Monday, March 1, 2010

Nostalgia for the Strong Boss

Or should I call this post 'Oh Crap - Part II'?

Today Dimitry Medvedev, expressing frustration at the lack of Russian medals at the Vancouver Games, issued a rather severe call for the resignation of Russia's Olympic officials. He went on to further lament the loss of the prestige the Soviets once held in international competition.

I remember this well. When the United States hockey team upset the Soviets at the 1980 Lake Placid games - it was a fluke, a wonderful fairy tale fluke. The rag-tag, unshaven vagabond USA had upset the robotic, efficient machine that was the USSR. It was one of my earliest sports memories and perhaps, was crucial in forever fueling my obsession and adoration of the sports underdog. There was something mystical about the Soviet athletic program back then. To this day, when I think of those old red uniforms with the yellow 'CCCP' letters, it just strikes a chord of fear in my soul - and not due to memories of the looming danger of nuclear annihilation. It was just that those athletes were so damn good.

I suppose this gives me the opportunity to talk about Hedrick Smith's The Russians. This book was written in the early 1970's by a New York Times correspondent living in the Soviet Union. Although, The Russians is out of print, I picked up a used copy on I'm currently writing an unruly and wildly unpublishable novel that takes place in an indecipherable time and place. Despite that ambiguity, I am trying to layer in an atmosphere that is decidedly Soviet (in a nutshell, I'm using the eastern bloc paradigm as a metaphor for the brainwashed town-hall teabagging apocolypto our nation seems destined for). So I was hoping The Russians would provide some texture from the voices of everyday Soviet citizens.

Unfortunately, the strongest voice that comes through is Smith's and it is often condescending and deprecating. Perhaps because in the three decades that have followed this book's publication, all the dirty laundry and empty suits of both communism and capitalism have come to light, Smith's high horse seems a bit thin and self righteous.

But in light of Medvedev's comments today - there is one chapter where Smith appears to be dead-on. It is called 'Nostalgia for a Strong Boss'. In this chapter, Smith incredulously encounters everyday Soviets who wax nostalgic for Stalin's reign despite (an albeit a loose) understanding of his atrocities. I suppose it's the old 'but he made the trains run on time' argument. But back to Medvedev. Today he actually lamented the loss of the Soviet school of athletic training.
Interestingly enough, the post-Soviet wild-west market economy seems most culpable. From The Times article quoting Russian Olympic official Gennady Schvets: "In the 1990's, everything was destroyed. When stadiums turned into markets and pools into V.I.P. saunas, athletics collapsed."

So what's to blame? The loss of the strong man or the sense of communal achievement?


  1. I'm strangely nostalgic for the Red Hockey Team because they were like from another planet. They were trained for only playing international hockey as if their country depended upon it because, well, it did. Their government was a papier mache construction but their hockey was unbeatable.

  2. You know, it's said that after the Miracle on Ice, when they were breaking down the Lake Placid village, they found dozens of empty vodka bottles hidden in the drop-down ceilings of the Russian mens' dorm. Guess they were human after all.