2. Nostalgia for communism in post-Soviet Russia - Maria Ferretti (Università dela Tuscia, Viterbo)

Maria Ferretti - Università dela Tuscia, Viterbo

Because the lived experience of communism was so different in the various countries of Europe, the problem of its memory is posed very differently in each. Russia occupies a very particular place in this landscape, and not only because it was there that communism was born and developed before being exported, whether as a system (in eastern Europe) or a utopia and/or ideology (in western Europe). It is also because in Russia, to all practical purposes the history and memory of communism coincide with the history and memory of the 20th century. Therefore, if we wish to grasp in all their complexity the workings of memory in Russia today and the public usage made of the past there, we must take care to avoid the simplification—very much in vogue at the moment—that consists in identifying the memory of communism, from the outset, with the memory of the crimes of communism. Otherwise, it would be simply inexplicable that at the beginning of the 21st century the Russian memory of communism, instead of centring on the denunciation of the crimes of Stalinism and of the communist regime more generally, is also—and increasingly—modulated by nostalgia for the Soviet era. It is on this nostalgia that my paper concentrates: it is a fundamental aspect of the workings of Russian memory, but much less questioned than the much-discussed (including in the press) restoration of the image of Stalin under Putin.

A melancholy sentiment for the loss of an irrecoverable past, nostalgia for the Soviet era—often tinted with irony—is palpable. It can be seen sprouting among the bric-a-brac of street markets, where little Lenins and red stars, statuettes of Pioneers and insignia of every kind, T-shirts printed with the name of the drowned Atlantis, ‘CCCP’ (‘USSR’), or with reproductions of old propaganda posters—sometimes brought up to date by advertising—are spread out alongside the icons and the new, de rigueur Orthodox repertoire. Thus, Lenin’s name is used to publicize McDonald’s, unexpectedly transformed into McLenin’s, while the celebrated civil war poster (itself taken from an American poster of World War One) in which a soldier of the Red Army points a finger at the public to ask peremptorily, “Have you volunteered?”, is used to exhort the consumption of the most disparate of products, starting with ketchup. The market’s production for the consumption of tourists? Not just that. Modulated by a kind of vanished ‘way we were’, the retro revival fuelled by nostalgia is also apparent in the fashion for old Soviet songs and films, which television churns out copiously. More, in new public meeting-places such as cafés and restaurants, the names—and sometimes even the décor – as well as the menus are also nostalgic. Thus, as well as Soviet books and periodicals (often rare and, in their time, much sought-after, like the issue of the literary magazine Roman-gazeta containing Solzhenitsyn’s story One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich), the Moscow restaurant ‘The Dacha’ offers its clients a multitude of period artefacts, from old telephones, radios, and television sets to notices showing, for example, the ‘exemplary communist home’ or ‘ideal cleanliness’, by means of which the Soviet authorities thought they could gratify good housewives. Alongside fashionable dishes, they serve staples of Soviet cuisine like meatballs with kasha. Again in Moscow, the restaurant ‘Petrovich’ goes further, proposing to its customers dishes whose names are ironic allusions to personalities or figures of the Soviet ‘family vocabulary’. Similar places may be found not only in St. Petersburg, but also in provincial towns like Jaroslavl’, where two years ago the restaurant ‘Collective Catering’ (Obshchepit) – the abbreviation for the institution that managed canteens and restaurants in the Soviet Union – was opened. The waitresses wore the red headscarf of Pioneers and the décor, here too, was very Soviet. The explosion in prices for second-hand Soviet goods of every kind, including books and propaganda images, is also a sign of this widespread nostalgic state of mind. Other examples could be multiplied. But when did this nostalgia appear? How can it be explained? What does it tell us about the workings of memory in Russia?

Nostalgia made its appearance in Russia in the mid-1990s, at a time of great disarray. It was at that point that the profound social and economic crisis unleashed by the ‘Great Reform’ that Yeltsin had launched after the crumbling of the Soviet Union (1991) took hold in everyday life. By introducing elements of the market economy suggested by the IMF (price liberalisation, privatisations etc.), the Yeltsin reforms were supposed to carry the country from the misery of communism to the kingdom of abundance, the free market, and democracy; all this in a very short space of time and, if the promises of the country’s leaders were to be believed, with no particular social costs. At the level of collective memory and the public usage of the past, this radical transformation found its justification in the representation of history that had accompanied and nourished the rise of Yeltsin and the radical liberal-democrats in the face of the moderate policy of Gorbachev. It was a representation founded on a mythical, hagiographical image of pre-revolutionary Russia, whose inheritor and restorer Yeltsin proclaimed himself to be, while Gorbachev incarnated all the horrors of Soviet history. Imperial Russia was presented as a rich country in full development, a country without social conflict, where harmony reigned. In the writings of the new Russia’s cheerleaders, the imperial Russia of yore appeared as a country travelling triumphantly down the path of human civilisation that the countries of western Europe had already taken, the path of capitalism and democracy. It was at this point that the revolution, a kind of accident of history, intervened. Presented as a coup d’état carried out by a minority of fanatics and lacking roots in society (society not being prey to tensions or conflicts), the revolution had derailed Russia from its natural track and plunged it into the ‘black hole’ of Soviet non-history. This parenthesis, so to speak, had to be closed as quickly as possible by turning the page of communism, winding the hands of the clock back to the point at which the right path had been abandoned in 1917, and picking it up again (and isn’t that what the Soviet joke used to say—that socialism is the longest route from capitalism to capitalism?). This was exactly what the new leaders of post-communist Russia promised to do [1] .

Initially, this new representation of the past that post-communist Russia had placed at the foundation of its identity achieved great success, with the public at large as well as the intellectual elite. The reasons for this success are many, but I will limit myself here to mentioning two in particular. The first is that this vision of the past, by the way in which it is constructed, makes it possible to set Stalinism easily aside and thereby dispense with the crushing weight of collective guilt, which had previously haunted society and had in the end fractured the country’s collective identity, breaking the image Russia had of itself [2]. In effect, if one postulates that Stalinism has no specificity within post-revolutionary history and was no more than the necessary and inevitable consequence of the revolutionary rupture perpetrated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, then it is evident that they alone are the real culprits. As it was also emphasised that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were only a minority, and one that moreover took its inspiration from abroad (Marxism being considered as an ideology alien to the Russian people), it then followed that Russia, rather than being an actor in its own history, was no more than a victim—the first victim—of the revolution; and that, in consequence, Russia cannot be responsible for the horrors that were committed there. The Russian people is thus saved: ‘they’—the chiefs, the leaders, the Bolsheviks and so on—were the real and sole guilty parties, whereas ‘we’—the people, the ordinary folk—were no more than innocent victims [3]. By this operation, Russia not only liberated itself from a past whose weight had proven too heavy to bear by constructing an acceptable past. It also acquired a consolatory virtual past, capable of salving the wounds of the real history, replacing it with an imaginary history: had it not been for the accident of the revolution, then we, today, would be as rich as the West, or even richer. This virtual past not only has the function of permitting the construction of a positive identity. It is also—and this is the second point I want to underline—a promise for the future, for if such a past would have been possible without the revolution, that means it can be returned to by picking up the path where it was abandoned—which the radicals in fact promised to do. This reassuring sort of ‘future past’ was particularly important at a moment of grave social crisis, marked also by the loss of orientation and identity: at one and the same time it provided Russians with anchorage in the past, giving them a feeling of being rooted in the longue durée of national history, while reassuring them about the future, making it less threatening. Both a liberation from a sense of guilt about the past and a promise for the future, it must be mentioned at least in passing that this representation of history played an important role in mobilizing the population on the side of Yeltsin and the radicals, while also channelling social discontent. We must take into account the fact that, if history played a role of the utmost importance in the upsets experienced by the Soviet Union at the end of its existence, it was not only because of the force of rupture acquired by a memory so long repressed, but also because of the extreme weakness, not to say non-existence, of political culture—as a result of which history found itself having to take the place, as ‘magistra vitae’, of political programmes whose contours were too blurred.

After its initial success, however, this image of the past that post-communist Russia had put at the foundation of its identity very quickly began to break down. As the economic and social crisis deepened following the ‘shock therapy’ imposed on the country by the new liberals in power (the early 1990s were marked by an unprecedented deterioration in the living conditions of the enormous majority of the population, reduced to penury and lacking any social security), and as the promised future retreated ever further into the distance, the idyllic representation of pre-revolutionary Russia also showed itself to be deceptive and lost its charm. Recall the key moments of this period, marked by the new regime’s drift into authoritarianism: in October 1993, by a coup d’état followed by recourse to force, Yeltsin put an end to the brief parliamentary experiment and instituted the presidential regime, in which the powers of representative bodies were much reduced, not to say virtually non-existent; at the end of 1994 Yeltsin launched the first Chechen war, intended (amongst other Kremlin aims) to regain by means of nationalism the lost consensus; 1996 saw elections in which Yeltsin was confirmed as president but with serious irregularities, while political life became bogged down in a hidden struggle for power between rival political clans behind the scenes at the Kremlin. It was in this context of disenchantment that nostalgia for the Soviet era made its appearance. Naturally, it is not a nostalgia for Stalinist times: this nostalgia concerns the period immediately preceding the ‘great transformation’, which, if it provoked the fall of a little-loved system (as is demonstrated by the general indifference in which the collapse of communism occurred), in the same motion disrupted the lives—while betraying the expectations—of the great majority of people. It is nostalgia for the Brezhnev era, for the 1970s, perceived—thanks to the beautifying effects of memory—as a time when, in contrast to a present that appeared in many ways incomprehensible and dangerous, human relationships such as friendship were simple and clear, governed by basic values like solidarity and good neighbourliness, woven between people who lived in similar conditions, without major social differentiation [4]. To be sure, for many it is also a nostalgia for their own youth, with its dreams and illusions, now lost if for no other reason than age. But it is also a nostalgia which has very precise causes, and which is in many ways a sort of protest against the present and its lost illusions [5].

There is, in reality, nothing surprising about this nostalgia. If one considers the Brezhnev era against the background of the succession of tragedies that marked Russian history in the 20th century, one quickly realizes that this was the period in which the great majority of the population began to live a little better. After the catastrophes of the First World War, the civil war, and Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ (with the collectivisation of the countryside that violently destroyed the old rural world and provoked millions of deaths through famine, and with forced industrialization brought about at a terrible social cost); after the great Terror of the late 1930s, and the Second World War with its millions of dead and it devastation; after the terrible poverty of the post-war period, and the violence of repression—after all that, the country, upon the death of Stalin (1953), had finally begun to breathe a little. The economy had at last begun to be turned towards the satisfaction of the needs, even if only minimal, of the population; a certain material well-being, although incomparable with that seen in the same period in western countries, was slowly put into place. In the 1960s and especially the 1970s, for example, people began little by little to leave communal apartments and move into individual apartments; the education system was now a reality, permitting a certain social mobility; the healthcare system had at last been put in place, consumption and leisure were developing. In short, the population as a whole was finally beginning to live a little better: in this regard, some people have spoken of a sort of ‘bourgeois age’ of the Soviet Union. To be sure, the level of well-being that this sort of Soviet variation on the welfare state provided was far from the standards established in the same period in the ‘first’ world. To be sure, it was, if not a dictatorial regime, at the least a very authoritarian police state, where there was no freedom. One could cite other negative feature of the Soviet regime—they are well-known. Nonetheless, for quite broad segments of the population, the Brezhnev era is in many ways worthy of regret. I insist on this point, because it is an aspect that is little understood in the West—one which we even tend to forget. In my view, this prevents us from understanding what is currently happening in Russia, including the support enjoyed by Putin, which we tend to attribute to a sort of backwardness or ‘barbarism’ of the country, while forgetting that our democracies were born not of the free market but, precisely, of the welfare state. Disappointment thus has very tangible causes, which explains why, in 2005, during a survey carried out for the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of perestroika, nearly half of those asked thought that it would have been preferable if everything had remained as it was before Gorbachev arrived in power, while only 16% completely disagreed with this opinion. More generally, over half of the interviewees believed that perestroika had had negative effects for the country [6].

The other, not secondary component of this nostalgic feeling for the Brezhnev era is what I would call nostalgia for lost identity. The Brezhnev years were also the years when the new identity of what has been called ‘Soviet man’ (a locution that I do not particularly like) crystallized: no longer the revolutionary of the heroic era when communism was being built, but the man of ‘real socialism’, citizen of a great country. Carefully fostered by propaganda, the identity proposed to Soviet citizens was centred on a sense of belonging to a country whose authority and strength were recognized throughout the world; a country, moreover, which was in a certain manner superior to others by virtue of its messianic role. The Soviet Union was, in effect, the first country in the world to have built socialism, that superior stage of human civilization which was supposed to constitute the model for the future for all other peoples. This superiority was confirmed, for Soviet citizens, by the exploits which had made the Soviet Union a country in the vanguard in every domain. On the international stage, the Soviet Union had made of Russia—the most backward country in Europe at the start of the 20th century—the second-greatest world power, a place it had gained by playing a determining role in the victory over Nazi Germany. In the scientific sphere, a crucial sphere for a regime which perhaps more than any other invoked the 19th century myth of progress, the USSR also prided itself on being in the vanguard. One of the powerful symbols of this success was the conquest of space, whose most celebrated hero was the cosmonaut Gagarin, the first man to be sent into the cosmos. But this national pride on which the collective identity of Soviet citizens fed had been roughly treated under perestroika. The revision of the past, with the denunciation first and foremost of the crimes of Stalinism, as well as the revelation of the depth of the crisis into which the country had sunk, led Russians to question the value of the model of which the USSR had been the bearer—all the more so, since the simultaneous discovery of the West, hitherto demonized by propaganda, seemed to indicate that there was the real model: the West, with its well-being and its freedoms, then became the synonym for the ‘normal world’ [7]. National pride collapsed. The roles were inverted. The USSR became the counter-example, the model of what should above all not be done. The surveys carried out by Yuri Levada’s Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) in the late 1980s and early 1990s bring clearly to light this link between the denunciation of the crimes of the Stalin era, dismay at the state of the country, and the collapse of the image that Russians had of themselves [8]. In the following years, when on one hand a renewed repression of the memory of Stalinism took the place of the denunciation of its crimes, and on the other the myth of the West broke down (as the West was suspected of having duped Russia with promises of aid in the sole aim of ‘colonizing’ it), the search for a positive national identity also fuelled nostalgia: nostalgia for a time when Russians were proud to belong to their country and when the country itself was respected and listened to at the international level—a sentiment later reinforced by the international humiliations Russia suffered in the course of the 1990s, of which the treatment of the Kosovo crisis and the bombing of Serbia represented the lowest point [9] . This nostalgia has, incidentally, constituted a powerful driving force for the development of nationalism, which since the middle of the 1990s has acquired an ever-growing place in the ideology of the new Russia and today, with Putin, plays an altogether central role.

The passage from the heterogenous and fragmented memory that had characterized the Yeltsin years to a new, compact and coherent, configuration of collective memory constituted under the auspices of the Kremlin during the Putin presidency must be understood against this background, bearing in mind the importance nostalgia acquired at the end of the 1990s. The ‘memory policy’ put to work in recent years has centred on the exaltation, through the centuries, of the greatness of eternal Russia, a Russia whose spiritual power is celebrated first—this being a source of superiority vis-à-vis the vulgarly materialist West. Russian history is thus presented as a sort of self-realization of the national spirit, accomplished through dramatic ‘ordeals’, of which the most recent is the revolution and the ensuing Soviet historical experience [10]. It is in this framework that the Soviet period of Russian history has been reintegrated into the collective memory, having been expelled from it (as I noted above) when it was reduced to a simple ‘black hole’ marked by crimes to be forgotten as quickly as possible—which had had the consequence, amongst other things, of depriving the great majority of the population (i.e all those who did not have a heroic past as an opponent of the regime or were not capable of inventing such a past for themselves) of a ‘frame’ within which to etch their own individual lived experiences. Soviet history has been reintegrated little by little. With the rise of nostalgia, the Brezhnev era—which had been denigrated during perestroika as a time of stagnation, lack of freedom, and ‘doublethink’—was reintegrated first. Next, a process already begun by Yeltsin after 1995 was brought to term, aiming to reintegrate into the official memory of post-communist Russia the memory of the war (or to be more precise, of the victory), declined, as it had been under Brezhnev, in a nationalist mode. It was in this context that the image of Stalin was restored, presenting him as the author of the victory, the leader who gave back to Russia the power it had lost with the revolution, assuring it of a preponderant place in the world. Even if this is not, in my opinion, the rehabilitation that many commentators have held it to be—nobody says that Stalin was right to unleash the different waves of violence—it is in any case a worrying phenomenon, insofar as the dictator symbolizes the will for a strong, authoritarian regime, disregarding costs (be they social or political) in the name of the interests of state power, which thus legitimizes all kinds of policy. In this way, Stalin’s crimes are relativized and presented as a sort of ‘price that had to be paid’ to reconstitute the power of the state (as measured in industrial and military terms) and confront the dangers coming from a West suspected of having, from the dawn of time to the present, wanted nothing other than the destruction of Russia. As in the time of Brezhnev, the positive aspects of the Stalin era (the construction of a great power) on the one hand are juxtaposed with, on the other, the negative aspects (the millions of victims)—to reach the conclusion, by measuring the respective importance of either side, that in the difficult conditions of the time there was no alternative. Stalin and his crimes are thus acquitted by history [11].And the collective memory can rest in peace.

(Translated from French by Benjamin White)


[1] I have analysed in detail this process of revision of the past, and its implications, in “Percorsi della memoria: il caso russo”, Passato e presente, 2003/2, pp.17-35

[2] As is revealed by numerous opinion surveys carried out at the end of the 1980s by the Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) under Y. Levada’s direction, there is a quite marked correlation between the denunciation of the crimes of Stalinism and the loss of Russians’ sense of self-esteem. See below.

[3] For one of the first explicit formulations of this vision in the liberal domain, done with remarkable borrowings from nationalist discourse, see for example A. Cipko, Nasilie lži ili kak zabludilsja prizrak, Moscow, 1990.

[4] To take only one example, drawn from a recent opinion poll: to the question “In what ways are the inhabitants of Russia today different from people of the Soviet era?”, the majority of respondents said they have become “more calculating and colder” (47%), 37% affirmed that they have become poorer, 36% that they have become less tolerant towards one another. Only a quarter (26%) said that they have become freer, a proportion which derives not from Russians’ feeble love of liberty but from the fact that, unfortunately, only the elite can benefit from it. (Analitičeskij Centr Jurija Levady (‘Levada-centr’), Ot mnenij – k ponimaniju. Obščestvennoe mnenie – 2007. Ežegodnik, Moscow, 2007, p.252.

[5] On this subject see the perceptive observations of Yuri Levada, “‘Čelovek nostalgičeskij’ : realii i problemy”, Monitoring obščestvennogo mnenija, 2002/6.

[6] Analitičeskij Centr Jurija Levady (‘Levada-centr’), Ot mnenij – k ponimaniju. Obščestvennoe mnenie – 2005. Ežegodnik, Moscow, 2005, p. 168. Since 1991, a constant increase has been recorded in those who say that, had the known how it would end, they would not have supported the policy of change. However, the phenomenon considered most important was freedom of speech (40%), followed by freedom of movement and the possibility of travelling abroad (34%), which shows that liberties are indeed appreciated. (Y. Levada, Ot mnenij k ponimaniju, Moscow, 2000, pp.160, 439, 451).

[7] See the analysis of A. Berelowitch, “L’occidente, o l’utopia di un mondo normale”, Europa Europe, 1993/1.

[8] See, for example, Y. Levada (ed.), Est’ mnenie!, Moscow, 1990, pp.84-89, 94-99, 284; id., Sovetskij prostoj čelovek. Opyt social’nogo portreta na rubeže 90-ch, Moscow, 1993, p.279.

[9] On the evolving attitude towards the West I take the liberty of citing the detailed analysis that I made in “Il sogno infranto. La Russia e l’Occidente agli inizi del nuovo millennio”, Parolechiave, 2004, 31, pp. 129-159. It muse be noted, however, that this nostalgia for lost grandeur is not of an aggressive kind: Russians do not regret the end of Soviet militarism (on this point, see for example, V.A.Kolosov (ed.), Mir glazami rossijan: mifi i vnešnaja politika, Moscow, 2003). Rather, they regret the loss of what they could be proud of before the world, like, for example, the conquest of space. It is interesting to note in this regard that towards the end of the 1990s Gagarin once again figured on the list of the most famous Russians of the 20th century, from which he had completely disappeared during the years of political transformations. Y. Levada, Ot mnenij k ponimaniju, op. cit., pp.450-452).

[10] One example of this reading is the textbook for universities and higher institutes prepared by the Russian History Institute of the Academy of Sciences: Institut Rossijskoj Istorii RAN, Istorija Rossii. S drevnejšich vremen do načala XXI veka. Pod redakciej člen-korr. RAN A.N.Sacharova, 2 vol., Moscow, Ast Astrel Ermak, 2003.

[11] This reading modulates, for example, the work recently prepared under the aegis of the Kremlin for use by teachers: A.B. Filippov, Novejšaja istorija Rossii. 1945-2006 gg. Kniga dlja učitelej, Moscow, 2007.