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Pining for a Soviet Paradise

On Saturday, Russia will celebrate Russia Day. The roots of this holiday go back to June 12, 1990, the day the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Republic adopted the Declaration on State Sovereignty for Russia. It proclaimed the “sovereignty” of the Russian Republic within a liberalized Soviet Union during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika program. Among other things, the declaration, which was signed by the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin, stated that the laws of the Russian Republic took precedence over the legislation of the Soviet Union.

Back in June 1990, I never would have thought that on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of State Sovereignty I would witness crowds of people — including young people — eulogizing the Soviet Union and shedding tears over the “fall of a great power.”

The idea of experiencing remorse over the collapse of the Soviet Union might seem crazy to those who still hold vivid memories of empty store shelves, food rationing coupons, medical clinics reserved for the elite, foreign currency stores called beryozki, rampant cronyism and special privileges for the bureaucratic elite to receive exclusive housing, jobs and education for their children.

During Soviet times, it was impossible for Russians to take a single step without permission from their superiors, and the few people who were allowed to travel abroad did so under the close and?  constant scrutiny of the KGB. It was impossible to land a job without a propiska, or internal registration papers, and it was impossible to get registered without a job. Permission from the KGB was required to even make a single Xerox copy. Engaging in private enterprise and “speculation” was severely punishable by more than one law of the Criminal Code. The much-vaunted factories built during the Soviet era are now so outdated and in need of modernization that they are more of a burden than an asset to Russia’s economy.

The legacy from the “Soviet workers’ paradise” has been passed on to today’s Russians, like shabby Soviet apartment buildings that were slapped together during the 1950s and 1960s during Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s rush to solve the acute shortage of housing — buildings that have long exceeded their official lifespan of 40 years, yet millions of families still live in these cramped, “expired” buildings. In addition, look at the terrible transportation system, the squalid communal infrastructure and the rusting army. All of these attributes of the Soviet Union are still with us today.

Now Russians can move from one place to another freely, travel abroad, buy any kind of consumer goods they want and use the Internet and mobile phones. Nonetheless, we still occasionally hear how wonderful it supposedly was to live in the Soviet paradise.

Over the 20 years since Russia first became “sovereign,” Russians somehow did not notice the creeping renaissance of the Soviet Union. Russians were busy with other things — reforms, business and their personal lives.

Tellingly, a month ago I asked an employee of a major Russian company what sparked his interest in the democratic opposition. He answered, “I heard [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin’s infamous speech at Moscow’s Luzhniki arena in 2007 in which he compared nongovernmental organizations and opposition leaders to ‘jackals,’ and I understood that the Soviet Union had returned.”

Soviet revanchism is alive and well. Supporters of authoritarianism propagandize the Soviet myth as a weapon against modern, liberal ideas — their main rivals. And for now, they have enjoyed great success in winning over the hearts and minds of the people. ? 

What can be done to stop Russia’s Sovietization? One small but important step should be taken to reveal the truth about the Soviet Union. The Internet is currently rife with cheap propaganda and myths about “the high quality of life in the Soviet era” backed up by manipulated Soviet statistics that give no idea about the sad realities of the communist empire. As a counterweight to this enormous amount of misinformation, there are only a few books by Yegor Gaidar, head of Russia’s radical economic reform programs in 1991-92.

Now 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union the last vestiges of the Soviet system have yet to be eradicated. It’s high time that we finish the job.

Vladimir Milov is a columnist for Vedomosti, where this comment appeared.

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