“A Difference in Class”?

Arkady Ostrovsky’s article “A Difference in Class” in Sunday’s Financial Times proves to be an interesting read. Ostrovsky, who left from the Soviet Union as a youth only to return years later as FT’s Moscow correspondent, ventures out to discover what has and hasn’t changed in his native Moscow. Sixteen years of capitalism has made Moscow look like another planet. All the shops and homely d?cor that stir in Ostrovsky’s memory are long gone. The bakery with its smell of freshly baked buns for 3 kopecks” he writes “is now an Asian fusion restaurant, charging 50 cents for a slice of bread. The cafeteria on the ground floor of a Stalinist building where my mother took me after my music classes to drink sweet, milky coffee has undergone several transformations, often accompanied by mafia shoot-outs. The ice-cream parlour is now a beauty parlour and the restaurant we used to visit as a family has been bricked up.” Determined to find some semblance of his past, Ostrovsky set out to check up on his former secondary school. But still, that even proved to produce a sense of time displacement. “I was stepping into my past – but I was also walking into Russia’s future.”

“A Difference in Class” is not some lament of a Soviet Union long gone. Nor is it some kind of Marxist nostalgia cum class analysis. For Ostrovsky, Marx’s (and Lenin’s) specter is as absent as the Soviet regalia that once adorned the school. No, Moscow Grammar School 1543 in the South West (formerly known as Ordinary Secondary School No 43 named after Yuri Gagarin) is now a public school for Moscow’s elite. Middle class Muscovites clamor pay 500 rubles a month (the rest is paid by the state) for their children, who are selectively picked out at age 11, to attend.

Instead of the communist ideology Ostrovsky learned as a member of both the Pioneers and the Komsomol, capitalist ideology seeks to shape students like Andrei Martinyuk and Artem Streletsky into the archetypes of the New Capitalist Man. These lads are cosmopolitan, liberal, individualistic, well traveled, and armed with the dyad of middle class entrepreneurialism and the intricacies of global pop culture. Concepts like “business,” “banking,” “economics,” and “real estate” roll off their lips as easy as “socialism,” “internationalism,” “class,” and “dialectical materialism” probably once did off of Ostrovsky’s. So much so that the school’s director, Yuri Zavelsky estimates that “that some 20-30 per cent of the school’s alumni end up living abroad,” presumably to take advantage of the opportunities in the West. Yet Andrei and Artem want to stay despite the fact that they worry that one day Putin’s behemoth of a state might interfere in their prosperity. Still like the sons and daughters of the Soviet elite, there is a consciousness that in many ways they are the state. “I like this country because I was born here and if we don’t pull this country up who will? We, the graduates of this school, are the elite,” Andrei tells Ostrovsky.

Indeed Moscow Grammar School 1543 in the South West may look and feel different, but perhaps one should a bit hesitant to allow the content to sublimate the form.