Soviet identity is gone forever, but Putin doesn’t get it

Mural in Belgrad that depicts Putin with his eyes covered
Mural in Belgrad that depicts Putin with his eyes covered
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In the summer of 2003, I was working at a paper mill in Kyiv, trying to save up for a trip to Odesa – something my student allowance from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy was quite insufficient for.

Strange things were afoot around my workplace. A car brings in a whole stack of works by Soviet ideologues, to be mulched and made into napkins and toilet paper. Next thing you know – the same car delivers Aristotle’s Politics, in a bright orange cover, in mint condition.

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A grant, perhaps, funded the printing of his work – which was then promptly recycled.

Some of my coworkers were veterans of the Soviet military operation in Angola of the 1970s and 1980s. Their lockers are plastered with Polish erotica. They smoke unfiltered cigarettes. There’s no end to them telling me about Angola, as if they think it’s absolutely essential to educate me on the subject.

Besides the escapades involving Portugese comfort women – I was never clear whether these accounts were true, or a case of soldiers spinning tales – they would stress how vital it is to understand one’s identity during a war. Being a philosophy student, those stories grabbed my attention.

It’s challenging to fight, saddled with the artificial identity as prescribed by your Soviet passport, be it in Angola, Afghanistan, or Korea. When people in the streets ask who you are, “a Soviet citizen” is not a satisfactory answer. They treat you as a Russian, while you were conscripted by an enlistment office in Kyiv’s Leningrad district, in 1979.

A little-known fact: the military bridge engineers branch of Kyiv’s military district played an important role in the Soviet operation in Afghanistan. These regiments were designed to erect pontoon crossings over Dnipro, should the Red Army have to retreat to the river’s left bank during a potential NATO invasion of the Soviet Union.

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Young guys, born in Kyiv in the 1960s and early 1970s, were dressed in Soviet naval uniforms, and deployed to Afghanistan. Far from bridging rivers, they were, armed with automatic rifles, driving around the central Asian country atop BMP-1s – a Soviet IFV of rather poor design. The exceptionally thin armor plating of BMP-1 made these soldiers reluctant to get inside the vehicles. After all, the Mujahedeen were armed with U.S.-made Stingers.

These were the guys who returned to Kyiv in late 1980s and even 1990s. They were still wearing their bridge engineer uniforms, despite never erecting a single pontoon crossing for the military. Instead, they learned that there is no such thing as a Soviet identity. In Afghanistan, they were treated as Russians. They could never explain to the locals that they actually came to fight from Kyiv, from Ukraine.

In the 1980s, the ideology department of the KGB worked hard to distill and propagate the foundations of Soviet identity. There were no attempts to enforce it in the Central Asian Soviet republics like Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. The concept was meant chiefly for the Baltics, Ukraine, and republics in the Caucasus.

Incidentally, these efforts were studied by Fiona Hill, former Russia adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Each of those regions has its own history of resisting the Soviet imperial identity. In Georgia, people did it through folklore. Lithuania had the Forest Brothers movement that resisted the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1940s and 1950s – not unlike the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA). UIA insurgents were still being executed in the 1980s, and the Ukrainian rejection of all things Soviet took the form of the People’s Movement (Narodniy Rukh) political party, founded in 1990.

Now, Putin and his advisers are going back to all this work the KGB did in the 1980s. Once again, they are attempting to project and instill a Soviet, imperial, and at times even Russian identity in Ukraine. This is what unfortunate Ukrainians, stuck in Moscow-occupied Kherson or Izyum, are dealing with right now.

But Putin is missing a critical point: it’s impossible to revive and restore the Soviet identity. After all, one cannot restore something that never existed in the first place, even if Russia’s annual VE day military parades on May 9 are draped in Soviet flags. Identity is far more complex than a piece of crimson fabric.

It also goes beyond one’s passport – another thing Moscow clearly misses, given their efforts to issue Russian passports to Ukrainians in annexed Crimea and Donbas. Identity is rooted, first and foremost, in history and community, social belonging.

Ukrainians could never feel at home sharing a culture with people from Novokuznetsk, Voronezh, Yakutsk, or Orel. Plainly speaking, Ukrainians are not Russians – they never have been, and never will be. You could force a Ukrainian to take your passport or vote in a sham referendum at gunpoint, but they will never think of themselves as one of Russia’s own.

The Russian army can – and does – block humanitarian shipments of German baby food and Polish beef to Kherson, supplanting those with dreary canned food from Krasnodar. But it doesn’t mean that, by taking Krasnodar tins, people in Kherson are donning Russian or Soviet identity. Food is a basic human need and takes priority over politics.

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The very concept of Soviet identity emerged late into Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure at the Soviet Union’s helm. The very same Brezhnev, who was almost entirely plated in Soviet medals and awards, and who famously ignored news media, being well-aware of how devoid of truth they are.

That period was the peak of Soviet consumer culture. Large department stores in Moscow and Leningrad offered citizens everything they needed for a comfortable life: chandeliers, mirrors, couches, clothes, shoes, wine glasses – even though the latter would be of little use during the forthcoming alcohol prohibition, enacted by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Sitting in their offices in Moscow’s Lubyanka, surrounded by bookshops and promenades, the KGB decided that the flourishing consumer culture in the capital meant they can finally officially enforce the “Soviet mentality” as identity of Soviet citizens. It was an unwieldy, creaking, philosophically flawed structure of a concept, that was difficult to articulate in the Pravda newspaper. It made sense only in the Politburo’s classified documents.

Meanwhile in Kyiv, this consumer culture was nowhere to be seen. When going to school here in 1989, one was most likely to see empty shelves in the nearby grocery store. There was plenty of bread to go around, but meat and dairy – not so much. People would queue for canned food when it became available, sporadically. Greengrocers near me were selling pickles, as well as pickled tomatoes and watermelons in baby bathtubs.

Having spent my early childhood in well-off Finland, I was surprised by the empty shelves in Kyiv’s shops – in stark contrast to the abundance of goods in Helsinki’s malls. It seemed bizarre that there was nowhere to buy bananas, pineapples, or yoghurt in Kyiv, astonishing to see people queue for ghastly-looking preserved meat in mason jars. Same goes for observing people touch and pinch bread on sale, checking if it’s freshly-made, and then leave without buying the loaves they had sunk their fingers into.

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The Soviet identity was never accepted by people in Kyiv because it was never associated with a prosperous consumer culture. The city wasn’t starving, of course – street marketplaces were full of pork, cheese, and veggies – but there weren’t enough TV sets or cars to go around. Not to mention PCs and VCRs that were the norm in 1980s Finland, which residents of Kyiv couldn’t even dream of. My peers were stunned to learn I had a computer and a VCR at home.

It's quite impossible to construct an identity on the basis of poverty and lack of infrastructure. That’s what Putin doesn’t get.

Like any other Russian with a post-Soviet mentality and a host of decrepit communist notions, Putin lives in a world of ideas. Ideas of imperial glory, dominion, and monopoly on political power. He doesn’t understand that the sorry state of a Novocherkassk hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic is much better testament to his regime than the price of Gazprom’s shares, even if they trade at the London Stock Exchange.

He decided that a sophisticated political strategy matters to ordinary people more than their ability to afford a vacation in Italy or a low-interest mortgage. I’m not even sure how Putin sees the Russification of Kherson, when a Ukrainian passport allows its residents to spend a weekend in Prague. Russian passports and citizenship promise little more than sitting at home, watching ever more depressing TV programming.

The Soviet Union was bureaucratically-enforced poverty and suppression of civil liberties. Both of those pillars remain very much intact in Putin’s Russia. And yet the Russian dictator decided he could dictate how Ukrainians are to live in their own country and enforce Russia’s reign upon them. This reign is entirely based on what might incur the wrath of the ruler in the Kremlin.

I spoke with people in Crimea who stayed thereafter 2014. Setting aside their deeply personal, tragic stories, even adapting to Russian laws, when it came to private property rights, was utter hell. Endless queues at government offices, bribery, callous bureaucrats – that’s what people in Crimea had to deal with, just to properly register their apartments in Katrsyvel, Kostropol, or Symeiz with the state.

These are the chimeras that followed in the wake of Russia’s army, however welcomed it might have been by the pro-Russian population of Crimea. Ukraine is far from perfect, but at least its governance and laws are aligned with EU norms, and many procedures have been digitalized. There’s no need to stand in long queues – most documents, licenses and permits can be obtained online via the e-governance app Diya.

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The quality-of-life Putin would bring to Ukraine is not far from the one unrecognized “republic” of Transnistria, in Moldova. The simple rule of wild, post-Soviet capitalism –money trumps all – applies there. There’s no rule of law, no norms of any kind, no liberty. There’s only money, dirty capital that has no regard at all for decent people with European ethics.

Ukraine doesn’t want to become like Transnistria. Not a single Ukrainian city would opt for that. Putin has nothing to offer Ukraine, besides violence against its citizens. That’s why his notion of a shared identity is absurd.