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Fast Memories: Recycled Soviets and Real-life Russians in Havana Bay

When Vladimir Putin traveled to Cuba in 2000, he was the first Russian president to do so since Mikhail Gorbachev visited in 1989. Soviet influence on the island was hardly something anyone wished to remember. At that time, a Cuban woman in the street reported to the press a sentiment that echoed an official slant: “Nothing remained, we don’t dance like Russians, we don’t eat like Russians, and we don’t even drink vodka.” While Germany never actually put into place the Ostalgie theme park it had talked about back at the start of the millennium, entrepreneurs in the incipient postnormalization era may do well to consider the venture anew, as communism, however hard President Raúl Castro spins it, appears to be as vexed as ever in Cuba.

What is most striking in the recent reports by such Cuba experts as Manuel Yepe and Arturo López Levy is their almost singular emphasis on the positive image of Russia that predominates in Cuba today, on the numerous traces the Soviets left on the island. The reports suggest a gratitude for the Soviet Union having helped Cuba survive during a large part of the United States’ half-century-old embargo; there is a tendency to place somewhat at bay the extreme vicissitudes of these “memory tides” over the past twenty-five years in order to mold a new and revived post–Cold War and post-Obama world wherein Russia and the United States can have the same ally—Cuba—and Cuba can be more normal. The arrival of the Russian spy ship on Tuesday, January 20, at Havana Bay, however, at the heels of the U.S. delegation’s meetings does not signal that either Russians or Cubans are ready to let go of the Cold War so quickly. The marketing of the Soviet past is alive and well, as several recent articles about tourism in Cuba have pointed out, whether addressing fine dining in a Soviet theme restaurant or renting an old Soviet limo for a party to the tune of Soviet anthems.  But such congealing of the Soviet past into an automobile ride for a nostalgic market composed of Cubans and tourists alike bypasses both a longer history of critical moments that addressed the dollar, dissidence, and desire, as well as the very real present elected affinities between Russia and Cuba.

For many Cubans who grew up with Eastern bloc cartoons on Cuban television, the Soviets who in the 1970s and 1980s were badgered (in private) for their idiosyncrasies and imposition within their country did not look so bad once Cubans endured the insurmountable dearth of capital in the 1990s, brought on by the Soviet dissolution. With the legalization of the dollar and the onslaught of Canadian and European tourism, Cubans lived within a dual economy that positioned them as close-up witnesses to capitalism. Not long ago, I suggested that one of the only places that the notion of the “Soviet” was still well and alive was in Cuba, and this in a country where many once insisted on indiscriminately calling all people from the Soviet republics “Russians.” I was primarily referring to the children of mixed marriages—families made up primarily of Cuban men and women from the diverse Soviet republics who came to light as a significant demographic in Gustavo Pérez and Oneyda González’s striking 2006 documentary They Would All Be Queens. With the spokesmanship of the brilliant intellectual Dmitri Prieto Samsonov, these mixed children, often referred to as aguastibias (the lukewarm result of “hot” and “cold” cultures) or polovinas (half-breeds), once sought to form an association on the island through which they could advocate for themselves and extend their traditions.

While the worst strains of even present-day authoritarian repression are often attributed to the Soviet legacy, numerous generations of Cuban intellectuals also schooled themselves in resistance to it through reading the Soviet Union’s sharpest critics, including Marina Tvestaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Mikhail Bulgakov. These authors indeed inhabit the works of the greatest Cuban writers of today both in Cuba and in the diaspora: Neruda Prize winner Reina María Rodríguez as much as the lesser known, in English, but extremely interesting Antonio Armenteros and Antonio Álvarez Gil. Desiderio Navarro’s theoretical journal and project Criterios, a library of the most important and obscure Slavic thinkers in Spanish, merits numerous theses on trend-setting cross-pollination. Diverse Soviet icons form part of Cuba’s rich and complicated social, cultural, and political tapestry, whether in reinterpretations of Soviet anthems with incisive Cuban mockery, as is the case of the rock band Porno Para Ricardo (now internationally renowned due to the state’s repeated repression of its lead singer, Gorki Águila), or paying homage to the most iconic of singer-songwriters from the Soviet Union, Vladimir Vysotsky, as does Porno Para Ricardo’s offshoot, La Babosa Azul. Cubans’ own consumption of the multifarious Soviet past is not limited to these cultural objects, but includes, as Nora Gámez recently pointed out, a part of everyday diasporic life in Miami, where even the least flavorful of Russian foods, like carne rusa (canned meat), form part of Cubans’ variegated material culture.  

On the other hand, it is impossible to evade the real-life contemporary Soviets or, should I say, Russians . . . . President Vladimir Putin’s tour of Latin America last summer that was inaugurated with a visit to Cuba and a pardoning of 90% of Cuba’s debt is only one nodule in a vast rubric of imperialist nostalgia. While remembering the Soviets and Russians are hardly the critical maneuver that they once were in the face of both 1990s’ capitalism and the state’s fast forgetting of their “friendship” with them, the Cuban-Soviet scenario is much more fractured and less contained than marketing can make it out to be.  This schizoid kind of memory is evident, for instance, in the visual and literary work of Polina Martínez Shvietsova (translated into English in Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s Cuba in Splinters and Cuban Newrrative). It is visible too in the grandiose, fictionalized memoirs of a Cuban witnessing either perestroika or its aftermath in the Russian nouveau riche in José Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia and in his novel Rex, wherein the commodification of communism as well as the pleasure of capitalist goods foreshadow paths of recycling apparatchiks and comrades into newly remade exemplary maneuverers of capitalism. There are many lessons to be learned from the work of these authors and artists, as well as others, many living here in the New York area, of distinct generations, such as Sonia Rivera Valdés, Armando Suárez Cobián, Jacqueline Herranz-Brooks, Enrique del Risco, Alexis Romay, Grettel J. Singer, Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, and Osdany Morales. They teach us the extent to which Cuban authors, having already lived for some years now with a multipronged capitalism, the leftovers of the Soviet inheritance, and the penetration of the Venezuelan and Chinese models, have much to say that cannot be encapsulated into the recent “best of’” bibliographies, which, while they advocate for superb literary voices, do not always represent the fact that such experiences also entail a resistance to easy consumption.

English

When Vladimir Putin traveled to Cuba in 2000, he was the first Russian president to do so since Mikhail Gorbachev visited in 1989. Soviet influence on the island was hardly something anyone wished to remember. At that time, a Cuban woman in the street reported to the press a sentiment that echoed an official slant: “Nothing remained, we don’t dance like Russians, we don’t eat like Russians, and we don’t even drink vodka.” While Germany never actually put into place the Ostalgie theme park it had talked about back at the start of the millennium, entrepreneurs in the incipient postnormalization era may do well to consider the venture anew, as communism, however hard President Raúl Castro spins it, appears to be as vexed as ever in Cuba.

What is most striking in the recent reports by such Cuba experts as Manuel Yepe and Arturo López Levy is their almost singular emphasis on the positive image of Russia that predominates in Cuba today, on the numerous traces the Soviets left on the island. The reports suggest a gratitude for the Soviet Union having helped Cuba survive during a large part of the United States’ half-century-old embargo; there is a tendency to place somewhat at bay the extreme vicissitudes of these “memory tides” over the past twenty-five years in order to mold a new and revived post–Cold War and post-Obama world wherein Russia and the United States can have the same ally—Cuba—and Cuba can be more normal. The arrival of the Russian spy ship on Tuesday, January 20, at Havana Bay, however, at the heels of the U.S. delegation’s meetings does not signal that either Russians or Cubans are ready to let go of the Cold War so quickly. The marketing of the Soviet past is alive and well, as several recent articles about tourism in Cuba have pointed out, whether addressing fine dining in a Soviet theme restaurant or renting an old Soviet limo for a party to the tune of Soviet anthems.  But such congealing of the Soviet past into an automobile ride for a nostalgic market composed of Cubans and tourists alike bypasses both a longer history of critical moments that addressed the dollar, dissidence, and desire, as well as the very real present elected affinities between Russia and Cuba.

For many Cubans who grew up with Eastern bloc cartoons on Cuban television, the Soviets who in the 1970s and 1980s were badgered (in private) for their idiosyncrasies and imposition within their country did not look so bad once Cubans endured the insurmountable dearth of capital in the 1990s, brought on by the Soviet dissolution. With the legalization of the dollar and the onslaught of Canadian and European tourism, Cubans lived within a dual economy that positioned them as close-up witnesses to capitalism. Not long ago, I suggested that one of the only places that the notion of the “Soviet” was still well and alive was in Cuba, and this in a country where many once insisted on indiscriminately calling all people from the Soviet republics “Russians.” I was primarily referring to the children of mixed marriages—families made up primarily of Cuban men and women from the diverse Soviet republics who came to light as a significant demographic in Gustavo Pérez and Oneyda González’s striking 2006 documentary They Would All Be Queens. With the spokesmanship of the brilliant intellectual Dmitri Prieto Samsonov, these mixed children, often referred to as aguastibias (the lukewarm result of “hot” and “cold” cultures) or polovinas (half-breeds), once sought to form an association on the island through which they could advocate for themselves and extend their traditions.

While the worst strains of even present-day authoritarian repression are often attributed to the Soviet legacy, numerous generations of Cuban intellectuals also schooled themselves in resistance to it through reading the Soviet Union’s sharpest critics, including Marina Tvestaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Mikhail Bulgakov. These authors indeed inhabit the works of the greatest Cuban writers of today both in Cuba and in the diaspora: Neruda Prize winner Reina María Rodríguez as much as the lesser known, in English, but extremely interesting Antonio Armenteros and Antonio Álvarez Gil. Desiderio Navarro’s theoretical journal and project Criterios, a library of the most important and obscure Slavic thinkers in Spanish, merits numerous theses on trend-setting cross-pollination. Diverse Soviet icons form part of Cuba’s rich and complicated social, cultural, and political tapestry, whether in reinterpretations of Soviet anthems with incisive Cuban mockery, as is the case of the rock band Porno Para Ricardo (now internationally renowned due to the state’s repeated repression of its lead singer, Gorki Águila), or paying homage to the most iconic of singer-songwriters from the Soviet Union, Vladimir Vysotsky, as does Porno Para Ricardo’s offshoot, La Babosa Azul. Cubans’ own consumption of the multifarious Soviet past is not limited to these cultural objects, but includes, as Nora Gámez recently pointed out, a part of everyday diasporic life in Miami, where even the least flavorful of Russian foods, like carne rusa (canned meat), form part of Cubans’ variegated material culture.  

On the other hand, it is impossible to evade the real-life contemporary Soviets or, should I say, Russians . . . . President Vladimir Putin’s tour of Latin America last summer that was inaugurated with a visit to Cuba and a pardoning of 90% of Cuba’s debt is only one nodule in a vast rubric of imperialist nostalgia. While remembering the Soviets and Russians are hardly the critical maneuver that they once were in the face of both 1990s’ capitalism and the state’s fast forgetting of their “friendship” with them, the Cuban-Soviet scenario is much more fractured and less contained than marketing can make it out to be.  This schizoid kind of memory is evident, for instance, in the visual and literary work of Polina Martínez Shvietsova (translated into English in Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s Cuba in Splinters and Cuban Newrrative). It is visible too in the grandiose, fictionalized memoirs of a Cuban witnessing either perestroika or its aftermath in the Russian nouveau riche in José Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia and in his novel Rex, wherein the commodification of communism as well as the pleasure of capitalist goods foreshadow paths of recycling apparatchiks and comrades into newly remade exemplary maneuverers of capitalism. There are many lessons to be learned from the work of these authors and artists, as well as others, many living here in the New York area, of distinct generations, such as Sonia Rivera Valdés, Armando Suárez Cobián, Jacqueline Herranz-Brooks, Enrique del Risco, Alexis Romay, Grettel J. Singer, Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, and Osdany Morales. They teach us the extent to which Cuban authors, having already lived for some years now with a multipronged capitalism, the leftovers of the Soviet inheritance, and the penetration of the Venezuelan and Chinese models, have much to say that cannot be encapsulated into the recent “best of’” bibliographies, which, while they advocate for superb literary voices, do not always represent the fact that such experiences also entail a resistance to easy consumption.

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