Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.
‘In the Soviet era…’ (‘При советском союзе…’) is a phrase that I have heard on many occasions during my studies in recent years, often spoken in a tone of wistful nostalgia. Most of my interlocutors are traders at wholesale and retail markets from Odesa to Bishkek. As the Soviet past has engendered meaning and provided a frame of reference for the present as well, the use of the term ‘post-Soviet’ in my research still appeared to be justified even though 30 years had passed since the Soviet Union’s demise. The chronological division into ‘the Soviet era’ and ‘afterwards’ is a device for conveying experiences and expectations, which in turn are informed not only by personal but also by political, social and economic crises. In historical studies and the social sciences, the use of the term ‘post-Soviet’ has long been a controversial issue. Some argue that it is the collective experience of transformation across countries that fall into this loose category that legitimises the use of the term as an analytical concept. Others counter by arguing that ‘post-Soviet’ no longer describes a period in history, but has become an ideological reference point that reproduces the binary relationship between the capitalist West and the socialist/communist East, in keeping with the tradition of ‘the Other’.
Soviet nostalgia and the transition experience
Many of those I talk to at the markets, especially members of the older generation, lost their jobs or gave up work following the collapse of the Soviet Union and, since then, have earned a living selling cheap imported goods at street markets. Many had university degrees and worked as teachers, engineers or bookkeepers during the Soviet time. The demise of the Soviet Union not only ended many professional careers; it also put paid to the era of social security. Across the post-Soviet space, the 1990s were a period of crime, consumer capitalism and poverty, accompanied by a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor – the result of a combination of profiteering, de-industrialisation and privatisation. According to Western transformation theories, a short period of shock therapy is normally followed by an economic upturn, with the restructuring of a centrally planned economy into a market economy and then its full integration into the global circulation of capital. Today, this supposed triumph of liberalism is sometimes held at least partly responsible for the ongoing political instability, social inequality and rapacious exploitation of resources in the regions concerned.
At the Seventh-Kilometre Market in Odesa (the market is located around 7 km outside the city), the 50+ generation in particular emphasises the dependability of the Soviet welfare state, in sharp contrast to the subsequent moral, social and economic decline. In this Black Sea city, with its emphatically Russian demographics and language, the positive memories of the Soviet past have often implied a pro-Russian stance that has coloured attitudes towards the present. In structural terms, traders were both winners and losers in the transition process. Some earned great wealth through the semi-legal selling of cheap imported goods in transition economies where scarcity was no rarity. Many of those who still work at the markets today can only dream of such riches. In light of this experience, especially for this latter group, the Soviet Union was an important reference point and backdrop to a lost order.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in years of meticulously orchestrated propaganda, has exploited this lived contrast between Soviet order and post-Soviet instability for his own purposes, not least to fuel his imperialist fantasies. In his polarised narrative, ‘Soviet’ features as a central motif that facilitates a sense of moral superiority over a degenerate West. An often-evoked image is that of loss, nurturing a desire for restoration. But what happens when fondly held frames of reference such as personal recollections of a Moscow-dominated Soviet Union are confronted with a Moscow-led war of aggression?
The end of nostalgia: the war as an identity-building element
In conversations and chats with traders from Odesa, some of those who previously looked back on the Soviet era with nostalgia have told me that until the very last moment, they refused to believe that Russia was capable of doing anything like this. During my field visit to Odesa in 2021, I encountered very little outright criticism of Russia, despite the war in Eastern Ukraine – ongoing since 2014 – and the annexation of Crimea. This was even more surprising if we consider that the loss of customers from these regions resulted in a very substantial drop in income and countless bankruptcies among market traders. The statements that I heard were nuanced and equally critical of idealistic pro-European and pro-Russian positions. Most called for a pragmatic approach to the neighbouring country and hoped for better relations in future. Since late February 2022, this hope has, in many cases, given way to outright hatred among my interlocutors – a hatred that is now directed not only at the Russian government but against anything Russian, including ‘ordinary Russians’. The overwhelming popular support for the war that is evident in Russia and the war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine have destroyed any prospect of a normalisation of Russian-Ukrainian relations for the foreseeable future.
The war brings with it experiences which critically influence people’s views of the future and the way in which they describe the past. Many of my interlocutors from Ukraine describe the war as a turning point which, despite the devastation it has inflicted, has created something glorious, namely the feeling of national unity, with pride in the collective resilience and resistance being a unifying factor. This reorientation of the sense of belonging, especially among those who had long been sceptical about post-Soviet developments in Ukraine, is evident from surveys as well. Not only has the number of people who support Ukraine’s current political course risen from 25 to 77 per cent (March 2022), but the proportion of those who describe the end of the Soviet Union as a mistake has declined substantially, from 46 per cent in 2010 to just 11 per cent this year. The Soviet past is, simultaneously, perceived to have been Russian-dominated and hence, at least since the start of the war, directly associated with Russia as the enemy. Many Ukrainians feel a need to distance themselves from the shared Soviet past, a tendency which is reinforced by the fact that Russia uses this past as a propaganda tool for a war that may not be named.
Language and responsibility
The language we use is not innocuous; it has a powerful impact. Anyone who continues to describe Ukraine as post-Soviet after the invasion by the Russian army plays into the hands of the Russian propaganda narrative. The war is an identity-building, epoch-making moment in time. My interlocutors in Odesa have completely abandoned their previously pro-Russian position. They have overcome the initial shock, are proud to identify as Ukrainians and divide their experiences and expectations into chronological periods that revolve around life ‘before the war’, ‘during the war’ and ‘after the war’. ‘During the Soviet era’ has therefore, to a large extent, served its time as an identity-building element in Ukraine. Not least, this shift surely has implications for the academic discourse, which to some extent continues to legitimise the notion of ‘post-Soviet’ as a category for analysis and observation. It is to be hoped that more precise and nuanced terms will come to the fore in future – ones which finally reveal the use of the phrase ‘post-Soviet space’ to describe the former Soviet republics to be outdated and problematic from a language policy perspective.
Claudia Eggart is a researcher and part of the project 'LimSpaces – Living with Uncertainty: Strategies of Adaptation and Horizons of Expectations in Ukraine and Moldova' at ZOiS. She is currently completing her PhD at the University of Manchester.