Staunton, June 11 – Even as Vladimir Putin pursues what many see as an effort to restore an empire centered on Moscow, polls show that ever fewer Russians regret the end of the Soviet Union – something the Kremlin leader has said was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century – and ever more back the idea of a separate and independent Russia.
According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, the share of Russians who support the idea of an independent Russia has increased over the last year from 53 percent to 71 percent, or from just over half to nearly three out of four. And the current figure compares with 27 percent who took that position in 1998 (ng.ru/politics/2014-06-11/3_soyuz.html).
These figures are inversely related to the share of the population viewing the demise of the Soviet Union as something harmful. Sixteen years ago, 57 percent of Russians had that view; now, only 12 percent do – and only one in six of those (two percent) say that it definitely has had a negative impact.
Public opinion specialists note that the latest findings continue “a longtime trend away from the imperial ideas of the Soviet Union.” These feelings may even have been boosted by the wave of patriotism over the annexation of Crimea, although experts add this combination points to “the growing primitivization of public consciousness” as a result of TV propaganda.
Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, says that regrets about the demise of the Soviet Union gradually declined and support for an independent Russia slowly increased over the last decade as Russians saw their standard of living rise. But the dramatic shifts in such attitudes over the last year are “completely” the result of the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.
The outburst of Russian patriotism has been accompanied by rising “national pride, a certain self-satisfaction, and self-love,” he says. And it reflects “the decisive influence on the consciousness of people of external factors – propaganda, militant rhetoric and the creation of the image of the enemy.”
Many Russians clearly “do not notice” the underlying contradiction between their support for a self-standing Russia and the annexation of Crimea. Instead, Gudkov suggests, “people who experience the growth in patriotism and a feeling of collective unity cease to think about the consequences of this policy” – “and in general are less rational” in their assessments of it.
Boris Makarenko, an analyst at the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, offers another interpretation of this trend. He suggests that the issue of Russian independence can be read into ways – not just having a separate state but being “independent from the West.” In that case, the poll results are completely consistent with each other.
But however that may be, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reported yesterday, “the longterm tendency remains in place: nostalgia for the USSR really is passing into the past.” Society has changed, and Russians “understand that the historical process” is not subject to reversal, whatever happens in Ukraine.
These comments suggest three conclusions beyond those the Moscow paper draws. First, public support in Russia for a broader imperial agenda is almost certainly much lower than many, including possibly Vladimir Putin assume, and that will limit the Kremlin’s possibilities of pursuing it, Moscow television notwithstanding.
Second, Putin’s Crimean Anschluss instead of generating support for that broader plan may be having exactly the opposite effect, prompting ever more Russians to think in national or even nationalist terms rather than imperial or pan-Eurasia ones, a trend that will affect not just Russia’s relations with its neighbors but Russia’s relations with itself.
And third, and here Makarenko is almost certainly right, Russians today are defining their independence as “independence from” Western influence rather than any other way. That suggests Putin and his regime will keep up the anti-Western rhetoric and possibly boost it even if he is constrained by his own people and the West from another imperial adventure.