The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why do so many people miss the Soviet Union?

An impersonator of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin walks past a hammer-and-sickle red flag in Moscow on Nov. 21. Russia will mark the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union's dissolution at the end of the year. (Vasily Maximov/Agence France-Presse)

On Dec. 26, 1991, the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist. Its flag, with its famous hammer and sickle, was lowered outside the Kremlin at 7:32 p.m. Within a half-hour, the red, white and blue Russian flag had been raised in its place.

For almost 70 years, the totalitarian Soviet Union had curtailed the free speech and human rights of its citizens. By the late 1980s, it was painfully obvious that its economic policies had led to a dramatically lower quality of life than in the West.

But even so, few celebrated its demise.

“It was strange how little reaction there was,” Uli Klese, a Berlin photographer vacationing in Moscow as the flag fell, told The Washington Post at the time. “When the Berlin Wall came down, everybody was out on the streets. This was an event of the same kind of magnitude, but no one seemed to care.”

A quarter-century later, few in the former Soviet Union seem to remember its collapse fondly. In fact, many seem to bitterly regret it.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, recently gave interviews in which he criticized Western inaction over the collapse of the Soviet Union and lambasted the “treachery” of those who enabled it. Vladimir Putin, Russia's leader in one form or another for more than 16 years, has called the fall of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Perhaps what's more surprising, however, is that among the general public, who often suffered the most under the Soviet Union, there is perhaps a lingering nostalgia for it.

Look at data from the independent polling firm Levada and you'll see that the percentage of Russians who regretted the Soviet collapse has dropped below 50 percent only once since 1992: in 2012, when it hit 49 percent. In the most recent polling, about 56 percent of Russians say they regret its fall.

It's reasonable for anyone living in a democracy to wonder why anyone would regret the collapse of a totalitarian regime. Thankfully, Levada also asked those with regrets why they thought that way.

To most, the destruction of the union's shared economic system was the main factor — in Levada's most recent poll, 53 percent listed it. The reasoning is understandable: The planned economy of the vast Soviet Union offered financial stability. In the immediate aftermath of its 1991 crash, it quickly became apparent that Russia's new market economy would offer a rocky ride.

Economic reforms quickly had a harsh effect on general living standards. The ruble became almost worthless. Corruption was rampant. A deeply flawed privatization program helped put much of the country's economy in the hands of an entrenched and often shady oligarchy. Then, just as things began to look up, the 1998 financial crisis hit and wiped out much of the limited gains that had been made.

The economy did finally begin to stabilize when Putin came to power. The new Russian leader went out of his way to confront the oligarchs. Meanwhile, the benefits of Russia's rich natural resources began to filter through into the day-to-day economy, with real disposable income going up 140 percent between 2000 and 2007.

This may explain why Levada's polling finds that the sense of belonging to a great power is one of the major reasons for people missing the Soviet Union: 43 percent in 2016. Other justifications for regret range from the mundanely practical (its harder to travel) to the emotional (a lost sense of home).

Curiously, it seems this nostalgia may not be limited to Russia, the dominant country in the Soviet Union and whose empire formed its base. A recent survey by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank found that more than half of the respondents from former Soviet states thought a return to an authoritarian regime would be a positive development in some circumstances.

The EBRD study also found that life satisfaction remained low in post-Soviet states, which led to a “happiness gap” with Western Europe.

All this begs another obvious question: Could the Soviet Union come back? Here's the evidence from Levada polling: While as many as 30 percent of Russians said in 2001 that they favored a return to the Soviet Union in its original form, that figure has dropped throughout the Putin years. It now sits at 12 percent.

Speaking recently with Tass, Gorbachev seemed to understand the desire to raise a new flag. “The Soviet Union cannot be restored,” he told the Russian news agency. “But a new Union can be established.”

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