Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of Leonid Brezhnev's death. The Soviet holday was characteristically marked in the Estonian press which enjoys to indirectly feed Soviet nostalgia.
The turn of phrase "in Soviet times" is often heard among Estonians, especially among the 25ish-45ish set, ones old enough to remember "Soviet times" but not genuinely old enough to partake in them beyond singing carols to Lenin in school or having their photo taken next to the "Soldier-Liberator" in central Tallinn.
I have heard here in Estonia that all sorts of things can be attributed to "Soviet times". For example, why people are quiet on public transportation. Supposedly it is because of the icy public life that prevailed during the long, dark winter of "Soviet times." Estonians dare not mention that in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Helsinki the passengers are just as quiet. Northern Europeans are generally commatose on trams. It has nothing to do with "Soviet times."
Or how come Estonian students don't raise their hands in the classroom. I was told this is also due to "Soviet times" when the best students were the ones who asked the least amount of questions. But the students in my classes aren't all from former Soviet countries. The Norwegians and Finns in class don't talk much either. Getting them to discuss something is similar to pulling teeth. So is it a cultural thing and not a "in Soviet times" thing?
My favorite "in Soviet times" stories revolve around totally pointless things that have no bearing on modern realities. I was once told by two women, both about 40, that "today is Thursday, and ... in Soviet times we would be having fish today!" I was too disinterested to ask them why they needed to inform me of this.
For the sake of nostalgia, I thought I'd share with you an "in Soviet times" story. "In Soviet times" I was a little boy. I do not recall the death of Brezhnev. I do, however, recall when Conan the Barbarian was dominant in popular culture. And Conan, above, made an Austrian body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger famous in the year 1982, the same year Leonid Brezhnev died.
But there's more. In Soviet times there was a student in my school named Igor. Like so many students he was one of those lucky people who managed to escape from a communist country to the glorious West. In my school there were Croatians and Poles and Rumanians and, yes, Russians like Igor.
It was in the heady days of the late 1980s that the Cold War finally made its way into daily scholastic discourse. And one way it manifested itself was by yelling terrible things at Igor about his collapsing country.
I can still recall sitting on the bus and several bus windows being lowered as poor Igor stood on the sidewalk near the school waiting for his bus. From the windows was put forward the kind of language one wouldn't expect from an old sailor, let alone a class of 12 year-olds. Something to the tune of "up yours, you Goddamn Commie!" To which Igor indulged us by thrusting his middle finger up in the air and yelling back, forgive me, "fuck you, you stupid, capitalist pig Americans, fuck you!"
As you can tell, Igor was proficient in the English language. He also had that hysterically awful accent that nearly no Russian can lose, no matter what language they speak. So all the kids on the bus absolutely loved to tease Igor into butchering our swear words with Slavic aplomb.
And that is sort of what I remember about those days. Nobody really hated Igor because he came from the Soviet Union. Instead we loved to pretend that we hated Igor. Likewise, Igor didn't really hate us. He liked to pretend that he hated us.
In the United States though at that time it was impossible to not know someone who had been affected by communist rule. On Long Island where I grew up there were large communities of Poles, many of which predated the imposition of communist rule in Poland. Were the Poles different? Sure, they had extremely long names and produced quite talented junior high school basketball players.
But these people, these nations, were never "foreign" to me or suffered from some "East-West" civilizational distinction that made them different at their core because their country happened to live at sometime under communist rule. Poland today has a communist heritage. But Polishness is obviously much greater than "in Soviet times."
So why do we continue to elevate this period in our consciences? It's true that certain generations grew up "in Soviet times" but it is also true that my wife's grandparents' generation had a childhood surrounded by the Estonian republic. They remember it too. I had an old lady chew my ear off this spring about how today's politicians are just as corrupt and self-interested as they were in the 1930s. I guess that should make some Estonian leaders proud. They've genuinely managed to restore the republic!
But, seriously, what will become of "in Soviet times" as these generations age. Will it be a mark of age, something casting them into pre-seasonal crotchedy misers who shuffle around saying, "What day is it today, Piret? Why in Soviet times we'd all be eating fish today ..." I hope not.
Remember that in Soviet times, on the day Brezhnev died, Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous for playing a sword-wielding barbarian seeking revenge from James Earl Jones. Today he is the governor of California. In other words, times have changed.