Soviet nostalgia: The irrational romanticization
Nostalgia for the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia? What may seem alienating to many, has become increasingly common since the upheavals of the 1990s. While in the Gorbachev era there were still mass demonstrations for democratization and freedom processes, a quarter of a century after the events a kind of communist nostalgia is developing, especially among older generations. Many of the respondents name the economy and belonging to a world power as the main reasons for the nostalgia.
Unequal Comparisons and the Romanticization of the Soviet Union
Especially the older generations tend to compare the communist systems with the post-communist oligarchies and blame capitalism. But it is the nostalgics in particular who draw unequal comparisons. For example, socialist systems are often compared with post-socialist fragile countries that have slipped into an endless loop of corruption during the transformation process. It would be fairer to compare any comparable socialist country, such as the former Czechoslovakia or Hungary, with a capitalist system, such as Austria or one of the Benelux countries. Almost every sober comparison between socialist and capitalist systems shows that the standard of living, economy and infrastructure were and are better developed in Western countries. At the same time, it must be mentioned that in Western countries, which were mostly democratic, no comparable restrictions and limitations were on the agenda.
The communists, who often refer to free housing, free education and health care and de facto full employment, often forget to mention half-empty shops…
People who like to romanticize the time in the Soviet Union often forget that the communist systems guaranteed some stability and work, but at the same time generously restricted rights. “Ordinary” people who lived a simple life in the Soviet Union, were satisfied with their work and did not question the restrictions, were either not informed or not affected by the extensive repression. But this does not make the restrictions less true. This does not only mean restrictions such as in the field of the press, but also the Red Terror of the 1930s, repression of religious institutions and ethnic minorities. Some ethnic minorities were forcibly resettled (e.g. from the Caucasus to Central Asia), musicians, artists and authors were severely restricted in their activities, some of them – such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn – were sent to labour camps.
Although hardly imaginable, the constraints were not limited to restrictions in the field of non-existent market economy. Western music was banned for a long time and was only sold on the black market. The communists, who often refer to free housing, free education and health care and de facto full employment, often forget to mention half-empty shops, deficits, the restrictions on buying and selling (of additional) real estate. When talking about the supposedly low crime rate and stability, one forgets to mention that the state censorship simply ignored the crime or the political prisoners.Only those who had contacts abroad, for example, were allowed to buy foreign goods – such as clothing from Bulgaria, Yugoslavia or even East Germany. Many musicians who did not follow the party line had to leave the country for a long time and in most cases emigrated to the USA.
From friendship between nations up to ethnic conflicts
In the guise of supposed internationalism, the backbone of many ethnic groups was actually broken and, paradoxically, a kind of Soviet patriotism was created, which, by the way, is still relevant today in certain segments of the population. Borders that were shifted during the Soviet Union – such as Nagorno-Karabakh, the Crimea, Transnistria or parts of the Baltic States – are now a major reason for the crisis hotspots. When Soviet nostalgics regard the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia as the ideal of friendship between nations, they often forget to mention how these houses of cards began to crumble as early as the end of the 1980s, bringing with them ethnic conflicts and leaving the Soviet regime perplexed. As in the case of the Azerbaijani pogroms against Armenians, where the KGB initially even played a supportive role, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The artificially created friendship between nations actually worked in some areas, but escalated in almost all cases where territorial conflicts arose.
The romanticizing of the Soviet system is for the most part – given the sober comparisons – at least irrational. Why are there, nevertheless, nostalgics on the one hand, young communists on the other, who are mimicking such a system? First, the political and economic system must be differentiated from the cultural sphere. The Soviet Union was also formative for several generations, culture, films and music, into which people were born and socialized. In addition, many claim to have been part of a common economic system and a world power. This awakens a feeling of togetherness. Another motivation, according to respondents, is the stability that existed in the Soviet Union compared to the post-Soviet systems. Many of the post-Soviet states actually experienced crises after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and these crises are still continuing today. Many states were barely able to recover from these crises and, due to the rapid economic transformation, fell into a system of corruption and oligarchies. To this day, many of these states are struggling to consolidate politically, institutionally and economically.
The illusory nostalgia of communism
The policy of planned economy, which oriented the economy in individual countries in certain directions, as well as the post-Soviet chaotic wave of liberalization coupled with national conflicts are certainly some of the factors why some countries failed to recover. For the failed attempts at transformation, the problems are attributed to capitalism. That capitalism which made the countries of Western Europe, Canada, the USA, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia and countless other states the most livable countries in the world. Even China, which prides itself as communist, has been following the capitalist path for the last decades. The prime examples of communist systems that survived the collapse of the 1990s or reinvented themselves can be seen today. For example in Cuba, Venezuela or North Korea, where people still live below the poverty line, have no chance of advancement and are subject to censorship.
Wishing back communism because certain countries fell into the spiral of corruption would be the same as wishing back absolute monarchies because of the economic situation after the First World War.
Soviet nostalgia may perhaps be understandable for the then socialized generations on an emotional level and in terms of the post-soviet economic situation, but the romanticization of the Soviet system and communism is not only an illusion but also irrational. Wishing back communism because certain countries fell into the spiral of corruption would be the same as wishing back absolute monarchies because of the economic situation after the First World War. After all, the illusory nostalgia of communism is in reality not a nostalgia for communism – but rather a protest against oligarchies, instability and corruption.