The Well of Soviet Nostalgia Is Running Dry
Editor's Column
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

Last week, the government criticized a bill that would have made
it a criminal offense to deny the Soviet Union’s victory in World
War II. United Russia deputies had introduced the measure last
year. In December, President Dmitry Medvedev and then Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin went on record saying the crimes of Josef
Stalin could not be justified in any way. The rowdy campaign
conducted by the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group to harass journalist
Alexander Podrabinek for his alleged anti-Soviet remarks was
quickly halted.

There are signs that Russian society is entering a new stage —
not because leaders have re-evaluated our Soviet past, but because
they have realized that there is little more that can be gained by
exploiting it. Up until now, the authorities tried to tap into the
cultural and mythological inheritance of the Soviet era, but most
of this inheritance has been sapped dry.

By the end of the 1990s, it turned out that the ideals of the
early democratic period had become discredited by the fierce
struggle for authority and wealth. The clan that replaced the
ruling elite of President Boris Yeltsin’s administration needed a
leitmotif for carrying out their post-revolutionary restoration.
The basic government institutions were still in need of repairs
following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Later, a Soviet facade
was needed to cover the moral and psychological vacuum created by
the model of state-run capitalism and the huge gap between the rich
and the poor.

Yet nobody had any serious intentions of restoring the previous
system. The architects of the post-Soviet renaissance had no desire
to return to the Soviet model. After all, it was the moral and
financial bankruptcy of that system that gave them the opportunity
to gain power. Of all the many legacies of the Soviet past, the
Kremlin’s spin doctors focused on only one element during the first
decade of this century — returning Russia to its former superpower
status. Although pursuing that path seemed to offer a simple way to
increase patriotism and national solidarity, it ultimately led the
authorities into a big trap.

First, the Kremlin’s nostalgic allusions to Soviet times often
backfired. By reminding Russians of how powerful the Soviet Union
once was on the world stage, the people couldn’t help but realize
how far down Russia has dropped from that former superpower status.
The only remedy to this dilemma would be to embark upon a
revanchist course aimed at reviving Russia’s lost empire, but it
clearly does not have the willpower, the resources or the
opportunity to do this.

Second, the Kremlin realized that it is pointless to wallow in
iconic or ideological remnants of the Soviet past. Even if such a
model were desirable, it cannot be revived in the modern world.
Cherry-picking the best chapters from the Soviet past to inspire us
for the future will not work.

The debate over pro- and anti-Soviet stances has replaced the
search for a constructive path to development — not only for
Russian authorities, but also for the opposition. For the liberal
opposition, the struggle against the Soviet period has become an
end in itself and produces nothing but emotionally charged, empty
debates. The argument that Russia should follow the example of
Germany by overcoming its past through repentance and
reconciliation doesn’t hold up. It was possible in Germany only
because the country was effectively destroyed and occupied after
World War II. Moreover, the process past took many years to

In contrast to Germany, Russia did not suffer a military defeat,
was not occupied and did not feel at any time that it had been
vanquished. It is impossible force a feeling of guilt on people.
Russia can fully come to terms with its past sins only through a
long, extensive educational process, primarily in the area of
history. But any oversimplification of the facts — whether pro- or
anti-Soviet in nature — will lead to the opposite result. Russia
could learn from the experience of other countries, such as Spain,
which successfully closed the chapter of its right-wing
dictatorship under Francisco Franco and moved on to become a
full-fledged and respected member among European democracies.

By 2009, the more desperate attempts to revive Soviet nostalgia
turned into an embarrassment for the Kremlin after they became
caricatures of themselves. The decision by the Moscow authorities
to restore the vestibule of the Kurskaya metro station with a
pro-Stalin verse from the old Soviet anthem was a parody of itself.
In addition, the farce in two acts — Moscow prefect Oleg Mitvol
­clamping down on the Anti-Sovietskaya restaurant and the Nashi
youth movement’s harassment campaign against journalist Alexander
Podrabinek — revealed the absurdity of trying to build Russian
patriotism on an extinct Soviet past.

It seems that our leaders have also realized that the well of
Soviet patriotic symbols is running dry. The second decade of the
21st century will require new symbols and new sources of
patriotism. And herein lies a problem. At the end of the 1990s when
leaders had exhausted the call for revolution, they could at least
shift focus to restoring the country’s “lost greatness” and giving
it its rightful place under the sun in the global arena.

But is unclear what substitute is available today. The last
decade was marked by all-out mercantilism, a value system that does
not tend to foster new ideas. This has led to the forced attempt to
invent a so-called “Russian conservatism” or “conservative
modernization,” which are nothing more than ideological window
dressing to cover up for the country’s lack of economic strategies
and national ideas. This is precisely why Medvedev’s numerous
modernization initiatives lack substance and have turned into
nothing more than empty slogans.

Russia’s problem is that it has an ideological vacuum. This is
dangerous because the vacuum will inevitably get filled — and most
likely by something dangerous. Other post-

Communist countries have filled their vacuums with nationalism,
but their nationalism has been tamed to one degree or another by
their entry in the European Union, which enforces strict democratic
­principles for members, or their desire to become members. But
Russia, the proverbial cat that walks by himself, has few external
constraints like the EU. If Russia’s ­ideology vacuum is filled
by ethnic nationalism, this will be very self-destructive, as the
­Soviet collapse painfully showed.

In the end, Russia must produce a new national idea to survive
in the 21st century.

«The Moscow Times»