Ideals and ideology:
how the culture of Putinism differs from Soviet culture
April 4, 2023
  • Oleg Kashin

    Journalist and writer
Oleg Kashin writes that the anti-ideological nature of Russian society and the state in the early post-Soviet period resulted in degradation. The inhumane mores of the 1990s, refracted through the domestic prosperity of the 2000s, have produced selfish, cruel philistines indifferent to the pain of others.
The words “ideology” and “ideals” are consonant for a reason: in history, they always go hand in hand. When a political theory (probably any theory, but specifically, in the context of twentieth-century Russia, Marxism) becomes the basis of the state system, rising above both the individual and any rational political considerations of real politics, it quickly becomes clear that the weakest point of such a construction is the individual, who never reaches the ideal envisaged by the theory, with the result that either the idea must retreat or the individual must be broken.

Clothes for giants

By way of analogy, imagine that a clothing store for giants were to be opened in an area inhabited by short people. The laws of the market dictate that such a store will inevitably go bankrupt, but if it is owned and run by fanatics who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals (“there are no fortresses that the Bolsheviks could not take”—Stalin), the situation could quickly descend into the most incredible violence. After all, even short stature can be considered a solvable problem if you stretch a person on the rack! And is this not how the first decades of Soviet power, with their exalted and unalloyed totalitarianism, are described? Early Soviet elites were prepared, in the name of a theoretical ideal, not only to break, but also to kill people, heedless of the extent of losses.

Extending the analogy, let's imagine that, over time, a new generation of store owners takes over. The fanatics are replaced by calmer and more peaceful people, who have nevertheless retained, due to inertia, the magical thinking of their ancestors. They continue to display giant suits in the shop’s windows and stack them on the shelves, but they have abandoned the rack and, realizing that people still need clothes, have established in a distant corner of the store — now crowded with buyers — a small department with normal-size clothing. Obviously, this remains a very strange business model, but it is much more humane than the original, and you can well imagine that one day some manager will decide that there has been enough fooling around, throw out the giant-sized apparel, and allow normal-sized clothes to take over the entire sales floor.

But that will be later, and for now no one thinks about it — they live, adapt, and are happy that no one else needs to have their spine forcibly lengthened.

This is, generally speaking, a realistic description of the structure of the late Soviet Union ten or fifteen years before its collapse. The Soviet government, ruled by elderly cynics and scoundrels whose personal formation had occurred in the Stalin era, had already abandoned most of the totalitarian practices that had inspired in these leaders nothing but horror. But (and as a direct result of that enduring fear) it continued to cling to a shabby ideological shell, pretending to aspire to an unattainable ideal for society and humanity. The individual — the ordinary man, with his dreams, passions, and habits — could in principle already live his private life without treating himself as a cog in the great machine, but ideology would not let him forget that this was a petty and unworthy life in terms of the ideals that had once been formulated.

The terms “philistine,” “bourgeois,” “careerist,” and “proprietor” were all accepted as curses at the time, and even the real Soviet bourgeois of the 1970s — who worked three jobs, bought construction materials for his dacha on the black market, and stole from his enterprise — looked at the world from the perspective that his philistine happiness was banal and unseemly. Even disloyal Soviet individuals mocked such petty bourgeois happiness: “Now I’m living in that house — I couldn’t ask for more/No more buttons to come loose/all my pants have zips/ And the wine they have in stock /as much as you can drink/ And the toilet here’s as big as my old living room / And we eat off China plates — enough to serve a king,” wrote the dissident poet Alexander Galich, giving voice to a (despised) character who gave up true love to marry into the family of a high-ranking Party functionary. When, in the mid-1980s, it became possible to mock Soviet mores, the hero of a popular Soviet movie, upon giving his coat to a freezing friend, admonished him that now he could stop thinking about trivial clothing and start dreaming about something great.
To dream of the great and conform to the great was the late-Soviet social standard, which of course no one followed, but nor did anyone — either in the government or society — challenge it."
And since the ideological sphere was attached to the ideal (although Stalin had succeeded in ideologizing even genetics, and of course, ruled to destroy it), it had an amazing effect on spiritual life: Soviet media, mass culture, and urban planning were all oriented not toward real society, but toward non-existent people who, as they joked then, were no strangers to anything superhuman.

The country's most-circulated newspaper, Pravda, whose articles were written as if by artificial intelligence (and not the current ChatGPT, but something likewise from the 1970s, with vacuum tubes and punch cards); the anchormen on evening TV news; and professional actors all spoke the same inhuman language. The film industry produced films with very talented actors and directors, and without skimping on production costs, even knowing that movies about the lives of Marx, Lenin, and lesser Communist leaders would be failures. Likewise, singers sang about them in operatic voices from the stage, despite probably being well aware that no one would buy their records and listen to them in their own homes for pleasure. Despite everything, the “dead” Soviet regime continued to exist, but if under Stalinism it had been easy to drive the “cogs in the machine” into the cinema to watch another film “about Ilyich,” not caring what the average man really wanted, in the Brezhnev years there was less rigidity, more common sense, and real demand began to mean something not only in light industry, but also in culture.

Such different communists

The only thing that remained of the original requirements of totalitarianism was the need not to challenge the communist doctrine. However, by that time its limits were so blurred (the Soviet communist of the 1970s being guided not by Marx, but by the materials of the last plenum of the Central Committee) that loyalty to Lenin's ideas could mean anything. From the point of view of the CPSU, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who embraced, in his texts, something like Eurocommunism; the ultra-Stalinist Vsevolod Kochetov, who headed the conservative magazine Oktyabr (incidentally, when his deputy, Vladimir Maksimov, left in the late 1970s for the West, where he headed up the influential anti-Soviet magazine Kontinent, he did not have to change his views — it was just that in the official space of the USSR by that time, no one needed political views in the classical sense); the monarchist Vladimir Soloukhin; and the anti-Semitic pogromist Ivan Shevtsov all remained formally within the Soviet framework when spreading their views, even if these were far from Brezhnev’s slogans. As long as one referred to Lenin at the right moment, one could call for shootings, pogroms, or market reforms — the system no longer noticed such nuances.

Researchers of Soviet culture often divide it mechanically into “official” and “unofficial,” assuming that true freedom under totalitarianism is only possible outside the official discourse, which is the domain of hypocritical opportunists. But sorting through the iconic names of the last two Soviet decades, you can see among them many writers and poets whose texts it would not be a surprise to see in émigré and samizdat editions (is there much of the Soviet in Yuri Trifonov, Bulat Okudzhava, or Valentin Rasputin? The list goes on: even The Master and Margarita was first published in 1966 in a Soviet literary magazine decorated with the slogan “Proletarians of all countries, unite,” and its preface was written by the Stalin Prize-winning poet Konstantin Simonov, himself by no means a dissident), as well as theater and film directors who are far from the official Soviet canon (these include not only the master of festival arthouse Andrei Tarkovsky and Yuri Lyubimov from the Taganka Theater, but also Eldar Ryazanov and Leonid Gaidai, who were beloved by mass audiences for their films, which were not about Lenin and look quite fresh even now).

Alla Pugacheva, the undisputed number-one pop superstar of that period, was proud that her repertoire did not include a single song in the genre of "civil lyrics," only ones about love and a woman's soul. The audience understood and appreciated this — and when, in an innocent song about summer in 1979, Pugacheva used the phrase "my big country," many fans considered it an unacceptable compromise, though they quickly forgave her, perhaps because she brought the works of forgotten or banned avant-garde poets — Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Semen Kirsanov — to a wider audience by using these poets’ verses in her song lyrics.
Toward the end of the Soviet era, the official and real cultural hierarchies finally diverged without coming into direct conflict. As in all other spheres of Soviet life, one thing was written on paper, but the opposite was actually true."
In the late Soviet period, the ordinary man could already lead a private life with his dreams and passions without being seen as a cog in a great wheel. Pictured Mashina Vremeni ("Time Machine"), a highly popular Soviet rock group, 1978. Source: Wiki Commons
The most decorated Soviet novelist was Georgy Markov, whom people today would need to look up on Wikipedia, while people stood in line for novels by the Strugatsky brothers or Vladimir Orlov. (The latter, then a popular author of ironic mystical plots, owed his success to a certain extent to Leonid Brezhnev. When the literary magazine Novyi Mir published the memoirs of the Soviet leader, the editorial board and censors — understanding that the reader had no interest in these memoirs — agreed to include Orlov's masterpiece “Danilov the Alto-Player,” which was otherwise accessible only as samizdat.)

At the funeral of the actor Vladimir Vysotsky, who had become a real rock star in the Soviet underground thanks to the songs he composed and sang in his inimitable manner, film director Nikita Mikhalkov called him a true people's artist. Mikhalkov, himself a full-fledged European film artist, but at the same time the son of the officious Stalin-era poet who wrote the lyrics for the anthems both of the USSR and of Putin's Russia, was referring to the official title of "People's Artist of the USSR” — which Vysotsky, of course, did not have. But it was Vysotsky, he argued, who was the true people's artist, not those to whom the authorities handed out badges and credentials. This was an indisputable truth in the late Soviet Union.

“Pravda” is gone, but “Komsomol’skaya” has survived

The official Pravda wrote dead-language proclamations about fighting imperialists and increasing milk yields, but lower-ranking newspapers and magazines — whether youth, literary, scientific, or popular — broke every so often into human language, placing next to Brezhnev's portrait quite entertaining essays about everyday life or even crime, useful advice, anecdotes, comics, crosswords, and even articles about sex. One such newspaper exists and succeeds to this day: Komsomol’skaya pravda, once the organ of the Lenin Komsomol, has retained its Soviet name but become one of the first post-Soviet Russian tabloids, featuring gossip about the stars and pictures of naked women, but also political articles written in plain, everyday language (from moderately conservative positions in the 1990s and from ultra-loyalist standpoints under Putin). It is now called Putin's favorite paper, and he did not object when Komsomol’skaya pravda put his portrait on its billboards. Today, it is the most influential and highest-circulation loyalist newspaper in Russia. The grimy Pravda is gone, but the yellow Komsomol’skaya pravda remains.

This can be considered a metaphor for all of Putinism in relation to the Soviet past, and when Putin's Russia is compared to the USSR, this should be kept in mind — yes, there is an inheritance, but this is not as direct as many claim. It does not matter whether we consider this evolution to be an improvement or a simplification; the original idea is quite clear and rational. If the USSR had a lot of unnecessary ideological ballast, but also a lot of things that the average citizen cherished, it was logical to discard the first and preserve or revive the second. Putin's Russia is the USSR without Pravda, but with Komsomol’skaya pravda; without the heavy-handed Lenin movies, but with frivolous comedies like “Irony of Fate” (Ironiia sud’by), which was made in 1975, but has become under Putin part of the New Year television canon; without the CPSU, but with the KGB; without ideology, but with mechanisms left over from the ideocratic state.
The abandonment of Soviet taboos has influenced universal ideas about what is acceptable and opened the way to state-sanctioned violence. Pictured: Sergei Mironov, the leader of A Just Russia party faction in the Duma, with a sledgehammer, which was allegedly used as a murder weapon by the infamous Wagner private military company. Source: VK
Fascism as a triumph of the bourgeoisie

In the Putin era, the average Russian citizen no longer needs to look back at the ideal that was invented and imposed from above — it has been discarded and scrapped. Bourgeoisie, careerism, and property ownership are no longer curses, but neutral words that denote reality and are not frowned upon by society. No one sings songs about Lenin and the Party, and love is still often sung about by the same singers who sang under Brezhnev, including the aforementioned Alla Pugacheva (who, incidentally, denounced the war and left Russia in 2022).

Patriotic cinema — above all films about the Second World War, more of which have been produced during the two decades of the Putin era than during the entire Soviet period — is rooted, aesthetically and ethically, in the tradition not of weighty Soviet epics, but of Hollywood action films — the difference being that the superheroes in Russian films wear Soviet military uniforms. No one demands that the average person “dream of something great,” but by removing an outdated idea from the design, the architects of Putinism have found, amazingly, that if there is not at least a rhetorical effort to make people better, they will willingly — and without coaxing — get worse, first just relaxing, and then literally getting down on all fours.

The principled anti-ideological nature of Russian society and the state, which seemed natural in the early post-Soviet years, has quickly turned into degradation: the abolished taboos have affected not only the formerly fictitious sanctities, but also quite universal ideas about what is acceptable, including violence. The ideal is not necessarily a builder of communism without fear and reproach; less ambitious variants are also possible, such as working honestly, not drinking, not beating one's wife and children, and visiting museums and theaters. Nostalgia for the Soviet era, which contributed substantially to the public demand for authoritarian (but “fair”) strong power, was born of dissatisfaction with the cynicism and brutality of the first years of post-Soviet capitalism.

Of course, people missed not the totalitarian practices of the state, but rather the humanity that sprouted in spite of them. But in terms of power, it didn't matter. If society misses the past, it can be brought back in a way of the authorities’ choice. And apparently, at some point, the state realized that it was more convenient if the average citizen did not care about ideals — not least because this made it easier to construct new values that would meet current political needs.

It is difficult to assess how much of this process has been spontaneous and how much of it has been artificial, but the inhumane customs of the 1990s — refracted through the everyday well-being of the 2000s — have produced that layman who once frightened Soviet cartoonists: a person who is selfish, cruel, devoid of empathy, indifferent to other people's pain.
“Soviet propaganda considered fascism a triumph of the stupid bourgeois — such a theory seemed dubious, but these once seemingly empty words now seem to describe the kind of Russia that has been at war with Ukraine for the past year."
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy