Down at the Republican Stadium market in central Kiev stallholders are doing a roaring trade in girl's slips, hooded sweat-shirts and rucksacks, all bright red and bearing the legend "CCCP." This fad might not seem particularly noteworthy elsewhere, but here in Ukraine, where the Communist Party was responsible for the deaths of millions of citizens, not to mention decades of repression and cultural stultification, such nostalgia is worthy of closer inspection.
These Soviet-themed fashion items are just one of the many ways in which the USSR has become marketable in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. A cluster of restaurants that play on the Soviet theme have sprung up, serving dishes from across the old empire. A Soviet-themed nightclub hosts some of the most daring parties in town. Kiev radio stations pack their playlists with old songs from Soviet movies. Soviet-era public holidays like Pioneer Day and Red Army Day are widely celebrated with tongue-in-cheek glee. Advertisers, meanwhile, have increasingly been going for the "Soviet look" to bring a bit of kitsch cool to their commercials. In the underpass below Tolstoy Square recently I even found a young girl with reprints of sinister Stalin-era posters lined up next to her selection of glossy magazines. She sold out within a few hours, with most of her customers being students and teenagers. "It's nostalgia for the old times," explains Larissa Yukhovska, a market stallholder who reports a roaring trade in Soviet retro clothing. "Most of the buyers are young girls. For them the Soviet past is perceived as a time of innocence, without the materialism and poverty of today."
Nostalgia is common in Ukraine. Any observer would have to conclude that the troubled road of transition has cast the Soviet Union in a favourable light even the youngest generations who had no first-hand experience of life under the Soviets have grown up to feel it. Terms like "totalitarian" and "democratic" may describe the before and after in global terms, but at ground level such progress is not so tangible. Unfortunately, while Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have received material benefits since gaining their independence, Ukraine has stuttered along in increasing poverty, with a political elite of former communists offering little direction. Given this paralysis, it is easy to understand why one might be tempted to look back fondly on more stable times. Although Westerners know all about the deficits and the endless queues, most Ukrainians are relatively poorer now than they were fifteen years ago.
Since gaining their independence Ukrainians have had to contend with the loss of free education, healthcare, housing and guaranteed employment: socialist safety nets put in place to catch the most vulnerable. In addition, the post-Soviet breakdown has created mass unemployment, rampant banditry and cronyism. While the few have prospered, the many have fallen into poverty. Ironically, the very type of capitalism that Ukrainians were always taught to fear and despise, with fat-cat big bosses milking the poor to death, is exactly the model they have been forced to live with in the eleven turbulent years since independence.
Catwalk model and local fashion designer Yelena Andriyeshvilia sees the current popularity of CCCP branding as the product of this troubled present. "We've been very disappointed by independence," she says, "especially by all the bad characters who have used it to line their own pockets and rob the nation, so I think that it's only natural that people look back at Soviet times with some warmth. They don't so much want to return to the old regime, you understand, but people like to remember the positive aspects of those times." Yelena's most recent collections feature understated Soviet imagery, and she is just one of a number of local designers to borrow from the communist era when searching for inspiration.
As well as understandable nostalgia for more secure times, there is also an element of pride in all this harking back to the USSR. "When I see those CCCP t-shirts," explains Kiev pop star El Kravchuk (who can often be found on television sporting trendy Soviet gear), "I think of our sportsmen and women winning world titles and triumphing at the Olympics. We were a great power then, with something to be proud about." Indeed, to many Ukrainians the dominant global role of the Soviet Union is a continued source of pride, especially in light of the current geopolitical situation. "You couldn't just ignore us then," the pop singer adds, actually puffing his chest out in a display of mock-bravado. In line with the stature and strength attributed to the Soviet Union, one Kiev restaurant has recently taking to using Comrade Khrushchev in their advertising, presumably because he himself was a Ukrainian and also perhaps because he told the West, "We will bury you!" It is not so much communism to which people look back on with longing but the super power status that accompanied it, a status won largely by Soviet men and women giving their lives to fight the Nazis. The victory of the Red Army in the Second World War continues to be a source of immense local pride, with Victory Day widely and wildly celebrated every year on the 9th of May. While youngsters are bombarded with endless World War II movies on Ukrainian TV, you rarely see or hear any mention of Stalin: Ukrainians, like many others across the former Soviet Union, generally regard the war as "their victory."
Boleslav Malinovski, a successful 27 year-old small businessman from West Ukraine, is a Russian national and grandson of a Red Army General. His hometown, Lviv is known as the spiritual home of Ukrainian nationalism, but even in this hotbed of anti-Soviet sentiment he remembers his childhood with idyllic fondness, recalling how he would reprimand fellow teenagers for removing their pioneer scarves after school. "To the Western mindset the ussr was an evil state, like Iraq is being portrayed as now," Malinovski observes. "But it was absolutely not like that for us. We lived here and we were doing fine. People all felt equal in those days, like brothers and sisters together, and we really felt that we lived in a happy country, a lucky country." Such sentiments are common among many of those who grew up in the ussr of the 1970s and 1980s. Long summers spent at pioneer camps with fellow junior comrades are warmly remembered, and as human beings the world over are prone to do, many citizens of the former Soviet Union recall only the good times.
It should come as no surprise that the collective horrors of Stalin's genocide, the gulags, and the whole state structure of repression have failed to make Soviet nostalgia unfashionable. There has never been any public airing of dirty linen in Ukraine along the lines of South Africa's Truth Commission, nor has there been any attempt at de-Communising society as Germany was de-Nazified in the years following the end of the war. Nobody talks about it at all. If they make any reference to it, it's through knowing nods. The government offers little support to the remaining victims of communist repression, and it makes no attempt to promote public debate and reconciliation. It is as if the nation has collectively decided to keep the topic in the closet. "We don't remember the bad things about those times," Malinovski says. "Personally, I don't associate the Soviet Union particularly with repression. Should I? I associate Stalin with repression, but not the USSR."
Such opinions are bolstered by continued ignorance and indifference among the broader population towards Soviet-era crimes against humanity. Also, many of the leading politicians in Ukraine owe everything to the Soviet system and, understandably, are not overly keen to attack the very organization that put them in power. For example, in his Soviet-era incarnation, the Deputy Prime Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk used to write vicious articles attacking the Ukrainian diaspora for calling attention to Stalin's famines and his party's direct responsibility for millions of deaths. Today he is just one of the many high-ranking former Communists in power. As for average Ukrainians, the very nature of Soviet repression often pitted neighbour against neighbour or colleague against colleague, making any process of public reconciliation doubly painful and even more undesirable. When I try to raise the subject of Soviet repression, I'm rebuffed by "that's how life is here," accompanied by a shrug and a sigh.
All of this nostalgia and wounded pride is compounded by the national identity crisis taking place in Ukraine. Ukraine was never truly unified or independent prior to the Soviet takeover, and its current borders are a purely Soviet invention (including the glorious Crimean peninsula, which was never considered Ukrainian until it was "given" to the republic in the 1950s). You could argue that without the Soviet Union, there could be no Ukraine, and this was one of the main reasons why the country was thus cast into something of a void upon gaining independence, a void from which they have struggled to emerge. To this day the world community is almost totally ignorant of Ukraine, largely due to the fact that the country has failed to present itself as independent of Russia or portray itself in a positive light. Ukrainians are well aware of how little weight they carry internationally.
A rise in nationalism has been one common feature of the post-Soviet transition in many of the 14 former republics. Whilst this has occurred to an extent in Ukraine, the sheer extent of its Russification (a process stretching back three hundred years) has placed any latent nationalism at odds with popular sentiment. Despite the many foreign rulers history has bestowed on Ukraine, only in the border regions can one find traces of anyone but the Russians. Russian remains the mother tongue of the urban population in all but the Western Ukraine. Many Ukrainians have relatives in Russia or were born there themselves, and even more claim dual nationality. Unlike their Baltic and Eastern European neighbors, Ukrainians therefore have a hard time viewing the Soviet rulers as a foreign force of occupation and repression. Eleven years after its collapse, millions of Ukrainians still vote for the Communist Party, which polled around 20% in 2002 parliamentary elections. Its officials continue to deny that Stalin's genocidal famines were party policy.
Whatever Westerner observers may make of this trend for Soviet retro style, many young Ukrainians would be surprised and amused to learn that there exists any outside interest at all. For most of them CCCP is just a quirky fashion, nothing more or less, and this reflects a widespread lack of association between the government and its people. Ukraine is a vast breeding round for political apathy, where citizens regard politics and governance as "none of my business." When people feel detached, of course, they stop taking things so seriously, and many of the people I spoke to considered my interest curious. "Iconic things are always going to be cool," declared fashion guru Lena as we strolled Red Army Street. "For a lot of people this cccp trend is no more symbolic than wearing a jacket with the American stars-and-stripes on the back."
How could Andrei Kurkov claim that Ukrainian fads don't exist while Peter Dickinson argues just the opposite? Topic's dueling Ukrainian contributors remind us that fads, while ostentatious, are not always obvious. Click here for an extended conversation between the authors.
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