Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin undertook the formidable task of uniting a restless and disorganized Russia. Throughout the early 1990s, the national narrative behind USSR’s regime remained unclear—causing national pride to deteriorate in the confusion. In the following excerpt from The Long Hangover, journalist Shaun Walker sheds light on how Putin used Russia’s victory in World War II to reestablish patriotism within the new Russia.
The fifteen nations to emerge from the Soviet collapse all took different approaches to dealing with their pasts as they built new national identities. In the three Baltic states, where Soviet rule had been imposed only in 1940, and large swathes of the populations had always been strongly antipathetic to rule from Moscow, new governments worked feverishly to undo the Soviet legacy. Museums opened that equated the Soviet period with the Nazi occupation. The old KGB archives were opened, and monuments erected to the victims of the occupying regime. The national narratives saw 1991 as an unequivocally celebratory date: the end of oppression, the restoration of a past, interrupted independence, and a return to the European family.
The only two of the fifteen countries not to come up with a coherent, unifying national- historical narrative in the first two decades after the collapse were Russia and Ukraine. The events of 2014— the revolution in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the war in eastern Ukraine— were, at least in part, a clash between competing Russian and Ukrainian attempts to transcend the conundrum of 1991 and mint new national identities.
By the time Putin took over, Russian attitudes to the Soviet past were ambivalent and confused. Back in 1991, crowds in Moscow had toppled the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police that would later be called the NKVD and then the KGB), which stood outside the Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters in central Moscow. Leningrad reverted to its imperial name, St Petersburg. But after this initial flurry of activity, the disposal of the iconography of the Soviet past came to a halt. Most cities still had a Lenin striking a stirring pose in their main squares; many streets retained their Soviet names. There were Lenin, Marx, Komsomol, Red Partisan, and Dictatorship of the Proletariat streets across the country. Russia was like a party host who awoke the morning after, started making a cursory effort to clean up the mess all around, but after a while simply gave up and slunk back to bed to nurse its hangover.
“Russia was like a party host who awoke the morning after, started making a cursory effort to clean up the mess all around, but after a while simply gave up and slunk back to bed to nurse its hangover.”
The visual representation of history was dizzying and disorientating. Lenin’s mummified corpse remained on display in a glass case inside his marble mausoleum; stern soldiers watched over visitors to ensure they treated the embalmed Soviet leader with respect (no talking, no hands in pockets). Meanwhile, on the other side of Red Square, the new rich dropped obscene amounts of money in the upmarket boutiques of a flashy department store. The last tsar and his family were made saints by the Russian Orthodox Church, and yet a Moscow metro station still bore the name of Pyotr Voikov, the man who was directly responsible for organizing their execution.
Hammer and sickle motifs adorned dozens of government buildings; sumptuous mosaics of happy collectivized peasants and stoical workers lit up metro stations. Looked at through contemporary eyes, it was hard to say if they should be taken merely as culturally valuable artefacts of a bygone age, or if they still celebrated the achievements for which they had initially been designed.
The Moscow of the early 2000s was a palimpsest; the monumental buildings and heroic archetypes of the Soviet past were still visible beneath the tacky veneer of modern construction and the gaudy capitalist hoardings advertising casinos, loans, and burgers.
The new president’s nation- building task was unusually thorny, as he inherited a multi- ethnic, post- imperial state with a recent history that was as bewildering as it was painful. Putin took a selective approach to the Soviet past, picking out individual elements that could help provide a sense of continuity, starting with the old Soviet national anthem, which was restored in 2001, albeit with new lyrics. But simply creating a Soviet Union 2.0 was not going to work. While there was much nostalgia for the Soviet period, calling for its return would alienate the business community and younger Russians, who enjoyed the opportunities that capitalism and Putin’s oil wealth had brought them. Putin tapped into the sense of injustice among many Russians, famously calling the Soviet collapse the ‘greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century’. But he also equivocated, saying that while only a person without a heart could fail to miss the Soviet Union, only someone with no head would want to restore it.
In the new Russia, the old Soviet pantheon of revolutionary heroes and dates was no longer applicable, and it was not clear from where new ones might emerge. The Orthodox Church could help provide some kind of moral code and a new sense of purpose for a portion of Russians freed from the confines of official Soviet atheism. Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, blown up under Stalin in 1931 and later replaced with a swimming pool, was rebuilt during the 1990s and reopened during the first year of Putin’s rule. The Church became an important part of Putin’s identity project for modern Russia, but it could not alone unify the nation, especially in a country with large Muslim and smaller Buddhist regions.
“Only a person without a heart could fail to miss the Soviet Union, only someone with no head would want to restore it.”
Putin enjoyed reading history books and came across many figures in the tsarist past whom he admired, mainly those who had strengthened the state and ensured political continuity. At different times he would reference various statesmen and thinkers as inspirations, and draw from both the tsarist and Soviet periods. But in all of Russia’s long and complicated history, there was only one event that had the narrative potential to unite the country and serve as a foundation stone for the new nation, something that could help to foster a sense of national pride, just as the oil revenues led to improved economic indicators. That was the victory in the Second World War, or in the Soviet parlance that was still used in modern Russia, the Great Patriotic War.
Pride in the defeat of Nazism transcended political allegiance, generation, or economic status, and had been used by the later Soviet leaders to cement the regime’s legitimacy. Putin would once again draw on the war victory as the key to creating a consolidated, patriotic country. Only as this kind of country could Russia regain its rightful place as a first- tier nation, Putin felt, and as the years of his rule over Russia continued, the role of the war victory in official rhetoric grew steadily. The answer to the implosion of 1991, it turned out, was the triumph of 1945. The ideology of victory would become the touchstone of Putin’s regime: an anchor of national legitimacy in an ocean of historical uncertainty.
Featured image credit: “Flag (4770416043)” by Roman Harak. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.