Russia's Soviet nostalgia trip


Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow, Flickr image by yeowatzupSiberia, seen from the window of a train, seems to go on forever. Kilometre after thousands of kilometers of brown grass flattened by recently melted snow, pools of icy water in the depressions alongside the railway. The sparse, spindly trees of the taiga are interrupted at intervals by ragged villages of age-blackened timber houses.

The shattered remains of abandoned Soviet industrial plants mark the entry to some non-descript city, or appear in the middle of nowhere, grim oases of broken concrete and rusting iron the location of which must have made sense to the Soviet planning bureaucracy but which today seems bizarre. The presence of still-functioning factories or power station is announced far in the distance by towering chimneys belching grey smoke.

Siberian cities have many things in common. Row upon row of white brick or concrete apartment blocks are surrounded by scruffy open spaces; it looks difficult to grow anything, even grass, in these tough, cold places.

Lenin remains ubiquitous in Siberia, as in the rest of Russia. Every town seems to have its Lenin statue, its Lenin Square, its Lenin Prospekt. Some other remnant names are more surprising: Tomsk still has a Dzerzhinsky Street, named after the founder of the Cheka, Lenin's political police force that would eventually become the KGB, the primary agent of Soviet repression.

Many Siberian cities retain, contrary to preconceptions, quite attractive central areas and large numbers of 19th century timber buildings, colourfully painted and with intricate wooden ornamentation. The Soviet imprint on these old city centres is often benign, with wide boulevards, generous public spaces and — perhaps the greatest legacy of the period — excellent public transport.

But the ordered, tidy, attractive core seems much like a façade as soon as one strays beyond it. In the suburbs the poverty is palpable, although apartment buildings seem neglected rather than ramshackle. But it is the areas of old timber housing and rubbish that shock. In some districts the old houses appear to be literally sinking, haphazardly, into the ground. Rubbish, particularly the ubiquitous evil of the modern world — the plastic bag, seems to be strewn everywhere.

It seems that all sense of civic cooperation was abandoned with other, more oppressive, forms of collectivisation when Russian tired of the Soviet Union.

The bifurcation of Siberian cities reflects, in microcosm, the duality of contemporary Russia. As the train leaves Siberia, winding through the Ural to 'European Russia', the sense of greater wealth is immediately apparent.

In Moscow, the contrast is dramatic. Clearly no expense was spared on the monumental aspects of the capital. Soviet monumentalism remains strikingly evident.

The Metro's wondrously ornate stations — Stalin's working class cathedrals (see Komsomolskaya Metro Station, pictured) — persistently proclaim the glories of the Soviet Union. Stalin's great skyscrapers punctuate the city's skyline like exclamation marks, extravagant essays in socialist classicism or Stalinist gothic.

The excessive Soviet pretensions to grandeur are most vivid in V. V. C. Park, a kind of exhibition centre cum theme park. This extraordinary collection of Soviet architectural styles set in spacious formal grounds appears to have changed little since the collapse of the entity that it celebrates, except that most pavilions are now simply numbered rather than featuring names of republics that escaped the post-Soviet Russian embrace.

On 9 May each year Russians celebrate victory over Nazi Germany in what they call the Great Patriotic War. It is a testimony to the closed horizons of Russia and to how little self-awareness there appears to have been about its behavior during WW2 that Russians commemorate only the years 1941–45. Don't expect any public acknowledgement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divided Poland between Germany and the USSR in 1939.

In public at least the commemorations seem steeped in the Soviet past. It is difficult for it to be otherwise. Russians fought under the hammer and sickle and the red star. These symbols, inevitably, continue to dominate contemporary commemoration. If Australian war memory is illuminated by old news reels and grainy film footage, Russians today are exposed to old Soviet propaganda films, since these are, besides the memories of those who lived through the war — whose ranks are by now very thin — the primary source of war imagery.

It seems strange to an outsider to see so many symbols of the Soviet past alive and well in contemporary Russia. It is too simplistic to say that this reflects nostalgia for Soviet times. Much of it is personal nostalgia. The intertwining of private and public memory is always complex.

For citizens of former socialist states, discarding the previous political ideology was one thing; reconstituting one's identity and holding on to a personally meaningful past when the broader public past has become so fraught is a much more difficult emotional exercise.

What to outsiders might seem like nostalgia for the socialist past is, for many people, a completely typical yearning for the circumstances of one's youth. The political restructuring of the last 20 years in Russia and its former satellites has been hard enough. We should perhaps be more understanding of the difficulties of individual psychic restructuring.

Yet in Russia, the persistence of Soviet symbols seems to be of a different order than in Eastern Europe. Personal nostalgia that incidentally entangles public symbols is essentially a nostalgia of powerlessness. In Russia, in contrast, the remaining architecture and monuments of the Soviet period were designed to express power. The 9 May commemorations are about the remembrance of suffering, but also about military power.

It is here that Soviet symbols in modern Russia are, to the increasingly authoritarian Russian state, at least, of no nostalgic value. Instead they are to be embraced for their essence — the ability to express power — the rediscovery and reassertion of which has become a primary focus of government in Putin's Russia.

This year we should all celebrate the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet tyranny. The continuing transition of Russia from under its Soviet past remains a complex, difficult phenomenon, and one of considerable importance for the rest of the world.

Colin LongColin Long lectures in cultural heritage at Deakin University.

Topic tags: colin long, soviet, russia, putin, syberia, moscow, lenin



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Existing comments

I found this fascinating and enlightening. My only question relates to the role that the huge death toll experienced by the Russian/Soviet people in world war two -- the loss of at least 10% of the population must have an enormous social and psychological impact thatr must still be a significant part of personal identity and family recall.

mary sheehan | 06 July 2009  

I'm now looking forward to what next Long has to write about Russia, and other places - his comments are quite perceptive and interesting. But perhaps Long should take time to visit Grutas Park, in southern Lithuania. The pillboxes, guardhouses and implements of repression are all too real. It's not a place for joyous celebration of the Soviet past but for grim recollection and mourning by the victims of Russian power.

It's interesting how the Lithuanians have turned their back on Russia. English and Spanish are the languages most favored by secondary students, Ireland and Spain continue to host large numbers of expatriate workers seeking to augment their families' incomes with Euros and the Maxima supermarket chain has supplanted GUM.
Yet the country has fallen victim to uglification, especially in Vilnius, where the Old City is being shadowed by glittering skyscrapers, pensioners have real cause to complain, and outgoing President Adamkus has had to wage an ongoing battle against the mafia-like forces wanting to expand their casinos and bordellos.
Lithuania, like the other two Baltic republics and even the Russian-administered northern sector of Prussia, are as much a part of Europe as √Čire or Norway, in culture and historical destiny.

E. Reilly | 06 July 2009  

An excellent article, very reminiscent of my travels on the Trans siberian while I was posted in moscow from 1984-1986. To a socialist like me, the regime was an abomination, and the suffering imposed on our Russian friends was appalling. After it was all over, however, I had to feel sorry for the small percentage who were ordinary working-class Communists, the true believers, who were left with nothing.

Peter Downie | 07 July 2009  

"Don't expect any public acknowledgement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divided Poland between Germany and the USSR in 1939"
It's a lie. I live in Russia know what I write. Most people know about Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, about Dzerzhinsky, Lenin and about Soviet repressions. We study it at schools.

We call "Great Patriotic War" only the part of the Second Word War that was in USSR territory.

Documentary films about Soviet repression, wars and history at all are shown on public TV very often.

We don't destroy soviet symbols just because destroying needs money and renaming needs money. We don't see any sence in spending money for that. Moreover, we think it's our history, we had destroyed so much during Soviet era and we don't want to destroy anymore.

I've been to Siberia several times and can say I've seen another Siberia. There are many beauteful and clean towns.
It is a testimony to the closed aothor's horizons.

Author don't know Russia or hates Russia.
It's very strange, that he hasn't written about "bears walking through the streets".

Alexander | 07 July 2009  

Unfortunately, almost all about celebrating victory over Nazi - it is untruth. It's not lie, but it is lack of knowledge. One more example of reluctance to understand Russia. Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is not a secret to Russian people. I recommend to Colin Long make visit to any book shop in Russia - and he can see many different books about WWII as a whole and Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in particular (including many foreign authors). The points of view to this pact is very different in Russia now. Commonly I hope Colin Long don't specialize on Russia in his lectures.

A. Safin | 07 July 2009  

And this is all that the "tourist" learn?? about Russia during the ten-trip by train? Russian does not know their history? And bay be Australians something does not know? USSR broken ridge of nazism, destroyed more than 80% of German military might. In the Academy of the West Point the cadets study the excellent 3-week-long operation of the Soviet encirclement and destruction of 1.5 million Kwantung Army and liberatation of Manchuria. The author does not like the hammer and sickle? Perhaps, he likes more when for the hammer and sickle people were rolled under the asphalt in 60'th in Indonesia.

Shame on you aussie.

Red Army soldier | 07 July 2009  

My country has lost about 10 000 000 people during WW2. I do not even ask compassion.
But such an article could write a person who has not tried to examine the history of World War 2 and did not know about the major battles.

Let read about battles statistic at the Wikimedia. The Russians made mistakes (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).But Poland was liberated by Russia from the Nazis.
The truth is determined when comparing the errors and victories together. Sorry for my English. With the hope of understanding

Andrey Moscow Russia | 07 July 2009  

The author probably traveled in the beginning of 90s, and has decided to write article just now. It is completely not similar to my Russia. Where he has found a dirt??? All Siberia was compared to a dump because of some plastic bags...

Gary-Ru | 07 July 2009  

Most Australians do not know that the USSR won the WW2 and free the world from Nazism.
Propaganda films and media resourse tell every day that the "winners" - US and UK :)
Forbidden to talk about lousy war crimes the Americans and British. ;)

Burned children in Hamburg, Hiroshima?!
Nothing :)
About US, UK friendships with the Nazis... newer/nothing.

Don't expect any public acknowledgement of the Munhen pact and evropean friendships with the Nazis, about nazi&pro-nazi partyes in US and UK (1930-1939)!

Newer and Nothing.

It's forbidden for Australians Media, it's forbidden for Australians Journalists.
?ven about interesting US war crimes... like American war slaves (native americans) will never tell truth - only propaganda lie (as film "WINDTALKERS").

Lucky | 07 July 2009  

Such a funny story! I supposed an author did not even try to see smth spectacular in Russia, you know there are such persons who try to find only disqusting litter in your house instead of observing book-shelves in a living room. Actually I am from Ukraine (one more ex-Soviet republic), and I must confess that only anglo-saxons are full of ideas that they have the ultimative right to judge about everything in the world and moreover that theirs point of view is the most perfect and absolutely correct. One more point-`closed horizons of Russia`-it means that we are all nuts? I think each school-boy in ex-Soviet Union knows more about kangaroos in Australia than an austrailian teacher about Russia...Yes, of course the WW2-was a victory of ONLY australian and new Zealand troops...Have you ever heard about Stalingrad and Kursk? 80% of german troops were teared to pieces in Soviet Union.Not in Oklahoma or Kanberra...How it was possible? Probably Colin Long knows but propaganda does not allow him to tell that to his student?
I like Australia, really. But I don`t like when someone calls my country `closed`
Yours sincerely!

abel | 07 July 2009  

Reading of this article makes me (and most of educated russian people) smile.
It seems, that author never been in Russia, especially in Siberia towns and taiga.

Stalin's skyscrapers, Stalin's metro... Not Stalin, but by ordinary people, architects, engineers, workers, was erected this bildings. All this is our history, and mostly we can be proud of it. Also, WW2 was the most tragic and at the same time heroic period in Russias history. 9 may - is the Day of Remembrance of tens millions Soviet(not only Russian) people, wounded during the war: much more than in any other country...
However, it doesn't means that nobody knows anything about events on another fronts. There are a lot of books, internet resources about operations of western Allies.

I'm not outraged: simple it's very very funny, that such article was written by the culturologist :)

Sergey | 07 July 2009  

Dear Colin,
Just small remark.
V.V.C. Park pavilions has never been named after "republics that escaped the post-Soviet Russian embrace." V.V.C. pavilions was dedicated to industries and field: engineering, space, atomic energy, radioelectronics, soviet culture, geology, microbiology etc.

Zapatista | 07 July 2009  

Dear author. So it is possible to write about your country. In Russia.
The country where there live convicts and australian aboriginals. It is true? No.

Or the country where enamoured women steal men from unapproachable prisons by air. It is true? Yes.

You have been favourite, Australia. The australian, be open.

Cate | 07 July 2009  

The author dismisses the great patriot war, "as they call it", which included 27 million deaths many of them in brutal circumstances (Germans smashing babies heads on tress etc see Richard Evans "The Nazi's at War"). One reason for the nostalgia that you bemoan is due to the human suffering, vast in scale, caused by the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s with critical support coming from western advisers and financial institutions. I note that this article makes no mention of this. Der Spiegel reports that more than 50 per cent of East Germans believe that life was better than before, so this is hardly a Russian thing as you would have it. Furthermore the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact came after entreaties to the UK and France were rebuffed. I note that in similar parades in London the Munich pact does not also get a mention.

Marko | 14 July 2009  

It is interesting to see that this article stirred some responses in Russia. Many, perhaps most of those responses, seemed to take offence and accused me of all sorts of things, including hatred of Russia. That I find very strange. Indeed, this is not the first trip I've made to Russia, a place I find fascinating and its people very friendly, despite what people are told before going there.

I enjoyed Siberia very much, and, as I said in the article, I found many Siberian cities to have very attractive inner cities. But there are many areas of stark poverty, which I found surprising in a place with such wealth. The only reason I can think for this is the centralisation of wealth and power in Moscow. If anyone has alternative arguments, let's here them. But let's have some real arguments, not simple defences of the 'motherland' against the ignorant 'foreigner'.

I do not claim to be an expert on Russia. I made it clear in my article that I was writing as an outsider. A careful reading of the article shows that in no way do I downplay the importance of the Soviet contribution to the defeat of the Nazis: Soviet soldiers bore the brunt of the fighting that brought the Wehrmacht to its knees, while Soviet citizens suffered terribly, almost unbearably. My point was to make a distinction between the official celebrations or commemorations of the War and those of ordinary people. In no way do I downplay the latter, but I do question the way the contemporary state uses commemoration of the War for its own political purposes.

I have made similar comments about the way Australian governments have done the same thing, so there is little point in readers trying to use the childish argument: 'What about things that have happened in Australia?' I am a critic of very many aspects of Australian history. I see no need to defend Australia just because I am Australian. I find the instinctive nationalistic self-defensiveness of many of the comments from Russians interferes with an understanding of my argument.

Again, if there are alternative readings of the Russian state's use of War commemoration let's here them, but first read my article carefully and without nationalist blinkers on.

Colin Long | 16 July 2009  

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