Cold war nostalgia

A while ago in a thrift store in Vancouver (sad how vividly I remember the provenance of these things) I bought a beat-up paperback copy of Journey into Russia by Laurens Van der Post. It’s an account of his tour of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, and it’s well worth the penny it’s selling for if you are at all touched with Russophilia or have any interest in what image the Soviet Union tried to project of itself. The book is suffused with a sense of the Soviet regime’s permanence, which inspires now a sort of awe at how history overtakes us. I haven’t read the book straight through; I pick it up now and then and read paragraphs at random — a conversation at an airport, a description of mosque minarets at Tashkent, train travel across Siberia, his admiration for scientists at Lake Baikal, drinking out of politeness with Georgians in Tbilisi, an account of a May Day parade. Van der Post records all his encounters with ordinary citizens, trying to feel out how deep state propaganda has sunk into their consciousness, and you come away with the impression that every Russian is an able and complex critical thinker, having been forced by the absurdity of totalitarianism to develop multiple levels of ironic expression as well as a thorough understanding of a wide range of perverse incentives. The socialist state seems to have made people’s thinking more dialectical, though by a method no one preferred: the state was so awful and intrusive that Soviet citizens were required to be in a perpetual condition of private opposition and interior doubleness — the lived a continual critique of everyday life by necessity. We bourgeois in America have the luxury of far less cognitive dissonance and hence an underdeveloped critical apparatus.

Growing up in the 1980s I always thought it was bizarre to consider the Soviets as enemies; it seemed like we should feel sorry for them since so much of our indoctrination involved demonstrating to us how good we had it in America, how much freedom we could take for granted. As a 14-year-old I didn’t find their state tools of oppression very intimidating, as was exemplified by a skit about the KGB I wrote and performed with my friend John as a World Cultures class project — we made KGB spies out to be bumbling Keystone cops with an Abbott and Costelloesque interrogation style. And I wasn’t upset by Marxist ideology, which actually seemed pretty appealing as I understood it then — a welcome respite from any need to be ambitious. Ignorance was bliss for me, I guess. The Chevy Chase film Spies Like Us pretty well captures the attitude I had toward the cold war — basically that it was not a tenuous balance of world power in the face of the threat of nuclear apocalypse but a sloppily constructed comedy. To have to wonder whether the Russians loved their children too seemed really ridiculous.

But that many Americans took the threat very seriously indeed is made painfully obvious by reading the essays in Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics — Hofstatder has an unusually strong stomach for right-wing demagoguery, and he illustrates the role the communist threat played in allowing for the development of what he calls “pseudo-conservatism”, a ultrareactionary pose that regards the chosen enemy as all-powerful and insidious, capable of infiltration and threatening the homeland from within and thus calling for the systematic rooting out of all sorts of internal enemies and the rigorous enforcement of conformity. (Essentially it is the mirror image of Stalinism.) Of course, Islamic terrorism has replaced communism as the all-powerful threat, and this is an even more dangerous form of pseudo-conservatism: no longer must we fight to preserve American values so much as the Christian supremacy that right-wing ideologues believe to be synonymous with America. (This makes it easy to imagine Jews and atheists eventually being classified as internal enemies, along with every variety of brown-skinned people.) Hofstadter attributes this intolerant tendency in a small segment of Americans to a perverted form of status seeking in a society where social aspirations outstrip the actual rags-to-riches possibilities. He also provides the appropriate Tocqueville quote: “Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy.” Perhaps it’s a universal human tendency to conflate the people we specifically envy with a widely accepted set of enemies, always a way to interpret our jealousy as their elitism or immorality. Reactionary politics become another one of the hidden injuries of class in America — is that too patronizing to say? Communists, terrorists: they become inexact proxies for a shadowy power elite who are making value systems intolerably pluralistic.

Passing through the offices of the magazine I work for was a DVD set called Animated Soviet Propaganda. It’s a conflicted package; despite campy design drawing on 1930s Russian poster style, it wants to dignify its subject and escape accusations of kitsch, so it features an essay by Igor Kokorev, a Russian sociologist, on how the films played into the Soviet oppression. Kokarev likens Soviet society to a religious cult (as does Van der Post on a few occasions) and enumerates how the people were kept down: “We were kept apart”; “We were forced to conform”; “We were ruled by fear”; “We were hemmed in by secrecy and censorship” etc. It sounded a little like a rundown of conditions in suburbanized War on Terror America. Kokarev describes how “language was stilted” in the Soviet Union, perverted by Leninist ideological discourse. Americans are no less immune to stilted language, though, it’s only ours takes the form of capitalist dogma: the marketing rhetoric and trendy neologisms that n+1 was complaining about taking over the blogosphere. We don’t always recognize that as propaganda or take it very seriously or attribute much efficacy to it; it seems more like nuisance, probably how state propaganda struck Soviets, even as they began to talk like Ninotchka.

But this passage from Kokarev’s essay struck me:

Personal modesty was a prized virtue in Soviet society as was a lack of pretentiousness in one’s home and a certain disdain for comfort and fanciness. The natural human desire for better conditions, more consumer goods, and a higher standard of living was delayed, put off until the future. Monotonous gray clothing … was the normal conditions of life for everyone. Young people who tried to dress stylishly were derisively nicknamed “stilyagi” and were publicly insulted in the street.

This is the vision of the USSR I tend to romanticize — a world without fashion. But I should count my blessings: fashionability probably meant much more in a society that regarded it as a threat to stability rather than wasteful diversion. My suspicion of fashion would have no meaning in a Soviet culture; here I can construe it into a political position (one that requires nothing more from me but to dress badly). Maybe I need to adopt the attitude of Gavin McInnes, editor of Vice magazine: “I hate looking at metrosexuals wearing flip-flops with a suit but I usually get over it when they walk out of view. It’s only annoying for a very short time. The truth is fashion is boring and only stupid people genuinely care about it.” Sometimes I worry that my preoccupation with criticizing “style” consumerism makes me into one of those stupid people.