Anna Sandermoen: My book “The Cult in My Grandmother’s House” describes how I spent several years of my childhood in a Cult that was very much aligned with the existing communist ideology of creating strong humans, free from “philistine” ideas about cleanness and hygienic living.
We should live, talk, and behave like the true “proletary”. Family was seen as a bourgeois idea and kind-hearted parenting would only destroy the children. By being physically and mentally abused we would be cured from all mental and physical problems. Now I get some comments to my book that cults can exist anywhere and questions about why I am connecting this with a critical view on the Soviet Union. What would you reply to this?
Further, I can see through social media that there is a growing frustration about the present situation in Russia. This frustration makes some people describe why the Soviet time was better than now. Cleaner, less crime, less injustice, more equality, no homeless, all people had work and a place to live, etc.
What are your thoughts on this nostalgic movement towards the past?
Kjetil Sandermoen: First, let me say something in general about the nostalgic view on the past. Nostalgia is a longing for the “good old days”, that we remember as happy and pleasant.
My childhood and youth were in the 60ties and 70ties and whenever I talk with people from the same time about present time problems, we can very easily agree that “things were better before – in our time”. Nostalgia I believe is a common human attitude, even though the positive memories usually don’t stand a more critical test. We tend to minimize all the negative aspects about the past and magnify the positive.
I can observe that the “discussion” in Russia is becoming louder, tougher and more polarizing. The same phenomena can be observed in the USA. The common denominator in both places is that huge groups of people are being “left behind” economically and socially.
The poor is becoming unreasonably poorer, the rich unreasonably richer and the middle class is shrinking. In Russia because too little resources have been allocated to modernize the economy and it is still too much a raw material-based economy controlled by a few and benefiting a few.
In the USA because too much of the consumption production – for example household equipment, TV’s, furniture, cars – is moved out of the country and have therefore left millions of people in the USA unemployed. The financial crisis in 2008 – 2009 reinforced the gap between poor and rich in the USA.
This creates a social frustration that is extremely dangerous. It will breed nostalgia and seemingly easy solutions will get broad support. However, both the nostalgia and the easy solutions are just dangerous illusions that takes attention and energy away from solving the real problems. “Make America Great Again” is one such nostalgic illusion. “Soviet Union was better”, is another illusion. Mussolini “made the Italian trains go on time” is another illusion and “Hitler built the autobahns” is yet another illusion. The easy solutions in order to bring back “the good old days” are usually to find scapegoats (the ones that are accused of messing it all up); elites, homosexuals, Jews, journalists, foreigners – you name it.
Anna Sandermoen: What about my question regarding whether this specific sect could have been established outside the USSR?
Kjetil Sandermoen: People who claim that cults exist everywhere is of course right. You have become yourself quite a specialist on cults, and you know that cults exist everywhere, and you have investigated cults in many countries.
Your point is however that the purpose of this specific sect was directly based on the communistic ideology of the USSR to build a “commune” with strong, patriotic members living according to communistic principles of sharing everything, hard work, no unnecessary “pampering” of food, clothes, or comfort. There were small communistic groups and parties even in Western-Europe at that time and the most dedicated members also tried to live according to these principles. However, it didn’t last long. All the “cadres” went back to a life of affluence that our living standard here can offer. By the way, much in the same way as the communist leaders all over the world always lived in material affluence, even when “their” citizens were suffering.
The sect you unfortunately ended up in was in my opinion a genuine product of the USSR. If it had been founded in Europe, it wouldn’t have lived long. There would be no “audience” for the theater performances that you traveled all over the USSR to perform. You wouldn’t be able to “hide” children away from school-authorities and social-authorities, and if European elites and political leaders were sending their children to such a cult the media would very soon be all over the case.
We have cults like for example the Scientology both in the USA and Europe, and it is just as extreme as “your” cult, but they typically recruit youths and adults that can easier disappear because they are finished with schools and only their families and friends are worried about them. To bring children to such cults are much more difficult and of course also much more a violation.
I know that the sect you were sent to still exists and perform its bizarre activity still today in the middle of Moscow. They have obviously turned down their communistic rhetoric and are now trying to appear as a medical institution that can cure different very serious health conditions without any medical accreditation or medical professionals.
Anna Sandermoen: Russians have since the collapse of the USSR traveled a lot around the world. We are always very proud to share pictures of exotic places from around the world on social media when we travel. Because of the pandemic Russians – like all others – have not been able to travel abroad and have therefore traveled in Russia again. When they see the conditions in their own country outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, they get sad and upset. Roads, churches, homes are in a terrible condition many places. This, I believe, makes many people say that it was better in the USSR days. We remember large fields of corn, better maintained infrastructure and at least public buildings were painted and repaired. Do you understand this kind of nostalgia, and don’t you think it is instead of criticising the present situation directly?
Kjetil Sandermoen: Typical “nostalgic” arguments about the good USSR times that I have heard are that it brought us out of poverty, it gave full employment, all had a place to live, medical treatment was free and there was no crime. To a certain degree this is all true. Forgotten is however at what cost this happened. I visited the USSR several times and it was very clear that this was a scarcity society with poor products and where privileges were not based on your contribution but rather having the “right” ideological rhetoric and the right connections.
Any Western-European country were far beyond USSR in living conditions, freedom, and human rights at that time. What could have been the alternatives for Russia? What if Russia had taken another course rather than implementing an obscure European idea about communism born by a decadent, privileged and small European “intelligencia” without any touch with the realities of the working class. I grew up in a European country and were actively involved in politics and I know first-hand how the overwhelming majority of the working class here despised the communistic ideology. What if Russia had chosen the same course as the rest of Europe?
It is very sad that it is necessary even today to repeat the fact that Stalin’s USSR killed 62 million people! This was genocide through executions, deportation, famine, food-rationing and other atrocities. Communist China is number 2 on this blacklist – more than 35 million killed. Germany’s “Dritte Reich” is number 3 of murderous regimes with more than 20 million killed.
These are of course not made-up numbers, they are documented in gruesome details through several publications and researches, for example “The Black Book of Communism” by the French researchers Stephanie Cortois et. al.
Instead of being impressed and chocked by these staggering numbers, some people are longing back to “stability” and “full employment”. Give me a break.
Anyway, if you want to solve real problems and make better living conditions for everyone, you cannot drive forward looking in the rear-view mirror. Not everything is better than before, but to promote past times dictatorship and injustice just because “the trains went on time”, is a terrible deflection from trying to face the real problems in our present time.
Anna Sandermoen: Kjetil, I agree with what you are saying, but what would you say if I say that I am afraid some readers will see this as a very negative view on Russia?
Kjetil Sandermoen: I know that especially when foreigners say something that can be considered as negative about another country, even about the past, we are all easily upset. I will in the sincerest way say that it is not an attempt at all to criticize Russia as such or Russians in general. It is my personal opinions about how nostalgia sometimes can make us all blind for what was actually taking place, and it is and expression of my personal antagonism against any totalitarian ideology. I wish for a prosperous Russia and happy Russians. I am a businessman with pragmatic self-interests and not an authoritarian politician that see problems for others as a benefit and promotion for myself.
Read our books about life in the USSR. They are all written from abroad.