Russians in the Wilderness, Part I: The “Good Old Days”

Russia is struggling. Its people are battling through a series of crises unparalleled in modern history. Russian commentators, both secular and religious, have frequently compared their country’s experience to that of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness before they reached the “Promised Land.” This series of “Reflections” explores that theme, searching for a deeper understanding of the enormous challenges that face the Russian people.

Longing for the Past

Recent public opinion polls in Russia reveal a record number of Russians looking back with nostalgia on the Soviet years, with a growing fondness for the achievements under Joseph Stalin’s leadership and the stability of Leonid Brezhnev’s regime. In a poll taken last month, Russian citizens ranked Leonid Brezhnev above any Russian leader, living or dead, as their first choice for the next president of Russia. Earlier polls have also shown a remarkable sense of nostalgia for the “good old days” under Stalin, when the Soviet Union rose to power and challenged the United States for world leadership.

The Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt and their journey through the wilderness bears some significant parallels to the Russian experience. With the miraculous destruction of the Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, the Israelites were liberated from their oppressors at last, after years of slavery so brutal that the Bible says they “groaned because of the bondage.” Yet within three days of their liberation, the Israelites began to grumble about the lack of drinking water and within another month and a half, they complained that they would rather be back in Egypt than suffer in the desert! “When we were in Egypt,” they declared, “we had pots of meat and ate bread to the full.”

This same pattern of behavior has emerged in Russia. The days of joyous celebration in the streets following the collapse of the Soviet regime have been replaced by prevalent regret over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In August 1999, 85% of the Russian people polled expressed remorse for Communism’s demise, the highest figure of this kind since 1991.

Russian analysts have noted that Yevgeny Primakov’s current popularity can be explained by this “Brezhnev factor.” Primakov, a former member of the Communist Politburo and KGB head, served as one of Yeltsin’s Prime Ministers and, despite his dismissal, continues to be one of Russia’s most popular political leaders. His strong Communist Party affiliation is no longer a problem for Russians who are seeking stability, enhanced national prestige, and an end to confused leadership from the Kremlin.

Getting the Record Straight

Reinventing history is not the way to successfully reform a country. Just as it impedes growth on a personal level, creating false illusions about the past hinders progress in the life of a nation. The reality is that Leonid Brezhnev turned the Soviet Union toward a repressive, authoritarian regime. The reality is that under Brezhnev’s rule, the Soviet Union crushed the Prague uprising in 1968 and ordered the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan. The reality is that during and shortly after his regime, the Brezhnev years were known as the “years of stagnation.”

Similarly, current Russian posture about the Stalinist years is devoid of any true historical consciousness. In a recent book entitled Everyday Stalinism, Sheila Fitzpatrick emphasizes that the most extraordinary aspect of Soviet urban life in the 1930s was the sudden disappearance of goods from stores and the onset of an era of chronic shortages. “Everything,” she notes, “particularly the basics of food, clothing, shoes and housing, was in short supply.” Indeed, Stalin constructed a society built on shortages. Despite all the promises of the Communist Party leadership under Lenin and Stalin, the new “Soviet Man” that emerged in the 1930s was “a species whose most highly developed skills involved hunting and gathering of scarce goods in an urban environment.”

And what of the Great Purges of the 1930s? What of the horrifying nights so vividly retold by the victims of Stalin’s terror – the sound of cars stopping in the street below, of feet pounding up the stairs, of loud knocks on the door? Have these experiences been so quickly forgotten?

Overcoming Instinct

Most of us are familiar with the tendency to reinvent history and to crave the “good old days.” This phenomenon is a natural human response, a response that is accentuated during periods of intense national trauma. Sociologist Emile Durkheim called this phenomenon “anomie” – a time of directionlessness and moral malaise, when old norms no longer apply and new ones are too vague to command widespread assent.

For Russians, these are days of the “human spirit in distress,” according to Dmitri N. Shalin. They are a people caught in a system they despise, unsure how to get out. In their uncertainty, some have fallen for the illusion that the “good old days” were better than their current struggles. As Shalin has noted, “it took one day for the Israelites to exit Egypt and forty years to reach the promised land. An entirely new generation had to come into its own, one unschooled in the old ways and raised in a new culture.” Change of this magnitude cannot be directed and controlled from above. It cannot occur until the people of a nation are brave enough to face the past.