New Russia is a place in flux - cultural, political and social. It is seething with new ideas and new social practices but it also has a legacy of the old Soviet regime’s worst features: violence and corruption.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it spelt the demise of most of the old Soviet cultural and political institutions. The political reforms of the Yeltsin reign saw the establishment of a parliamentary system with elected representatives from the vast territory of the CIS. This was unprecedented for Russia and exciting.
Along with the political reforms came free speech, something unknown in Russia throughout its long history before 1917 and after. An avalanche of new publications in all social disciplines hit the market, which constituted itself, as it were, overnight.
The market replaced Big Brother and had both positive and negative repercussions. On the positive side, it gave an impetus to the development of private enterprise. People could suddenly determine how much money they made. However, instead of everyone being more or less poor, in the new Russia some became fabulously rich and some descended into untold economic hardships.
The old communist apparatura, with access to the old state oil companies and other state enterprises, quickly formed a new oligarchy of rich private magnates and company directors.
A black economy developed since Russia had no taxation system and no private law in place. The invisible social “regulator” under the Soviet system - the Soviet secret service or KGB - was transformed into a new secret “regulator”- the mafia - who controlled “new” Russia’s business practices.
The Russian mafia, despite its negative portrayal in popular Western movies over the past 15 years, also took on some benevolent social functions: it financed new social programs, donated money to cultural institutions and assisted orphanages. The mafia acquired a positive profile in the “new” Russian popular imagination.
Aleksei Balabanov’s blockbuster crime films Brother I and Brother II (1997 and 2000) portray a young Russian man who is sucked into the mafia as if it were a kind of new “revolutionary movement” distributing social justice and helping the poor.
On the cultural scene, there has been unprecedented ferment. Russia started to recover its lost cultural heritage and to revive its cultural memory, repressed under communism for over 70 years.
Cultural monuments were restored - often with assistance from the “black economy” - and literary, philosophical and critical works which had to be kept in the “bottom drawer” since the 1960s, came out into the open. A new “popular” or “mass” culture hit the book and cinema markets overnight.
A “new” Russian detective novel mirrored the new social institutions and new social belief systems. Instead of a popular “communist hero” - a shock worker - it offered a female detective who was a forensic expert, who could read and interpret factual evidence.
This in itself was like a new education program for the masses. Instead of learning about how to build a new society along socialist lines through socialist realist novels, the new detective was teaching the Russian reading public how to come to terms with the “facts” of a particular “event” in a particular context or within a specific set of circumstances. The forensic method became vital in the restructuring of the “new” Russian self-consciousness: it was like a new “capitalist” epistemology disseminated in popular and digestible form.
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