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Born in the USSR

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For the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution last week, Vladimir Putin gave a big speech in which he announced that the new Russia seeks leadership but not superpower status, has no ambitions to interfere in the affairs of other countries, and is increasingly looked to by other nations as a guide for spiritual and moral values. At the Kremlin party afterwards, the ageing rocker Oleg Gazmanov played his hit ‘Born in the USSR’, which echoes the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’:

The Ukraine and the Crimea, Belarus and Moldova
This is my country!
Sakhalin and Kamchatka and the Ural mountains
This is my country!
Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, and the Baltics too

I was born in the Soviet Union! Made in the USSR

The Ryuriks, the Romanovs, Lenin and Stalin
This is my country!
Pushkin, Yesinin, Vysotsky, Gagarin
This is my country!

Oligarchs and beggars, power and ruin
the Police, KGB and the great scientists

I was born in the Soviet Union! Made in the USSR

Now even Europe has created a union
In the past our ancestors struggled in battle
Together we won the Second World War
Together we are the world’s biggest nation

The (new) borders are choking us, can’t travel without a visa
How is life without us? Answer me friends!

After the performance diplomats and political scientists from Latvia and Lithuania were outraged and suggested Gazmanov should be banned from touring in their countries. He replied that the song was ten years old, he’d performed it plenty in the Baltics before and anyway he didn’t mean anything malicious.

There is plenty in the lyrics and flag-waving video to support the view that the song is a crude celebration of Soviet imperialism. But it’s an odd type of tub-thumping, feting the USSR while paying homage to an American musician (with the added twist that Springsteen’s song, often mistaken for a patriotic anthem, was meant as a critique of the Vietnam War and economic depression). Western rock music in the USSR was generally associated with anti-Soviet sentiment. And the lists in Gazmanov’s song undermine themselves: putting the Romanovs next to Lenin; the anti-Soviet Vysotsky with the pre-Soviet Pushkin; the KGB next to oligarchs; power and ruin.

Is the song ironic? Gazmanov is a toady who sucks up to anyone in power and it’s unlikely he would try to be consciously subversive. But he’s been popular ever since he was discovered as a restaurant singer in Kaliningrad in the 1980s and he must tap into some part of the popular cultural psyche to pull that off. The late Soviet condition was marked not by idealistic fervour but a pervasive sense of irony and non-belief, or rather the ability to imitate belief in several things simultaneously: swearing allegiance to the Komsomol while reading Solzhenitsyn, quoting Lenin while listening to Deep Purple.

The situation is much the same in Russia today. State TV can one moment be showing Putin and his attack dogs calling for a new, religiously inspired ‘traditional’ Russia, and the next be screening the latest episode of The Thaw, Russia’s answer to Mad Men, set in the Soviet 1960s but revealing 21st-century attitudes. The protagonist believes in almost nothing, all the characters try to ignore the state and get on with their private lives, and the security services are portrayed as villains and despised toadies.

But (as Vaclav Havel used to argue) the irony is what makes the system strong: as long as you don’t believe in anything and are always playing identity masquerades, you will never do anything real and committed. Irony spills into cynicism. The emotional underpinning of the late Soviet and Putin eras is a somewhat aggressive apathy. The biggest obstacle to the Russian protest movement is less adoration of Putin than the idea that nothing will change anyway (Alexey Navalny calls it ‘the final battle of good against the forces of neutrality’). So Gazmanov’s song, which echoes a world of praising General Secretary Chernenko while listening to Springsteen, is both ironic and therefore a hymn to Soviet imperialism.

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