Soviet Nostalgia

Selection_029By Nikita

I am in the centre of Moscow, at Petrovich – a fake club attended by genuine nostalgic Soviets. As the song Evenu Shalom Aleichem, (a Jewish anti-war song hit from the mid-70s), starts up, I start dancing and singing the refrain loudly, but within, my heart sinks.

Here we go then, we have something in common… but who are these nostalgic Russians? I see people between 50 and 70 years old, who miss the Brezhnev period, from the mid-sixties to the early eighties and have replaced those who can remember the Stalinist era who are far less numerous and well advanced in age. But the question arises, how can one have nostalgia for a time when there was no freedom of expression, no travel abroad, with so many things missing?
Nostalgia is everywhere in Russia – on television, in books, on the internet you can almost smell it. It pervades everything. I read in a newspaper: ‘We were stronger, we travelled in space, the stars of the ballet were dancing, to some extent we lived more simply, a happier life in which we dreamed of a slice of bread but were happy with fresh air’. However, I feel that this sense of nostalgic pride of the ‘Soviet Grandeur’ is strengthening in today’s Russia – stressed by recent political and economic tensions, together with memories of innocence, youth and simplicity.

Oleg, (55) tells me ‘We had guarantees, we worked and we knew what we would earn at the end of the month. The prices were the same for a very long time, in all stores and across the Soviet Union: white bread 13 kopecks (cents rouble), whole wheat bread 9 kopecks, piroshki, with cabbage, 5 kopecks, with Jam 5 kopecks, with meat 10 kopecks.’ I press him, “and for 1 kg of potatoes?’ ‘10 kopecks and 20 kopecks for milk, 3 roubles per kg, 1 kopeck for a matchbox.” While I listen to Oleg’s instant recall, I reflect that in the future it will be impossible to remember today’s prices of consumer goods.

The era of Brezhnev thus offered a sheltered life, full of security, innocent and genuine, but nevertheless recorded in history as the ‘era of stagnation.’ This nostalgia was born at the fall of the Soviet Union in response to the economic and cultural chaos of the time. Consolation was then cultivated by television channels as Nostalgiya that showed old movies and reruns of Soviets news, by books that reflected on the memory of the USSR, like Namedni (‘Not long ago’) by Parfenov, recalling its majesty and glory. Even Putin, recognising in this nostalgia an important electoral tool, reintroduced the old Soviet anthem, the military flashes with the red star, the red victory flag in the Russian army and even Cheburashka, a cartoon character, that has been the mascot of the Russian Olympic team. All of this Soviet endoskeleton is still reflected in today’s Russian society, with its political, military and police structure, the social policy, the education system, the health care network and the state bureaucracy (the boundless love for rubber stamps!).

Meanwhile, as opposed to cynicism and consumerism that plagues new Russian society, nostalgia has evolved into nostalgia for Soviet feelings, a search for spiritual and emotional values, for solidarity. Such regret for a lost past, now stripped of ideology but steeped in memory and more recently in pride has provided a wonderful opportunity for the development of the ‘marketing of nostalgia’. This is inspired and is supported by vintage fashion, and which has encouraged countless ersatz restaurants, like the Pavillon, the Kvartira 44, the Stolovaya No. 57, the latter a perfect replica of the Soviet canteens, or clubs as the Petrovich, the Zhiguli, the Glavpivtorg where you can taste ‘real’ Soviet dishes like the salad komunalka (apartment shared by several families in the Soviet era). This trend has gone beyond restaurants and clubs, and embraced many sectors. There are retro Gastronomes (Soviet large food shops) like Gastronome No.1, Soviet music in the GUM Department Store and advertisements in Soviet-style posters in the subway. The restaurant Chaikhona No.1 has even put in place a system of badges for the waiters accompanied by the slogan: ‘You have earned for how you have worked!’

Moral: While dancing among the tables to the music of the 1970s and 1980s, I perceive that modern Russian nostalgia is for their past youth, just as mine is, with the difference that my memories of youthful joy are not ‘located’ in Soviet times. Their longing coincides with a yearning for the their past youth and for the relatively protected life of late socialism, — in some ways, two sides of the same coin.

The lion’s share of this ‘marketing of nostalgia’ is the return to Soviet packaging for consumer products, especially food, because in Soviet times, as Svetlana, (53) told me: ‘There were few products but they were very good, especially the milk, butter and cheese.’ The food products of the Soviet era are becoming the symbol of forgotten quality, of natural flavours and perhaps even of national pride, given modern Russian sanctions against the import of foodstuffs from abroad.
In Soviet times, the price of products were known to everyone because of the scarcity of those very same products and a lack of inflation. Today a new line of ice creams has been launched on the market which has kept the old names of Eskimo or Plombir and in their packaging are priced as they were in the past: 11 kopeek, kopecks, or 48 kopeek. These ice creams are proving universally popular — the nostalgics because they can taste their memories, while the young… well, the young just like the taste of ice cream.

Ekaterina, (66), explains this nostalgic feeling in more depth: “There was a less individualistic atmosphere, a more collective spirit, more solidarity, more friendship among people and less criminality”. Because, as Olga, (45) pointed out: “The State was atheist, but human values were practically identical to the morals that religions taught”. At that time these concepts were also promoted on the packaging and proof of this, survives today in the shape of a well-known Russian cheese with the same packaging and the same name — Friendship. Cheese appears to be dominating nostalgia based food products as a chocolate covered cheese (yes – really) is called Nostal’giya. Nothing subtle there then.
However, Ekaterina recalls more humdrum memories: “There was nothing exciting in collecting old newspapers and magazines, taking them for weighing and getting in return a coupon to get a new book. I remember that I would take the novels of Maurice Druon, on the stories of the Kings of France”. Just for an instant, she smiles and adds: “Of course it was fun!” Here is the power of nostalgia and how it brings lumps to the throat – they assault you right when you do not expect or want. Ekaterina continues: “Nostalgic people are people who feel sorry for themselves, who have no personal initiative. Before they could blame the Government, today only themselves”. Olga says: “One of the problems with being nostalgic is economic. At that time there was the myth of the West. Today, for those in need, the era of gold was to be found in the Soviet period.” Oleg, adds: “My parents were earning 500 roubles per month, which was a lot of money then and in the 1980s the government gave us a nice apartment. Before I could travel around the Soviet Union, today I can’t afford even Bulgaria”. And Ekaterina urges: “Life was cheap – food and bills, but clothing could be expensive and not nice, it was not fashionable. Even those who could shop in the Beriozka (stores for privileged people) were regrettably suffering the same fate. Sure, with their shoes they were showing themselves not to be just anybody, but perversely in those shops there was even less choice because many ‘nicer and more expensive’ models of shoes could only be found in two different colours. To be different we had to use ingenuity and seamstresses”.

In contrast, despite literary, theatrical, musical and film censorship, there was a flourishing cultural life. Oleg: “The cinema cost 10 kopecks in the morning and 40 kopecks in the evening.” Svetlana: “I could go to the theatre every night, as it only cost between 40 and 60 kopecks,” but, she adds: “How boring Soviet life was, what greyness”.

Ekaterina contrasts the arts of today and yesteryear “Before, to act in a theatre, more talent and courage were needed; today perhaps more money.” It almost seems that before there was more ethics than aesthetics, now there are more aesthetics than ethics. And what about the concept of no freedom of speech? Elena, tells us: “I have nostalgia for the Soviet period only because it was the time of my youth, because when you are young, life seems so beautiful and carefree. Of that time I miss the certainty of tomorrow. In the 1970’s and 1980’s we all had some occupation, a secure salary, a house more or less suitable and so on. What is better today? Many things. Surely freedom of conscience, the possibility to go to church and to express one’s opinion without fear; to buy and read books one likes and not imposed ones that the ruling classes tell you to like; to watch movies that are most appropriate to your vision of the world.”

The moral is: the same things can be seen or experienced from different angles. It is important not to discourage people who say it was nice before. But these same people should remember that nostalgia and youthfulness blurs reality.