war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Back To The Future: Echoes Of Soviet Past In Modern Russia

Pete Baumgartner
To mark Back to the Future day on October 21, RFE/RL takes a look at seven aspects of the Soviet era that have reappeared since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin has reappeared in many places -- and not only in the pro-Russian, rebel-held Donbas region in Ukraine -- while many of the dictator’s murderous deeds are also being sanitized in Russian media.

To mark Back to the Future day on October 21, the precise date in the second installment of Hollywood’s comic science-fiction trilogy when the main characters travel in time to 2015, RFE/RL takes a look at seven aspects of the Soviet era that have reappeared since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

The Red Star, Soviet National Anthem, Soviet Honors

Josef Stalin established the Hero of Socialist Labor award in 1927 to honor the achievements of Soviet citizens. The award was discontinued in 1991, but Putin brought back the Hero of Labor awards and accompanying lapel pins in March 2013. He honored a theater director, a veteran farm-machinery operator, a neurosurgeon, a coal miner, and a woodworker with Hero of Labor awards at a May 1 ceremony that year. That was after Putin had already revived the Soviet national anthem -- albeit with new lyrics -- in 2000 and the bombastic Soviet military parades. In 2002, Putin also brought back the renowned Soviet-era red star as the emblem of the Russian military. Russia’s defense minister at the time, Sergei Ivanov, said that the red star was "sacred for all servicemen."

Foreign Military Intervention

Russia’s dash into Georgian territory in 2008 was the first time the Kremlin had sent forces into combat in a foreign country since mild incursions into separatist regions in Georgia and Moldova and fighting in the Tajik civil war shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The "little green men" in Ukraine in 2014 and the widely reported Russian military involvement in Ukraine’s Donbas region (Russia denies such reports) are the latest examples of foreign military intervention by Moscow, a phenomenon that took place on various continents throughout the Soviet era and ended with the decade-long war in Afghanistan in 1989.

The ongoing military intervention in Syria, which includes heavy weaponry, advanced fighter jets, helicopters, naval squadrons, and naval infantry, is Russia’s largest outside the former Soviet Union since Afghanistan.

International Isolation, Close Ties To Cuba

Due mainly to the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Russia and its people are far closer to the level of Soviet-era isolation from the Western world than at any time since the Soviet Union’s demise. Russia has been sidelined from the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries and been slapped with sanctions by more than 30 European countries, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Canada. Moscow reciprocated with sanctions of its own, and the subsequent squeeze on the Russian economy has contributed to the ruble’s plummet and left dozens of Russian officials and entrepreneurs unable to travel to Western countries.

Even within the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) -- a club of former Soviet republics -- relations are bad and getting worse. Georgia left the organization in 2009, and at a CIS summit in Kazakhstan last week, Ukraine didn’t show up while Turkmenistan and Moldova sent stand-in officials. Moscow’s best friends currently include a range of authoritarian regimes and outright dictatorships: North Korea, China, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.

Echoing Soviet times, Russia has stepped up ties with Cuba. After a complete downfall of relations during perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has worked hard in recent years to upgrade relations to a level not seen since pre-Gorbachev times. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met with Cuban officials several times in recent years, and the latest move by Moscow is a $1.32 billion loan to Havana on October 17 to refurbish the communist island’s power plants.

Closed Cities

After the 1991 Soviet collapse, dozens of formerly closed cities -- usually places where sensitive military installations were based -- were opened or their strict regimes relaxed. But from the industrial Arctic city of Norilsk, which rejoined the ranks of Russia’s closed cities in 2001 when all non-Russians (except for Belarusians) were banned from entering,  to Siberia’s Novy Urengoi, which was closed to both foreigners (including Belarusians) and "unsanctioned" Russians in 2012,  several Russian cities that were "opened" in the 1990s are now closed.

Cheese And Food Smuggling

Perhaps no aspect of the Western sanctions against Russia stirred more grassroots outrage than the food ban on such cheese specialties as French Camembert and Roquefort, Dutch Gouda, or Italian mozzarella. Thissatirical image on Twitter reflects many Russians’ frustrations with their homemade cheeses (Warning label says: Russian cheese produces the desire to eat Parmesan). As does this one,  this one,  and this one: 

"We’ve got accustomed to rely on imports and have made no good cheeses of our own for 100 years or so. So it would be naive to think that good cheese will suddenly emerge out of nowhere. It never happens, " Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s former defense minister and Putin’s current chief of staff, said on October 19.

Of course, food shortages and lines formed by people patiently waiting for meat, vodka, or other goods were commonplace during Soviet times,  and these notorious queues have long since disappeared in contemporary Russia. But the food ban by nearly 40 countries over Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis has left Russians missing many of their favorite foods and even led to people smuggling items into the country, a practice reminiscent of a bygone era when Western foods and goods were largely inaccessible and prized.

The Gulag’s Alright! So Are Lenin, Stalin, And Dzerzhinsky

During Boris Yeltin’s presidency, there was serious talk at various times about having the ghoulish, wax-like figure of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin from his Red Square Mausoleum removed and mercifully buried. That notion, however, seems to have been forgotten in recent years. Lenin statues are being protected and even reerected -- perhaps in response to the disappearance of the Soviet founder’s busts across non-separatist-held Ukraine.

Far more noticeable, however, has been the homage paid to Stalin -- and not only in the pro-Russian, rebel-held Donbas region in Ukraine. Stalin has reappeared in many places, including last month in the Mari-El Republic,  while many of the dictator’s murderous deeds are also being sanitized in Russian media.

No whitewashing of the communist era would be complete without trying to rehabilitate Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police force known as the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB. Not only might his infamous statue return to the front of Moscow’s Lubyanka building -- the former headquarters of the KGB in Moscow -- but a statue reappeared in the central Tyumen region in 2012. 

The vast network of brutal labor camps known as the gulag is not being left out either, as the complete overhaul of this gulag museum in the Ural mountain city of Perm shows.  To be sure, the gulag system was largely shuttered in the early 1960s, though some individual labor camps existed into the 1980s.

Hatred Of The United States -- The Feeling Is Becoming Mutual

Whipped up by fierce anti-U.S. stories and a "blame-Washington-for-all-of-the-world’s-ills" message on Russian media, dislike of Americans has reached levels unseen since Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table at the United Nations. Racist representations of and jokes about U.S. President Barack Obama are commonplace on the Russian-language Internet, and polls in recent years have repeatedly shown an escalating antipathy for the United States. This mural at a bar in the Tyumen region called Oblacko encapsulates the hostility felt by many Russians toward both the U.S. president and the United States.

Meanwhile, a U.S. poll released on October 20 by The Wall Street Journal/NBC showed that 74 percent of Americans polled believe that Russia is either an "immediate" or a "long-term" military threat. Those numbers have skyrocketed compared to surveys taken just two years ago and point to a U.S.-Russian distrust and political rivalry not seen since Soviet times.

One satirical Twitter personality, known as Darth Putin, pointed out on October 21: "Imagine building a time machine in 1985 [and traveling to 2015] only to find an oil-dependent country run by the KGB who blame everything on the U.S." 

And if Marty McFly, the protagonist of the Back To The Future films, did come from the year 1985 and arrived in Russia today, he might react something like this: 

With contributions by Robert Coalson, Jeremy Bransten, Anna Shamanska, Kathleen Moore, and Coilin O’Connor

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