How TikTok communists are reclaiming the hammer and sickle

For teen communists, the symbol born from Soviet rule represents unity rather than the violent Stalinist regime. We track that transition.

by Ry Gavin
11 February 2021, 12:55pm

Images via @stinkysocialist @hoonrywong@debbsboyd on TikTok 

“To prove to you why communism is so bad, we’re going to talk to my dad who grew up in communist Romania,” TikToker @stinkysocialist says, in a video that’s amassed 2.4m likes. Walking into their dad’s study, they ask: “Dad, why was communist Romania so bad?” The dad, serious, thoughtful and poignant, begins: “I lived there until I was 21 years old, so I have a lot of horrible stories to tell you. I left communist Romania in ‘88, which was one year before the war went down. And if I were to tell you one main thing that I remember?I ain’t never seen two pretty best friends.

Scroll through TikTok and you’ll find a lot of videos like this that ostensibly touch upon the legacy of the Soviet Union, before flipping the script. The ‘Daddy Karl’ trend back in October 2020 was a signal of how quickly TikTok’s communist community was growing. Four months on, #communism has reached over 563 million views and accumulated hours of videos dedicated to highlighting Gen Z’s seemingly growing anti-capitalist beliefs, and their faith in opposing ideologies.

You’ll find people flexing tattoos of the hammer and sickle symbol (originally created by Soviet artist Yevgeny Ivanovich Kamzolkin to represent unity between the working class and the peasantry) to the soundtrack “Just Did a Good Thing”. Another video sees the face of Joseph Stalin, the notorious leader of the USSR from 1922-1952, whose legacy is caught somewhere between mass murderer and World War Two hero, deepfaked to lipsync to Millie B’s “M to the B”. One TikTok is captioned “communist leaders as chav anthems” (Stalin is Sophie Aspin’s “Mash Up”, for those interested). 

The influx of iconic Soviet symbols hanging on TikTokers’ bedroom walls or printed on their bikini tops, and videos claiming the “USSR is best” over a Soviet chorus soundtrack — not to mention the numerous light-hearted tattoos and animations — may seem like little more than another TikTok trend. For some, it does appear to be more of an aesthetic interest than a deeply political one. But for many others who place the hammer and sickle in their social media bio, or label themselves ‘commies’ or ‘comrades’, it’s a belief; an important part of their identity.  

20-year-old Ilyssa, from New York, sees communism as the only viable alternative, one that will improve the societal issues we currently face. “From a young age, I was very aware of the stark class differences that existed,” she says. “I grew up with a single mother in a very poor family. We made it work but I was aware of our class status.” On TikTok, she educates her 67k followers on the subject of anti-semitism and creates hammer and sickle-inspired makeup looks. For Ilyssa, the symbol means “solidarity among the working class. [Communism] means being anti-capitalist. It means advocating for equality and dignity for all people and striving towards a basic level of humanity for every person that exists.”

Yet it's hard to ignore the geographical and historical disconnect between young Americans with a new interest in this history, and those related, through experience or blood, to hardships under Soviet rule. Alina, an 18-year-old from Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine, wonders if TikTok’s communist boom is rooted in people who are “fans of communism, but… who understand little about its history”. 

In Russia and former Soviet satellite states, such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, the Soviet symbol and images of the regime’s leaders still carry the trauma of that time. For the children and grandchildren of those who suffered, the hammer and sickle represents much more than the solidarity initially intended. “Stalin’s regime will be remembered by its descendants for decades to come,” 18-year-old Anton from Omsk, Russia says. “They will not forget the deaths of their repressed relatives.”

“The Red Army’s arrival is rarely remembered as a pure liberation,” historian Anne Applebaum wrote about the USSR’s victory over the Nazis in her book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. “Instead, it is remembered as the brutal beginning of a new occupation.” 

Many of the descendants of the regime know Soviet rule for its horrors. There was the looting and rape by Red Army soldiers, as documented by writers like Vasily Grossman; the Gulag system that led to the deaths of “tens of millions” of inmates; and the criminalisation of homosexuality in 1934 that targeted an unknown but substantial number of gay men and women -- a subject Dan Healey explores in his book Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi

The flag of the Soviet Union may trigger memories of events like the Holodomor in Ukraine — a famine widely considered to be a genocide — that led to the deaths of up to 12 million Ukrainians. To some, it’s a symbol that represented the anti-Semitism that was characteristic of Stalin’s regime, such as the 1953 “Doctors’ Plot”, a witch-hunt that targeted predominantly Jewish doctors. For others, it’s a reminder of the 1921 invasion of Georgia, which aimed to rid the country of its independence and implement Bolshevik control, or the Great Terror/Purge of 1936-1938 that targeted everyone from ethnic minorities to those suspected of dissidence. 

It’s not just the ideology’s dark history that Anton worries is being ignored, but its problematic present. “The current situation in North Korea is an example,” he says. “The communists know what is going on there — but either don’t think it’s necessary to talk about, or they discuss it ambiguously.”

There are a lot of TikTok videos under #communism that set out to show that true communism has never been properly implemented. One video says “the Stalinism and Soviet communism legacy distorted so many people’s understanding of Marxism and socialism. They are different ideologies”. For the communists of TikTok, oppressive regimes like that of Stalin, North Korea, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia have very little to do with what communism and the hammer and sickle mean today.

“I don’t necessarily agree that it’s offensive,” says 18-year-old Zoe from Chicago, who has a tattoo of the symbol and uses her TikTok platform to educate others about communism. “I don’t think that we should equate communism with the Soviet Union. We associate the symbol with more radical, positive change.” That desire for change was what pushed her into far left and anti-capitalist politics in the first place. “It was mostly the events happening in the US, especially over the summer, that were the reason I decided that communism was the best fit for me,” she says. And there are many others, both Gen Z and millennials, that are also starting to consider communism — or socialism — as a more suitable ideological fit.

A 2019 YouGov poll found that more than one third of millennials in the US approve of communism — an 8% increase on the previous year. Elsewhere, predictions of the current presidential election in Ecuador are indicating a nation eager for a return to socialism after years of neoliberal rule under current leader Lenín Moreno. In Russia, only over the past few months has the seemingly progressive, socialist and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny (who has a history of racist and nationalist politics) overtaken Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who has called for the “Re-Stalinisation” of Russian Society. Now, Navalny is seen as the substantial political opposition to Vladimir Putin. As such, he has recently been imprisoned for violating parole terms, during a period of time spent comatose in a Berlin hospital as he recovered from novichok poisoning.

The semantics of these debates are complicated, not least because while many advocating for communist ideals are based far from the former USSR, they aren’t necessarily disconnected from its history. Ilyssa recounts the hardships that her Jewish relatives felt when fleeing Russia from the pogroms in the early 20th century, and then from the Soviet Union a few decades later. “My great grandparents were able to flee and come to the US, but a lot of their relatives were killed, and there’s no documentation that exists of them outside of their memories,” she explains. As a history major and descendant of victims of the Soviet Union’s regime, Ilyssa wants to reclaim the hammer and sickle as a symbol of hope and a brighter future. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t recognise the dark nuances of the flag from which her great grandparents fled. “It’s realising that [Stalin] was not representative of communism or the hammer and sickle — that’s what makes it so easy to divorce the two. But it’s still worth learning from. We have to look at what parts of Marxism and communist theory left a space for totalitarianism and authoritarianism to take hold, and how we can prevent that from happening in the future.”

Many young Russians also want to see the crimes of Stalin dissociated from the country’s proud heritage. “The symbol isn’t offensive," Roma, from Sarapul in Western Russia, says. “It represents pride, a time when people strove for the best.” Over 800 miles away in Saint Petersburg, 22-year-old Maria says she thinks it’s a good thing that Gen Z communists are breathing new life into the symbol: “I personally don’t associate it with anything bad. The hammer and sickle was there before Stalin and it was there after him. His crimes are a black stain on our history that still resonates to this day.” 

For many of Gen Z’s TikTok communist community, rejuvenating the hammer and sickle is not about ignoring the weight that it carries. It’s about returning the symbol to its original meaning: one of unity and solidarity. They want the symbol to represent everything they dream of seeing in the world. But, above all, they see it as an emblem of hope for a generation caught within a defective, splintering system; one they collectively want to topple on its head. 

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Gen Z