Ghost of the USSR

Popular Russian narratives connect Soviet times as an extremely significant “anchor” and the point of reference to the domestic source and forms of power even for a comparatively younger generation of Russians, who should not have an actively conscious memory of the Soviet period. This is perfectly understandable since, according to Veljko Vukacic, “the Soviet experience, however contradictory and ambivalent, is the main historical storehouse from which a usable Russian past can be constructed, for the simple reason that it is the only one within living collective memory.”42 It is only within the Soviet Union that Russians, as a nation, felt venerated on a daily basis by the host of fourteen other Soviet nationalities. It was, in a way, the “daily plebiscite” in the Soviet context when the Russian nation was elevated in the average Soviet komunalka (common house) for being “Big Brother.”43 And the Russians gladly accepted the role of the primus inter pares, which was greatly missed once the Soviet jail broke.

The Soviet Union’s place as a superpower in the contemporary Russian identity-in-the-making is clearly visible in the social construct of the modern Russian military and society. Putin changed the music of the Russian national anthem back to the old Soviet Union anthem’s soon after he became president of Russia for the first time in 2000. In the 2000s other important institutional structures of the Soviet mental upbringing were reanimated: the dossaf (Voluntary Society for Assistance to the Army, Air Force, and Navy), a quasi-military youth sports organization, abandoned during the early years of Russian independence, received a new life in 2009. So did the gto (Ready for Work and Defense), a patriotic athletic training program in educational, professional, and sports organizations giving health-based certification required for enrollment in the universities for the Russian students in 2014. Above all, as a crowning event, the VDNKh (Exhibition of Achievement of National Economy) made a sparkling comeback as the point of pride for the Soviet Union’s economic performance, in an overly ambitious project of turning the Russian international exposition center back to its original activities.

The most recent development in the list of Soviet comebacks for finding the concave lenses of Russian identity was the reinstatement in 2014 of the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founding father of the CheKa, the Extraordinary Committee, the notorious predecessor of the nkvd and later the kgb. The monument was originally erected in 1958 in front of the ominous kgb building in Lubyanka Square, associated by many in the Soviet Union and abroad with grim memories of massive human repressions. In 1991 the monument was taken down by the democratizing forces of new Russia, and a quarter of a century afterward it was returned by the Communist party leaders. All these steps are directed toward the resuscitation of Soviet nostalgia, together with the Russian imperial coat of arms and the tricolor flag, which would solidify Russian identity.

The same “Great Russia” construct in today’s identity quest is embodied in the draft law submitted to the Russian Duma to create a new holiday in Russia, the Day of Military Glory, which is the day when the Russian troops occupied Paris (March 31) as the result of the European campaigns of the Russian army in 1813 and 1814. The reason for going that far in glorifying their past, according to the law’s creators, is “the need to revive the historical traditions of the celebration of Russia’s victory in the Patriotic War of 1812 and to reduce the numbers of attempts to falsify historical facts and events associated with this period.”44 Similar to the spirit of obsession over glorifying and guarding their past is the recent mass move to build monuments to the heroes of World War I, such as Drozdovsky, Kolchak, Denisov, and Denikin. These are the generals of the tsarist era who were associated with the Russian military victories in the war that they had exited from as a loser after the Bolshevik coup of 1917. By this Russia wants to commemorate its 1.5 million deaths and stand on par with the United States and Europe, which have numerous monuments dating back to this war. This is yet another attempt to create Russian identity and to foster national consolidation by historically referencing it with past glory or defeats.

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