Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Back in the USSR: for Russian youngsters, Soviet kitsch is way cool
January 21, 2003

Soviet retro is all the rage among young people in Russia's former imperial capital of Saint Petersburg, and nowhere more so than at the trendy "CCCP" cafe, named after the Cyrillic-letter acronym for the Soviet Union.

Servers at the "CCCP" -- pronounced ess-ess-ess-air -- wear the hammer and sickle on their tee-shirts as they wait on a clientele which in its great majority is too young to remember the Soviet Union -- defunct as of December 1991 -- as an oppressive dictatorship.

"Our clients are attracted by the originality of the decor, it's new to them, they like it," said Natasha, a 20-year-old waitress. Alexei, sipping coffee in a corner of the cafe, agreed: "I was intrigued by those forgotten initials, right on the Nevsky Prospect," he said, referring to the city's historic main street. "It attracted my curiosity."

Manager Yevgeny Zavalin, admitting that the Soviet paraphernalia was the main factor in the cafe's success since it opened just a few weeks ago, noted that the style was "the latest fashion -- they see it as original, it draws them in."

Cafes and bars working in a similar vein include the "Propaganda", the "Papanin", named after a famous Stalin-era polar explorer, and the "Plakushaya Iva" (Weeping Willow), the name of a restaurant that featured in a popular television comedy series of the 1970s.

For the majority of young people drawn to the Soviet cult, the attraction is not so much nostalgia for a time of totalitarianism as the recollection of their childhood and early youth, and the security they felt prior to the free market deluge.

"For people currently aged around 30, the Soviet Union represents the country of childhood, and naturally they experience warm feelings and good humour towards it," said sociologist Yelena Zdravomislova.

These people are not old enough to have felt the full repressive burden of the regime, she noted. "For them, there were no dictators, no dissidents. They don't have particularly negative feelings about the USSR, unlike their elders."

The Soviet kitsch is often married to post-modernism and hi-tech, the fustian austerity combining in odd ways with the youth culture of the 21st century.

At the "CCCR", Plastic and bakelite feature prominently, as do metallic conduits running alone the ceiling. A television screen emits round-the-clock fashion parades.

The "Propaganda" resembles a family apartment from the time of Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982, with books of the period lying about for casual perusal.

The walls are covered with propaganda posters from the 1920s. A typical example proclaims "Long Life to the Powerful Aviation of our Socialist Country". The cloakroom has opted for a "military" theme and is painted in camouflage-style browns and greens.

"People are fed up with impersonal styles. To succeed, a restaurant needs an attractive concept," manager Anna Mikova said.

For sociologist Zdravomislova, the term "concept" gives the game away, confirming that the Soviet fad has no political significance and is being exploited merely as an article of fashion based on the memories of today's twenty-somethings.

Andrei Burtsev, a 29-year-old diner at the "Propaganda", spelled it out: "I have no nostalgia for the Soviet regime, but I do like to remember my childhood. It's amusing to think back to all that, especially if you are sure it will never return."

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