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Back in the USSR?

Ever since Russia annexed Crimea and a quick clampdown started at home, the mass media, social media, and blogs have all been saying one thing: it’s back to the USSR. The Olympics at Sochi are like Moscow in 1980, the trials of the May 6 protesters or of Pussy Riot like the show trials of 1937, and Russia’s invasion of Crimea is the 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia all over again. Like all metaphors, such analogies are political judgements, usually informed by liberal images of the USSR as a realm of necessity and violence, in contrast to the “normal,” “Western” path of development. The regime, in turn, enlists fragments of the Soviet past (for example, the myth of the Second World War) and uses them for its own purposes, as tools for its great-power conservatism, skillfully manipulating the older generation’s nostalgia, including that of Crimeans. If one looks more closely, it is easy to see that both liberal and Putinist-conservative understandings of the analogy between contemporary Russia and the USSR are mirror images of each other. I would like to problematize this analogy without rejecting it entirely, while leaving behind the binary oppositions between the USSR and the West—between us and them.

There are a few obvious things. Liberals like Irina Prokhorova like to imply that there is currently a general economic and political return to the Soviet Union, but this is simply not the case. True, capital and state are interwoven more than ever, and there are problems with doing business independently of the state. At the same time, Russia has joined the WTO, is cutting social spending, and is destroying free medical care and education. There is also something deceptive in the similarities between Putin’s “vertical of power” and the nomenclature of the Soviet-era Communist Party, many former members of which are now part of the new system: a massive change in the base has prompted a mutation in the superstructure. The Soviet “vertical of power” was integrated into society and the economy in completely different ways, and despite all its superficial displays of power, it still set up a very different system of values for its members than United Russia, today’s ruling party. It was, let’s say, more responsible and less oriented toward personal luxury. More often than not, references to the return of the Soviet Union do not concern the economy or the political system, but culture, ideology, and the politics of identity. The Russian state really is using Soviet expertise to repress freedom of speech and manipulate facts. But there is a considerable difference in how state propaganda was constructed in the USSR and how it is constructed in the Russian Federation today.

Soviet mass media and other cultural institutions, including museums, may have silenced dissent and lied, but they retained Enlightenment ideals—maybe using them only as a fig leaf, but still: these were ideals of universal and universally accessible knowledge. Huge editions of fat periodicals and unread scholarly books full of diagrams and charts still burden the shelves of any provincial library, where they now stand next to Darya Dontsova’s latest detective pulp. In terms of form, Soviet propaganda continued to believe, if only by inertia, in the possibility of universal human knowledge and universally applicable human truth. The real point of its content, though, was quite different, addressed as it was to a narrow circle of interested individuals. Statistical summaries in provincial papers would be full of hints about which kolkhoz head would receive an award, and which collective would receive a bonus—often a function of some corrupt scheme. One can see this flip side of Soviet bureaucracy exposed in the screenplays of Alexander Gelman, but exposed from the standpoint of late Soviet ideals, in the hope of recouping their meaning.

Today’s propaganda lacks that dimension of generally human, universal truth—a dimension that allows Alain Badiou to talk about the truth of the October Revolution as an event addressed to the world at large, as opposed to the National Socialist coup d’état, which was addressed to only one nation. Contemporary Russia propaganda manipulates its audience with jingoistic language, appropriating rhetoric from the time of the Cold War as a weapon of nationalism. Of course, there was more than enough nationalism in Soviet propaganda under Stalin and afterward, but it was always linked to the specters of universal, global thinking: the specters of Marx. The new Russian propaganda does not follow Soviet principles of “propaganda and enlightenment,” but instead the capitalist logic of “propaganda and entertainment.” Like any commodity, this brand of propaganda is highly differentiated and oriented toward different target groups of consumers. It does not cater to producers, as was the case with those half-invented statistics in provincial newspapers.

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