For the groups of schoolkids who file through the newly minted Hall of the Soviet Epoch, the relics on display – household appliances, cameras, radios, money, Lenin busts, and political banners – might as well be from Mars.
But for older visitors to the cultural center, the little slice of a vanished civilization tends to evoke sighs of nostalgia. Some put a note in the guest book saying it's high time someone created an exhibition like this to teach the youth about the lost world that their grandparents built and fought for.
Indeed, for many years such a shrine to Russia's bygone Soviet era would have been frowned upon by authorities, despite the forgiving and even warm-hearted view that most Russians have consistently shown toward their former superpower homeland over the years. But the Soviet exhibit, which opened in August at the Kaluga Leisure Center, did get the go-ahead from local officials this time.
And given the ongoing, cold-war-like tensions with the West and economic woes at home, experts say that memories of the Soviet era have earned a new gloss – one that authorities might welcome as a subtle reminder to the public that Russia held its own against the US and its allies, and perhaps could again.
"Who could ever have imagined that people would start to idealize that past?" asks Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, Russia's largest grassroots human rights movement. "But the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and now we see many people believing the USSR was some kind of fairy-tale life that has disappeared."
Pride in a Soviet past
The exhibition has attracted considerable attention in the Russian media, since its pro-Soviet message would seem to be approved by the local authorities. That's something relatively new. Significant numbers of Russians welcomed the USSR's demise, embraced the promise of a new life, and might balk at the rose-colored view presented in this Kaluga exhibit. But a perusal of comments in the guest book doesn't find any critical remarks.
"There is huge interest from all age groups," says Pavel Suzik, the center's director of patriotic education, who guides groups through the hall with an erudite – if somewhat selective – passion for the minutiae of Soviet life.
The public's interest is certainly understandable, given the contrast of the USSR's stature compared with Russia's today. The USSR had a far-flung socialist empire, a military machine that rivaled that of the US, and immense achievements in science and sport. Though its industrial economy never satisfied demand, it did produce the astounding range of now-vanished gizmos that Suzik takes such pride in.
More importantly, it promoted a powerful ideology that promised – though never delivered – an end to poverty, inequality and oppression.
"The Soviet era was a time of greatness at home and abroad. We had real heroes. We had world-class science. And the people had a worthy goal: to build a just and fair society," Mr. Suzik says. "It's important to remember this, because we need to bring the best elements of that history into our present lives."
The center's director, Galina Bunkova, deflects any suggestion that the one-sided display and Suzik's laudatory commentary might be a bit controversial for Russians who had quite different experiences of Soviet life. She insists the center, which was established by the city five years ago, aims to knit Russians of various generations together through activities like singing, dancing, and lectures on national history and culture. The Soviet display is just part of that brief, to give people a greater sense of continuity in Russian society.
"This is not the sort of place where anyone would feel like saying something negative," Ms. Bunkova says. "People come here to charge themselves with positive energy."
A long-lived nostalgia
These days most Russians regard the loss of the USSR as a negative event. A poll conducted this month by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent see the collapse "negatively" while just 14 percent think it was a "positive" event. Asked which type of political system they would prefer to live under, 13 percent named "Western democracy," 23 percent said the present Russian setup was best, while 37 percent said the Soviet system would be most desirable.
"There is nothing new here. We regularly ask people their views on the Soviet collapse, and we regularly get these results," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center.
Indeed, this nostalgic mood has long featured in Russian social media, where scores of websites host discussions, photo galleries, and memoir essays about the old life. One of Russia's most popular TV stations is Nostalgia, which shows only vintage Soviet movies. Business people have identified a market, and there is now a string of Soviet-themed restaurants [but with better food], lines of clothing, and even resurrected Soviet-era children's toys.
Andrei Morozov, who runs a string of bakeries in Kaluga, says some of his most popular items are favorite old Soviet "pirozhni" snacks, as well as old-fashioned cream-filled waffle cones, big "romovaya baba" confectionery buns, and little "eklar" pastries that used to be available in Soviet street kiosks. "I'm in business. I don't tell people what to buy, they tell me what they want. And these old recipes, that recall an earlier life, are really popular," he says.
'Counter-culture that people can believe in'
But the apparent official embrace of Soviet nostalgia in Kaluga is something new.
For more than a decade after the Soviet collapse, public regrets about it were officially viewed as an irritating vestige that would gradually disappear. When Vladimir Putin came to power, he outflanked his Communist opponents by adopting the old anthem and praising Soviet achievements. But he also made no secret of his contempt for the ideological obsessions and dysfunctional economics that drove the USSR to ruin.
Some experts suggest that changing times may be leading the Kremlin to seek closer identification with that contradictory Soviet heritage. For one thing, it might not hurt to remind the Russian public that the USSR once held its own in decades-long military and political competition with the outside world.
And as the economic prosperity of the earlier Putin-era fades, a renewed emphasis on higher ideals might help to distract people, as long as it can be controlled.
"Longing for the USSR is a kind of counter-culture that people can believe in," says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. "Most people probably wouldn't actually want to go back to the USSR, but they find it comforting to reach back for those old certainties. The Soviet Union was a more effective welfare state, a military superpower, where there was far less economic uncertainty and inequality than people experience today. So, this generates nostalgia" which can be harnessed by authorities, he says.
Critics say the Kaluga exhibit is one-sided and misleading, because it omits mention of the chronic shortages, endless lineups for basic necessities, isolation of the country, and often brutal suppression of dissent. But mostly they sound disappointed and baffled by the persistence of pro-Soviet public moods.
"I remember how enthusiastic people were when the USSR collapsed, how they hoped to break away from the Soviet past and build a better life," says Mr. Orlov of Memorial. "I'm appalled. If we have to talk about it, I just wish we could speak the whole truth. This exhibit in Kaluga is just part of the truth, at best."