Looking West: Cultural Globalization and Russian Youth Cultures

Pilkington, Hilary; Elena Omel'chenko; Moya Flynn; Ul'iana Bliudina; Elena Starkova
Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania

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Cover of book Some four decades ago George Sherman pondered the status of Soviet youth in the post-Stalin era and noted that those under thirty years of age were ‘complete products of Stalin’s system’ (1965, p. 313). Isolation from the outside world, particularly during the postwar period, had curtailed the influence of Western culture. Consequently the crystallization of youth cultures and youth-specific culture industries in Western liberal democracies had little effect on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Under Khrushchev’s leadership the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West began to change; and young people slowly began to acquire for themselves some of the cultural accoutrements and behaviours they gleaned from their Western counterparts.

Close to half a century later the experience of youth in the former Soviet Union has little in common with what it meant to be young under state socialism. Russia is a case in point. Here integration into the global economic and political system has had ramifications for the self-identifications of young people. Many young Russians’ cultural practices are today so closely aligned to Western models that cultural homogeneity appears to level youth experience on a transnational scale. Looking West? analyses the extent to which this is in fact so. At the most general level it is a contribution to the debate over the dynamics between global (Western) and local (Russian) cultural production and exchange. More specifically, the volume contributes to an understanding of how young people negotiate these dynamics on the level of cultural practice.

Hilary Pilkington and collaborators sketch how ‘the West has been reflected in the cultural practice of young people’ (p. xiii) in Moscow and two provincial centres (Samara, Ul’ianovsk). They begin with an overview of some perspectives on cultural globalization including rare views from the Russian ‘periphery’. Russian academic writing on globalization, which is largely resistant to what is perceived as an ideological take-over bid by Western interests, is juxtaposed to Western theorizing about youth culture which overwhelmingly stresses young people’s creative capacities to rework external constraints for subjective ends. The first chapter ends with an observation that more than foreshadows the conclusion reached by the authors: ‘While young Russians aspire to Western standard’s of living … they do not seek to emulate Western standards of “being”; and where spiritual life is concerned, young people remain firmly rooted to the local’ (p. 20).

Through the analysis of various media representations and the extent to which these influence the perceptions of young people, the authors show that far from constituting a unitary concept, the West emerges as a differentiated construct riven by contradictions: individual freedom, equality and structural opportunities for self-actualization are seen as coexisting with a superficiality of human bonds, selfishness and materialism; Western (particularly North American) music is often lauded for the slickness of production, but also criticized for its lack of authenticity and artistic value ― and all this in direct contrast to Russian generosity, collectivism and ‘soul’. At the same time, there is considerable awareness that Western cultural commodities and practices constitute a standard by which local forms are judged.

Pilkington et al. argue that the boundaries between subcultures are subject to considerable fluidity. Thus perceptions and negotiations of Western culture differ not so much according to self-conscious group affiliation but rather according to ‘strategies for glocal living’ (p. 101): ‘progressives’ tend towards a more critical approach to the West and even a reauthentication of local cultural practice, while mainstream ‘normals’ are said to more readily copy Western styles.

Now, ‘youth culture’ as an idea is inextricable from social changes that gained momentum in Western societies in the postwar era. From Parsons to the Birmingham School and beyond youth culture has overwhelmingly been the province of Western-centric theorizing. Looking West? provides an important alternative perspective. It shows clearly that cultural globalization has meant an expansion of ‘youth culture’ beyond its traditional Western orbit and that this also challenges assumptions of a one-way transfer of cultural practices from ‘the core’ to ‘the periphery’.

The authors make this point from a perspective that focuses on the analysis of (pop) cultural discourse, tastes, preferences and practices and conclude that young Russians ‘reconfigure the West’ (pp. 165–200) by giving local meaning to cultural artefacts and practices that originate mainly in the United States or Britain. As such the volume may be considered an empirical vindication of Robertson’s (1995) glocalization thesis, albeit one that is sensitive to the continued existence of global/local asymmetries depending on which practices are examined. This is the central premise of the book, and it is in the elaboration of this premise that it is at its most consistent.

Looking West? is at its most inconsistent when questions of subjectivity are addressed. Thus Pilkington et al. heed postmodern notions of the ‘de-centred subject’ (p. 24), while further on they describe the radio as a medium the use of which is without ‘detriment to the direct identity of the person’ (p. 34). Elsewhere, as an example of ‘progressives’ ‘ability to manage multiple identities’, they describe how two young women’s composition of a single name from both their initials ‘led them to fuse identities, creating a single being, with a shared name’ (p. 139, my emphasis). Such conceptual ambiguities unnecessarily detract from the book’s aim to fathom the extent of Western influences on local collective identifications. The somewhat unremarkable finding that engagement in Western practices does not automatically make Russians Westerners indicates that identities are rather more fixed than postmodern conceptions allow.

Russia has undergone tremendous economic and political transformations in the post-Soviet era. It is, for instance, a prime example of a society in which an unfettered market capitalism not only bolsters Western-style consumption practices, but has also introduced new social cleavages. Russian youth are not exempt from these structural changes. Looking West? rarely hints at this broader social context – a context that frames the cultural practices that are addressed – and neither does it pretend to do so. The authors’ immediate concern is with the cultural-aesthetic sphere. As such it is an excellent complement to studies that focus on young Russian’s negotiations of contemporary economic and political conditions. Others will find Looking West? an interesting account of the construction and reworking of Western youth culture from the periphery.


SHERMAN, G. 1965, ‘Soviet Youth: Myth and Reality’, In: The Challenge of Youth, E. H. Erikson (ed), New York: Doubleday.

ROBERTSON, R. 1995, ‘Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity’,In; Global Modernities, M. Featherstone, S. Lash and R. Robertson (eds), London: Sage.

Harry Blatterer
University of New South Wales