Back to the USSR
by Masha Gessen
Post date 02.08.02
If you are ever in Moscow, visit the Sculpture Garden across from Gorky Park, a landmark that evokes both the end of the Soviet era and contemporary Russians conflicted attitude toward their defunct motherland. In the heady days of August 1991, when the Soviet government effectively collapsed, Moscow saw a spree of monument razings and thefts--from the five-story statue of secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky toppled in front of KGB headquarters to a small figure of writer Maxim Gorky apparently snatched from somewhere in the subway. These monuments, or what was left of them, were lugged to a godforsaken empty lot across the street from Gorky Park. There they lay haphazardly for a couple of years, a delightful destination for children and for other Russians moved to desecrate old Soviet symbols just a little more. In 1993 the old monuments were set upright, but standing there in the unmowed grass or unplowed snow, they still looked rather undignified. A couple of years later they were cleaned up, restored to their pedestals, and then enclosed by a fence to prevent further desecration. Through the efforts of an elderly curator backed with money from the city of Moscow, the surrounding lot was landscaped and populated with a variety of other sculptures, earning it the unassuming name "Sculpture Garden." Dzerzhinsky and the rest became a small part of the exhibit, at once restored to grandeur and entirely depoliticized.
The sculpture garden is not a bad metaphor for what has happened to Russia over the last ten years. The Soviet Union, an empire founded on ideology, immortalized itself in an inordinate number of symbols. When the USSR collapsed, so did many of its monuments, memorials, and ornaments. But in the intervening decade, as the nations effort to examine its history critically has fizzled, most of these symbols have been dragged out and, if not exactly rehabilitated, at least recycled. The process reached its zenith in January, when the Duma, the lower house of parliament, voted to make disrespect for a rehabbed version of the Soviet national anthem a criminal offense.
When Russia emerged from the ruins of the USSR, President Boris Yeltsin tried to choose the countrys new state symbols by unilateral decree: a white, blue, and red flag in place of the red one; an imperial two-headed eagle in place of the hammer and sickle as the state seal; and a tune from a prerevolutionary opera in place of the Soviet anthem. It was a confusing mixture of democratic and monarchic symbols, and it did not go far: A succession of Communistdominated parliaments rejected Yeltsins provisional symbols and over time grew more and more fervent in their efforts to restore the old ones. For years Russia could not even settle on symbols to print on identity documents--to this day most citizens carry red passports with a hammer and sickle and the letters USSR on the cover. Meanwhile, the population grew increasingly nostalgic for the old empire: By the tenth anniversary of the Soviet Unions collapse, three-quarters of the population had come to regret it.
This nostalgia helped elect Vladimir Putin, who promised the kind of political stability Russians vaguely remembered and yearned for. And so, by the end of his first year in office, Putin undertook a high-profile effort to resolve Russias symbolic mess, pushing another odd combination of symbols through parliament: Yeltsins democratic tricolor and imperial-eagle seal, but the old Soviet anthem.
Putins anthem choice was not exactly divisive: A clear majority of Russians favored returning to the old tune. The words, however, were a bit of an issue--and not for the first time. Originally introduced to replace "The Internationale" as Soviet Russias anthem in the 1940s, the song praised "the party of Lenin, the party of Stalin." After the cult of Stalin was debunked in 1956, that reference constituted a problem, so the anthem was performed in an instrumental version only. Finally, in 1977, the party approved a slightly tweaked version of the song: References to Stalin were replaced by "the peoples force." When Putin rehabilitated the anthem again in 2000, the same author--by then an octogenarian--supplied post-Soviet lyrics, sprinkling a little God and Russia where the party used to be.
But, if most of the population was content to reacquire the anthem, the opposing minority was unusually determined. The songs critics argued, correctly, that it was still essentially a Stalinist anthem, a relic of the Great Terror. Putins response that such opposition disrespected "the lives of our fathers" only provoked his opponents to note that they had fathers too, and grandparents, many of whom had been arrested, tortured, and executed under Stalin. But Putin prevailed nonetheless: In December 2000 the Soviet anthem was restored by federal law.
Still, in the year the anthem has been in reuse, its controversial origins have caused much discomfort. Two prominent members of the Duma, both former political prisoners, refuse to rise when the anthem is played at the opening of a session. Liberal parties and organizations try to avoid embarrassment by playing alternative tunes. Last November, when Putins presidential administration organized a gathering of 5,000 nongovernmental activists in the Kremlin itself, the government was forced at the last minute to forgo playing the anthem when a former dissident threatened to remain sitting--on the stage no less--while the music played. Just five days later, in an effort to head off such displays in the future, Unity (the main pro-Kremlin party in the Duma) introduced legislation that would make it a crime to sit while the anthem is played. When the Duma returned from vacation in January, it approved the bill overwhelmingly; it is likely to become law within a few months.
Not that todays parliament consists of rabid Stalinists. Most members, in fact, are much like the president himself: middle-aged functionaries with no discernible political beliefs beyond self-preservation. They are equally comfortable waving the Soviet red flag and the Russian tricolor, laying a wreath at a Dzerzhinsky monument or writing on letterhead featuring the double-headed eagle. Like their president and most of their countrymen, they refuse to see any evil in the system that raised them. A few peoples insistence on studying and evaluating that history strikes them as a disloyal and vaguely dangerous waste of time. And so, ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, new dissidents may join old ones and go to jail for disrespecting the national anthem of the USSR.
Masha Gessen is a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.