad, beet with mayonnaise, Soviet champagne in crystal glasses borrowed from Granny’s cupboard, and a bunch of deep red of roses for the heroine of the day, dressed in a camisole of lurexed jersey be she a scholar or a doorkeeper. Today's middle class helps themselves with ruccola and shrimps, several brands of soft cheese and French or Italian wine, brought from the last European trip; meter-long roses are replaced with a nice composition from a florist, and lurexed jersey with jeans and a white blouse. And though food may be purchased in the local Auchan and the blouse picked at the recent clearing sale, and the landscape outside represents the same tower-block quarters, with the same hooligans and stray dogs on the community playground, these people have already grasped the touch of Europe. They've absorbed the style of not an aristocratic, old-money Europe and not of a post-modernist Europe with tech art exhibitions and gay parades, but a usual, everyday Europe. Arriving in Vienna, Paris or Rome, they don't already need a guide, as their command of English is good enough to study the local handbook and hire a car for a local tour. In a European town, they are frequently perceived as their own by locals. But they don't dream of emigration: those who were eager to leave have already left. Theyd like to live in a European style at their home, and rather dream of a Paris price for espresso in a Moscow café.

CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM AS A CONDITION OF CHANGE

When the crisis descends from the American far on the Moscow streets, the contrast increases: while consumer goods in European countries become cheaper, in Russia they continue growing. My French colleague is trying to convince me that Russian traders will also have to fight for the consumer and thence dump prices. It is hard to explain to him that Russian business fights not for the consumer but for his own rate of return victory, or death, and in case the consumer has got used to European patterns, that is his own problem.

The current impossibility to maintain the acquired "Europe-oriented" way of life is actually not the hardest problem of the Russian middle class. A severer challenge is inability to sustain medical treatment of a relative, kindergarten for the child, and the monthly mortgage payment. Poorer citizens perceive these troubles of the middle class with Schadenfreude, as the majority doesn't differentiate the relatively well-to-do from the filthy rich.

Therefore, the middle class has to sacrifice the pleasure of European vacations, using the summer time for searching for an extra job. Is that favorable for a shift towards patriotic views? Or, on the contrary, this gap of cultural exchange will later provoke a new wave of emigration of educated Russians?

In 1980s, Europe was idealized by Russians largely due to their low standards of consumption. After a period of fascination with perfect goods and comfortable cars, Russians realized that this is not the only advantage of the European way of life, and that European reality does not correspond with the textbook "horizons of capitalism" with blatant luxury of the rich and utter deregulation of production and services. Perceiving the real Europe, an educated Russian has grasped the moment of truth that was essential for constructive criticism at home. Certainly, some people just assumed that in their country, the European way of live will never be available. Still, a lot of others are convinced that the example of real Europe could serve as a model for changing life in Russia to the better.

This optimistic majority of the middle class realizes that Moscow will never transform into Paris or London; that Russians will have to find their solution; that European liberalism is 100% inappropriate for Russia, but the European traditions of civil society and social state are quite valuable. The same is true about consumption: even in case we are committed for import-replacing policy, the fact of being produced by a "national manufacturer" should not serve as the only advantage of domestic-made goods. We still possess a number of unique technologies. But in other cases, we have to soberly assess our capabilities, and take lessons from Europeans.

EUROPE: IDEALS AND SYMBOLS

At the first glance, to lose Europe just means to lose a certain consumption level. In the same way, lack of possibility to watch Hollywood cinema or to visit McDonalds may be interpreted as "losing America", and unavailability of cheap tours to Antalia resorts as "losing Turkey". But the real loss is not material but cultural.

The first impression from Europe, attained by a contemporary Russian, involves: neatness of cities and towns; politeness and friendliness of officials and service personnel; perfect level of legal order. And nothing about goods. On the contrary, Moscow supermarkets are frequently richer and Moscow cars are more luxurious than those one sees in Europe.

Europe seems more attractive and neat than Moscow's Central District exactly due to absence of the striking and arrogant glamour, and democracy of style, and services addressed not to VIP persons but to ordinary citizens. This contrast is also significantly idealized, as during their travel, Muscovites rarely visit quarters for immigrants and city outskirts where one can see a lot of rubbish in sidewalks and graffiti on walls. Still, this idealization, derived from the erroneous assumption that Europe has maintained the model of Enlightenment culture, is rather a positive than a negative phenomenon. Russians are focused on the best features of the European society, and would like them to be reproduced at their home. In the same way, Europeans are focused on the best examples of Russian classical art and literature, and sometimes grasp meanings that are not obvious or being customarily overlooked by Russians themselves.

Definitely, this perception of Europe is typical not for all those who can afford a Mediterranean tour and visit a clearing sale in Milan instead of shopping in Moscow mega-malls, and therefore ascribes himself to the Russian middle class. Still, those who are unaware of the European cultural heritage are also impressed with European implementation of justice, equality and social protection which they got accustomed to consider a Soviet atavism.

“SOFT INFLUENCE” AT RISK

Insufficiency of Russian informational and public influence upon Europe has lately become a subject of vivid discussions. It is true that the opinion of Russia contrary to that of the United States is often unknown and unheard. On the official level, it is the task of state-owned mass media, and generally, a mission of the state that had been neglected for years. But on the everyday level, it is the mission of individual citizens. They, and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are responsible for the doubtful image of a Russian in the West. Today, Europeans are embarrassed with manners of Russian beachgoers: "Oh my! What savages have descended upon my community!" Next day, they will easily believe to media speculations about a "totalitarian Russian aggressor". On the contrary, every talk with an educated, decent, and adequately behaving guest from Russia serves as an argument in favor of partnership and mutual understanding (especially if this guests behavior is not motivated with plans of immigration).

The thin layer of middle-class Russians that is capable to improve the perception of their nation by Europeans today exists. However, a protracted crisis may erode this layer to a neglibible quantity, and this implication of the global recession is most deplorable. These people will definitely survive, and give up their European habits, European travels, and partiality to European cuisine in case of necessity. Genetic memory will enable them to maintain their identity even in an earth house. But in case they lose their customary way of life, Russia will lose a valuable natural bridge connecting it with Europe the bridge of transcultural communication of a quality unattainable for Gazprom managers, diplomats, or touring opera stars. Without sapid cultural connections on the level of ordinary citizens, it will be much harder not only to reach inter-civilizational understanding but also to harmonize the presently imperfect political relations of Europe and Russia.


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