Some historical events can be seen as explosions that generate an expansive wave that spreads, in time and space, beyond the death of the political order in which they were incarnated. This is the case of the USSR, a project that, according to the historian Karl Schlögel, was not just a political system, but a way of life, a set of practices and values: a civilization. “The traditions of political culture, of behavior, of human relations survive the collapse of political structures”, observes Schlögel (Germany, 1948) during an interview recently granted in Madrid. This is one of the conceptual pillars on which it rests The Soviet century (Gutenberg Galaxy), a grand voyage mapping the wreck that Vladimir Putin called it the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
Schlögel’s careful attention is focused on dozens of aspects of the Soviet universe – from railways to communal housing, from the Soviet encyclopedia to industrial development; it avoids a chronological narrative as a whole, and opts for an approach by specific chapters that illuminates the genesis, development, maturity and senescence of more than fifty features of that utopia, some transcendental, others anecdotal but always illustrative. It is largely the portrait of a lost world, of a defeated culture, of an evanescent spirit. But it is not an autopsy. As the historian reconstructs, vanishing lines are glimpsed against the light that help to decipher contemporary post-Soviet space, a troubled world that has not yet reached stabilization after the fall of the empire three decades ago. As you reflect, you see the brutal force that certain stories wield in the present.
The underlying political culture is obviously one of the central influencing elements of the Soviet world at the present time. “The fact that for seven decades there was no opportunity for the emergence of pluralism, for the affirmation of civil society, is a determining factor of great weight. Political apathy, the expectation that the institutions decide everything, the scant consideration of individual responsibility, distrust of leaders and other feelings that took hold in the Soviet era are still very strong, ”says Schlögel, specialized in history of Eastern Europe and author, among other works, of Terror and utopia (Cliff).
The self-serving use by current Russian leaders of the Soviet experience – and, more generally, of the imperial past – is another powerful element through which history influences the present. “On the one hand, the leadership is quite adept at using the kind of political culture that comes from the past and instrumentalizing it in its political agenda. They know that there is a great desire for stability after a very turbulent phase and they cleverly mobilize all the feelings related to an uncertain future ”, comments the historian. “On the other hand, they replicate the tactic of building a presumed foreign enemy that intends to surround the USSR (then) and post-Soviet Russia (now). Vladimir Putin is a master at stirring up certain feelings, such as alleged humiliations that the West would try to inflict on the Russians, ”the author continues. Nostalgia for a great past, fear of hostile powers, the construction of an image of the homeland as a great protective fortress: the key feelings of the current time have a very strong connection with the past.
The search for international political connections and propaganda agitation are other features of the political culture that, with due updateThey seem to come from afar and survive in the present. The historical attempt to link and influence through the communist ideology that Moscow carried out with related parties settled in other countries now sees a replica with interested approaches with a scent of traditionalist conservatism, nationalist ideologies, orthodox values. Propaganda interference or the compilation of compromising information – the famous kompromat– they remain today as then as foreground tools, although very evolved in their forms.
There are elements of continuity less visible than the great strategies of leaders. “One factor that should not be underestimated is that while there are now millions of Russians who have had the opportunity to travel abroad and compare, the majority of the population has not gone out. This is another strong element of continuity ”, considers Schlögel.
The Soviet century explores a plethora of derivatives of the impact of the Soviet utopia on people’s everyday lives. Obviously, a large part are experiences that have ended, such as sharing a toilet and kitchen in community dwellings, where 40% of Moscow’s inhabitants still lived in 1970. The way of life has changed, but there are traits that resonate vividly anyway. The historian narrates in his chapter dedicated to the Trans-Siberian how at that time the trains became a small space of freedom. On the long journeys, the travelers, confident in the certainty that they would never see their occasional traveling companions again, exchanged impressions and information with them with a certain openness. “In that regime there was no possibility of forging a true counterculture; but a second space was established beyond the official channels. There was then, and there is now, ”says Schlögel.
In Russia, it represents an enormous challenge to grow, to structure that second space in the face of a leadership that hinders it. “The problem is how to create a public sphere where citizens can articulate their wishes, their demands, if the central institutions are entirely in the hands of the ruling circle. How to connect different movements, atmospheres, in the different parts of this enormous territory, with enormous distances not only in geographical terms but also in social terms ”, argues the historian.
“The end of the USSR is not only the end of the Soviet project, but the collapse of a broader imperial project. Organizing the dismantling of an empire is extraordinarily difficult. History teaches us that very often this has produced dramatic circumstances. Managing decolonization requires a sense of exceptional status. Putin is not that figure. Use dramatic experiences, those feelings, use the weaknesses of the neighbors, of Europe, of the West. Has the ability to grow using the weaknesses of others. But it does not have a country project ”, considers the author.
The shock wave of the deceased Soviet utopia and the empire of which it was the final collagen continues to shake much of Europe. Not only those that were pre-public – Georgia and Ukraine invaded, Belarus semi-controlled, the Baltic countries suffering interference – but also countries on that side of the Iron Curtain for which the Russian giant is a central determinant. The way of living has changed. The Soviet empire is a lost world, but the legacy of that civilization continues, somehow, circulating in the veins of an immense territory.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.