On the misunderstood soviet legacy, that benefits Ukraine
Revolutionism as a synonym of Europeanness
Nostalgia for the Soviet Union is growing by the day in Russia. It used to refer to geopolitical reminiscences born out of the break-up of a past great country - since 2005, we have been entirely cognizant of the fact that ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century’. Nowadays, it is increasingly associated with ideological issues. Russian President Putin recently declared that ‘he has always liked communist and socialist ideology’, that he did not throw out his party membership card and that he is proud of having served in the KGB, the latter being considered ‘the armed wing of the party’. We are increasingly edging not so much towards idealization, but a sort of deification of the Soviet past. I cannot help but wonder: is Putin aware that he is undermining his goals, including of preventing a colour revolution, by making increasing appeals to the ‘great Soviet past’?
Putin said the Soviet Union ‘is Russia, but only with a different name’. Not so! The Soviet Union was not ‘a different Russia’. It was a state united by ideas and a common goal, not by history or national identity. Confrontation between the USSR and the United States, which defined half of the past century, was confrontation between two superpowers whose names were profoundly non-national and ahistorical, and whose power elite and society claimed to have transformed the historic nations into ‘new historic communities’ of peoples. The three fundamental characteristics of the Soviet Union, as I see it, are preaching for change, preaching of equality and the affirmation of internationalism. I see no value in discussing the second and third characteristics, as they are profoundly irrational in today’s Russia of victorious larcenous bureaucracy which fights for the establishment of the Russian world (Russkiy mir). This leaves us with only ‘preaching for change’.
Despite the fact that the Bolshevik Revolution secreted the USSR away from the once united world for decades, it nevertheless became an event which did not invalidate, but rather confirmed the Europeanness of Russia. After all, if you look at history, what made Europe the center of world civilization was that the revolution originated there in an era when the rest of the world was preoccupied with riots and pogroms. The milestones of European history span across the uprising against the king and the signing of the Magna Carta Libertatum; through to the Reformation, which rejected the dogma of papal infallibility; to the formulation of the principle, in distant colonies, that the people have the right to overthrow the oppressive government and establish a new government and ‘to organize its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness’. The revolutionaries of 1789, who began with the storming of the Bastille and eventually martyred themselves for the sake of the idea, paved the way for Napoleon and his Napoleonic Code; the Russian communists of the early 20th century, who almost realized the dream which destroyed them, created the state which was to become a symbol of a different world, attractive to many for decades; rebels in Paris in 1968, in Gdansk in 1981 and in Berlin in 1989, having defied existing rule, prompted the convergence of Europe into a single supra-national unity, the importance of which is yet to be fully understood. This left such a mark on European history that it cannot be undermined by ideologists like Putin of ‘conservatism’ and ‘stability’.
The Soviet Union – both its ruling party and its ‘armed wing’ – was born out of the ashes of one of the most dramatic revolutions in history. Bolshevist Marxist ideology implied a rejection of the sacred principle of private property, social strata and privileges having proclaimed the formation of a society of equality and justice. The new union of republics legitimized the Soviets as ‘parallel’ and ‘unauthorized’ government bodies, ultimately dissolving the existing bodies. The Soviet power elite declared and implemented a policy of overtly brutal secularization, establishing atheist state intolerant of religion. The state, organized as a spontaneous federation, came into the world having rejected ‘sacral’ ideas of sovereignty in favor of the most effective promotion of world revolution - revolution, the very thing Putin seeks to prevent.
The USSR became the most important force of transformation in the global periphery; having contributed to the collapse of the system of colonialism and thus having made an exceptional contribution to contemporary globalization. One can extend the list of items affected by the revolutionary impact of Soviet ideology beyond society and civilization. Let me add that the system many mourn today, died in the way it lived – having presented ‘perestroika’ as a continuation of the revolution and having failed to prevent changes which transpired to be as natural as the ones that gave birth to it.
Many elements of the Soviet experience are not admirable, and the system of Soviet principles and values must be considered as a whole, not only the features appealing to bureaucrats and guardians. Ill-fated Crimea was transferred to Ukraine by Russia in the Soviet era since communists believed that there were more important issues in the global-and-historical context, which there were. In the Soviet days, events largely reminiscent of ‘the Arab (Angolan, Cuban and Vietnamese) spring’ were perceived as a continuation of the revolution while ‘legitimate’ rulers, having been deprived of the support of their peoples, were considered an historical inaccuracy at best. The Soviet Union (except, perhaps, for the Brezhnev period) was most definitely a revolutionary force – and even though it ceased to be one with ‘maturity’, it never gave up its revolutionary rhetoric. And this is why adherents of the Russkiy mir, supporters of the inviolability of the sovereignty, fighters for the prolongation of the life of bankrupt princelets of the world periphery, calling forward the spirit of the Soviet Union at the same time, should all find themselves in the same place – the lunatic asylum. Since the scale of their split personality, visible to the naked eye, makes these people extremely dangerous to society.
The history of the Soviet Union is inseparable from the revolutionary idea. Although often misperceived, serving as an excuse for unimaginable violence, largely undermining the fundamentals of the future of the state and its people, the idea itself remained crucial to the Soviet way of life. Values of ‘the dominance of the public over the private’ and ‘priority of the spiritual over the material’, which are now considered ‘traditional Russian spiritual-and-moral values’ and which are celebrated in official documents of the ruling authorities (see e.g. ‘The Strategy of the National Security of the Russian Federation Art. 76 and 78), are Soviet, not Russian, values. By contrast, all traditional societies, including Russian society of the 18th and early 20th century, were built on the very antithesis of these values. Therefore, he who wishes to ‘revel’ in the glory and greatness of the Soviet Union, should accept the thirst for revolution and the appreciation of revolution as such, because it is an integral part of Soviet legacy. He who promotes Soviet principles must include revolution in his political doctrine for the world. ‘Stability’ and ‘conservatism’ as notions are incompatible with ‘Sovietness’.
Although history often amuses itself with people and nations prompting elaborate somersaults, much of which can be seen on the territory of the former Soviet Union appears extraordinary even taking into account all of the historical vicissitudes.
On one side of the recently erected border between post-Soviet nations (rethinking their former 'Sovietness' to varying degrees), one can see an authoritarian, clerical and extremely bureaucratic Russia. This Russia allows for unprecedented material inequality, plays the role of a reactionary force in domestic and foreign policy, and its leadership eulogizes compulsively about its Soviet past. Now, leaders who have not thrown out their party membership cards are ceremoniously standing in prayer in churches, and KGB officers who never became former officers, are restoring monuments to the emperors, and embracing both the Soviet anthem and the imperial coat of arms and flag, dressing themselves up as continuators of the deeds of the country born out of the revolution, the essence or scale of which they are unable to comprehend.
On the other side of the dividing line is Ukraine - an emerging state, in which the law on de-Sovietization has recently been officially adopted, but where the disregard for the obsolete institutions of power going against the will of the people seems to be absolutized. It is a country in which hundreds of thousands of non-indifferent, spontaneously organized citizens have put the power elite in its place twice in a decade; a society which is ready to forget about the sovereignty of the state in the name of participation in the all-European processes of unification, considering the rights and interests of the people to be more important than attributes of sovereign power. And no matter what excesses accompany Ukrainian revolutionary changes, I am having difficulty dismissing the notion that, today, there is much more of that which is Soviet in Kyiv than there is in Moscow – in its heroic essence and not in terms of ritual oaths and declarations.
And this is precisely where the revolution is going on. The revolution which has always been at the heart of Sovietness. The revolution whose manifestations bring Ukraine closer to Europe, the absence of which in Russia repels it towards Asia. And this is why the unknown activists who painted the star and the hammer and sickle which crowned one of the Soviet skyscrapers in the colors of the Ukrainian, and not the Russian, flag – were right…
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