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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Coming of Age in the Last Days of the U.S.S.R.

Nostalgia is like an old song. Once forgotten and then heard again, it calls you to the place where you were once happy. Today, people in Russia are reminiscing about their past more and more, because it seems attractive to them: New versions of Soviet songs are now being sung by contemporary pop stars, kiosks are selling kvas, and druzhiniki, or members of voluntary people's patrols, are once again walking the streets.


During the presidential campaign, the organizers of Boris Yeltsin's campaign considered using old songs to agitate on his behalf, but they were afraid that this could have an entirely opposite effect: The majority of old people who heard these songs about tractor drivers and combine operators might vote for Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.


But, in any case, Zyuganov wouldn't have been able to give these pensioners back their past, even if he wanted to. He could only have returned to them the lines of the past.


As if such things had never existed, people have stopped being ashamed of their past. They understand that the past was not only Stalin and the horrors of collectivization, but the flight of Yury Gagarin, the Baikal-Amur Railroad and the Olympic Mishka bear that flew over the stands of the stadium.


My childhood in the 1980s seems to me to have been spent during the most peaceful times during the U.S.S.R.'s existence. And although our leaders died one after another, I was interested most of all in asking my parents to give me a ruble for an ice cream that cost 13 kopeks at the time. I had no idea of street killings or cocktails doctored with drugs, and my girlfriend was quite ordinary, without the green hair like now.


And now that I look back on my past with the benefit of hindsight, I sometimes feel ready to give up everything to return to the 13-kopek ice cream, along with Olympic Mishkas and my old friends.


"People always remember only the best," my mother recently told me. And it appears she is right. It is only natural that older people would remember the past as being truly happy.


These days remind me of a cheap soup in which everyone puts in his own vegetables, and from this it becomes all the more repulsive. Everyone seems to think that as soon as we begin to live as in the West, everything will be fine. But none of today's leaders seem to understand that most people simply want to live well, and not like in the West or East.


I often see old people on the streets who sigh over how good it was in the past and how bad it is now. This is understandable. The past seems bright and the future bleak not because they are dreaming of cheap sausage, but because they were once young and considered themselves happy.


The past of the Soviet person is not only tied to Stalin and the gulag, but with his first love and friends he has left behind. Of course, under Stalin, Andropov and Brezhnev people also tried to live happily. They went to the movies, gave each other flowers and even kissed on the escalators in the metro.


Yes, the past is a great thing. For example, I remember very well my days as pioneer, the Russian version of a boy scout, and the simple Soviet school I attended for free, from which I received most of my education.


I would like to tell my brother, who is 12, and represents a generation that plays video games and is not much interested in reading, about this. I would like to tell him about the inexpensive ice cream and pioneer camps, but he does not want to listen. For him, Lenin is some kind of rock star. He is nine years younger than I, but there is perhaps a century that lies between us in our image of the world. When I try to remind him of such things, the strange Russian illness of longing for the homeland seizes me and I recall the silly and happy times when many people went to the movies, the metro cost 5 kopeks and the rock singer Andrei Makarevich was simply playing the guitar and not advertising cat food on television. There was neither Zyuganov nor Yeltsin, and you could walk the streets at night without any worries.


My babushka, for whom our past seems a continuous nightmare, also speaks of such things. Although she says when she was young she hoped that life would improve and communism would be built. My babushka also often argues about the past as she sits on the park bench surrounded by a crowd of communist babushkas and democratic babushkas. But there is one thing they can always agree on: Soviet films are the best. And I always agree with them: I prefer "Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears," for example, to "Terminator" or "Rocky."


I see the living past in my babushka and her stories and those of babushkas who are pensioners or babushkas-turned-businessmen selling Marlboros in the metro passageways or babushka revolutionaries who cry out at meetings.


The Russian nature is such that even if he lives somewhere in the West, he dreams of domestic Ostankinskaya kolbasa as he buys the more expensive German sausage in the supermarket. The cheap sausage reminds him of how he was poor and young, and even though he did not have a mobile telephone or fancy car, he still had an old Soviet tape recorder on which he listened to the Beatles.


But ask this person if he wants to return to the past and he'll say no, because he will then remember the lines for this kolbasa with his modest Soviet salary.


His praise and nostalgia for the past, however, does not leave him. And here he must be given his due. There was a unique Soviet system that did not care much about jeans or chewing gum, which our friends in the West did not neglect, but built some of the best ships, submarines and military planes in the world. Now that there are jeans and chewing gum, it seems to everyone that the ships and planes have disappeared and that to get them back means returning to the past.


But a return to the past is impossible. Only memory can lead us back there, to a time when the Brazilian soap opera "Tropikanka" was not yet shown on television and the inexpensive, compact Zaporozhets was considered a masterpiece of automobile construction.


Why do people who considered the past to be a step backward now think about their past with nostalgia? Older people who remember working for a gigantic factory all their lives now live on a pension on which they are almost starving. Some of them are silent, some follow the communists who promise to return everything to them.


But Zyuganov and his cohort, of course, won't return anything to such people but only to themselves. And the current authorities haven't given anything or found anything for these people, although it would be as simple as making dance-floors, where they could just meet and dance, in order to be happy. Very little is needed for happiness.





Alexander Bratersky is a freelance writer.