Thirty Years Gone, the Soviet Union Is Not Quite Dead
Thirty Years Gone, the Soviet Union Is Not Quite Dead
The Soviet Union officially ended 30 years ago — if one had to pick a specific date, then on Dec. 25, 1991, with the lowering of the Soviet flag from the roof of the Kremlin’s Senate Palace and the handover of the nuclear button from the last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the first Russian President, Boris Yeltsin. But the USSR is not really gone. It’s an unburied corpse, like the body of its founder Vladimir Lenin still on display from 10 a.m. till 1 p.m. in a granite mausoleum on Red Square. Its stench still lingers in many a corner of the world, not just in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, its legal and — though Putin would deny it — spiritual successor.
I should know: My Soviet childhood and young adulthood shaped me so that even now, in 2021, I must admit I’m still in many ways part of “a new historic community, the Soviet people,” which my namesake, Leonid Brezhnev, proudly proclaimed in 1971, the year of my birth.
In a freshly released propaganda documentary meant to present the official view of Russia’s post-Soviet history, Putin said the Soviet Union’s breakup was “the breakup of historic Russia under the name ‘Soviet Union.’” Like many of Putin’s forays into history, the statement falls somewhere between cringeworthy and questionable. The borders of “historic Russia” have fluctuated across the ages as it seized and ceded territory in constant wars and deals. It’s unclear at what point the empire, or even the core nation-state, could be considered complete or optimally balanced. As the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia lost some territories acquired in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries but kept many of the more recent acquisitions: The parts of Karelia ceded by Finland in 1940; the former East Prussia, Sakhalin and the Kuril islands, won in World War II; the vast Republic of Tuva in southern Siberia, which joined voluntarily in 1944.
Putin as well as his Western adversaries often look back to the Soviet Union in terms of territory, geopolitical rivalries, empire-building, pseudohistorical grudges. The reality distortion field is so strong that some top US officials keep referring to Russia as “the USSR” or “the Red Army,” as if the first Cold War never ended, morphing seamlessly into the second one with the same old players. In that narrow sense, the Soviet Union is, of course, still around — both in Putin’s desire to reunite Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (though emphatically not the Muslim republics of Central Asia, which provide most of Russia’s migrant labor today) and in Western officials’ knee-jerk reactions to Putin’s moves in that direction.
That, however, is not the whole story by far — I’d even argue it’s the wrong story, because Putin’s “historic Russia” concept rests on much shakier foundations than the Soviet Union did by the time it ran out of pretty much anything it needed in order to survive. Brezhnev was right — we were a new kind of people.
The USSR, while at times territorially greedy and perversely proud of the Russian imperial heritage, was — in many ways like the US — a nation built on an idea, in its case, the leftist idea of equity. What happened to this idea in the hands of three generations of Communist Party leaders who had free rein to implement it and a vast country to experiment with is the reason post-Soviet countries — yes, even poster-child Estonia — are still routinely described as post-Soviet.
The shared experience of growing up under the low ceilings of drafty, indescribably ugly concrete boxes. The kindergartens and schools that prepared one for prison as much as for the factory or the sleepy research institute where our parents pretended to work for pretend pay. The ideologically correct movies that everyone watched in ceaseless re-runs. The punishing lines for everything one could buy and the never-ending quest for what one couldn’t. The day-in, day-out submission, compromise and secret defiance. We post-Soviets can still see it all in each other’s eyes. And — here’s the weird thing — many of us remember it all in a kind of rose-colored haze. It was all quite nice, actually — or at least so I’ve heard from some peers and younger people alike. A 2020 poll by the Levada Center, one of the few remaining serious pollsters in Russia, showed that 75% of Russians consider the Soviet period the best in the nation’s history; only 1% recalled the Soviet era primarily as a time of stagnation, repression, the Iron Curtain.
And yet these ostensibly forgotten experiences were apparently the most formative ones for the post-Soviet personality.
A few years ago, behavioral economist Dan Ariely established by working with subjects from former East and West Germany that the easterners were more likely to cheat in an experiment (recording dice rolls for a reward depending on the final tally). In the latest wave of the World Values Survey, only 11.4% of Russians shared the view that “most people can be trusted,” compared with 37% of Americans and 46.7% of Canadians. What was meant, a long time ago, to be a just society bred a “new historic community” of people convinced that life is fundamentally unfair, you can only count on yourself and everyone — especially those in positions of authority — is out to get you.
There are plenty of objective reasons why post-Soviet economies haven’t grown as much as Western ones despite starting with a low base — and they haven’t, even compared on the most generous, purchasing parity-adjusted terms. But the post-Soviet mentality couldn’t but reward relatively few winners at the expense of everybody else.
The Putin regime’s propaganda would have us believe that the tough years of the post-breakup free-for-all were what made us like this — a temporary flare-up of the survival instinct. Now that Russia is up from its knees, we should be back to normal, if slightly scarred. From the regime’s point of view, it may even be true. Most of the current Russian population appears to have settled back into the familiar Soviet obey-and-grumble, close-your-eyes-and-see-the-bright-side routine. In most other post-Soviet countries, that routine has simply continued unbroken. It’s not some new-fangled form of suppression, despite technological advances. It’s still the old Soviet-style enforced caution and self-censorship: Watch your step or find yourself an outcast deprived of any rights, unworthy of mercy, dispossessed or cut off from sources of income.
Many of us, I now think, never quite believed anything could change, especially for the better. That’s why our more recent attempts at protest, since the desperate, nothing-to-lose rebellion of 1990 and 1991, have been so half-hearted, so indecisive in Russia and Belarus and so disappointingly ineffective in the medium term elsewhere — for example, in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, where failed governments were swept away only to be replaced by, at best, marginally better ones.
A relatively small number of us post-Soviets have voted with our feet. Between 1992 and 2016, by one authoritative estimate, some 8.5 million people, or 3% of the Soviet population according to the 1989 census, left for good, bringing to their destination countries their experience of practical socialism and post-Communist jungle capitalism — and their determination never to have to deal with anything like it again. Millions more left temporarily — or at least we thought so. My wife and I thought of ourselves as expats seven years ago, but with each passing year we’re less and less likely ever to come back .
The emigration wave was big enough to make the sound of Russian common everywhere one goes. For the most part — especially in these pandemic times — it's not tourists you hear chattering in the Soviet lingua franca. We post-Soviets are citizens of the world now, with our survival skills and our often grimly unfashionable worldviews. We’ve brought the Soviet Union — hated or loved, as the case may be — with us. We don’t live in what’s left of it, but it lives on in us, in the cartoons we show our kids, the music we listen to, the books we quote, the prejudices we harbor. And, of course, in our eyes; if you’re not one of us, you might read it as a permanent wariness.
And yet neither the global expansion of the post-Soviet diaspora nor the failure of most post-Soviet countries to become or remain free is the real reason why the Soviet Union is still unburied 30 years after its demise. Every next post-Soviet generation is less post-Soviet than the previous one. According to the Levada poll I quoted above, 82% of Russians older than 55 regret the Soviet collapse — but only 33% of those aged 18 to 24 do; in Ariely’s experiment, the less “socialist” experience a subject had, the lower their propensity to cheat. Even the generation that grew up under post-Soviet authoritarian regimes is not likely to be as affected by the Soviet malaise as we were, or at least one hopes so.
The Soviet Union lives on, amazingly, in the resurgence of leftist ideas, the popularity of top-down injustice-correcting projects, money-distributing nanny states, social-network shaming campaigns designed to shut people up and force fearful compliance. I watch this with no small amount of dread, including here in Berlin, a city that, one would think, would be forever inoculated against leftism by the scar that runs the length of the former wall. Think again: The city’s governing coalition, which imposed a ceiling on rents and gave officials the power to reset them, was overruled by the courts — but it has just survived an election and is likely to try the harebrained scheme again.
I watch colorful videos of fiery Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Jean-Luc Melenchon — and relive the desperate boredom of Communist Party congresses on my old black-and-white TV. I read Thomas Piketty in French — but the lines morph into the bland Russian of the Marx and Engels translations over which I once had to pore. The ideas my daughters bring from school in Berlin would have made my own teachers, all members of the Soviet Communist Party, proud.
What I fear is that, even as the lived experience of Soviet socialism is washed out of memory by generational change, these non-post-Soviet generations will be tempted to try again. The Soviet Union’s lasting power doesn’t lie in Putin’s post-imperial ressentiment; rather, it rests on the continued attractiveness of the theories it implemented, wore out and, inevitably, turned into evil mockeries of themselves. The more the USSR’s practice is lived down and forgotten, the more likely history is to repeat itself in an inevitable “Animal Farm” re-enactment. When that happens, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov may rise from his bulletproof glass casket and walk again, an all-too-well-preserved zombie bearing a virus that has yet to die.