One of Russian President Vladimir Putin's leitmotifs is that Ukraine is a "mistake of history." According to his weltanschauung, Russians and Ukrainians are "one people," and Ukraine is an "artificial" creation of the founder of the Soviet State, Vladimir Lenin, who is accused of granting this republic territories that should never have been governed by Kyiv. Following Putin's logic, it would seem that Lenin and the Soviet leaders, who deprived Russia of what "historically belonged" to her, should be anathematized. Yet, ironically, the Kremlin is now condemning Ukraine's efforts at de-Sovietization, while Russian occupying forces in eastern Ukraine are designating streets in captured cities with Soviet-era names and erecting Soviet monuments in the squares. I would say that this is the least significant proof of an irreparable rift in the current Russian worldview that tries to combine – albeit without any visible success – elements of the imperial, Soviet, and "new Russian" identities.
Russia's Search For Identity
Since its "re-establishment" in 1990, the "new Russia" has faced a difficult challenge, as it proclaimed itself a legal successor to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Yet, it fought a fierce battle with the Communist regime, and therefore opted for adopting the insignia that belonged to the "old Russia." At that time, the country began a tricky journey, since she had to develop an identity she never had before: that of a republican nation succeeding two different empires at once. There was first the Russian Empire, which was perceived as an ideal that the Communists destroyed. Then came the Soviet Union, which created all the institutional structures the Russian Federation inherited, even the new country's borders. To my mind, this produced an internal contradiction that still exists and develops – a contradiction between an already forgotten but desirable past that cannot be restored, and one much closer and more viable, but which in the first years of Russia's democratic experience was much less beloved. What has happened after was a long, painful, and – as is clear today – an unsuccessful attempt to crossbreed these completely different identities.
During the early years of Russia's independence, the old tradition was symbolized primarily by the restoration of the imperial double-headed eagle as a coat of arms and the old Russian white-blue-red banner raised upon the building of Russia's Supreme Soviet after the failure of the 1991 coup-d'état. The attempt to establish a link to the imperial times was so visible that the coat of arms of Russia is derived from that of the Russian Empire, which was abolished with the Russian Revolution in 1917. Simultaneously, the Russian government announced research aimed at codifying Russia's "national idea" that was supposed to serve as a basis for the new identity. The failure of this attempt reflected the fact that it was impossible to form one (which is, to my mind, quite obvious since Russia is a "historic nation" like most of the European ones, and not an "ideological" one, based on shared ideas like the United States is). However, by the end of the 1990s, it was clear that the continuation of the tsarist times had become, if not unpopular among the people, then rather something to which the people were indifferent. The ceremony of the reinterment of the remains of Emperor Nicholas II and his family in Saint Petersburg's Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998 was, I would say, the final point in the glorification of the "old Russia."
The Cult Of The Soviet Past
As Putin, a former KGB officer, came to power, he almost immediately signaled the return of some Soviet-era symbols (e.g., the Russian anthem resembles the Soviet one; it has slightly revised lyrics but the same recognizable music), and reinstated many quasi-Soviet institutions. Furthermore, in 2005, Putin said that the demise of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. The reference was made to elevate the victory in the Second World War to the most glorious achievement of the Soviet age – and what followed was not less than a total privatization (or, if one uses famous formula provided by Professor Marshall Goldman, "piratization") of the Soviet history by the Russian Federation.
Under the Soviet Union, Russia won the Second World War and defeated Germany (although in that war, the current Russian banner was used by the Russian Liberation Army, which was composed of deserters and fought on the side of the Third Reich against the Soviets; its commander, former Soviet General Andrei Vlasov, was captured and later executed in Moscow in 1946), sent the first man into space, developed the world's largest nuclear arsenal, and became one of the two superpowers during the Cold War. All these achievements of all peoples that composed the Soviet Union for around 70 years have been masterfully used for emphasizing the new Russia's greatness.
As Putin's regime matured, the cult of the Soviet past became more and more visible. Under his rule, the country's governance was recreated using the Soviet schemes of one-party rule and predictable "elections", the cult of the Great Victory was turned into a national movement called "An Immortal Regiment," history textbooks have been amended, and "patriotism" has been declared the only possible national ideology.
I would say that the most crucial point behind the revival of the past was the understanding that the current successes of the country were too unimpressive, that modernization in Russia had failed, and that the country's economic and technological future looked too uncertain. Hence, the best option was to declare that the nation's past was so glorious and perfect that we should restore it rather than trying to build something entirely new and unknown. However, the idea of Soviet geopolitical greatness has been used for legitimizing Putin's imperial projects in Belarus, Ukraine, and elsewhere. So, the representation of the current Russia's revival of the past as a kind of a revenge for the Soviet "defeat" has been quite fruitful in strengthening Putin. Yet, there are also two big problems with it.
The Russian Empire-Soviet Dichotomy
The first problem is the Kremlin's tremendous inconsistency, as the "old Russian" traditions are being used along with the Soviet past also to empower Putin's rule. Russia celebrates "People's Unity Day" on November 4, the anniversary (supposedly) of the day in 1612 on which the Polish army was forced out of Moscow. The old Russian banner and coat of arms are still the official symbols of the nation – and decorate, for example, the annual celebrations for the State Security Services Day on December 10. I would remind the reader that the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (VChK), established on that day in 1917, was responsible for executing the former emperor and for killing thousands of noblemen and officers remaining loyal to these insignia during the years of the Russian civil war. At the same time, the Russian banner flies over the Kremlin with its towers crowned by the Soviet red stars that were put there on Joseph Stalin's orders.
Even more stunning is the position of the Russian Orthodox church, which nowadays hails the "Sovietization" of everyday life, and repeats Putin's words about Stalin's achievements while remembering the thousands of priests and believers killed by the Bolsheviks (on February 7, the special Day of the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church is celebrated to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives for the faith). The toponymics of the Russian cities now mixes the old names with those given by the Soviet authorities. The Church of All Saints was erected on the site where Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and his family, were executed by the Bolsheviks. Ironically, the Church is located in the Sverdlovsk region, which was called after Yakov Mikhailovich Sverdlov, who was the chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (from 1917 to 1919) at the time Nicholas II and his family were killed, whose remains rest in Saint Petersburg, which is located in the center of the Leningrad region. These contradictions have become deeply rooted in the contemporary Russian reality, and it seems they are consistent with the society, which has not found its sense and purpose. Hence, the Soviet/Russian dichotomy looks like a critical instrument in governing people that should neither have nor express intentions of their own.
The second problem is that there are a lot of Soviet-era imperatives that do not accommodate the current Russian regime. Although the policies of the Soviet elites contradicted greatly the ideological elements of Communist doctrine, there were many points that seemed natural in Soviet times, but are not now. To begin with, I would remind the reader that the Soviet Union proclaimed itself a revolutionary force – and therefore it hailed almost any kind of revolt or change around the world. To prove it, one should just look at the relationships between the USSR and the "Third World" pro-independence movements.
Today, Russia appears to be one of the most reactionary powers in the world, fearing any kind of change. Moscow supports any dictator that fights internal opposition and Putin's credo is that Russia "has reached its limit on revolutions." In this, he resembles Nicholas I far more than he does Nikita Khruschev or Mikhail Gorbachev. The very idea of a grassroots popular movement scares the Kremlin, while in the Soviet Union there were many examples of mass initiatives, even in the economic sphere. The Russian regime of today is instead skeptical about anything that has not been commanded from above (all pro-Russian enthusiasts in Crimea and Donbass pioneering the so called "Crimean Spring" were squeezed out of politics and substituted by more loyalist candidates brought from Russia).
Moreover, in the Soviet Union, "internationalism" (as well as "friendship among people") was elevated to the status of a new religion. Conversely, in today's Russia, the Kremlin is obsessed with the idea of the "Russian world," insisting that Russians possess "not only some common cultural code, but also an incredibly forceful genetic code" that "almost for sure is one of our major competitive advantages in contemporary world," following in this respect the Nazi theories that the Communists fiercely rejected and condemned. Yet, I would say that the most striking difference – and almost unbelievable – is that, whatever political course the Soviet Union conducted, the strongest appeal in at least the domestic sphere was "the fight for peace." The main message drawn from the World War II was the notion that such a war should never happen again. Even in 1962, the Soviet leadership agreed to step back in its showdown with the Americans, as a nuclear conflict looked like a close possibility.
Now, the attitude to the war is marked by the words "Moжем повторить [We can do it once again]!" The Russian police and security services are opening criminal cases just for displaying slogans like "No more war!" or "Peace to the world!" insisting that such actions are aimed at "discrediting the Russian Armed Forces." It is not my intention to say that the Soviet Union was a free country where the rulers wholeheartedly followed the humanist dogmas of Communism – it was not; but, on a purely symbolic level, the Soviet ideology is incompatible with the policies run by the current Russian regime.
One may say that "gambling" with Soviet symbols is Putin's innocent game played to create additional levers with which to influence Russian society. Yet, I would argue that it is much more dangerous than one might believe. Putin turns to the Soviet history and to the Soviet-era symbols in search of greatness, as he becomes more confident that Russia, a genuine heir to the Soviet Union, is as strong as it was, even if it is not. Yet, the glorification and mythologization of the Soviet past bring a pejorative attitude toward the future, toward progress, and even toward a sense of rationality. The Russian leadership greatly overestimates Russia's capabilities and believes that Russia deserves everything she may wish and cannot be stopped by anyone. Living in an imagined past, the Kremlin does not care about the trends that prevail in today's world and ignores the new sources of wealth and power that emerged in the 21st century. I would argue that the most important mistakes that were made in recent years in Russia – the crackdown on democratic institutions and the recreation of the "power vertical," the continuous resistance to the idea of economic modernization, the outdated perceptions of "hard" vs. "soft" power, and, after all, the decision to launch the war against Ukraine – were inspired by both the reminiscences of past Soviet glory and by the feeling that positive memories about Soviet achievements would outweigh the current arbitrariness and lawlessness.
However, Putin fails to consider two simple points. The first is that the Soviet Union continued to be a superpower only as long as it remained economically and militarily strong. As it lost the technological competition to the West and was defeated in a low-intensity war in Afghanistan, it entered its final decline. The second is that the Soviet Union was unable to reform itself – and as it tried, it crumbled. Putin's Russia now faces a similar risk: After it loses its war against Ukraine, it would have no alternative but to be wrecked. Ironically, even in this case, Russia would pursue the Soviet path.
*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor.
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