Aging and Russian Culture in


Occasionally, prominent writers and other dissidents would escape the Soviet Union and come to the United States, but their numbers were small as draconian restrictions on emigration mirrored the Soviet ideological dogma that Russia was superior in quality of life to all other countries. The last group of Russians to have immigrated is comprised of those that left following the collapse of communism. The United States State Department heavily scrutinizes the issuance of Visas to Russian citizens because most would prefer to live in the United States. The romantic notion of escape from Russia is one that is shared by many who live there and have come to develop idealistic opinions of the west as a land of plenty and opportunity. Because of the closeness of Russian families and the limited incomes of pensioners, most elderly people that arrive in the United States are brought here by their family members. These family members also do so because of the vast superiority of the American health care system to that of Russia.

The system of restricting movement was and is not limited to those who wished to leave Russia. The system of 'propiskas,' introduced by Stalin, deemed it necessary for one to gain permission before living in another community. This was initially introduced to control the measured starvation of rural Ukrainians during the Soviet-engineered famine of 1933, as food and other essentials were afforded city residents as the object of these measures was to bring 'modernization' through the elimination of the private ownership of land, and city residents, as apartment-dwellers, were seen as more modern. Understanding the emotional impact of this period of enforced starvation and the subsequent exile of many Ukrainians and Russians to Siberia, is absolutely essential when providing care to elderly people who have lived through this experience. The legacy of this system is that Moscow, with an average per capita income level approximately 6 times that of the rest of Russia and as much as 20 times that of certain regions, regularly stops people and asks them for their propiskas.

The young people of Russia are marked by a desire to emulate their European equivalents. Most Russian television is comprised of American programs dubbed into Russian and older soviet programs and movies. If it is hard to understand how younger people in Russia can relate to American television, even more bewildering is the idea of pensioners, raised with Russian media, relating to it. For years, the idea of movies and television programs failing to reflect Soviet pro-communist themes was novel and suspect. The concept, for instance, of a song reflecting love between a couple, would have been seen as shocking to Russian audiences. Russians became accustomed to only expecting such programs from more progressive Eastern European countries. The ideas and attitudes of the 'war generation' are often reflected in Russian television as these themes are seen as possessing merit independent of communist or collectivist themes.

To many older Russians, the United States is seen as the embodiment of evil. It is said that all evil things come from the United States, but this is more a reflection on the Russian adaptation of free markets and business cultures than it is on America per se. Capitalism, rather that being seen as a system of lending at interest whereby economic opportunities might be afforded to a wide array of people through the availability of credit, is seen as a system of exploitation. Accordingly, many of the business practices adopted in the post-Soviet era can be best described as exploitative. It can be said that Russians have reconciled their identification of capital as an 'evil' concept by approaching the market system as a forbidden indulgence. The rule of law in the 'free market' sense, characterized by the primacy of contracts, has yet to manifest in Russia in the sense thought of in the west. Early attempts at 'shock therapy' privatization which put economic power in the hands of a relatively small number of wealthy individuals known as 'Magnats,' (magnates) has cauterized the opinion of many pensioners (who have experienced a rapid decline in quality of life) that capitalism is an evil, exploitative system and that it is a manifestation of some sort of pandemic social failure. The idea of capitalism being marked by the widespread distribution of capital is not obvious to them, as many do not possess bank accounts. This is in part due to a distrust of the Ruble caused by the 1998 crisis, which caused many of their accounts to evaporate. There is a general sense that freedom is preferable to communism, but it is also marked by the sense that reforms designed to bring Russia in line with European standards of living, have failed. This is one of the reasons why so many elderly people attend communist party meetings, although many have taken much pleasure in the re-establishment of the Church.

In many respects, pensioners living in the United States and those of Russian origin are very similar. Both can be said to look to nostalgic themes, familiarity and family for comfort. However, the contexts are almost entirely different. Whereas the experience of the elderly American reflects that of what is thought of as the "Greatest Generation" - that of the protagonists of World War II that went on to lead successful lives in industry and commerce, the legacy of their Russian equivalents is one of a people that have been abused and ultimately abandoned and marginalized by their society. Understanding this fact and its corollaries is as important as understanding the Russian language.

Works Cited

Brucan, Silviu. Social Change in Russia and Eastern Europe: From Party Hacks to Nouveaux Riches. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998.

Demko, George J., Grigory Ioffe, and Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, eds. Population Under Duress: The Geodemography of Post-Soviet Russia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Women and Russian Culture: Projections and Self- Perceptions. Ed. Marsh, Rosalind. New York: Berghahn Books, 1998.

Shalin, Dmitri N., ed. Russian Culture at the Crossroads: Paradoxes of Postcommunist Consciousness. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Weigle, Marcia A. Russia's Liberal Project: State-Society Relations in the Transition from Communism. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.