The Socialist Past Keti Chukhrov

The countries of the former USSR and a number of the Eastern European countries of the socialist coalition (members of the Warsaw Pact, 1955–1989) are considered to have a socialist background. The year 1989 is said to be the year the socialist coalition collapsed, when the Berlin Wall which had separated the western and eastern parts of Germany was dismantled. But the existence of the Soviet Union officially ended only on December 8, 1991, with the Belovezhski Treaty. At that moment, Russia and the countries of the former USSR which had gained sovereignty and independence united in a new and nonideological union, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The first years following the collapse of the socialist regime were dedicated to the liberalization of the civil sphere, joining the market economy, establishing the institutions of freedom of speech, and criticism of totalitarianism and late Soviet bureaucratic authoritarianism. This was followed by iconoclasm regarding socialist and communist symbols: the dismantling of monuments, renaming of squares and streets, etc.

At the same time, in the late Soviet period as well as in the post-Soviet 1990s, the Soviet political system and its unprofitable system of economics was not criticized from the position of Marxism or of socialism, which had been distorted by the corrupted bureaucratic apparatus of the socialist bloc countries. Criticism followed mainly on behalf of liberal democracy, in the context of developed capitalism. This antisocialist position had already been formed in the Soviet bloc countries in the late 1960s, when the last hopes for the emancipation of the socialist regime, for socialism “with a human face” were disappearing from public perception. This is why, from the end of 1960s as well as in the postsocialist 1990s, the prosperity of the Western consumer societies became the model of the welfare state (in contrast to the “poor” socialist economies and underdeveloped sphere of goods). If the Eastern bloc countries were solving their complicated political and economic problems via the pursuit of a process of gradual smooth integration into Europe and—later—the European Union (naturally, with the exception of the former Yugoslav countries), then for the former Soviet republics, including Russia, the process of repudiating the socialist past was very painful.

Market capitalism satisfied the demand for consumption but completely annulled the social package, which included free education, free medicine, and free accommodation. The institutions of culture and art did not have their own resources for qualified development and often relied on subsidies from foreign funds. The main paradox, however, was the ideological lacuna left after communism, which in many socialist countries appeared to remain empty, but in fact soon filled up with nationalist quasi‑ideologies resulting in interethnic and geopolitical conflicts in certain regions.

In general, it should be admitted that in spite of the falseness of the ruling clique of socialist states and the incompatibility of their dogmatic party rhetoric with the real demands of the civil sphere, socialism (and communism)—as they were formulated by Marx—did constitute a universalist theory which produced humanist categories common to all mankind: anti-imperialism, renunciation of the economics of profit, equality, civic consciousness, solidarity, social values and so on.

On the contrary, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and the barbaric capitalism which privatized social resources and public spaces following socialism’s decline in many post-Soviet republics brought to light values opposed to the universalism of the political theory of socialism. Maybe the social democratic project in the developed postindustrial Western countries did contribute to the proliferation of nongovernmental institutions, civil society and critical theory (even though in capitalist conditions); but in many countries that had abruptly rejected socialism, after a short period of media liberalization, social development headed sharply toward the extermination of democratic institutions, ousting critical political forces engaged in legislative practice, and causing the collapse of civic and political discussion. Such processes took place mainly in the CIS countries. In this way, one could say that in many former socialist regions the reactionary stagnation of late socialism (especially in the Russian Federation) was replaced by even more reactionary types of economics, politics, and religion (since religion began to play the role of conservative ideology and to be the emissary of etatism).

If in the period of perestroika the methods of socialist management were criticized because of their dogmatism, totalitarianism and lack of democracy, then later (from the mid-1990s) the rewriting of history from the October Revolution up until the collapse of the USSR tended toward a radical revaluation of the socialist epoch. Socialism and the heritage of the revolution were now criticized from the point of view of the conservative prerevolutionary monarchic tradition. The images of patriotism, prosperity, economic growth, and cultural development were now associated with prerevolutionary cultural paradigms. The even greater turn toward traditionalism was due to the fact that liberalism, while evaluating the Soviet past as a crime, had to ignore the heritage of the revolutionary avant-garde, Soviet cinematography, and literature as procommunist heresy. However, since it is impossible to exclude all objects of culture from history completely, during the first stage of the postsocialist liberal reevaluation of culture, priority was given exclusively to everything that took place before the October Revolution and to the dissident and emigrant antisocialist heritage.

In Russia under Vladimir Putin’s presidency (as well as in a number of other former Soviet republics) the year 2000 saw liberalism’ undergo a recession both in politics and in culture. As a result, the discourses of power turned into a project for sovereignty, empire, and criticism of the collapse not only of the Soviet Union but of the whole socialist bloc. The collapse was evaluated by many political scientists and representatives of Russian culture as a humiliating defeat to which the Soviet Union had had to agree through pressure from the West. In this case, the project of the USSR was not interpreted as a project of socialism (either positive or negative), but as a patriotic project of imperialism under the aegis of Russia. In other words, in the history of the USSR, it is the imperial and powerful background which becomes positive, not the socialist project. Liberal political scientists turned this logic completely upside-down, saying that the Soviet project was antihuman and imperial because it was socialist. Absolutely the same logic is repeated in the historical analysis of the socialist (communist) past of the Baltic countries and the members of the former Eastern bloc.

In case of the Russia of Medvedev and Putin, the abovementioned stance presupposes the following political projections: at present, the imperial project predominates in Russia; at the same time, liberal critics of Russia and foreign political scientists cannot tell the difference between the project of socialism (regarding it as an imperial project) and Putin’s present-day quasi imperialism. As a result—according to the domination of the imperial discourse in Russia—the current ruling power excludes from the patriotic project all those who do not fit into the imperial project—or else they are declared to be opponents of Russia. On the other hand, as soon as socialism is labelled as imperialism, the new Russian power is no longer obliged to juxtapose it with neoliberal capitalism or to cut it out of history; it becomes easier to equate the Soviet project with the postsocialist quasi-imperialist patriotism of Putin. To succeed in this kind of manipulation, one has to subtract the emancipatory political program from the socialist project and determine its objectives solely as an idea of geopolitical expansion and domination. This means that Stalin’s imperial style and the geopolitical boundaries of the USSR are determined as the icon of socialism—while revolution, Marx, Lenin, and the project of social emancipation are forced out of the socialist past.

Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalisation, nevertheless insists that the Soviet Union was not in its genealogy intended to be an empire. The abbreviation USSR stands for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This union was destined to be detached from the larger part of the world during the Cold War. But according to Kagarlitsky,1 such seclusion and detachment was due to the fact that the Western part of the world refused to follow the socialist way, rather than to the Soviet Union’s adherence to imperial holism. It is true that the project of the USSR often manifested an imperial character. But the project of anti-imperialism continued in some zones of life of the socialist space insofar as an anti-imperialist and politically emancipatory claim was inherent in the social project from the very beginning.

In other words, in this context Stalin’s totalitarian project should not be considered as representing the Soviet land, but as a symbol of its inadmissible erosion. As for communism, talk about it is irrelevant, as it never existed except as a utopian and philosophical theory.

Nevertheless, Boris Groys in Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin and The Communist Postscript believes that irrespective of an ideal image of communism and socialism, it is the very experience that took place in the Soviet Union that should be considered communism. That is, the complete history of the Soviet Union, incorporating Bolshevism, Stalin’s totalitarianism and Brezhnev’s stagnation, should be called communism, and can be envisaged as an aesthetic project rather than a viable project from the social, political, and economic point of view. The case in point is an attempt to realize an ideal, a utopia, which in an empirical historical dimension could not but become an ideology. In other words, we cannot imagine socialism which is not ideological. It never existed.

The question which continues to face all the former socialist countries (despite the fact that many of them gladly acknowledge the end of their relation with socialism’s utopia) is as follows. Is it possible to find any remnant of in the socialist past, which is neither dictatorial bureaucratic ideology, a utopian image (Utopia is the main paradigm in the analysis of the “communist” past both in Western Slavic studies and in local Russian research. See, for example, Dreamworld and Catastrophe by Susan Buck-Morss), kitsch from the past? Are there such realities in the socialist past that can be approached in a way that would not be archaeological (as is customary in Slavic studies) nor deconstructive as in liberal criticism or the ironic art of sots-art?

This question is relevant because on the one hand the socialist experience is being examined very thoroughly; on the other, this examination is either factual and statistical—as a denunciation of the odiousness of socialist authoritarianism in culture, science, and the media—or parodied as in Sots-art.

What is really absent from the analysis of the socialist period is an anthropological analysis of the symbiosis of life and the socialist unconscious, which could not but be present in the life of the socialist period in all its polymorphism, independently of the dogmatism of party bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, it is possible to find such anthropological evidence. The Soviet and post-Soviet photo series by Boris Mikhailov (“Suzi et Cetera,” 1967; “Unfinished Dissertation,” 1980s; “At Dusk” 1990s, etc.) can be considered examples of such evidence.

It is not possible to destroy the living dimension in these works, or to force it out because of the symbols or ideological clichés they use, however false or comical they may seem. At the same time, this life in its entirety would not be possible without the elusively present aura of socialism.

What does this aura consist of? Can it be articulated? Is there nothing but nostalgia for this passé aura, or does it contain a certain potentiality for the present?

The “socialism” inherent in Mikhailov’s spaces is not to be found in ideological signs (which are present in almost every portion of space), nor in the poverty of the entourage, nor in the specificity of Soviet textures of low quality (though it lies there too). According to Mikhailov, the manifestation of socialist aura occurs among people. It is in the invisible space between the characters of his photos, in their interaction—in their communication, exchanges, and productions. It is precisely in this correlation that features which are not imposed but peculiar to life itself come to light. There are no zones where private space looks private, and where property is involved as a mediator of relations between people. The space itself—nominally intimate—exists in a situation in which it preserves the informality and nonideologism of an intimate space, but at the same time (however paradoxical this may be) potentially allows all neighbors, friends, and compatriots into this “intimacy.” In other words, this space is common and not individualistic.

Ekaterina Degot,2 for example, regards the experiments of unofficial Soviet art (in particular, Moscow conceptualism) as socialist (even communist) and not antithetical, as many researchers insist, to socialism. Moscow conceptualism and Boris Mikhailov’s works can be viewed as opposing the ruling powers, but not socialism. These two artistic projects concern non‑privatized spaces which are held in common; they do not become public from the point of view of parliament, representation and guided democracy, but keep the potentiality of “society’s initiative” (samodeyatelnost obshestva, Ekaterina Degot), and then manifest the socialist character peculiar to the human community.

However, as we know, socialism and its ethical priorities not only got stuck in bureaucratic profanation, but were condemned as an issue of a forcible takeover: the issue of how to interpret the October Revolution was at stake immediately after the October Revolution of 1917.

Georg Lukács in his paper of 1918 “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem” (from his book of political texts) subjects the socialist movement to ethical judgment. He leaves in doubt the Bolshevist high-speed method of solving the issues of class confrontation. From Lukács’s point of view, the class struggle gained paramount importance with many Bolsheviks, becoming almost self-sufficient, as long as it simply had to be considered a means of attaining a classless society. According to Lukács, the Bolsheviks did not always understand that the victory of the proletariat was not the end but the precondition, and the beginning, of socialist activities. For Lukács, socialism is the “universal ethical will of humankind” and not simply the “empirically found truth by means of the ideological formalization of class interests.” In other words, the horizon should be present in the class struggle, the horizon creating the regime where the class struggle dies out. In this article, Lukács does not yet see the Bolshevism as capable of attaining such a democratic ideal. Nor does he believe that socialist democracy can be achieved by nondemocratic means. That is, he sets the general “will” toward a socialist life above the establishment of Bolshevist power, which intends to repress those who have not yet demonstrated this “will to socialism.” On the other hand, Lukács takes into account the fact that the non-Bolshevist slow way to socialism is concerned with compromise, as a result of which it is necessary to cooperate with those who do not accept socialism.

However, since he believes that the aim of socialism is not reducible to the class struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed or fight of the oppressed for domination, but entails the destruction of oppression itself, then the successful path toward socialism must be much longer. According to this article by Lukács, the reason why the activities of the Bolsheviks mutated to ideology so soon was the fact that instead of developing and expanding the general will to socialism they decided to establish the structure of the victorious proletariat as an unshakable dictatorship immediately. The struggle for power, even if this is the power of proletariat, is a demonstration of pure, direct persuasion. Lukács, on the contrary, reflects on long-lasting work, belief and will for the sake of socialism not as a short-term regime but as a position on how to live as a human being and on social reality. As we know, the Bolsheviks would call this position Menshevist. It seems their arguments were stronger, since a year later Georg Lukács found himself in the Bolshevist party of Hungary. Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht were among those standing for the forceful revolutionary implementation of socialism.

The arguments about the revolutionary or transformational path to socialism continue up to the present day. Such well-known contemporary philosophers as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou insist that only Lenin’s abrupt take-over could have created the conditions for socialism and that the slow reformist movement would have neutralized the opportunities to disseminate socialist models of industry and social life, because capitalism easily processes and neutralizes reform and a critical state of mind. From Badiou’s point of view, the history and status of leftist movements limited to liberal and negotiated practices can be a good reason to doubt the argumentation in Lukács’s article.

To this day, this dilemma has not yet been resolved. The only obvious thing is that whatever the interpretations of the socialist past may be like—either distinctly negative or positive—the human community cannot refuse to reflect on the political paradigm of socialism. Nowadays the demand for a non‑consumerist society, for economics not associated with the interests of corporations and stock markets, for social spheres in which general intellect and creativity are not subjugated to anonymous profits, is very large.


1 / Boris Kagarlitsky, Sovetskiy Mir, Exmo, Moscow 2009 (in Russian); and Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System, Pluto Press, London 2008, p. 481–518.

2 / Ekaterina Degot, Der Tod der Kunst und die Geburt des kreativen Schaffens: Die dialektishce Moderne in der USSR und in Russland, Zurück aus der Zukunft, ed. B. Groys, A. von der Heiden, P. Weibel, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 2005, p. 539–567.


Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, MIT, Cambridge 2000.

Boris Groys, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, Hanser, Vienna 1988.

Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript; Verso, London 2009.

Georg Lukács, “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem,” Sabadgondolat 10 (1918).

Slavoj Žižek, “Can Lenin Tell Us about Freedom Today,” New Left Review 13 (2004),

Boris Mikhailov, Unfinished Dissertation, Scalo, Zurich 1998.

Alain Badiou, D’un désastre obscur: Sur la fin de la vérité d’État, L’Aube, Paris 1998.