Yearning for the USSR
Karl Schlögel's encyclopedic new book chronicles the inner world of Soviet life.
by Karl Schlögel (Princeton University Press, 906 pp., $39.95)
The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia.
Academic scholarship on communist nostalgia offers varied and tantalizing glimpses into obsolete futures and an all-consuming sense of loss. As the age of ideology has given way to a new era defined by identity it has become ever more important to listen to and contextualize these laments for the past. For those interested in Russians’ relationship to their Soviet past, Karl Schlögel’s The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World is a must-read masterpiece—not because it deals with nostalgia but because it recreates the inhabited world that engenders that nostalgia.
Artfully translated into English by Rodney Livingstone, The Soviet Century is not a history so much as a new way of inquiring into history. Schlögel looks at the “lifeworld” of Soviet civilization. Lifeworlds can be more stable than political systems and endure even after that system has collapsed; for example, in the language, architecture, infrastructure, education systems, and myths of the societies that succeed them. The continuing impact of the Soviet lifeworld on contemporary Russia is evident to anyone who has taken a stroll down a “Karl Marx Street” or meandered around a “50th Anniversary of the October Revolution” park.
Naturally as with any encyclopedia, Schlögel has had to be selective in his inclusions—an unenviable task, but one he manages successfully insofar as the reader emerges with a diverse array of impressions and insights. Schlögel’s decision to include as many “common” spaces as possible—whether public toilets, mass housing, Moscow kitchens, or public parades—only increases the relevance of the book.
While the reader is thankfully spared any long introspectives on Schlögel’s positionality or the unattainable nature of objectivity, the author’s tone throughout conveys a sensitivity to his subject matter. Schlögel depicts himself as an authorial flaneur, an agreeable image but one that does not accurately convey the care with which he handles the paraphernalia of a Soviet lifeworld on which he has not simply stumbled, but rather is deliberately revisiting.
Reliving the past can sometimes be a sign of trauma, and that is certainly how the dismantling of the Soviet world and its supportive welfare structures were experienced by many at the time. Memories and materials once cherished were now subject to jokes and street bartering. As Schlögel writes,
From the outside it was difficult to grasp the radical nature of this rupture with the past. Longstanding habits were cast aside, life plans consigned to the rubbish heap; borders sprang up where previously none had existed. Millions had to reorganize their entire lives.
The first chapter opens with depressing scenes at Moscow’s Izmailovo flea market of an entire way of life being hawked to tourists who idle by hard-won medals, cherished books, and worn photo albums. Today, 70 percent of those who lived through the Soviet collapse view this period negatively, associating it with hunger and lawlessness. This was a time when bread prices skyrocketed 600 percent and the murder rate averaged 84 a day. Many lost their personal savings and their social status.
It is perhaps little surprise then that by 1999, on the eve of Putin’s accession to presidential office, some 74 percent of Russians regretted the collapse of the USSR. The Soviet Century takes the nostalgics at their word, immersing the reader in thick descriptions, intertextual richness, and an almost painterly restoration of the atmosphere and context of those times.
It is now common to hear Russian liberals and metropolitans bemoan the sovok—a derisive term for individuals unable to shake the Soviet mindset. But originally the new human being to be produced by socialism was a topic of aspirational wonder, albeit misunderstood and under-researched. In just three years the urban population of the entire USSR grew from 26.3 million to 55.9 million. This urbanization was also a ruralization of the towns—or of what would become towns but were originally little more than shanty town barracks and oases of escape and opportunity for men and especially women across the USSR.
This is perhaps Schlögel’s greatest achievement: he returns the people to the Soviet Union. He visits them in their homes, observes them forging steel, overhears their complaints in the kitchens and the queues. The Soviet Union was much more than a bloodthirsty regime, audacious social experiment, and geopolitical superpower: It was a way of working, of living, and of positioning oneself within and against the world.
It was a way of life that is both familiar and unfamiliar to those who did not experience the USSR but have lived and traveled extensively in the countries that once constituted it. My memories of Russia are punctuated by explorations of abandoned writers’ houses in the northern parts of the country; the twinkling lights of towering apartment blocks at night in Moscow’s infamous Butovo region; the Soviet ice creams accompanied by patriotic jingles blaring from loudspeakers in Siberian city centers; the crumbling facades of my Stalin-era university dorm by the Black Sea. These are memories of Russia but they are also, indirectly, experiences of the Soviet Union.
The material legacy of the USSR is such that The Soviet Century offers a way to see Russia again for those unable or unwilling to return to it while it wages its gruesome war against Ukraine. Schlögel articulates general impressions that are difficult to convey to the uninitiated. For me, reading his book was like looking through a photo album or reminiscing with a good friend, laughing at the absurdities of quintessentially “post-Soviet” experiences: the multiplicity of meaning inherent in “technical break” in any given context; why so many buildings and vehicles had windows that would not open; why “everyday work and going about one’s business were organized in a manner that went against all common sense,” as Schlögel describes it.
This effort is maintained without ever slipping into the banal. The reader learns of the Bolsheviks’ campaign to destroy cosmetics as an obstacle to class consciousness and about how to parse the role of the palm tree as a symbol of exotica in the Soviet imagination. The stories are sometimes punctuated with wonderful photos such as the image of newlyweds in the then-brand-new Moscow suburb of Novye cheremushki, where some fifty years later I resided in a prefab building that had been slated for demolition in the USSR but which still stood in mockery of the optimistic housing standards of its creators and would-be destroyers.
Beyond these insights, Schlögel extracts analytical meaning from his materials, as with his positioning of the dacha as a source of Russian resilience and dysfunction but also as emblematic of the symbiosis between these characteristics. He offers a contemplation of the post-Soviet staircase, where he admittedly draws on a rich literature, as evidence of the Soviet citizen’s desire to have as little interaction with the shared public space as possible. Often left to grime and later on, gangsters, the staircases reflect the sense that people had no influence over the outside world, not even the semi-public sphere on their doorstep.
In spending so much time contemplating the likes of a staircase, The Soviet Century helps the reader to empathize, to imagine themselves in (mass, factory-produced) Soviet shoes. Much discussion of the USSR has become stultified in vilifications and idealizations. If many in the West and former Warsaw Pact states view the USSR through a purely ideological lens, forgetting the apolitical meandering of everyday life, then in Russia the communist era has been entirely de-ideologized so as to better fit Vladimir Putin’s need to use the past for political legitimacy.
In this past there is very little space for the White Sea-Baltic Canal, where the exceptionally talented cultural historian Nikolai Antsiferov was sent as a prisoner, or for the gulag region of Kolyma, a territory larger than Western Europe in Russia’s far northeast comprising over 130 labor camps. Schlögel writes that the gulag and the October Revolution will play a crucial role in developing any future grand narrative of the Russian nation. It is interesting that both events are currently largely ignored.
Schlögel never dismisses, ignores, or belittles the terrible suffering imposed on ordinary people by the Soviet Union, but nor does he reduce their lives to that experience. In chapter seventeen, the author recounts the grimly absurd way the Great Soviet Encyclopedia was constantly rewritten and abstracted as Stalin’s purges claimed more and more victims. As evidence of the mind-bending contortions of socialist thought, it is enough to ponder the fate of the world-famous Bolshevik historian and original contributor to the encyclopedia Mikhail Pokrovsky, whose entry referred to him as the head of a “left deviationist denial of the progressive role of tsarism in the formation of the Russian empire.” In Schlögel’s retelling the Great Soviet Encyclopedia functions like a treasure map to a world where a quotation from Stalin’s short course can—and must—override empirical knowledge, and where you read of historical movements and events that never happened, of murders without murderers, of exploits without heroes.
Given the long and resurgent shadow of war and terror in the post-Soviet space today, there can be a temptation to read the book with an eye to the present. In one excerpt, Schlögel tells the story of the Dnieper Dam, the largest in the world at the time of its construction and a feat of engineering that took Soviet citizens’ breath away. Stalin ordered his secret police to dynamite the dam as they fled Hitler’s advancing armies in 1941. Following the war, a new dam was built in the same area, near Zaporizhzhia. In summer 2022, the Russians appeared to be on the verge of blowing it up as they retreated eastwards from Ukraine.
Likewise, it is hard not to draw parallels between the exodus of up to two million Russians after the civil war and the five to seven hundred thousand Russians who have fled Russia in the last fourteen months. Schlögel describes the former as a “community of despair” that was “condemned to stay in the waiting room of history” hoping the Soviet Union would collapse. They refused to engage with their host countries except to lobby for their own narrow political aims and interests, which became increasingly irrelevant to what was happening in the USSR and in the world.
As well as drawing attention to continuities, The Soviet Century highlights important differences between Russian and Soviet values and approaches. Schlögel’s descriptions of the doctrinaire Soviet interpretation of museums as places of learning and the insistence on the material nature of historical objects stand in stark contrast to modern Russian approaches to public education. Today the Ministry of Education is involved in creating and promoting museums like “Russia—My History,” a reproducible exhibition spanning Russian history that consists entirely of multimedia polemics and not a single artifact.
It isn’t just the Soviet museum or the industry of labor that have come to an end, it is also the human beings who inhabited that world and gave it some of the magic alongside the horror. These are the ordinary people who appropriated the Soviet worldview, made it their own, and sometimes even became heroic workers embodying their beliefs and serving as a model. These people are no more but their heroism still inspires Russians, as seen in the large May 9 parades marking the Soviet victory in World War II.
In discussing the Brezhnev-era war cult in which the Putinist memory regime is rooted, Schlögel describes the parades as a triumph of dead over the living, as symbolized by the role of Lenin’s Mausoleum as a focal point. The parades became more and more like a re-enactment, a self-dramatization, a show. But today’s Russia is yet further removed, a re-enactment of the re-enactment. What we now see in Russia is a second wave of nostalgia for a communist past of which the nostalgic have very little firsthand knowledge. This ignorance is accompanied by the growing visibility and importance of items from the communist past. The anthropologist Serguei Oushakine has termed this phenomenon “second-hand nostalgia,” pointing to a phenomenon that retains the melancholic longing for times past while revealing a condition of historical disconnect from the original contexts.
This phenomenon is far from unique to Russia; it is merely more intensive and therefore more notable there. Modern-day Russia functions as a radicalized version of Nietszche’s assertion about “all future things, which Schloegel applies to Russia: “all future things, which occur elsewhere . . . emerge more clearly here because the inhibitions, mediations and counterpressure to be found everywhere that civil institutions exist are absent.”
Perhaps it is this intensity that helped Karl Schlögel identify the clues to unlock parts of the Soviet inner world that had hitherto been concealed. In so doing, he has recreated everyday Soviet life. The Soviet Century is a masterpiece as much for the knowledge it imparts as for the thirst for knowledge it engenders. It may well be the book that launches a thousand PhDs.
Jade McGlynn is a research fellow at King’s College London and author of Russia’s War and Memory Makers: The Politics of the Past in Putin’s Russia, to be released on June 1.
Image: Moscow, early 1980s. (Flickr: Ceri C)
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