From Stalin to Putin: Romanticizing History
A letter from St. Petersburg: Nostalgia for the past keeps popping up wherever Lilia Becker goes.
Jan 10, 2020
The way people deal with the Soviet past here seems rather nonchalant. A flaneur with a trained eye will not only notice the red, white, and blue of the Russian flag incorporated into billboard advertising, but also the colors of the former Soviet Union – gold on a red background. Images of young people with the five-pointed red star on their chests are also pervasive.
Stalin and Lenin can also be found on t-shirts, calendars, and as masks – not just at street markets, but also in shop windows on major streets. And right next to them you’ll see a smiling Putin carrying puppies or Putin without a shirt.
Seeing Joseph Stalin alongside chocolate, fur hats, and postcards almost seems like some kind of tourist joke. The majority of Russians know about the dictator’s crimes against humanity – I am sure of it. And yet, there is strong sense of romanticizing him and his period in power. For someone coming from Germany, this kind of nostalgia is a bizarre way of viewing the past.
Based on my experiences at the university, students seem to divide into two groups: those who are for and those who are against the revival of the Soviet aesthetic. Other university students have told me that they don’t see Stalin simply in negative terms, that their opinion of him is ambivalent. In another conversation, a student criticized a satirical film about the dictator, calling it a disrespectful treatment of Russian history.
St. Petersburg was especially hard hit by the “Great Patriotic War,” as the Russians refer to World War II. The city was besieged for 900 days, during which time one million people died of starvation. During my stay in St. Petersburg, I have had the opportunity to speak with eyewitnesses who experienced the Leningrad Blockade as children.
Lilia Becker is one of eleven students from Freie Universität reporting on their study abroad experiences. You can read her other letters here.
The German version of her second letter is also available on the campus.leben website.