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Yesterday’s gone ‘Meduza’ correspondent Andrey Pertsev reviews Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s new book

Source: Meduza
Sergey Karpukhin / TASS

In mid-October, the Russian publishing house AST released a new book titled “About Yesterday,” written by Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. As it turns out, the book isn’t about the army at all: among other things, Shoygu recalls the creation of the Emergency Situations Ministry, which he headed for many years, as well as his clashes with the politicians of the 1990s. But the majority of the book, which is made up of individual stories, is devoted to everyday Soviet life and the relationship between Communist Party bosses and the inhabitants of the USSR. While Shoygu appears to criticize Soviet times, he clearly recalls this period with a sense of nostalgia — or so says “Meduza” special correspondent Andrey Pertsev, who read the book on assignment. Here’s his review.

One would expect a pretentious, ultra-patriotic narrative from the book About Yesterday (in Russia, Pro vchera) by Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu — like the cathedral of the armed forces, but made up of letters. However, beneath the cover is a collection of stories about the curiosities of everyday life in the Soviet Union, Gosplan’s absurd demands, historical anecdotes about the politicians of the 1990s, and several serious and even scary stories about natural disasters. 

The book is written in simple, hackneyed, and blunt language, but it reads rather smoothly. There’s almost no reason to doubt that the defense minister’s authorship: Shoygu either wrote these texts himself or dictated them to someone else.

On everyday life in the USSR

The absurd, funny (and sometimes not so funny) adventures of Soviet construction workers — this is the brightest and most memorable section of Shoygu’s book. The main characters of these stories struggle — with varying degrees of success — against the ruthless realities of Soviet everyday life: shortages, bedbugs and cockroaches in apartments and dormitories, and nagging party bosses.

“In my student days, a neighbor in my dorm was almost kicked out of the Komsomol for bedbugs,” Shoygu writes. “For fun, he trapped all the bedbugs in a specific place and crushed them there, creating pictures and words out of the bedbug caracasess. He was almost kicked out over the words ‘Glory to the CPSU’. [They were] strict about this then.”

Later, at a workers’ residence, one of Shoygu’s neighbors couldn’t take the bugs anymore and brought a “miracle cure” from the factory. Judging by the story, it turned out to be effective. However, in addition to the bedbugs and cockroaches, cats and dogs fled the building. And the pets fleeing wasn’t the only side effect of this Soviet “miracle cure”:

“The next weekend, when our bachelor neighbors went to Yenisei, a famous restaurant in the city, and met two, apparently single (or not so single) girls, they were both unable to...fulfill their Saturday evening hopes and desires. The ending, like in a fairy tale, is good. We washed everything, cleaned all the corners. The evenings became rightly and predictably busy. But...the cats and dogs never returned. They decided not to risk it!”

From the story “Zina and the Bedbugs”

The defense minister chooses humorous topics, ones on the verge of going over the line. The main character in the story “Antifreeze,” like thousands of other Soviet workers, drinks antifreeze and gets sick:

“During the second or third hour of the feast, the foreman got sick. He left the construction trailer and with a painful roar threw up everything — fried potatoes, salo, sprats in tomato, and evergreen tomatoes. I dragged myself to the neighboring trailer, curled up in a ball, and, devastated, fell asleep.”

To make a long story short, in Shoygu’s descriptions, everyday Soviet life appears to be moderately absurd and phantasmagoric; nevertheless, the author seems to like it. And yet, despite Shoygu’s obvious sympathies, in his retelling everyday life in the Soviet Union still turns out to be unpleasant.

On the Soviet vertical of power

Shoygu’s stories are equally preoccupied with the Soviet system of governance and the planned economy that went along with it. Recalling his time as a civil engineer, he refers to the debriefing after examining construction sites as a “punishment for the innocent and reward for the uninvolved” on several occasions.

The defense minister tells the story of a friend — the director of an enterprise, who, during a party inspection, clumsily revealed that he had a full-time assistant. The director was called to Moscow to appear before a party committee: such meetings usually didn’t end well — sometimes, people were forced to surrender their party cards or they were even arrested. Shoygu says that he advised his friend to ask the head of the Krasnoyarsk Krai Party Committee to write a letter to his superiors. As it turned out, his advice worked: his friend’s case was handed down the vertical of power and eventually hushed up — he didn’t lose his party card, but the story still ruined his successful career.

“And he, a lead worker and clever guy, went to work in a place where ‘they’ would never be. He simply hid at a level that they considered beneath their dignity to interfere in, a level that they wouldn’t stoop to,” Shoygu recalls.

The Soviet Union’s planned economy was no better. Shoygu remembers one instance where they were instructed to bring an aluminum plant online early:

“We were supposed to [start production] at the Sayansk Aluminum Plant in 1985 […] by the end of the year, in December, as it’s done today. Everything was moving towards this step-by-step. But at the end of 1984 an entirely unexpected directive came in, which the current generation wouldn’t quite understand, like any normal person in general: ‘A jubilee year lies ahead. The country will mark 115 years since the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. And it would be nice to put the plant into operation not in December, but in April’.”

It didn’t end well: when they “launched production” in April, the wind blew in and covered the entire site of the Sayansk Aluminum Plant in a “snow-white powder.” Shoygu explains that the powder was aluminum oxide, a chemical compound used to produce aluminum metal. Incidents like this weren’t uncommon, he says:

“During the launch of cement production in Achinsk, for example, they didn’t install gas treatment at the launch complex and half the city of Achinsk was covered in powder too. Only it wasn’t white aluminum oxide, but rather grey cement.”

That said, Shoygu describes the state of affairs under the Soviet authorities without passing any judgements. In the story “Tangerines,” he shows restrained sympathy for the main character — an elderly florist who was imprisoned for speculation.

“Probably, everyone simply saw that the old man wasn’t a criminal. He grew flowers, lived off this, and lived well for many years. However, the Soviet authorities didn’t like it. And the government punished him. The old man could have gotten angry, withdrawn, but on the contrary, he accepted what happened humbly. And the whole time he repeated: ‘It’s my own fault’.”

It seems like Shoygu adheres to a similar point of view. He doesn’t condemn the Soviet system, but rather the new owners who inherited the factories and plants that were built during this period. He calls the 1990s a time of “poverty and chaos.” 

“Yes, we built you a hydroelectric power plant and an aluminum factory, another one in Krasnoyarsk, a third in Bratsk, and now a fourth in Boguchany. We built [them] for you but now they’re managed by some new people, companies, that only think about profit. Though they received all of this without investing anything: neither soul, nor effort, nor time. They don’t have their own victories, which each carpenter, concrete worker, engineer, and power engineer had. They’ve abandoned those obligations that we took upon ourselves when building all of this.” 

On Stalin

The defense minister’s position is clearly visible in the story “After the Leader,” which is dedicated to the Stalin period. He is well aware that something bad happened in the USSR under Stalin — although he only allows himself to directly criticize the destruction of churches.

“I’m not going to criticize that generation. Because that generation includes my grandfather and grandmother — active members of the Revolutionary Youth League, who were involved in all sorts of things. But [with] some of the things that I do in the [Tuva] Republic and for the republic — I’m repaying a debt, one might say. And this debt comes from the feeling that perhaps my grandmother and grandfather have something to do with what happened then. I insist: they aren’t guilty of anything.”

Shoygu also recalls the story of his grandfather’s brother, Seren Kuzhuget.

“In 1929, he [Seren Kuzhuget] was appointed commander of the People’s Revolutionary Army of Tuva. He created the army. In 1938, he and other military personnel were arrested on fabricated charges. Like many back then. He was sentenced to death, but at some moment they changed his death sentence to a lengthy prison sentence. [...] After Stalin died and the cult of personality was debunked they were freed. Some were even rehabilitated.

[...] All his life, after he got out, he worked as a shepherd; he never aspired to anything and never wanted anything. And he never spoke about anything, he never criticized anyone, he was always absolutely happy with everything.”

Sergey Shoygu has approximately the same attitude towards the Soviet (and the Stalinist) past: “I don’t know how to judge now everything that happened then,” he says. “But it’s difficult to imagine that back then we had a person who would give himself the absolute right without any justification to judge someone, to judge anyone, to condemn, to stigmatize, and all the more, to be a moral standard.”

On Chernomyrdin

Among Sergey Shoygu’s colleagues in the Russian government, he mentions former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin most often. As a rule, the narratives about him take the form of historical anecdotes. In one story, Chernomyrdin promises to send a liberal governor who complained about Shoygu and wanted his job “to hell.” When he was the Ambassador to Ukraine, Chernomyrdin got seriously drunk with Shoyu, who was the Emergency Situations Minister at the time, and the next morning attended the first United Russia congress as if nothing had happened (Shoygu himself was part of the presidium and was suffering from a hangover and lack of sleep). 

The story “The Thunderer” (“Gromoverzhets”) is entirely devoted to Chernomyrdin’s loud snoring. On one government trip, Shoygu was awakened by a strange noise: “I went into the hall, a guard was on duty outside of the door [...] when I appeared he raised his head and said: ‘Go to sleep.’ I realized it wasn’t thunder, but Viktor Stepanovich.” 

On Fate

Sergey Shoygu’s most serious stories are about his time in the Ministry of Emergency Situations. For the most part, these stories aren’t about the feats of rescuers, as one might assume, but rather about the everyday and terrible aspects of their work.

“The mother was out of her mind with grief and didn’t understand why her daughter, who she was speaking with and who she could hear, couldn’t be reached […] It’s impossible to explain that as soon as we raise those same two panels, she, her daughter, will have fifteen, maybe twenty, minutes to live and there’s nothing we can do, well, almost nothing. We can keep her in this world for another two or three hours, not touch the rubble, not lift or dismantle it. […] The paramedic told the mother harshly, even rudely: ‘Sit and talk, talk to your daughter. We won’t save her, no one will save her. Half her body is impacted, if only it were just a leg. Legs and arms can be amputated but half a body cannot.’ Everyone left, they stayed to try and talk. A mama and her twelve-year-old daughter…And so it was throughout the former city — dozens, hundreds of such mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and fates.”

From the story “Neftegorsk”

In the same story, Shoygu explains without any emotion that rescue workers had to decide to slaughter hundreds of cows, whose owners had died. In “Volochanka,” he recalls the following scene calmly:

“Suddenly we see it: a boat overturned on the river. And there’s a Nganasan elder floating in it. The elder is drowning. We rushed in, got him, revived him. And here’s the most interesting [part]. His wife comes running, throws stones at us and shouts: ‘He decided to take him! You stopped [it]!” Apparently she wanted us to throw him back into the river.”

Judging by the book, Sergey Shoygu relates to life in general (from Soviet times to his work in the Emergencies Ministry) in about the same way. He notices the system’s shortcomings and is happy to share his observations — both sad and funny. But he really doesn’t want to fight the absurdity — or even recognize it as such. 

Review by Andrey Pertsev

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart

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