Staunton, June 24 – Near the end of the Soviet period, Russians protested against specific problems fearful that raising political questions was too dangerous an enterprise; but in the back of their minds, most of them had the idea that their preferred future was one like that people in the West already had, with a full shelves in the stores and a higher standard of living.
Now, after 20 years of Putin, Russians are again protesting against a variety of specific problems, again fearful of raising explicitly political issues; but, Dmitry Oreshkin says, they no longer view the West as their preferred model but rather look back to the Stalinist period – or at least to the image of it the Putin regime has promoted (snob.ru/entry/178950/).
But that vision of Stalinism as an alternative to the current system is just as much a challenge to that regime as was the vision of the West as an alternative 35 years ago because it suggests, the Russian commentator says, that the Russian people have concluded that their rulers have once again led them into a blind ally and that they must find some way out.
Many were struck, even shocked, by recent polls showing that Russians now give Stalin the highest positive rating they ever had and that “more than half of Russians consider the main characteristic of the Soviet era too be the concern of the state for ordinary people,” Oreshin continues.
But they shouldn’t have been: “Today, Russian society is living through a period of a change of priorities which is reflected in the nature of social protests. In place of political slogans of a democratic direction are emerging specific demands connected with the environment, labor and ethnic conflicts, and the low quality of services provided by the state.”
Russians are edging their way toward a new model for their country much as they did in the 1980s. At that time too, social protest connected with environmental problems, for example, the death of the Aral Sea or railway construction in the Caucasus was an indirect expression of social-political protest.”
People then “simply did not risk expressing political demands, although the request for an alternative model of life existed; and it was obvious to all that this was the model of the Western way of life.” But today that model has lost the status of a preferred “alternative” both because of the work of Moscow TV in discrediting it and the greater availability of goods and services.
Russians today “are angry not at the absence of goods in the stores but at social injustice, corruption, the power of the oligarchs, and the inability of local governments to organize their regions and deal with their specific problems, including, for example, the disposal of trash,” Oreshkin continues.
In this situation, he says, “people are finding an illusory alternative in the form of the Soviet Union.” Moscow TV is helping them in this regard by providing a gauzy picture of that past, and so “it seems too people that under Stalin there were no national conflicts” and that social equality existed, even if it was the equality of poverty.
“Nostalgia for the Soviet era is a sign that the Putin model of populism and verticalism has reached a dead end.” Most Russians haven’t yet recognized this explicitly, but their search for some alternative shows that they already feel this – and want changes. Unfortunately, what they want is very troubling indeed.
Many Russians clearly believe that their government “must be still more vertical. They think that Putin isn’t a bad guy, that he acts mostly in the correct way but isn’t tough enough.” Therefore, they want him or someone else to act as Stalin did and end ethnic conflicts, corruption, and inequality by force.
“Such notions are linked to the deficit of education” in Russia and “also to the verticalist propaganda which has worked on the minds of people over the course of the last 20 years. At the same time, it is partially the product of the traditional system of values … which holds that Russia needs authoritarian rule.”
Russians “sympathetic to the Soviet era can take part in protests, for example, against the construction of trash dumps, against air pollution, or against rising prices,” Oreshkin says. “But the probability that they will go out into the streets with Stalin’s portraits is minimal” and should not be expected.
Such people “live in an imaginary world and in fact to do not believe that the return of Stalin is possible. For them, Stalin is the genius of all times and peoples, a comforting image … they can turn to in their free time.” But the fact that they have such an image is an increasingly important factor in Russian political life.