30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is it time to finally stop using the term ‘post-Soviet’?

After The Fall

On paper, the term post-Soviet manifests in the image of a lone concrete bus stop on a windblown steppe or the harsh lines of a decaying brutalist tower block. The phrase itself has been around since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, but culturally, it pinpoints a specific moment in the 2010s: when the likes of Russian fashion designer Gosha Rubchinskiy burst onto the catwalk with streetwear collections dripping in Soviet references. Rubchinskiy’s very first fashion collection, 2008’s Empire of Evil, riffed on US President Ronald Reagan’s infamous Cold War-era speech, which condemned the Soviet Union’s “totalitarian darkness”. The designer was just one of many creatives and brands attempting to capture Eastern Europe as “poor but sexy”: fetishising the Soviet dream — rather than its reality — while capturing its own unique street culture.

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Yet although it is a touchstone in the West, the term “post-Soviet” is rarely used in the 15 independent countries that once made up the former USSR. Despite a seven decade-long attempt to create a single “Soviet people”, almost all of the countries that gained their independence in 1990 and 1991 re-embraced their formerly suppressed national identities. Today, they are simply very different countries: from digital-first EU-member state Estonia, to isolated, one-party dictatorship Turkmenistan. New borders put a halt to the cultural exchanges and communication that linked these states during the Soviet era. Although some countries remain closer than others, it is globalisation and the internet that now forge artistic and creative connections in eastern Europe and Central Asia. Today, Moldovans are likely to know more about American culture than about developments in the neighbouring Ukraine — not to mention “far away” places like Kazakhstan.

Thirty years on from the fall of the USSR, it’s contentious whether we should be using the term “post-Soviet” to refer to these countries at all. The phrase might have been appropriate to understand these young states in 1995, when they were navigating the route from the socialist Soviet empire to independent, capitalist nations. But the wild 90s are long over — and all of these countries have transformed into new and very different entities. Does it still provide any key insights, or is it time to drop the term?

Cosmos Hotel in Chișinău, Moldova. Image: Sasha Pleshco via Unsplash

For many, perhaps the greatest issue with the term “post-Soviet” is its little-acknowledged imperialist undertones. Despite asserting itself as an internationalist project with equal republics, the Soviet Union continued the imperialist aggression of Tsarist Russia, from its invasion of the socialist democratic Georgia in 1921, to the occupation of the Baltic countries and my own native Moldova (then known as Bessarabia) during the Second World War. These annexations were swiftly followed by forced Russification, state-organised famines, countless deportations, and ethnic engineering, paired with a centralised industrialisation plan. In my own family, my grandfather, living in a northern Moldovan village, lost both his father and three of his siblings to famine in 1946-1947: newly-installed communist party representatives came into their house and cleared crops stored for the winter in order to send them elsewhere. Our story is not unique — there are countless such family stories across Moldova and Ukraine. Amid this pain, slowly yet insidiously, individual national cultures were also steamrollered. Local intelligentsia were executed, while artists were expected to conform to Moscow’s vision.

While Western empires are starting to be held accountable for their colonial past, Russia has barely acknowledged its imperialism as a source of oppression for other people. On the contrary, the Kremlin celebrates the Soviet past as proof of Russia’s role as a great power, whether by promoting a one-sided view of the Second World War as the “Great War for the Defense of the Fatherland”, or reviving the cult of Stalin. The term “post-Soviet” perpetually links countries that were once part of the USSR back to their former oppressor, stopping them from reclaiming their own identities.

“What we call the ‘post-Soviet legacy’ often takes roots in Russian domination before the Soviet time,” Ukrainian journalist, Maksim Eristavi, tells me. Born in Zaporizhzhya, an industrial town in eastern Ukraine, bordering Donbas, the 35-year-old says that researching western empires across the world helped him understand “post-Soviet” conflicts, such as the ongoing fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in Donbas as a “colonial” war. “Russian colonialism has had different stages, but they still share one DNA.”

“I am technically part of the first “post-Soviet” generation. But I would never use that term to self-identify”

Born during the 1992 Russo-Moldovan war in Transnistria — whose bombs my mother could hear from the maternity ward in Chișinău — I am technically part of the first “post-Soviet” generation. But I would never use that term to self-identify, despite my curiosity over Soviet history. I feel Moldovan and Romanian, the latter representing the pre-Soviet heritage of Moldovans, which was suppressed during the USSR. While I feel connected to Eastern European culture more generally, Romanian is my native tongue; it is Romanian culture, as it is expressed in Moldova, which primarily formed me. Western and Russian cultural influences are also widely felt, to different degrees, through music, media, and religion. But, like Eristavi says, it is Russian rather than Soviet influence that had dominated Moldova through the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, since the 1990s.

My Transnistria: growing up in a breakaway state
Read more My Transnistria: growing up in a breakaway state

Ensuring that a country has a strong “post-Soviet” identity has also been a way for Russia to maintain power over its former colonies. One such example is the breakaway republic of Transnistria, which became part of the USSR in 1924 — 20 years before the rest of Moldova. Today, the region clings to a vision of itself which is very much focused on its Soviet past. Monuments dating back to the former regime are omnipresent. Soviet-era language policies also have a very real contemporary impact. During the Soviet era, officials banned Romanian books in Moldova, changed the country’s alphabet from Latin to Cyrillic, and promoted the idea that Moldovans spoke a separate, “Moldovan” language rather than Romanian. Today, despite the fact that Transnistria’s population is a third Ukrainian, a third Russian, and a third Romanian, the lingua franca there is Russian, and Romanian-language schools are constantly harassed by the breakaway government in Tiraspol. Censorship and authoritarianism are still strong, perpetuating close ties with Moscow and animosity towards Chișinău. Russian troops remain in Transnistria to this day, despite the fact that the Kremlin signed international treaties to withdraw them.

Yet for some generations formed during the Soviet era, the term “post-Soviet” still bears relevance and personal meaning: as an important cultural influence, career set up, and as a turning point in their lives. Uzbek novelist and poet Hamid Ismailov was born in 1954 in Tokmok, in Soviet Kyrgyzstan. He believes that all people who lived in the USSR as adults are, by definition, post-Soviet. “Until people like myself, who lived in the Soviet Union, are still alive, we are ‘post-Soviet’, because part of us is Soviet,” he says. “We might hate it but we lived through it and our life will be dictated by our Soviet heritage anyway. When we die, the term will completely disappear.” This lived experience means that Soviet culture and the Soviet system inevitably informs their creative work, whether that is in the shared humour and references from Soviet-era comedies, or the traumas of totalitarianism and censorship.

Indeed, one of the major themes linking and uniting artists from across the former Soviet space is dealing with the baggage that imperialism and oppression left behind. In its bid to create “homo Sovieticus” — a new “Soviet people” — communist officials would often repress “bourgeois” or “national” cultures. Today, scores of artists are working to reclaim this long repressed heritage, whether in fabrics, fashion and photography, like Belarusian Masha Maroz, or in painstakingly-engineered collages, like Kazakhstani artist Saule Suleimenova. In many ways, it is this work that has become a real “post-Soviet” — or rather, “post-colonial” — cultural project, rather than any streetwear show.

Hamid Ismailov. Image: Tim Jockl under a CC License

Even Ismailov, however, warns that the term “post-Soviet” can be misleading. Within his generation, people will often have a Soviet identity in addition to their Uzbek, Estonian, or Ukrainian one rather than a pan-regional “post-Soviet” heritage. “Compare the Baltic states, for example, to Central Asian countries: there are gradations in how Soviet these places remain today,” he says. “The further we go into the future, the more different these countries will become.”

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Of the 15 countries that once made up the USSR, perhaps Russia is the only country still fully embracing its Soviet heritage. To a large extent, identifying as the inheritor of the Soviet Union is serving the Kremlin’s narrative of Russia as a great power. The cultural legacy of the Soviet Union can be felt in the censorship of films and book covers that challenge Soviet-era narratives, the rise of the cult of Stalin, or the show trials of cultural figures. Yet, ironically, the term “post-Soviet” itself does not get embraced by the Kremlin’s cultural — or political — circles. Instead, it gets used by young Russian urbanites who are at odds with the authoritarian climate of their country and use the term “post-Soviet” as a “cooler” way to mean contemporary Russian, explains Russian artist Anna Engelhardt.

Soviet imperialism is also shaping modern Russian culture in other, less obvious ways, and very differently to their unequal partners across Central Asia and eastern Europe. Just like in the West, where families from formerly colonised states came to London or Paris to seek better opportunities, millions of people from former Soviet republics migrated to Russia after the fall of the USSR. “It’s like a divorce in a patriarchal family,” Ismailov says. “Initially you think the divorce is between the husband and wife but there are kids, a house, this and that — it’s much more complicated. If you have used and abused colonies, then these colonies will require payback [of some kind].”

This migration is now leaving a mark on Russia’s cultural scene. Tajik-born singer-songwriter Manizha represented Russia at the 2021 Eurovision performance. Her track, Russian Woman, promoted an inclusive, multi-racial, feminist take on Russian womanhood — and yet she was targeted for xenophobic attacks. Uzbek-Korean designer J.Kim produces blistering collections from her base in Moscow. Zine Agasshin is at the cutting-edge of Russian beauty, and caters exclusively for people of colour. Russia’s non-Slavic minorities, also long maligned by the Soviet authorities are making their presence felt anew. In literature, too, Moscow-born Alisa Ganieva and Kazan-born Guzel Yakhina, reflect on their Dagestani and Tatar heritage to great success on the Russian literary scene.

The question remains as to how much of this trend should be defined as a post-colonial legacy, a post-Soviet legacy, or both. The conversation is complicated by the fact that discussing post-colonialism remains taboo in Russia. “Figures like Manizha and Tatarka tackle issues of cultural representation, which is important,” says Engelhardt, “but they don’t engage with the role of the state in perpetuating this colonialism. As soon as you discuss racism, colonialism, and orientalism while living in Russia and not abroad, it becomes dangerous.” Engelhardt focuses on Russian colonial practices in her art, but works under an alias for safety reasons. She learnt at school that Russian imperialism had stopped in the 19th century, and that the Soviet Union liberated indigenous peoples — leaving her and her friends in shock when conflicts such as those in Chechnya and Donbas broke out.

All hail Manizha, the Tajik-Russian musician rewriting the rules on what it means to belong
Read more All hail Manizha, the Tajik-Russian musician rewriting the rules on what it means to belong

Her work has led her to avoid the term “post-Soviet” and to urge others instead to be more specific in their language when talking about the problems and identities of individual countries. But she would also like to see a change in how we see and use the word “Soviet” itself. Ideally, she says, the world would not see the Soviet Union first and foremost as an ideological project that “fell apart” due to economic woe, but also as a colonial empire that many peoples fought to topple — indeed, in my native Moldova, the process that led to the country’s secession from the USSR is called “the national liberation movement”.

Of course, any push for specificity will throw into harsh light one of the reasons why the term “post-Soviet” has become so ubiquitous in the cultural sphere: global inertia and ignorance. Eastern Europe and Central Asia is still a part of the world that many reporters, critics, and curators know little about, pushing many to cling to the wide, comforting strokes of all-encompassing terminology. Correcting this lack of knowledge is the main mission behind The Calvert Journal, although we know that the term we use to refer to the region as a whole — the New East — is not without its problems.

Ultimately, while the term “post-Soviet” lingers, we need to acknowledge that many of the people celebrating 30 years of independence from the USSR are also marking an anti-imperialist struggle.

While acknowledging the Soviet past, “post-Soviet” conceals the ongoing struggles of former republics, and their pre-Soviet heritage and history. More importantly, the phrase is a burden which holds nations back while trying to shape their own different presents and future. Thirty years following independence, it’s time to drop the use of this term to a minimum — and see each of these 15 independent countries on their own terms.

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