The 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s disintegration has reinvigorated public debates over the Soviet legacy. Such debates did not reach the current level of pathos five or ten years ago, and this is a bad sign if we consider them a reflection of public opinion. It shows that Russia is heading in the wrong direction. The further it gets from the Soviet era, the stronger its underlying desire to return.
However, given the nature of the modern political system in Russia, the public sphere is not so much a mirror reflecting the state of society as a tool for manipulating and influencing it. Therefore, analyzing the public sphere has less to do with making an objective diagnosis than understanding the motives of the manipulators. This is where confusion sets in, because the instinct to pine for what we lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union is profoundly destructive for the Russian government and may even undermine its legitimacy.
The Soviet Union’s collapse is, without a doubt, a painful wound for the Russian consciousness and its geopolitical consequences, as Vladimir Putin rightly noted, have not even begun to reveal themselves. The Soviet Union was a massive phenomenon in world history and it warrants serious public discussion rather than the theatrics of modern Russian television. The Soviet Union was a mass of contradictions – of fatal mistakes and monstrous brutality, on the one hand, and idealistic impulse and stunning achievements, on the other. And as such it defies the black-and-white stylistics of television talk shows, where arguments are only heard when they are taken to the extreme, to the point of parody.
It is possible that the designers of Russia’s media landscape order such debates as a release valve for discontent with the current state of affairs. However, solving this tactical problem may lead to a strategic impasse.
The entire Russian political elite came into being only because of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Without it none of the current leaders, including the ruling tandem, would have come anywhere near the reins of powers. And the current state of affairs is the result of the policies of post-Soviet leaders. Reopening old wounds caused by the collapse of “the great country” calls into question the legitimacy and competence of the current establishment.
This obsessive desire to look back to the Soviet past would make sense if some of our chief socio-political engineers planned to restore the former model in some way. But there is no such plan and there is no way back – either to the Soviet economy or the Soviet public and political system. It would probably make sense to use some of that past experience, for example building an interethnic cultural space – but this is of no interest to anyone.
This Soviet nostalgia is also bad for international relations. Great-power demagogy is confusing Russia, which is just starting to cautiously test the limits of its own interests and the red line beyond which it should not retreat. The problem is not only the lack of the enormous Soviet foreign policy resources but also the fundamental change that the world has undergone since the Soviet era. The general unpredictability and lack of linearity in today’s world is so enormous that reserve and caution seem to be the only rational response. Attempts to turn the clock back and to fill the void left by the Soviet Union could lead to a catastrophe.
This constant impulse to look back to our faded glory is breeding an inferiority complex – Russia is not a subject of political interest in its own right but only a remnant of a “real country.” And the current state of affairs is not the result of our own actions (tragic or erroneous though they may have been) but the result of some external, malevolent force. This is both a reassuring attempt at self-justification and yet another instance of the pointless self-destruction that is turning Russia and its predecessor into an object of influence rather than a nation capable of exerting influence. It is hard to imagine America trying to explain away even its dumbest mistakes as the result of external forces. The U.S. accepts its mistakes and works to correct them.
The post-Soviet era is over. Soviet technological, political and ideological resources are on the verge of depletion. It makes no sense to look back to the Soviet era. We must look forward and try to predict the obscure future, and we must build a new foundation to prepare for it. Sideshows on the Soviet Union not only distract the public from real challenges but also sap its motivation to create.