Russians are remembering their communist past with fondnessby Anna Blundy / February 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
The coolest car for a Baku teenager to drive is a pimped-up Lada Semyorka, with blacked-out windows and huge rear tyres. This iconic Soviet vehicle, once symbolic of a clapped out centralised economy, has become an endearing piece of nostalgia to bring a tear to babushka’s eye.
The car is now “vintage,” as are the recycled, Soviet-era jokes: A man finally gets on the waiting list for a Lada Semyorka and is told to come and pick it up in 10 years’ time. “Morning or afternoon?” asks the man. “What do you care? It’s in 10 years!” says the salesman. “Well, it’s just that the plumber’s coming in the morning,” replies the man.
Soviet nostalgia is visible everywhere in the former USSR but it is not to be confused with wanting the Soviet Union back (though around 50 per cent of the population do—presumably the older half). At Puff, a Soviet-themed café in St Petersburg, they’ll serve you a glass of milk in a thick Soviet glass and a slice of black bread. You can buy mugs with Soviet cartoon characters on them (Cheburashka!) and retro packaging, which now looks impossibly chic, is all the rage.
There is a glut of websites feeding the hunger for the simpler Soviet past. One of these, savok.name, fondly uses the old insult “Savok!”, meaning both dustpan and Soviet citizen, and is subtitled “USSR—Our Motherland!” It is decorated with familiar images of brave and chiselled soldiers and peasants from another world and includes collections of photographs sent in by users. There are pegs, matchboxes, Melodia vinyls, hairdryers, whisks, red pioneer scarves and crockery. Almost everything has become a design classic and Russians and Russophiles alike use social media to share pictures of 1930s Soviet travel brochures, Buzzfeed lists of Soviet habits that die hard, the lullaby that ended children’s TV every night for decades and recipes that involve only ingredients available during shortages (basically, dried mushrooms).
The nostalgia phenomenon can to some extent be put down to shared experience. Because of the nature of Soviet manufacturing, absolutely every person in the vastness of the USSR (in 1990 there were more than 286m of them) possessed the same household items. Olga Fedina, author of What Every Russian Knows (But You Don’t), a romp through the best of Soviet culture, says: “The USSR is so totally gone. There was no smooth transition; the old Soviet world suddenly ceased to exist and post- Soviet popular culture has not produced a uniting frame of cultural references.” The nostalgia provides a sense of identity and belonging that has failed to emerge from the ashes of the USSR.
Yet there is something else going on with the rose-tinted nostalgia sites. One— libo.ru—tells you how to spot someone brought up in the USSR. “You know how to get the taste back into chewing gum after it’s been chewed for a week,” and “You think it’s cool to smoke Bulgarian cigarettes.” There is also a remembered, or fantasised, innocence. “You blush at the word ‘sex’ and look away,” and “You remember a time when seeds were planted at the allotment and you made dumplings with your family.” Gulags? What gulags?
For, despite everything, people are looking back to an age of innocence. Take Home-Made, Vladimir Arkhipov’s archive of bizarre, domestic Soviet inventions: a coat hook made out of a toothbrush, a TV antenna made of forks. Fedina thinks this retrospective innocence is to do with absence of choice. “The main stress of life under capitalism is having to make so many choices, at all levels. The absence of choice liberated you for other things—only two TV channels, only three types of sausage (on a good day), black or white bread. People complained about it at the time, but they remember it now with fondness as a time when one could just drift along.”
Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquistor (arguably the star of The Brothers Karamazov) is perhaps right when he tells Jesus that most people can’t handle the freedom he has given them and suggests that, in giving humans freedom to choose, he has excluded the majority from redemption and doomed it to suffering. The masses, he explains, can live in happy ignorance if they are ruled by those strong few that can bear the burden of freedom. Jesus should have turned the stones in the desert to bread, the Inquisitor says—feed the masses and ask them to be virtuous later. The communists, who themselves obliterated the culture that preceded them—much as capitalism has done since 1991—understood this.
I spoke to a man in St Petersburg recently who told me his family is much better off financially under capitalism but lives in a constant state of terror about not being able to afford the month’s bills. “I’d go back in an instant,” he says. “We work all the time, but we still aren’t certain we’ll make it at the end of the month.”
Ilya Utekhin of the European University at St Petersburg, who himself hosts a website called Communal Living in Russia (kommunalka.colgate.edu), claims not to be nostalgic but recognises that modern Russia clings to the past for its sense of identity. “Putin uses Cold War rhetoric as a substitute for national identity,” he says.
This leaves Russians with the worst of both worlds—an authoritarian regime replete with all the nasties, but none of the security of a lifetime’s employment. No wonder everyone is cuddling up to a Cheburashka teddy.