Retro Revolution

Nostalgic yearning or profound hatred - memories of the 70 years of Soviet rule vary according to geography, nationality, age and most of all, money. Haaretz correspondents take a journey in the footsteps of the politics of memory

Gal Katz
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Gal Katz

any of them were born after the collapse of the Communist bloc, or during its death throes, but thousands of young Russians came to Paul McCartney's 2003 performance in Moscow's Red Square wearing T-shirts emblazoned "USSR." McCartney sang the Beatles' hit "Back in the USSR" twice: once for the crowd of tens of thousands, who knew the words by heart, and a second time for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who showed up at the concert and asked for an encore. Three years have passed since the performance and there's no doubt about it: In Putin's Russia, retro rules. The USSR is back in fashion.

"There is no ideology here, only a powerful desire," a senior official in the Putin administration says on condition of anonymity. Indeed, this is nostalgia wrapped in a thick layer of nationalism - the nostalgia is not so much for Communism as it is for the power that was lost, for the pride. So the Russians like to remember the Soviet Union in the context of the victory and heroism of World War II, whereas the Baltic states remember instead the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which made their country prey to the Soviet occupation. In other countries of the former Soviet Union, notably Ukraine, nostalgia is a matter of geography, language or culture.

"It was a society based on friendship," the Ukrainian writer Andrei Korlov remarked a few years ago about the good old days. "If you needed money, you knocked on the neighbor's door and he would lend it to you. That fraternity collapsed together with the Soviet Union. People who were born a little before that adjust easily. For my generation, loneliness is the center of life today. I lost a great many friends, who either killed themselves or emigrated."

Korlov is not alone, though it depends where. In Ukraine, the nostalgia and the hatred are divided geographically. In the country's nationalist west, the Communist past is a dead letter. The inhabitants are looking further westward, toward Europe, and are furious at Moscow's attempts to keep Ukraine under its influence. In the country's Russian-speaking east, 15 years later, the Soviet symbols have not been erased and it's hard to remember images from there of crowds toppling statues of the party leaders.

Baltic bitterness

In the Baltic states, hatred for Russians and for Soviet Communism has left little place for nostalgia. Here it's hard to find love for the empire that conquered Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia after the notorious pact with Hitler. On a night this past summer, in a pub in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, a few local young people explained how tough things are now, 15 years later, with thousands of their friends leaving for resurgent Europe in search of fortune and a better life.

In southern Lithuania, one of the country's most popular tourist sites is Stalin's World, a theme park that has attracted nearly a million visitors in its five years of operation. Between mammoth sculptures of the forgotten Soviet leaders, the visitors walk along wooden trails, just as in Stalin's horrific prisons. "I built the park so that people would be able to come and laugh at the symbols that frighten them," says the founder of this weird Disneyland, Viliumas Malinauskas. "It shows that Lithuania is no longer afraid of Communism."

Beyond the rifts of identity and history, nostalgia is also an economic affair. The sad memories are a kind of small compensation for anyone who has lost something in the past 15 years - and there are many who fall into that category in Russia and in the other former Soviet republics. Take, for example, Tamara and Svetlana, from the Kazakhstan village of Isik, about an hour's drive from the former capital, Almaty. The two women were in their early thirties and worked in a government dining room when the Soviet Union collapsed. Together they became unemployed overnight. Today, the landscapes are the same landscapes and their friendship remains intact. But apart from that, life has led them, or perhaps they steered life, to two different places.

Tamara tried to open a bakery, but was defeated by the bureaucrats, who drowned every private initiative in a sea of paperwork. Finally she made do with cooking and cleaning jobs. In contrast, the new independence and the shattering of the cooperative frameworks made it possible for Svetlana and her daughter to realize a dream and open a small bar-restaurant. Svetlana did not submit to the establishment and proved that persistence and sophistication pay off - her business is expanding year by year.

Every few days the two women meet at the restaurant. Tamara looks back with fondness; Svetlana, with anger. Svetlana talks about the future, about the new branch she'd like to open. Tamara talks about the past.

'Lenin was right'

Back to Russia. In the 1990s, many hoped that the young generation would create a stellar Russian democracy. But in the suburbs of Moscow, in an overcrowded high school, it looks as though even the first generation of democracy wants a strong leader, like many of their parents. In a lesson dealing with the Bolshevik Revolution, Tanya, a student, was not ashamed to say, despite the protests of the teacher, that "When all is said and done, Lenin was right. The idea of free democracy is alien to Russian society." In a vote in the class, 10 students backed Tanya's view that the Bolsheviks were in the right in 1917, and only seven voted against.

Fifteen years ago such a vote would have been impossible. The teacher still remembers the dictates of the all-powerful "party." Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, of The Washington Post, documented their visit to a history class in this school in their 2005 book "Kremlin Rising," along with a multitude of other facts about Putin's Russia, which is increasingly coming to resemble the Soviet Union.

It's not clear how the history teacher will succeed in her task when Western experts maintain that the liberal-democratic experiment in Russia is finished; when a 2004 survey found that 47 percent of Russians believe that Stalin played a positive historic role and 31 percent would like to live under his rule; when workers in the country fear they will be fired if they do not vote for the right candidate - Putin; when a quarter of Russia's political elite consists of former KGB and Red Army officials, as contrasted with only 3 percent in the Gorbachev period; when the major television stations are supervised by the Kremlin; and when oligarchs - Putin's former patrons - are languishing in prison because they became too strong in the eyes of the Russian president.

Meanwhile, Mercedes are increasingly seen on the streets of Moscow. Their passengers accept the erosion in democracy as long as nothing interferes with their celebratory lifestyle. In the city center, close to Lenin Boulevard, a new skyscraper was completed two years ago. The building, in the finest tradition of overweening Stalinist architecture, was marketed as "Stalin's eighth skyscraper." The tenants can bask in the nostalgic atmosphere on their way to the building's luxurious gym.W

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