Interview with Professor Graeme Gill on Symbolism in the Soviet Union

Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics

University of Sydney Professor Graeme Gill is a leading scholar on communist regimes, focusing most recently on political change in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In his latest book Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics (Cambridge University Press), Professor Gill analyses the use of symbolism and ritual in the Soviet Union, and how it changed over the course of the regime's history.

In this brief Q&A, Professor Gill discusses trends in Soviet symbolism and the importance that symbolism still plays in contemporary politics - both in Russia and across the globe.

Q&A with Graeme Gill

Your new book is entitled "Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics". How do you define 'symbols'?

I've taken a very broad interpretation of symbols. I've included a focus on the concrete symbols of the state, including things like the flag and the coat of arms, but, more importantly, I've looked at the way in which political leaders have referred to the future of Communist society - to where they were going, to what they were trying to do, and the way in which they paint pictures of the present and the past.

That's been reflected in the speeches that they make. It's been reflected in various policy documents. And it's also been reflected in the artwork. I looked a lot at political posters in particular. In addition, I've also looked at the image of the leader that is projected through the political system, and at the material reality of how people lived. So, it ranges from images of the future all the way through to contemporary material reality.

Is there a difference between Soviet symbols and Soviet propaganda?

A lot of the propaganda used symbols. That's what was so unusual about the Soviet Union when you compare it with other systems. The whole discourse within the country - in terms of the rhetoric of speeches, what was portrayed on television, and the way in which decisions were presented - was all suffused with these symbols that were related directly to the regime and what it saw its purpose as being about. And the regime saw its purpose as moving toward a communist society. Therefore, everything featured that symbolic image of what communism was about. So, propaganda was expressed in a symbolic dimension through symbolic forms.

In your book, you trace the development of symbolism in the USSR from its founding in 1917 all the way to its collapse in 1991. What did the earliest Soviet symbols looked like?

If you look at political posters, there are a number of ways in which the enterprise that they saw themselves engaged in was reflected.

One was through posters which showed the Soviet Union as a fortress under attack from the outside. It was emphasising the ways in which the Western Powers in particular were intent on trying to snuff out the new regime.

Domestically, there was a lot of emphasis on the relationship between urban workers and peasants in the countryside as they tried to build a new state functioning in the interests of both classes. They were trying to suggest that the peseants were solid supporters of the regime, when in fact many of them weren't. The image that they sought to project was one of unity between these two classes.

How does that compare with the symbols of the Soviet Union during its collapse?

By the time the Soviet Union is collapsing, the emphasis on class has become much less clear. They're now arguing that although class is still existent in the Soviet Union, the relationship between them is non-antagonistic. Therefore, what you get is a kind of bland representation of the Soviet citizen. Rather than being defined in class terms, it's defined in terms of the membership of the broad polity. The focus is much more on elastic class differentiations.

In the early period, the focus is very much upon achieving Communism for its moral ends - the creation of a good person, equality, liberty, freedom. By the end of the Soviet Union, Communism is defined much more in terms in the availability of material goods. You have a really stark change in the image of the future toward which society is meant to be going.

Why did that shift take place?

It's a reflection of historical context. By the 1980s, it was pretty clear that the legitimacy of the regime rested increasingly on the provision of material goods rather than on an adherence to values. What they tried to do is to use that dependence upon access to material goods as a way of justifying where they were going.

Is there any continuity between the symbolism of the Soviet Union and what we see in Russia today?

There is some underlying continuity in the sense that some of the Soviet symbolism emphasised the need for a strong leader, and that is present in contemporary Russia. But what's most interesting about the contemporary situation is the attitude toward the Soviet Union. Whereas during the Soviet period everything was positive, now it's by no means clear that everything was positive.

Certain sections of society believe that the Soviet Union was an utter disaster. Other section believe that those were the good old days when life was good and there were no worries. Visions of the Soviet Union are really polarised, and that's a problem for them because that means that they can't move forward from a common basis. Some want to restore aspects of the Soviet Union; others don't. So, the image is fractured in a way that it wasn't in the past.

Do you think that symbolism is something that's imposed from the top-down, or something that has to respond to the larger zeitgeist?

The most successful symbols are the ones that people respond to and adopt. An example that is apparent in the Soviet Union, in contemporary Russia, in Australia is about the war dead. It's interesting if you look at how many memorials there are for people who died during the First World War. It shows the way in which a symbol really takes hold when it's both fostered from above but also received from below.

They can begin at either end, but they only really take hold if they encapsulate both parts of society.

Have you come across any larger trends on the use of symbols outside the Soviet Union? What are some of the similarities that you’ve seen across other states?

What it shows is how important symbolism was. You can argue that the increasing incoherence of the symbolic universe reflects the increasing incoherence of the politics, and a search for a way out of the malaise that they got themselves into.

The manipulation of symbols is common right across the political spectrum and right across the world. That's part of what politics is about, manipulating the symbols and making sure that they align with what you are doing.