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Back To The Future: Cold War-Era Terms Make A Comeback Amid Russia-West Tensions Over Ukraine

Muscovites wait to buy meat in Moscow in 1991. Will such communist-era lines become commonplace in Russia once more?
Muscovites wait to buy meat in Moscow in 1991. Will such communist-era lines become commonplace in Russia once more?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long rule has been fueled by nostalgia for the Soviet Union -- from big matters like the reestablishment of a strict top-down political system and state domination of the media to symbolic measures like the restoration of the Soviet-era national anthem, albeit with modified lyrics.

Now, with Moscow’s war on Ukraine nearing its third month and Russia increasingly feeling the bite of Western sanctions, numerous Cold War-era terms are creeping back into everyday life in ways that may have many Russians wondering what they were so nostalgic for.

One of the last great gasps of Soviet culture was the massively popular 1988 film Little Vera, a film in which alcoholism, violence, attempted rape, and despair combined to capture the pessimism, ennui, and cynicism that characterized the Soviet Union as its end approached. That film was set in the Azov Sea port of Mariupol, which at the time was named Zhdanov after Stalin-era ideologue Andrei Zhdanov -- who coined the dictum: “The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best.”

Mariupol got a makeover in independent Ukraine after the Soviet collapse and was thriving before the invasion. But today, it is a symbol once again -- this time of the suffering, death, and devastation that Russia has wreaked upon Ukraine in the war.

Mariupol: How A Prosperous Ukrainian City Was Turned Into A Cemetery
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Below RFE/RL has collected a partial list of words, phrases, and concepts that many thought had been left behind in the world of 1984, but which have made a striking comeback in a country where a businessman in Ivanovo was recently fined for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” for merely standing on the street and handing out free copies of George Orwell’s dystopian classic.


In his 1982 novella The Zone, dissident Soviet author Sergei Dovlatov wrote that, although people rightly condemned Soviet dictator Josef Stalin for mass repressions and murder, there is another question that must be asked: “Who wrote the 4 million denunciations?”

“They were written by ordinary Soviet people,” he noted.

Today, ordinary Russians are increasingly turning one another in for any statement or action of dissent against the war in Ukraine. Teachers who discuss the war in the classroom are particularly vulnerable to denunciations (called “donosy” in Russian) and have been losing their jobs at a startling pace.

“The episodes are not yet a mass phenomenon, but they illustrate the building paranoia and polarization in Russian society,” The New York Times wrote on April 9. “Citizens are denouncing one another in an eerie echo of Stalin’s terror, spurred on by vicious official rhetoric from the state.”


The Soviet period was characterized by three large waves of emigration -- one following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War, a second spurred by the dislocations during and after World War II, and a third wave during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Future historians seem likely to label the period of the Ukraine war as the fourth wave of emigratsiya.

Although it is too early to have precise figures on the number of Russians fleeing their country since Moscow launched the large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, The Economist put the figure at more than 200,000 by the middle of March, calling the trend a “stampede for the exits.”

Like previous waves of emigration, this one involves a significant percentage of the highly educated, self-starters, intellectuals, and professionals. Unlike previous waves, this time the main destinations include former Soviet republics like Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, as Western sanctions have closed off many other options.


The Cold War was punctuated by the occasional defection to the West of prominent figures, often from the realms of culture and sports. In 1961, Rudolf Nureyev -- generally considered the greatest male ballet dancer of his generation -- defected from the Soviet Union at an airport in Paris, continuing his legendary career in the West until his death in 1993. In 1974, fellow dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected in Toronto.

Many KGB agents and even Stalin’s own daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, were also among the most high-profile Soviet defectors (“nevozvrashchentsy” in Russian).

On March 17, Bolshoi Theater principal dancer Olga Smirnova left Russia for the Netherlands over her opposition to the war against Ukraine. In a March 1 post on Telegram, she wrote that she was “ashamed of Russia.”

Russian ballet dancer Olga Smirnova performs during a benefit performance for Ukraine in Naples on April 4.
Russian ballet dancer Olga Smirnova performs during a benefit performance for Ukraine in Naples on April 4.

The British Daily Express newspaper teased its story with the line: “Russian prima ballerina Olga Smirnova has defected to the Netherlands.” The New York Times called Smirnova’s decision “a blow to the pride of the nation.” The daily quoted Smirnova’s new boss at the Dutch National Ballet, Ted Brandsen as saying Russian dancers were contacting him “daily.”

“We’re going back to the Cold War,” he said.

On March 23, Putin adviser and prominent post-Soviet economic reformer Anatoly Chubais left Russia for Turkey. On April 18, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, took up consideration of what was dubbed the Chubais Law, under which any official who quits their post over the war and leaves the country would be entered on a special “public register” and be banned from ever holding an official post again.

Russian Orthodox Church Abroad

After the Bolshevik consolidation of power in the early 1920s, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad was created by émigrés who broke with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 2007, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad reunified with the Moscow church, in a move that was enthusiastically welcomed by Putin.

While such a profound break has not happened, Moscow’s conflict with Ukraine has been costly for the Russian Orthodox Church going back to 2014, when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region and enflamed a separatist conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine. Those moves were both trumpeted by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who has been an outspoken supporter of Putin.

In January 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted autocephaly, or independence, to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, ending more than three centuries of Moscow patriarchal domination of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

About half of Ukraine’s Orthodox parishes joined the new church, while half remained loyal to Kirill. Since the war was launched in February, nearly half of the Moscow-loyal dioceses in Ukraine have stopped mentioning Kirill in prayers.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (left) and Patriarch Kirill (file photo)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (left) and Patriarch Kirill (file photo)

Other Orthodox churches around the world have also expressed discontent with the Russian Orthodox Church.

In a recent interview, Bartholomew -- the spiritual head of Orthodoxy globally -- criticized Kirill, saying: “He should not have identified so much with President Putin and even called Russia’s war against Ukraine ‘sacred.’”

The New York Times on April 18 wrote that Russian Orthodox communities in Italy, the United States, and France were pushing to break with the Moscow Patriarchate.

“In the Netherlands, police had to intervene at a Rotterdam church after parishioners came to blows over the war,” the daily reported.

“Doctrinal disputes and intrigues within the Eastern Orthodox Church often spool out over decades, if not centuries,” the paper wrote. “But with remarkable speed, the war has widened schisms long kept below the surface.”


Since the war began, Western countries and other parts of the international community have imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russia, and the result, very quickly, has been shortages, or defitsity -- deficits -- in Russian.

Alarming stories about shortages of critical imported medicines have appeared regularly, as well as accounts of shortages of basic food staples. In mid-March, the largest grocery chain in the Far East imposed rationing on sugar, salt, and other basics amid a panic-buying frenzy.

Customers line up next to a food counter at a market in Omsk in February.
Customers line up next to a food counter at a market in Omsk in February.

In addition, shortages of printer paper have been reported, as the country has apparently relied on whitening agents imported from Finland. Users on Twitter on April 17 were sharing images of dingy brown paper for sale under the euphemistic name “Eco.”

The environment didn’t seem so important two days later when it was announced that, because of a shortage of imported parts, the government would allow the manufacture of all environmental classes of car, including Euro-0, a return to the pre-1992 European standard. “Analysts note that consumers are not as concerned about ecology,” Kommersant wrote.

Black Market Traders

Where there are defitsity, there are fartsovshchiki, the Soviet-era label for black-market traders in hard currency, blue jeans, Western music, and other products that were difficult to obtain in the Soviet Union.

The Russian ruble plummeted in the first weeks of the war because of Western sanctions and, on March 15, the daily Kommersant reported the appearance of online black-market currency transactions. Experts were warning, the paper said, about administrative and criminal penalties for participating in the shadow market. The paper quoted one online advertisement as telling would-be customers to “find the trader next to McDonalds on [Moscow’s] Kiev Street to buy dollars for 150 rubles.”

Although Russian government intervention has revived the ruble, the prospect of more fartsovshchiki is never far off.


Almost before the echo had died down from the first Russian shots of the war, the media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor had issued an edict banning describing the events in Ukraine as a “war” or “invasion,” and ordering media and individuals to only cite information from official government sources. Although the Russian word tsenzura wasn’t used by the state, people knew censorship when they saw it.

On March 5, the country adopted laws creating administrative and criminal articles against “discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation,” which have already produced hundreds of convictions

Since the war began, Russians have been detained and fined for violations, such as standing in public with a sign reading “Thou shalt not kill” to reading the poetry of Russian Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok to standing in the center of Irkutsk holding a single white rose, a reference to an anti-Hitler youth group in Munich during World War II.

With censorship, inevitably, comes self-censorship -- samotsenzura. The Russian YouTube channel 1420, which regularly posts vox pop videos of Russians answering topical questions, recently published figures on the refusal rates it encounters when conducting its unscientific polls. When asked to give their opinions about NATO, 23 Russians responded and 134 refused. Asked to give their opinions about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 28 agreed to answer and 124 said “no.”

And, when asked about censorship in Russia, 26 people agreed to speak and 95 refused.

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