International Paul Chaisty Politics Russia Stephen Whitefield

Putin’s Russia: People Increasingly Identify With the Soviet Union—Here’s What That Means

Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Stephen Whitefield and Paul Chaisty, University of Oxford / The Conversation

The view that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, wants to restore territories of the Soviet Union has been a big part of the commentary on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But how much is he in tune with the wishes of the Russian people? Our research suggests that while Russian citizens increasingly identify with the USSR, this is only partially explained by their desire to expand Russia’s borders.

People’s identification with the Soviet Union appears to have a clear and growing basis in Russian public opinion. Surveys we have conducted throughout the Putin period show that Soviet identification among the general population – something that had been steadily declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began to increase in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea and supported rebellions in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. By 2021, almost 50% of those surveyed identified with the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Federation.

Survey asks respondents to consider the statement: ‘I identify more strongly with the Soviet Union than I do with the Russian Federation.’ The responses are reported in percentages. Data: Survey conducted by R-Research Ltd. Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, Author provided

This pattern was also evident among Putin’s supporters. As the graph below shows, after we have controlled for age and affluence – two variables that are strong predictors of identifying with the Soviet Union, with older and less affluent people more inclined to identify with the USSR – the probability that Putin voters are likely to be Soviet rather than Russian identifiers increases significantly after 2014.

In this figure, we report the differences between the predicted probabilities that Putin voters would identify with either the Russian Federation or the Soviet Union, holding all other factors (including controls for age and economic affluence) at their means. Data: Survey conducted by R-Research Ltd. Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, Author provided

But is this growth in Soviet identity motivated by support for Putin’s expansionist policies? In other words, did the annexation of Crimea create a bedrock of expansionist support for the Kremlin’s military assault on Ukraine in 2022?

Hankering for the past

Identification with the Soviet past can derive from many sources. These tend to include nostalgia for Soviet era economic and welfare policies as well as a cultural nostalgia for a particular Soviet “way of life” and traditional values. It can also manifest as a desire for direct worker participation in politics, and a rejection of “elitist” forms of representative liberal democracy. Finally – and in line with the primary focus of our research – identifying with the Soviet Union may stem from hostility towards perceived western interference and a desire to expand Russia’s borders to include parts of the former Soviet Union – the so-called “near abroad”.

So which of these is most important among Russian citizens? Our data do not support the idea that expansionist or anti-western attitudes are the primary reason people want to identify with the USSR, although they may have been a strong catalyst in 2014.

The chart below reports the probabilities for a direct measure of support for “expanding Russian borders to include the ‘near abroad’”, which we asked in 2001, 2003, 2014 and 2018. We also asked about people’s views of the market economy, whether they had conservative cultural views, “Leninist” notions of worker political participation and anti-western sentiment. Our findings suggest that expansionism played little role for Russian citizens in 2001 or 2003 – and was not the most significant element driving Soviet identity in 2018 either. Its effect was greatest in 2014, which is consistent with the “rally around the flag” effect that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Note: Each variable is binary. In this figure, we report the differences between the predicted probabilities for each explanatory factor, holding all other factors (including controls for age and economic affluence) at their means. Data: Survey conducted by R-Research Ltd. Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, Author provided

Likewise, anti-western sentiment has not been the main driver of recent Soviet identification among Russians. Our fourth graph, below, summarises probabilities for the effects of anti-western attitudes across all the surveys we conducted from 2001 to 2021, along with the other measures. As can be seen, the effect of anti-western attitudes has largely diminished over time. In most years, we find that cultural conservatism and anti-market sentiment have been the main reasons why people might prefer to identify with the Soviet Union.

Note: Each variable is binary. In this figure, we report the differences between the predicted probabilities for each explanatory variable, holding all other factors (including controls for age and economic affluence) at their means. Data: Survey conducted by R-Research Ltd. Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, Author provided

Rally round the flag?

The magnitude of the current conflict has the potential to deepen anti-western attitudes in Russia and to stimulate a further bout of “rallying around the flag” in support of Putin’s expansionist war.

Yet the economic and cultural bases of Soviet identity are likely to remain key to Putin’s support. These factors have enabled Putin to broaden his political coalition since returning to the presidency in 2012. Support for Soviet-style social benefits featured in his election campaign in 2018, and was part of the political offer made to the Russian people in 2020 to secure constitutional changes that could keep him in office until 2036.

The economic costs imposed on Russians through sanctions could undermine this appeal, but as we argue in other research, this is unlikely to have an immediate impact.

Stephen Whitefield
Stephen Whitefield

Stephen Whitefield is a fellow in Politics at the University of Oxford. After writing my doctorate in 1991 on Soviet political and economic institutions (published as Industrial Power and the Soviet State by Oxford University Press in 1993 – Ed A. Hewett Prizewinner), I have spent the last 20 years studying post-Communist politics and society via mass surveys conducted repeatedly in 13 post-Communist countries. On the way, I became interested in the character of post-Communist and now West European political parties, which I am also investigating (with Robert Rohrschneider at Indiana University, Bloomington) via expert surveys of their stances towards European integration and social inequality. These interests have expanded recently to include an Egyptian election study (in November 2011) and a study of how parties differ among themselves and over time in their emotional appeals to voters.

Paul Chaisty
Paul Chaisty

Paul Chaisty is a professor of Russian and East European Politics at the University of Oxford. His work also focuses on legislative, party and interest group politics in post-communist Russia; political attitudes in Russia; nationalism in Russia and Ukraine; comparative presidentialism, with a particular focus on the phenomenon of coalitional presidentialism.

23 comments

  1. The civilized world is right to support Russia and reject US aggression. Russia acts in good faith and treats other countries with respect, in stark contrast to the US’s thuggish “Rules-Based International Order, which just means that, in the US view, the rest of the world must follow US orders. The US squandered what little credibility it had by orchestrating its proxy war in Ukraine and, levying its multiple illegal (and foolish) sanctions against Russia, then stealing all funds of Afghanistan and Russia within its reach. These actions, combined with decades of illegal wars of aggression and illegal sanctions aggressively assessed against all countries which fail to follow US orders have made it perfectly clear that the US cannot be trusted. The breaching of agreements with other countries for no justifiable reason has provided additional evidence of the US’s bad character and untrustworthiness. The US has abused its power gained through having the luxury of having the US dollar serve as the world’s reserve currency. Because of that abuse, coupled with its thuggish treatment of others, that privilege will be removed. Since the US has willfully and foolishly deindustrialized its economy, without the power to issue the reserve currency, there are very hard times awaiting for the US.

    1. The capitalists got a massive profit high off deindustrialization, with little thought for the consequences for the host country. Oh, those little dots down there, WAY down below the ferris wheel? Annoying little specks. The money went into their coffers, to their executives and into trillions invested in wars that profited some of them. Very little of the excess was needed to bribe the Republocrat concubines.

      Neoliberal capitalism is a murder-suicide cult.

    2. from a technical perspective the US population is dangerously deskilled. it has no intelligentsia, only wokestan “technicians that serve power w a thin understanding of everything”. Hofstadter’s description of US academics—the results are more insecurity, mental illness, violence, antagonism, narcissism, incompetence, corruption—-the american character has changed little since Tocqueville, however americans more puritanical, more illiterate, more narcissistic—as Geoffrey Gorer writes, “americans bewilder Europeans”

  2. One defect: Putin’s measures to contain the expansionist NATO drang nach Osten were and are not “expansionist”– they are defensive.

    Otherwise, this is very heartening news — a sign that the Soviet period has been now correctly understood by the Russians — and possibly some other former members of the Union (?)

    Right from the start, the USSR was subject to unremitting hostility and gross interference and attacks by the capitalist west. There never was a “level playing field” to see which system would be better — the capitalist west knew the answer and did everything possible to destroy the Soviet Union.

    Which collapsed primarily because it never was able to provide a plentiful life for its people, PLUS invest in all the weaponry necessary to defend itself. Socialism, unlike capitalism — is not a genetically aggressive system that lives by war, conquest and aggression.

    Lenin had an answer, the New Economic Policy, which unfortunately was ended by Stalin. China has implemented a version of that, and the capitalist west is pulling out its hair because for the first time — a giant socialist nation that’s created prosperity, dramatically reduced poverty, achieved incredible scientific progress and built enormous modern infrastructure — AND can defend itself.

    AND, is in the passing lane 🙂

    The way is prepared for an ACTUAL “USSR”to be re-created — led by a revitalized Communist party. Which has been getting so many votes Putin banned it from elections. Not the territorial USSR, but a vital socialist state that can create a stable and prosperous life formits people, and also defend itself.

    The example of Communist-led China can’t exactly be hidden from the Russian people. Yeah, WE had that! Let’s get it back!

    The clowns of the west keep looking for some non-Communist type, like the absurd Navalny, but the Russians keep coming up Communist.

    Not going to guess how they get from Putin to that goal, that’s up to them to figure out.

    Stalin, incidentally, is the second most popular figure in Russia, after Putin.

    The only reason he’s not first is that he’s no longer alive.

    1. do you always lie?—the Russian Communist Party consistently receives 20-25% of all votes, elects many mayors regional officials

      1. Dear insect: focus a few of your compound eyes and read.

        Russia’s once-tame Communist Party is becoming an opposition force
        The Kremlin and the party’s own leader are worried
        https://www.economist.com/europe/2021/10/30/russias-once-tame-communist-party-is-becoming-an-opposition-force

        Russia’s Communist Comeback
        Oct 25, 2021
        NINA L. KHRUSHCHEVA
        https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/russia-communist-party-gains-support-leads-opposition-by-nina-l-khrushcheva-2021-10

    2. I agree that the USSR never had a level playing field, It will be interesting to see if you are right.

    3. Stalin was the gravedigger of the Revolution. Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin were the true leaders. Lenin died young (possibly assisted by Stalin) and Trotsky and the Left Opposition were all murdered by Stalin. If the true, revolutionary Soviet Union could be resurrected, that would be different.

      1. Lenin certainly harbored a distrust of Koba, however I tend to believe he died from consequences of a stroke.

      2. Lenin died of a stroke.
        Trotsky’s concept of attempting world revolution would have dissipated the USSR and failed.
        The German revolution was defeated, Stalin could do nothing to alter that fact..
        The USSR needed to be industrialized rapidly, and ruthlessly, so it could defend itself.
        Absent a strong, even brutal imposition of control, the country would have been disassembled by the capitalist powers.
        Defeat of Nazism validated Stalin’s strategy.
        The PRC evaluates Mao as 70 percent correct, 30 percent incorrect: probably rings true for Stalin.
        Napoleon failed the republican cause, Stalin built a modern industrial state.
        The idiot Gorbachev ruined it, along with drunken Boris.
        With any luck, Communist control will return and the oligarchs will go up the chimney in the Lubyanka.

      3. false—Lenin and Trotsky were utopians; the aestethetic experiment of the USSR (Groys/Dobrenko) was directed by the poet, Stalin

  3. this is no surprise
    “Russians are socialist by instinct. the Russian character has always been anti-bourgeoise, always expected the unexpected from a Russian”. Nicolai Berdayaev

  4. Suppose I was a Russian watching NATO creeping closer and closer to my borders, like the Baltics, and I had 4 armies attacking me after WW1 the US being one of them. In that case, I’d seriously consider renewing the USSR as well.
    The US shook hands that we wouldn’t go 1 inch east including east germany, now look what we have.
    That’s what the US says, we only shook hands and gave you our word. Which goes to show you how much a US promise is worth.

    1. Just curious….Do you know why the Russians accepted a mere handshake and promise?….Why didn’t they insist on a treaty or official agreement with some backbone?….On the other hand, maybe my question is dumb, since there really was no reason to trust the word of the US (NATO) in any case.)

      1. USA routinely and frequently violates formally recognized treaties; would you trust an american signature on a contract?

  5. USSR—no homeless, free university education, no sexual repression, state paid parental leave, universal health care, no police brutality (no guns)—respect for religions Muslim Christian, Jew, Buddhist –4 official religions in Russia…true in Russia today, Hungary Cuba etc…these terrible communists Orban Putin Fidel…in USA freedom means a tent in and discounted marijuana

  6. Jim Thomas,
    Well said, thank you. The US is on a downward slide with no reversal in sight.
    As for the writers of this article, they seem to reinforce each other’s take on Putin and Stalin without the deep understanding of either man that, say, one finds in reading Stephen F. Cohen. Putin and Stalin, complete opposites, one (Stalin) insane and murderous, destroying what might have been, the other(Putin) bringing 70 million citizens out of poverty into a middle class, building a socialist democracy. The US would be lucky to have a president with the qualities of Putin who never lies, nor wants to own the world. His Ukraine “invasion” was forced upon him by the aggression of the US/NATO.

    1. Stalin–one of the greatest leaders in history—admired by at least 75% today in former Soviet space–excepting ukraine and baltics—-for amerikan fascist progress terrible
      USSR—no homeless, guaranteed flats based on family size —no rent, universal health care, mandatory paid parental leave, free university education, group rights to protect culture and language—all true today in Russia :90% in Russia own their habitat, no mortgage—35 official languages in Russia today…I suspect you are an expert on insanity: 30+% USA adults diagnosed with mental illness–this excludes vast numbers of axis 2 personality disorders; no other nation exceeds 6%

  7. Your premise is flawed. The annexation of Crimea and the SMO is not about expansion but about defending against the never ending anti-Russian policies accompanied by relentless NATO expansion.

  8. So far, Russian tactics are not overwhelming in their Ukraine family fight.
    If Russia has to endure a lengthy war, it is disadvantaged to the power of Nato and western unlimited economy. Russians without China aid has very limited arms, manpower, and money for the long run.
    Probably this winter will determine Germany and France’s level of suffering economic pain and unbearable discomfort of cold. Will they impose an end to the war or survive the winter to be stronger and defeat the underwhelming Russia military???
    Russia seems to be confused in settling into a drawn out fight which will totally drain it and works to the benefit of the West and even undermine the strength of China whose’ unlimited ‘ is empty words.

    Probably the only good weapon for Putin is gas to Germany, but he is not using the flow of gas efficiently.
    Europe is stocking up enough to survive this winter, maybe.
    Hopefully this war end next summer.

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