The Westernization of Higher Education in Russia: Novosibirsk State University and its Students 1992-2016: Part 2: The Students

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Subject: The Westernization of Higher Education in Russia: Novosibirsk State University and its Students 1992-2016: Part 2: The Students
Date: Tue, 26 Jul 2016 10:59:20 +0700

From: Sarah Lindemann-Komarova <>

The Westernization of Higher Education in Russia:
Novosibirsk State University and its Students 1992-2016: Part 2: The Students
By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
Founder, Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center 1995 – 2014. Helped to establish this as the hub for the first civil society development support network in the former Soviet Union

Part 1:

Part 2 with pictures:

In Part I, I described the westernization of higher education in Russia (introduction of the Bologna System, tuition, unified state exams and international ratings) and the impact of those changes on Novosibirsk State University from 1992-2016. As we approach the 25th anniversary of a democratic/capitalist Russia, it is more challenging to say something meaningful about how these, and all the other dramatic changes in Russia and the world, have shaped NSU students. I was exposed to a much larger number of young people during the “Yeltsin era” but the diversity this evolving new economic and political system produced is undeniable. In 1992, when I asked my students the first word that came to their mind when I say “democracy” there was one response, “freedom”. Even when pushed, the answers only expanded on freedom: religion, speech etc. Today, in addition to freedom, student associations include: “compromise”, “lie” “choice”, “majority”, “not Russia”, “liberality”, “inefficient”, “quality”, “respect”, “sham”, “Ancient Greece”, “Impossible”. The generations are united in the absence, even after prodding, of any mention of “responsibility”. And what did freedom mean to the first students in a democratic Russia? That was clarified in a poem by one of them:

Oh Freedom! Oh, its sweetest taste
To be Against, Against, Against!

In 1992, Novosibirsk State University was both oasis and refuge as my students directed the stubbornness of youth towards ignoring the chaos in the country and at home where the inter-generational warfare replicated what was happening in Moscow (presumably minus the water fights in the Duma). Grandparents defended Communism as their life savings and pensions disappeared. Parents grappled with balancing their hope for a democratic future (about which they understood nothing) with an exchange rate that went from 95 r per dollar to 720 r , the price of butter from 8 r to 140 r while the monthly salary for leading scientists, on the rare occasion it was paid, was 900 r a month. Some enterprising moms in this, the capitol of Siberian science, outsmarted the rising price of poultry by turning apartments into chicken coops. In a rare acknowledgement of the challenges, one female student described the situation at home, “Two rooms, mom and dad, my sister her husband, their baby and now these damned chickens clucking all night in the kitchen”.

Most of my Millennial Generation students are the grandchildren of these grapplers. Diversity appeared the minute they were born. The girls in a 1992 class had very few names. In a group of 10 there were three Irina’s, two Tanya’s etc. In a similar group this year not only did everyone have a different name, but there was no Irina or Tanya. The Millennials are just as smart and curious as their predecessors, but, with the exception of a few adults returning to get second degrees, they never lived in the Soviet Union and were not educated in or into the Communist system. They have a much less romantic vision of the University. Theirs is a very practical approach shared equally by those who have stipends and those paying tuition. No one has time to waste. These young people are busy. They have “to do” lists and calendars. 24 years ago the idea of setting a date for a meeting was an insult. There was an assumption that whenever they knocked on your door you were available and ready to hang out.

Capitalism and democracy has yet to move the needle much on gender and academic focus (boys science-girls humanities), but young women are no longer afraid that if they don’t find a husband at the University, they are doomed to the life of a loser without a husband or, even worse, a failed female without a child. It isn’t just because there are more ways to meet people once you graduate, there are many more definitions of best case scenarios. Today’s girls are freer in every way but one. 20 years ago I never heard a female talk about weight, dieting or say “no” to a piece of cake. The appearance of Herbalife ended all that by the mid 90’s. The evil genii of “weight maintenance” out of the bottle, two of my students wrote pieces that indicate some degree of ridicule, if not rebellion. Lena wrote an editorial about the “Body Positive movement” that was created in reaction to a situation where “A modern standard of beauty is as hard as the mythical Procrustean bed, fall far short of it and you are out of the game “. In a piece entitled “Other People’s Bullshit”, Liya captured a scene between two blondes in line for take- out. Blonde #1 “Yeah, I’m definitely going to Thailand this winter. I need to lose at least three kg! Can you imagine how many photos there will be? I don’t want to look fat in my photos!” She goes on to order, “two round sandwiches, one potato pastry, one meat pastry and one bottle of water.” The rejection of beauty stereotypes co-exists with an appreciation for beauty. My student Victoria wrote a short story about a girl waiting for an AIDS test at the local clinic. In it she described an old woman as “the Russian embodiment of Lana Del Rey in her 70s (the most beautiful American singer who can only be compared to Marilyn Monroe, but anyway, Monroe has nothing on 29-year-old Lana today).”

The Soviet authoritarian cultural blockade stopped modern art at Salvador Dali whose work my 92 students appreciated. Logical, considering, they were raised in a world of surrealism well captured by Dali’s melting clocks in “The Persistence of Memory”. I introduced them to Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists and all but one voice insisted this was not art. The lone dissenter scolded me, “Malevich was the revolution, the New York school were just followers after his Black Square”. The dissenter is now a screenwriter/director in Los Angeles. My students today share the Yeltsin era skepticism of Abstract art but are not shocked by it. They are similarly not lovers of poetry that does not rhyme. As for music, only the Beatles have survived to land on most Millennial playlists that are filled with western music by groups I have never heard of and no one listens to the same music that they all discovered deep diving on You Tube. In addition to the Beatles, the one clear musical link with their elders is Tsoi, the legendary leader of Kino, the 80’s pioneer Soviet rock group. Even more decrepit then they were 20 years ago, the dorms are still lively but there are clubs where students can socialize. There are also cafes (one of the most successful franchises was started by a student of mine), restaurants and fast food including McDonalds, KFC, Burger King and John’s Pizza. We lost Carl Jrs. in the recent crisis. For better or worse, in many ways NSU students today are indistinguishable from their western cohorts. The hair and clothing styles are comparable to anything you see on an American campus, the lure of cell phones during class just as strong and their free time is being sucked up by series: Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad among the favorites. They learned about American football by watching their favorite group playing at half time during the Super Bowl.

In the December 1993 election 793 of 3145 eligible NSU students voted. Only one of my students this year was actively interested and engaged in politics. But if the 90’s students were aggressively uninterested in politics, the millennials are not hostile to the idea of talking politics. More surprising is how assertive and comfortable they are voicing opinions on controversial topics like the law prohibiting dissemination of “Gay propaganda” to minors. Their thoughts are reasoned and reasonable even when promoting the idea that women belong more at home than in the work place as put forward by a female MA linguistics student with a law degree and three jobs. Most significant, students today are starting to be more demanding when it comes to expectations being met. I was assigned my freshman class because they demanded a better teacher and didn’t stop until they got the result they wanted. It isn’t that quality and fairness didn’t matter to their predecessors, they just believed it was useless to even think you could change anything.

20 years ago Perestroika/Yeltsin kids graduated into a world of uncertainty, a dive into the deep end of what was a very dark pool at the time, capitalism. 90’s Siberian school teachers provided two definitions of capitalism, “something scary” and “something not so scary”. There was no such thing as a professional relationship. Everything was personal. I made people cry several times just by suggesting ways they could increase their effectiveness. The following came from support letters for a business internship program in America:

-“T’s family is very nice. She and her husband bring up two teenagers in a good way. They love and help each other very much because she is a perfect mother and wife. …her smile makes everybody believe and hope.”

-“His optimism and sense of humor create an image of a successful, sociable and intelligent person…. A is also kindhearted and romantic. Often he suffers from trusting clients, but I do hope he will sustain the temptation to become rigid and stay as openhearted and broadly smiling as now.”

This from the land that was simultaneously reintroducing the concept of oligarchy to the world. Whatever else growing up in the USSR did or didn’t do to 90’s NSU graduates, it gave them the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in the capitalist system. One of my students now sells luxury yachts in Barcelona, another stood on the podium to ring the opening bell on Wall Street when the Russian company she works for was listed on the Stock Exchange. Some made careers in major western company offices in Russia. A few started their own businesses in Siberia while others are teaching in the west and Russia. One is now my boss at NSU. Coming to adulthood in an age that was considered the worst of times by everyone but them, the class of 1992-94 were a fearless group. Russian fatalism manifested itself as the kind of courage that emerges out of desperation when you having nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Today, like their peers in the west, my students are more fearful, stressed and anxious about the future. 20% are pessimistic but they don’t let it get in the way as their summer plans reflect the new world of diversity and possibilities. Some will teach English, others work at IT companies, a number of freshmen will be helping out on the dacha while a classmate spends the summer modeling in Europe and then to New York for Fall Fashion Week. They all have the language skills and intelligence to move to Europe or America but only one, a Masters candidate, wants to move to Geneva, at least for a while. 3 out of the 15 want to stay in Siberia. The rest want to leave Siberia for opportunities, experiences and a warmer climate. Moscow or St. Petersburg are the assumed destinations. The culture, nature, people and endless territory are what they love about Russia. Still, they consider it a “crazy”, “absurd”, “too much leftover stuff from the USSR”, “Sponge Bob”, “mess” BUT “better than the 90’s”. As for the relationship with the US, they characterize it as tense, difficult and irritating and both countries are to blame for it.

The evolution of Russian student westernization was best described by Alexey, an MA student, in an essay about the generation gap and its impact:

“1914 the First World War began. Some years after that billions of people were wiped out by the grim flood of the Civil War. Children who were born after these disasters, in a new country called the Soviet Union, were drastically different from the people born in the Russian Empire. How could these generations understand each other? When these very children grew up they experienced the Red Terror years and the Second World War. And how could these men of steel understand their children who were born in peacetime and, entering universities, tried to catch rare wafts of liberty. Then, the only Russian generation that has a nickname appeared. It’s called the Pepsi generation. These young people betrayed the ideals of communism and, looking to the West and using the first digital devices, stood for Yeltsin in 1993. No doubt, their parents brought up within the socialist system couldn’t understand them. Finally, we, the Millennial Generation, have arrived. We who are dot-com crazy, who are not able to put our gadgets away. Who can understand this?”

His classmate Irina explained why, no matter how much Russia is westernized, it will never be a cookie cutter copy of the west, “all of us are the never-ending offspring and inheritors of our parents’ character features. We not only represent a brand new generation with the label “Millennials”, or whatever, we also continue our parents’ story.”

For more samples of NSU students writing see:
Siberian Masters:
12 in 15 Magazine:
Freshman Dr. Seussing It:

[featured image is file photo, not directly related to article subject matter]