Skip to comments.They've got used to freedom, so why do Russians still hunger for the USSR?
Posted on 06/18/2005 7:39:40 PM PDT by familyop
After a week in St Petersburg, I can't seem to get that old Beatles number out of my head: I'm back in the USSR/ You don't know how lucky you are. Russia's pre-revolutionary capital has certainly changed since I was last here in 1990. It has, needless to say, acquired all the garish trimmings of post-perestroika capitalism: billboards for US-style sports utility vehicles and a rash of neon lights along the Nevsky Prospekt, the city's Champs Elysées.
And not just the trimmings. Fifteen years ago, the state-run shops lacked even the most basic essentials; people appeared to subsist on air and pickled gherkins. Today there are supermarkets offering a cornucopia of cheeses and chardonnays.
Yet look behind this patina of economic progress and you soon spot disquieting vestiges of the old Soviet Union. Every public building still seems to be guarded by its gimlet-eyed babushka, hell-bent on denying you admission if you do not have five copies of your permit stamped by five different government offices. The Russian bureaucracy may have lost its old air of menace. But it still lurks in its dingy, stale-smelling offices, just waiting for the signal to spring back into inaction.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, also paid a visit to St Petersburg this week. This, too, brought back memories of the old days. Whole streets were cordoned off. Motorcades roared around the city, bringing traffic to a standstill. Close to where I was working, a stretch of potholed sidewalk was hastily repaved so that Mr Putin could unveil a plaque there (to the Soviet-era president of Azerbaijan) without stubbing his toe.
Since coming to power as Boris Yeltsin's anointed successor, Mr Putin has worked hard to concentrate power in his own hands. His party, United Russia, dominates the Russian parliament. In the aftermath of the disastrous Beslan school siege last September, he took over the appointment of regional governors, who had been directly elected in the 1990s. He has also tightened the Kremlin's grip on the country's main television networks.
But Mr Putin's most dramatic power-play has been his decision to break the political power of the business "oligarchs" who were the main beneficiaries of the Yeltsin era. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, has just been sentenced to nine years in jail for alleged tax evasion and fraud. Everyone here knows, however, that his real crime was to pose a political threat to Mr Putin.
Nobody can deny that all kinds of mischief went on in the Yeltsin years. The privatisation of the energy sector was one of the scams of the century, but the vehemence with which Mr Putin heaps opprobrium on the oligarchs awakens unpleasant memories of the old Soviet regime, which specialised in the vilification and destruction of internal enemies.
Even more troubling is Mr Putin's unapologetic nostalgia for the days when Russia ran the affairs of nearly all its immediate neighbours. "We should acknowledge," he declared in an astonishing speech two months ago, "that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century."
Mr Putin clearly intends to restore Russia's influence over the Commonwealth of Independent States, the vestigial association of former Soviet republics. "We need not turn this CIS space into a battlefield," he said last Monday. "Rather we should turn it into a space of co-operation." The idea that these are the two options being considered by Mr Putin is not reassuring.
Is Putin's long-run aim to restore the Soviet Union? Russians always insist that it would be impossible to turn back the clock now that people have grown accustomed to the whole range of Western freedoms - not least the freedom of information symbolised by the crowded internet cafes along the Nevsky Prospekt.
Yet there is a discernible nostalgia for the terrible simplifications of the old days. In a poll conducted in 2003, the Russian Centre for Public Opinion found that 53 per cent of Russians still regard Stalin as a "great" leader. The explanation is not far to seek. The collapse of Communism has meant not just greater freedom but also widening inequality and a dramatic decline in average living standards.
Since 1989, the Russian mortality rate has risen from below 11 per 1,000 to more than 15 per 1,000 - nearly double the American rate. For adult males, the mortality rate is three times higher. Average male life expectancy at birth is below 60, roughly the same as in Bangladesh. A 20-year-old Russian man has a less than 50/50 chance of reaching the age of 65.
This has much to do with the round-the-clock consumption of fags and booze - the typical St Petersburg man walks around with a bottle of beer and a cigarette in one hand the way a Londoner carries his mobile phone - not to mention an attitude to road safety apparently inspired by the Mad Max films. It also reflects the long-term effects of the planned economy on the Russian environment and the near-collapse of the healthcare system.
Exacerbating the demographic effects of increased mortality has been a steep decline in the fertility rate, from 2.19 births per woman in the mid-1980s to a nadir of 1.17 in 1999. Because of these trends, the United Nations projects that Russia's population will decline from 146 million in 2000 to 101 million in 2050. By that time the population of Egypt will be larger.
All this helps explain why so many Russians might welcome a return to the USSR. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that they would willingly trade their own recent history for a version of China's, which would give them the benefits of the market economy without the costs they associate with the collapse of the Soviet state.
Whether Mr Putin can deliver that is a moot point; it is probably too late now for Russia to exercise the Chinese option. But what he can undoubtedly give Russians is a sense of geopolitical revival after the humiliations of 1989-91, which saw perhaps the swiftest decline and fall ever experienced by a great empire. For in military, diplomatic and economic terms, Russia still remains a serious power.
Just consider Mr Putin's diary over the past week. On Monday he welcomed Tony Blair to Moscow. On Tuesday he had a phone call from President Bush. And on Wednesday his guest in St Petersburg was Sonia Gandhi. Needless to say, all this gets blanket coverage on the television news. Still, there is substance behind the show.
Other world leaders have good reasons to hobnob with Putin. Mr Blair came here to get his backing for African debt cancellation and the Kyoto Protocol, which Russia recently signed. Russia, is after all, a member of the G8, which will shortly convene in Gleneagles.
Mr Bush wanted to hear Putin's thoughts on reforming the United Nations. Russia is, after all, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. And no doubt Sonia Gandhi wanted to talk economics. Russia is, after all, Asia's number one source of oil, gas and other vital commodities.
Any British visitor to Russia instantly recognises the symptoms of post-imperial trauma. The place has the feel of the 1970s, right down to the terrible clothes, teeth and hairdos. Yet those who wrote off Britain in the 1970s overstated our decline. The same mistake was made by a British journalist last week who compared Russia with Africa.
This is not, despite the old Cold War joke, "Upper Volta with missiles". There may be no going back to the USSR. But it is much too early to consign Putin's Russia to what Soviet propaganda used to call the dustbin of history.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence H Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. His latest book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, has just been published in paperback by Penguin. ©Niall Ferguson 2005
The answer to the title is: Because it's strange, uncomfortable and unknowable; just the very same way the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt.
When you've grown up under a state that micromanages every aspect of your life, it's tough to go it alone.
Because people keep whitewashing the Soviet Union and portraying it as a time of Russian greatness, and oh, what a catastrophe that it collapsed.
yay golden calf!
The Russians don't, it is just the leftist press and the Russian government that want it to look that way, much in the same way that the leftist press in the U.S. want everyone to believe that the majority of Americans are liberal/socialists.
But we know better... ;D
What with the public buildings being guarded, traffic brought to a standstill for the President, and beer-drinking men loitering the streets, it sounds a lot like the USA.
No one I've met in Russia or Ukraine wanted to go back to Stalin's purges or Khrushchev's empty shelves, but the few times I've heard what approached a wistful remembrance of the Soviet Union, I've heard it said that they felt something called dostoinstvo back then.
The dictionary defines it as 'merit' and 'dignity', but from the look in my friend's eyes when she said it, I took it to mean something a lot stronger. The same expression she'd use speaking of Yuri Gagarin or when watching the veterans on Victory Day.
More likely, it's the old foggy attitude that 'nothing these days is as good as it was when I was young'.
There is one thing Soviet Russia had that current Russia lacks
A Low Crime (not committed by government) rate
From my (limited) reading on the subject, and having met several Russians and Eastern Europeans post-USSR, I'd say: The Soviet experiment went a long way towards splintering the idea of the family unit. When it fell, things didn't just go back to being hunky dory; it's as if there was nothing in palce to replace what was lost. I think there is a need for a national identity, the need for pride, for Russia to be identified as great in some way that the people can embrace and rally around. But there is no cause, no goal--their country is in many respects just the place they live, and its recent history is one of suppression--not a lot to be proud of there, and not much that's replaced it.
Thank you very much. National identity regarding the past has been made an issue in quite a few countries. But there is a thought that evades too many, IMO; what we do today is what we'll be known for tomorrow. And we should each try to do more (moral) good today than we did yesterday.
kinda sounds like pride to me...
Hee we go again.
There's also some nostalgia. I have a close colleague who's a former Soviet citizen. For her, the USSR was her childhood. There are many horrible stories, some unpleasant stories, but a few statements along the lines of "well at least we didn't have to worry about..."
And, just think... what IF another clinton wins the presidency and attacks another country that he financial backer, George Soros wants to rob/plunder/rape... you know like he wanted to do to Yugoslavia.
Maybe 'she'-clinton could hack-up a hairball of contempt and get "all-appalled" at Belarus or Armenia, for example, and get Nato and the UN to attack those countries.
And, Soros would $mile all the way to the bank$.
For just one example, his claim that the typical St. Petersburg man walks around with a bottle of beer and a cigarette is sufficient to cast doubt on the credibility of ANYTHING he says. I can assure you I saw nobody except a couple of teenagers drinking beer anywhere (same as in any city here). If he invents what is trivially easy to disprove by direct observation (like, why not try going there in person?) then why believe anything of his.
Did he mention anything (I could only bear to skim the article) about the tens of thousands of churches reopened or rebuilt from the ground up, the 350 reopened or rebuilt monasteries in Russia (as evidence of spiritual freedom and revival), or anything else one might consider "good"?
Speaking of Harvard where he teaches, isn't that the same American university which was fined $50,000,000 by the Russian court for fraud in the privation thing in the 1990's?
Oh brother .. LOL!
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