22 December 2016

Memory traps

A quarter of a century on: contemporary public opinion regarding the fall of the USSR

The original aim of this article was to provide a brief overview of how the majority of Russians interpret the collapse of the Soviet Union which happened twenty five years ago, however, results of surveys conducted regularly by the Levada Center indicate that Russian citizens lack an understanding of what actually happened all those years ago as respondents’ answers have become increasingly non-committal over time.

The basics

Russians’ perception of the fall of the USSR today is best illustrated by the results of a series of public opinion polls conducted over the last couple of months: over half (56%) still regret the dissolution of the Soviet Union (28% hold an opposing view). Half of respondents (51%) believe that it could have been avoided (one third of respondents think otherwise). Nearly 60% would like to witness a resurrection of the Soviet Union in some form (although nearly three quarters of them concede that “it is impossible at the moment”). Half of the country’s population believe today that the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union was a watershed event. According to respondents, the desire to “feel like part of a great superpower” (43%) constituted the main reason underlying the sense of nostalgia they experienced with respect to the USSR.

Among those harboring a sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, age is the major distinguishing factor (neither education nor place of residence [Moscow versus the regions] differentiates respondents significantly). Typically, the older the respondent and the larger the proportion of life he or she spent under Soviet rule, the greater the sense of nostalgia for the country that is gone. The youngest and eldest respondents express contrasting views. For example, nearly 80% of old age pensioners and only one quarter of youths regret the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nearly 80% of elderly persons and 30% of young respondents would like to see a restoration of the USSR. The divide runs close to 40 years of age and opinions of respondents aged 40-54 resemble those of elderly respondents.


The abovementioned generational divide can be seen as a reason for hope: the Soviet legacy will eventually be consigned to history. The shift in opinions evidenced by contemporary survey results seemingly supports this. Opinion polls show that a period of “peak regret” as regards the breakup of the USSR passed by in the late 1990s-early 2000s (75% felt nostalgia for the USSR at that time). The number of those of this persuasion then gradually decreased, falling below 50% by 2012. However, a reverse trend has been observable since 2014 which is also true as regards perception of the inevitability of the collapse of the USSR: the number of those who considered the dissolution inevitable was gradually waning until 2014, but since then, a revival of confidence that the breakup was inevitable has taken hold.

Peak nostalgia for the great superpower was registered in 2014 as more and more Russians (56%) yearned for a return to the might of the former USSR. It is noteworthy that less than one third of respondents (29%) shared this sentiment in the late nineties. It was after Crimea “joined” Russia - an event perceived by the majority of the population as a revival of the lost status of the great superpower - that we observed changes in public opinion as regards the reasons behind the fall of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, this feeling of nostalgia is somewhat selective as respondents would like to see today’s Russia as strong as the USSR with the same gravitas on the international arena, although they draw the line at living under the rule of a Stalin or Brezhnev-like figure.

Memory loss

Thus, the 2014 backlash of public opinion was triggered by purposeful actions of the authorities who employ nationalist rhetoric and promote sentimentality for the great superpower as a means of bolstering their legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Such a policy has become possible given the lack of public understanding of the reasons underlying the events of a quarter of a century ago. Ever more confusion surrounds what happened in 1991 as time passes. Hence, two explanations for the developments have dominated the public’s interpretation over recent years and do so today: the Soviet Union was dissolved either “by Yeltsin along with Gorbachev” or “by the West headed by the United States”. The former narrative has been most prevalent over a longer term, whereas the latter has been gaining popularity over the last two or three years (obviously, the peak of popularity in terms of belief in a global conspiracy against the USSR was reached in 2014). The eldest respondents were most susceptible to conspiracy theories (neither respondents’ level of education nor place of residence [Moscow versus rural areas] had any significant bearing). The fact that these narratives have become the two most dominant over the last decade (the first polls were conducted in 2006) illustrates that Russians lack understanding of the reasons behind what came to pass.

Another characteristic feature as regards public opinion on the dissolution of the USSR is the fact that this event is regarded as far more significant now than it was prior to the mid-2000s as previously, other events were perceived as more important. According to opinion polls conducted in 1991 (before the signing of the Belavezha Accords), Russians believed the coup attempted by the State Committee on the State of Emergency (which was mentioned by 52% of respondents), the liberalization of prices (34%) and the dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (32%) to be more significant factors. Polls conducted among Muscovites in those days demonstrated similar dynamics. It may seem inconceivable today, but fear of famine in the capital began to recede as late as 1993-1994.

The 1991 coup staged by the State Committee on the State of Emergency was cited as the main watershed event until the mid-2000s. Public opinion as regards the collapse of the USSR has only recently started to take its current shape. Importance was attributed to the coup by approximately half of respondents back in 2001 while one in five (18%) underlined the significance of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In light of the above, it is reasonable to pose the following question: Did Vladimir Putin’s words simply echo public opinion or did he attribute a new meaning to the events from the recent past when in 2005 he famously said, “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

It seems that public opinion has proven to be extremely susceptible to the rhetoric of the power elite precisely because those who witnessed the collapse of the USSR did not comprehend the reasons behind it. Younger generations are even more susceptible as young respondents who have just completed school or university courses in history are the most ignorant when it comes to these issues. Between one-third and a half have difficulty explaining the reasons behind the dissolution of the Soviet Union or are incapable of explaining the events. 42% of the youngest respondents (20% of all the respondents on average) are unable to say with any certainty whether the dissolution was inevitable. 44% (20% on average) are unable to cite reasons for what happened and 52% (23% on average) lack the necessary knowledge in order to arrive at an opinion about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And, what is more, this knowledge vacuum can be filled by a variety suppositions.

The difference of opinion between the youth and the elderly serves as no guarantee that nostalgia for the Soviet Union will gradually become a thing of the past. Those who have failed to learn history lessons (both literally and figuratively) are susceptible to propaganda which evokes sentimentality for the great superpower and hence, they can be considered malleable objects of manipulation. 

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