Central Asia in Nostalgia for the Soviet Period
Once upon a time, during the era of the Soviet Union, life was easier and happier, people were happy with their living conditions and work … they gathered in friendship around the famous ideology of communism. This golden age has been transformed today into a story older people want to tell the younger generations who will never know of the “soft Soviet education” (доброе советское воспитание – in Russian). Over twenty years have passed since the collapse of the USSR. And beyond independence, transformations, market economies and privatizations, the period under Soviet rule remains a positive and benevolent image for many former Soviet citizens.
In the West, a negative stereotype of the Soviet past lingers: Its totalitarian political system, the KGB, the Lada automobile, “Homo Sovieticus” people standing in long lines to buy bread, etc. But in the collective memory of former Soviet citizens, the past is essentially associated with a time when people lived in similar conditions with little social differentiation. Common values, like friendship, solidarity and neighborhood were important.
For many people, the era embodies nostalgia for their own youth, with its train of dreams and illusions, gone now forever. This was a period where everyone participated in a collective project – the “great socialist construction” – with an obligation to grow up belonging to youth movements such as Pioneer, Komsomol, to enter the party, to study to get a job guaranteeing, at the end of life, a guaranteed retirement that was fully funded by the State.
A native of Uzbekistan, Ulugbek Badalov received his PhD in political anthropology from the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris (2011). His dissertation deals with association of Kyrgyzstan expatriates in France to the national identity promoted by the Kyrgyz state.
He previously earned Master’s degrees in international affairs from Faculty of Law, Management and Economics of Paris (2010), in social anthropology from School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris (2007) and in translation from Uzbek State World Languages University (2004). He is fluent in Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Russian, French and English.
Almost all the population in Central Asia, as in other parts of the ex-USSR, who knew communism would prefer a return of the “protector” regime in all areas rather, than perpetuate the current system. For many, this is a generator of disappointment for reasons readily perceptible. Older people who lived in the previous period often speak with pride and even with tears in their eyes.
It was a pride of belonging to a powerful country whose authority was recognized worldwide in military and scientific fields. But today, their countries are in distress. People I present here are all from Central Asia and still nostalgic for the “unforgettable Soviet period” (незабываемые советские времена – in Russian).
Anvar from Uzbekistan
Over 60 years old, Anvar is a small man, with a deep glance and the gold teeth that are very common in Central Asian societies, as elsewhere in the former USSR (met in Paris in November 2011). Having converted to Islam in the 1990s (a widespread phenomenon in Uzbek society) he does not eat pork, yet drinks alcohol as a way of remembering this beautiful period of communism.
Proud of belonging to the generation of the Soviet era that gave him one of the best educations in the world, Anvar graduated from the University of Foreign Languages in Tashkent, where he spent most of his career as a French teacher. Like his co-workers, he laments the passing of Soviet times, which they remember with only good memories, he says sadly.
“We lost a lot with the disappearance of the Soviet Union that left us in a pitiful situation. I am a teacher and I can tell you that the impact of changes really weigh on public service professions. Today, we draw minimum wages that are not even sufficient to provide for the basic needs of the home. My salary is equivalent to a sum of 300 dollars a month, which I spend right away for two weeks of food for the family. Fortunately, my wife works too and her wages allow us to pay the remaining two weeks of the month. She is a professor of French, but she gave up her job just because of low salary of the University.
It’s been about ten years that she has worked as a housekeeper for a family of French expatriates in Tashkent. Her salary is 450 dollars a month. We have a daughter, she is 15 years old. Previously, during the Soviet era, life was quite different. We had decent wages that allowed us to live reasonably; we could buy goods, a car, pay for cultural activities and sports, a dacha, a trip to another country of the USSR, etc. Sometimes, where there were premiums and less spending, you could even save our salaries. While today we can buy only food and pay for gas and electricity.
In the morning you get up and you wonder how to make money … Believe me, if you ask a teacher when he went to the theater the last time, I’m sure he answers “no means and no time”. In Soviet times, everyone respected our job so much so that younger people wanted to emulate us when we asked about their future. We really enjoyed our work, because the values were different. We had a certain reputation.
But today, with all the changes we are experiencing, teaching has become “shameful”. If you ask young people what they want to do in the future, few would think of this profession. They answer that they want to work as a lawyer, banker, businessman etc. Of course, who wants to do this job that does not even allow you to provide for your basic needs? It became shameful and was disgraced, so much so that many teachers are forced to be corrupted due to lack of money: they ask students for tips in exchange for fictitious notes.
For their part, students know they can buy their grades, missing classes and get their diplomas that way. They do not want to study, they think of getting easy money. Their general culture is poor, not to mention their knowledge in their field of training. Where do we go with such a system? I never imagined that one day I would find myself in a similar situation with my teaching profession. I wanted my daughter to do my job, but the last time when I asked her about her future she answered she would like to practice medicine. She may be right. ”
The feeling of poverty felt by this Uzbek teacher whose status has lost all authority and dignity demonstrates how deeply rooted nostalgia remains for a comfortable, state-administered past. Whatever their age and their experiences in the USSR, the “former Soviet teachers’ retain essentially the good aspects of this period. These advantages often become inaccessible today (such as travel, social assurances, cultural life, etc.) and embellish the memories of many people and arouse bitter regrets.
The work dedicated deeply to the construction of communism does not yield as much as in the Soviet era and has placed them in misery, both social and moral, that accompanies everyday life, demonstrating failures of public service structures. This feeling of poverty among many people is not an imaginary construct, but the result of the confrontation of a precarious day and the idealized image of a previous better life of which the Soviet state was the guarantor and protector.
This nostalgia for Soviet times is almost omnipresent in the conversations of older people in Central Asia. This melancholic feeling of the loss of a glorious past appeared in Central Asia, as well as in other regions of the former USSR in the mid-1990s. It is characterized by disarray, the result of deep social and economic crises since the collapse of the communist system.
The regret of the past now accompanies the daily lives of most people, except a small class enriched during perestroika, who are reduced to indigence and devoid of any social security. The glorious future promised by the Independent States is lost in a future becoming more and more distant and unattainable. This nostalgia is omnipresent in the old Soviet films, in songs of the period, while it is also seen in the dress of some young people like all kinds of badges, T-shirts with the inscription CCCP (USSR), and a red scarf worn in a little extravagant, almost provocative way. Even some traditional meeting places such as cafes and restaurants still bear evocative names of the era: Zvezda (Star, red of course), Brigada (Brigade), etc, mainly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. As such, words of Sacha from Bishkek are relevant.
Sasha from Kyrgyzstan
Sasha is a 68-year-old Russian (met in Bishkek in 2010). He arrived in Bishkek in the 1970s to work in a metal factory. He lived with his wife in a collective home of the factory located in a suburb of the Kyrgyz capital. Their only child, Nadia, lives in Russia where she worked as a hairdresser. Retired now with a small pension, he tells me in a trembling voice about the Soviet era that he knew both in Russia and Kyrgyzstan.
“When I entered the Chelyabinsk Metallurgical Factory, having served in the Soviet Army in Siberia, the administration sent workers in Central Asia. That’s how I came to Bishkek where I had friends known in the army. I was responsible for a team in the factory. I liked my work. There were bonuses if you were working well, there were celebrations, cultural and sports clubs. I met my wife there, a Russian born in Kyrgyzstan.
This period will never return. You know these parades and the marches on May 8 and February 23, travel to the Kremlin, it all became a dream. You do not know the time; ask your parents, they will tell you: it was beautiful. Everything was in order with a house, a job, a living wage, care was free, on weekends we went to the movies, park, or in the mountains in summer. Life was good. Today, you think only how to get money.
Fortunately we have our pensions and shelter. Otherwise, I do not know how you would survive… When I was young I never thought I would live the last years of my life in Bishkek in this situation. I thought one day I would finally go back to Russia where, moreover, there is no one in my family. I remember my youth spent there, I have pictures of my friends from school when I was a Pioneer and in Komsomol. I carried the Soviet flag …”
The testimony of Sacha is one of many others, felt approximately in the same terms by the Russians in Central Asia where they feel more or less like strangers since the end of the USSR. It is important also to remember that ethnocratic policies of central Asian states after independence prompted the departure of the Russian minority, which had enjoyed a privileged status during the Soviet period.
If many young Russians have left for Russia, older people are still remaining in these republics where many of them lived for two or three generations. Indeed, the fall of the Soviet regime, which offered the reassuring feeling of comprehensive care for all, and where, from birth, people put their lives in the hands of the social system in place (kindergartens, Komsomol, schools, universities, enterprises, collective work, holiday centers, sanatoriums, … Communist Party), left each to his own in a sense of insecurity and apprehension for the morrow. The responsibility for this change is reflected on the States now become independent. The words of Almaz from Kazakhstan are eloquent on the subject.
Almaz from Kazakhstan
Almaz is from a small town in south of Kazakhstan (met in Paris in February 2012). He is 52 years old, a former engineer and now lives in France. He accomplished his military service in Poland. When the USSR collapsed, the factory where he worked was privatized as part of the policy of the Kazakh government. He continued to work, but his salary was not enough to provide for his family; his wife and two children. A few years later, things got worse and he went to Russia where he spent four years working on building construction.
When he came back home, he faced misery, no job, his family had left him after selling their apartment. He then decided to go abroad, especially to Europe. He stayed first in the Czech Republic from where his passed illegally to Italy and finally France, where he lives in an irregular situation. Like many of his generation, he remembers with sadness the Soviet times.
“In the army, we were all united as brothers; communism gathered us apart from our nationality. There were all nationalities from USSR: Russians, Caucasians, Central Asian, Baltic, Koreans, etc. We were all Soviets (cоветские – in Russian). It was truly an international atmosphere. We were proud of belonging to the top world scientific power, inventor of the first space rocket, the armed forces, etc.
It was the same case at work, in whatever republics where you worked, near or far, you could have as colleagues, people of different nationalities (национальность – in Russian), all speaking the Russian language in our language of unity. Imagine, in the factory where I worked as an engineer at the time, located in a small town in Kazakhstan, there were Koreans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, etc. I remember our factory had a football team which was the best in our town. It was several times the winner of the regional competition.
Briefly, life was good and easier: we had an education, a job, a family. We drew wages at the end of each month, which is not the case after the fall of the USSR; privatization, market economy, business: everything has become a real mess. With regards to money, if you have money today in Kazakhstan, you have friends, a car, a job, if you have not, you will be in my case, an immigrant lost in Europe.
Today, when you speak about Kazakhstan, people see only Almaty, Astana, gas, oil and uranium that hold the country, which ignores the hidden aspects of reality, poverty, social inequality, corruption, etc. Indeed, there is a part of the population that enriches in the country, while the majority, especially the rural world, lives very difficultly.
The State has chosen the market economy for the country’s development and that induced day by day the big difference between rich and poor in the society. In the name of capitalism which is different from that in the West, the state has privatized everything.”
These three stories come from three Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. And the situations seem similar in two others countries; Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, as the first is the most closed country (politically) and the second still remains the poorest country (economically) in the region. The groups of discussion of Turkmen and Tajik migrants on the site odnoklassniki.ru, one of the largest “social network sites” in the world created in Russia in March 2006 by Albert Polkov (born September 25, 1975, currently living in London) bears clearly witness to their nostalgia for USSR (consulted in 2009-2011).
Meaning “Friends of school” in Russian, odnoklassniki.ru is equivalent in its original content to “Classmates” in the Unites States or “Friends of the past” in France. Its objective: to allow users to find old friends from school or university. The website counts today over 45 million members from around the world.
If, initially, the site was intended solely for classmates or friends from university, today it attracts many people who sign up for various reasons, but essentially to meet or to find themselves. Thus, for example, expatriates from former Soviet republics created their own discussion groups in order to maintain links with their country of origin or compatriots who have moved elsewhere around the world. With regard to migrants from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, they have their discussion groups on which we can possibly find forums where they express their nostalgia for both their country and the Soviet period in which most of them grew up.
They intervene with their own feelings in the context of migration, accompanied by photos. Members share their personal “melancholic” experiences and consider this unsatisfactory situation by returning to the imagination of the past where everything seemed better than today: “Education was better under the USSR”, “I am sad when I listen to patriotic Soviet music”, “The best years of the Soviet Army” etc. They evaluate the present with references to the past that they never find. A kind of “paradise lost”…
In general, people in Central Asia like many other former Soviet citizens have moved from a system of collective certainty to a system of individual uncertainty: Soviet society was followed by a deterministic probabilistic society. In the policies of the current regimes, which proclaim a period of transition and economic reforms where employees are direct witnesses and passive actors of change, the consequence of a “confrontation” between the two systems directly affects civil servants, including their way of being, thinking and living conditions. Social protection and full employment once ensured by the Soviet state have disappeared, which develops a strong distrust of the people against the current states of Central Asia from where they are looking to seek a better life elsewhere.
Thus, people having known Soviet times, apart from their age, show a high degree of uncertainty about their existence, which leads them to consider life only from day to day. This uncertainty is flagrant among older persons, resulting from the obsessive fear of what might happen in their countries from one day to next day. In such a situation, where government policies continue to widen the social fracture that tears central Asian societies, it seems difficult to imagine that the trend could be reversed in coming years.
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