University of São Paulo: Russian nostalgia for the former Soviet Union reinforces Vladimir Putin’s power

THEThe whole world has been following the tension between Russia and Ukraine. This had already occurred in 2014, when the two countries clashed over the re-annexation of Crimea. The current crisis, on the other hand, involves Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to prevent Ukraine from becoming an ally of the European Union and bringing troops and military equipment from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the borders with Russia. United States and Western European countries. A survey carried out by historian Henrique Canary helps to understand Putin’s desire for power: the Russian population has experienced a nostalgic feeling in relation to the times of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It is a contemporary phenomenon that impacts the entire cultural production of the region and has been used as a project to maintain power by the Russian president, who promotes a new national idea, deeply patriotic, orthodox and nationalist Christian. The data are from Canary’s doctoral thesis, defended last October at USP’s Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH).

“Soviet nostalgia” was the name coined by researchers for the revaluation of the experience lived by Russia between 1917, when the socialist revolution that culminated in the creation of the Soviet Union took place, until 1991, the year of the dissolution of the USSR.

Canary lived in Russia from 1996 to 2003, where he graduated with a degree in history and then a master’s degree. During this period that she was in the region, she had the opportunity to observe in loco how this nostalgia had been influencing all social fields – culture, politics, commercial and interpersonal relationships.

According to the researcher, cultural production was also impacted by this romanticized view of the past. Movies, books, music and television programs hark back to a nostalgic Soviet era, times when the USSR was a world power. Traditional brands have also reappeared that recall the “smell and taste” of Russian childhood and youth: vodka, ice cream, juice, sausages, yogurt, beer, etc.

“Not even the numerous attempts to erase memory (deconstruction of Soviet symbols, changes of street names and toppling of iconic monuments of communism, for example) conducted by Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), the first president of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its traumatic liberalizing reforms were enough to leave memories of the Soviet empire in the past”, reports Canary to Jornal da USP.

Impacted cultural production – Russian TV
The research for the doctoral thesis Soviet Nostalgia: Memory and Culture in Contemporary Russia was mainly based on the analysis of a program called Namyedny – 1961-1991 (translation: Recently 1961-1991 – our era ), a high-rated documentary that was aired daily by the Russian state network, between 1997 and 1998. The researcher also analyzed other cultural productions from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, as well as opinion polls on topics related to the Soviet past.

The Namiédni program was a retrospective of positive events that took place between 1961 and 1991, focusing only on the process of “remembering”, without focusing on the depth of historical facts. “The proposal was to value and capture the nostalgic feeling (reflective nostalgia) that was already being gestated in society, which, from then on, began to have its representatives in the mass media”, says the researcher.

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Henrique Canary, author of the research that gave rise to the thesis “Soviet nostalgia: memory and culture in contemporary Russia” – Photo: Personal archive
Yuri Gagarin
One of the facts covered by the program was the space trip of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel through space, in April 1961. The approach to the flight was made with great enthusiasm and sentimentality by the presenter, similar to other reports that valued ballet. Soviet wine, the quality of Russian sparkling wine, sporting events, among others. In general, life was presented on the Namiedni program as cheerful and with “general well-being”, the exact opposite of the gray and predominant image of the 1990s, when, under Yeltsin, everything related to communism was seen as delayed, says the researcher.
Asked about the historical veracity of the program, presenter Parfionov said that “the important thing was not the order of events, but the stereotypes that were formed from the national experience”. In all, 60 programs were shown, each lasting 45 and 60 minutes.

The program was aimed at an audience that personally experienced the narrated events and sought to rescue and extol economic and political achievements, in addition to everyday events of common people. “This format accentuated the viewer’s sense of belonging and identity with the program”, says the researcher.

The program’s impact was such that, since its premiere in 1997, it has been rerun four times on Russian TV in 2011-2012, 2012-2013, 2014-2016 and 2017. It has also given rise to a book collection and the other similar series.

Canary also analyzed data from the Moscow-based Levada-Tsentr Research Institute, which, since March 1992, has carried out annual surveys of Russians’ relationship to the Soviet past. Faced with the question “Do you regret the dissolution of the USSR?”, for the period from 1992 to 2018, most respondents answered yes to the question. A similar result was obtained by VTsIOM, another research institute.

Power project: from reflective to restorative nostalgia


“What was a mere remembrance (reflective nostalgia) turned into a specific cultural policy (restorative nostalgia), aimed at the rebirth of past greatness” , explains Canary .

According to the research, reflective nostalgia (the type disseminated by the television program), homesickness or nostalgia for past times, is a fundamental part of the human experience throughout history. “This phenomenon would not have great consequences if it were not being strategically manipulated as a project of power and domination of the Russian people”, evaluates the historian.

With Putin’s rise to power in the 2000s, the state began to promote “a new national idea, deeply patriotic, orthodox Christian and nationalist, unlike the orientation of the Yeltsin government, which was moving towards the West. What was a mere remembering (reflective nostalgia) turned into a specific cultural policy (restorative nostalgia), aimed at the rebirth of past greatness”, he explains.

Asked about concrete facts that demonstrate that Putin has been using the politics of memory as an instrument of power, the historian cites Russia’s involvement in the conflicts with Ukraine, in 2014, for the re-annexation of Crimea’s territory. “Putin’s conduct serves to keep regions that were previously part of the Soviet Union, such as Crimea, within Russia’s orbit of influence,” explains the historian.

Until the 1950s, the Crimean peninsula was part of Russia, when Khrushchev (General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), by an administrative act, transferred Crimea to Ukraine. “As he historically belonged to Russian territory, Putin found support among the population for his re-annexation”, explains the historian. “Behind the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Putin wants to prevent Ukraine from becoming an ally of the European Union and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] ,” he says.

Russian writer Svetlana Boym, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University in the United States, cited in the research, says that “reflexive nostalgia (the pure and simple longing for what has passed) has turned into restorative nostalgia (desire to restore the past). glorious past), referring to the current president’s power maintenance plans. According to Svetlana, restorative nostalgia is at the base of numerous patriotic and nationalist ideologies, supposedly bearers of truth and catalysts of a certain social force.

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The Russian state, starting from reflexive nostalgia, creates restorative nostalgia with a view to strengthening its positions, that is, how a simple nostalgia becomes a project or support of power, says the research. In its restorative aspect, Soviet nostalgia ended up signifying acceptance by most Russians of the new oligarchic capitalism (rule by the few) imposed by Putin, the study concludes.

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