During a winter evening last year, I found myself alone in an empty Kyiv park with my friend, Maria. We stood by a concrete pedestal where a statue of Vladimir Lenin was once mounted. It had obviously been torn down and the remains were scattered at our feet. Looking at the ruble, I made out a pointed hand, a waistcoat, and parts of Lenin’s hair. It was quiet and dark and we could see snow falling through the dim shade of a lamplight.
A few minutes passed and I turned to Maria, “Can I ask you something?”
“What was it like when the Soviet Union collapsed? When it all ended in the 90s? I know you were young but…can you remember?”
Maria was silent. All I heard was the sound of snow.
I was about to suggest that she forget my silly question when she said, “Of course. Of course I remember. We had nothing. There was not even bread or money. People drank and people disappeared. People committed suicide. It was the 90s.”
I tried to think of something to say but couldn’t.
“Everything was supposed to be forever– at least, that’s what we were told. But then we woke up one day. And it was gone.”
My research at Oxford is largely inspired by what Maria told me that evening. Academically, I spend my days thinking of sociological theories to describe how Russian citizens collectively remember the end of the Soviet Union and the decade of the 1990s. But perhaps more personally, I am trying to understand how historical events become transformed into national narratives, how they create meaning for people, and how they help us navigate the murky waters of the present.
In our culture we tend to code historical decades with a unique set of emotions, characters, and philosophies. For example, we might associate the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher, big hair, the rise of personal computing, and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Russian society is no different in how it formed its own associations with the 1990s. To generalize, it was an experience of confusing newfound freedom and hope, as rigid Soviet practices dissolved. Yet these more positive aspects were often overshadowed by the chaos and pain of economic transition. For many, it is a story of ordinary people caught in extraordinary times.
When the Soviet Union ended, Russian citizens suddenly found themselves in a country that had to simultaneously build a new state, a new economy, and a new social system. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs and got new ones in an unfamiliar market economy. Chemistry professors learned to drive taxis and farmers became oligarchs. Entire savings vanished with inflation. General levels of instability made food a scarce resource and local mafias emerged in the power vacuum of a rebuilding state. Poverty, inequality, and mortality grew across the country as a consequence. Orphanages overflowed. Between the years 1990-1994, male life expectancy dropped from 64 to 57.
In short, Russia in the 1990s went through what many of the nation’s TV shows, works of literature, and news channels call a “civilization in crisis”. This is when the very structure of a community’s experience, its truth and its history, fall out of existence.
Thus, the issue of the 1990s is especially sensitive for contemporary Russian politics. Vladimir Putin’s administration has partly rendered his authoritarian system legitimate by comparing the contemporary prosperous era to the images of a dangerous, impoverished, and crime-ridden 90s. In a speech in 2011, when threatened with the specter of protests, Putin told the Russian people, “We cannot have this – it will bring us back to the 90s.” In this case, the communal memory of the 90s is turned into a weapon – only it’s not nostalgic. Rather, the past is a template for a political alternative that Russian citizens don’t want.
What this reveals is the all too common practice of politics making history not about history per say. It’s about memory being transformed into myth, which embraces the past as a map for the all too uncertain present. This form of history is meant to guide the living, not to remember the dead.
All nations, big and small, tend to have their own stories and histories they seek to promote. Indeed, narratives and myths are important for any political system – its how they promote cooperation, cohesiveness, and peace. But these stories can only emerge only in time. The further people move away from an event, the clearer it has the potential to become. This partly explains why the present can be so messy and difficult to comprehend. So, if we find ourselves in chaotic times, it should be unsurprising that we call upon the phantoms of the past. Perhaps philosopher Mark Lillia was right, “the most revolutionary slogans of our age begin: Once Upon a Time…”