A Forgotten Detour on the Way “Back to the USSR”

How has a reasonably democratic society with a market economy and following the course of neoliberal reforms turned into a classical fascist regime of a corporate state?

It is easy for everyone to believe that the modern-day Russian Federation is carrying on under the spell of the Soviet Union, or rather its “legacy,” which has mysteriously persisted for a quarter of a century since the breakup of the USSR. Politicians, Russian citizens, and social scientists across the borders like to think that “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” namely a rational (even if unrealistic) dream of restoring the USSR. Accordingly, it is expected that Russian citizens, true to their past, are motivated by its legacy in their political choices today. To social scientists, this is the easiest answer to a disturbing question: how has a reasonably democratic society with a market economy and following the course of neoliberal reforms turned into a classical fascist regime of a corporate state?

Politicians need the myth of the persistence of the Soviet legacy (its values and “mentality”) to secure their control over the population. And the Russian populace seems to believe this truism because no one can live in the limbo of “transition” for so long, and finding no bright future in sight, people are tempted to idealize the past (particularly when even the liberal opposition to the regime is incapable of producing any new vision of the future). For citizens of the post-Soviet countries, the post-Soviet transition ended sometime after 2010, following two decades of waiting for the final “arrival” in the promised land, literally in the middle of nowhere (under neither democracy nor dictatorship, poverty nor prosperity), in the longest queue of their lives for the ultimate good. Those who failed to reinvent themselves as citizens of a better future that has come true (like the Ukrainians) fell back on various versions of the past (whether imagined Soviet glory or religious fundamentalism). Their surrender to the past is understandable in view of their frustration as a result of the inability to make sense of the present or to imagine an attractive future. What requires additional explanation is the rupture in the popular nostalgia for the Soviet Union of the early 1990s—the most traumatic period of economic hardships and adjustments, when the USSR was a very recent reality, and the alleged “Soviet legacy” should have been much more powerful than today.

Before its hijacking by the pro-Putin management of Valery Fedorov in 2003, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) conducted the most respected polls of public opinion in Russia. The archive of the organization from the 1990s reveals very interesting dynamics of popular attitudes to questions related to various aspects of the Soviet legacy. To quote from VTsIOM’s disclaimer, “The all-Russian surveys of VTsIOM have polled (unless otherwise indicated) 1,600 respondents in 153 locations from 46 regions, territories, and republics of Russia. The margin of error does not exceed 3.4 percent.”

The first public opinion survey relevant to our theme took place on June 25, 1994, with the following question: “In your opinion, should the countries of the former USSR be included in the sphere of special interests of Russia, or should relationships with them be the same as with any foreign country?”

It is important to keep in mind the historical context of that poll. The next day (June 26) Ukraine held its first round of presidential elections (eventually, Leonid Kuchma won). Inside Russia, the conflict with the Chechen Republic was spiraling into war. On August 31, 1994, the Soviet/Russian presence in East-Central Europe was officially terminated with the complete withdrawal of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. On December 5, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed, guaranteeing the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in exchange for their renouncement of nuclear power status. Against the backdrop of rising separatism inside the Russian Federation, the dissolution of the Soviet empire in Europe, and economic hardships (annual inflation rate: 220 percent; the 1994 budget was finalized only by summer of that year; delays in salary payments across the country were endemic)—what reasonable answer to that poll question could be expected, just 2.5 years after the USSR’s collapse?

In reality, 40 percent of the respondents wanted to see the former Soviet republics as “a sphere of special interests of Russia,” but 41 percent were eager to treat them as any other foreign country.

Less than one year later, on May 30, 1995, the question was asked: “To what extent would you agree [with the statement]—enough myths, we should admit that the USSR cannot be restored?”

Russian society at that time often, and with sufficient justification, was characterized as experiencing the “Weimar Syndrome.” The economy nominally amounted to just 4 percent of the US economy (about 10 percent adjusted for actual purchasing power in the situation of low prices of key commodities); the Chechen War was on the rise; Russian speakers in former Soviet republics were experiencing increasing discrimination. On April 18, 1995, Russia’s Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev declared the country’s readiness to use “direct force” to protect the Russian-speaking population in Baltic countries. The fiftieth anniversary of the victory in World War II was pompously celebrated, including—for the first time since 1991—a military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. On May 26, the Customs Union was signed between Russia and Belarus. In the meantime, NATO threatened to intervene in the Yugoslavia crisis. Against this background provoking the rise of compensatory imperial dreams:

38 percent of respondents strongly agreed that the USSR was gone forever; 24 percent “largely” agreed with this; 17 percent were “moderately” ready to forget about the USSR; and only 22 percent agreed to a “minimal” and “small” degree that it would be impossible to restore the USSR.

Another eleven months passed. A poll on April 15, 1996, asked the question: “What will your attitude be to the joining of NATO by former republics of the USSR—the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and others?

The results of recent parliamentary elections and opinion polls showed broad support for Communists. The leading candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for June 16 was the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, for whom NATO was the favorite bugaboo. Less than five years had passed since NATO lost its official status as enemy number one, after decades of massive Soviet propaganda. The poll question itself was related to the ongoing “Study on NATO Enlargement” in Eastern Europe and the elaboration of the practical roadmap and principles of accession by new members. Thus, unlike the hype of Ukraine’s alleged plans to join NATO as a justification for Russia’s 2014 invasion, this was a real concern about an actual, quite undesirable development actively exploited by politicians.

An absolutely negative attitude to Ukraine’s or Lithuania’s joining NATO was expressed by 24 percent of respondents; Rather negative—31 percent; “I do not care”— 26 percent; and “Rather positive” and “absolutely positive”—19 percent, combined.

Thus, in spring 1996, 45 percent of respondents experienced no negative emotions whatsoever regarding the possibility of Ukraine’s joining NATO. In 2010, according to a poll conducted by the Levada Center—heir to the old VTsIOM—this figure declined to 27 percent. How could the effect of “the Soviet legacy” intensify so much after fifteen years had passed? In what sense did the 1996 numbers predestine the almost unanimous obsession with “USSR 2.0” in modern-day Russia?

The answer is not as evident as it seems. Obviously, we are dealing with a case of “invention of tradition” (or, rather, “invention of continuity”), a result of coordinated efforts to manipulate the public memory and worldview. Recent opinion polls in Russia reflect nothing but the accurate representation of the TV-constructed image of the world. Still, this is not a new development: the society had become highly susceptible to manipulations and (judging by the rather reliable results of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections) showed a high demand for the quasi-Soviet rhetoric long ago: not in 1995, but certainly before 1999. An examination of sociological surveys from the 1990s reveals a certain turnaround emerging sometime in the second half of 1996. It is difficult not to connect it with the effect produced by Boris Yeltsin’s reelection for a second term, achieved through mass symbolic coercion administered by propaganda and political technologies of hitherto unheard of proportions (if not direct falsifications).

Thus, the same question about the attitude toward the prospects of former Soviet republics’ joining NATO was repeated in a poll ten months later—on February 10, 1997. The share of those who perceived this perspective negatively had risen from 55 percent to 61 percent. When they repeated the question just five weeks later, on March 20 (apparently, to reconfirm the results), the figure had grown to 64 percent.

On February 15, 1998, VTsIOM asked the following question: “Seven years ago, in March 1991, a referendum was held on preservation of the USSR, but in December 1991 the Soviet Union had already been disbanded. Are you sorry about the breakup of the Union?”

The very wording of the question differed dramatically compared to the question asked in 1995. Back then, people were expected to reveal their subjectivity and active civic position: do you want to restore the USSR? Now we see the formation of a new discourse on the USSR, with the direct participation of public opinion agencies that are supposed to measure—not manipulate—the attitudes of respondents. Not only had the very object of the question been subtly modified—no longer was the ideological Soviet Union being asked about (notice that the USSR had been shorthanded as “Union” only by emigrants since as early as the 1980s, and was never referred to as such by people on its former territory)—moreover, the modality of the question changed from rational volition (“[…] agree […] enough myths, we should admit that the USSR cannot be restored”) to emotional compassion (“Are you sorry about the breakup of the Union? … are you nostalgic?). Even if “yes”— you do not have to do anything yourself except reveal normal human emotions (the subtext: we’ll do everything for you). A convincing model explains the consolidation of Putin’s regime: Russian “entrepreneurs of groupness” have persistently exploited the strategy of building an “affective community” beyond any formal institutions and clear ideologies, using the imagined past as a reservoir of strong civic emotions, masterfully exploited by the politicians. There is no room in this piece for a detailed discussion of this approach (based on the works of Serguei Oushakine), but one cannot help but see an early vivid example of such manipulation in that 1998 VTsIOM poll. The effect was predictable: 67 percent of respondents in February 1998 admitted they “were sorry” about the breakup of the USSR. Practically the same proportion (68 percent) were ready to leave the USSR behind forever in 1995. The 67 percent in 1998 were not necessarily willing to actually restore the USSR, but the rising mobilization of nostalgia for the Soviet Union (by means of “neutral” opinion polls among other methods) had been reinstalling the USSR at the center of the political agenda of the society, making it a relevant (if still virtual) reality.

The question polled on June 15, 1998: “In your opinion, has independence benefited or harmed Russia and other republics of the former USSR?”

More or less confidently, 27 percent of respondents answered that independence was beneficial; 58 percent said it was harmful.

January 30, 2000: “What is your attitude today toward the disbanding of the USSR in 1991?”

Radically negative: 53 percent; rather negative: 32 percent; combined—85 percent.

To put these responses of 1,600 randomly selected people into broader perspective, let us turn to another statistically quantifiable source: the Russian National Language Corpus.

“The Russian National Corpus covers primarily the period from the middle of the 18th to the early 21st centuries. […] The Corpus includes original (non-translated) works of fiction (prose, drama, and poetry) of cultural importance which are interesting from a linguistic point of view. Apart from fiction, the Corpus includes a large volume of other sources of written (and, for the later period, spoken) language: memoirs, essays, journalistic works, scientific and popular scientific literature, public speeches, letters, diaries, documents, etc.”

The growing database includes more than 335,000 texts, 30.2 million sentences, and about 365 million word usages, covering the period up to 2013. The search for “Soviet Union” produces the following frequency distribution, from the early 1920s to 2012 (mentions per million word usages). (see Fig. 1)

We can clearly see the absolute peak of Late Stalinism, a relative depression of the Khrushchev period, a peak of 1970, and an abrupt decline in the period immediately preceding perestroika. A relative peak in 1990—the last heated discussions of the fates of the Union during the Soviet period—is followed by a radical demise of references to the Soviet Union, with a sudden upsurge after 1995. This trend culminates in 1998 (the Kosovo crisis? the economic default?), with a steady decline afterward, through 2004 (the beginning of Putin’s second term). “Soviet Union” simply was not a popular subject in the Russian public sphere, just as in the early 1990s. The new growth began under Putin after 2004, and a new demise—under Medvedev. Unfortunately, the database does not show current statistics (beyond 2012), these numbers must be truly transcendental.

Even more telling is the distribution of mentions of the “USSR.” (See fig. 2)


Figure 1


Figure 2

Here, the absolute champions are 2005-2007, exceeding even the level of 1950.

Of course, these statistics do not reflect the modality of mentioning the USSR (positive or negative). The graphs simply show when the USSR was talked about often, and when it was almost forgotten. Judging by the Russian National Language Corpus, references to the Soviet Union suddenly became more frequent by 1998, and then the USSR became a popular topic during Putin’s second presidential term, and by now it has probably skyrocketed to an unprecedented magnitude. There is nothing “natural” in these dynamics of the historical memory, which can be explained only by political manipulations of two kinds: direct manipulations of the politics of memory, and more general tampering with the political system resulting in increased popular frustration. Russian citizens are not merely passive victims of wicked politicians, they share full responsibility for everything that has been associated with Putin’s regime. In fact, the society had been anticipating the coming of the ersatz “USSR 2.0” long before Putin became president for the first time, as can be seen in one more VTsIOM poll.

August 30, 1999, when Putin was prime minister: “If Vladimir Putin proposed to unite all the security agencies of Russia and re-create a single committee for state security on the model of the KGB USSR, would you support this initiative of Vladimir Putin or not?”

It is hard to tell why the pollsters insisted on personalizing that idea, mentioning Putin’s name twice in one sentence. The results of the survey were totally in support of both the KGB and Putin: 71 percent of respondents answered “definitely yes” and “rather, yes”; 29 percent—“no”. The vision of an open-ended future closed, and the past was actualized as the ultimate reality. With the regime becoming increasingly more repressive and Russian intellectuals failing to prioritize the task of formulating and popularizing an alternative vision of the future, the imagined Soviet past has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Still, the question remains as to what exactly triggered the reactionary turn in modern Russian society after 1996. Even our cursory survey suggests that the dramatic suppression of the “Soviet Revolt” in October 1993 by military force did not have the same traumatic effect of funneling pro-USSR nostalgia as in the democratic presidential elections in June and July 1996 that were run under the deliberately anti-rational slogan: “Vote with your heart!” Successful manipulations of public opinion on all levels resulted in many Russians’ surrender of their still-insecure individual subjectivity and their joining of an affective community of “Soviets”— psychologically gratifying and sustained entirely by historical myths. But the cult of the USSR produced within this virtual reality had little in common with one’s actual personal experiences from before 1991 or with the historical Soviet Union and its direct institutional and cultural legacies.

Ilya Gerasimov

Co-founder and the editor in chief of the international quarterly Ab Imperio. He is the author of numerous articles in several languages and three books.

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