On a crisp afternoon last month, a couple hundred people gathered on the main square of this small town a few hours north of Moscow to witness a historic event: the unearthing of a letter written half a century ago in Soviet Pereslavl to the youth of 2018.
The letter, written by young people in 1968, had been sealed in a metal cylinder shaped like a rocket — no doubt in homage to Yuri Gagarin’s triumphant venture into space, which took a few years before the capsule was buried under a small gray pedestal. Photos from the 1968 ceremony show locals bundled in coats and quilted jackets under the square’s statue of Vladimir Lenin, his disproportionately long arm pointing over their heads toward the undoubtedly bright Communist future in the 21st century.
“We bequeath to you the ardent love for the great leader of the working class Vladimir Lenin,” the letter says. “Create a beautiful monument to Vladimir Ilyich, the palace of Communism, a great and worthy manifestation of his immortal ideas!”
Fifty years later, Russia under President Vladimir Putin looks pretty different from what Lenin or his followers imagined. The Pereslavl Lenin himself suffered an unfortunate fate a year ago, when construction workers rebuilding the square knocked off his arm and then encased the one-armed body in a plywood box. A sign on the box now denotes the traditional “location” of Vladimir Ilyich, a 1929 monument under state protection. Locals aren’t certain he is still inside.
Letters to the future were a widespread phenomenon in the Soviet Union in 1967 and ’68. Those years were characterized for the Soviet masses by the fantasy of space exploration and the introduction of the two-day weekend, the first time since World War II that workers didn’t have to work six days a week. The letters were written to commemorate a half century since the 1917 revolution and the establishment a year later of the Komsomol, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League. They reflected the dream of a more comfortable future, one where ordinary people could finally enjoy the fruits of grueling labor of generations before them.
“You work and live in a Communist society which we have begun to build, our generation: the pupil of Lenin’s Komsomol, Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin unveiled the first space routes, while you fly to other planets,” says a handwritten letter unveiled in October in Sedelnikovo, a Siberian village.
“We are building, building, building,” reads a letter in the city of Tobolsk, listing hardships during construction of a railroad through the swamps to western Siberia’s oil fields. “We believe that in 2018 people will be safe from war and hunger. The world will be more just than it is today and there will be no capitalists left.”
Unveiling and reading these letters over the past two years, as the quality of life for most Russians declines, has inspired bittersweet contemplation. While the two-day weekend is still around, another institution of the Soviet era, the state pension, has taken a hit: a reform pushed by Mr. Putin will raise the retirement age next year to 60 from 55 for women and to 65 from 60 for men. (These reforms have been especially unpopular and are widely believed to be responsible for a sharp decline in the popularity of United Russia, the majority party, and of Mr. Putin himself.) The remnants of other benefits of the Soviet welfare state — like free health care and education — continue going through “optimization,” the preferred Russian euphemism for budget cuts.
The sense of injustice is rising, especially outside big cities. Even the optimistic television coverage of a new bridge to Crimea and the reports of military victories in Syria are showing signs of wear. A study by the Institute of Sociology by the Russian Academy of Sciences published this month found that Russians’ priorities have changed since late 2014, when many celebrated the annexation of Crimea. Today, more people believe that projecting great power and military might is less important than a fair society and people’s well-being. Russians may have given up the idea of Communism and a government of workers and peasants, but they still want the state to ensure their economic survival.
Despite Mr. Putin’s proclamations about economic growth, analysis shows that Russians are increasingly pessimistic. An October study by the Higher School of Economics found that consumer confidence has fallen sharply. Despite economic growth over the past two years, rising oil prices and macroeconomic stability (if we are to believe official state statistics) have not provided much relief to the average household. In fact, Russians are more jaded than they have been in years.
The Kremlin has tried to contain public dissatisfaction by appointing a flock of new governors this fall, but micromanaging the brewing social discontent is unlikely to work, said Vitaly Pashkov, a local entrepreneur and activist in Pereslavl, which in September elected a City Council dominated by members of parties other than United Russia — a rarity.
Pereslavl was one place to which a new mayor with his team from Moscow region had been sent to patch things up after a previous mayor was jailed in 2016. Mr. Pashkov calls this type of Moscow-appointed official a “nomad manager” who has no connection to the region. “Their main concern is to build their careers and make money” before moving elsewhere, Mr. Pashkov said.
The nomad mayor spent two years in Pereslavl and then moved on to take over another, bigger city — but not before single-handedly liquidating the town’s pride: its small university that produced I.T. specialists. The mayor simply ordered that the struggling institution move out of the municipally owned buildings it had been using free for 25 years, which led it to lose its education ministry license.
Sergei Abramov, a mathematician who was the university’s rector and now directs a local research institute, predicted that losing the university would eventually cause Pereslavl to lose a quarter of its population, in line with trends in similar Russian towns where higher education had been “optimized.”
Local discussion of the letter from 1968 has been bitter, Mr. Abramov said: “And us? What are we leaving for future generations?”
“Prices are growing, bills are growing, you only think of how to manage not to be a burden for your children,” said Asya Shobanova, a retired engineer who in 1968 sealed the letter in the rocket-shaped capsule. She didn’t have illusions about the Soviet system, but back then she found justice during an important dispute with her boss, when a local prosecutor came to her defense. “There is no justice now, just routine, instability, fear and lack of confidence,” she said.
Mr. Pashkov remembered that even when he was growing up in the ’80s, Pereslavl was developing new residential neighborhoods. These days, one of the town’s few development projects was renovation of the town square and its “house of culture” community center. Not only did that cost Lenin his arm; it also risked injuring the living when the newly renovated portico collapsed a month after reopening. Shiny new plastic panels were simply covering up the rotting frame of the building.
“That sort of characterizes today’s system,” Mr. Pashkov said, “where you have a modern finish outside but internally it’s complete decay.”
Maria Antonova is a Moscow-based reporter for Agence France-Presse.