The Problem of Forging Post-Soviet History

By Shlapentokh, Dmitry | The World and I, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Problem of Forging Post-Soviet History


Shlapentokh, Dmitry, The World and I


While the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet regime took place in 1991, and new generations of Russians are entering adult life without any personal experience of living under Soviet rule, the new Russian state is still in search of its identity. This is manifested, among many other things, in an endless search for the appropriate historical backdrop for the regime. The abolition of the November 7 holiday--the official Soviet holiday related to the Bolshevik Revolution--and its replacement with November 4--the day of the supposed Russian victory over the Poles in the seventeenth century and the end of what is called the "Time of Trouble"--is one among recent changes in the writing of Russian history. And, while the regime has assumed that these changes would bring about more stability to Russian society, the end result could be quite different.

The end of the Soviet regime and collapse of both the regime and the country has led to the attempt to find a different historical backdrop for the emerging society. During the first years of the Yeltsin era, the regime had regarded Soviet rule as a horrible zigzag in Russian history and tried to shed the memory of its Soviet past. The effigies of Soviet leaders were removed, the streets and squares received their old pre-revolutionary names; and there was the beginning of talk that Lenin's body should be removed from its mausoleum where it had been placed since his death in 1924. November 7, the day the Bolshevik Revolution began, an official holiday during the Soviet era and preserved as a holiday, was transformed into a "Day of Reconciliation."

At the same time, by the end of Yeltsin's second term (1996-2000), there was increasing dissatisfaction with the post-Soviet rule. The Soviet regime had increasingly re-emerged in the minds of Russians as a positive force: It became related with a strong and internationally respected/feared state and safety net. There was also the feeling that there were no irreversible losses of Russia's strengths and that the benefits of the "good old days" could be brought back. As a result, in the late Yeltsin era and the early days of Putin's regime, the images from Soviet history once again started to creep back into official discourse. The Red banner had returned to the Russian army; and by Putin's time the music of a new Russian anthem was actually the same as before, with, of course, different words. The restoration of some aspects of Soviet history, i.e., those related with the might of the state, went along with a continuous increase in the promotion of images of Imperial Russian history when the might of the state had been the most important aspect of its image.

Peter the Great, the Westernized ruler and the first Russian ruler to take the title of emperor--was prominent as part of the historical backdrop of the early days of Putin's regime. In 2003, the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg had been celebrated with great pomp. And the images of Imperial Russia as a mighty state had been implicitly merged with the images of a reinterpreted Soviet history. Still, this appeal to the Soviet legacy, even limited, did not work. The point is that Russians had been nostalgic for Soviet history not just because of nostalgia for imperial might, but also because they related the Soviet era with a security net. And from this perspective, Putin had provided little hope. The income gap between rich and poor had not diminished. Moreover, in the beginning of 2005, Putin had actually abolished the old Soviet privileges for pensioners, war veterans, etc. These benefits included free medicine, free rides on public transportation, etc.

Putin's action had led to demonstrations by pensioners; however, they were limited in scope and were not supported by the non-elderly. Still, even these protests scared Putin's regime for they were implicitly connected with several post-Soviet revolutions, usually called "orange revolutions," which had led to the replacement of regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. …

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