“The Soviet Union still exists,” the middle-aged woman told me. She spoke slowly, as if by doing so she would have more chance of convincing me to disregard the history books and my own eyes. “And we are resurrecting its organs of state power.”
I met Alla Paladiy, who goes by the grand title of chairwoman of the executive committee of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, in an office in a rundown former mining college in Lyubertsy, a city near Moscow once notorious for organized crime.
She was accompanied by half a dozen other self-proclaimed Soviet officials, including Konstantin Vyatkin, a mild-mannered businessman who claims to lead the Supreme Soviet of Russia. The head of their KGB state security service, they said, was too busy to meet me. I was not sure if I should be disappointed or relieved.
Paladiy, Vyatkin and their Communist comrades are among a growing number of Russians who refuse to accept that the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 independent countries in 1991. They insist on carrying Soviet documents and many refuse to obey Russian laws or pay taxes because they regard the government as illegitimate. The FSB security service estimates there are 150,000 “Soviet citizens” throughout Russia.
Vyatkin, 47, was adamant that the Soviet Union, the world’s first Communist state, did not legally cease to exist three decades ago. “I would like your newspaper to remind our citizens of this,” he said, before citing “evidence” for his claim that included cherry-picked quotes from Boris Yeltsin, the late Russian president, and the constitution, which defines Russia as the legal successor to the Soviet Union.
They insist on carrying Soviet documents and many refuse to obey Russian laws or pay taxes because they regard the government as illegitimate.
Fueled by social media, the Soviet revival network has no single leader and is a baffling cocktail of conspiracy theories and confused readings of Russian law fused with nostalgia for the Communist era. A number of rival politburos have been established, with myriad groups claiming to be in charge of the Soviet state. A minority of more extreme activists have reportedly issued “death sentences” against officials who refuse to accept Soviet rule.
Websites sell “Soviet passports” for prices starting at 4,000 rubles ($54) and newly minted citizens attend ceremonies. Some have tried to use their status as “Soviet citizens” to avoid paying utility charges or repaying bank loans, while motorists inform bewildered traffic police that they obey only the Soviet highway code.
“It is now clear that people who deny the collapse of the Soviet Union are a full-fledged social phenomenon,” Takie Dela, a news website, said.
“They are like our local QAnon,” said Mikhail Akhmetiev, a sociologist at the Sova centre in Moscow, a reference to the pro-Trump conspiracy movement in the United States. “Some of them are more likely to be inclined to violence than others, but it’s doubtful that they could really carry out their threats.”
A minority of more extreme activists have reportedly issued “death sentences” against officials who refuse to accept Soviet rule.
Like America, Russia has always offered fertile ground for fringe groups, ranging from the czarist-era Skoptsy sect, who castrated themselves, to the renegade Stalinist monk whose followers seized a nunnery in the Urals last year. The National Liberation Movement, another popular group, believes that Russia has been a secret American colony since the early 1990s.
Although President Vladimir Putin’s government has been accused of Soviet-style political repression, the Kremlin does not take kindly to being labeled illegitimate or an “occupying” force. Last month, a court in Volgograd jailed a 53-year-old Soviet revivalist for six years on charges of encouraging Russians to “oppose the activities of government bodies at all levels”.
The “Soviet citizens” are also notorious for their anti-vaccine and anti-Semitic views. This month, two of its members were arrested on charges of plotting to kill a rabbi in the Krasnodar region, near the Black Sea.
The self-proclaimed Soviet ministers in Lyubertsy were keen to avoid associations with extremism. In any case, Paladiy told me, the Russian police would have no right to move against them.
They also insisted, however, that they were cooperating with Putin’s government to re-establish Soviet rule. “We work with the authorities together for the good of our people,” said Rafael Khasyanov, a middle-aged man in dark glasses and a black T-shirt. He was, he said, a Soviet people’s judge. “In the past, I could have sent you to the gulag,” he boasted.
It was not hard, however, to detect their contempt for Putin’s government. “The government lacks competent specialists,” Paladiy sighed. “But we have them.”