The triumph of the Motherland

In the cultural vacuum left by the collapse of communism, nostalgia for the Soviet Union defines and sustains the modern Russian nation.
Military cadets in Yekaterinburg celebrating the 72nd Anniversary of the 'Great Patriotic War' against the Nazis, 2017. Credit: Donat Sorokin / TASS via Getty Images.
Military cadets in Yekaterinburg celebrating the 72nd Anniversary of the 'Great Patriotic War' against the Nazis, 2017. Credit: Donat Sorokin / TASS via Getty Images.
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Dear friends! The textbook you are holding in your hands is dedicated to the history of our Motherland… from the end of the Great Patriotic War to our days. We will trace the journey of the Soviet Union from its greatest historical triumph to its tragic disintegration.

This greeting is addressed to hundreds of thousands of Russian schoolchildren who, in September 2008, began to receive a new history text book printed by the ‘Enlightenment’ publishing house and approved by the Ministry of Education.

‘The Soviet Union,’ it explains, ‘was not a democracy, but it was an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society.’ Furthermore, over the past 70 years, the USSR, ‘a gigantic superpower which managed a social revolution and won the most cruel of wars’ put pressure on the Western countries so that they would pay attention to human rights. In the early part of this century, its argument goes on, the West has taken a hostile position towards Russia and pursued a policy of double standards.

Had it not been for Vladimir Putin’s involvement, this book would probably have never seen the light of day. In 2007, Mr Putin, who was then still the president, gathered history teachers to talk about his vision of history. ‘We can’t allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us’ was his message. At this gathering Mr Putin promoted the manual which aimed, according to its authors, at presenting Russian history ‘not as a series of mistakes and failures, but as a subject of pride.’

One can not help but recall the advice of Alexander Benckendorff, the head of Russia’s first secret police, on how Russian history should be viewed and written: ‘Russia’s past was admirable, its present is more than magnificent and as for its future – it is beyond anything that the boldest mind can imagine.’ At least in this respect, there is definite continuity between Count Benkendorff and his descendents in the Russian security services.

Thanks to Mr Putin’s interest, the subject of history teaching is attracting more attention now than it did over the previous decade when it was mainly left to history teachers. The 1990s were largely free of any ideology. The country was too weary of grand designs and too preoccupied with more pragmatic things such as economic survival. When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, he said Russia’s national idea was ‘to be competitive.’ But as time passed, the price of oil climbed, making Russia feel important again, and the current political elite entrenched itself in the Kremlin. The need for ideology became more urgent. Unable to offer any vision or strategy for the future, the Kremlin, inevitably, looked to the past.

The manual’s choice of the period 1945–2006 is suggestive: from Stalin’s victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ to the ‘victory’ of Mr Putin’s regime. It celebrates all contributors to Russia’s greatness, and denounces those responsible for the loss of empire, regardless of their politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is accordingly seen, not as a watershed from which a new history begins, but as an unfortunate and tragic diversion that hindered Russia’s progress.

The post-war period in Russian history is viewed through the prism of the cold war, ‘initiated by the United States of America.’ The new history textbook does not deny Stalin’s repressions; much worse – it justifies them. The concentration of power in Stalin’s hands suited the country; indeed, the conditions of the time ‘demanded’ it. ‘The domestic politics of the Soviet Union after the war fulfilled the tasks of mobilisation which the government set. In the circumstances of the cold war… democratisation was not an option for Stalin’s government.’

But if Stalin mobilised the country and expanded the boundaries of the Soviet empire so that it reached parity with the United States, Mikhail Gorbachev surrendered hard-won Soviet positions. Stupidly, from the textbook’s point of view, Gorbachev considered western partners to be his political allies. He gave up Central and Eastern Europe, which meant Russia lost its security. America and the West instigated colour revolutions in Ukraine and in Georgia which turned the former Soviet territories into their military bases. (Georgia and Ukraine are marked on a colour map in the book with a hand and a pointer.) These revolutions ‘set a task for Moscow to pursue a more ambitious foreign policy in the post-Soviet space,’ the textbook says.

Now we have seen this ambition realised in the recent war against Georgia. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has asserted itself militarily in the post-Soviet space. The war – whoever started it – was intended to send an unequivocal message to other former Soviet republics: ‘We can and will stop Nato’s eastward advance.’ In the first few days of the war, Russia bombed Gori, Stalin’s home town. The cluster bombs killed several people, but the statue of Stalin on the main Stalin Square remained standing. As Russian tanks rolled past the statue on Putin’s orders, one can even imagine the Soviet dictator winking and waving.

*

Let us pause here and imagine that the new history textbook is read by someone who lived in Russia during Perestroika, left the country in 1991, and has heard nothing but it for the past 18 years. Has a counter-revolution taken place in Russia? When did it happen and how did I miss it?

Boris Yeltsin’s years may not have been a perfect democracy, but he defined himself politically by opposing the Communist past. The 1996 presidential election in Russia was fought along the lines of the old reactionary Communist regime and the new, democratic Russia. The reality was obviously more complex than that: the Communists were different from those who occupied the Kremlin in the last years of Soviet rule, and the democrats mainly comprised the Soviet nomenclature; but the main narrative was still one of departure from things Soviet. Nostalgia for the Soviet past was preserved mainly for the communists and their voters, for those who lost out. Today, nostalgia for the Soviet Union has become part of the political mainstream, while the negative view of the Soviet past has become marginalised.

It is easy enough to condemn Russia’s manipulation of history for ideological ends, or Putin’s restoration of the Soviet anthem in 2000. But it does not help explain why more than half the country welcomed the restoration of the anthem and views Stalin’s role in history as positive.

This connects to another uncomfortable truth: the version of history portrayed in the new textbook is as much a defeat for Russian liberalism and liberal intellectuals – the journalists, historians and artists who were supposed to counter the Soviet ideology – as it is a triumph for Putin. There was more opposition from Russian liberals to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, than there is now to the war in Georgia.

The teaching of Soviet history has become one of the centre-points of modern Russian ideology. The destruction of the Soviet Union did not yield a new, post-Soviet ideology. The defeat of the KGB-led coup in August 1991 by hundreds of thousands of Russian people, who did not know at the time when they went to defend the parliament that they would not be killed, did not become an ideological watershed and was not celebrated as the birth of a new nation, but only as the collapse of the old one.

The August 1991 coup did not become the new 1917. The mythologising of the Bolshevik revolution began almost immediately after the event. In 1919, two years after the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, the event was re-enacted as a mass spectacle, directed by Nikolai Evreinov. The artist Kuz’ma Petrov-Vodkin marked the third year of the Revolution with a painting of a red Madonna breastfeeding a child entitled ‘1918 in Petrograd.’ The tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution was celebrated by Sergey Eisenstein’s film October.

In terms of imagery, August 1991 offered the perfect opportunity for a new foundation myth: Boris Yeltsin, tall, handsome, with a shock of white hair, standing on top of a tank and addressing the crowd was an image made for canonisation. But the day when the KGB-inspired coup was defeated and people brought down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky has not even become a national holiday. The tenth anniversary of the 1991 coup was celebrated with the restoration of the Soviet national anthem.

As Marietta Chudakova, Russia’s literary historian, explained, some were disappointed by August 1991, as their savings were wiped out. Others never believed that the Soviet system was really gone. Some were left with a niggling sense of emptiness and nostalgia for something which they could not even properly formulate. Over the past decade, this nostalgia has become all-encompassing. There are many reasons for this – economic, cultural and political.

So why did Russia fail to come to terms with its own history and shape a new liberal course after 1991? One reason, perhaps, was the fear of civil war. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the debate about history seemed more important than the one about the country’s future. In a country divided by history, a debate about the legacy of the Soviet Union was too explosive and could have quickly taken to the streets (as happened 1993 when members of the Supreme Soviet mobilised die-hard communists and nationalists in an armed revolt). Unlike in Eastern Europe, the secret service files were not thrown open for the simple reason that too many people, including the intelligentsia, had been involved in the workings of the KGB. The secret services were restructured and renamed, but never outlawed. Condemnation of Stalinism was as half-hearted and unsystematic as it was after the 20th congress of the Communist party, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult of personality.

Unlike Georgia, Ukraine or the Baltic States, Russia did not have anyone to blame for Soviet rule, apart from itself. Unlike many other countries which engaged in the destruction of others, Russia was involved in the destruction of itself. In 2000, this act of mass suicide was bleakly and clinically depicted in a theatre adaptation of Andrey Platonov’s novel Chevengur staged by Lev Dodin, one of Russia’s most talented and thoughtful directors. The builders of the great utopia were depicted first disposing of their class enemies, by sealing their naked and wriggling bodies in giant transparent bags; then they sank themselves, carrying large heavy stones into a pool of water. The stones resurfaced, the bodies did not. The country which performed this collective suicide required self-analysis and a diligent, dispassionate study of its history – which never took place.

To be sure, a vast amount of previously banned literary works and historic documents were published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they were swallowed without being digested. ‘We thought that if Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was published, the world would turn upside down. But then an extraordinary thing happened: The Gulag Archipelago was published and remained unread,’ Lev Dodin told me recently. The same applied to Vasily Grossman and Varlam Shalamov. None of these books became part of a national canon. Worse still, their writing has not become a vaccination against the return of the disease they described. When Solzhenitsyn came back to Russia in 1994, he was treated as a figure of the past. Some, like the writer and television personality Tatyana Tolstaya, ridiculed him, others paid tribute to his courage, but few took him and his thoughts on ‘How to Rebuild Russia’ – the title of an essay he wrote in 1990 – seriously. When he died on 3rd August, 2008, few Russian intellectuals came to pay tribute as his body lay in state. The most distinguished mourner, ironically, was Putin, who was attracted to Solzhenitsyn by his outspoken nationalistic views. The Russian government is promising to rename Moscow’s Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya [Big Communist] Street as Solzhenitsyn Street – so co-opting the scourge of Stalinism to the new authoritarian state.

The paradox is that a country obsessed with history has not really wanted to study it. The popular bashing of Soviet culture in the 1990s added little to its understanding. Yet the Soviet period – like many other periods of political stagnation in Russia – did produce some genuine masterpieces, even if they were not subversive. At the same time as rejecting Soviet culture, the media and popular art engaged in an extraordinary exercise of self-deprecation. The slogan of those years seemed to be ‘we are the worst.’ Russia, which freed itself of communist ideology, which ended the Cold War, felt like a loser and was experiencing a collective inferiority complex.

It is easy to see why a KGB general or a pensioner felt like they had lost out in the early 1990s. But why did intellectuals and artists who were supposed to have benefited most from the collapse of the Soviet Union feel like they had lost out as well? One reason is that they lost the very special status (and money) which the Soviet intelligentsia enjoyed under the Communist regime, but did not have enough talent, integrity or independence to make use of the freedom they were granted. I would like to suggest that one reason for this inferiority complex among many Russian artists in the early 1990s was that they were, in fact, inferior – certainly when compared with the Russian artists who witnessed and often propagated the Bolshevik Revolution.

The fact is that the 1917 Revolution produced enormous artistic energy: suffice to mention the works of Alexander Blok, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhkhold, Dmitry Shostakovich. Nothing of this kind took place in Russia after August 1991. The artists felt lost and disoriented. Not a single great poem or novel was produced in those years. More damaging still, the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union did not produce a language adequate to the events that were taking place in the country.

The past 15 years have revealed an enormous linguistic vacuum. Serious or high language was abused and devalued by the official Soviet ideology. Words like ‘truth’, ‘heroism’ or ‘duty’ were falsified beyond recognition. As Marietta Chudakova, Russia’s philologist, has written, the use of literary language seemed impossible, dishonest in the company of friends and family. Literary language lost its connection with the philosophical and classical literature which had once bred it. The literary tradition which could provide a source of new language was exhausted.

The lack of a political language was particularly noticeable. What was left was irony and swearing, which in the 1990s flooded the public realm. Russia’s first commercial newspaper, Kommersant turned sarcasm and irony into its hallmark. Its headlines usually were (and still are) a pun on Soviet slogans or citations from a popular film or a song. The shortcomings of this language became apparent towards the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s. The political and economic processes that were taking place in the country – be it the financial crisis of 1998, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 or the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan in 2004, required a different, serious language which did not exist. The day after the bloodbath in Beslan, Izvestia, a leading Russian daily, gave its entire front page to a picture of a bruised Russian soldier carrying a bloodstained girl in his arms. There were no words – just the picture. Any words would have been meaningless. (The picture was so powerful that the editor got sacked by the proprietor, probably after a nudge from the Kremlin.)

Irony penetrated all areas of Russian culture. Soviet symbols and slogans became a rich playing area for postmodernism. Soviet history was stylised and commercialised before it was properly assessed and studied. This process began in the mid-1980s and spanned visual arts, theatre and literature. One of the memorable images of that time was one where Stalin embraced Marilyn Monroe (a painting by Leonid Sokov, 1985). This may have been entertaining, but it did not reflect the scale of events.

In the mid 1990s, Russian culture started to flirt with Soviet culture of the 1930s. One of the highlights of the theatre season of 1994 was an endearing and bittersweet student production of a 1934 comedy, The Wonderful Fusion, by Vladimir Kirshon. It was full of energy and sincerity; it was faithful to the period and expressed the naivety and excitement of Soviet youth before the Second World War. It by no means propagated Soviet ideology, but it was also saturated with nostalgia for the sense of purpose, constructive energy and Soviet idealism. Perhaps this was an early signal. Soon this nostalgia on a far greater, more damaging and cynical scale had swamped popular culture which started to amuse itself and its audience by playing with icons of Soviet culture.

In 1996–1997 a popular TV presenter, Leonid Parfenov, launched a programme on Channel One, which was and still is run by his friend Konstantin Ernst. It was called Old Songs About Important Things and it revived Soviet songs, playing to a growing nostalgia for things Soviet. (A few years later, when Vladimir Putin came to power, Leonid Parfenov became one of the victims of his squeeze on the media. But to a certain degree, the popular presenter laid the ground for the return of Soviet methods to central television channels.)

Parfenov’s programmes coincided with lavish celebrations of the 850th anniversary of Moscow. A quotation from an old Soviet song, ‘Moscow – you are my favourite,’ decorated banners stretched across the main streets of the capital. In fact, the celebrations made use of all periods of Russian history as long as they contributed to Russia’s greatness. As Andrey Zorin has observed in his essay ‘Are We Having Fun Yet? Russian holidays in the post-communist period,’ the celebration obliterated the drama of Russian history. Russian princes beheaded by the tsars, the tsars beheaded by the communists, the communists overthrown by Yeltsin – they coexisted harmoniously and rejoiced in Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s extravaganza. Soviet and pre-Soviet icons were bundled together and fused into a peculiar new ideology of nationalism and patriotism.

In part, this ‘ideology,’ if it can be called that, was a backlash against the self-deprecation of the early 1990s. But it proved extremely popular and lasting.

*

Vladimir Putin began his rule in 2000 with the revival of the Soviet anthem, replacing Mikhail Glinka’s ‘Patriotic Song’ (which had no words). On the New Year’s eve of 2000, the country clinked glasses to the tune written on Stalin’s orders in 1944. At the time, Mr Putin’s supporters argued that this was his concession to the older population, a kind of sweetener for the bitter pill of economic reforms. In fact nobody demanded a change of anthem: in 2000 Russians had better things to do, such as make a living. The revival was purely a Kremlin initiative, but it stirred dormant feelings in the population, which would have been better left asleep.

The same year as the return of the Soviet Anthem in 2000, Channel One reinstated a Soviet-era jingle for the main 9 o’clock news programme called Vremya. Tunes, like smells, can be extremely evocative. The tune signalled a return to Soviet-era news coverage. In fact, it was as if the state was sending signals to the country as a whole – signals of restoration and revanche.

This was no longer some kind of game or joke. The jokers – like Leonid Parfenov – were quickly got rid of. The Kremlin and the KGB – now renamed the FSB and recovering much of its lost power – were deadly serious. To be sure, demand for a serious tone did exist. No society can exist without serious language, especially a country which is experiencing an oil-fuelled resurgence like Russia. But the sad fact is that until recently this demand for seriousness was once again fulfilled not by the liberal intelligentsia, but by the cynical ideologues of Putin’s regime.

The intonation and style is almost more important than the content. To make the illusion complete, Veremya is the only news programme that is not interrupted by commercials. Yet news and analysis programmes which proclaim Russia’s resurgence, and its ‘special way’ and its ‘sovereign democracy,’ are flanked in television programmes by game shows, Hollywood blockbusters and their Russian equivalents, made like carbon copies.

But there is no contradiction here. The icons of Soviet ideology are revived not for their connection with the Bolshevik, Communist or Revolutionary ideals – far from it – but as symbols of Russia’s imperial power. Revolution is firmly out of fashion in Russia and communism as an ideology has been dumped, probably for good. Lenin’s mausoleum has long ceased to be a national symbol. During a recent military parade on Red Square the constructivist pyramid designed by the talented Russian architect Alexei Shchusev in 1924, was covered up modestly with victory imagery. There was no room for the dead Bolshevik in the celebration of Russia’s resurgence (just as there is no room for Shchusev’s austere constructivism among modern day Moscow’s symmetrical, pseudo-classical buildings, complete with Turkish-style décor).

The revival of the Soviet anthem broke a taboo which, for better or worse, had existed since Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th congress of the Communist Party and set of the revival of Stalin as a national hero. The appeal of Stalin for official Russian ideology obviously lay not in his Communist background, but in his imperial legacy. ‘Stalin’s empire – the sphere of influence of the USSR – was territorially greater than all Eurasian powers of the past, even the empire of Genghis Khan,’ the new textbook marvels. Stalin occupies a proud place in modern Russian history along with Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and now Vladimir Putin. Russia is still far from erecting monuments to Stalin, but the silent acceptance of Stalin as a positive, or at least complex historical figure, has taken place.

And once again, art made its contribution. In 2003, 50 years after Stalin’s death, the Russian museum of modern history hosted an exhibition: ‘Stalin: man and symbol.’ As Marietta Chudakov has observed, paintings of Stalin were displayed not as historic exhibits and documents of a certain era, but as works of art. To make full impact, for example, the painting of a woman who impulsively rushes to embrace Stalin under the warm gaze of his comrades, was hung in line with the eyes of the spectator. Thus, the viewer, whose eyes met with those of the woman was supposed to identify himself with her emotions. The appreciation, or at least the tolerance, of Stalin is making an impact. At the time of writing, Russian state television and opinion pollsters were conducting an interactive game called The Name of Russia, which is based on Great Britons, the British programme. The winner has yet to be decided, but after several months of voting, Stalin was among the top five.

It does not matter that every family in Russia has relatives or close friends who suffered in Stalin’s great terror. The myth is stronger than first-hand knowledge.

One of the most significant Russian novels published at the time of Perestroika was Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, which talked convincingly and openly about similarities between Stalinism and German fascism. There is a scene in that novel, where an SS officer in a German camp is talking to his prisoner, an old Bolshevik. ‘When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate – no, we are gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age. Do you really not recognise yourselves in us; yourselves and the strength of your will?… You may think you hate us, but what you really hate is yourselves in us… Our victory will be your victory… And if you should conquer, then we shall perish only to live in your victory.’

Twenty years after the first publication of Life and Fate, this idea is an anathema to official Russian ideology. The new history textbook rejects the very notion of totalitarianism. ‘This doctrine, that equates the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, was and remains a weapon of ideological war, not a tool of knowledge. The ideology of Nazi Germany and the ideology of Soviet Russia had nothing in common.’ The vehemence of the rejection is further evidence in Grossman’s favour.

Russia today is not a totalitarian state, nor is it a socialist one. But in the absence of an indigenous liberal ideology, an old-fashioned nationalism, in neo-Stalinist costume, has become the most powerful force in Russian society. It is this force that brought Russian tanks into Georgia and scares most of Russia’s neighbours. In the process of ‘restoration,’ Russia has not returned to the Soviet past – but it has arrived at a new junction that bodes ill for its neighbours and its citizens.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘Teaching Soviet History’ in ‘On Russia’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2008.

Arkady Ostrovsky

Arkady Ostrovsky is Russia and eastern Europe editor for The Economist, where he writes on politics, diplomacy and Putin's security state. His book 'The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War' (2015, Atlantic) won the 2016 Orwell Prize for Books.

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