Norms and Values
The Centenary of the USSR

In current geopolitical conditions, the centenary of the USSR ceases to be just an academic date. It makes one wonder about such things as historical predestination, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

December 30, 2022 marks one hundred years since the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This date was by no means one of the most significant directly during the Soviet period. The day of the Great October Socialist Revolution (its official name in those years), November 7 (October 25, 1917 according to the old style) was one of the most important public holidays in the USSR and the day of a solemn demonstration both in Moscow on Red Square and in all cities and villages of the country; the date of the establishment of the USSR, against this background, looked absolutely secondary. It was not even an official holiday in the Soviet Union. We can safely say that, apart from historians, few people remembered it.

This approach had its own logic. The most important thing had happened five years beforehand. The socialist revolution radically changed life all over Russia. What happened next, in 1922, was only the legal formalisation of the political system as a union of national Soviet republics. Therefore, attention to this date was much less significant.

Nowadays, attitudes towards the creation of the USSR are also closely connected with our perception of the October Revolution. Here, obviously, there is no consensus in modern Russian society. In our social and traditional media, the most heated disputes, with mutual accusations between supporters and opponents of the revolution and all the events that followed it, have failed to subside. At the same time, on both sides, these events have turned into historical myths — which, in turn, are either idealised or demonised, depending on the political position. As a result, very often and very graphically, civic positions completely determine historical assessments. As a result, there can no longer be any question of  neutrality in assessing history. In the end, both the revolution and the Soviet Union have become only symbols for pamphlets.

In these disputes, one can see, on the one hand, the position of monarchists, supporters of the White Movement, and, on the other, convinced, sincere communists. It is also interesting to note that these “red-white” disputes have undergone quite a noticeable modification in recent years, under the influence of current geopolitical events. Crimea, Donbass and Ukraine have left their mark on them. As a result, both “red patriots” and “white patriots” have begun, in our opinion, to more often connect their historical assessments with modern events. At the same time, the aforementioned mythologisation of history was sometimes combined with the same mythologisation of modernity.

However, there are not that many ideologically-driven people on either side of this dispute (as in all others). For a much larger number of Russian residents, at least the “Soviet” generations who discovered the USSR as children or later in life, attitudes towards it are determined by more mundane, non-ideological, and one might even say philistine (without negativity) feelings and memories. All of them can be reduced to one simple assessment — When was life better: during the Soviet period or after it, then or now? At the same time, for purity of comparison, the term “now” is also better understood in the past tense, as Russia before February 24, 2022.

What If the USSR Hadn’t Collapsed…
Oleg Barabanov
If we put aside the Soviet values that are still impacting ideological policy in Russia and ask, “What if the USSR hadn’t collapsed?” we will have to come up with certain historical reconstructions and consider them from the point of view of current policies.

It is clear that the answer to this question is different for everyone. On the one hand, the post-Soviet abundance of commodities, open borders, access to global mass culture, the joys of life — make many memories of the Soviet era seem dull and pale. The slang term “Sovok” itself, which has become entrenched in public opinion, characterises this mood very indicatively: as a combination of archaic, uncomfortable and inert provinciality (or even colonialism) in the global sense.

On the other hand, not everyone has access to these joys of life. Both in the nineties, which plunged a significant proportion of the country’s population into poverty, and in subsequent decades; a matter which is often left unaddressed. The current comparative lack of social justice and social protection as they once existed in the Soviet Union, perhaps, appears to be one of the main arguments in favour of the past era. In addition, as time passes, the haze of nostalgia for the Soviet Union grows stronger. Everything bad is forgotten, and everything good remains in the memory; this is a well-known psychological phenomenon that works here, too. Therefore, a simple answer to when life was better, then or now, probably does not exist.

This assessment becomes even more difficult if the term “now” is perceived not in the past tense, as we specified before, but in the present, in its post-February meaning. If we compare the Soviet closed-off system and isolation from the world with our contemporary reality, seeing how all the branded joys of life from the pre-February era are gradually disappearing, then the answer to the question of when life was better, in Soviet times or today, becomes even more difficult, and dialectical in nature.

If we talk about the official policy of historical memory in Russia, then here the situation is ambiguous. On the one hand, many Soviet achievements are being actively used in this politics of memory now. Gagarin, space, sports, nuclear energy — all this has already passed into the category of “spiritual bonds” in the official interpretation. On the other hand, a priori counter-revolutionary ideas, the rejection of revolutions, and an emphasis on stability are also postulated as such “ties” in the official value policy. Therefore, both the October Revolution and the creation of the USSR, according to this logic, become a kind of a default figure, which is easiest not to remember at all. Covered annually with shields during the May 9 parade, Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square is perhaps one of the most prominent semantic signs of this policy.

These, however, are all our internal Russian approaches to the Soviet Union. No less important is the international aspect of its assessment. Here, on the one hand, the October Revolution, Lenin and the USSR still appear as a significant symbol for the international left, communist and anti-colonial movements. This significance in a number of cases, however outwardly paradoxical it may seem, has even increased in the current post-February era.

On the other hand, if we talk about the mainstream Western assessments of the USSR, then the key question here is whether the Soviet Union was just a form of Russian imperialism. Was it the same “prison of nations” that Tsarist Russia was called? Were the key Soviet concepts of friendship between peoples and internationalism just empty slogans on the wall of this prison? Or was this Soviet ideal of friendship between peoples (unattainable, like all ideals) not so bad in and of itself?

The realities of the post-February era introduce additional nuances into such external assessments of the Soviet Union. Here, if we take the point of view of foreign opponents of the Kremlin, the question arises: is the current Russian military-political revisionism a direct continuation of “Soviet imperialism”? Or is it not, and is it something typologically different? What is the role of memory and myths about the USSR in the decisions of February 24? Is there a direct connection between them? And, if we really sharpen the question, is the Soviet Union guilty of what is happening now?

It is clear that in such geopolitical conditions, the centenary of the USSR ceases to be just an academic date. It makes one wonder about such things as historical predestination. Does it exist at all, and is it appropriate to use it to evaluate current events?

Perceptions of the Russian October Revolution in Great Britain
David Lane
Stefan Zweig in his 1927 book, Decisive Moments in History, ranks Lenin’s return to Russia in October 1917 as one of the three most decisive ‘moments’ in recent world history. The others were the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.