Nostalgic modernization in Russia

Feb 10, 2011 by

“Nostalgic Modernization” seems like a contradiction in terms. Done for effect, to attract as many Yalies to come to the talk as possible. Not this time, however.  This  time the rhetorical figure reflects the paradoxes of contemporary Russian society.

Ilya Kalinin, the editor of Russia’s leading Humanities journal ‘Neprikosnovennyi zapas’, a witty man in his handsome forties, spoke today on the politics of history in Russia. More precisely, he analysed how the Soviet history is used  for the purposes of Putin’s and Medvedev’s present agenda of modernization.

Anyone who has ever been to Russia or spent some time speaking to Russians, is aware of the widespread feeling of nostalgia that many Russians experience for the  Soviet era. For the Westerners , especially the generation grown up during the Cold War, this nostalgia is incomprehensible. The fact that Joseph Stalin scores so high on the current popularity charts in Russia, is a shock to the Western public. However, the shock does not lead us far.

We have to ask, and Ilya did today, what does J. Stalin represent for the Russians of today? Do they see mass graves behind him (like for example the Poles do) or do they see industrialization, modernization and finally the victory of the Second World War – the victory of the Soviet Russia over fascist Germany.

Ilya remarked that in the 90s this wide-spread  longing for the past was attributed to the opponents of liberalism, market capitalism, reforms and modernity.The  situation has changed– the recent decade has shown that Russian leaders have harnessed the discourse of the past for their own pragmatic purposes. When Medvedev speaks about the need to modernize, he never fails to mention the victory of the Second World War. Why?

According to Ilya, this is a way to mobilize the social resources of the russian public. The connection implies – your grandparents and parents sixty years ago mobilized and won the war, now you have to pull the sleeves up, modernize and we will win again! Russia will be great again. As easy as that.

The problem of contemporary Russia, which I noticed and wrote aboutwhile in Petersburg and which Ilya emphasized today as well, is the lack of energy, solidarity and community. To use Hannah Arendt’s term, this society has been atomized. It is in fact not a society, not a political unit. Social ties, stretching beyond the family,  do not exist, and neither does any kind of political awareness, feeling of a commono good, personal responsability or initiative. People do not vote, people do not care and people do not trust each other.

How can you modernize without social engagement? Modernization is not just about machines, computers, IT – economics is a SOCIAL science, what happens is the ‘social’ is missing? Can the social be resurrected by recourse to the past heroic events? By writing the Soviet history anew, choosing the laudable act and crossing out the disgraceful ones? Ilya called it falsification of history – to me it sounds very much like a modern propaganda.

The fact is that Russia needs to modernize. The need is urgent – the biggest and most active department in Moscow is the Department on Extraordinary Situations. Without modernization there will be no ordinary life in this country. Ordinary in the best sense of the world. If you ask the Russian how are you, he wil probably say: ‘normalno’. Normally in Russia means good. Good means excellent. It’s a dictionary of history.

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1 Comment

  1. Jacek

    Without modernization there will be no ordinary life in this country – it is the same essence of contemporary Russia!

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