On Christmas Day 1991, in his last act as president, Mikhail Gorbachev signed away the existence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A 74-year experiment that began with the ‘Great October Revolution’ of 1917 (although the USSR was formally constituted in 1922) was over. Or was it?
Thirty years on, Stalin regularly tops the Levada Centre’s survey of ‘the most outstanding personality in history’, while half of Muscovites favour the return to Lubyanka Square of the statue of ‘Iron Felix’ Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Bolshevik political police.
Russian troops are massing on Ukraine’s borders. Moscow demands that Nato should stay out of the countries of the former USSR. The control of the media and public conversation tightens. And dissidents face prison or worse. No wonder some are accusing Vladimir Putin of wanting in some way to reconstitute the old USSR.
His often-quoted line that its collapse was ‘a major geopolitical catastrophe’ of the twentieth century,’ as well as his evident dislike of Gorbachev would seem to reinforce the notion that this is a quintessential Homo Sovieticus out to restore what was lost.
Of course, the truth is much more complex. That comment about a ‘geopolitical catastrophe,’ for example, was made in a very specific context, about the way the partition of a country left large communities of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers effectively stranded in other countries.
Indeed, Putin has also said that ‘anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.’
We should not take Russian ‘sovstalgia’ too seriously. When Russians vote for Stalin as an ‘outstanding personality,’ they are voting not for the Gulags and the Terror, but for an idealised notion of national glory and purpose.