Why nearly 60 percent of Russians 'deeply regret' the USSR's demise

A new poll finds that many Russians - particularly older, poorer, and more rural people – 'deeply regret' the collapse of the Soviet Union. How could that be?

Mikhail Metzel/AP
People walk past a beggar in Red Square, with St. Basil Cathedral and Kremlin's Spassky Tower in the background, in Moscow, Wednesday.

For Westerners, who grew up regarding Communism as a burden to its subjects and a menace to the world, it's a perplexing mystery at best. It's a perennial embarrassment for the Kremlin, which spends vast sums on international PR efforts aimed at making Russia look like a democratic, capitalist, and modern place.

But here we go again.

An annual poll to be released on Dec. 25, the day the final Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, suggests that a durable majority of Russians continue to "deeply regret" the demise of the USSR and wish that the collapse had been avoided.

The survey, conducted by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, found that nearly 60 percent of Russians are stuck in that nostalgic frame of mind, down from a high of 75 percent in 2000, but still a potentially potent political fact.

"The feelings of regret are most pronounced among people who are elderly, poor, less educated, or rural," says Denis Volkov, a researcher with the Levada Center.

The groups that miss the Soviet Union most deeply, according to the survey, are pensioners (85 percent), people who say they can't afford adequate food and clothing (79 percent), those between 40 and 55 years of age (67 percent), and women (63 percent).

"Only 25 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 say they're sorry the Soviet Union disappeared," Mr. Volkov adds.

Stability and security

Older Russians invariably recall the Soviet era as a time of stability and social security, if not prosperity, and feel they have suffered unfairly from the social turmoil and repeated economic crises of the past two decades.

"You could buy a loaf of bread for 16 kopeks (cents), and that was a stable price for many, many years," says Alevtina Dimitrieva, a Moscow pensioner. "Now the price is different every day. The authorities promise to raise our pensions, but even when that happens, rising prices gobble up the increase immediately."

Lack of money has blocked most pensioners from taking advantage of the expansion of personal freedoms, economic opportunity, and social mobility
that many younger Russians began to enjoy in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

Russian pensioners continue to staunchly back Russia's sovietesque Communist Party in large numbers. One of the best-organized of Russian social groups, pensioners are capable of making the Kremlin quake when they take to the streets, as they did over a botched benefit reform four years ago.

Many say they also miss being citizens of a huge, sprawling multiethnic superpower that seemed to command respect in the world.

"I used to travel all over the USSR, and was welcomed everywhere," says Inna Lepneva, a retired TV sound engineer. "Now the country is split up, no one likes Russians anymore, and good relationships are ruined. Nothing has changed for the better.

Yeltsin's unpopular rule

The peak years of Soviet nostalgia came in the late 1990s, a time of economic and social decline, when a pro-Western President Boris Yeltsin explicitly claimed to be leading Russia toward capitalism and democracy. Mr. Yeltsin's popularity ratings seldom rose above single digits during the latter years of his Kremlin tenure and, not surprisingly, few Russians expressed warm opinions about him after he passed away in 2007.

His successor, Vladimir Putin, ended the Yeltsin-era's cultural and political confrontation with the Soviet legacy, and even restored some of its key symbols, such as the Soviet national anthem, to pride of place.

"Today's Kremlin is extremely professional in the propaganda department," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute for Globalization Studies in Moscow. "They understand how to utilize symbols that the population has genuine affection for, and to manipulate the past in order to generate positive emotions toward the current leaders."

Mr. Putin, now Russia's prime minister, remains the country's most popular politician with approval ratings that seldom sink below 70 percent.

Meanwhile, nostalgia for the USSR has burgeoned into a booming business in Russia, including several TV stations that run exclusively Soviet-era content, uncountable numbers of Soviet-chic restaurants and bars, plus at least one wildly popular Internet portal devoted to all things Soviet.

But all that doesn't necessarily mean that people literally want to be back in the USSR.

"Our survey found that only 16 percent of respondents would like to see the Soviet Union restored just as it was," says Volkov. "This nostalgia is a complicated sentiment, probably explained more by reactions to present conditions than any real desire to return to the past."

Read about the democracy that young Russians want in a three-part series about The Putin Generation.

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