Vladimir Putin’s Russia is awash in Soviet kitsch. In St. Petersburg’s popular “Idiot” café a bust of Lenin sports a racy polka-dot tie. Trendy eateries with catchy names such as “Propaganda,” “CCCP,” “Soviet Kitsch,” and (no kidding) “Lenin’s Mating Call” are doing a lively business. Flea market hawkers sell soviet military paraphernalia, watches, and caps adorned with Lenin pins; bookstores feature constructivist propaganda and Stalinera slogans warning against excessive alcohol consumption; T-shirt vendors offer up Lenin in a field of marijuana, Stalin as the “great helmsman,” and “McLenin” under golden arches. “Wartime” Soviet and Nazi Leicas do not mimic rare originals, but are entirely new creations, drawn from the fantasy of highly skilled Russian instrument makers. These wares should not be misread as evidence of nostalgia for the bad old days.
Mass produced for foreign visitors, today’s designer dictatorship is just for fun. But it is also a cultural compromise between the lack of any serious effort to confront the dear departed Soviet regime and the current glorification and idealization of the Soviet imperium that contrasts sharply with what Putin contemptuously called Russia’s post-communist “backwater.” As the proverbial “woman on the street” remarked, Lenin is still the grandfather of the country and Stalin the “father.” Soviet kitsch is benign, but it is much more than just a tourist draw. It creates a symbolic bridge to the old regime without drawing unnecessary attention to more disturbing elements of continuity.
Stalinist culture was, of course, already kitsch, and the architecture and iconography of the 1950s is still very much in evidence in Moscow. Perhaps one reason that there appears to be somewhat less interest in the new consumer kitsch in the capital than in St. Petersburg is that in Moscow the real thing is much more visible, and St. Petersburg was always the center of the artistic underground. To be sure, in the city that once bore his name (it was renamed St. Petersburg in 1991), a larger-than-life Lenin still exhorts passersby in front of the Finland Station, and the monumental likeness stands before the former Party building on Moscow Avenue and points emphatically (“to the liquor store across the street,” goes the local joke). By contrast, Moscow’s skyline is dominated by seven shining examples of Stalinist architectural gigantism, and practically every metro station is consecrated to the symbolic figures of the old ideology, whether construction, electrical, health workers, or, in Red Square’s Revolutionary Station, a remarkable statuary of revolutionary types—workers, soldiers, students, athletes, and red guards.
Kitsch, as Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is intimately linked to...
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