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The End of Soviet Nostalgia

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The End of Soviet Nostalgia

20.07.2008

The recent closing of Detsky Mir (Children’s World) on Lubyanka Square for a three-year renovation serves as a good illustration of the ominous slogan “Renewing Moscow!” that is plastered about the city. After the renovations, Detsky Mir will become a multifunctional shopping center with underground parking, a food court and a multi-screen movie theatre. In other words, the famous store will be transformed into something completely unrecognizable. It’s not surprising that the disappearance of yet another pre-Luzhkov symbol is receiving considerable attention in the press.

But more often than not the press is writing about the destruction of possibly the most successful creation of the architect Dushkin. They say nothing of how the Detsky Mir was more than just a store for Russia in the 1950s. Of course, it was just a coincidence, but when the huge children’s store was opened right next to the recently renamed Ministry of State Security, it was a far better indication than the 20th Party Congress that new times had indeed arrived. And in general, the authors of the newspaper obituaries said nothing about how the closing of Detsky Mir was a farewell to their Soviet childhood – a time of extravagant stuffed animals, blue school uniforms (for girls – brown) and lines stretching for a kilometer. It was a time – who could have imagined fifteen or twenty years ago! – that turned out to be capable of causing such feelings of nostalgia. In the end, it might have been necessary to close Detsky Mir simply because for so many people the need to mourn the loss of their Soviet childhood was so strong.

Mourning its loss didn’t begin today, however. Four years ago, the Russian blogosphere literally exploded with the emergence of community "76_82" (the name denotes the range of years when members were born). The community grew from thousands and thousands of representatives of the first free generation, as it was called, who were more interested in talking about old Soviet machines that dispensed soda water and the TV show “Morning Mail” than about new gadgets or even sex.

But this was perhaps the final episode of the nostalgic boom. T-shirts and shoes with the inscription "USSR" were first found in the youth clubs, but then teenagers from the outlying areas began wearing them in the early 2000s. Restaurants with Soviet interiors and menus, the .su internet domain that was resurrected ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and, most importantly, radio stations and discos that played Soviet music immediately became fashionable among teenagers and people in their twenties. All of this constitutes one of the most important mass cultural trends of the past decade.

I remember how in 2002, when I arrived in Moscow, I walked past a poster advertising a festival of old music organized by Russkoye Radio (Russian Radio) that used the slogan "Our Motherland – the USSR!" I thought to myself whether these idiots realized that they are doing the campaign work for the Communist Party for the whole year ahead. It turned out I was wrong, though.  Voters who traditionally support the Communists don’t go to such concerts and those who do go generally don’t vote.

From the very beginning, this has not been a political story, and those who blame the current "renaissance of the pro-Soviet" on the famous authors of the “Old Songs” project are seriously mistaken. They don’t have anything to do with this phenomenon in so far as the “Old Songs” was a carnival of sorts that ended rather quickly without becoming the beginning of anything new at all. 

The authors of the cult return of everything Soviet in the early 2000s were not politicians or television producers. The return was something that definitely came from below. Those first nostalgic discos were not part of some cunning idea; rather, it was just that a decade earlier the Soviet legacy had been dropped from the ship of modernity so thoroughly that for any youth, the inherent desire to not be “like everyone else" automatically meant a desire to "be a Soviet.”  I remember perfectly how in 1995, without any of the eighties discos, I bought all the Tsvety, Ariel and even Samotsvety cassettes that I could get my hands on. To me it seemed like a very reasonable and easy way to not be like all the other people who in those days were going crazy over "Scooter" and "Agatha Christie.”

As everyone knows, all pendulums have one very important feature in common – they swing. And when the majority becomes "not like everyone else,” from that "not like everyone else" the “not” part falls off. This principle is illustrated by the history of two groups from St. Petersburg. One appeared at the beginning of Perestroika. The group performed a number of hits with sharp social commentary (many will recall "Russians, Russians, restless fate, why do we need misfortune for strength"). This corresponded with the main trends in the Soviet rock scene. The group was called "St. Petersburg,” and this name was a serious challenge to officialdom at the time, as even the most radical participants in the Perestroika movement could not imagine that Leningrad would ever take back its former name. Then there is the group called "Leningrad," which probably made the most sinking debut ever. In Soviet Leningrad, it would have performed something moving about the White Nights and drawbridges because, as everyone knows, “how you name a yacht determines how it will float.”

Ten years later, the pendulum was already swinging in the opposite situation. In post-Soviet St. Petersburg, the flamboyant rock group could only have been called "Leningrad." The pendulum swing was also logical in so far as the White Nights, drawbridges and other assorted silliness had already been St. Petersburg.

Today, this dialectic has brought us into a very mysterious wilderness. The words "Leningrad" and "St. Petersburg," just like "USSR" and "Russia," bring about virtually the same associations. The counterculture can’t find its place either here or there. Neither Soviet nor anti-Soviet (of course, not only in the political sense but in the broadest meaning of these words) can become a real challenge no matter how peacefully the Soviet and anti-Soviet coexist, complementing each other and flowing into one another. Being "not like everyone else" is impossible. Everyone is “not like everyone else.”

The strange project by state television "Name of Russia" that everyone is discussing is taking place (for some reason nobody draws attention to this) with disputes about who – Stalin and Lenin or Nicholas II and Stolypin – are the main heroes of Russian history. The debates don’t make sense at all. Today, there is virtually no difference between and Nicholas and Lenin, or Stalin and Stolypin. The heroes of the Soviet and the anti-Soviet easily transform into one another and then back again, remaining the swampy background of the modern era.

Throughout the 1990s, the Soviet past served as fodder for protest sentiment and opposition ideologies. Instead of a decisive battle for life, there was a decisive battle for death in which the Soviet melted into the anti-Soviet to the point where one can no longer tell who is where and what is where. And if someone suddenly gets the idea to be "not like everyone else,” he will have to work hard to invent a system that takes himself outside the realm of Soviet and anti-Soviet that we find ourselves in now.

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