Ideas Archipelago USSR | Belarus
Minsk, 1st May, 2017. At the Pioneer's initiation ceremony. | Photo: Peryn

Back in the USSR – again

At 44, Belarusian writer Viktar Martinovič has already ‘lived three lives’: a Pioneer shortly before the fall of the USSR, a successful Belarusian author after his country's independence, and currently a dissident. Since the unsuccessful protests against president Lukashenka in 2020, artists in Belarus are once again being repressed as they were in Soviet times. This is the first part of a series on the 30th anniversary of the breakup of USSR.

Published on 21 December 2021 at 09:33
Minsk, 1st May, 2017. At the Pioneer's initiation ceremony. | Photo: Peryn

Greetings, my name is Viktar Martinovič, and I am a man who, by the age of 44, has lived three lives.

Three lives at a time when most people have barely been able to handle one life.

And – to make myself clearer – by three lives I mean the whole range of sensations that have been open to me in all my years of life so far.

Three different lots of dreams.

Three different sets of values.

Three different selves.

Three different trajectories of delusions.

My deaths and rebirths I owe entirely to an event which took place exactly thirty years ago. The collapse of the USSR. The rise of a new country, the Republic of Belarus, and my successful emergence as a recognised writer in that country.

Archipelago USSR: the 30th anniversary of the breakup of Soviet Union

Ukraine: From USSR to Maidan, a corridor of memories
Belarus: Back in the USSR – again
Russia: the Soviet Union’s neverending disintegration
Moldova: ‘To be born in the USSR was to be born into a state of being’
In Soviet Georgia, escape came through football

Then came the re-establishment of the USSR and, what’s more, in the most rigid, cast-iron meaning of the word. Re-establishment first of all within the boundaries of one small republic, and then on the scale of that republic’s union with the Russian Giant.

I am a pioneer

"Joining the ranks of the All-Union Organisation of Pioneers…" And at this point I stumbled on the words, not because I didn’t know the oath by heart, but because of the butterflies in my tummy I didn’t have enough breath to continue. "Here in the presence of my comrades" (breathe in – out) "I solemnly swear" (pause, the butterflies are making everything go dark in front of my eyes, I realise that this is the most important day of my life, there will never be anything more important, never ever). "I swear. I swear" – here I felt the full force of this word. – "I swear to love my country (which I understood, of course, to mean the USSR) with all my heart; to live, learn and struggle as the great Lenin bade us, and to follow the Rules of the Pioneers of the USSR."

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It took several months to prepare for this ritual – we learned how to tie the neckerchief and how to iron it, we swotted over the oath and the Rules of the Pioneers. Any school student who had been given ‘unsatisfactory’ for behaviour was threatened: we won’t accept you into the Pioneers. And the school student would change for the better; not being admitted to the Pioneers at that time meant more or less the same thing as being deprived of your credit card for ever would mean now.

At the moment of tying his neckerchief my classmate Sasha fainted from the emotion of it all.

It was October 1987.

The 27th Party Congress had already happened.

Perestroika was already in full swing. In two years time it would crash into the Berlin Wall and sweep it away.

Adults on the streets were all wearing jeans, and there was a distinct smell of decay in the language and topics of the central newspapers.

There was Pepsi-Cola on the shelves of the food stores, and the music shops were doing good business selling Boris Grebenshchikov’s record Ravnodenstvie (Equinox), full of hymns to the new times. One of the tracks on it was the song ‘The Generation of Caretakers and Watchmen’ – about rock musicians and writers who had decided to live against the current and work as stokers, caretakers and watchmen (and were all nevertheless venerated by millions).

None of this existed in my reality.

My mind was firmly set on the Bright Future.

I believed that all my life I would ‘live, learn and struggle, as the great Lenin bade us’.

The two-part film ‘Gost’ya iz budushchego’ (Guest from the Future) was being shown on the television; it was about Soviet Moscow in 2084, where pioneers like me would take a trip on a regular rocket to the Moon or Uranus, a planet also ruled by the Bolsheviks. The way I saw my future fitted perfectly into the film’s scenes, all of them brightly lit by the July sun: here I am soaring on a ‘flip’ (a two-seater flying car) above my home city Minsk. Or here I am struggling against capitalist agents who have wormed their way into our territory from hostile planets in order to sabotage the factories of both large and medium-sized industries in the BSSR.

If anyone had said to me that it was all going to collapse, I would have been very upset.

After all, the USSR was not just a place where I live.

The USSR was me.


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