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The Eternal Hunt for the Red Man


The dramatic events in Russia and Ukraine over the past two years have begun a new phase in the struggle over the legacy of communism in the post-Soviet space. As the concrete features of “real socialism” become blurred and vanish, those necessary for the production of ideology become ever more sharply defined. It’s often argued that communism, buried a quarter of a century ago as living practice, has since acquired an afterlife in the form of a restlesscorpse, a remnant, a regurgitated survivor from the past, blighting the lives of new generations.

A popular explanation for the unfulfilled transition to market normality in Russia in the early 1990s involves the absence of a special act of “repentance,” after which the final nail in the coffin of communism would presumably have been driven in. This act, as far as one can tell, assumes that a single and all-encompassing purge of collective memory at all levels—from monuments and street names to individual consciousness—would be sufficient to exorcize the ghost forever. The enemy is understood to be dangerous precisely because it belongs more to the past than to the future. Its materiality is derivative and contingent. Of course, you can demolish every Lenin monument on Earth, but this doesn’t mean that communism has vanished once and for all. Besides, the fewer the external manifestations of this specter, the more powerful it becomes.

The theme of the inner slave, homo sovieticus, the “Red Man” who takes his leave but doesn’t actually go anywhere, has become a central theme in the work of the 2015 Nobel Laureate for literature, Svetlana Alexievich. In her Nobel Lecture, Alexievich stated: “The ‘Red Man’ wasn’t able to enter the kingdom of freedom he had dreamed of around his kitchen table. Russia was divvied up without him, and he was left with nothing. Humiliated and robbed. Aggressive and dangerous.”

This post-Soviet man, in the final analysis, becomes a victim of himself, of his own unvanquished inner slavery, which explains his inability to assume and make use of his own freedom. Market reforms have altered the external conditions of his existence, providing new opportunities, but they have left his corrupted and crippled soul intact. The bitter legacy of this inner corruption has also defined the fate of the emerging generation that, taking advantage of the “inner freedom” of loans and growing rates of consumption, has given their consent to the authoritarian officials who provide them with this earthly bread. The Red Man, deprived of any material explanation, turns into a purely moral problem that refuses any hard and fast resolution, leading to its endless reproduction.

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