“The collapse of the USSR was the biggest tragedy of the twentieth century.” This unequivocal statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin is familiar to most Russians. Indeed, like most pronouncements in the political sphere, it was doubtless uttered only after a careful calculation that it would strike a chord with much of the population.
Even in Russia’s cosmopolitan capital, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you are living “in the half-decayed remains of the Soviet corpse,” as writer Dmitriy Bykov so vividly put it. Take a trip to the famous VDNKh park and you will see 2mn square metres packed with monuments to the achievements of the USSR – achievements in agriculture, in industry, in diplomacy and in space travel.
Monument to Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, VDNKh park, Moscow. Image: Theo Normanton.
Surveys indicate how appealing such reminders of the Soviet era are. A poll by the Levada Centre in 2020 found that 75% of Russians consider the Soviet era the greatest in Russian history. 65%, meanwhile, said that they regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is clear that this is more than a simple pride in Russia’s past. Literary scholar Mikhail Epstein characterises it as “totalgia”, a portmanteau of the words “totalitarianism” and “nostalgia”, which he describes as “a yearning for wholeness, for totality, and for a return to a totalitarian system such as the Soviet Union.” For all its horrors and its shortcomings, this was a time when Russia’s people seemed united, when they had an ideological unity, something to strive for and defend.
This theory is certainly borne out by a phenomenon in foreign politics: Russia is constantly striving to remain a key player on the international stage. It may no longer be an economic powerhouse, but Russia insists on being a superpower and influencing world affairs, as demonstrated by the crucial talks between Putin and US President Joe Biden this week.
Nostalgia across the ex-union
While the data on other post-Soviet republics is less complete and less recent, polls that have been carried out show a similar picture of widespread nostalgia, especially among the older generations.
A 2016 poll commissioned by Russian news service Sputnik showed that the number of respondents aged 35-64 who believed life was better before the collapse of the USSR varied hugely from a high of 71% in Armenia to just 4% in Uzbekistan. The number of respondents who agreed with that statement was 60% or above in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.
In most countries the level of nostalgia was much lower among respondents aged 18-24, namely adults who were too young to remember the Soviet era, the outlier being Moldova, where a startling 69% of younger respondents thought life must have been better when the country was part of the USSR.
There was no obvious correlation with the standard of living at the time of the poll; while many Armenians looked back wistfully to the Soviet era, the level of nostalgia was just 39% in Tajikistan. Both are small, low income countries. The number of people who felt life had been better before the collapse of communism was almost identical in Kazakhstan (61%) and Kyrgyzstan (60%) despite the former being a stable and increasingly prosperous, albeit authoritarian, state, and the latter having been through two revolutions and a bout of deadly ethnic violence as of the polling date, as well as being considerably poorer.
Nor did peace and stability appear to be a significant factor. 51% of Georgians, whose country fought a war with Russia in 2008, thought life had been better in the Soviet era, one of the lower figures for the region, but 60% of Ukrainians looked back nostalgically to the era when they had been part of the superstate ruled from Moscow, even though eastern Ukraine was an active war zone between the Ukrainian army and Russia-backed separatists at the time the poll was carried out.
However, five years on, things have changed a lot in Ukraine. A new poll published in August by Rating Group showed that 61% of the respondents now do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union. 32% do, most of them in the southeast of the country, among the older generation, who are financially less well off. Those who do not support Ukraine’s declaration of independence, as well as people who consider their best times to be in the past, are nostalgic for the Soviet Union. The differences in attitudes towards the Soviet past among the populations of Russia and Ukraine are diametrically opposite. If over the past ten years the level of nostalgia for the Soviet past in Ukraine has been gradually decreasing, in Russia it is growing.
Freedom of speech (77%) and conditions for self-fulfilment (64%) are spheres that, in the opinion of the respondents, are better developed in modern Ukraine, in comparison with the Soviet period. On the other hand, the assessments of the standard of living were equally divided: 43% think that it was better during the Soviet Union and the same share in modern Ukraine. Younger respondents think that today is better; the older ones think the opposite. Similarly, only those who were born in independent Ukraine believe that the level of medical and educational services is better today.
Soviet apartment blocks in Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. Image: Clare Nuttall.
The generation gap
As the polls showed, the younger generation is less likely to look back nostalgically to a Soviet era that ended before they were born. In most post-Soviet states, it primarily persists among the ethnic-Russian and Russian-speaking population of the country, which is declining as a share of the population due to a combination of emigration and higher birth rates of the titular nationalities at least in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.
Soviet nostalgia is fast waning in Azerbaijan following generation renewal. However, this doesn't mean ethnic Azerbaijanis don’t long for the Soviets, this sentiment is still apparent among workers and rural populations. The elder generation longs especially for the economic policy of the USSR, being mostly worried about their pensions and care needs. Culturally, the cinematography of Soviet Azerbaijan is still widely celebrated and loved even by younger generations. Having a head of state whose father (a former president) was a long-standing member of the Politburo and KGB is one of the reminders of the Soviet era.
On the other hand, the millennial generation remembers the fall of the Soviets and equates it with a lost opportunity for democracy, reminiscent of times of poverty, political instability and war.
In the Baltic states — which of all the post-Soviet nations left that period of history behind most decisively — there is a clear generation gap with different attitudes on social issues apparent between the older generations that grew up in the USSR and the younger ones. One teacher from Palanga, Lithuania talked critically to bne IntelliNews about the long-lasting impact of Soviet attitudes. “When some people are too tough, impolite, rude or obnoxious when talking about various minorities, say, the LGBTQ community, my mind starts ringing alarm bells — the language they use is characteristic of the Soviet rhetoric,” she says.
In Kazakhstan, nostalgia for the Soviet era mainly persists among the ethnic-Russian and Russian-speaking population of the country. Most Kazakh citizens with Soviet nostalgia tend to belong to older generations. Soviet nostalgia often tends to overlap with support for the Russian geopolitical position — such as pro-Russian views on the Ukraine conflict, which often comes with implied views that Kazakhstan should, in an ideal world, "rejoin" Russia.
Soviet nostalgia tends to come to the fore on the holidays that are still celebrated in the region. Red Army Day (February 23) is still observed informally as ‘Men's day’ in Azerbaijan, in addition to the more widely known May 9 — Victory over Fascism day — that is celebrated across much of the former Soviet Union.
But nostalgia isn’t the same as wanting to go back. One resident of the Kazakhstani capital Nur-Sultan, a father of two working for a government ministry, has fond memories of his Soviet childhood. He recalls proudly wearing his red scarf as a pioneer, fun at children’s summer camp in the mountains and running in and out of neighbours’ flats where “the doors were never locked”. Yet he simply laughs when asked by bne IntelliNews if he would prefer to give up his comfortable and prosperous life to return to a socialist system: “That will never happen,” he says.
Better days behind
That’s in stark contrast to Moldova, where large swathes of the population feel there is no place for them in the post-communist world, and who therefore are a receptive audience for politicians who choose to play on their nostalgia. Voters in Moldova, as elsewhere across the former USSR, who were unable for some reason (age, education, ethnicity) to adapt to the new world that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and who therefore felt disillusioned, formed a compact mass of vulnerable electorate prone to Soviet nostalgia. Insufficiently addressed by reformist, pro-EU forces, the pro-Russian electorate was instead wooed by either populist autocratic leaders like former president Igor Dodon or self-declared pro-EU oligarchs such as Vlad Plahotniuc.
Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, and has been at the centre of a struggle between pro-Russian and pro-western forces, with shifts from one direction to the other and years of political instability stymying reform efforts. The lack of hope on the part of its population has been reflected in the slump in its population, which shrank by more than one third from 4.26mn 1991 to 2.8mn in 2021, according to a report by Chisinau-based IDIS think tank. This has been most marked in the two regions that asserted their independence from Chisinau: from 731,000 in 1991, Transnistria’s population had dropped by more than one half (425,000) by 2021. The much smaller Russian-speaking enclave in Gagauzia shrank even more. It is not by chance that it is here where Soviet nostalgia can mostly be found.
Transnistria also serves as a living example of the worst-case scenario of voting under the effect of Soviet nostalgia. While the region’s population believes they are voting for a leftist regime that will bring them into the Russian Federation, they are actually supporting a profitable private business that runs a state under a savage capitalist regime controlled by a former Soviet police officer, Viktor Gushan, through the huge conglomerate Sheriff Holding.
In the public sphere, the Soviet presence remains ubiquitous, in Russia and elsewhere.
The Moscow metro owes its chandeliered grandeur to Stalin, who purportedly said that everyone working for the state deserved to travel to work in a palace. Lenin’s shadow stretches to the very centre of the capital, Red Square, where his corpse continues to rest on public display in a dedicated mausoleum. A fierce debate ignited earlier in 2021 about whether or not to return a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the first Soviet secret police and architect of the Red Terror, to Lubyanka Square, right outside the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) headquarters. After holding a public vote which suggested that opinion was split roughly equally on the matter, the mayor of Moscow scrapped the initiative, saying that “Statues should unite people, not divide them.”
The list goes on. Beyond the Ural Mountains, in Russia’s vast Asian territory, the Soviet past looms even larger. Practically every town has its own Lenin Street and a Soviet District. Soviet style UAZ vans and Lada cars remain wildly popular, and the hammer and sickle still adorns many federal administrative buildings.
The monument to Lenin in the centre of town in Divnogorsk, Siberia. Image: Theo Normanton.
It’s a similar situation in other parts of the former Soviet Union. In the capital cities of Central Asia, government officials with nation-building agendas have put a new stamp on the architecture and replaced statues of Lenin and other Soviet heroes with their homegrown national heroes — often reaching back into history for such figures as Tamurlane in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan’s epic warrior Manas and Kazakh poet Abai. Rapid population growth in some cities, notably Kazakhstan’s new capital Nur-Sultan, led to the old communist architecture being dwarfed by brand new monuments, state buildings and colossal apartment blocks.
As in Russia, however, smaller and less prosperous towns still look not so different from how they did 30 to 40 years ago, as replacing monuments is less of a priority than the daily struggle to survive.
But despite the physical reminders of the Soviet era, as the Russian Levada centre poll showed neither older Russians who lived in the USSR nor younger ones born in the Russian Federation wanted to restore a Soviet-style system in modern Russia. Similarly, the 2021 poll of Ukrainians showed the return to a planned economy is supported by only 27% of the respondents, while two thirds are in favour of market relations.
30 years on from the collapse of communism, the legacy of the USSR may be visible on most streets across what was once its vast territory, but that era is finally being consigned to history.
Contributions from Cavid Aga in Baku, Iulian Ernst in Bucharest, Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius, Cameron Jones in Kyiv, Theo Normanton in Moscow, Clare Nuttall in Glasgow and Kanat Shaku in Almaty.
This article is part of a series marking the 30th anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Read the other stories in the series here: