Nearly 40 years after leaving her homeland, Anya von Bremzen finds Russia gripped by an unexpected—and unsettling—nostalgia for its Soviet history.

By Anya Bremzen
September 03, 2013
Credit: Mark Nerys

Revisiting the past is always a fraught business. But what if the very country of your past no longer exists? It’s a question I’ve been contemplating on recent visits to Moscow—my birthplace, and once the capital of a vanished Atlantis known as the U.S.S.R. While working on a food and family memoir called Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, I tried to piece together my Brezhnevian childhood and my mother’s youth under Stalin. I fished for resonant Soviet relics amid the gleaming piers of New Russia’s malls and boutiques; circled around our former Kafkaesque communal apartment by Red Square, now prime real estate across from a Maserati showroom. My research was going well—until an uneasiness began to creep in about those Soviet madeleines, the artifacts from my “glorious Socialist childhood” that I was retrieving and savoring wistfully—but always ironically.

“Nostalgia,” the newspaper columnist Herb Caen once remarked, “is memory with the pain removed.” But the Soviet century had been so defined by epic trauma and suffering that by airbrushing the shadows, didn’t one delete the actual memory? This question nagged at me every time I passed through the grand Stalinist entrance to Gorky Park or chewed on a brightly wrapped candy from the Red October Chocolate Factory (one of many Soviet brands basking in newfound popularity). I enjoyed the park and the chocolate but felt pangs of shame. In contrast, Muscovites seemed to enjoy without shame. And there was much to enjoy: a wave of U.S.S.R.-themed nostalgia—de-ideologized, denatured—has been sweeping through Russia.

On my most recent visit, my mother and I gaped at the tiny shop on the behemoth Tverskaya Street devoted exclusively to avoska, the expandable mesh bag all Soviet citizens once kept in their pockets, in stubborn hope that Baltic canned fish or Cuban bananas might materialize at some drab corner store. Now magazine blurbs on the shop’s wall proclaimed this shortage-era icon the season’s “it” eco-friendly accessory. Fashionistas grabbed one in each color. Over on Novy Arbat Avenue, the hoary Dom Knigi bookstore was doing a brisk business in expensive Soviet-style greeting cards. On TV, miniseries after miniseries featured that “hot” Soviet through-line in shows where communal apartments were saturated in moody color, KGB guys sported hip thick-rimmed glasses, and retro belles emerged from gulags and wars somehow looking younger and fresher than ever.

Russians seemed to be devouring it all with consumerist glee. According to polls, more than half of my former countrymen regret the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. The Moscow Times even felt obliged a couple years ago to (unironically) remind readers: Frankly, the good old days weren’t all that good. Communist nostalgia is, of course, nothing new. The former GDR experienced Ostalgie; Lithuanians, Hungarians, and Poles all had their renditions. Russia’s initial wave of nostalgia in the mid 1990’s constituted an often ironic defense mechanism against the massive historical rupture, still raw, from the empire’s collapse in 1991.

And now?

Mom and I went to ponder the “now” on a grand scale at the All-Russia Exhibition Center, in northeastern Moscow. Opened in 1939, this 600-acre totalitarian Disneyland showcased the agricultural wonders of the Soviet empire’s many republics—never mind that at the start of that terror-filled decade millions of peasants had perished from collectivization and famine. Until recently the propaganda-kitsch park stood melancholy and semi-abandoned, its flamboyant Stalinist pavilions—the “hallucination of a drunken pastry chef,” according to Federico Fellini—hawking Chinese-made souvenirs. Today, the Moscow sun glinted spectacularly off the freshly regilded People’s Friendship fountain with its 16 larger-than-life golden maidens symbolizing those erstwhile Soviet republics. Just outside the entrance, Vera Mukhina’s colossal 1937 sculpture The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman towered, triumphant once more (thanks to a multimillion-ruble face-lift) atop a sleek new museum dedicated to its creation.

Outside, kids in souvenir C.C.C.P. caps squealed with pleasure at the vintage Soviet-design gazirovka (soda) machines. They squealed again at the jaw-droppingly cheesy replica of Lenin’s corpse (“breathing” in its coffin) at the newly opened Museum of the U.S.S.R. “Kruto (cool)!” a pudgy kid kept gulping, while his babushka shook her head, and kept shaking it at the Soviet kitchen artifacts (a crummy 1970’s buckwheat jar!), at the Stalin impersonators posing for iPhone snaps, at the vintage Soviet phone booth—yes, the kind that always had the receiver wrenched out by drunks. My own mother nearly spat at the scarlet Soviet passports on sale at the souvenir shop. It was these very passports that we’d been forced to relinquish, for an extortionate sum, when we emigrated in 1974, thereby becoming stateless refugees without the right of return.

On our metro ride back to the center, the “new” wasn’t as jarring—perhaps because the old remains such a trove of unreconstructed historic lore. The metro was still recent when my then-five-year-old mother moved with her family to Moscow in 1939. The Soviet capital of Mom’s childhood was a gigantic Stalinist project-in-progress. Parades and loudspeakers thundered nonstop. Pharaonic construction works boomed, avenues became 10-lane behemoths, historic churches were turned to rubble, and from vast pits rose even vaster public magnificences. The Moscow Metro, initiated in 1932, was conceived to show the world that “socialism was no barracks.” Crowds flocked to gawk at each newly built station as if these were the cathedrals. Meanwhile, it is said that lavish marble from the actual cathedral of Christ the Savior, blown up in 1931, went into decorating the Kropotkinskaya Station. Riding the metro now, I imagined my five-year-old mom descending into the electric daylight 130 feet belowground. What did a small, sensitive child make of all the massively ornate chandeliers, all the acres of steel and colored granite, of more marble than had been used by the czars? Did they produce the stunned awe of a medieval child at Chartres?

I, too, retain some of my childhood awe. At the elegantly Art Deco Mayakovskaya station (opened in 1938, and now freshly restored) I crane my neck every time at the soaring subterranean niches decorated by the great modernist artist Alexander Deineka with flame-belching furnaces, cherry blossoms, and Red Army planes pirouetting against azure skies. At the 1953 Kievskaya station, I ogle the stupendous overload of mosaics depicting pseudo-folkloric scenes of Russian-Ukrainian friendship. Arriving at our stop now, the late-thirties Revolution Square station, I take in again the parade of life-size socialist realist statues of workers, soldiers, and scientists half-crouching under the arches. As a kid I adored this station: the athletic, sculpted women were my role models and friends, I gave them all names, and I developed profound crushes on certain bronze partisans.

Emerging by Red Square, Mom and I head to GUM—and find the lofty, late-19th-century arcades of this glitzy department store now positively coruscating with totalitarian nostalgia. A retro-named supermarket, Gastronome 1, opened here a few years ago, unleashing a tide of Homo Sovieticus madeleines inside acres of neo-Socialist marble and faux-Stalinist crystal. They were all back: the plombir vanilla ice cream advertised as “the taste of our childhood,” the conical juice fountains with old-fashioned spigots, the vintage yellow tea packets with pictures of elephants. Comrades with serious post-Soviet rubles could also acquire Ibérico hams and $400 imported tea gift sets (minus the elephants). Ambling out past mannequins in Kenzo swimwear Mom and I encountered another mirage: cheekily curated GUM display windows with “made in the U.S.S.R.” dioramas starring Lenin’s collected works, Molotov Factory gramophones, and proletarian porcelain. The pièce de résistance? An array of thick cotton Soviet underwear—pink and poisonous purple, down to the knees.

For lunch I found us a table on GUM’s third floor at Stolovaya No. 57. At this replica of a Soviet public canteen—but with food so delicious it could only belong on an exclusive Politburo table—I wanted to treat mom to the taut-skinned sosiski (franks) with stewed sauerkraut and kotleti (Soviet burgers) with buckwheat kasha of our childhood lunches. I love everything about Stolovaya No. 57: its non-oligarchical prices, its retro beveled glasses of buttermilk, its uniformed sales ladies informing customers that the recipes are prepared according to GOST (Soviet federal standard). At times I don’t even mind the glaringly inauthentic espresso machine or the fact that this evocation of proletarian dining has been dreamed up by Bosco di Cilegi, an importer of globalized luxury goods.

Digging my spoon into the cleanly rendered potato and beet salad at our table overlooking GUM’s foreign brands wonderland, I fell to more musing. Twenty years after the passing of Communism, what had replaced its utopian, totalitarian promise of a Radiant Future?

A complex existential question, I thought, answered with a single non-Slavic word: glamour. Russified as glamoor—accent on the last long syllable—the term had evolved from borrowed globalized glitter into a society-gripping idée fixe. Was the current U.S.S.R. nostalgia the schizophrenic flip side of this? Were today’s Russians turning to hammer-and-sickle memories as a relief from the relentless national obsession with bling and celebrity gossip? Bombarded by glossy and globalized Maserati and Marc Jacobs displays, how easy it was to sentimentalize the vanished Eden of our past Brezhnevian innocence. Those days of cut-glass bowls of mayonnaise-drenched salads at communal apartment kitchens, of cheerful songs about Rodina (homeland) around Young Pioneer camp bonfires. And how easy to commodify—to glamoor-ize—this nostalgia as a brand. U.S.S.R.TM—a reliable, endlessly marketable, political and commercial signifier of stability, power, and continuity. Served up with a garnish of warm fuzzy childhood emotions?

“The food’s delicious,” announced Mom, “but this whole Soviet canteen thing strikes me as...umm...a cosmeticized corpse.” I nodded. Where was the piercing Soviet reek of stale cabbage? The scowling servers cheating you on the buttermilk? The anxiety, longing, and desperate desire we invested in each edible morsel? Sure, Mom and I sometimes break into Soviet songs at our dinner parties. But a grandiose metro station or postwar Stalinist skyscraper is also a chilling reminder of hopes crushed, lives devastated. For us, fragments of Soviet civilization retain their lived experience. Dread, fear, suffering—without these, our madeleines aren’t really madeleines. They belong to the consumerist airbrushed realm of nostalgia.

“But the food,” repeated my mother, “it’s very delicious.”

Anya von Bremzen is a T+L contributing editor. Her book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing (Crown) is out now.