Three decades after the collapse of the USSR, the Russians still miss the Soviet past, although they would not necessarily want it back. The red empire continues to be a great role model for Putin.
On December 12th, the state television Rossija 1 broadcasted a documentary about the collapse of the USSR entitled “Recent History”. The creators presented Kremlin’s official interpretation of the events from 30 years ago. It combines “red” and “imperial” themes but emphasizes the latter. “It was an unimaginable crash, unprecedented in the entire Soviet and Russian history. The crash of the economy, ideology, and human fate” – the narrator informs the viewers. The filmmakers do not defend communism so much as the state itself. Privatization was a tragedy because as a result, the national wealth was sold off for next to nothing. Worse, it was often bought by Americans. And the reforms were “facilitated” by CIA agents – of course in the interest of Washington, which wanted to oppress Moscow. Director Andrei Kondrashov, more than the poverty of ordinary citizens who are not adapted to the systemic transformation, is moved by the collapse of the arms industry. There is a symbolic statement that the production of the highest quality military equipment was turned into the production of Pepsi. Perestroika was the evil that killed the Soviet economy. The putschists who tried to stop the collapse of the USSR in August 1991 had good intentions, but they did not succeed. Yeltsin was a rebel, and Gorbachev destroyed the old system, but did not build a new one.
Kondrashov devoted most of his attention not to the economy, but to politics and geopolitics. The proclamation of sovereignty by successive Soviet republics was presented as the tragic and bloody disintegration of a great and wonderful state. A soldier who started his service in the GDR at the end of the 1980s with full enthusiasm, did not recognize his motherland after returning home – such was the scale of poverty. “The country is falling apart!” – was shouted from the stand by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great anti-communist, but also a supporter of a strong, imperial Russia. In the lens of Kondrashov, the 1990s were a time of great sadness – chaos, crime, poverty, and American influence. Fortunately, a strong leader emerged to bring about order. Putin “started the collection process”, one would like to add: “of Ruthenian lands”.
The ruler of the Kremlin is, of course, one of the main characters of the documentary. He talks about how difficult for him personally were the “lichije devianostyje” (“bad 90s”) – he even worked as a taxi driver. When asked by Kondrashov about his attitude to the collapse of the USSR, he replied: “It was a tragedy for me, as it was for most Russians. The state lost 40% of its territory, production capacity, and population. It was the collapse of historic Russia. We have lost what we have earned in a thousand years. “The collapse of the USSR was for him not so much a systemic but – according to his own famous phrase – a geopolitical catastrophe. There is no need to return to communism, all you need is a center-left, largely conservative (because it has nothing to do with leftism) pseudo-socialism, in which the authorities adored by the people can get rich, but not entrepreneurs, because they are exploiters. It is also not necessary to take Lenin on the banners – after all, he is a revolutionist who destroyed a mighty country and has not yet managed to build a powerful new country. It is thus Gorbachev in the flesh. That is why Putin’s Russia is no longer ruled by Lenin’s coffin, but by Stalin’s coffin, to whom he is paying homage more and more boldly. Putin still does not dare to pay this tribute directly, but nevertheless defends the “Red Tsar” against comparisons to Hitler.
Increasingly, Stalinist crimes are whitewashed. And even Stalin’s “foreign policy” is praised without any awkwardness. It is Stalin who is “eternally alive” today – because he introduced order after the revolutionary chaos, and then defeated Hitler (that is, the West) and moved the borders of the red empire far to the West. Putin and most of the Russians long for the powerful state that the whole world feared, not for the uravnilovka1. That is why no social reform has made the Kremlin ruler as popular as the annexation of Crimea, which is proof of his superpower ambitions. Therefore, in subsequent polls, Russians are more likely to choose a “separate path” from Western European models, which are stereotypically associated with material well-being. In Russia, historical policy is focused not only on the USSR. In the pantheon of national heroes, next to the slayers of the fascist dragon (the religious comparison is not accidental), stands Saint Tsar Nicholas II, murdered by the Bolsheviks. Orthodox conservatism meets Stalinist imperialism. The anniversary of the October Revolution has long ceased to be a public holiday – now at the beginning of November, instead of celebrating the victory of the communists, the nation celebrates the expulsion of Poles from the Kremlin which was possible thanks to the efforts of the people’s uprising led by Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky. Folklore yes, social leftism yes, but covered with conservative, monarchist (“red tsar”) sauce.
When Putin first became president in 2000, one of his first decisions was to restore the melody of the Soviet national. His answer to the question about the reasons for this change is a quintessential reflection of the attitude of the Kremlin ruler and his subjects towards the USSR. Putin first told the story of a woman from the provinces who asked him to give her old life back, to revive Soviet times. He admitted that time cannot be turned back, because the results would be deplorable. But at the same time, he stated that throwing the USSR out of the litterbin of history would be immoral towards the Russians who feel longing for those times. When asked about the crimes of communism, he replied: “And why can’t we, listening to Aleksandrov’s music (the anthem of the USSR), recall victories in World War II instead of the Gulag?! We don’t have to associate this music with the worst aspects of life in the Soviet era”.
1 A form of wage and benefits egalitarianism which was countered during the 1930s in Russia, as workers and non-manual employees sought to increase their salaries, remove discrimination against the intelligentsia, and generally provide incentives for the massive industrialization drives of the Five-Year Plans.
This article was published in January 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.