What is the Soviet Union?


At the start of a class on the situation in Russia, I handed out a questionnaire to the new students, to find out what they knew about Russia and the Soviet Union.

For each of a few dozen people, institutions and other items connected with Russia, the students had to pick one of three options: ‘A. I know about it/them’, ‘B. I’ve heard of it/them’, or ‘C. I haven7t heard of it/them’.

The majority of the 30 respondents answered A for Gorbachev and Putin, but 4% answered A or B for Brezhnev, only one answered A for the KGB, 3 student answered A or B for Gagarin, 2 for Sputnik and only 2 students knew about Red Square.

That a third of students knew about Nicholas II and Bloody Sunday is probably due to them having studied it at high school. However, only one student knew about Solzhenitsyn.

If one thinks about it, in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, this generation was still in their third or fourth year at elementary school. If one-party dictatorships or dissident groups are mentioned, the response is “What’s that?” There is no mystery as to why they have not even so much as an impression of terror or darkness, let alone the most basic knowledge about the Soviet Union.

What has caused me to reflect upon such an obvious thing at this particular moment in time is that it has occurred to me that, while we old researchers are researching our various narrow fields of specialism in depth and in detail, we have not really considered the change in the general public’s knowledge of and opinion with regard to Russia. For example, even if we say “The Soviet Union is not a particularly terrifying country”, for those listeners who have no recollection of a terrifying Soviet Union, this seems to be blowing a non-existent problem up out of all proportion.

Currently in Japan, interest in Russia is so weak as to be almost unwarranted, while the numbers of citizens and students learning about Russia have plummeted. As someone who has had a long association with Russia, I am disheartened by this, but it goes further than that. It may sound a little bit of an overstatement, but I am worried that in the future, Japan’s national interests may suffer.

I am keenly aware that when experts write and speak about Russia, they must take the standpoint of their audience – the public, in particular the younger generation – as their starting point and then broaden people’s interest naturally.

Anyway, it is worth watching and I strongly recommend it.

[Translated by ERINA]