Remember, Remember, the 7th of November
An average Soviet person could go on forever marching in parades while cracking jokes about the regime
November 7* continues to be one of the most meaningful days of my year. My Russian (or Russophile) readers will immediately recognize the date: it was a Soviet red calendar day, of course, the anniversary of Bolshevik Revolution, celebrated every year with military parades and mass demonstrations in the mornings, fireworks at night and, unofficially, a whole lot of liquor all day long.
As you might guess, that’s not why I love it. I love it because it happened to be my mom’s birthday; she lucked out on being born on a national holiday, and, therefore, always having a day off to celebrate. Some of the warmest memories of my childhood are that of my grannies making Olivier salad and Napoleon cake all morning, expecting guests in late afternoon. Sometimes they sent my sister and me to watch the parade with my grandfather, mostly, I think, just to get us out of the way.
Because of the cold, November parades are no fun to watch in that part of the world. No matter how many layers of clothing I was bundled in, no matter how many red balloons were carried by, I felt my toes getting cold and a little wet inside my boots and begged my grandpa to leave.
Marching in demonstrations was easier in a way because one has to keep up with the pace of the column. Still, smuggled bottles of vodka and cognac were practically required to spend a few hours out in the cold.
Participations in mass events of that sort was, in late socialist vernacular, добровольно-принудительно, or a voluntary requirement. It was typically organized through employers and universities which put significant pressure on their flock to attend the communist pageantry.
Having said that, many people went voluntarily, not to show their commitment to the principles of Marxism-Leninism, but to hang out. Alexei Yurchak noted the emergence of the phenomena of the “parallel sphere” at official events: people drank and wisecracked while walking under the red banners and carrying oversized portraits of members of Politburo. “They have their wedding, and we have ours,” went the saying.
While the idea was to flex the Commie muscle by showing mass solidarity, Yurchak argues that upon a close examination such demonstrations immediately broke down into multiple fractured events which had nothing to do with the stated official goal. Amazingly, it seems, the late Socialist crowd was not moved by a feeling of solidarity or sense of something larger than themselves.
By the 70’s, the era commonly known as застой, or stagnation, official promises became impossible to believe. At the 1961 Communist Party Convention General Secretary Khrushchev promised that “this generation will live under communism”, meaning the goal of building the want-free society in the currently socialist USSR will be attained by 1981. In fact, development came to a haul shortly after the lofty goal was set. 1981 came and went, with nothing much to show. The slogan was swept aside shortly, to be sure, but it was remembered by the folk, and a certain feeling of bitterness lingered. Material conditions were slowly deteriorating.
To make matters worse, Soviet people, egged on by the Soviet propaganda, believed that they and they alone won World War II, and therefore should live like victors. And yet visitors of the extremely popular 1959 American Expo at Sokolnoki Park in Moscow could observe a middle class American stand-alone house, complete with modern appliances and a car in the garage and even glimpse at American cinema on the television screen. A Soviet family was lucky to be out of a communal apartment. Clearly, something was wrong. I am going to lift a joke from the Yurchak’s essay because I have it handy (he has quite a bit of humor there, by the way):
What will life in communism be like?
Everyone will have a personal TV-set and a personal helicopter.
For example, if you see on the TV that milk is sold in Sverdlovsk, you will jump into your helicopter and fly to Sverdlovsk to get milk.
Soviet Union was built on very tangible promises of economic development propped up by formidable, frightening power. When I was growing up, the GULAG although significantly diminished, was real enough. Fear fed into the traditional complacency. Soviet heartland of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus was, and still is, a very conformist society. The credo to which the majority adhered was to not stick out, and be like everyone else; be content to eke out some kind of living and be sheltered from history.
A 1986 song Bound by One Chain by Nautilus Pompilius that became a popular piece socio-political commentary during Perestroika speaks to that kind of mentality:
The lyrics include: “here, joints are mashed to make columns, some words are for kitchens, other words for the streets. And even as I kiss I line up with those bound by one chain, tied up by one goal […] paupers are praying for their pauperism is guaranteed […] and if there are people who come to see you, there could be people who come for you.” And so on. The video features Bolshevik Revolution-related footage, which fits my topic, I suppose, but I don’t believe it’s official.
As Yurchak explained, an average “normal” Soviet person was a very practical creature, and a very cynical creature. He regarded a dissident with disdain and a Communist activist with a mixture of disdain and fear. An average Soviet person could go on forever marching in parades while cracking jokes about the regime. If the system looked monolith from both the outside and the inside, it’s because in many ways it was.
The development of Soviet nostalgia is a hot topic today. If looking back many former Soviets feel nostalgic for this reduced GULAG late Socialism era, it’s probably because to a normal Soviet subject that time felt stable. It was a stable hell, to be sure, but stable nonetheless. Freedom is frightening, so is capitalism (which they never had).
America is obsessed with decline now, and many pundits are looking for parallels between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and our reality today. On the left, there is an effort to explain how and why Late Capitalism will share the fate of Late Socialism (as if a country that’s borrowing more than producing, and spending most of its budget on social programs can’t be considered capitalist). On the right, there is nostalgia for America’s past greatness.
Some can point to certain superficial similarities between the mass demonstrations in USSR and professional athletes refusing to follow the proper flag etiquette at sports events. College students demanding to put an end to the First Amendment are a cause for serious concern, of course. Yet living in USSR felt very different.
In America, all sorts of opinions are publicly expressed, albeit not on the college campuses, and, also albeit, not all of them are popular. In the Soviet Union, most opinions were banned, no matter how popular they were. And if some people wanted to see their dissident ideas applied in real life, their efforts were most sinserely resisted by your average normal individuals.
Soviet Union wasn’t crashed so much by popular dissatisfaction as by top-down liberalization, unresolved ethnic rivalries away from its heartland, and intrigue. With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, it wasn’t that the Soviet people didn’t know what to believe anymore (although they didn’t), but that they were no longer bound by practical cynicism.
We have our own share of ethnic strife, but at least we still have a prosperous, free society which allows us to work through our differences. We are motivated to do so because of the fact that we have too much to lose.
Increasingly, though, we are taking our prosperity for granted, forgetting to understand where our wealth comes from. Our families — “society’s cell” in Vladimir Lenin’s words — are in disarray. Our youth is not educated about the founding principles of our society. In an alarming recent poll, millennials were asked whether they would prefer to live in a capitalist, a socialist, a communist or a fascist nation. Those who answered capitalist were a minority — 42%. Communist and fascist received 7% each, but the largest percentage went to socialist, at 44%. According to this sample, a full 58% of the upcoming generation believes we would be better off under some form of top-down, planned economy than the capitalist system under which we now live.
If we do not treasure our past achievements, we are in danger of losing them.
*Editor’s note: If, like me, you remember from your history that the Bolshevik Revolution started on October 25, not November 7th, this is explained by the fact that prior to 1918, Russia used the Julian, not Gregorian Calendar, making what we would call November 7th, October 25. Lenin had the calendar changed in February 1918.