Back in the USSR

Once upon a time, the Soviet Union was a source of vicarious fascination for many Indians. Now that it’s not, remembering the time before the West was won takes on another character altogether

File photo of Gorbachev’s first visit to New Delhi and his meeting with Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. © DELHI PRESS ARCHIVES
01 June, 2010

WHEN I WAS 15, I went to a rock concert at the Chinnaswamy Cricket Stadium on Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bangalore. This might have been another unexceptional event in my blameless youth if not for a few details: it was my first rock concert ever, the rockstar on display was Alla Pugacheva, and the whole thing was Soviet propaganda. If I close my eyes, I can still feel that evening. The year is 1988; I am wearing a sweater several sizes too big, neatly ironed blue jeans and my best black shoes. I am tagging along with a bunch of classmates who are all smoking More menthols—which I abhor. (An unintended consequence of state-monopolised information was that the baddest boys in Bangalore came of age smoking a cigarette intended for middle-aged American housewives). Alla sings, and who knows what she’s saying, but she has fluorescent purple hair and that’s all that counts. We are delirious, I am delirious, and in the twilight of our import substitution, this is my sunniest point.

Now, nostalgia is everywhere. In fact, it’s something of an epidemic. Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1668, would have appreciated the terminology. In his conception, nostalgia was a disease, its distinguishing symptom a disinterest in the present. More to the present, Svetlana Boym says that nostalgia is a rebellion against time. Over time, of course, the word has come to mean a longing for an idealised past. Personally, I prefer to think of it as a disease. My nostalgia is for an era when there was none, a time in which the future was always bright and usually unavailable.

Irony can be a chronic condition, too.

I blame it on the world I grew up in. Red Russians were our white people. They filled out our five-star hotels, they sold us their boxy little cameras and stale cigarettes, and they left us with a life-size working model of the Lada. They gave us their circus, their books and their Bolshoi; we sent them our classical dancers, our craftspeople, and a disoriented local chanteuse who opened the Festival of India in the USSR with the Andrew Lloyd Webber tearjerker ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ while clad in black lingerie and chained to a rotating bed.

I remember my father’s Russian lessons, driven by his love of the literature, carefully preserved in the notebooks of his youth; exotic characters that spelt mundane words like ‘coffee’ and ‘economy’ in a Cyrillic alphabet that meant nothing to me, and yet, somehow, seemed rigorous and worthwhile. I remember Ouspensky’s The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin—one of a trio of books that my parents forced on me—and the thrilling pall it transported me to. I remember Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space, his spacecraft, the Soyuz T-11, my unmitigated joy at his achievement, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know why.

Mind you, we followed the plot in this regard, in never asking why—though what was a perfectly acceptable question. Had I queried in the latter direction, I would have found the answers in that incomparably titled compendium of Soviet facts, What is What? Some years ago, a friend led me to a bookstore called Navakarnataka, and therein, I discovered its period stock. Progress Publishers, Moscow’s finest party press, used to flood our shores with books for all ages, from Folk tales of the Ukraine for the tots to Das Kapital for the tottering. At the turn of the millennium, elated at finding the bookstore that time forgot, I forgot myself and bought everything they had.

There they are, sitting on a shelf in my bedroom, within a set that includes books I actually used to read once—books with optimistic titles like Figures for Fun and Physics for Entertainment, gifts from my parents, given with a hopeful sigh. I haven’t been able to go back to the good YI Perelman as yet—the wounds inflicted by his algebraic tactics are still raw. But I browse through my newer acquisitions all the time, and every random page of What is Surplus Value? or What is Marxism/Leninism? yields some coruscating insight. Just the other day, I learned the definition of ‘Town and Countryside,’ and I almost cried:

Town and Countryside: historically established forms of settlement of people that arose on the basis of social division of labour in societies split into antagonistic classes. There is a contradiction between T. and C. based on the exploitation of the people of the countryside by exploiters not only of the countryside but of the towns as well. Under socialism, all exploitation is eradicated, thus doing away with the contradiction between T. and C.

I’ve had flashes of the 1980s since. For one, there is Aeroflot, the erstwhile USSR’s airline, now a major Russian corporation, where the bread still bounces and where airhostesses still display the grudging hospitality that betrays a childhood in the Kolkhoz. For another, there is South Africa, where the communists and their various satellites toss around the quaintest terminology in casual conversation, as if it’s all perfectly self-evident; where terms like ‘Marxist Workers Tendency’ and ‘1996 Class Project’ are not footnotes in history, rather, contemporary personality traits. There is even Alla Pugacheva, alive and well on the Internet. In the years following her Indian tour, I learn that she has acquired a perfume line and a shoe line, as well as considerably more weight and considerably more ex-husbands, each successively younger. (Watching her sing, however, makes me unreasonably sad). As much as these moments move me, it’s not the same.

I miss the sincerity; our sincerity, as reservists in a funny kind of war to which we didn’t matter anyway. I miss taking the whole thing seriously—as a social system, not as political ideology. And I know I was confused when it fell apart. In 1993, in a remote mountain town in New England, I befriended a fellow student from newly minted Georgia. It’s hard to describe the kind of communion I felt with CIS émigrés, Eastern European escapees and what have you, with their achingly nervous hunger and their stern, socialistic clothes. I told him about my big night with Alla Pugacheva. That hair! Those moves! And how we didn’t understand a single word she sang. He mumbled something back evasively and blushed. Those were early days yet, and we were in America, so it’s reasonable to expect that he wanted to have nothing to do with the wretchedness he had just escaped. And I know it’s easy for me to miss the Soviet Union, having never endured it at all. But loving an artefact of that era does not render the era any less absurd or ridiculous or wrong, and one day, I hope we might still have that conversation.

A shorter version of ‘Back in the USSR’ appeared in Chimurenga 14, ‘Everyone has their Indian.’