A Stolen Life: What the Russian Debate Around the 1990s is About
May 30, 2024
  • Ilya Kukulin

    Amherst College, literary critic, historian of culture
Cultural historian and literary critic Ilya Kukulin analyzes the passionate debate on social media in May, mostly among Russian emigrants and dissidents, about how the early post-Soviet period influenced contemporary Russian politics. He points out the blind spots in the discussion and the importance of the idea of a “meaningful life.”
The original text in Russian was published in The Moscow Times and is being republished here with author’s changes and his permission.
A scene from Traitors, a 2024 Russian documentary series about corruption among high-ranking politicians in the 1990s. It was made by Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and narrated by Maria Pevchikh. Source: Wiki Commons
Recently, two waves of discussion have swept across the Russian segment of Facebook and other social networks, with contradictory memories of the 1990s in Russia colliding. The first, more visible one is the controversy over the three-part film Traitors, made by the team at Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), led by Maria Pevchikh. The second, less visible one is the controversy that began after a post by journalist and writer Elena Kostyuchenko.
In her post, Kostyuchenko spoke about her difficult, hungry childhood in Yaroslavl in the second half of the 1990s. The post came in the context of the discussion around the Pevchikh film. Recall that in her interview with Yuri Dud in 2023, Kostyuchenko was critical of the 1990s era in Russian history, echoing what is expressed in Traitors – or at least on the surface.

In response to the post, some people of Kostyuchenko’s generation – specifically, those who lived in poor families and/or in small towns affected by the economic crisis in the 1990s – began to write similar posts about what they remembered from childhood: hunger, dejected parents struggling to make ends meet...

Others began to argue with them, trying to prove that the 1990s was an extremely productive era; that the episode described in Kostyuchenko’s post could not have actually happened; or that the people in the posts about the “poor 1990s” could have made a living by doing this or that and thus themselves are to blame for the pinch they were then in.

I will not talk specifically about the Pevchikh film – quite a lot has already been said about it. My view on it is close to that formulated by Sergei Aleksashenko and Boris Zimin. I will not analyze in detail Kostyuchenko’s post – a lot has been said about it too (for some excerpts of the discussion see Russia.Post here).

I would like to analyze what the discussion was about, where the 1990s have suddenly become a political battleground with relevance for today.

Disputes on social networks, I believe, have diagnostic value. Heated and often fruitless discussions on various issues, primarily historical and political, serve to develop and broadcast new historical myths while stubbornly ignoring the “blind spots” of public consciousness that have existed since the 1990s. Thus, if you show how these myths are developed and what these blind spots are, you will have a conversation not about the past, but about the present and the future.

The sense of a stolen life

Participants in the debates about the 1990s often confuse (saying, for example, “oh, things were bad for me too”) the beginning and the second half of the decade, although in Russia these were two different historical and economic eras: the beginning was the collapse of the Soviet economy, while the second was marked by slow and grudging post-Soviet growth.

It has been very rarely mentioned that most of the economic and political problems of the first post-Soviet decade had Soviet roots and origins. By default it was assumed, and still is, that if in the 1990s, for example, there was poverty and high crime rates in the provinces, then the new Russian authorities were solely to blame.

It seems that in the Russian segment of Facebook, class-based explanations are now considered good form: the poor had it bad in the 1990s, and if someone had it good in the 1990s, it was because they were rich and/or privileged, for example, because they lived in Moscow. In these debates the default presumption of “the full stomach does not understand the empty one” wins out – although from an ethical and historical point of view, it would be more productive not to reject the possibility of mutual understanding, but to have a dialogue between people with different experiences about what processes were going on simultaneously in Russia in the 1990s and how they were related to each other.

Many commentators wonder why this controversy has arisen today. The answer seems to lie in Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, together with the destructive influence that the current regime has on society.

I am not talking about the reasons for the appearance of the Pevchikh film – as has been written and pointed out by various commentators more than once, it was made because the leadership of FBK needs to redefine its political agenda following the death of Alexei Navalny. Yet the strange “debate about the 1990s” flared up on social media precisely because no one knows how long the war will last, while repression in the country is being ratcheted up, the value of any social action is being called into question, and I believe there is a feeling – both among some people who remain in Russia and those who have emigrated – that they were robbed of a decent life. The previous, seemingly stable social and cultural order has collapsed, and society is increasingly filled with xenophobia, fear and escapism.
The sense of a stolen life, in turn, provokes a search for the reasons why it is being experienced as stolen, and therefore a retrospective analysis of how recent decades were experienced at an individual and societal level.”
On social media, this analysis mostly boiled down to finding those to blame. Some of those who probably remember the 1990s in some detail were enthusiastic about the view expressed in Traitors – I think because it was important to them to find those who, in their minds, bear the lion’s share of responsibility for how things played out later, during Putin’s rule, which has ultimately led to the aggression against Ukraine.
The 1990s are remembered today as a time of material deprivation, hunger, increased crime, unemployment, depression among many people and limited opportunities to change things. However, people are unwilling to remember why this feeling of humiliation and depression arose – the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet project meant the collapse of social statuses, life plans and, perhaps most importantly, the feeling of its fullness and meaning.

The meaning of life in the USSR

The human need to find meaning in one’s life is very strong and very important. This need (for a meaningful life) is especially strong in modern man, who does not have traditional social structures that give meaning to life without the explicit participation of individual will – like, for example, religious teachings, accepted from childhood and never challenged after.
Viktor Frankl (1905-97), psychologist, philosopher and Holocaust survivor. Source: Wiki Commons
A quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, as quoted by Viktor Frankl in his book Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, has been widely shared on the internet: “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In Nietzsche’s book Twilight of the Idols it is put a little differently, however: “if we have our own ‘why’ of life we shall get along with almost any ‘how.’ Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.”

Nietzsche is alluding to the English Utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who said that the basis of morality and legislation should be the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

The Soviet government’s worldview, in some respects, was completely Nietzschean. Soviet citizens had to (this was the social norm imposed by the authorities) to see the meaning of their lives in working for the state, which meant they were participating in a Great (hi)Story – and thanks to this they could endure “almost any how.”
The question of what a meaningful life means in the Soviet and post-Soviet contexts has direct relevance for the future of Russia.”
To explain the connection between them, we need to return to the history of the 1990s – but this time outside of Maria Pevchikh’s film and discussions on Facebook.

The psychology of the ‘trauma of the 1990s’

The 1990s were traumatic for many people. But this trauma is very complex. There were people who really lived in poverty, whose close friends or relatives were killed. But far from everyone suffered such a personal catastrophe, and even the dichotomy of capitals (Moscow and St Petersburg) and provinces is not the only relevant one here (although, of course, the standard of living in Moscow in the 1990s was disproportionately higher than in the provinces).

In the same area, there could be two large cities within three hours of each other by car, with one relatively prosperous but the other engulfed in daily violence (I am now thinking of a specific example that I know of). There were two more factors that for many people were no less, and perhaps more, psychologically traumatic than anomie and violence.

The first is the collapse of the Soviet social contract. People under the Soviet regime lived very poorly but predictably, and they roughly understood where (from whom) they could get something for the next day. In post-Soviet times, this contract fell apart, but no one, in my view, could have prevented its collapse.

The second factor is that the Soviet system of centralized distribution of the meaning of life collapsed. The people who worked at defense factories in monotowns knew that they were participating in a Big (hi)Story, because they were making weapons that would keep the Strategic Adversary at bay. Many of those who worked during the day in military design bureaus read Solzhenitsyn at night, but they still felt dependent on the state and knew the limits of acceptable behavior – excluding those who shifted to openly dissident activities.

After the collapse of the Soviet military-industrial complex, no one explained to these people whether they had lived their lives meaningfully – meanwhile, figures ranging from KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov to the popular far-right blogger Dmitri “Goblin” Puchkov persistently explained to them that the meaning of their lives had been stolen by the reformers.

The reformers were not ready to be anything other than crisis managers. But people in a society going through a very painful transformation were in dire need of their agency being recognized and an understanding of how to take responsibility for the meaning of their own lives being provided. Politicians, media and nongovernmental organizations could presumably have helped them, but very few actually did.

History is what is created every day

Both in the 1990s and after, there was a lot of discussion about the need for lustration of KGB officials and senior CPSU functionaries – not carried out after the collapse of Soviet power – but I would draw attention to other, not even mistakes, but practices, actions and inaction that led to tragic outcomes. They were allowed to take place because no one knew at the time how to act in the new and very difficult situation.
One of these failures is a complete misunderstanding of how politics relates to values, and values to the experience of a meaningful life. It is this understanding – and here I am not speaking in the Soviet, but in the Frankl sense – that allows one to “come to terms with almost any situation,” i.e., to overcome difficulties, understanding why you are doing something, and to endure not for the sake of the state, but for yourself and for other people whom you yourself have chosen.

All people in a society cannot have the same values. A healthy society is one in which people with different values are in dialogue. Some believe that the highest value is freedom, others see it as social justice and still others would say security.
No single political force can realize all values at once. Only populists promise to combine them and distribute them equally to all members of society, but in the end they bring about neither security, nor freedom, nor justice. Such an understanding was sorely lacking in the 1990s.

Putin is an extreme case of a populist who promised to make things good for everyone: to ensure security and social justice and at first, it seems, to not curb freedom too much. Through so-called “political technology” (manipulation), his promises were made to sound quite convincing.

The current regime, created by Putin and other people from the security services, has destroyed the social order and established – and continues to establish – in its place a continuous war that Russia supposedly must wage against the whole world.
But let’s not believe that this regime has robbed its opponents of the sense of a meaningful life. Each of us can cultivate that – despite what is going on around us – and help others to do it, too. Such efforts are also part of the resistance.
Perhaps the most important thing here is to stop reducing biographies to the word “survival.” In the economic sense, many people, both in Soviet and post-Soviet times, just survived – they scraped together money, which was barely enough for food, grew vegetables and berries at their dachas and in their gardens...

But they also loved each other and helped their neighbors, believed in God, came up with various gadgets for home and work, rediscovered the beauty of nature and works of art, listened to rock, argued... All this was not just survival. Through these actions people showed their ability to shape their own lives and make it meaningful. But to feel that, they had to reject the Soviet system of collective and centralized distribution of meaning, to step out of it. Maybe this is exactly what should have been said on TV in the 1990s: you are now not just surviving, you are making your life and your children’s lives meaningful, you are doing your best.

Putin and his cronies have destroyed a lot, but they have not and cannot destroy the ability of people to create meaning in their lives and the lives of their loved ones – even when they are in a very difficult situation.
Pavel Krisevich, a protest and performance artist. Krisevich staged a mock crucifixion of himself (pictured) in front of the FSB headquarters in Moscow. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 2022. Source: VK
Living evidence of this is a striking letter from prison recently written by artist Pavel Krisevich, who is a political prisoner:

There is nothing more terrible in prison than despair. So, if you look unusually sad, someone will definitely ask “how are you?” or will invite you to have tea and candy. This is partly because everyone knows how genuine sadness is transmitted to the entire prison cell.

Has everyone felt how tangible a father’s grief for his dead son is? I felt it when it happened in our prison cell. And that’s why I urge you: if you see a person going through a hard time, give him a drop of sympathy, throw him a lifeline.

The loneliness will largely begin to consume him from the inside. In prison, you all have one path through Repression, and the echo of someone else’s grief will catch up with you, even if you have gone kilometers ahead” (published in the Freedom for Krisevich! Telegram channel).

In this letter, Krisevich takes both his own and other people’s lives far beyond the boundaries of conceptions about individual survival. He is not the first to write about being saved in prison. Similar reflections can be found, for example, in the aforementioned Frankl, who thought a lot about psychological resistance in a concentration camp. But it is important to me that this person is living and acting here, at the same time as us, with the same frame of reference.

Giving meaning to your own life and the lives of those around you is a micromodel of history. That might be an exaggeration, but maybe not if we persist at it. History can be understood in different ways. One can imagine it as a Great Drama in which superpowers and their leaders clash, in which the “common man” is simply an object in the hands of suprapersonal forces. But we can think differently: shared experience, solidarity, joint action – this is truly the driving force of history, as it could be, capable of reproducing itself. What we are doing together is producing a meaningful (hi)story that counters the collective madness and terror. Laying secret paths, capillaries of shared meaning.
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