Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Pravda" Means "Kitsch"

The other day my roommate came home from the antique shop with an unexpected prize; an ushanka, the stereotypically Russian fuzzy hat meant to insulate the head and ears from the harsh winters that have made Russia half of what it is - a succession of harsh rulers are responsible for the other half. What was most striking about it was the polished, prominent hammer and sickle of the USSR, fixed square above the forehead. From what I've told, this ushanka probably sat in some Russian warehouse for decades, and perhaps in a grimmer world would have warmed a Soviet conscript as he charged with his tanks through the Fulda Gap. Here's a picture of it.

That genuine Soviet military gear is now being sold in Canadian antique and surplus stores may be one of the starkest proofs that the West won the Cold War. I doubt most people who adorn themselves with the Soviet crest in such a manner think about it so deeply. I didn't think about it much myself until a chance encounter on my lunch break yesterday thrust it into the forefront of my attention.

Not many paces east of Toronto's central core, on Wellington Street East just short of Church, there's a place called the Pravda Vodka Bar. I've never been inside it, but their website and the decor visible from streetside both luxuriate in retro-Soviet kitsch appeal. It's not just vodka bars where these attitudes are present, either. It's in every pre-faded hammer-and-sickle T-shirts marketed to teenagers who weren't even sperm when Gorbachev gave up the reins and every soi-distant dreamer who believed Soviet communism really might be the better way - which, by the way, is ridiculous. Everyone knows that the TTC is the Better Way.

Are these attitudes really appropriate? The Soviet Union wasn't just some slumbering monster over the hill. The only reason the Soviet Union didn't walk away with the championship belt for Most Horrific Government of the 20th Century is that the Nazis made all their competitors look like rank amateurs. The Soviets were no slouches when it came to killing. The Gulag system killed at least a million people, and that's according to the USSR's own numbers - there's not much reason to believe the true number is that low. Is that all right because they were Soviet citizens, and because they were accused of crimes against the state? And besides, who do you know who's read Solzhenitsyn? Millions starved to death during the Holodomor, as a result of Soviet government policy - is it not as bad as the Holocaust because the victims were Ukrainians? Because its victims weren't herded into gas chambers, is it any less of a genocide? (No.)

Wouldn't anyone see the hypocrisy if the next hot spot to open on King Street West was the Völkischer Beobachter Bierhaus, complete with iron swastika-and-eagle over the door?

It's been said by wiser people than myself that what we choose to forget is more enlightening than what we remember. What we forget today is that the Soviet Union was not a teddy bear. It's easy to see that now, in retrospect, when the Iron Curtain is down and the archives are open. After the Second World War, there was a great span of time where the USSR was an enigma to the West, a cipher inscrutable to all but the most skilled Kremlinologists. Is it any wonder that fluffy thoughts about the Communist ideal tended to obscure, and still obscure, the brutal bloodthirst of the Soviet regime?

When it comes down to the difference between the hammer and sickle and the swastika, I think they're really not so different as one might think.

I, the copyright holder of the photograph contained within this work, hereby release it into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use the photograph contained in this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

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