Nostalgia in Post-Communist Russia

Political commentators have noted that the results of the December 1995 parliamentary elections in Russia reflected increasing support for the reorganized Communist Party, particularly from the elderly and members of the military. This “protest vote” expressed popular dissatisfaction with four years of reform — reform which has left most ordinary Russians materially worse off than in the past. The ballet box offered these frustrated people an opportunity to express their distaste with the new system.

But there is more to these election results than protest: Russia is undergoing a painful process of self-definition. As Peter J. Stavrakis has pointed out, “Rather than blithely dispense with its past and embrace Western-imposed reform, Russian society is seeking to distill the valuable elements of its twentieth-century experience and integrate it into a new identity” (“Russia After the Elections: Democracy or Parliamentary Byzantium?” Problems of Post-Communism, March-April 1996). One fascinating dimension of Russia’s search for self-definition is nostalgia for its past, which is evidenced everywhere, particularly in Moscow.

Nostalgia in Architectural Design and Building Renovation

As The Economist correspondent in Russia reported, “With the collapse of communism, the past has been making up for lost time. For many Russians it seems to have replaced the future as the destination to which they would prefer to be heading” (January 27, 1996, p. 77). Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has launched a major campaign to restore many of the capital’s historic buildings, including the Kazan Cathedral, a little tangerine-colored church in the northeast corner of Red Square. The new building replicates the church, which was built in the 16th century. The church stood in Red Square until 1931 when Stalin ordered it razed in order to make more room for his Communist Party parades.

Not far from the Kazan Cathedral, building crews have completed reconstruction of the 17th century Voskresenye Gates, which once again mark off the north side of Red Square. These were also destroyed by Stalin in order to make room for processions in Red Square and for lines approaching Lenin’s tomb. Near the Voskresenye Gates stands the newly-built bronze statue of Marshal G. K. Zhukov, Russia’s chief military commander in the Great Patriotic War (World War II), a clear reminder to all who pass by that Russia defeated the Germans. Their crumpled Nazi flags can be seen underneath the feet of Marshal Zhukov’s horse.

The most spectacular building project of all is the replication of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior on a site on the Moscow River, only a half mile from the Kremlin. The original Cathedral was begun in 1812 to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon’s Great Army. It took over 70 years to complete. Less than fifty years later, Stalin demolished the building in order to make way for his planned monument to Communist power – a giant Stalinist-style building topped by a massive statue of Lenin. His project never was completed and ultimately the property of the cathedral was used for a massive outdoor swimming pool.

In 1986, the new foundation for the cathedral was laid with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexei II, and Mayor Luzhkov, whose motivation was made clear when he said that the reconstruction of the Cathedral was a “symbol of might and well-being of a great power.” Construction crews of more than 2,500 people work around the clock, seven days a week, to build this gigantic structure which will be one of the largest churches in the world. As Steven Erlanger pointed out, “This project is a good example of the moral ambiguity and political opportunism of the Russian state, led by former Communists who repent only some of Communism’s crimes, like the destruction of this church, and take responsibility for none” (The New York Times, September 26, 1995).

Nostalgia in Popular Russian Culture

The nostalgia that is evidenced by the reconstruction of historic buildings in Moscow is also found in popular Russian culture. When Vladimir Zhirinovsky was nominated as the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, he knelt and kissed a St. Andrew’s flag, the banner of the tsarist army. Even Russian nobility have re-emerged to stake their claim as the true elite of Russia. In the early 1990s the Assembly of the Descendants of Russian Nobility took over a former noble’s mansion in downtown Moscow, which had served as a museum to Marx and Engels during the Soviet period, and are now sponsoring social events for which they dress in extravagant costumes flaunting their wealth. These descendants of Russian nobility want to see the “old days” come back again and many other Russians have a nostalgic fascination with this resurrected tsarist lifestyle (Russian Life, February 1996).

Nostalgia with a Warning

While the struggle for self-definition that Russia is experiencing is not unusual for a society emerging from the horrors of a Communist past, the nostalgia can also be viewed as a warning sign. The Church of Christ the Savior — in the mind of the Mayor and many other political leaders — is a symbol of new state power in Russia. Similarly, the memorial to the dead of World War II, Poklonnaya Hill, with its mixture of socialist realism and religious symbols, and the reconstruction of the Tretyakov Gallery, the country’s finest collection of Russian art, can also be seen as “icons of past glory” and as warnings. As one Russian observer noted, the three big construction projects form a troika: “The war monument shows the West, ‘We beat you once and if possible, we’ll do it again’; the Tretyakov [Gallery] shows that real art exists only in Russia, and Christ the Savior [Cathedral] shows that real belief exists only in Russia” (Igor Yarkevich, quoted in The New York Times, September 26, 1995). The process of rebuilding a society ravaged by crimes committed against its citizens by its own government will never be a quick one. Nostalgia is one way of working through these issues. Another is repentance, a healing alternative that has not yet been tried.