Three stripes and concrete buildings
Doomer soviet core and aestheticisation of culture
By Natalia Sudoł
While I’m a bit too old to use TikTok myself, I was recently sent a video of a young woman wearing a long leather jacket with fur trims, talking about how she felt it was very soviet core. It was the first time I heard of the term and with no lie, I chuckled a bit. The coat looked like the one my mom used to wear. The aestheticisation of Eastern European fashion from the 70s and 80s seemed quite niche to me. Oh, how wrong I was! Turns out, there are entire mood-boards, tags and other things all over Pinterest, Tumblr, and Youtube.
Followed by the already familiar doomer aesthetic, the recent decade has brought to us a flood of memes about slavs squatting, a new fascination with brutalism and soviet architecture, and the rise of soviet core. It was all followed by trends such as wearing traditional Eastern European headscarves and calling them babushkas. All of those seem largely harmless and even fun, but with the steady rise of romanticisation of soviet core, it began to raise questions regarding the wider context of the West/East divide and how our culture can be, often unknowingly, used to fuel that division.
The popularity of babushkas, Slav squats and three stripes is rarely bad-intentioned or calculated to humiliate like many culturally insensitive forms of exoticisation, such as the oversexualisation of Latina content creators or using chopsticks as hair accessories. I would argue that the spike in the blind romanticisation of Slavic aesthetics is more of a result of wilful ignorance. I’m leaning towards the term wilful since the ever-present on social media Gen Z has the easiest access to information the world has ever seen and has been constantly calling for educating one another. It would be great if we considered how these doomer and soviet core aesthetics feed a very particular stereotype of Eastern Europeans many of us have encountered at some point. While lacking malicious intentions, the romanticisation of (predominantly) Slavic experiences and culture — as the “babushka” headscarves used to have a religious meaning that have fallen out of grace with the increasing westernisation of Eastern Europe — directs many the wrong way.
It all seems a tad culturally insensitive and ignorant, yet difficult to call out in the painfully American-centered social media world. Not only because Americans will remain the loudest consumers of media but also due to the ways American discourse is shaped regarding culture, cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity. While Eastern Europe is predominantly white, these issues get tangled into racial discourse, which remains US-centered and, as such are simplified to an extent that we tend to forget of the existence of a multitude of ethnicities the world was graced us with. This is slowly being brought to light with talks on the experience of colourism among black activists; the discrimination of underrrepresented Hmong Asians at university level as part of policies on overrepresentation of Asians; it brings to light regional and ethnic differences that influence one’s experience of either racism, xenophobia or fetishisation.
This, however, doesn’t change the fact that the perceived cultural proximity based on belonging to the same racial group makes it easier for Americans to consume Eastern European culture without asking themselves difficult questions of culture and heritage. At the same time, Slavs and Eastern Europeans are just distinct enough in our geopolitical experiences and cultural practices, that they seem just exotic enough for the West to romanticise them. Doing so within one’s racial group seems more politically correct than romanticising the Middle East, South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa, which have historically been treated as the Other by the West.
TikTok trends and the remnants of Cold War: a duo nobody expected
Yet the pick-and-choose romanticisation of cultural experiences of post-communist countries seems to follow the Cold War’s East / West division. While young people consuming media will not remember the discourse — spread by Reagan and other Western political figures of the red disease that has to be “contained” — they still seem to fall into the trap of the very same geopolitical discourse. Romanticisation, or as I prefer to dub it, exoticisation, balances on the thin line between a largely harmless, if disconcerting cultural insensitiveness or blissful ignorance. It is also based on the application of orientalist sentiments to a culture (or, actually, an aesthetic) that is foreign to the West and hence remains interesting and different. On its own, the rise in fascination over very specific aspects of the Eastern European Experiencetm is just this. A quirky, if annoying, fascination. In the larger geopolitical context, I would argue it fuels the negative stereotypisation of the East(ern Europe) as ridden with poverty, a bit backwards and underdeveloped, violent and uncivilised. The imagery of perpetually drunk Slavs squatting in front of dilapidated concrete blocks of flats, depressed and with a cigarette in their mouths does not exactly render the notions of prosperity, eloquence and technological advancement, does it? While it would be a stretch worth a round of applause by the best yogins in the world to suggest malicious intent behind teenagers engaging in TikTok trends, this aesthetic unknowingly fuels a geopolitical discourse that has been used to describe Eastern Europe for a while.
The progressive part of the society has reached the general consensus that we shall explore the issues of exoticisation and appropriation of certain cultural practices of the formerly colonised communities. Frankly, Eastern Europe was not exactly the Other in a colonial sense. Instead, it was the East in the Cold War with the West, thus following a similar discursive dynamic. Kuus (2004:474) points out how the Soviet bloc ‘became a precondition for
Western self-identity’ and emerged from colonial discourse. The Cold War discourse, however dead to some extent, seeps through the cracks. The red disease talk might be gone, but the East is still often seen as savage and unpredictable (Skórczewski 2006) and Slavic women make for perfect wives as they cook and clean, being the most popular ethnicity advertised in US-based mail to order brides services (Oksman, 2016). The scheme has been delegalized in many countries affected by the fetishisation, including Philippines, and classified there as human trafficking.
Romanticisation or orientalisation of the East?
Eastern Europe is just catching up with the Western development levels because of our collective communist past. This discourse has been rampant around the time of Poland’s entry to the EU and has been applied to Ukraine to some extent as well (Copsey, 2008). Dmytro Kuleba has pointed out how the ‘post-soviet’ label given to Ukraine has long been problematic and expressed his belief that Ukraine is part of the West. It still somehow falls into the trap of West/East, where the latter struggles with the notions of being second-class states that at least should be acknowledged as an equal partner by the United States and Europe. The struggle to be recognised as equal is not new: Eastern European countries that have joined the EU in 2004 were part of A8 countries with restricted movement of workers to other EU member states (unlike Malta and Cyprus, who joined at the same time). A measure not used before was created to prevent migration to the West and simultaneously (and perhaps unintentionally) formed a group of temporary subclass members. The notions of non-European underdevelopment fit a bit too neatly with what Said was writing in 1978; there is, however, no race aspect to it. Even if Poles have ‘just joined’ Europe (as if we were not part of the continent ever since) through the EU accession in 2004, we remain close enough to the West that they feel comfortable enough to take up our cultural and political experiences and romanticise them.
The poverty aesthetic of used-up 80s tracksuits, knock-off three stripes and poor-quality vodka in hand, squatting in front of concrete, unappealing and dilapidating blocks, with a greyish-blueish tint to it (of course!) seems appealing because it is simultaneously foreign and yet so familiar. The West has neither experienced huge concrete neighbourhoods popping up everywhere nor the queues for food, but they did experience food stamps and housing crisis(es). Romanticisation of poverty has been rampant in recent years on social media and so is the new wave of paganism; it just so happens that Slavic culture and Eastern Europe can offer a history of both. The rise of young people exploring the myths of Greek and Roman religions alongside indigenous North American belief systems, followed by the success of Midsommar and nordic folklore has found its way to Proto-Slavic myths, beliefs and folklore stories.
While loving the Slav squats and the creeeeepy stories about Chernobyl might be argued to be harmless banter and love for our historical paganism, the more general mass media discourse on Eastern Europe seems to remain stuck on the same page it used to be. Brexit has caused a 57% spike in crimes against Europeans, “including non-Eastern Europeans,” which is a quaint and telling way to put it (Matthew et al. incoming 2022) while Nottinghamshire experienced a 140% rise. Less than three months after the Brexit referendum, Arek Jozwik was murdered in Harlow by six men and a vigil held in his honour led to two other assaults against Poles (Wylie and Lusher, 2016). The talks about Eastern European immigrants stealing jobs from honest Britons could be read in most of the tabloids not so long ago. My own lecturer at University of Oxford talked about “those Polish cleaning ladies” while other Britons dumped shackles of political correctness and boldly called the immigrants ‘vermin’ (Agerholm 2016). My friend, who matriculated in 2018, has heard surprised comments from tutors who were “glad that they have such an intelligent Eastern European woman as their student, because we all know that is not necessarily common in that culture.” Nigel Farage went a step further and suggested that Eastern European immigrants come from countries "that perhaps (…) have not fully recovered from being behind the iron curtain.” (Mason, 2015)
Despite my best intentions, I struggle to have a positive outlook on the ‘boom on Slavic culture’ among young millennials and Gen Z. Considering the broader context and how these aesthetics can be used to further the idea of rampant poverty, backwardness and underdevelopment in the East, it seems to me that the romanticisation of Eastern European aesthetics stops exactly where it starts: the aesthetic.