Back in June, my students and I had the good fortune to receive a guided tour of the Russian State Duma. The highlight for many of the students was a meeting with hockey legend (and Duma deputy) Vladislav Tretyak, but far more of our time was spent participating rather unexpectedly in an opening ceremony for a new institution – the Soviet Lifestyle Museum.
After we had a short time to view various display cases with some of the exhibits, the ceremonies for the Soviet Lifestyle Museum began with a pair of patriotic Soviet-era songs sung by Rinat Ibragimov, whom I’d never heard of but who is apparently quite well known. The audience lapped it up and sang along happily. You don’t need to speak any Russian to make sense of the appeals to ‘Rossiya, my motherland’.
Following the musical introduction, we had the inevitable speeches. ‘We’re not being nostalgic’, we were told, ‘But we were young then. We were happy. This was our life. It deserves to be preserved.’ It sounded pretty nostalgic to me.
It’s a common among critics of the ‘Putin regime’ to complain that it encourages Soviet nostalgia, has failed to properly denounce communist rule and disassociate itself from it, and so in the process has facilitated the continuation of authoritarian attitudes and systems. No doubt, events like this will play into that narrative. But it’s the not the whole picture. If I understood the speeches correctly, the Soviet Lifestyle Museum was not a state initiative but began as a school project in which a bunch of kids started collecting everyday Soviet items. As they gathered more and more, the collection eventually got so large that people decided to turn it into a museum. Soviet nostalgia, if that’s what you want to call it, has popular roots. It’s not a matter of the state forcing it on people.
In any case, the state and its leaders are busy promoting other aspects of history, as can be seen by a presidential visit to another new museum this week – the Museum of the Russian Emigration. In 1995, with assistance from the famous dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian Emigration Library opened in Moscow. This subsequently turned into the Alexander Solzhenitsyn House of the Russian Emigration. It contains books, newspapers, and archival documents connected to the hundreds of thousands of Russians who fled their country after the 1917 Revolution and also in the period after the second world war. I did some work there a few years ago while researching my book on Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich.
In 2015, Vladimir Putin announced plans to build a new Museum of the Russian Emigration attached to the Alexander Solzhenitsyn House. The museum was completed a couple of months ago, and yesterday Putin paid it a visit, accompanied by the mayor of Moscow and other luminaries, including Solzhenitsyn’s wife. The president gave a little speech, saying:
The Russian emigration has always been inextricably linked spiritually with the Motherland, Russia. I believe this is what makes Russian emigration special, since even being far from the Motherland, it has made and is now making a significant contribution to Russia’s spiritual life. We must be aware of this, keep this in mind and use it in our everyday work. … Thank you very much for preserving this historical memory, for us to remember it, especially, younger people, and for promoting the very best that was written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, especially among young people.
So there you have it. The State Duma hosts the opening of the Soviet Lifestyle Museum, while the President visits the decidedly non-Soviet, one might even say anti-Soviet, Alexander Solzhenitsyn Museum of the Russian Emigration. Putin has form in this regard. After all, he also attended the unveiling of the monument to victims of communism (the Wall of Grief) in Moscow as well as the opening of the Boris Yeltsin Museum in Ekaterinburg. In other words, when it comes to historical memory, rather than impose ideological unity, the ‘Putin regime’ instead oversees a decided ideological pluralism.
Judging from the examples above, the state’s own preferences seem to lie more in the anti-Soviet direction, while the popular preference seems to point in the other. Thus, we get state support for museums celebrating the Whites and Yeltsin, while the Soviet stuff arises rather more from below and only later gets adopted by the state. But however it happens, at the end of the day, the Imperial and the Soviet, the Red and the White, the communist and the anti-communist all get recognition. You celebrate the Soviets’ victory in the Second World War, but you also acknowledge as Russian those who fought against the Soviets in the Civil War. You praise Yeltsin as the founder of capitalist Russia, but also enjoy a sort of nostalgic frisson in viewing a display of Soviet consumer goods. And you hope that somehow it all will eventually come together in a coherent whole. Whether it will, I cannot say, but for now it seems to be working.