It was 20 years ago this week that the Soviet Union’s defenders mounted a last-ditch effort to stop the implementation of liberalizing reforms and preserve the USSR. The failure of their “August coup” was a hopeful moment for Russians who had experienced decades of oppression, but in the two decades since, democratization has not proceeded as smoothly as many hoped. A recent article marking the anniversary noted that, today, Russian attitudes towards the coup are decidedly mixed. About one-fifth of Russians favor a return to the Soviet Union, 39 percent call the collapse of the USSR a tragedy, and only 10 percent view it as a victory for democracy. Why do Russians feel this way, and what does it mean for the country’s political future?
According to a 2006 article in Post-Soviet Affairs, these sentiments are explained more by the legacy of the USSR than by Russia’s performance since 1991—and while they bode poorly for a breakthrough in Russian democratization, they shouldn’t be misread as a precursor to the return of the Soviet system. Neil Munro of the University of Aberdeen surveyed Russian opinion of the USSR and distinguished two separate trends: nostalgia (“a positive view of the past regime, based on a holistic evaluation of its faults and merits”) and reaction (“a desire to return to the status quo ante”). To some extent, Munro detected the basic haziness of memory at work: “As the past becomes more distant, so it grows in popularity, up to a certain level,” he noted. But Munro also tested for a number of other factors to explain both nostalgia and reaction. The single strongest reason for both, he found, is the enduring impact of Soviet ideological socialization—what he calls the “legacy of values,” deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche after decades of a totalitarian regime promoting its ideology in every facet of life. Social status, Munro found, also affects both nostalgia and reaction, but in different ways: Whereas high-status Russians feel much more nostalgia than low-status Russians, they also tend to be less reactionary. Munro sees these mixed feelings playing out in Russian politics. In the approach of Vladimir Putin, he detects a syncretic impulse—which, he argues, “exploits an ambivalent attitude to the demise of the old regime.” While persistent nostalgia may hinder liberal reforms, it is not strong or widespread enough, Munro argues, to bring about a return to Russia’s past. Indeed, on this question, Russians are less ambivalent: only 16 percent, he reports, see such a return as likely.