Missing the Soviet Motherland: Nostalgia for the USSR in Russia Today

Read Mr. Sullivan’s working paper here: 

Missing the Soviet Motherland: Nostalgia for the USSR in Russia Today

CGI held the first meeting of its Rising Experts Task Force on March 20, 2013, with Charles Sullivan, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at George Washington University. With young scholars and professionals from several of Washington, D.C.’s top foreign affairs institutions in attendance, Sullivan discussed his dissertation research, which focuses on nostalgia for the Soviet Union in Russia today. He conducted field interviews in Russia’s regions over the course of the 2011-2012 academic year and designed a series of questions that were included in a nationally representative survey carried out by the Levada Analytical Center in May 2012.

Sullivan’s topic was inspired by a trip to Volgograd, Russia and a visit to its main tourist attraction, the “Rodina Mat Zovyot!” (or “The Motherland is Calling” in English) monument to the Great Patriotic War. Sullivan said that as he gazed up at it, he wondered what meaning it might still hold for Volgograd’s citizens, and for Russians in general. As he reflected on attitudes to the past in today’s Russian Federation, he began thinking about the concept of nostalgia, which is largely unexplored in political science but clearly apparent among many post-Soviet Russians.

In his presentation at CGI and in his working paper, Sullivan explained the evolution of the concept and his attempts to measure it, an effort he claims policy think tanks have thus far neglected. Through survey design, he focused on clearly defining “reflective” and “restorative” tendencies in accordance with the scholar Svetlana Boym’s original conceptualization, and worked to identify the conditions under which nostalgia has emerged and persisted in post-Soviet Russia. Sullivan then described his major findings, focusing on the relationship between dissatisfaction with public services in contemporary Russia  and nostalgia, particularly among the elderly and lower-income populations who have had the hardest time adapting to life in a new country.

Sullivan noted that his research shows no real correlations between what Russians read in newspapers or watch on television and how they feel about the former Soviet Union. In addition, based on his findings, he does not believe that how Stalin or the Soviet Union are presented in school textbooks in Russia contributes to a positive outlook on Stalin or the Soviet Union among Russians.

Much of the resulting discussion focused on how nostalgia impacts the potential for regime change in Russia. Sullivan argued that policymakers who hope for widespread condemnation of Stalin in Russia would view such an occurrence as a positive indicator of a move towards embracing democratic values. In reality, most middle-class Russians would only show interest in democracy if their economic stability under the current system came under threat.

In Sullivan’s opinion, there is no competing vision that effectively challenges the existing authoritarian system, which is fully institutionalized. Not even the Communist Party has been able to capitalize on nostalgic sentiments, largely because they have not presented a clear platform that assures citizens of the stability of their future, which remains their major priority. Although Sullivan believes regime change is highly unlikely, he suggested it could arise if economic rents began disappearing and a new leader could effectively tap into nostalgic sentiments about the security of the past to mount a challenge to Putin.

Finally, Sullivan stressed that nostalgia in Russia does not constitute a threat to the U.S. Indeed, a major problem in the bilateral relationship between the two countries is how differently they assess risk. He made the claim that although many in Russia long for certain elements of Soviet life, the concept of nostalgia contains within itself an acknowledgement of the impossibility of a return to the past. While Russia is a great power, nostalgic sentiments do not make it a revisionist power seeking to change the status of the international system or dominate the affairs of its neighbors. Thus, Sullivan concluded, the bilateral relationship would greatly benefit if the two powers more clearly addressed the concept of threat perception.