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May 2004 • Vol 4, No. 5 •

The Worker and Collective-Farm Girl by Vera Mukhina

Russia: Nostalgic for the Soviet Era

By Jean-Marie Chauvier

We have all seen, if only on screen, the famous monument of the worker and the peasant woman from the collective farm holding hammer and sickle aloft and striding towards a better future. It was sculpted by Vera Mukhina for the entrance to Moscow’s exhibition park and has just been taken down, although not to be scrapped but for renovation.

A mood swing began in the mid-1990s. Soviet films are now being shown on television by popular demand, according to broadcasters. A leader writer has expressed concern that the Soviet Union still exists, that nostalgia for it seems to be the dominant mode. Polls by reputable institutes confirm this: 57 percent of Russians want the USSR back (2001); 45 percent consider the Soviet system better than the current system; 43 percent actually want a new Bolshevik revolution (2003). Opinions seem politically incorrect: the democratic revolution of August 1991 has been discredited and there is widespread rejection—almost 80 percent—of large-scale “criminal” privatizations.

Democrats rail against this attitude. They blame amnesia (people have forgotten the gulag and the shortages); hatred of the rich because they are rich; the mediocrity of the losers and the old (but then, evolution will sort out that problem). Recent political events have worsened their concerns. Several prominent oligarchs among their friends and patrons have been prosecuted. The Kremlin has again taken control of the main media. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and the KGB have been rehabilitated; the influence of the siloviki and the Federal Security Service (FSB) is growing; and there is now a desire to restore Russian influence across former Soviet territory. There is also official criticism of the United States and the fact that it has moved into former Soviet territory, as well as of its war in Iraq, notwithstanding President Vladimir Putin’s strategic alliance with Washington after September 11, 2001.

But there has been no lack of effort to eradicate enthusiasm for communism. Since 1991 Russians have been bombarded with articles, books and television programs denouncing Bolshevik crimes: the Red Terror under Lenin and Trotsky; the Great Terror under Stalin; the famine of 1932-33; the gulag; the deportation of individuals punished for, or suspected of, collaborating with Nazi Germany; and the repression of the Brezhnev era. The battle for memory combined with the promotion of democratic commercial values has been keenly fought by the media, journalists and historians, backed by a vast Western, chiefly U.S., network of institutions, universities and foundations. Ford, Soros, Hoover, Heritage, Carnegie, USIS and Usaid have all helped, plus Russia’s philanthropic oligarchs.

The open debates of the Gorbachev era have given way to an indictment of the empire of evil in all its manifestations. Many Western polemicists would be taken aback at the virulence of this Russian anti-communism, the aim of which is to invoke the specter of the return of the reds and civil war every time the new regime is threatened.

Condemning Bolshevism means rehabilitating those opposed to it, mostly White Russian and dissident movements. Even some instances of collaboration with the Nazis are viewed differently. Izvestia columnist Maxim Sokolov has written: “Those were complicated times—[the Third Reich] was the sole bastion protecting Europe from the barbarity of the Bolsheviks. Had he still been alive the SS commander [Himmler] would probably have been honored for fighting totalitarianism.”

This grotesque revisionism, which fails to take account of the real context, the period, the regimes and the different societies and cultures in Soviet history, is challenged by many historians, although not the ones setting the tone. Victor Suvorov’s bestsellers have a wider audience. The latest, published in 2002, begins: “All Soviet leaders, without exception, were crooks and good-for-nothings.”

Alexander Tsipko, one of the pioneers of official anti-communism, considers that kind of smear campaign counter-productive. In 1995 he lamented that its demoralizing effects combined with the impact of “confiscatory reforms have paved the way for a rehabilitation of Soviet history.” He was right. As well as targeting the system, the attacks are directed towards community values, egalitarian and collectivist, including traditional Russian and Soviet values. They target those at the bottom of the heap, the workers. Their living conditions are precarious and they also find themselves stigmatized as accomplices of the former regime, in receipt of handouts, lazy and useless to post-industrial progress.

Russia still has no single concept of what the USSR was really like. The very different experiences, cultural legacies and memories that have been torn apart make that impossible. Individual life histories do convey echoes of periods of extremes when frontiers were fluid and unpredictable, caught between pure faith, real joy and the sudden descent into terror.

An important witness to the life in the gulag, Varlam Shalamov, describes the excitement of his youth, the influence of Lenin and the revolutionary ideals (“what horizons, what vast prospects opened up to everyone, to the most ordinary of men”), during the ambiguous period of Soviet history in the 1920s. The same era was famously described by Ludmilla, daughter of peasants brutalized during the kulak persecution, who managed to move into a different world and set out, in the city, towards social improvement.

Her story, a testimony to the fate of the common people, illustrates why that socialism enjoyed popular support. Millions of country people took that path. Eyewitness accounts have been collected from peasants who lived through the civil war and stayed in the villages after the great divide of collectivization; they were interviewed in the early 1990s when the right to free speech had been asserted and before it was revised by the dominant anti-communist ideology.

A problem of reconstructing memory in this new context is the tendency to enlist victims and martyrs in the service of an anti-totalitarian ideology that was actually developed after the event. They included many communists and members of the Trotskyist leftwing opposition. These people who came back from the camps had not stopped believing in and serving the socialism that they are said now to reject. Who is speaking, and by what right, on behalf of the dead?

Most people alive today did not live through those extreme times. What they remember are the 40 years of Soviet rule after the war and the death of Stalin. An artist recalls the atmosphere of the 1960s: “I may be idealizing it, but in those days there was a surge of optimism in the country. I’m not talking about politics, but of the moral climate and the people around me. The Beatles promoted the idea that love was all, culminating in the hippy movement. Those were radiant days when I learnt to be optimistic about the future.” This is an unexpected collision or collusion of references: one reflects the official line (optimistic about the future), the other refers to a renegade culture (the Beatles).

In a country then in a period of full expansion, where no one was concerned about the future, many were confident about that future while taking an apolitical approach and enjoying the attractions of an alternative culture. Anti-establishment protesters from the Brezhnev regime miss the days when they could set the world to rights around the kitchen table: “the future had yet to come,” they say—and, as we know, it was disappointing. Many must have withdrawn into the background after 1991, depressed and saddened by seeing what really triggered the change they longed for.

“The new leadership discredits the shestidyesyatniki, the 1960s people,” says Vassily Yuravliov, “because they see them as a living reproach. The oligarchs and businessmen hoisted themselves to power on their shoulders”. Young people who were not militants, anti-establishment or party officials, just eager to live life to the full, left the comforts of city life for the major construction sites of the 1950s and 1960s, attracted by the romance or the financial incentives. The construction of Academic City in Novosibirsk, the power stations on the Siberian rivers, the industrial complexes at Togliatti and on the Kama river and the second trans-Siberian railway, the BAM, have left them remembering their youth as a period when they lived life intensely, despite the current, widespread feeling that it was all a huge mess.

Others returned battered from a terrible adventure: the war in Afghanistan, as reported in the streets and on the metro by 40-somethings scarred by it. The younger generation, back from Chechnya, is beginning to tell its own stories.

But most people were untouched by such momentous events. They led their lives, enjoyed a way of life, social relations and a culture they are sad to leave behind. The Ukrainian writer Andrei Kurkov, born in 1961, describes it (and others share his view): “That society was founded on friendship. You could knock at your neighbor’s door and if you needed money, they would lend it to you. All that solidarity collapsed with the break-up of the Soviet Union. People born just before that, now in their 20s, adapt very quickly. For my generation, solitude is the scourge of life today. I’ve lost many friends. Many have committed suicide; others have emigrated.”

Is this a memory of good relations, or a social culture still discernible in the opposition to liberalization? Cultural sociologist Ludmila Bulavka documents the accounts of workers in the recent protest movements. The militants are harsh critics of their own illusions during the period 1989-91, when they supported the democrats. For them, the end of the USSR is a painful loss and they do not accept that bosses should be able to lay down the law without consulting workers. They still want to believe that the people are the state. They remain attached to a culture that was based on consensus and social paternalism.

Westerners lack much of the knowledge they need to understand the loss that Russians feel: the total world of a culture, the depth of a social life that cannot be changed to fit an ideology. In which drawer should be filed not only avant-garde art but the mass popular culture that influenced generations? Alexandrov’s musical comedies and Utesov’s jazz; the humor of Ilf and Petrov; the adventures of soldier Vassily Tiorkine; the characters of film-maker Vassily Shukshin; the amateur art of the factory clubs and the vast “song of authors” movement, the most significant mass protest of the period 1960-80. How do you explain the decision by nonconformist bards of all ages to vote the ballad Grenada by Mikhail Svetlov, the 1920s Komsomol poet, “the song of the 20th century”? Will it ever be possible to pass on the messages from this lost Atlantis?

A survey with the help of Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation and overseen by Mikhail Gorchkov reveals the extent to which the rehabilitation of the USSR is based on mature reflection far removed from stereotypes. It shows that the authorities and media have failed in their attempt to present 70 years of Soviet rule as a nightmare, and concludes that the pressures used to create that image are no longer effective. But views differ according to the periods considered and the age of those polled.

The crimes of Stalinism can never be justified is the view of 75.6 percent of those aged between 16-24; 73.5 percent of those aged 25-35; 74 percent of those aged 36-45; 66.8 percent of those aged 46-55; and 53.1 percent of those aged 56-65.

Positive responses vary, from 27.4 percent to 50.3 percent, from the youngest to the oldest group, to the proposition that Marxist ideas were just.

A total of 62.9 percent of those aged between 56-65, but only 24.4 percent of those aged 16-24, approved the idea that Western democracy, individualism and liberalism are not values that suit Russians.

Among reasons to be proud, 80 percent in all age groups cite the 1945 victory over the Nazis. Those over 35 then cite postwar reconstruction, while the youngest group, aged between16-35, cite the great Russian poets, writers and composers. Some 60 percent of all age groups cite the achievements of the space program. The statement that the USSR was the first state in Russian history to secure social justice for ordinary people was endorsed by most people over 35, 42.3 percent of those aged between 25-35 and just 31.3 percent of those aged 16-24.

Most people polled said that the characteristics of the Stalinist period were discipline and order, fear, ideals, love of the homeland and rapid economic development; in the Brezhnev period they were social welfare, joie de vivre, successes in science, technology and education, and mutual confidence among people; while Russia today is characterized by crime, an uncertain future, conflicts between nations, the possibility of getting richer and social injustice. Among liberals, 25 percent assess the Brezhnev era as positive (against 45.9 percent of communists) and 21 percent assess the Yeltsin years as negative (against 59 percent of communists).

For the future most favor state management of major sectors of the economy, education and health care. They are in favor of joint management with the private sector only in the food industry, housing and the media. A majority, 54 percent, wants a society based on social equality and defines the main feature of democracy as the equality of citizens before the law.

The perception of the past is changing, filtered by the experience of market reforms that are now widely recognized to have been calamitous. The initial instigator of those reforms, sociologist Tatiana Zaslavskaya, believes that workers are less likely to own property and are more deprived of rights than during the Soviet era. Manufacturing has not just slumped it has structurally and technologically declined. She says that sectors that met social needs during the Soviet era and raised the standard of living modestly are now in decline. The democratic gains of the period of perestroïka and glasnost are at risk. Polarization of society is acute: 20-30 percent of the population are living in conditions of serious deprivation in rundown accommodation and dying prematurely.

Liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the reformist Iabloko party, talks of Russia’s demodernization; and ecologist Oleg Yanitsky of a society vulnerable to all risks. Viktor Danilov, historian of peasant life and collectivization, says: “We were living behind the Iron Curtain. Unaware of what was really happening outside, we thought we were experiencing the deprivation of a leveling process. Now that the curtain has come down, we have had to face real destitution. We now know that in the Soviet era, we were not living in deprivation but in a system of graduated, if not high, sufficiency. Health care and education were available to all, even though the ‘people’s servants’ enjoyed special privileges. The queues meant everyone could get what they needed and that is not accessible to most people today.” According to him, for many “the doors to the outside world have probably been opened, but armored doors have been erected to keep people apart. There has never been so great a degree of atomization.”

Russia is full of interesting reflection on the past, the future and the possibilities of development. But the West is oblivious to that universe of Russian thought and communicates only Western liberal views.

Patriotism in its new guise feeds on resentments derived from confusion, poverty and the new image of the enemy (the Arab and Muslim terrorist) that have evolved in step with the West, with which Russians identify. The climate is no longer anti- imperialist; there is petty xenophobia towards nations that are still worse off in the threatening South. There is paradox: many people miss the spirit of friendship in the old multinational Soviet communities of workers and immigrants; and deplore the new frontiers, the political and financial obstacles to the freedom to travel and the dispersal of families and groups of friends. They accept massacres of Chechens, while savoring the 1930s cult film The Circus in which Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels (whom Stalin had killed during the campaign against Zionists and Jews in the late 1940s) sings a Yiddish lullaby to a black child rescued from American racism.

Nostalgia for the USSR and its popular re-evaluation should not be confused with different political traditions. In reality, there is no possibility of a return to the Soviet system. The dismantling of the social welfare system, privatization, the role of money and pressure from the globalized outside world have reached the point of no turning back. Though traditional bureaucratic and police authority has been reactivated to meet internal needs for authority and for control of oil revenue, this is against an international backdrop where the U.S. model, revered by the new Russians, sets the standards of militarization and security culture.

Putin has included among the rehabilitated: Peter the Great, the authoritarian liberal reformer Piotr Stolypin under Nicholas II, and the Orthodox Church, which is alive and doing very well. The Kremlin’s emblem is the crowned, double-headed imperial eagle. Meanwhile the idol of the bourgeoisie is the dollar.

As for Vera Mukhina’s proud and immobile metal couple, holding aloft the tools of communism, liberals should not be worried by their renovation. They will be returned to reach again for a future that has already passed them by. They will even stand on a larger plinth, worthy of the new era: overlooking a shopping mall.

Translated by Julie Stoker.

Le Monde diplomatique, March 2004





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