New East Digital Archive

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

The culture of the Brezhnev period — its comedies, crooners and conservatism — remains an important touchstone for Russian identity. Why, asks Kirill Kobrin, is this the definition of "normal"?

23 April 2014

Russian culture seems to have fallen under the spell of a very particular sort of retromania. The stars of the 1960s and 1970s are back on top again: the Olympic cauldron was lit by champion Soviet figure skater Irina Rodinina and champion Soviet ice hockey player Vladislav Tretiak. Soviet crooner Joseph Kobzon pontificates about politics in the State Duma. Soviet film director Stanislav Govorukhin was the head of Vladimir Putin’s election campaign. Putin himself is often likened to Stierlitz, the taciturn undercover hero of cult ‘70s spy show Seventeen Moments of Spring (1973) — which does his ratings no harm at all.

No surprise here, you might say. Official Russia is harking back to its Soviet glory days. And that’s true. But what about the other side of this — the “Russian people” and the “intelligentsia?” Is it, in fact, the popular consciousness of the nation that is prompting those in power to manipulate meanings in this way? Does supply dictate demand, or is it the other way round?

The sociocultural context of the late-Soviet period — the reigns of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and even early Gorbachev — has undoubtedly become a common point of identification for Russians today. If calling oneself “Russian” (culturally, not ethnically) means anything, then it means acknowledging this late Soviet background as your own.

Scene from Seventeen Moments of Spring. Undercover agent Stierlitz sees his wife in a cafe, but cannot talk to her

The elements of this background can be different in each individual case. Moreover, there is a difference between the identification processes of those people who actually lived in the late Soviet period and their offspring, who know this time only through films, books, music and their parents’ stories. However, these differences are not important. The episteme that stands behind the late Soviet period is stronger than its individual elements: even if you take a detail out of this context, that detail will end up dragging almost everything else along with it, regardless of their specific connotations. Thus this period manifests itself to us through every underground Soviet rock song we hear, or every frame of every film from the 1970s.

And what does this period signify when it does appear? The scope of this topic is, of course, massive, but one can suggest a few dominant themes. From our position in present-day Russia, the late-Soviet period is perceived as being: (a) familiar, (b) happy (regardless of all the misery at the time) and (c) real, actual, true (which is what made it happy). The preceding Khrushchev-era Thaw certainly does not feel “real” for contemporary Russians: in the public consciousness it was aestheticised and historicised in the mid-1980s, around the time of the filming of The Pokrovsky Gate which was set in 1957. As for perestroika and the 1990s, some regard this epoch as an artificially engineered catastrophe; others view it as a fragile and unrealised utopia, a missed chance at transitioning to a “normal life”. Both options preclude “authenticity”.

“The future was not exactly eliminated, but it no longer required special sacrifices”

Note the relationship between the “authenticity” of the late Soviet period and the opposing idea of “normal life”. This, in my opinion, is the source of the power of the late Soviet period as an episteme. It represents “reality” because it was during this time that “normal” life existed. The period between 1964 and 1985 was the only time in Soviet history when the country’s citizens were “left alone”. That means that on a political and ideological level they were still being “mobilised” (to fight for the victory of communism), but it was a very specific sort of mobilisation. Ideological rhetoric aside, the goal of this mobilisation was not the happy future that the government had been pulling society toward since 1917, but rather just improving on the happy present, what Brezhnev-era ideologues described as “the perfecting of developed socialism” — one of the formulas which explains the disintegration of Khrushchev’s utopian plans during the long tedium of the 1970s. The future was not exactly eliminated — it dangled somewhere far ahead — but it no longer required special sacrifices. People were left with settling for a better and more comfortable present.

Such elemental pragmatism, or even utilitarianism, dominated the late Soviet period. The policy of the USSR was to savour what already existed, rather than seeking to extend it, including Soviet influence on other countries. The aim was not to win the Cold War, but to extend parity indefinitely. Not to strive for new scientific and technological advances, but quietly to develop oil and gas, so that the present day could be peacefully maintained — that was the economic policy. Finally, the most important point was to give the public the chance of a break from the permanent state of historical stress, to bring some respite to lives long disturbed by revolutions and wars.

Soviet citizens queue for soda. This photograph is taken from one of many websites devoted to Seventies nostalgia

The last point is fundamentally important. All of the “post-Soviet” period fits perfectly into the category of “normalisation”, especially if we consider that I have borrowed this term from Czechoslovak history. After the Soviet occupation of 1968, the Czechoslovak government needed to create a new basis for its relationship with a population which considered its government to be Soviet puppets. Thus, in order to avoid a split with society and accusations of betrayal, as well as to also improve post-occupation conditions, a decision was made to consider the events of the past as somehow “abnormal”. As in, there has been a flood, so we will now restore order and life will return to normality. The Czechoslovak “normalisation” was a period in which dissidents were consistently persecuted, but at the same time citizens’ quality of life improved considerably. The 15% voting for the Czech Communist Party nowadays are largely voting for the “normalisation” of the 1970s.

“The Seventies became the Soviet Victorian Age, with the politically long-lived Brezhnev as the new incarnation of Queen Victoria”

Late Soviet normalisation was somewhat similar to what happened Czechoslovakia, if you substitute the events of 1968, the Prague Spring, the war, the Munich Agreement and so on with the utopian Russian Revolution, the Civil War that followed, the catastrophe of Stalinism, the war and the second wave of utopianism during Khrushchev’s rule. “Normalisation” in Soviet conditions was a way of returning privacy and developing the horizontal social connections independent from the state and the party which were destroyed by previous regimes. In that sense late Soviet life was “normal” in the bourgeois sense of this word. The state ran a housing programme, which relocated a significant amount of people into independent flats; these flats helped the formation of independent households, and in the kitchens of those flats new social connections were made. Similar processes were taking place in other spheres. Naturally, if we remain in this same bourgeois context, only this “normality” could be taken as “reality”, and later even as “natural”. And the “naturalness” of all this made post-Soviet man perceive everything that happened in the country after 1991 as “unnatural”.

Just You Wait! (Nu pogodi; 1969) — a classic of Soviet animation still popular today

It is precisely in the heart of the late Soviet period, from the middle to the second half of the 1970s — what could be described as the culmination of Brezhnev’s rule — that a most effective historical analogy appeared which aptly embodies both that period’s consciousness and the new, present-day Soviet way of thinking. A series of TV dramas and films were made based on late Victorian and Edwardian English literature, embellishing this analogy. The era became the Soviet Victorian Age, with the politically long-lived Brezhnev as the new incarnation of Queen Victoria. After all, the absurd notion that the Victorian era was a sort of historically unmovable “eternal period” was already established at the end of Victoria’s rule. It is a retrospective utopia about how durable and reliable a nice bit of settling down can be after a troubled past. The people who made The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson at the very end of the 1970s had a strong feeling for the utopia of the perfecting of developed Victorianism. By launching the Victorian myth into the late Soviet consciousness, the makers of late Soviet culture unwittingly determined the future indefinitely: they created a unified point of contact for public consciousness, much like Victorianism was for the British public.

“What can be done about this? Nothing”

What can be done about this? The answer is: nothing. It will pass of its own accord. The last two years have already prompted nostalgia for the 1990s in one section of Russian society, and in another part, a nostalgia for the Noughties. The ground is almost laid for the final death of the late Soviet period’s cultural dominance, especially when one considers the advancing age of the icons of the Brezhnev era. However, the symbolic meaning of this time will not disappear on its own: it must be abolished by a strong aesthetic gesture. Only after sucha gesture will the almost ubiquitous feelings of solidarity with the characters in Soviet comedies like Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures and Autumn Marathon or the animated animals of Well, Just You Wait (Nu, pogodi) seem as ridiculous as the reconstruction of the Battle of Austerlitz in the rundown Czech town of Slavkov in 2005.

Read more

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

All about my motherland: war, time travel and the rise of patriotic cinema

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

Retromania: celebrating consumerism, Soviet-style

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

Retro boosters: past, present and future intertwine in the new space race

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

Time travel: a remembrance of things past

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

Days of glory: picturing Soviet Russia’s Olympic legacy

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

Flashback: cult films reinvigorate Russian retro

That Seventies show: why Russian popular culture is stuck in the past

Out of this world: photographer Egor Rogalev visits the museum of Soviet space travel