External Affairs

Looking Back With Fondness at the Soviet Everyday

Online recollections of better, gentler time are not unique to the post-socialist experience, but here they suggest the Soviet everyday is just as redeemable as Soviet heroism.

Moscow in the 1950s. Credit: soviet-art.ru

A hundred years after the Russian revolution and more than 25 years after the fall of the USSR, the Soviet experiment continues to be associated – in the Western media – with extraordinary political centralisation, repression and state hegemony. These traditional perceptions of Soviet power are reinforced by Western views of Vladimir Putin’s nationalist politics at home and muscle-flexing abroad. Yet, contrary to this singular focus on institutional power, the state does not loom large in the way people in Russia today remember life under the Soviet establishment.

Much of the memory in the first decade after the fall of the USSR emphasised a rupture with the past and reiterated the importance of a clean break with Soviet ways. The new millennium, on the other hand, has brought new patterns of remembering the Soviet era in Russia. The rupture narrative is far less popular at a time when the government under Putin – who considers the fall of the Soviet Union to have been a catastrophe – actively rehabilitates episodes of Soviet history for his own nationalist project. Putin’s desire for historical content in media – content that makes Russians proud of their past – has led to a spate of films and TV dramas devoted to World War II (the Great Patriotic War) and at least one popular film on Soviet heroism in the Afghan conflict. These visual narratives have a wide palette of characters and are rarely straightforward texts of patriotism. They tend to minimise (and even critique) the role of the Soviet state and glorify, instead, simple and extraordinary acts of heroism among the Soviet people.

While cultural memory in the traditional media does the work of remembering specific historical episodes in the Soviet past, popular memory online –  ‘connective memory’ – stages Soviet history from a different perspective. It has now become commonplace in Russian society to remember the normality of late Soviet life.

Brezhnev with US President Richard Nixon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In this preference to remember the ‘ordinariness’ of those times, it is everyday life (byt in Russian) during the Brezhnev period that earns the most positive recollections.

Leonid Brezhnev’s long stint in power (1964-82) brought about a period that was, and is experienced as stable – although it was famously dismissed as an ‘era of stagnation’ by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Russian public opinion surveys in the last 10 years have indicated that a high percentage of people look back on the Brezhnev years of late socialism with favour and great fondness. The Levada Centre’s survey in 2013, revealed that as many as 56% of Russian respondents named him as the most appreciated leader, followed at a close second by Lenin. The least popular were Boris Yeltsin and Gorbachev, who continue to be held responsible for the general political and social disarray that followed after 1991.

A Soviet hospital for children. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This nostalgic turn to life under Brezhnev, coupled with growing access to digital media across the country, has shaped popular memory practices across Russia. There is a profusion of initiatives to create online archives and databases where active internet users recall and share what they remember as noteworthy and valuable from everyday Soviet life. Archiving communities on social media platforms such as Odnoklassniki (Classmates) encourage guests and members to post pictures of things they had in their possession during the Soviet era, and to talk about these objects’ emotional associations.

Posted on the page of a group named “Nostalgia of those born in the USSR”, one blogger writes of the Soviet bicycle and cycling around in the courtyard or dvor – always remembered fondly as a communitarian space in Soviet neighbourhoods – that made a healthy childhood possible. These were spaces created by the state for community building, but also for lateral surveillance; yet today they are remembered for the former, rather than the latter. Comments under the post about Soviet bicycles reiterate the very special nature of Soviet upbringing and the importance of the outdoors for a wholesome childhood. This is juxtaposed against present-day childhoods which are constructed as misspent – children are ‘obsessed’ with mobile devices and enjoy very little physical exercise, the lament goes.

Another group on Vkontakte – the most popular social media platform in Russia – named ‘Soviet childhood’ has as its goal the sharing of photos, songs and stories of childhood and invites people to do the same. “Any person who visits will be happily met by others’ memories of their childhood and will share their own with pleasure,” the admin writes.  Posts include the following recollection of Soviet schooling, which casts contemporary school practices in an unfavourable light. A member of the group posts about the image below: “This – a notebook for neat handwriting. Remember, we had this subject in group 1. Too bad they discontinued this subject in school….”

Old Soviet book for handwriting practice. Courtesy: Sudha Rajagopalan

These things, the stuff of memory, are carriers of life stories. They become commentaries on the state of education and the quality of life, in general, in Russia today.

In YouTube videos, Soviet toys are common examples of objects of everyday memory, remembered for their accessibility and their ubiquity. Memories of Soviet play tend to focus on its imaginative quality, simplicity and its outdoors setting; these are invariably contrasted with widespread media consumption (read ‘addiction’) today. The image below from a YouTube video titled ‘Let us remember childhood’  has as its caption: “No mobiles, no walkman, no computers. Only snow. White and bright. Enveloping us in its glory. We all loved it.”

Websites have also been set up as archives of Soviet film and television classics, where people assemble virtually to discuss the pleasures of watching old movies and the feelings they associate with that habit. One example is kino-teatr.ru dedicated to preserving the memory of Soviet films. Members of this site write, for instance, that Soviet classic comedies of the 1970s are considered to be well-made but also a showcase of a gentler, milder temperament and social climate. The cities they are set in are now perceived as safer and more congenial spaces, unrecognisable in today’s world. An example are the comments on the film I Walk Around Moscow, a popular classic that dates back to the early 1960s. Nostalgic users discuss how the Moscow in the film was a much more hospitable space than the Moscow of today.

What we are witnessing is the importance of iconic Soviet artefacts and spaces for post-Soviet identity building. These artefacts (the objects and the films, among other things) are objects of agency – they evoke memories of a past even as they help frame a critique of the political, social and moral order in the present. After all, this nostalgia for the Soviet period is rarely a longing for a revival of the old political order. It is nostalgia for the implicit social pact that existed between state and society – a pact that has now all but disappeared in post-Soviet Russia. Frequently it is articulated as a yearning for the moral certitudes of the time, and for a re-legitimisation of personal histories that unfolded in a politically contested past.

“No mobiles, no walkman, no computers. Only snow. White and bright. Enveloping us in its glory. We all loved it.” A screenshot from a YouTube video ‘Let us remember childhood’.

These numerous blogs, websites and digital videos represent a desire to write one’s personal recollections and experiences into a larger Russian collective memory. They are an attempt to remember with affection and even irony, and contribute to official narratives that have foregrounded militaristic episodes in Soviet history but not given the same courtesy to everyday life in the past. The recollections of a better and gentler time are not unique to the post-socialist experience, but here they suggest specifically  that the Soviet everyday is just as redeemable as Soviet heroism. These constructions of Soviet life represent a quest for continuity with the past as a basis for a coherent Russian identity today. Many Russians wish to excavate from their experiences of the Soviet period something whose value is enhanced in a post-modern Russia.

The nostalgia for Soviet normality is not uncontested, however. Posted online, these memories are invariably met with discussion and debate in this age of networked communications. Nostalgic recollections of Soviet everyday life are challenged by others who refuse to let memories of the shortage economy, tedious bureaucracy, dreary living conditions and lack of political freedoms be silenced. The history of one of the 20th century’s most radical political experiments continues to be rewritten and re-experienced, with affection and scathing critique, in these spaces of connective memory.

Sudha Rajagopalan is an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Soviet Union has been discussed for it’s political reasons without much thought on the daily routine of ordinary lives. This article throws light on lesser known aspects of Russia life from nostalgic times of USSR to the present Russia. This is a refreshing look at ordinary Russia and it’s people