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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May, 2005, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Thorny legacy of 'Soviet Man'
By Leonid Ragozin
BBCRussian.com

Moscow pupils wearing Soviet-era hats and scarves salute Stalin at his grave, 22 Apr 05
Moscow pupils wearing Soviet-era hats and scarves salute Stalin

Russians still use the word "Sovok" to describe shoddy service reminiscent of the Soviet Union.

It is equally apt whether one is speaking about a rude saleswoman in a corner shop, potholed roads or bureaucratic behaviour that wastes your time.

A person with a Soviet mentality is also a "Sovok", or "Homo Sovieticus" - a term coined by the philosopher Aleksandr Zinovyev.

These terms can also be extremely offensive - after all most people in the former USSR lived a large portion of their life under the old regime, and they are not ready to dismiss those years as futile.

"I still consider myself a Soviet man and see nothing shameful in that," says Russian State Duma deputy Viktor Alksnis.

"Yes I am Latvian, but I am also a representative of the nation that performed miracles during its existence between 1917 and 1991."

He is talking about the Soviet people - a pan-ethnic group which the communist ideologists believed they had created.

Ideological struggle

But not everyone was convinced. Former Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis - now a member of the European Parliament - says it was wishful thinking.

"It was the aim of the Stalinist policy to transform all the conquered nations into one Soviet people speaking a meagre and distorted Russian language. The Russian people themselves suffered from it terribly."

President Putin at Victory Day wreath-laying
President Vladimir Putin has sought to restore Russian pride
The issue of preserving or dismantling the USSR put Mr Landsbergis and Mr Alksnis on opposite sides of the barricades at the end of the 1980s, when both men were deputies in the Soviet parliament.

Mr Alksnis is currently unwelcome in his native Latvia because of the role he played while the Baltic state was struggling for independence from the USSR.

Mr Landsbergis was a pro-independence leader in the then Soviet Lithuania. He recalls an article in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, which said that the Soviet people, unlike others, were a new stage in the development of humanity.

"It sounded like racism inside-out, but most likely it was just the silly arrogance of bureaucrats," he says.

But Mr Alksnis believes that not only did the Soviet people exist - they still exist.

He cites as an example the millions of Russian-speakers left in the newly-independent republics of the former Soviet Union.

Fond memories

Meanwhile, cartoonist Andrey Bilzho insists he feels no nostalgia for the communist system, which killed his grandfathers and imprisoned his grandmothers.

Soviet is the most popular cuisine in town now
Andrey Bilzho, cartoonist
But Petrovich, the famous restaurant he opened in Moscow, brands itself as the "Museum of Soviet Childhood". This month it will celebrate the "Day of Young Pioneers" - an organisation which all Soviet children had to join. People are invited to come dressed in white shirts and red pioneer scarves.

I asked him why all things Soviet were remembered with an ironic smile, while everything connected to the other main totalitarian regime of the last century - Nazi Germany - could only be spoken of in a sombre voice.

"The comparison does not work. There were different periods in Soviet history. We can compare fascist Germany with the Stalin period, but then there was Khrushchev's 'thaw' and Brezhnev's 'stagnation'," he replied.

For many people who lived in the former Soviet bloc the last two periods were times when they went to school, fell in love or got their first job.

Mr Bilzho says that as an adolescent he thought of the Young Pioneers' red necktie only as a decoration on teenage girls' breasts. And he rejects the perception of Soviet people as totalitarian clones.

"Being Soviet includes a boundless belief in a bright future combined with understanding the absurdity of the present. It is a certain romanticism in relations between friends and a desire to get as much as possible out of the precious little one could possess."

Modern pragmatism

This romanticism, Mr Bilzho says, has been replaced by an absolute pragmatism when everything is measured by money, and friends betray friends.

It now appears that there is more longing for the old times in the stomachs of former Soviet citizens than in their hearts.

Mr Bilzho cites the continuing popularity of the Olivier salad (known in the West as Russian salad), vinegret (cooked vegetable salad), kholodets (jellied meat), sprats, herring with potatoes.

"Westernisers and nationalists, liberals and hardliners - all are united when it comes to dining. Soviet is the most popular cuisine in town now, according to the polls," he says.




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