Who were Putin's influences growing up

Soviet Union II: 1953-1991

Heiko Pleines

PD Dr. Heiko Pleines heads the Politics and Economics department of the Eastern Europe Research Center and teaches comparative political science at the University of Bremen. His main research interests are non-democratic political regimes and the role of non-state actors in political decision-making processes.
Contact: [email protected]

After 1991 the post-Soviet states followed different paths. Not all former Soviet citizens benefited from the new freedoms. This encourages the Russian President Putin in his efforts to reintegrate former Soviet territories.

The collapse of the Soviet Union 1990/91 (& copy Bergmoser + Höller Verlag AG, figure 843 115)

15 new states

At the beginning of 1992, 15 new independent states emerged on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Even if eleven (and from 1993 twelve) of them merged in the CIS, they took very different paths of development in the following years.

Political Regime

The three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - consistently pursued an orientation towards the West in foreign policy combined with democratic and market-economy reforms. A central result of this policy was admission to the EU within the first round of eastward enlargement in 2004.

At the other end of the spectrum are five post-Soviet states in which - in some cases after a brief phase of democratic or nationalist reforms - representatives of the old Soviet elites created stable authoritarian regimes. In Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, dictatorships have existed for around two decades, in which elections are now only symbolic and media freedom is severely restricted. Representatives of the political opposition, demonstrators and critical journalists face imprisonment and violent persecution in these countries.

In between are the seven other post-Soviet states that cannot be clearly assigned to the democratic or authoritarian group, as they have repeatedly changed their direction of development - often as a result of severe political crises. This can be seen most clearly in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, where elections have repeatedly been accompanied by mass protests and violent unrest and where state institutions have so far not been able to establish a stable long-term order. Armenia and Tajikistan also fall into this group. These political regimes are often referred to as hybrid because they contain elements of both democracies and authoritarian regimes.

Since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, Russia has been moving steadily in the direction of authoritarian consolidation. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, on the other hand, combined the conclusion of association agreements with the EU in 2014 with the intention of taking a development path similar to that of the Baltic states in the 1990s.


At the beginning of the 1990s, there was still the expectation that in the formerly socialist states the end of the inefficient planned economy would be followed by a rapid economic miracle. In fact, they plunged into one of the deepest economic crises ever recorded outside of wartime. One obvious cause of this crisis was the breakup of economic ties between the now independent states, separated by customs borders. Above all, however, there was a lack of state authorities that could enforce compliance with legal requirements in the economy (and in other areas too).

Those states that remained politically stable, such as the Baltic countries, and those that were rich in raw materials, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia, recovered the fastest. Nevertheless, in most post-Soviet states it took well over a decade for their gross domestic product to return to the level of Soviet times.

In the course of the economic crisis, the Soviet system of social security collapsed. State benefits, including pensions, fell below the subsistence level. The health and education systems were only functional to a limited extent, often only in exchange for bribes. While poverty rose rapidly, average life expectancy fell significantly.

Figures for Russia can serve as an example of the serious consequences of the economic crisis in the 1990s: there, over the course of that decade, the gross domestic product per capita collapsed (measured in purchasing power parity, i.e. not at the exchange rate, but in actual purchasing power in relation to a basket of goods) ) by about a third. Only in 2006 did it return to its 1990 level. In 1999, the average monthly wage was the equivalent of 62 euros. According to Russian statistics, almost 30 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 1999, and according to World Bank calculations even more than 40 percent. The average life expectancy of the Russian population fell from 68 to 65 years in the 1990s.

Violent conflicts

In the group of unstable states described above in particular, violent conflicts broke out with the end of the Soviet Union. Armenia and Azerbaijan waged war over the Nagorny-Karabakh region (also Nagorny-Karabakh). Tajikistan fell into a bloody civil war for five years. Georgia and Moldova lost control of part of their territory in the course of civil wars. Russia fought two wars in Chechnya to prevent the region's independence. There were repeated violent conflicts later as well, such as the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, an anti-Uzbek pogrom in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and a civil war with pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, in 2014.

This resulted in so-called frozen conflicts in the area of ​​the former Soviet Union, in which, although no major acts of war took place, no permanent solution and certainly no peace were achieved. At the same time, so-called de facto states were formed in some breakaway regions, which function like independent states with their own government and administration, but are formally recognized by (almost) no country in the world.

Soviet nostalgia

Share of the Russian minority in the total population (© CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/)
The painful political, economic and social slumps after the end of the Soviet Union played a major role in the fact that large sections of the population quickly developed a Soviet nostalgia. Especially for people who were confronted with poverty, social security was and is the leitmotif. Minorities of Russian origin in the other post-Soviet states and a number of people socialized with Soviet culture feel Soviet nostalgia, especially with regard to the Russian language as a lingua franca and the (everyday) culture of the Soviet Union. This aspect of Soviet nostalgia is reinforced by Russian television programs broadcast in many post-Soviet states. In Russia, the Soviet nostalgia is also combined with the memory of the former global power role - especially in the Second World War and the Cold War. Above all in this sense, Putin's statement about the collapse of the Soviet Union is to be understood as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century".

Surveys show that Soviet nostalgia, with its various aspects, is widespread in all 15 post-Soviet states, even if it is not a majority. A poll by the Pew Research Center 20 years after the end of the Soviet Union found that 26 percent of the population in Russia and only 11 percent in Ukraine believed that ordinary citizens had benefited from the changes since 1991. Instead, an overwhelming majority saw politicians and entrepreneurs as winners. In Russia, exactly half of the respondents said that "it is a great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists." Two thirds of those over 65 agreed, while only one third of those under 30 agreed.

The political elites of many post-Soviet countries have a positive view of Soviet nostalgia - be it because they themselves received their training in Soviet Moscow, or because Soviet nostalgia can serve to legitimize their own rule. In countries like Georgia or Ukraine, the attitude towards Soviet nostalgia and Russia is one of the central lines of conflict between the political camps in the country. Soviet nostalgia is most clearly rejected by the majority of the political elite in the Baltic States, where it is criticized as an instrument of Russian neo-imperialism. In Russia, on the other hand, almost half of the population agrees in polls that "it is normal for Russia to have an empire."

Source text

Return of the past

[...] Russia today fulfills all the criteria of an authoritarian state, which for example [the political scientist - editor's note. Ed.] Juan Linz named: The regime is based on oligarchic groups, on power apparatuses, the higher bureaucracy and the directors of the large state corporations. The ideology of creating a new society and global political mission have disappeared. Instead, the regime tries to legitimize itself with an imitated traditionalism (orthodoxy and Russian nationalism), propagates "Russian values" such as tolerance, anti-intellectualism, hostility towards the West, bondage and the rejection of liberal ideas, speaks of a "special path" or the " Uniqueness of Russian Civilization ". Above all, it promotes political apathy in society.
To justify authoritarian rule that is not responsible to anyone, the threat to the national collective and its values ​​must be invoked, while everything private and individual must be degraded and devalued. People should be freed from feelings of guilt, shame about a past of terror, poverty and everyday humiliation is suppressed. This leads to the passivity that makes organized public resistance to the Putin regime impossible. This increases public cynicism and an open lack of morality. This lack of common values ​​forces the Putin regime to look for sources of legitimacy on a hodgepodge of "national values" intended to stimulate "patriotism": from orthodoxy to the "heroes of labor" and the "builders" of communism ", from the legend of the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612 to the victory over Napoleon in 1812.
Since Putin came to power, the regime has been systematically re-ideologizing society in a conservative way. The highlight was the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the victory over Hitler's Germany. The name of Stalin, which during perestroika was primarily associated with the terror against its own people, became a symbol of victory in the Great Patriotic War. School books today associate Stalin with national pride. This propaganda is having an effect: In the regular surveys of the Levada Center in 2012, Stalin landed for the first time since 1989 in number 1 of the "greatest personalities in world history and the history of our fatherland".
Stalin is presented as generalissimo, commander-in-chief of the Red Army, one of the three leaders of the victorious allies and creator of the post-war order. Stalin is a natural part of a pompous ritual of national self-adulation, in which the superiority of Russia over other countries is celebrated. Stalin is presented as someone who "successfully managed" the modernization of a backward country. His methods were harsh, but under the given conditions there was no alternative. A hostile and hypocritical West with its "democratic facade" and its "human rights demagogy" is an indispensable part of this image. Just as Stalin once saved Russia, Putin has now saved the country from being sold off by the liberals who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, wanted to bring about a collapse of Russia to satisfy their greed for money. [...]
People in Russia today associate Stalinism and the Stalin era with an irrational fear on the one hand and mythical heroism on the other. Fear belongs to the individual, heroism to the collective, to a mobilized society, in which the value of the individual is measured by his willingness to surrender to the enthusiasm of the masses and to sacrifice himself for the whole. Part of the heroic image of the Stalin era is that it is seen as an epoch that lies so deep in the past that compassion for the victims of the repression is impossible. What these two layers of collective memory, fear and heroization have in common is that the traumatic story is repressed, that the fear of a return of the past produces resistance to dealing with the past: "I don't want to know anything more about that." This prevents a moral judgment of the past as well as a rational discussion of history.
Fear of history also means that people do not want to know anything about the present. Comparing the past regime with today's is taboo, as people subconsciously sense that the individual is just as defenseless at the mercy of power today as he was then, that his path and happiness in life are as little in his hand as in Soviet times. Dealing with Soviet history and knowing that it affects the present are prerequisites for understanding today's system of institutionalized violence. The suppression of the past also means that it talks to death on television in countless entertainment shows and series, that the Stalin era is made a glamor theme in documentary soaps such as "Our Stalin" or "The Women of the Kremlin". All of this promotes the willingness to patiently endure the unreasonable demands of the present and weakens the will to take responsibility and become politically active.
The meaning makers of the Putin regime thus produce an extremely important social product: with their propaganda they produce a passive attitude towards the past, a view of history in which there are no acting persons, so that no one can be held responsible for the crimes of the state. Just as people in Russia look at the past, they also see the present. Those who lack the will and the opportunity to understand the past can only be passive today and at best try to protect themselves and their neighbors; his hopes and needs are limited to surviving in an atmosphere of baseless fear and constant threat.
There is no one in Russia today who has sufficient moral and intellectual authority to convey a different view of history to society. In view of the situation described, society is in itself unable to replace the decorative historical image with an authentic one. In polls, more than three quarters of those questioned say that they "will never find out the whole truth about the Stalin era", and almost as many are of the opinion that it is also not worth looking for, as there is "no objective truth in history." can give". The only response to the frustrating knowledge of the Stalinist repression is a desire to forget about all of this. [...]

Translated from the Russian by Andrea Huterer, Berlin

Lev Gudkov, "Fatal Continuities", in: Osteuropa 63rd vol., Issue 5-6, May-June 2013, page 293 ff.