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Nostalgia For The Future In The Post-Soviet Space

10/04/2017 12:00 BST | Updated 10/04/2017 12:00 BST

2017-04-07-1491580269-6830782-DetailfromGustavKlutsis_USSR_ShockBrigadeoftheWorldProletariat_1931_imagefromLatvianNationalMuseumofArtunderaCClicence.jpg

When I was little, I used to enjoy singing in a choir. One of the songs we sang went: "The Revolution has a beginning, but the Revolution has no end". Only now, do I understand what the Communists meant by this.

Mulling over the legacy of the Russian revolution of October 1917, it seems to me that even in our daily lives we often think and act in a somewhat technical, even 'revolutionary' manner. We delete from our computers that which we no longer deem useful and discard things we want rid of, and it works quite well. But we cannot manipulate our individual and collective memory in this way, imagining that along with the technical and physical deletion of certain things, that emotional attachments and significant memories can be fully erased.

The USSR collapsed 25 years ago, and we claim to have accepted its disappearance as a fact. Yet in some way, it still exists. It lives on in the consciousness of people in the post-Soviet space, manifesting in certain patterns of thought and behaviour. It still exists in the mind-sets of the rest of the world, too, inevitably influencing the way in which that world is perceived.

Ultimately as a result of the October 1917 revolution, the USSR broke up just as it was enjoying something of a renaissance. Many post-Soviet societies are currently experiencing a deep nostalgia, though this is not often publicly discussed. When I am visiting the region, I always do my best to chat to the taxi drivers, to visit the market, not because I need to buy something, but to give me a chance to engage people in conversation. Not once have I come across a person who did not voice their regret for the collapse of the USSR.

The nostalgia that we are witnessing is due to many factors. It is a psychological phenomenon that as human beings, we tend to venerate ourselves through our past and future, rather than the present. Dissatisfaction with the current situation, the dashing of hopes for global integration, and the pain of searching for a new identity - most of these factors are related to people's extremely high initial expectations.

During a recent visit to Moscow, I noticed that Soviet art is now enjoying cult status, with Soviet-style restaurants are extremely popular. Old black-and-white films are constantly on television, some remakes or remastered in colour - admittedly no match in taste or talent for the Soviet originals. Nevertheless, several years after the fall of the USSR, we witnessed a rejection and an eradication of many of its symbols. People would literally throw away good quality Soviet items, only to replace them with the garish plastic objects that were beginning to be imported following the opening of the border.

The USSR was in its own way something of a Wonderland with its own huge, efficient ideological machine, and one needs to be something of an Alice to understand its legacy, to comprehend what it is that the people miss, and, crucially, where this nostalgia could lead. To give but one example: in the USSR, writers, painters and other professionals associated with literature and the arts received a salary and numerous generous perks, simply because of their creative profession. That way, they could focus on their art, without worrying about where the next meal would come from. In the UK, it would be hard to imagine an artist with a guaranteed salary for life, a free studio, and the opportunity to take regular free holidays at special health resorts for creative professionals.

The paradox, however, is that whilst the nostalgia for the old Soviet times is powerful, current political rhetoric is imbued with a fear of revolution - the very mode through which the USSR was founded. In order to prevent a new eruption, countermeasures are being taken, which could themselves be called revolutionary, ranging from restrictions on civil society, to imprisoning opposition figures, shutting down channels of communication, forcing them out of the country, or even, occasionally, getting rid of them, altogether.

Across the whole post-Soviet space where International Alert works today, there is an unspoken acceptance of violence as a legitimate means of obtaining happiness. Being cruel, and even perpetrating murder in the name of some future collective happiness, which appears illusory at best, are seen as legitimate approaches. In this context, human life becomes devalued in the public consciousness.

No longer precious in itself, human life becomes instead a tool for obtaining something utopian, and this carries dangerous potential for conflict.

We, human beings, are probably the only creatures capable of giving their lives for an idea, an ideology. This is what makes us human, yet at the same time, this offers ample potential for manipulation. In cherishing and keeping the attractive picture of the past in our memory, or in creating a similar idyllic picture of the future, we often forget about the cost - especially if we, or our society, have a positive experience of this.

The more illusory pictures we fill our minds and collective memory with, and the less critical evaluation we bring to the situation, the higher the likelihood of social upheaval and revolution.

When discussing with colleagues and friends, analysing our goals, influence and results, we often spend many hours arguing about the correct pathways, approaches and methods, etc., but on one thing we are all in agreement. That is that the region should be focused on peaceful development and progress, and to choose evolutionary change above revolution at all costs, putting that teasing Soviet song of my childhood to rest for good.

Image: Gustav Klutsis, 'USSR: Shock Brigade of the World Proletariat' (1931). From Latvian National Museum of Art (Creative Commons).