Our strange romanticism of the Soviet Union


During the closing years of WW2, the Red Army marched into Lithuania. The country was occupied and any who were deemed a threat; intellectuals, teachers, ‘kulaks’, and their families were deported to the gulags where they died of starvation, exhaustion or hypothermia.

However, deep in the Lithuanian countryside, groups of partisans hid out in forests and waged war against the occupiers. By the 1950s, the tide turned against the partisans. In 1951, my great-grandfather’s brother was among those in a partisan bunker surrounded by Soviet forces. Everyone inside the bunker was massacred. His brothers had been killed in similar situations in the years before. The bodies of partisans were often displayed in village squares so that when families came to mourn their dead, the KGB could determine who to deport.

My grandmother, a small child at the time, recalls that her family spent those days in terror, coerced into giving away their food to Soviet troops and constantly fearing a pounding at the door in the middle of the night.  Luckily, that knock on the door never came. But many mornings were filled with news that more of her neighbours and friends had disappeared overnight. Some returned, most did not. One victim was a 2-year-old child, barely able to talk. What crime could she have committed?

Later on, when my father worked at a warehouse, the workers would crowd into a hall every month or so and a Party official would list all the new decisions of the Party. The workers would be made to clap and cheer, despite not believing a word of it. Lenin was adored as a god-like figure. The atrocities perpetuated under his rule had supposedly never happened; his victims simply did not exist.

Too often, I hear the myths that Soviet citizens were better fed than Americans, and that the USSR saved the West in WW2

A false picture of the past and present was painted, that the workers had thrown off the tsarist yoke and established their own republic. The Western proletariat looked towards the USSR with longing as they struggled under capitalism.

Of course, the complete opposite was true. People under the USSR longed to live like their Western counterparts. The West was a land of opportunity. Smuggled goods from there like clothing and music were eagerly sought out and people desperately tuned into nearby Western radio stations. For most, the events of 1990-91 brought a glimpse of hope into an otherwise bleak world.

These are the accounts of only one family that endured Soviet rule. There are millions more, and plenty of those are far more brutal. One of the worst, yet rarely mentioned, atrocities of Soviet rule was the Holodomor. In 1932, Ukraine had been home to a growing nationalist movement. Therefore, when a famine hit that year, Stalin blocked aid to the region and seized grain from already-starving families.

Entire villages were wiped out, women were forced into prostitution to survive, and many resorted to cannibalism. The number of deaths is still unknown. Yet Soviet propaganda continued praising the Communist project. Only Party shills and the glazed-eyed academics and socialists in the West believed it, as they romanticised their very skewed vision of a communist state.

Now that the atrocities of the USSR are public knowledge, it is very puzzling that this romanticisation has continued. Too often, I hear the myths that Soviet citizens were better fed than Americans, and that the USSR saved the West in WW2. The drab apartment blocks, propaganda and general poor conditions seem to be a source of fascination.

Jokes about gulags and ‘kulaks’ are commonplace. I was under the impression that joking about concentration camps was rightfully taboo in our modern societies. Apparently not for neo-Soviets. Stalin is perceived as a Judas-like figure, betraying the principles of Lenin’s revolution. In reality, Stalin’s economic policy was more communist than Lenin’s.

The bottom line is that the contemporary idealisers of the USSR often know nothing about what it was truly like

The social media accounts of Marxist societies across UK universities provide a good image of this continued romanticisation. Soviet-style art is used to advertise events and the convenors of these events don Soviet shapkas and t-shirts like it’s band merchandise.

Lenin’s face is more ubiquitous than a Stalinist ‘history’ book—the atrocities perpetuated under his rule are conveniently ignored. The 1917 October Coup is commemorated as a mass rising of the proletariat against their capitalist oppressors, rather than the militant putsch it truly was. Such historical revisionism is enough to make Stalin proud.

The bottom line is that the contemporary idealisers of the USSR often know nothing about what it was truly like. They never experienced it and most have no connection to it at all. They should not be so quick to glorify it. Some may romanticise it to express dissatisfaction with Western governments, or to venerate a real-life trial of Communism. I hope that we can think twice and find a different way to express our opinions and frustrations instead of glorifying a mendacious and brutal regime.

Image: Ceri C via Flickr

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