Is post-Soviet nostalgia shared by the former Soviet republics?
In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in nostalgia for the USSR in some post-Soviet countries as they have moved away from a system of collective security to individual insecurity. This nostalgia can be mostly attributed to the fact that as part of the USSR, states were responsible for the provision of social protection and jobs to its citizens. Nowadays such security is not guaranteed, as Ulugbek Badalov, a doctor in political anthropology states: “people having known Soviet times, apart from their age, show a high degree of uncertainty about their existence, which leads them to consider life only from day to day”. Generally speaking, older generations are the ones who suffer the most from this uncertainty by not knowing what will happen the next day. (Badalov, 2012)
Many argue that life was better in the USSR. For example, a recent poll suggested that in Russia as much as 60% of the population feel nostalgia for the ‘good’ communist days. Zhanna Sribnaya (41), a writer from Moscow is one of these people. In her opinion everyone feels some sort of nostalgia for the USSR: ” It’s trendy because people my age, they can buy what they see, and they want to see their happy childhoods. We remember when ice cream cost 7 kopeks and when everyone could go to the Black Sea for summer vacations. Now, only people with money can take those vacations.” Many Russians see the breakup of the Soviet Union as being bad thing. Putin refers to it as the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century’ (Karpova, 2009)
Outside of Russia, the nostalgic feelings are less widespread but still evident. In Lithuania, a Soviet theme park was created so that younger generations could experience what life was like in the USSR. There is a bunker attraction where tourists can ‘enjoy’ being humiliated, questioned, and forced to confess crimes which were never committed, as well as exhibitions showing communist propaganda and an experience being taught how to deal with a nuclear attack from enemies. As a final treat there is the ‘Grutas Park’ where tourists can appreciate statues and objects, such as toys and portraits from the communist era. (Hancox, 2011)
According to the Yuriy Levada Analytical Centre, the nostalgia in Russia for the Soviet Union is perhaps unsurprisingly mainly evident amongst the older generations: “Regret for the break-up of the Soviet Union is mostly shared by pensioners (85 per cent), women of all ages (63 per cent), 40-55 year-olds (67 per cent) and older respondents (83 per cent), those with less than average education (68 per cent), lower income (79 per cent), and rural residents (66 per cent)”. (Karpova, 2009)
Overall, the level of nostalgia in post-Soviet countries differs across the republics. Russia and other countries surrounding the Caspian Sea – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan – tend to be more pro-Soviet than the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. (eurasiamonitor, 2009)
This became evident when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. (EU) After independence these countries focused on transforming their economies so that they could be part of the free market. In terms of wealth, Estonia is the most prosperous country of the former Soviet bloc but Lithuania and Latvia have also experienced economic growth since joining the EU. (BBC, 2011)
But not all post-soviet countries enjoyed a successful transition from USSR to independence. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan initially suffered from the negative impact of reforming their economy although in 2010 they started to experience higher economic growth which helped reduce the inequality in the country which is also lower in comparison to other Central Asian states. Turkmenistan also suffered in the initial phases of independence but hasn’t enjoyed a similar positive growth; the country spent several years in isolation after the break up and even now most of its population lives in poverty. (BBC, 2011)
Belarus on the other hand presents an interesting case. Even after break up of the Soviet Union, it continued to maintain close economic and political relations with Russia in contrast to other former Soviet countries. Belarus’ economy suffered a dip during the transition period after the dissolution but due to its good relationship with Russia it recovered fairly quickly. (BBC, 2011)
In 2011 Kazakhstan, along with Russia and Belarus signed an agreement that would lead to the creation of a Eurasian Union (EAEU), an idea based on the European Union, by 2015. Many commentators see this initiative as a way for Russia to re-establish its geopolitical influence in Eastern Europe in an attempt to relive the ‘glorious days’ of the Soviet Union when Russia had more power and a larger sphere of influence. (Lefèvre, 2013)
But now the question is: will the EAEU achieve the same status and sphere of influence as the EU?
The chances for the EAEU to one day become as influential as the EU are highly unlikely. Why? Because the EU follows a certain set of principles such as democracy, equality, freedom, rule of law, human dignity and respect for human rights. These values are important; if a European country wishes to join the union it will have to respect these principles to become eligible for applying. If one of the members fails to comply with these values that might lead to the suspension of its rights stemming from membership. Participation in the union is also on a voluntary basis without any external pressure. (Europa)
The EAEU is not based on such principles. As mentioned in part I, some former Soviet countries such as Armenia and Ukraine have stated that Russia has been pressuring them to join the EAEU over the EU. President Putin has also mentioned that the EAEU would follow the principle of equality but up until now Russia has been leading the union. The founding members of the EAEU also have dictatorial inclinations and often poor press freedom as well as high levels of corruption.
The importance for the EU of having principles such as democracy and equality is to guarantee that no other member country will try to dominate the other as this would eradicate the idea of a union. The reason why the EU is so successful has to do with the fact that all members are respected and treated equally. The acceptance of a new member is voted upon by all member states and if one does not agree, a country’s entrance can be denied.
As part of the EU, Germany has one of the strongest economies, but despite this it does not have more power than any other EU countries, while in EAEU it is quite clear who the leader is. When it comes to joining the union, the EU receives voluntary applications, while in the EAEU countries are being ‘bullied’ to join by Russia.
If Russia does indeed seek to achieve the same status and sphere of influence as the EU, it will have to change its approach towards other countries. Pressure does not last forever and if one day these countries achieve conditions to be independent on their own they might decide to leave the union they were forced into. A union should be something countries want to be a part of – a fundamental reason for why the EU has been successful.
*Cover image ‘Flag ~ European Union’ by e r j k p r u n c z y k