Last week, the government criticized a bill that would have made it a criminal offense to deny the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. United Russia deputies had introduced the measure last year. In December, President Dmitry Medvedev and then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went on record saying the crimes of Josef Stalin could not be justified in any way. The rowdy campaign conducted by the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group to harass journalist Alexander Podrabinek for his alleged anti-Soviet remarks was quickly halted.
There are signs that Russian society is entering a new stage — not because leaders have re-evaluated our Soviet past, but because they have realized that there is little more that can be gained by exploiting it. Up until now, the authorities tried to tap into the cultural and mythological inheritance of the Soviet era, but most of this inheritance has been sapped dry.
By the end of the 1990s, it turned out that the ideals of the early democratic period had become discredited by the fierce struggle for authority and wealth. The clan that replaced the ruling elite of President Boris Yeltsin’s administration needed a leitmotif for carrying out their post-revolutionary restoration. The basic government institutions were still in need of repairs following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Later, a Soviet facade was needed to cover the moral and psychological vacuum created by the model of state-run capitalism and the huge gap between the rich and the poor.
Yet nobody had any serious intentions of restoring the previous system. The architects of the post-Soviet renaissance had no desire to return to the Soviet model. After all, it was the moral and financial bankruptcy of that system that gave them the opportunity to gain power. Of all the many legacies of the Soviet past, the Kremlin’s spin doctors focused on only one element during the first decade of this century — returning Russia to its former superpower status. Although pursuing that path seemed to offer a simple way to increase patriotism and national solidarity, it ultimately led the authorities into a big trap.
First, the Kremlin’s nostalgic allusions to Soviet times often backfired. By reminding Russians of how powerful the Soviet Union once was on the world stage, the people couldn’t help but realize how far down Russia has dropped from that former superpower status. The only remedy to this dilemma would be to embark upon a revanchist course aimed at reviving Russia’s lost empire, but it clearly does not have the willpower, the resources or the opportunity to do this.
Second, the Kremlin realized that it is pointless to wallow in iconic or ideological remnants of the Soviet past. Even if such a model were desirable, it cannot be revived in the modern world. Cherry-picking the best chapters from the Soviet past to inspire us for the future will not work.
The debate over pro- and anti-Soviet stances has replaced the search for a constructive path to development — not only for Russian authorities, but also for the opposition. For the liberal opposition, the struggle against the Soviet period has become an end in itself and produces nothing but emotionally charged, empty debates. The argument that Russia should follow the example of Germany by overcoming its past through repentance and reconciliation doesn’t hold up. It was possible in Germany only because the country was effectively destroyed and occupied after World War II. Moreover, the process past took many years to complete.
In contrast to Germany, Russia did not suffer a military defeat, was not occupied and did not feel at any time that it had been vanquished. It is impossible force a feeling of guilt on people. Russia can fully come to terms with its past sins only through a long, extensive educational process, primarily in the area of history. But any oversimplification of the facts — whether pro- or anti-Soviet in nature — will lead to the opposite result. Russia could learn from the experience of other countries, such as Spain, which successfully closed the chapter of its right-wing dictatorship under Francisco Franco and moved on to become a full-fledged and respected member among European democracies.
By 2009, the more desperate attempts to revive Soviet nostalgia turned into an embarrassment for the Kremlin after they became caricatures of themselves. The decision by the Moscow authorities to restore the vestibule of the Kurskaya metro station with a pro-Stalin verse from the old Soviet anthem was a parody of itself. In addition, the farce in two acts — Moscow prefect Oleg Mitvol clamping down on the Anti-Sovietskaya restaurant and the Nashi youth movement’s harassment campaign against journalist Alexander Podrabinek — revealed the absurdity of trying to build Russian patriotism on an extinct Soviet past.
It seems that our leaders have also realized that the well of Soviet patriotic symbols is running dry. The second decade of the 21st century will require new symbols and new sources of patriotism. And herein lies a problem. At the end of the 1990s when leaders had exhausted the call for revolution, they could at least shift focus to restoring the country’s “lost greatness” and giving it its rightful place under the sun in the global arena.
But is unclear what substitute is available today. The last decade was marked by all-out mercantilism, a value system that does not tend to foster new ideas. This has led to the forced attempt to invent a so-called “Russian conservatism” or “conservative modernization,” which are nothing more than ideological window dressing to cover up for the country’s lack of economic strategies and national ideas. This is precisely why Medvedev’s numerous modernization initiatives lack substance and have turned into nothing more than empty slogans.
Russia’s problem is that it has an ideological vacuum. This is dangerous because the vacuum will inevitably get filled — and most likely by something dangerous. Other post-
Communist countries have filled their vacuums with nationalism, but their nationalism has been tamed to one degree or another by their entry in the European Union, which enforces strict democratic principles for members, or their desire to become members. But Russia, the proverbial cat that walks by himself, has few external constraints like the EU. If Russia’s ideology vacuum is filled by ethnic nationalism, this will be very self-destructive, as the Soviet collapse painfully showed.
In the end, Russia must produce a new national idea to survive in the 21st century.
Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.