The USSR: A Personal Exploration


The cover to Dream Factory Communism: The Visual Culture of the Stalin Period, one of my favorite art books.

I have always been deeply insecure about my writing. This is not unusual in the world of writers, but it has always been a particular source of frustration for me. Whenever I flip open a empty notebook or see the white screen of a blank Word document flash in front of me, there is always this reluctance to commit myself, my ideas to paper. Depression, that plague of the postmodern era, has certainly had a hand in it that, despite months of medication, still refuses to completely unclench. Maybe it has to do with issues that burrow all the way back from childhood. Perhaps it is just a fear of being judged, of being called unworthy or of being attacked that keeps me from pushing forward. However, for any progress to be made, for anything new to be created, a single step must be taken, otherwise you just stay rooted to your spot, silent and immobile.

Speaking as someone who has spent decades silent and immobile, I can tell you that it is no way to live. Therefore, I am going to start coming out of my shell over the next few months, to talk openly and freely about things that interest and concern me, my anxieties be damned. To inaugurate this new direction, I would like to spend this post talking about something that much of my life has revolved around: the forgotten nation that was once known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

I must admit that I have no direct connection to the USSR. I was born just late enough that its existence as a geopolitical power never impinged on my waking consciousness. I was a child of the 1990s, and for me the news of the day was crime, confusion, and Boris Yeltsin. However, there were little threads drawing me to that vanished land. My father’s side of the family was Ukrainian, and while we never made a big deal out of it, it did cast my childhood mind out of its Canadian nest, back to that troubled borderland. (Ironically, in university I discovered that my paternal grandparents had actually hailed from the Ukrainian-speaking regions of Poland rather than the Ukraine proper. Who knows what that knowledge would have done for my development.)

As I grew interested in history in middle school, I began to avidly read the chronicles of world history, and Russia’s stories of empire and woe began to kindle my interest. However, it was in high school that a friend set me on my path. Here I must make a confession: the source of my fascination with Russia and the Soviet Union came, not from the literary glories of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, not from the writings of Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, but from a video game called Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2. The game was a sequel to 1996’s Command & Conquer: Red Alert, a real-time strategy game that depicted an alternate history where, in a world without Adolf Hitler, the 1940s saw the Soviet Union launch a war of conquest against the European powers. Red Alert 2, released in the year 2000, depicted the Soviet Union, beaten but undaunted, make a second play at global domination in the 1960s by launching a massive invasion of the United States. For a fifteen-year-old boy this was catnip: awesome war machines, women in tight uniforms, campy acting and cheesy effects. Just watch this introductory movie and you’ll see what I mean.

And yet, in spite of all the cheese, something about the Soviets fascinated me. Maybe it was just the secret Canadian fantasy of seeing the United States being taken down a peg, but something made me want to learn more about this nation that no longer was. I began devouring what books my high school library had on the subject, even going so far as to spend class time secretly reading a 700+ page biography of Josef Stalin I kept tucked under a chemistry room workbench. When university came around I began angling myself for a concentration in Russian history, a plan that was not exactly helpful for my job prospects, but which gave me many pleasant memories in the university library digging through the stacks. I also discovered a hidden gold mine in a now-closed used bookstore that had cases filled to overflowing with cast-off books from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s about the Soviet state.

Now, as an adult, I know more than I did. I know the Soviet Union was no paradise. I know of revolutionary terror, of the gulag, the famines, the mass deportations, the purges and the trials, the violence and inefficiencies that were part and parcel of the whole system. And yet I do not hate the Soviet Union, or view it as a blight on human history. It’s something I’ve never really been able to explain, even to myself. I sometimes feel as if I’m straddling worldviews, with one foot in the liberal-humanist tradition that sees the entirety of the Soviet history as a criminal enterprise, and the other in the Bolshevik worldview, with its visions of mankind transformed and utopia on earth achieved at last.

These days, a lot of my thinking on the Soviet Union has been influenced by the art critic, philosopher, and former Soviet citizen Boris Groys. I first stumbled across his 2008 essay collection Art Power, which contained a number of illuminating essays about the Bolshevik mindset. As an example, his discussion of “the…law of the unity and the struggle of opposites,” describes Stalinism as a worldview which prized contradiction and dynamic unions of opposites rather a singular truth, which honestly managed to clear up a lot about the nature of Stalinism for me. I still use his 1988 book The Total Art of Stalinism as my go-to guide for understanding the evolutions of official Soviet thought throughout the entirety of its seventy-four year history, as interpreted through the shifting currents of artistic thought.

There’s a lot about the Soviet Union that still intrigues me. I am fascinated by its conception as an alternative path for human society to achieve a final resting place beyond history, as opposed to the modern day, which offers a non-choice between endless “progress” without purpose or an insincere nostalgia trip. I find Stalin himself to be a great enigma, both as a man and as a symbol. While Hitler has been diagrammed to within an inch of his life, Stalin always seems to keep a few mysteries to himself. Finally, there’s the whole issue of how the great dream came apart, of how the Soviet system lost faith in itself but still kept soldiering on for decades, seeming to last forever until it was no more.

Once upon a time, I had an idea that I would write a great novel about the history of the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t be realistic fiction, of course; that’s not my wheelhouse. Instead, it would be an epic fantasy, starting in the hurly-burly of a nation with a new revolutionary government trying to assemble some measure of order while staying true to its principles. The story would continue a few decades later, at the height of both progress and terror, when depending on who you asked, the revolution had been betrayed or was just on the verge of completion. The third book would be a war story, as of course it must. After that would be a transitional work, with the old dictator dead and no one feeling confident in the old slogans still lifelessly mouthed by the party organs. The final book would be an epilogue, set a few years after the collapse, with the characters wandering about a post-utopian landscape, unsure of who to look towards for guidance, no longer trusting much of anything save the old discredited dream. I don’t know if I’ll ever write it, but I’d like to try even so, just to make sense of it all.

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