When the first McDonald’s restaurant appeared in the Soviet Union in 1990, my parents bundled my 9-month-old sister up and waited in line for hours in the brisk Russian winter so that they could get their first taste of a Big Mac and those famed French fries. The line snaked all around Moscow’s iconic Pushkin Square: Reports say that 30,000 people showed up on opening day alone.
It was a very exciting moment, my parents tell me: the first taste of liberty, a glimpse of what eating out could be like beyond the Iron Curtain, a symbol of bigger change to come.
Less than two years later, the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, opening the door to all kinds of democratic freedoms. The Russia I grew up in came with dubbed Disney cartoons and Argentine soap operas. Everyone suddenly had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio. My mom’s new eye-shadow palette encompassed every shade of neon. I went to concerts, bought posters and cassette tapes and, unlike my parents, did not have to wear a five-pointed-star badge with a portrait of Vladimir Lenin on my chest every day at school.
Of course, there was an insidious side. With new freedoms came new challenges: a deep economic crisis and a sharp rise in inequality, an explosion of organized crime. After decades in which the state dictated nearly every decision for its subjects, from housing to place of work to taste in movies and music, the new era also brought with it uncertainty and chaos.
Still, I felt lucky to grow up in a vibrant, thriving society; I certainly didn’t want to go back to Soviet times. The stories my family told me were bleak.
They spoke about prohibited literature (anything perceived to go against Soviet values or written by émigré writers who had fled Soviet Russia), the difficulties of travel (impossible without the party committee’s blessings), the incessant shortages of food and consumer goods. I’m too young to remember, but my parents would line up for hours for the rare furniture supply that appeared at shops every few months. In 1990, when consumer items were still only sporadically available, my mom bought us a pair of tights sized for every age up to 16 because she assumed they would no longer be in supply as we grew older. Films were censored, foreign radio stations jammed.
I was fascinated by these stories but also relieved I never had to experience them. I was eager to unearth the trivial elements of Soviet people’s day-to-day existence, the ones that did not make it into the history books: a long-forgotten home music video, an awkward wedding photo, a leaflet, a questionable fashion choice. I started collecting remnants of the Soviet era, rummaging through old VHS tapes, friends’ photo albums, magazine cutouts and obscure flea markets to gather visual artifacts from a country that was no more.
In 2016, while living in Singapore, I created a Twitter account, @sovietvisuals, to share my makeshift Soviet archive with the world. Others started contributing their own photographs, videos and personal stories, and the project became a repository for our shared past. It also provided an opportunity to reflect critically on the social and cultural norms of the time while acknowledging the brutalities of the U.S.S.R.’s ideological constructs and oppressive practices. I never imagined how prescient it would be.
Vladimir Putin’s cynically named “special military operation” on Ukraine has thrust my country into pariah status — rightly, given the atrocities, human rights violations and brazen disregard for sovereignty that he has unleashed on Ukraine. Impossibly, in the past few weeks it’s felt as if we’d been yanked back to the Soviet era, except this time it’s even more horrifying, more repressive than we could have imagined. Russia is not just losing the comforts that Western capitalism offered, owing to severe sanctions, but Mr. Putin is also doubling down on closing off any expression of dissent.
For Ukrainians, the war has meant hell on earth. Countless lives shattered. I watch in horror as my friends there hide out in bomb shelters. Schools, hospitals, residential buildings destroyed by bombs, innocent people reportedly shot dead in the street as they attempt to escape to safety. It is immeasurably cruel, unfair and devastating.
For Russians, there is the fear and disgust at watching Mr. Putin’s ruthless campaign, which will inevitably raise the civilian death toll. There’s also the feeling of helplessness of not having been able to stop it and the shame of being from the country of the aggressor.
And unsurprisingly, Russia has been catapulted into a dark hole. Many foreign companies — clothing and credit card brands, car manufacturers and tech corporations, fast food and retail chains — have suspended operations, affecting every corner of the economy. The West’s sanctions have mostly cut Russian civilians off from the global economy.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has ensured that Russians who express opposition to the invasion face persecution: A new law punishes anyone spreading anything it deems “false information” about the war with up to 15 years in prison. This crackdown on freedom is not new to Russians, but it has reached a peak of absurdity: Standing in the street with a flower or a blank sign now gets you loaded into a police van.
Between arrests for speaking out, censorship, rumors of martial law and relentless propaganda, it’s as though we had landed straight in the Stalin era.
The Russia I knew has been erased. What’s coming next is dark. The U.S.S.R. gives us some clues of what it might be like — but even then, there were some flickers of hope.
As my parents’ stories and my archive show, many Soviet citizens found ways to thrive in what was essentially a giant social experiment. Yes, they had to deal with bread lines, news (and propaganda) supplied by the state-controlled, Orwellian-named Pravda (Truth) newspaper and a persistent fear of nuclear war. But they continued to create art, make scientific discoveries and build families and architectural masterpieces. There was a great deal of humor, beauty and creativity behind the Iron Curtain.
When l learned that McDonald’s had joined the long list of international companies suspending operations in Russia, I couldn’t help but think about my family’s first visit to the burger joint. Could any of the people lining up for their first cheeseburger in 1990 have imagined that modern Russia would find itself sliding all the way back to where it started?
We will remake Russia, of course, slowly and patiently, just like the generation before us. But not before this one crumbles first.
Varia Bortsova (@variainayurt) is the founder of Soviet Visuals, an online archive of images from across the former U.S.S.R. She was born in Moscow a year before the fall of the Soviet Union.
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