30 Years After Its Collapse the Soviet Union is More Popular Than Ever9 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Russia
Thirty years after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation, many still want to describe the Russian economy, society, and political scenes as “transitional”. Where this transition started is well-known, but where it ends and, most importantly, how it ends, remains unclear. A short excursion into Russia’s post-Soviet history gives answers to questions about Soviet nostalgia in Russia today.

Russians have not been on a unidirectional path of transition away from ‘Sovietness’ and toward some new modern vision, but rather one that borrows its political tone and social dialogue from various points in the past and present. One particularly overwhelming input on Russian political and social life is Soviet nostalgia. This nostalgia takes on different forms, comes from different sources, and is rooted in different time periods of Soviet history.

The speed of change after the Soviet Union’s fall probably shocked everyone regardless of their political stance. Nevertheless, the division it caused in Russian society is visible in the 1992 Levada Center survey in which 66 percent of Russians said they “regret the collapse of the Soviet Union”. In many Eastern European countries, some three-fourths of the population supported the change to democracy, but in Russia, it was only 61 percent. 

The switch to capitalism, considerably more controversial, was supported by more than 80 percent of Central Europeans while Russians were divided roughly fifty-fifty. Russians were no less divided on the further changes to come. The picture became much clearer as the 1990s continued. The Soviet elites, led by Yeltsin and Kozyrev, continued to make concessions to the West: increasing trade, expanding aid and offering constant dialogue. Meanwhile, the chaos of shock therapy economics, ethnic violence in and around Russia, and the societal vacuum caused by ditching the unifying Soviet identity forced many to give up any initial hope they may have had. By 1999 nearly four-fifths of Russians regretted the collapse. The gamble taken in 1991, once dividing the population in half, now unified it with regret and anger at the end of the first post-Soviet decade.

Putin’s Russia 

Things began to change when Putin came to power. Starting in 1999, for nearly a decade, the Russian economy grew incredibly fast and the woes of the Soviet collapse, shock therapy economics, insecurity, the Chechen wars, and crime began to subside. Putin provided stability, centralized the state, and became the central figure of Russian politics – a strong man both domestically and abroad. 

His fight against the oligarchy, in reality, nothing more than dumping the more peevish figures and rallying the rest under his control, was well received by the population. In opinion polls from that time, the public found Putin to represent the interests of the “middle class” and “ordinary people” more than those of the oligarchy. Putin’s first term also changed Russian identity. He propagated a unified and stronger Russia – something “the people have been craving since the early 1990s”, as quoted from an article on national identity under Putin

The concept of Russian greatness, continual throughout all time periods, became the main notion behind the emerging hegemonic nationalism. The “great big country”, the “great Russian history”, and the “glory of the Russian state” all belong to this narrative. Even when times get tough, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but rather Russians should be proud of their “great endurance” in surviving such “great suffering”, during the aptly named “Great Terror” under Stalin, for example. Putin changed many things, but he could not change everything. 

Although Russian nationalism grew in importance under Putin, becoming omnipresent in Russian politics, Soviet nostalgia did not disappear; it simply took on a different form. The part of the population that regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union gradually shrunk under Putin and by the end of Medvedev’s term as president (2008-2012), this number had reached its all-time low of 49 percent. 

Under Medvedev, the number of people who attributed positive characteristics to the Soviet regime, such as government concern for common people, interethnic friendship, stability, and cultural greatness, also reached all-time lows. Considering the data, it’s quite obvious that nostalgia for returning to the Soviet Union or Soviet system were less prominent because of the stability and prosperity felt by a broader population during Putin and Medvedev’s terms. Nevertheless, during this same time period, as Putinism and Russian nationalism grew, Russia simultaneously saw a return of Soviet relics. While Yeltsin had notably cancelled the military parade of Russia’s 50th anniversary Victory Day celebrations to accommodate President Clinton, Putin’s regime has welcomed military symbolism with parades ever more extravagant. In 2005, Putin famously said that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. 

A turning point

Putin’s return to power in 2012 became another turning point for political life and identity in modern Russia. As he doubled down on consolidating power, his approval ratings plummeted and the yearning for stability again became more popular, something the Soviet Union is remembered for. Putin had to do something to secure at least some public legitimacy. 

With Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, great Russian pride was back, and Putin once again secured his position as a popular and powerful boss. Since 2014, Putin has made countless small steps to tighten his power. One method has been radicalizing and spreading Russian nationalism. Stalin’s regime is being normalized in schools as a part of a “patriotic education”, military parades became more extravagant and deeply rooted in the Russian psyche, anti-American and anti-European propaganda was intensified, leashes on the media were shortened. 

Putin’s violent reaction to the Maidan revolution was the beginning of a vicious circle. On the one hand, Putin saved himself from demise by annexing Crimea, something seen positively by a vast majority of Russians, a move that undoubtedly bolstered Russian nationalism and memories of a strong centralized Soviet state. On the other hand, once Putin’s approval rating began to wane again, he chose to feed the population even grander and more aggressive nationalism. This nationalism, pervaded by Soviet nostalgia, acts as a glue securing Putin’s regime. In case this does not suffice, Putin has ensured that the state is run tighter now than ever, and the domestic security apparatus is violent and weaponized.

Soviet nostalgia remain popular

In 2018, nearly 30 years after the Soviet Union began to crumble, the population who regretted its collapse had reached a historic 66 percent. At the same time, two-thirds of Russians had primarily positive connotations when confronted with the Soviet Union. Is all of this a natural result of patriotic education, nationalism, and Putinism? Or is it a negative reaction to the restrictions under Putin and economic stagnation? The answer is both. 

Of course, Russian state storytelling of the great Soviet-era – Gagarin, nuclear research, communist revolution, the Great Patriotic War and industrialization have changed the Russian perception of the Soviet past. This Russo-centric history has resulted in a wide acceptance of Russian nationalism, and the careful presentation of Soviet history has strengthened Soviet nostalgia. In modern Russia, these have, quite ironically, melted together. 

Soviet nostalgia is characterized by the yearning for a time of global power, as under Stalin, but also of good neighborliness and a strong sense of ethics, like under Khrushchev or Brezhnev. Russian nationalism is tied to traditions, often religious and related to the Russian empire. There are clear contradictions between the two ideologies, but that does not seem to matter. What these ideologies share is a sense of greatness, of a larger Russian led empire, of conservative values, and a strong centralized state. Putin can and does profit off both of these, even though Soviet communists once understood themselves as the antithesis to their imperialist predecessors. 

On the other hand, many Russians are struggling and therefore positively reminiscent of the Soviet era they are so often reminded of; the nostalgia is “a reflection of the public’s sentiments toward Russia’s current reality” as a Levada center sociologist said. The strong centralized state has created massive inequalities in income and public infrastructure leading to economic destitution for many. Many young Russians are disappointed with the unpredictable physical and psychological violence of the government and would prefer anything to Putinism. It is no wonder that the Communist Party is the largest opposition party, and it’s not even just nostalgic citizens flocking to the party; in the most recent election, many young Russians voted for Communist candidates thanks to Team Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ system. 

There are understandable reasons for Soviet nostalgia in modern-day Russia. The idealization of the Soviet Union in patriotic education in a country where a majority of people remember the positive aspects of Soviet stability and ideals whilst conveniently forgetting nuisances like waiting in lines and travel restrictions make Soviet nostalgia an easy default. This is the nostalgia supported and propagated by Putin’s regime. Modern Soviet nostalgia, however, is also linked to prolonged economic insecurity and a failed democratic experiment, which is exactly what fed regret for the Soviet collapse in the 1990s. This is a negative reaction by those who see through the vicious cycle of Putinism. 

More Soviet nostalgia to come 

Looking forward, Soviet nostalgia will likely grow or at least stay very prominent. In reference to the Soviet collapse, Putin recently said it was the demise of “historical Russia”, an end to the great Russian empire, again pushing Russian ‘greatness’. The Soviet Union is now so popular in Russia that rebranding Putinism away from Sovietness would likely result in less support for the president. 

Conflicts created by Putin’s Soviet-inspired authoritarian leadership, wars with Georgia and Ukraine, the crackdown on political opponents, and amping up of Cold War rhetoric with the US and Europe have all isolated Russia economically. Economic stability and general security, however, are major selling points for Soviet nostalgia, and the less Putin can provide these things, the more people will crave the Soviet Union from their grandparent’s stories, but without Putin. 

On the two-sided coin of Soviet nostalgia in modern-day Russia, Putin’s face can be seen on both sides. On one side, he is the strong man leading the Soviet renaissance of strength, patriotism, and greatness. On the other side, he is a paranoid and neurotic leader at the center of everyone’s problems and the exact reason people would rather turn back the clock than fight for a life in an independent Russia. Putin is the source of Soviet nostalgia, and just like him, it’s going nowhere anytime soon. 

Although Russian citizens see the Soviet time period as one of the best in the country’s history and regret the Soviet collapse, only a small minority actually aims to reintroduce the Soviet economy and political system. References to the past in political identity are common everywhere, and Soviet nostalgia in Russia has been anything but static. Americans, Estonians, or Poles may have trouble comprehending nostalgia for anything Soviet, but the differences in Russia need to be recognized to better understand the country’s trajectory as the fourth post-Soviet decade begins.

Featured image: Russians place flowers on Joseph Stalin’s monument near the Kremlin / Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP
Recommended Posts