Eagles Mere, PA, September 29 – Many people in both Russia and the West have failed to understand that “post-Soviet does not mean anti-Soviet” for the overwhelming majority of Russians, according to one Russian commentator, and thus they do not understand either the reasons for Boris Yeltsin’s failure or those behind Vladimir Putin’s success.
In an essay posted online last week, Sergey Chernyakhovsky, who writes frequently about cultural and political affairs in the Russian Federation, argues that for Russians now, “’post-Soviet does not mean ‘non-Soviet,’ but on the contrary, to something ‘arising from Soviet’ [life] or ‘based on the Soviet [experience]” (newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/301289/cat/42/).
For Russians, unlike for many in Eastern Europe, the post-Soviet republics and the West, he suggests, the break with the Soviet past was neither welcome nor complete, although the meaning of that past for Russians was very different than many in Moscow and the West have suggested.
Indeed, “to take the ‘soviet’ out of the ‘post-soviet’” points to “a new cataclysm” as far as many Russians are concerned. “The system of Soviet models, symbols and values in one or another form,” Chernyakhovsky writes, “is not only preserved in society but affects all society and all political forces” -- including those who do not openly proclaim them.
Polls suggest this, he continued, 62 percent of Russians say they “regret” the collapse of the Soviet Union, while only 28 percent say they do not, and 60 percent say they would like to see the Soviet Union and the socialist system restored – a figure far larger than the number who vote for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation now.
That last disjunction, Chernyakhovsky argues, is because Sovietism “was always considered something more than communism,” however great was the connection between the two.
“In a certain sense,” he writes, “in the 1970s and 1980s, it was possible to speak … about a new ‘Soviet nation,’ something understood not as ‘a nation of communists’ or even as ‘a nation of supporters of Soviet power’ but rather as a nation whose members identified themselves with the territory of a single union state.”
For some, of course, the word “Soviet” now evokes only negative feelings, but for most, it has a positive connotation and represents “a certain world of dreams” to which they would like to return. Even though the Soviet system did not achieve all it said it was seeking, in their view, it was trying to realize those “dreams” and that is what matters.
“Soviet” means for this large group, Chernyakhovsky continues, industrial development, victory in World War II, sputnik, gigantist construction projects, and a feeling of confidence and security that many have now lost. And consequently, for the members of this group, it means a system and a time when at least some dreams were realized.
Soviet society then and Russian society in large measure now was “disappointed” in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) not so much because of talk about repressions and mistakes but “because the party [during the last years of Soviet power] refused to build communism” as it had promised to do.
And when the party leadership turned away from communism, Chernyakhovsky says, society responded, “all right but why do we need a communist party for the construction of a market? Entirely different people ought to build it.” That was the end of the CPSU but it did not mean a rejection of Sovietism.
Today, the Moscow analyst says, “the majority of society wants to receive not something ‘non-Soviet’ but something ‘still better than Soviet.’ Not to return to the ‘pre-Soviet,” something that can’t be realized, but to find a way somehow to ‘the super-soviet,’” it not the communist future they had been promised.
Like many in Eastern Europe, in the non-Russian republics, and in the West, Boris Yeltsin was prepared to reject this Soviet legacy almost entirely, but that was a major reason for his unpopularity. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, not only understood it but embodies it in his actions – and that has been the foundation of his success.
This is confirmed in the polls as well, Chernyakhovsky points out. Thirty-three percent of the supporters of Putin believe that their country was going in the right direction under Lenin, he notes, and another 30 percent believe that was true under Stalin. And the figures for Medvedev supporters are similar, 33 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
But – and these are the key figures, the Moscow analyst suggests – “only 20 percent of Putin supporters believe that the course of the country under Yeltsin was correct,” while 63 percent consider it incorrect.” Among Medvedev supporters, those figures are 21 percent and 61 percent.
Russia “cannot return to the pre-Soviet period,” he argues, and it will not become Soviet either.. But “post-Soviet society can move forward and develop only by including in itself and using as a foundation [at least some of what the Russian people define as ] ‘Soviet.’” If that doesn’t happen, Chernyakhovsky concludes, then the future could be bleak indeed.