Remnants of Russia’s past
People like Ilya, who remember the shortcomings of the USSR and have flourished since its break-up, are discovering a fondness for the vanished land of their childhood. The revelation can come in surprising ways; Ilya had his epiphany at a car show where he saw an old Soviet truck, a GAZ-51, next to a sleek Mercedes 300SL and realised that the lumpy old truck was, to his eyes, more beautiful. ‘I worked at a collective farm in my first vacation from college – this was September 1986,’ he recounts. ‘My classmates and I helped to harvest potatoes, and we were driven to and from the fields in a GAZ-51. It was a really special time in my life and I formed a close bond with those guys. There were girls, and singing and drinking. That truck was a part of my life. The Mercedes I had only seen in the cinema. It was the one I always wanted to have. But in fact it doesn’t mean anything to me.’
Ilya now organises vintage car shows. He’s noticed a new interest in artefacts of the Soviet past like the Volga, the Zhiguli and the Zil – the luxury car choice of apparatchiks. In the years of Perestroika and following the collapse, Russians carried a pronounced sense of inferiority about themselves: a sense that foreign stuff was the best. Progress meant Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Mercedes. However, in Moscow today, there’s a feeling that Russians have re-evaluated the Soviet past and learned to feel a strange fondness for it.
The GUM, opposite the Kremlin, was supposedly the country’s flagship store – the Harrods of the Soviet Union. In fact, its shelves were usually lamentably bare. Now, it’s a thriving shopping mall. Its colonnaded halls house every kind of product, from designer boots to retro bicycles, and the food hall on the ground floor is a vision of plenty: sushi rolled by hand, smoked sturgeon, rare teas and olive oil.
Among the displays, there are tributes to Soviet nostalgia: stacks of tinned Soviet condensed milk, Zhiguli beer and iconic Soviet sweets. Bottles of Baikal and Duchess – the Tizer and Fanta of Soviet childhoods – make a shameless pitch to middle-aged Russians: ‘Experience the taste of your childhood. The pleasure of drinks prepared according to original 1980s recipes from natural ingredients and crystal-clear water will return you to your care-free childhood!’
On GUM’s restaurant floor, they’ve created a Soviet-era canteen – the kind that every workplace ran for its employees. By an odd symmetry, I actually went to the original GUM canteen 21 years ago – almost to the month – and had, if memory serves, gristly, mystery meat cutlets on a pile of buckwheat, with a red fruit drink to wash it down. Today, the propaganda posters on the walls are tongue-in-cheek (‘Ladies, take care of your diet!’; ‘Ask for a sausage everywhere!’; ‘Fruit and veg will help you keep your edge!’) and the buffet is a cornucopia of caviar, borscht, herring, smoked salmon, chocolate cake and espresso.
The endgame that brought about the final unravelling of the Soviet Union began in August 1991 with a botched coup. Hardline communists tried to stop President Gorbachev’s reforms with a show of military strength, but only succeeded in accelerating the final break-up.
‘I had a job interview in the Kremlin that day,’ says Viktor Belyaev. He is in his 50s, with strikingly mismatched eyes: one blue, one brown. ‘At 7.30 in the morning, someone rang me and said there were tanks in the streets. I told them to stop kidding and hung up. About half an hour later, I was woken up by my windows shaking. I looked out and saw tanks on Leninsky Prospekt, tearing up the asphalt with their tracks.’