Communism in Russia is over. Long forgotten are the figures of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchov, Gorbachov and Brezhnev. Or so we’d think. But there is something about their past that will not let go of the Russians. The Russians, these fascinating creatures deeply marked by their cold winters and the miscalculations of their previous and present rulers. In the 21st century, a time of raging globalization in which Louis Vuitton tried (and failed) to get a spot next to Lenin in the Krasnaya ploshchad, we would imagine that all the idols of the grandiose Red past would be buried deep in the Russian psyche, never to float back up to the surface again. But as I learned during my month-and-a-half trip from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg, nothing could be further from the truth.
There is a statue of Lenin in almost every Russian city and town, especially in Siberia. There will always be at least one such statue that’ll welcome you first thing when you set foot in any train station you’re arriving at: it’s usually the figure of Lenin with his hand triumphantly lifted up in the air, pointing the way to a glorious socialist future full of wealth that will never come, with that characteristic nostalgic tone that only Soviet realism can pull off. In most Siberian cities, the two main streets are monotonously named after Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Other secondary streets might be called Gagarina, Komsomolskaya, Oktyabrskaya, Kommunisticheskaya and other similar, demagogic names.
So the truth is: no, Russians have not forgotten their glorious military past. To this day some people continue to mourn Stalin’s death, the Moscow National Library is still called, by many, the Biblioteka Lenina (even though the name was changed in 1992), Yekaterinburg is also known as Sverdlovsk, and recently Vladimir Putin has made the Victory Day, the holiday that commemorates the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the USSR in 1945, into his very own ritual and the stage from which he showcases the revival of Russia as a military power to the world. The Victory Day is a very emotionally charged event, and Mr. Putin makes sure he doesn’t miss a chance to present himself as a friend and saviour to his folk. The message he looks to deliver is, in some way, that the spirit of the Red Army still burns in every Russian’s heart, so no economic or geopolitical circumstance should be an obstacle to fight back. To fight who? The power-thirsty enemy this side of the Iron Curtain. The imperialist Western world. The world.
But there are consequences to not laying an outdated defense mechanism to rest. The Russian people have learned to live with very strong -sometimes barbaric- ideas and concepts about what the army and discipline mean to them. In plain daylight of the 21st century, 18-year-old kids now come out of their mandatory military service terms mindlessly speaking about defending the country at all costs, about “Motherland or death” and about things that are in practice completely alien to them, as if the past were reciting old tales of battle and honor through them. And this inoculated belief system, we’ve seen with the recent Russian annexation of Crimea, is extremely functional to the government’s territorial interests.
The Soviet Union did a great job channeling the emotions of the masses so that the Russian people would always be ready to fight the invaders in whichever form they would take. Paradoxically, not even post Soviet-era children were spared this indoctrination. In this way, a sort of a collective psychosis was born in regards to the defense of the Motherland’s borders that continues, even though less visibly, to this day. Putin knows this, of course, and acts upon the nostalgic yearning of his folk for the imperial past. He has mentioned quite a few times that the fall of the USSR was a mistake, and this resonates especially with the older generations of Russians that still see a protective father in the figure of Stalin. Vladimir Putin insisting so strongly on national sovereignty, fraternity and the importance of economic independence from the Western powers also means that one of his political goals is to distract the masses from the raging economic crisis that is keeping millions of Russians under or around the poverty line since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There are also other talents that Mr. President displays in order to get the people to find a paternal friend and a hero in him. The internet has showed him to us in his most audacious, masculine side: riding a horse through the frozen Siberian tundra, skiing, fishing, hunting, fiercely beating a judo medallist in his own field, swimming without dolphins, swimming with dolphins, taming wild tigers, playing ice-hockey and almost any other manly activity we can think of. This strategy works for him, he needs it for his popularity to continue rising. According to the statistics published by the VtsIOM, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Vladimir Putin’s overall approval rating was of 86% in 2016. His image appeals to men and women alike because he looks to be regarded as the ideal example of the brave, relentless, incorruptible Russian man. This is what manhood means is the voiceless statement being made through the photos of him bare-chested, wrestling with polar bears.
Will Russia ever be able to free herself from the yoke of personalism, authoritarian regimes and emotional politics? There are no clear social signs that this will be the case in the near future, but there are already little sparks of resistance burning among the younger generations against Putin and the corrupt moves that helped him climb to his current position of almost absolute rule. Russia is tired of corruption, but she turns a blind eye to it for lack of a better, healthier option. She is tired of violence, but keeps on feeding it. The Russians are tired, above all, of bloody dictators, but they keep on placing them on pedestals and investing them with god-like power. Before October 1917, Lenin once said: “if we leave the fight up to the people, we won’t have a revolution in hundreds of years”. The truth is that, in Russia, it is very difficult for the people to be heard in any matter related to politics. The bureaucracy is almighty and insurmountable in a very much Kafkaesque manner. But not all may be lost, though: it is a hard time to be alive in the ex-Soviet capital of the world but today, in this all-connected internet era of ours, those people that Lenin once looked down upon have the ability -for the first time after decades of living in a nightmare- to wake up, organise and revolt. Now it is their turn to stand up and fight back for their own independence.