Blogs > CHooper's Post-Soviet Futures Blog > Not "Back in the USSR"

Mar 16, 2014 5:03 pm

Not "Back in the USSR"

tags: Russia, Putin, Crimea, Hooper

Cynthia V. Hooper is an Associate Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet History at College of the Holy Cross and an affiliate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is currently completing a book entitled Terror From Within: Policing the Soviet Powerful, Under Stalin and Beyond.

Twenty years ago, when I was learning Russian one summer in St. Petersburg, I managed to lure both my best friend from college and my “little sister” from my local host family on a spontaneous and, in hindsight, somewhat ill-conceived trip to the middle of Siberia. My friend Mimi, who had prepped for her high-culture sojourn in the “Venice of the East” with Aleksandr Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” and a biography of Peter the Great, looked stunned when I first made the suggestion that we toss out the tour guides and head off for Lake Baikal. My explanation that it was the deepest lake in the world left her unimpressed. “Well, first of all,” she said “I grew up in Chicago – I’ve seen a lot of big bodies of fresh water in my time. Now I come all the way over here and you want me to get on another plane and fly another 12 hours, just to go see a new one?”

“Besides,” she added, as an afterthought. “Isn’t Siberia where people get exiled? Isn’t it cold there? Doesn’t everyone want to leave?”

 “Mimi,” I said, rolling my eyes in condescension. “That’s just in winter. This is summer.” I waved my fist in her face, excitedly. “Look! They are going to have strawberries there as big as my hand!”

 Eventually the three of us raced to the airport, to catch one of the then only twice-weekly planes. I carried a plastic bag stuffed with rubles to pay for our tickets in one hand, and a near-identical bag stuffed with our dinner, fried fish patties and a jar of eggplant spread, in the other. I felt a slight qualm when I saw the plane, a tiny, rusty machine that looked, to my unpracticed eye, as if it could have seen combat in World War Two. Another chill when I realized that my rudimentary Russian skills could, possibly, have led me to squander our entire stockpile of cash on three “one-way” tickets, instead of “round-trip” ones. And a final shock of horror when we landed, and I didn’t see any strawberries.

 A very, very long bus ride later, we were dropped off at the side of a lake, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. We hiked up a mountain where, thirsty and desperate, we knocked on a lone cabin door and asked the bushy-bearded artist who answered if we could sleep in a shed in his backyard. When we subsequently enquired if he knew where we could, say, buy some potatoes, he shrugged his shoulders and pointed at his garden. “Go dig,” he replied, and shut the door. While Mimi and I wandered around in shock, staring at an indeterminate mass of leafy green vegetation, Masha found the potatoes and showed us how to extract them. We proceeded to roam through the surrounding woods collecting mushrooms, which Masha unerringly sorted into “edible” and “fatally poisonous” piles. By the time we stumbled upon three boys, building another cabin, Mimi was, albeit grudgingly, speaking to me again. They had a guitar, and vodka, and matches, and knew how to build campfires and wanted to hear all about America. So we cooked the potatoes and mushrooms and began our Lake Baikal adventure.

 Today Masha is a literature professor, cool and poised, fluent in English, with a two-year-old daughter and a propensity not to mince words. She tells me about not only the best Russian books, but also the most hilarious British sitcoms (“Coupling” was one outstanding recommendation). But these days, her emails have a more somber tone, describing the situation in Ukraine and what she calls the “hysterical, chauvinistic and mendacious propaganda” in contemporary Russian media. Her disillusionment has deepened day by day. At the end of February, less than a week after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich fled his country, she noted:

“While writing this letter I’m watching the news about Ukraine. We don’t know the real situation there; we don’t get any objective information, so it’s difficult for me to comment on the issue. I personally supported the protesters, but there were so many different people on Maidan, some of them were nationalists.  As for the Crimea, you probably know that the majority of people there (apart from the Crimean Tatar community) are very pro-Russian. That’s why they don’t support the new Ukrainian government. I just hope that we are not going to interfere in this chaos in any way. Though we have already done this when we let Yanukovich come to Russia. Such a silly step of our authorities.”

 Less than two weeks later, she sounded significantly more agitated, commenting on how, after the Winter Olympics, “any kind of demonstrations against anything are virtually banned and people get either arrested or fined for taking part in them.”

“But on the whole the worst thing about Russia now is that it’s consistently turning into a police state. I don’t think you can imagine the scale of anti-Ukrainian propaganda on our TV now… What really disturbs me in the case of Crimea is that many of my friends and relatives believe these obvious lies about fascists and nationalists threatening poor Russian (or Russian-speaking) people in Crimea, lies about “polite people in Russian army uniform” being not Russian soldiers but members of some mysterious self-defense units who apparently chose to buy themselves (can you believe that!) Russian military uniforms and the latest model of Kalashnikov… One journalist here said that this situation looks exactly like before the official Soviet intervention into Afghanistan, when our soldiers (also without any insignia) took part in military actions.”

The three boys from Siberia have had much more difficult lives. They never went to college, but learned to operate giant industrial drills, instead. Two of them spent several years in Norilsk, a former prison labor camp above the Arctic Circle, now home to one of the world’s largest nickel mining companies. One, Sergei – once tall, dark-haired, and dashing – drives a taxi and drinks every day. His parents had to flee for their lives into the Far North in the late 1990s, when a deal they’d borrowed money against fell through. Gangsters took over their apartment, in partial repayment of the loan. Sergei was left to shift for himself. He got married, got divorced, fell on his back from a construction-site scaffold, and now lives in constant pain. Yet this morning, the day before the Crimean vote, he texted me, in Cyrillic. “Cynthia, I’m thinking about you. I miss you. I’m with Danila and his family. We all say hi. ”

 Whatever their backgrounds, and whatever their histories, these are not people in any way desirous of alienating themselves from the Western world, as recently suggested in The New York Times.  Even 20 years ago, teenagers in Irkutsk danced to “La Macarena” and could quote lines from “The Godfather” with alacrity. The spread of computers, email, internet, cellphones, Skype, and text messages has only strengthened global ties. On New Year’s 1995, Mimi and I received a single-sentence telegram: “A hot hello from cold Norilsk.” We spent months admiring its clever brevity. Some six years later, after 9/11, my then-husband and I, living in Princeton, New Jersey, received calls and emails from across the former Soviet spaces: Armenia, Azerbaijan, even Mongolia. People called, or they called people in Moscow who could more easily phone overseas, or they went to internet cafes if they did not have a computer at home.  They remembered us, and they cared.

 They’ve also made their peace with the ideology of the free market. These days, people in Russia can have various attitudes to consumer culture and money and for-profit business and capitalist power. Some critique it, some embrace it in horrifyingly hedonistic fashion, some regard it with jealousy. But they all engage with it. Younger people can’t even imagine a Berlin Wall, or a world divided by a second Iron Curtain.

During my years in Russia, I many times heard the phrase “the people are good, it’s just the state that is bad.” Ironically, as a historian, I have spent a significant number of hours trying to deconstruct that statement in my scholarly work. The people, after all, make up the state and bear, so the theory goes, some responsibility for the way it works. Now I find myself struggling anew to understand the relationship between individuals and the systems of power that surround them. Putin is popular, and not all of that popularity is fake, or a consequence of fear.  The steps he is taking in talking tough with U.S. and European leaders, refusing to meet with the new government of Ukraine, muzzling the press in both Russia and the Crimea, stationing troops across the Black Sea peninsula, and casting the sole vote against a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the referendum on secession taking place in the region today, have pushed his approval rating up somewhere in the range of 71.6 percent (at least according to a poll released by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion). Yes, he has ruthlessly silenced any outspoken voices of opposition, but even such heavy-handed crushing of independent voices has apparently failed to generate widespread ire. So now what can we possibly expect those who object to his policies to do? And how do we account for his sustained mass appeal?

Late at night on Saturday, typing this post over bottle of wine, as increasingly grim news bulletins about Russian actions around the Crimea begin to trickle in, I find myself wondering in somewhat maudlin fashion if something I care about has been irreparably broken.  But I believe in the Russian people, and I know that even most of those who are pro-Putin are not in favor of another Cold War. 


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