The Real Reason Russians Still Have Soviet Nostalgia

Russian Communists attend a Young Pioneer induction in Red Square in 2010. Wikimedia Commons / RIA Novosti archive, image #665547 / Ruslan Krivobok / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Russian public opinion is nationalist, but not expansionist.

The twenty-fifth anniversary on December 26, 2016 of the collapse of the Soviet Union reminds us of the important changes that followed Soviet dissolution, including the elimination in Russia of widespread political and socioeconomic regulation of society. But echoes of the Soviet past, including crackdowns on dissent, now seem more pronounced. Observers also view the resurgence of Russia’s military power and geopolitical ambitions under Vladimir Putin as evidence that Russia seeks to resurrect the status, power and perhaps the territory of the Soviet Union. Observers who view Russia’s policies as neoimperialist often assume that the Kremlin has successfully purveyed bellicose nationalism at home to cultivate, or reinforce, a supportive mindset among both elites and mass publics. A related assumption is that the Kremlin is equally effective in beating the hypernationalist drum to distract elite and mass attention from worsening socioeconomic conditions at home.

Such assessments of Russian domestic politics are flawed. The evidence of recent focus groups and large-N surveys in Russia suggests that neoimperial aspirations are weak in Russian society. Against the assumption that Russian nationalism is bellicose either by nature or through manipulation by the regime, the data point to a different conclusion: that Russian nationalism at this time is primarily rational and moderate, and likely serves as a significant constraint on the militarization of Russian foreign policy.

Although Western observers often assume that the political preferences of the majority of Russians are shaped by pervasive, hypernationalist propaganda, leaving them “zombified,” recent surveys suggest that the formation of Russian public opinion enjoys partial autonomy from the messaging of the state. This argument seems counterintuitive, given the extremely high approval ratings of Vladimir Putin. Yet Putin’s numbers, a reflection in part of a “rally ’round the flag” effect due to conflict with the West, do not directly translate into political support for military escalation, greater confrontation with the West, or the resurrection of empire.

Understanding Nostalgia for the Soviet Past

Surveys consistently reveal that Russians feel nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The sources of this nostalgia are varied and complex. Russians often view the Soviet era as a time of social cohesion and economic stability, with steady employment, adequate wages and reasonable access to broad social services; economic inequality and political corruption existed but were held in check. Russians also recall that the Soviet Union enjoyed international prestige and leverage as one of only two superpowers. The Soviet exhortation of “catching up and surpassing” the West was accepted to at least some extent by much of the Soviet population. For many today, the Soviet era still evokes feelings of pride, purpose and security.

Although nostalgia for the Soviet Union in Russia is pervasive, there are sharp differences across generations: older Russians express the greatest sense of loss. In a survey administered in October 2016 (data also reported here), 85 percent of respondents over the age of sixty said they “definitely” or “more often than not” experience regret at the collapse of the Soviet Union, while only 27 percent of those within the age group 18–24 (the generation that was entirely socialized under the current regime) felt the same way. Feelings of nostalgia are also declining somewhat over time. In the October 2016 survey, 68 percent of all respondents either “definitely” or “more often than not” felt regret over the Soviet collapse.  When the same survey question was asked ten years earlier, in 2006, 63 percent of all respondents felt regret either “definitely” or “more often than not.”

Equally important for Russian politics are the pragmatic and normative dimensions of Russian attitudes about the possibility of the restoration of the Soviet Union. In the survey noted immediately above, no more than 7 percent in any age group felt that the Soviet Union in some form could “definitely” be resurrected. In another survey, also in late 2016, only 12 percent of the respondents said that the Soviet Union should be restored. These results suggest that the danger of “restorative” nostalgia, identified by Svetlana Boym as an individual’s desire to physically recreate the past, is relatively weak in Russia. Instead, the feelings of most Russians are in line with Boym’s more benign “reflective” nostalgia, which represents a depoliticized and personalized longing for a lost era or specific time. Russians may have nostalgia for the Soviet past, but relatively few apparently expect or want it to be restored.