From the atomic bomb to the plough

What does the current rise in xenophobia have to do with the re-evaluation of the Soviet past?

From the atomic bomb to the plough

Illustration: Novaya Gazeta Europe

After the recent anti-Semitic riots in Dagestan, one Facebook user, obviously wishing to point out the Caucasus’ historic inclination towards pogroms, recounted a grim story from his life in Soviet times. In 1972, as he was passing through the city of Derbent, the train he was on was surrounded by an aggressive mob armed with sticks and knives. Expectedly, the post sparked a lively online discussion: some recounted similar stories from their own Soviet experience, while a majority of others said that they had only ever encountered kindness and hospitality in the Caucasus, Dagestan included.

Similar, yet more pugnacious discussions unfurled in countless online groups with names such as “Happy in the USSR”. Some insist that the “friendship of peoples” blossomed in Soviet times. Others argue that this was no more than propaganda and that in reality the USSR was deeply xenophobic. One says: “You’re besmirching our history!”, to which another replies: “And you’re sweeping the purges and deportations under the rug!”

Amid all the recollections of those who visited the Caucasus in Soviet times, one especially poignant and much-needed story comes to mind. In 1942, residents of the Circassian village Beslenei sheltered children who had been evacuated from Leningrad — including Jewish children. The villagers treated the refugees as their own flesh and blood, gave them Circassian names, and then hid them as best they could during the five months they were under Nazi occupation. Nobody handed the children over to the Nazis, even though anybody hiding Jews risked not only their own lives, but also those of their families.

Is this a story of personal virtue, good local traditions, or Soviet ideology? I would guess it’s an amalgamation of all three. Interwoven with each other, countless such stories brought about victory. There was a lot behind that victory: people’s love for their family, for their home villages and towns; individual heroism, mass patriotism, and a great internationalist ideology.

Sure, we know what happened before and after this victory: the Great Purge, deportations of entire nationalities, the partition of Europe. And we desperately need to accept both sides of this coin.

We know that part of the Soviet intelligentsia saw communist propaganda — not only as it related to “the people”, but also to the friendship between peoples, gender equality, workers’ rights, and world peace — as disgusting hypocrisy, which left them with a bias in the opposite direction.

And this was not only true for the intelligentsia: everyday Soviet xenophobia with its jokes about ethnic minorities was just another way of undermining official ideology. As a result, an entire generation of people who grew up in the USSR have difficulty accepting the basic discourse on gender equality, tolerance, and other “European values”.

Some scholars believe that the depoliticisation that occurred following the collapse of the USSR, the lack of faith in collective action, and other post-perestroika trends were in part a delayed reaction to the hyper-politicisation of everything under the Soviets. Quite possibly. But it’s a stretch to blame everything on propaganda just as it is to attribute the incident at Makhachkala Airport solely to some murky Telegram channels, bloodthirsty propagandists, or Lavrov’s and Putin’s nods to anti-Semitism.

National leaders and propagandists inevitably play a very important role in the dynamics of mass emotion. During Donald Trump’s election campaign, the level of Islamophobia in US society surpassed even that recorded in the wake of 9/11. Conversely, George Bush’s call for tolerance after the attacks immediately reduced the degree of hostility to Muslims. An anti-Semitic relapse that occurred in Soviet society in the late 40s and early 50s was also triggered by politics.

Leaders bear enormous responsibility for shifts in public opinion, and it’s very important not to let them shift the blame to anyone else. Nevertheless, all people, however unpleasant, are individuals and must take responsibility for their own foolishness. This also applies to those whose alienation from the Soviet regime, with its achievements both real and imaginary, swung them in the other direction: away from faith in human progress and towards political nihilism, and other beliefs that in combination inevitably contribute to societal decay.

Yes, the rhetoric of the Soviet government was often disastrously at odds with its actions. But this rhetoric also had a positive effect on large groups of people. This was sometimes done directly— by drumming the inevitability of progress and global equality into people and encouraging them to bring about such a future with their own actions.

In other cases, moral pressure was employed: xenophobic prejudices are shameful; you can indulge in them privately if you must, but not in public — you’ll get reprimanded by the Party.

Others were affected by the official rhetoric in a more complex manner — it simultaneously alienated them from society while reinforcing the very socialist values that it preached. Anthropologist Alexey Yurchak describes this mechanism as follows: “People felt solidarity and believed that they were doing something important, whether they were a doctor in a hospital or a family member at a spaceport… Sometimes [they did so] in spite of the Party, without any of those communist slogans, but it was part of their socialist existence… Therefore, after the Soviet Union collapsed, many found this solidarity, this idea that you have to do something important together, to be ruined”.

The fact that a multinational population stretching from the Russian Far East to the Polish border all felt they were part of a single society was undoubtedly one of the Soviet project’s great successes. It was achieved amid and in spite of many terrible things: the brutal repression of national intelligentsias, the forced resettlement of entire nationalities, official and everyday xenophobia. We may not be able to recover what has already been lost, but it turns out that we can still lose what is left.

An emotional and deeply personal desire to take revenge on our shared past is as dangerous as whitewashing it with narratives of the Soviet victory in World War II and space exploration. By refusing to think critically about our history, turning it either into a heroic legend or a swamp of stagnation, we allow its nightmares to seep into the future. By denying the achievements of the past, we risk making society increasingly vulnerable to degradation.

Views expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of Novaya Gazeta Europe.

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