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Friday, June 13, 2008

Russia's Love Affair with Sovietism

Can you imagine how the world would react if a newspaper were able to report: "Germans embrace a longing for all things Nazi"? Should the world's reaction be any different to the Globe & Mail's headline: "Russians embrace a longing for all things Soviet"? (The article generated numerous comments, read them here.)

At the Petrovich Club in downtown Moscow, diners pay to eat bland food in rickety chairs around wobbly wooden tables. Modelled after the once ubiquitous stolovayas, or canteens, the décor is a deliberate throwback to the grim and lean Soviet years.

Customers couldn't be happier.

Photos of red-cheeked and red-tied Pioneers adorn the walls and the shelves are stacked with empty bottles of Portveyne, a ghastly sweet wine once made in Odessa, containing 17.5 per cent alcohol and 9.5 per cent sugar. The Soviet memorabilia makes customers wince in memory - and brings them back time and again.

Its founder, Andrei Bilzho, a former psychiatrist-turned-political cartoonist, opened the club to preserve the cultural artifacts from a regime that died 17 years ago.

Mr. Bilzho said he's not interested in glorifying the Soviet era. Both his grandfathers were executed during the Stalin regime. The club has no photos of Stalin or Lenin, nor are there any political symbols from the communist era.

But he said the bland food, grim clothing and made-in-the-Soviet-Union appliances that routinely broke down - all these items were unique because they were developed for - and sprang from - a closed society. "It's about preserving an aesthetic," he said, during a tour of his club, which has the feel of a museum.

"The culture and food of the era showed that we were behind a curtain. We had Soviet things and now we are losing those things," Mr. Bilzho said. "Now, we are a part of the world again, so there is nothing special."

It's part of a wave of nostalgia for all things Soviet that is sweeping Russia. Restaurants such as the Petrovich Club, serving the plain dishes of the Soviet era - often glued together with heaps of mayonnaise - have sprung up in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Pop singer Oleg Gazmanov's hit anthem I Was Made in the USSR is popular with listeners old and young, some of whom wouldn't remember when Ladas ruled the roads. And on May 9, the day Russians celebrate their victory in the Second World War, there were Soviet-themed parties where men and women swirled to music from the 1940s.

The nostalgia movement isn't a rallying cry to return to the Soviet era. Its followers don't miss the endless queues, the prison camps, the censorship or sealed borders. But they still miss the sweeter moments, because, despite its horrors, they say, the Soviet Union did have its charms.

"It's more like an inside joke," said Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russia Today, an all-news, English-language television network. "There is a lot of making fun of ourselves, making fun of how naive we were. It's ironic."

Others say the longing to see and buy Soviet goods runs deeper than mere fashion. For some, the feelings are complex; their memories, a blend of longing and revulsion. Many older Russians, who grew up in the Soviet system, miss the era - warts and all - because it represents their youth.

"Of course it was not a great system," Mr. Bilzho said. "But for a lot of us, it coincided with the period when we were young, when we were children. It's impossible to forget that time of your life."

Younger Russians blog and use chat rooms to reminisce about their Soviet childhoods and swap photos of iconic Soviet memorabilia, including badges from the Komsomol (Communist youth) and sidewalk vending machines that dispensed sparkling water.

"I think everyone has a certain nostalgia for the Soviet Union," said Zhanna Sribnaya, 37, a Moscow writer. "It's trendy because people my age, they can buy what they see, and they want to see their happy childhoods. We remember when ice cream cost 7 kopeks and we remember Pioneer camps [similar to Scouts and Brownies] when everyone could go to the Black Sea for summer vacations. Now, only people with money can take those vacations."

It's been 17 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing freedom to Eastern Europe and independence to former republics such as Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states.

But in Russia, many still view communism's collapse in terms of what it cost their country: the economic chaos of the 1990s, two brutal wars in Chechnya and the jarring end to its status as a world superpower.

And while many agree that the current nostalgia wave is a fashion trend akin to the 1950s craze that gripped North America in the 1970s, many Russians interviewed said they still grieve for their long, lost country. Enough time has passed since the 1991 collapse of the once mighty empire to give Russians a cooler eye though which to view their former lives. For middle aged and older Russians, the nostalgia wave gives them permission to finally mourn a culture that vanished in a flash. "When the Soviet Union broke up, there was so much resistance to anything Soviet," Ms. Simonyan said. Overnight, Kvass [a Soviet-made carbonated drink] was out and Coca-Cola and Nike were in. "We had quite a long period where anything Soviet was bad, bad, bad. "Like, one day, we are all wearing red ties to school and you would be sent home if you don't wear a tie. And the next day, we're not wearing red ties and we're not even talking about it. That's it."

Today, many Russians talk openly of their Soviet memories: like the days when Moscow's broad avenues were nearly devoid of cars; when many offices - free from the pressures of a market-driven economy - were places to socialize or catch up on reading; when people gathered in communal apartment kitchens for all-night parties, the only places people felt secure enough to speak openly. It was an era of tyranny, fear and mistrust, they concede. Yet the Communist regime brought a measure of security and social cohesion that was lost when their society opened up. "From kindergarten, we knew that everything would be free: kindergarten, school, university," Ms. Sribnaya said. "After that, our government would tell us where we would work."

Even those who staunchly opposed the Communist regime have joined the stroll down Soviet Memory Lane. At the Petrovich Club, customers often bring Mr. Bilzho items dug out from closets that have no currency in the New Russia, like the fish-net bags that Soviets tucked in their pockets, ready to bring out at a moment's notice if a shop received an unexpected supply of fresh produce. Shopping bags were unheard of in Soviet shops. The most popular dish is selyotka, a layered salad of herring, topped with beets, eggs and, of course, plenty of mayonnaise. Mr. Bilzho wrote and illustrated a book listing his favourite Soviet recipes, accompanied by whimsical stories of the era in which he was obliged to eat them. One story describes the Soviet zeal for butter, which was hard to come by. "I don't know why but people liked to steal butter," he wrote. At the psychiatric hospital where he worked, Mr. Bilzho once saw a cook dive into a tall vat of porridge to retrieve the butter that was part of the recipe. "Her head was almost in the porridge," he wrote. "I could only see her legs hanging out."

Favourite memorabilia

Soviet products aren't produced in mass quantity any longer - if at all. But they make regular appearances on blogs and Internet websites devoted to Soviet nostalgia. Some favourites:

Gazirovka v avtomatah: Street vending machines that dispensed carbonated water. You put a few kopeks in and the machine poured the sparkling water into a glass. After drinking the water, customers placed the glass in the vending machine. The same glass was used over and over by different customers.

Samizdat books: These were handwritten copies of the works of censored writers. Only a handful of copies of the forbidden literature was in circulation at any given time. Those who received a copy were expected to write out another copy.

Krasnaya Moskva or Red Moscow: Soviet-made perfume, favoured by older women.

Granyony glass: The toughness of these water glasses was legendary. They wouldn't break no matter how many times they were dropped. As a result, many Russian kitchen cupboards still have a few of the sturdy drinking glasses.

Galoshy: Sturdy, rubber shoes favoured by female villagers. Nicknamed "goodbye youth" because of how much they aged a wearer.

Avoskya: Netted shopping bags.

Saratov fridge: This Soviet-made appliance was in nearly every Soviet household. Some Russians still own a Saratov, but they're usually relegated to dachas.

It's a balmy May evening in an outdoor Moscow theatre courtyard. The hit play, Songs of our Courtyard, is being performed beneath the stars and the audience alternates between tears, applause and bawdy laughter. They come in groups or with family members. Many have seen the show half a dozen times.

Play evokes warm, if dark, memories

For nearly three hours, a group of actors sing a medley of anti-Soviet songs that were staples in prisons, around kitchen tables and in apartment courtyards. They weren't heard on official radio or television stations, yet most people in the audience know the words by heart and sing along. Shots of vodka and slices of salami are served. Mark Rozovsky, who wrote and directed the musical, has no time for the nostalgia movement. His father spent 18 years in a prison camp and he was raised by his mother and grandmother.

During the Soviet era, he said, the songs were sung by Soviet outcasts: prisoners; émigrés; drunks; and dissidents. "These were human songs, which were born in unbearable times. I hated what we called the Soviet Union. That period of time was so ugly. My performances don't call people back to that period and I hope we never come back." And yet, for some audience members, the play evokes warm memories despite its dark premise.

Inessa Pustovoitova, 67, has seen the performance five times. It makes her feel young again. "There was everything in the Soviet Union, good and bad times. It's our history and you can't change it. When I'm listening to these songs, I remember a lot of things. My father was an engineer and he was sent to prison for six years. This was the most terrible period of my life," she said. But the performance elicits joyful memories too, said Ms. Pustovoitova, a retired physicist. "I remember the years that I was a student and worked on a collective farm in the autumn. All the students did it in the Soviet Union."

And, if given the choice, Ms. Pustovoitova said, she would turn back the clock. Despite the repression, she said, the Soviet system gave her enough to eat. "I want to live in the Soviet Union because old people could live adequately and independently on their pension. Now, you can't. It's nothing."

Song laments loss of Soviet empire

Oleg Gazmanov looks every inch the Western pop star as he bounds across the stage in tight jeans, his rippled arms pumping the air to rev up the crowd. They don't need much encouragement. They're singing along to Mr. Gazmanov's ode to the Soviet Union. "Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova - this is my country," Mr. Gazmanov croons into his microphone. "Kazakhstan and Caucuses and Baltic states too. I was born in the Soviet Union. I was made in the USSR."

Mr. Gazmanov's bandmates wear T-shirts emblazoned with "USSR" labels. The song ends with this lament to the people in the former Soviet republics: "Together we were one big family. We need visas now. How are you without us, our friends?" At 55, Mr. Gazmanov has been churning out hit tunes since the 1970s. His song about the USSR caused a stir in Estonia where a journalist took exception to Mr. Gazmanov's claim that the Baltics were part of a large, Soviet family. But Mr. Gazmanov makes no apologies about his lyrics. They're the truth, he said during an interview at a Moscow coffee shop. The Soviet Union was a huge empire that included dozens of republics and nationalities. "That was the country where I was born," he said. "There were a lot of bad things in the history of the Soviet Union, bloody things. But some European countries had blood periods, too." Mr. Gazmanov said he wrote the song for Russians who've had difficulties adjusting to their new country.

Mr. Gazmanov, who now lives in a Moscow mansion, doesn't want a return to the Soviet era, but he talks wistfully of the simplicity of the era and the cohesion among Soviets. "Nobody locked their doors. Viktoria Gugkaeva, 52, loves Mr. Gazmanov's song and agrees Soviet society was simpler and more humane. "I don't know if it's necessary to have 100 kinds of sausages in the shops in order to be happy," said Ms. Gugkaeva, a Moscow teacher. "We had a calmer society and we were happy. I don't want a return to the Soviet Union. Everything was so primitive. But what is democracy? We don't know yet."


Anonymous said...

Bilzho is a famous liberal cartoonist.

Katrin said...

My own memories of the soviet time are mixed with fear. I remember my mother constantly worried where to get food and clothing for her children (I was born in 1975 as the youngest in the family). When I was born, shortage of food was s� big that one could not get even milk or cereal products from local food store, and mothers of small children had a special bonus - they got 1kg of cereals for porridge per month, and some milk.

I'm a grown-up now and younger people amaize me - they have no fear! We feard everything - to talk with officials or to talk with straingers, we were afraid when the telephone rang, we were too afraid to demand better services, we were afraid to speak in our mother tounge on the streets... Because sometimes people just disappeared, Or they found themselves in deep trouble, just because making jokes at some private party or in a pub... My brothers both were under surveillance of KGB because of their jokes. My third brother had to hide himself from military offcials, who were trying to drag him into soviet army forces. It was no fun at all, and no soviet nostalgy here, you know! Yes, I was young, too, I was a teenager, when the system collapsed. Yes, the sun was shining and springs were beatiful, it was wonderful to splash around in the sea and have fun with friends - but it had nothing to do with the soviet regime. We had fun DESPITE the regime, not because of it. And it is horrible to think, that millions of people were killed and tortured at the same time, when others tried to live their everyday life and were pretending they knew nothing about massacres and forced labor camps, deportations and the practice of forced isolation of "the unneeded and unuseful ones", mentally or physically disabled people. No nostalgy, no!