Supporters of the Russian communist party attend a rally to protest against violations at the parliamentary elections and the policies conducted by current Russian authorities in Moscow December 18, 2011. REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensky
For most 14-year-olds, the first year of high school is mortifying enough without having to make justifications for an entire country. But as the only Russian kid at an international school in England in the late 1990s, that’s exactly what I was forced to do. Russia’s spectacular economic collapse after the end of the Soviet Union, the ignominy of having "lost" the cold war, as was claimed in the West, and President Boris Yeltsin’s embarrassing public behavior did not make it any easier.
My personal drama peaked on International Day in 1998, when students had to give talks about the history of their native countries. It was my chance to rehabilitate Russia. Gesticulating wildly, I presented a country that had given the world Lenin and Gagarin, defeated Nazi Germany, shot down the American U2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers in 1960, funded third-world revolution and created an alternative social, political and economic model that gave the mighty United States a run for its money around the globe.
When I described 1991 as the year that, "unfortunately, the USSR collapsed," the middle-aged teacher stood up, cut short my talk and abruptly dismissed the class. Visibly shocked and angry, she grabbed my arm and whispered hoarsely close to my face, "Nothing good ever came out of the Soviet Union, and if I hear you praising that evil system again, you will not be allowed to speak during the next period." Feeling like a true Soviet dissident—though a pro-Soviet one!—I kicked off my next class with a grandstanding disclaimer: "The following presentation will be short, because I have been censored. Ms. Robson does not want you to know the history of my country!" Though I made more friends that day than I had during all my middle school years, what seemed like a daring gesture was something ordinary Russians had long been doing back home since 1991: looking back at the Soviet Union for comfort and pride.
The coming of age of Russia’s first post-Communist generation has done little to dampen society’s preoccupation with the Soviet past, particularly the Brezhnev years of the mid-1960s to the early ’80s. As the immensely popular television journalist Leonid Parfyonov remarked, "The Soviet Union has not gone away—it is the matrix for our present civilization." Twenty years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia is once again a de facto single-party state (the December parliamentary elections have been widely condemned as rigged); Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is touting a Eurasian Union that would reunite former Soviet republics; and one of Russia’s most highly subscribed satellite channels, Nostalgia, is dedicated to playing old films and even reruns of Soviet news broadcasts.
Several books recently published in Russia reflect on various changes in the memory and contemporary meaning of the Soviet Union. What emerges is the progression of Soviet nostalgia from a reaction to the chaos and material deprivation of the 1990s to a more diffuse lament and search for particular spiritual and emotional values.
Throughout the ’90s, many Western scholars and journalists were as perplexed and outraged as Ms. Robson by the growth of Soviet nostalgia, sometimes blaming an alleged primeval Russian longing for authoritarianism and sometimes blaming Putin. In that climate, any attempts to connect pro-Soviet feeling to the destructive post-Soviet social and economic policies of Yeltsin and his US-backed advisers were tantamount to justifying the horrors of Stalinism. Yet as the threat of Communist restoration waned (if it ever existed) and Yeltsin began to fall out of favor in Russia and to a certain extent in the West, the mainstream US media belatedly embraced the idea of Soviet memories as a therapeutic balm, a kind of chicken soup for the post-Communist soul. By then, however, the Russian people’s relationship with their past had already moved on.