The photo below shows a creation of a Putin fan, a UAE designer Mona al Mansouri.
President Putin is presented on the dress as a winged angel in his signature white judo getup. He is surrounded by cherub, one of which holds above his head a laurel wreath. The orb of the Earth he’s holding in his hand suggests the wreath is being given to him by heavenly powers as a savior of the world.
We had a lot of friends across the world in the Soviet era, too. But this is something new, what appeared first in the post-Soviet period.
Back during Soviet rule, the sympathy to our country was mostly ideologically based—because we promoted the anti-Capitalist, anti-Imperialist politics.
Today, it’s much more focused on Putin personally, or on the image of Russian military might, or the picture of Russia as a guardian of “white European” legacy. I don’t remember a single case in my time in the 1970s of 1980s when someone loved what we do because our General Secretaries “looked like real men”, or our military was considered “cool”.
The picture below “Girl and her Red Army Trooper” was painted in 1920 by Samuel Adlivankin. It shows a Communist soldier spending quality time with a working lady over a Marxist study book.
The book cover says: “Politics 101”. The man is wearing the distinctive uniform of the Red Army. Red troopers inherited it from the Imperial army in WW1. The nationalist designers made a pointy hat to mimic the medieval helms of Rus warriors. The red razgovóry across the chest also mimicked the ethnic decoration from the pre-Imperial era of Muscovy.
The man’s boots are most probably taken from the military supplies sent by the Allied powers to the Czar and the Provisional Government, and taken by local Soviet troops from busted warehouses around the country. The wall is adorned by a portrait of Karl Marx. The phonograph and the sofa were most probably confiscated from counter-revolutionary elements for the benefit of exploited masses.
The Soviet experience confirmed that even with the best of efforts health care ends us just like any competitive race. Even though all the runners in a race start equal, they finish unequal.
I lived both under the real Socialism and Capitalism, so I have sort of 3D optics on the issue of universal health care.
Universal health care is one of particular implementation of equality. As such, I view equality very much like heavenly sex. It’s perfectly possible, people have experienced it, and everyone have pretty much the idea what it is like. Yet, it’s a very, very elusive animal. The problem is, it doesn’t last long, it’s very hard to get to, it’s often very impractical, and most attempts to get there are doomed to end up in an abject failure.
“Health for all”
With health care, you are in the same situation as with universal education, and universal security: there’s no way any society can have “too much” of it. Unlike good sex, there’s no natural limit to how much of it we can take before we say: “This is simply too good, we must put a limit to it.”
In addition, we’re all awfully unequal in health. Some people are born perfectly healthy, never catch as much as a flu, live to 100, no problem. Many more people are in need of health care throughout the whole life. Also, there are hypochondriacs. On top of it, there are too many people who knowingly try to abuse the system.
The Implementation Hell
Communists in the USSR hit the problem pretty much right away when they introduced the universal health care. As long as it was about pretty basic things like maternal care, shots for kids, fixing broken limbs and bandaging wounds, it worked decently. But once we went up in quality and scope, we ran into the same darned problem as the US:
some people contributed much without getting back what they needed when they needed it
some people needed much more than the system could afford to provide
some people abused the system
some people used their privilege to get access to more (or much more) than the contributed themselves
The Soviet experience suggests that health care issue is destined to remain a bottomless source of inspiration for populist politicians. It will go on as long as we won’t know how to make our bodies smooth reparable machines on a simple malfunction insurance plan.
Below, a poster from the 1930s: “He is a malingerer. He’s fine, but fakes illness, to shirk from work on insurance. He steals from the genuinely ill and fails the work requirements.”
The concept of Real Socialism requires an ability on the part of the State to take care of single mothers. Trials and tribulations of revolutionary wars lead to huge attrition of men. The Communist cause needs new generations of strong, healthy warriors, and Soviet women had to step in, in a well-organized fashion.
During WW2, an entire generation of young men was killed or starved to death. In the wake of the Second World War,the USSR became a nation of single mothers.
Feminization of society
Even when new generations of men reached maturity, the profound trauma WW2 had caused would persist for decades to come. Men found themselves too spoiled for choice— and this was greatly amplified by the economic and political emasculation that Real Socialism dealt to Soviet males.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many men, pampered by single mothers, simply found it too troublesome to fit the role of family providers. The abortion rate soared, alcoholism went rampant, divorces became the new norm. Toward the end of the Soviet rule, weak, irresponsible men—contrasted with strong-willed but unhappy women—became the staple of Soviet storytelling in books and movies. (E.g. take a look at this Soviet movie classics: Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, or Business Romance)
On the other side, the concept of Real Socialism required a solid semi-permanent militarization of society in order to make it able to take a shock from massive losses of men during revolutionary wars. This involved a universal safety net for women. The Soviet rule needed to take care of mothers and their children so that the nation would get new numerous and healthy generations of men for the next wave of revolutionary wars.
Cradle to grave
Jobs for all
Food rations for all in employment and/or food stations at workplaces
Shelter provided by the employer, even if this often meant a corner in a barrack or a room in a shared apartment
Universal education and healthcare
Maternity protection and daycare for kids
Organization of off-school activities for children while single mothers were at work or taking care of their daily chores
The level of all this was rather basic, often primitive. But for many formerly peasant women who experienced the devastation and poverty of several wars, famines, lawlessness and robberies by the Soviet state, this was a marked improvement in living conditions.
Below, a painting “Mommy’s helpers“, by Vladimir Khodyrev, from 1955. WW2 annihilated millions of Soviet men. Adult males are often absent from family scenes in the art of this period.
Here, the older sister is bossing around her little brother, who is tasked with washing the floor. The tired mother is relieved someone can take some burden off her shoulders at home. The post-war years marked the start of three decades of voiceless, passive, alcoholized men who proliferated during the last period of Soviet rule. (This is also reflected in porn tastes of Russian men. The specialty of modern-day Russia-produced porn are scenes where a young, passive male is aggressively courted by a decisive older female.)
During the XVIII century, Russia became transformed into the largest continuous land empire through a massive infusion of Western technologies and German administrative talent. In the painting below, Russia’s coming imperial destiny is represented by the kid in European clothes to the right, the Prussia-style troops in the background and jesters challenging the natives with their Western-style entertainment. Old Slav and Turkic aristocracy to the right, along with Ivan V in the center, are not amused, while Peter the Great in his practical Russian kaftan is boisterous and excited. Peter’s German entourage are skeptically contemplating the scene.
Power as a national idea
The supreme national idea of Russia is power, embodied in the great Russian state (derzháva). Everything in our history is pinned on it. As a Russian subject, your worth is determined by how much you contribute to the wealth, might, and glory of our state, because it is the sole organizing force on the frozen, wind-blown, endless expanses of Eurasian plains. In the picture below, the clothing is Mediterranean, but the story is essentially Russian, archetypal for our civilization, where countless bright talents have been weighed and measured by servants of our Empire—and found wanting, or worse.
Revolutions and wars
“The Black Square”, by Kazimir Malevich. The year is 1913, but the painter already senses how the Great War is going soon to crack open in Russia a fathomless wellspring of human evil, that would reverberate through the rest of the century by unimaginable atrocities across half the world.
“Heroes of the First Five-Year Plan”, by Alexander Deineka. Rugged workers of mixed Soviet ethnicities walk through something reminding of the Pearly Gates. Their steps are weightless, faces overwhelmed, their path floodlit by a heavenly brilliance and blessed by the pagan goddess of victory. Millions of souls were spent in the XX century for the sake of the greatest project of social re-engineering, the Communist revolution.
The victory over Nazi Germany was the pinnacle of Russian history, an epic saga of self-sacrifice and human suffering. Like much else in our history, the fruits of the victory were appropriated by people who neither suffered or sacrificed anything.
Rich people leave Russia. And if they don’t, they send away their money. Rich people voting with their feet for the best country to live in, give an important insight into where the world is heading.
We have a proverb in Russia about “no place like home” that has a uniquely Russian twist to it: “Every wader boasts of her marshes” (vsyák kulík svoyó bolóto khválit). I’m one of these waders. However, in order to get to what people really think you need to weed out opinions dictated by the crowd mentality and the thirst for belonging.
Here in Moscow, the most vocal proponents of Russia as the best country in the world are people on the top—who also typically stash their money in Western offshores, buy property in Florida and around the Mediterranean, and keep their families in London, Paris, California and New York.
Which is why I put more trust in people voting with their feet, and placing their money where their mouth is. I look at the simple stats: where do people who can afford to move wherever they want, choose to live. The picture is rather straightforward: the Anglosphere and their globalized affiliates outperform the rest of the world hands down.
During WW2, Allies were mentioned by propaganda for the general populace in a very measured way. No one should think that our victory depended on anything but our own war effort. Beside, no one knew how to explain why Western Imperialists were helping the Soviet rulers.
During WW2, the Soviet propaganda inside the country almost never mentioned the aid delivered by the Western Allies. The general message was that the US, like the rest of anti-Fascist humankind was on our side. (The word natsísty, “Nazis” had at the time some Western flavor and was rarely used).
Aware of the Allies
Occasional reports told how American workers and “common people of good will” watched with fascination the struggle of the Soviet Union. These American people firmly required of the ruling classes in the West—the attribute “Capitalist” was usually omitted for the occasion—to support the USSR. Faced with such a firmness, the rulers could not help but heed. Posters showing the American support limited imagery to the Stars and Stripes, with no faces, weapons or lend-lease items.
For common Soviets, lend-lease as a program of war help was a non-subject. They knew it was some kind of assistance coming from abroad, but the scale and value of it had never been widely advertised.
My father told me they had perceived the American shoes, spam, tanks and trucks just like an act of nature—like the Sun that breaks through the clouds, for you to dry your soggy uniforms and boots a little bit. You don’t talk about it much, you pull off your things and hang them out in the sunshine.
Canned beans and especially spam were well known among fighting troops, as were American boots. But the food and equipment that was to be distributed among troops, were stripped from American signage right after offloading in Soviet ports as much as possible. Generally, talking about America was not a very safe topic. Someone could be listening. Before the war, a lot of people worked with Americans and Germans who built our industries and infrastructure. Those who appreciated their work and their machines publicly were arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda in the form of “groveling” before Capitalism and denigrating the Soviet equipment and management.
America came up much more often when political commissars talked to soldiers and officers about the absence the Allied troops fighting Germans in the West. The fact of Britain fighting the Nazis from the beginning was ignored. “Where is that frigging Second Front already?” was the recurring complaint that met much understanding among soldiers and civilians. Commissars used to present the Allies as cynical players who waited for us to bleed ourselves dry fighting the Nazis, just to jump in at very end, and grab the spoils of victory.
Toward the end of 1944, posters started to consistently show anonymized figures of Western soldiers, like on the poster below.
From the spring ’45 until the capitulation of Japan, there were even some posters showing smiling faces of the Allies. Newspapers also printed photos with happy faces of Brits and Americans socializing with our troops.
At all times, the narrative consistently stressed the leading role of the USSR as a conqueror of Nazism. The US and Britain were marginal players, involved in auxiliary battles, offering some vague, undefined help. On the poster below from before the Stalingrad battle, only the Soviet soldier is facing Hitler to deal him a devastating blow. The American and the Brit seem to be too scared to look Hitler in the face and rather look to the Soviet man for guidance and leadership.
During the Cold War, the references to the Allied effort became fewer and more distanced. Read more about it here.
When I went to school, the lend-lease was usually mentioned in one sentence, or two as an example of the role of our Western allies in WW2. No statistics that could give an idea of the volume of help were given, apart from the number of shipments and sometimes the total value of help in US dollars. The bravery of British sailors dispatching the help was given more place. The demise of Convoy PQ17, along with the D-Day, became one of the most known episodes among our public.
At the start of the Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev enjoyed almost universal support in the USSR, even the religious part of the population.
Perestroika fan art from the mid-1980s in support of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The text is referencing Christian scriptures. “And then Prince Michael the Great will rise in defenceof the sons of his people. Faith is dead without deeds.”
Early Soviet rule saw a lot of improvised propaganda shows, with flashy, right-in-your-face visuals
A cable car in the Red Square converted into a coffin for Capitalists. This happened on the occasion of the 1st of May festivities in Moscow in 1927. The text says “Russian Capitalism. Now, it’s the turn for the foreign one.” The coffin is decorated by a swastika, a hangman, and an impression of the Grim Reaper preparing his tools for the Capitalist holdovers.
In Soviet Russia, candy had to serve the cause of Communist revolution
The early 1920s. Wrapping of Soviet candy brand “Red Moscow”, produced by the State Candy Plant Red October. An armed worker is guarding a mountain of proletarian sugar. The Communist pentagram is substituted by a red Star of David with abbreviation “R.S.F.S.R” (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) on it.