Back in the USSR

By Manson, Per | History Today, October 1997 | Go to article overview

Back in the USSR

Manson, Per, History Today

When the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics was dissolved at the end of 1991, it seemed that few people regretted the death of the 'Red Empire'. There were no demonstrations, no mass mobilisations, and no overt manifestations of sympathy for keeping the USSR at all. On the surface, it seemed that the population of the fifteen republics agreed on at least one thing: the time for the seventy years existence of the world's first socialist state was over.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1991 some 75 per cent of the population of the USSR voted for keeping 'a reformed union', although six of the republics boycotted the referendum. It was when President Gorbachev was going to meet the leaders of the republics to sign a new union treaty that the putsch in August happened, and the defenders of the White House in Moscow unleashed the 'liberal euphoria' that made it possible for Boris Yeltsin to ban the Communist Party and put an end to the USSR.

Now, six years have passed since the dissolution. In Russia and in many former Communist countries, renewed or renamed Communist Parties still hold strong positions. In the Duma election of December 1995, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation became the biggest of these, while in the presidential election of June-July 1996 the Communist leader, Gennady Zhuganov, was very close to beating the sitting president. To many Westerners, this support for the Communist Party is very hard to understand, because for us it represents an inhumane, dictatorial or even totalitarian ideology which the people are supposed to hate.

One explanation for this high level of support is, undoubtedly, that many people now supporting the Communists belonged to the ruling nomenklatura, and as a result, enjoyed many economic and social privileges in the Soviet system that they now have lost. On the other hand, as several studies of the 'new elite' have shown, a large number of the nouveaux riches in Russia originate from the old system's leading circles. The deterioration of living standards is a better explanation for the support of the Communists today, combined with peoples' nostalgia for the 'golden past'.

When thinking about the past, many people believe that we remember 'things as they were'. In reality, however, remembering is an active procedure, in which we also interpret the memories, and give them structure and meaning. How we do this depends on experiences we have received up to the present. Of course, this does not mean that we change their meaning with every new experience or impression. Most people have a stable identity that changes only slowly in a life span. Also, most live in more or less stable societies, in which the frame of reference to understand oneself and one's own life does not change rapidly or drastically. That is why memories to most people look like 'stable facts'.

The situation is completely different for people living in Russia and in other countries that have experienced dramatic political, social, economical, and -- not least -- ideological turnovers. Things that were 'true' before have now become 'lies'. Whereas the meaning of living in the USSR previously was to contribute to 'the building of socialism', the meaning now is 'to live as a free person in a free market society'. i.e., to take care of oneself. To many Russians, this change of attitude towards basic values amounts to a 'micro revolution' in their everyday lives. It is understandable that people usually cling to their old values, and interpret their contemporary situation accordingly. On the other hand, it is also understandable that the old values become even stronger in a situation where everyday life has deteriorated as much as it has for millions of Russians. As a result the past gets a shimmer to it that it often did not have when it really existed.

So, what do contemporary Russians think about their present and past lives? It is, of course, impossible to give a general answer to this question, not least because they number 150 million people. …

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