Several prominent Russians still push the memories of the Soviet Union today in an effort to guide the country towards stability and global influence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, since coming into power, has repeatedly called on the international community several times to praise the role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany and acknowledge the price paid by Russians. Considering the victory of the Soviet Union over Hitler’s Germany as a source of national pride, many in Russia still celebrate the issue just like Putin.

The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was formed after the Russian civil war and was the world's first communist state - and survived from 1922 to its collapse in 1991. The Soviet Union was a one-party state run by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was an ambitious state with an adventurist, and expansionist, foreign policy that didn’t shy away from asserting both soft and hard power. 

In an essay titled "The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II," Putin spoke of the need to remember the "epic" and "crushing victory over Nazism" as a result of the Soviet Union. Soviet resolve over the Nazis had "saved the entire world," Putin boasted while decrying Western powers for forgetting a historic debt.

Soviet soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, May 2, 1945.
Soviet soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, May 2, 1945. (Yevgeny Khhaldei / Caspiannews.com)

But this is not extraordinary rhetoric among Russian politicians. In 2011, former Russian President Medvedev, during a press conference with Prime Minister Putin in the Kremlin played up the Soviet nostalgia, hinting that the new Eurasian Union that Moscow wants to create would build on the best values of the Soviet Union.

In the past few years, Russia’s expansionism has been witnessed in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and other parts of Africa, harkening back to the days of the Soviet Union. 

Which begs the question, what has changed and what remains the same?

According to a Moscow-based Eurasia Expert, Esref Yalinkilicli, Putin and the Russian elite have a lot more in common than one might think.

“Russia still tries to preserve Soviet legacy through ‘near abroad’ strategy and tries to substitute nationalism amid lack of comunist sense as the ‘Z generation’ needs to be persuaded by something to be consolidated. 

“8-9 May is still being celebrated, the date when the Soviet Union entered Berlin, all these issues have been used by Putin to build an identity in order to sustain today’s nationalist Russia,” Yalinkilicli told TRT World.

Today Russia enjoys GDP of 1.7$ trillion economy. 

Yalinkilicli says Russia “has such economic potential” but also “faces the oligarch threat as Putin handed over the economic power to them.”

“If Moscow can not solve its income injustice, Russia knows very well that it will fail to become a great power. The post-Soviet transition process is still here for the country.”

Samuel Ramani, a tutor of politics and international relations at Oxford University, says “Russia continues to have a paternalistic attitude towards other former Soviet republics,” which leads to regular abrogations of their sovereignty. 

Ramani believes the Russian public remains firmly nostalgic for Soviet rule and any efforts to recapture territory held by the USSR, such as the annexation of Crimea and incursions into Donbas, generate extensive public support.

A woman is flanked by portraits of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin as the Russian Communist Party rallies to mark the centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
A woman is flanked by portraits of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin as the Russian Communist Party rallies to mark the centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. (Getty Images)

So, how does Russian diplomacy benefit from the Soviet legacy? 

Soviet-era partnerships with countries, such as India, Egypt and Syria shape the country’s current relationships. 

“Russia's enduring quest for recognition as a great power and efforts to challenge the Western-dominated international legal order also stem from nostalgia for Soviet superpower status,” Ramani tells TRT World.  

There is also a relatively common narrative within Russia that the USSR represented a period of stability compared to the chaos that came before and in the immediate aftermath. Like most national narratives, Russia is selective in that for example it obscures the Soviet occupation of part of Poland in 1939 alongside the Nazis.

Ewan Lawson, an Associate Fellow at The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says “Putin has used that narrative to portray himself as a source of stability in an unstable world.”

“Further, he suggests that he is the only leader who can counter efforts by the West to deliberately destabilise Russia and to keep it weak. This weakness is contrasted with the strength of the Soviet period,” Lawson tells TRT World.

Lawson sees similarities between the USSR but says there is a marked difference in that there is a distinct lack of support from satellite states and the absence of a clear central ideology.

“The former is reflected in Russia’s efforts to destabilise its Eastern European neighbours. The latter is reflected in its information campaigns which are less about how great Russia is and more about problems with its adversaries,” according to Lawson.

What are the similarities?

According to Lawson, the similarities can be seen “in the tools and techniques but the digital revolution has changed how these are deployed and the potential impact” and “more globally, it seems to have the approach of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and will work with anyone who is countering the US and the West.”

Russian leaders emphasise a desire for Russia to be taken seriously as an international player. 

It’s immense size and natural resources mean that it has the potential to be an economic power and yet this is “largely being squandered through corruption and wealth accumulating to a few,” Lawson says.

“In international politics, it’s main approach seems to be to act as a spoiler to the US and its allies. It is difficult to see many states who aspire to partner with Russia and this limits its aspirations. Here, the legacy of the Soviet Union as a partner in the global South has the potential to be developed further and outside the military domain typified by the activities of the Wagner Group.”

Participants hold placards and shout slogans during an anti-war rally in the Crimean town of Bakhchisaray on March 5, 2014, (Reuters)
Participants hold placards and shout slogans during an anti-war rally in the Crimean town of Bakhchisaray on March 5, 2014, (Reuters) (Reuters)

According to Yalinkilicli, the current stance Russia has taken against the West is based on “military-realism” and inside the country Moscow faces “The Dutch Disease” which means the causal relationship between the increase in the economic development of a specific sector and a decline in other sectors.

“Almost 60 percent of Russia’s energy exports rely on hydrocarbons and the country tries to manage its economy through energy-oriented exports,” Yalinkilicli explains. 

“The nationalism Putin wants to create inside of Russia damages itself. To sort out its financial problems and redesign the structure of economics, Russia needs at least 20-30 years and must be careful about China”.

Yalinkilicli says Russia still does not have a free market economy and property, investment related problems are still the main issues on the table although Putin has managed to make Russia the thirtieth best country for investments.

“If Russia does not focus on its economic realities, it will lose in terms of military as its people face hunger and poverty.”

Source: TRT World