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Soviet nostalgia: thank you, broken promises

Episode 1: Not good, not bad, but Soviet
At a soviet regalia stall in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, I ask the 60-something vendor if he thinks times were better back then or now. He starts with the bad stuff – the repressions, censorship, lack of freedom – but goes on to say that actually, there was less violence: ‘Three murders in three months then, five a day today,’ and less alcoholism: ‘My friend had trouble finding an alcoholic as a prototype for his novels; now, half the country is drowning.’

Empty shops: The salaries were small, and there were few things to spend them on. Here, a typical Soviet shop recreated in the bunker – typically blue, as this paint was the cheapest. Photo by Giedre Steikunaite.

This ‘Well yes, but…’ description of those Soviet days is very common among those who lived through them. Such varying individual experiences are only natural. and they reflect several eras: firstly, Stalinism, with its indiscriminate ‘cleansings’ and deportations to Siberia – not very nostalgic, really. Khrushchev’s Thaw was a defrosting period of cultural, social and economic transformations; then came Brezhnev and life got stuck in a moment; after the Stagnation period under him and two other old ‘leaders’ it was Gorbachev’s turn. Then it all suddenly collapsed.

So what are we really nostalgic for?

Episode 2: Those were the days

There’s a weird place in southern Lithuania: Grutas Park. The open-air museum of Soviet statues collected after the fall of communism is on a mission to take the ‘idols’ – Stalin, Lenin and the like – off their pedestals and to expose the ‘naked Soviet ideology which suppressed and hurt the spirit of our nation for many decades’. But does the exposure of ideology also require selling Soviet merchandise, feeding visitors typical Soviet food and romanticizing the whole experience?

Lenin lives in Grutas Park. Photo by Iryna Kuchma under a CC licence.

Bronislavas, the Park’s tourism manager, once told me: ‘[To those who mutter that we praise the USSR, I say] This is our history. A nation without a past is a nation without a future.’ True. But I should add that what matters is what we choose to remember, what to forget, and how.

A similar place, Memento Park, exists in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, under the concept ‘No irony, memento’. Careful not to hurt the feelings of communism’s victims, its creators insist the Park ‘is not about communism, but the fall of communism’.  

So is taking pictures of de-located ‘heroes’ about nostalgia, capitalism’s revenge or simply making peace with our past?

The project 1984: Survival Drama in a Soviet Bunker has taken this kind of tourism to new levels. The bunker, built in the 1980s under the codename ‘House of Creation’, was meant to serve as a backup TV/radio station if there was a nuclear war with the US. The performance/reality show with angry dogs and even angrier supervisors, interrogation by the KGB, solitary confinement and gas mask exercises five metres under the ground, intends to make participants feel what life was like back in the day.

There’s also an underground Socialism museum – an educational tool for the young, a living memory for the older.

(The bunker, by the way, was absolutely useless. Its transmission cables were connected to the main TV tower in Vilnius, 25 kilometres away – so if the ‘enemy’ decided to bomb it, which it probably would have, transmissions wouldn’t have been technically possible. ‘It was a massive soap-bubble,’ my bunker guide said. How very Soviet!)

Episode 3: The past vs the present vs the future
Why do so many people reminisce warmly about the ‘evil empire’, I ask him. ‘Why? But we were young then!’ is his reply. Or, as someone put it, ‘The nostalgia is not for the Soviet times – it’s for our youth, for the way we will never again be.’

So it’s ironic that communism, which was always supposed to be about the future, is now only about the past.

Writing about Soviet nostalgia in Russia, Boris Kagarlitsky contemplates: ‘Society is aggrieved by the emptiness and vapidity of the new era, the inability of its ideologists to propose a common ideal, the lack of major achievements... Soviet nostalgia fills the moral, ideological and cultural vacuum. And it will be overcome only when contemporary Russia succeeds in developing, based on its own experience, new forms of solidarity and can boast of achievements that will unite rather than divide its citizens.’

Happy New Year: A typically positive Soviet postcard. ‘S Novam Godam’ – Happy New Year! 1980. Image by Felix O under a CC Licence.

Nostalgia is fed by the daily struggles of today – for many, life is not better after communism; it is worse. Although the promised bright tomorrow of communism never came, for many, neither did the promised heaven of Western capitalism. An empty stomach became more important than some abstract freedom.

Episode 4: Memory ghosts

Twenty-one years after independence, Lithuania’s supermarkets stock ‘Soviet sausages’ and other ‘Soviet’-branded food items, decorated with brave young faces in the best Soviet tradition. They supposedly represent quality. Funny, this quality: an old Soviet anecdote (anecdotes had a special status – they exposed the truth) goes: ‘Why is there no toilet paper in the shops? Because it’s all been used for sausage-meat production.’

This looks like conscious amnesia. How could we forget the endless queues, the constant deficits, the corruption? Did synthetic compote, the KGB’s activities and Pravda’s ‘truths’ never exist, or are we just stranded in the dark corridors of our memories?

We had more values then, I hear often, and life was more predictable – you knew what to expect, even if it was nothing. We were better people, they say, homo sovieticus was more humane than his successor. There was no unemployment, everybody had a job: ‘One works, two supervise, and three more spy on those.’

But they were young then, and not hungry.

Episode 5: The irony
A young man walks the streets of a Western Europe capital city wearing a colourful t-shirt with CCCP imprinted on it (in Russian, CCCP stands for USSR). Is that a sign of rotten capitalism’s victory over failed communism, or simply ignorance? 

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