SSR Nostalgia: Symbols and Names

by Joshua Foust on 12/3/2007 · 9 comments

Soviet nostalgia—almost like a real life version of Good Bye Lenin!—is on the rise. In Central Asia, at least, this hasn’t yet taken the creepy form of Stalin worship it has in Russia, but there are nevertheless surreal places where the Old Soviet is being fondly remembered.

Stolovaya FrunzePhotograph courtesy Asel.

For our non-Russian speakers, that is a café named “Stolovaya Frunze.” Frunze is the old Soviet name for Bishkek.

But it’s not just Kyrgyzstan. Russia is where true Soviet nostalgia ia on the rise, and in some surprising and ironic ways. Denis Simachev, for example, has been selling hilariously overpriced clothing emblazoned with the iconography of the USSR and (of course) Vladimir Putin. That is no joke—a typical t-shirt costs $600, and an overcoat costs $2100. And he sells out!

Frankly, I don’t know which is more worth of comment: turning communism into a successful capitalist enterprise, or the insouciance with which they seem to treat quite literally the most toxic and destructive ideology in human history. It makes for an interesting contrast with the debate in the U.S. over symbols of the Confederacy. Imagine the international dropped jaw if the Germans began marketing and adopting Nazi symbols en masse.

But it is not a uniform phenomenon. I have a collection of prints of old collectivist propaganda posters a friend brought me from his trip to Krasnodar; I simply like the artwork, which is unique. When a Russian friend saw them, however, she reacted with absolute horror and demanded, through tears, that I destroy them. I didn’t, but her reaction—born of a horrendous experience in the gulag—made me reconsider the role these symbols play in mass consciousness.

Update: James at neweurasia.net talks about why Bishkek was once named Frunze. Meanwhile, Joshua Kucera (nice name!) talks about how the U.S. is still desperately trying to curry favor with Kyrgyzstan.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 9 comments }

Alanna December 4, 2007 at 12:16 pm

Your friend, in my opinion, is a surprising exception. I think this nostalgia has been going on or a long time. It seems like every ex-Soviet have a story about how much better it was in the time of the USSR.

Joshua Foust December 4, 2007 at 12:25 pm

That is very well true. She’s my friend’s grandma, and had to deal with both the Nazis and the gulag (oddly enough, near the city where I stayed, Karaganda). Her experiences were sufficiently horrible that she possesses, to this day, a deep hatred of all things Soviet.

You’re also right. In Kazakhstan I was shocked to see kitschy “CCCP” shirts on the blond girls, and little hammers and sickles everywhere shop owners were trying to be “hip.” Then there are us Westerners, who see some old Leninist propaganda poster and think, “oooh, pretty!”

I don’t think I’m off in thinking it’s a bad sign, though.

Frank December 4, 2007 at 5:38 pm

I think whether the “nostalgia” is a bad sign depends on context.

In E. Europe, there’s a trend – almost an economic sector unto itself – of Soviet/Communist-era kitsch that capitalizes on the symbolism of the regime and mocks it at the same time – statue graveyards, “Communist” walking tours, Politburo-themed restaurants and bars, etc. In Budapest, Prague, Brno, and Krakow, I encountered folks who would ironically speak very basic Russian badly based on what they learned in elementary school, kind of the same way that some Americans pretend to speak “Sesame Street” Spanish by adding an “o” to the end of everything. It never struck me that it was out of hipness, more that it was a shared laugh at how ridiculous the Communist era was.

Contrast to the former SSRs, and Central Asia, where there’s some of the above, but the memories are more direct and alive, and can lead to both nostalgia for and outright anger/condemnation against the Soviet years (depending on whether you had a better job then, you miss the price of cabbage, or you were harassed by the KGB). I know several Central Asians in their 30s and 20s who get a kick out of remembering Pioneer camps, Soviet cartoons, slogans, etc.

But the younger ones, who’d be about 21 or younger now, and never went to school in the USSR, seemed to never remember anything directly, to never laud the USSR or look back fondly, and yet thought the symbolism was really hip and fashionable.

I would say that forgetting, or never even having known, the history behind the symbolism is what’s lamentable, and what I saw as most common in Central Asia especially.

The $600 t-shirts are a bit extreme, but Moscow is nothing if not over-the-top.

Michael December 6, 2007 at 12:34 am

Where is that restaurant? I’ve been all over Bishkek and never saw that one, unless my mind is just going…..

Ataman Rakin December 6, 2007 at 7:06 am

“I think this nostalgia has been going on or a long time. It seems like every ex-Soviet have a story about how much better it was in the time of the USSR. (…) In Kazakhstan I was shocked to see kitschy “CCCP” shirts on the blond girls, and little hammers and sickles everywhere shop owners were trying to be “hip.””

Well the latter is a mere fashion.

But Alannna is right that there is a sincere nostalgia for the USSR in both Russia, its former southern colonies and Belarus. People do not so much miss the totalitarian bureaucracy, the inefficient economy and the Russian chauvinism of the USSR. But they do miss the stability and social safety that have gone since. And because there is little in terms of perspectives or credible visions for the future yet, many look to an indealised past.

A main characteristic of nostalgia is, that things are remembered more rosy than they were. Also, even if there were postive achievements in the USSR, it’s often overlooked that that system was completely artificial, disfunctional and a failure, and is basically dead as as concept for the future.

So IMO, Soviet nostalgia is as much pointless as the nostalgia of certain Europeans about a homogenically white, Christian and rural Europe, or that of some Midwesterners about a smalltown mom ‘n pop America, both of which are not only long gone but were really not that ideal either.

noah tucker December 7, 2007 at 12:11 am

while a lot of good stuff has been said in the comments so far, i think we may be sliding around a really uncomfortable reality for Americans, and one that I have always had trouble with from the first time that I heard it in Southern Russia in the late 90s–particularly after the economic collapse in 98–and this is, of course, that for for a small amount of people, especially those who live outside major metro centers or haven’t done well in the “new economy,” for all practical purposes life really was literally better in the USSR. the fact is that for a lot of people the 70s and 80s were actually pretty good times, and some parts of the USSR reached a standard of living that has not been touched since. this is complicated, and hard for us to deal with, and doesn’t in many people’s minds negate the real social evils of the government that called itself communist but of course never was. this, combined of course with what Ataman very wisely points out about the improving-with-age nature of nostalgia can seem pretty persuasive to people.

i don’t think i’ve ever met anybody who literally wanted to just put everything back the way it was–it’s not like it’s a proposition that they think through when they’re being nostalgic, anymore than people think about the lifestyle adjustments going back to the 50s would require, but i think it’s important we don’t overlook the fact that for a lot of people, particularly those living in the shit countries of the x-SSR, life, that is, materially anyway, really was better.

Joshua Foust December 7, 2007 at 12:34 am

Noah,

I don’t think it’s that hard. It was surprising when my students there told me how much better life was in the 80s and 70s, but it made sense from their point of view. I just think it’s a bit worrying, given how Putin has played into this nostalgia to build what amounts to a permanent powerbase.

Ataman Rakin December 11, 2007 at 10:24 am

“but i think it’s important we don’t overlook the fact that for a lot of people, particularly those living in the shit countries of the x-SSR, life, that is, materially anyway, really was better.”

Yes at least as far as perception of a better life goes. Also, 3 things IMHO:

*first, in at the level of a number of social indicators field (literacy, health care, …) there were indeed remarkbale improvements in the USSR which have all gone down since (I mean, today’s official 90-st.% literacy levels in Uzb, Taj, … and other stans are no longer representative for reality).

*second, in the USSR there was little from the outside to compare with because external media were jammed and few Soviet citizens went abroad; now, people travel to Turkey, Dubai, China, … see things moving there and compare with the situation at home.

*third, the USSR had its rich and privileged, the nomenclatura and their ‘zolotie molodyozhi’ (esp. under Brezhnev), who lived in lavish dachas, went to exclusive private schools, had access to import luxury good from the Beryozka, … ; the thing was, IMO, that the people did not *see* them; whereas today, the new rich spread out their wealth, often disgustingly so, wherever they can. For many, it’s a painful humiliation.

topher January 27, 2008 at 8:35 pm

“the most toxic and destructive ideology in human history”

how totally fucking absurd

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