This study examines memory of the Soviet Union and political opinions in modern Russia through qualitative, semi-structured interviews across generations in two Russian cities. The study aims to explore the differences in memory and meaning of the Soviet Union across generation and geography, and to connect those differences to political dispositions in modern Russia. Respondents were asked about their impressions of the Soviet Union and modern-day Russia, and responses were coded for emergent themes and trends. The research finds that youth bifurcate along geographic lines; respondents in St. Petersburg were more likely to reject Soviet ideals than their counterparts in Yoshkar-Ola. The former also tended to prefer liberalism and globalization, while the latter expressed greater nationalism. Older respondents showed no distinct geographic trend, but gave more nuanced assessments of the Soviet Union due to the power of personal memory over cultural reconstruction. In younger respondents, these findings indicate that living in a cosmopolitan metropolis may condition interpretations of the Soviet past and influence contemporary political identity toward globalization. Youths living in smaller cities have less interaction with other global cities and therefore may have more conservative perceptions of the Soviet Union and Russia.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, so too did an immense political, economic, and cultural phenomenon whose presence overwhelmingly shaped the course of world history for the 70 years of its existence. Now that it is gone, the Soviet Union exists only as representation: cultural artifacts, archived texts, and stories told. These items do not speak for themselves; instead, present generations interpret their significance, finding their meanings in light of present-day values, norms, and cultures. The process whereby groups come to a shared interpretation of the past, selecting certain aspects of history as significant and worthy of recollection, is known as collective memory (Halbwachs & Coser, 1992).
However, at the present moment in the early 21st century, the meaning of the Soviet Union is likely to be less malleable than that of less-recent historical periods or events. While representations of the past are social constructions, they are constrained at least somewhat by the lived experience of those bearing personal memories of that time and place (Mihelj, 2014). Young people who do not have direct personal experience of Soviet life are likely more mutable in their interpretive frames (Mihelj, 2014). But as members of the younger generation interpret the past, they are doing so in interaction with an older generation for whom memory is less representational and more personal. Individual memory is influenced by social construction; however, personal memory still operates in ways that transcend the collective framing (Kansteiner, 2006). Moreover, older generations that personally experienced life in the Soviet Union may be operating under different interpretive schematics than their younger cohort, built around salient frames from their own youth. Memory and interpretation often have lingering generational effects (Mannheim, 1972; Schuman & Scott, 1989). Given these important generational differences, how is the Soviet Union remembered by young Russians who never lived there, and does the meaning they ascribe to it differ from that of those who experienced it directly?
Theories of collective memory suggest that, in reinterpreting the past, groups utilize frameworks that meet the needs of the present and reflect current cultural understandings (Schwartz, 1982, 1991). Young people are building meaning around the Soviet Union from their post-Soviet social position. One of the guiding principles of post-Soviet social development has been globalization—the increasing cooperation and coordination of people and industries across political borders. Indeed, some thinkers consider the fall of the Soviet Union to be the seminal moment inaugurating the era of globalization (Friedman, 2005; Fukuyama, 1992). But this new “globalized” social context is not uniformly available to all. As Saskia Sassen (1991) and others have noted, the globalized era has not minimized the importance of place. To the contrary, the administrative functions required by globalization produce clustering of wealth and opportunity in specific cities. These “global cities” become hotbeds of cosmopolitanism and come to resemble each other more so than each resembles other cities within the same nation-state (Sassen, 1991). If the post-Soviet experience is one of globalization, collective memory might also be fragmented between places that are more cosmopolitan and those that are less so. Given these competing potential sources of influence in the construction of collective memory, do young Russians rely more upon their elders, suggesting continuity across generations? Or do they look outside of Russia to build their frameworks, suggesting a break from the past and a globalized future?
This article seeks to answer the question of generational and geographic (dis)continuity in collective memory of the Soviet experience. Based upon qualitative in-depth interviews, we examine the similarities and differences of portrayals and interpretations of the Soviet Union across generations and geographic location. After inductive coding for trends in the data, we find that, indeed, there is evidence of a generational difference in how young Russians and their more aged counterparts talk about the Soviet Union and its significance. We also find support for a schism in meaning and memory across young respondents based upon their position in a more or less cosmopolitan locale.
Collective Memory and the Soviet Past
Given the importance of the Soviet Union to the 20th century—ideologically, geopolitically, militarily, and economically (albeit heterodox)—there is a strong interest in tracing the social meaning of this moribund political-economic-cultural phenomenon into the 21st century. What does the experience of Soviet communism mean in the present day, particularly for its direct descendants? In the face of this profound question, a small cottage industry of scholarship has developed around questions of collective memory and nostalgia in the Eastern Bloc. Mnemonic practices, regimes, and actor types have been varied throughout the region, but they share a similar communist past, which must be explained and reconciled in the post-communist present (Bernhard & Kubik, 2014).
These studies encompass a wide range of topics. Understandably, there is a great deal of concern about depictions of Stalin and the valence assigned to his rule (e.g., Etkind, 2013; Gugushvili & Kabachnik, 2015, 2019; Khapaeva, 2016; Mendelson & Gerber, 2006; Nelson, 2015; Vujacic, 2007). Researchers examine the myriad ways that the complexity of Soviet history is carried forward through memorialization (Bogumił, Moran & Harrowell, 2015; Forest & Johnson, 2002; Williams, 2000). Building a shared collective memory of the Soviet experience is particularly fraught because the USSR was a multinational, multiethnic empire whose dissolution produced new countries, some of which had not existed previously (Kuzio, 2002). Former Soviet territories struggle to reconcile themselves with the past in their own unique contexts, and examples of scholarship on these issues range from the Baltic States (Cheskin, 2012; Vihalemm & Kalmus, 2008; Wertsch, 2008) to Central Asia (Denison, 2009) and Ukraine (Hosaka, 2019), among others. Neither has the interest in collective memory been contained solely to the post-Soviet period, as scholars likewise examine the use of memory within the Soviet era itself (Cohen, 2003; Corney, 2004; Mihelj & Huxtable, 2019).
One of the underlying concerns in the study of Soviet memory, beyond its accuracy or its allegiance to the past, is its implications for the political future. If collective memory of the USSR considers the regime to be generally positive and a success story for Russia’s development, then there could be cause for concern that this perception might hinder the development of democracy in Russia. Certainly, nostalgia is more complex than such an assumption, and fondness for the past does not necessarily conjure the desire to return to it (Boym, 2008; Todorova & Gille, 2010). Still, if collective memory of the Soviet experience works to normalize authoritarian politics, some thinkers believe it will perpetuate the long history of autocracy in Russia (Rose, 2008; Lukin, 2009).
Moreover, nostalgia for the past can be mobilized by individuals and groups for concrete political gain in the present (Lee, 2011; Nadkarni & Shevchenko, 2004). As Rigney (2018) explains, “memories are used not only for making the nation but also for remaking it” (p. 254). Russian President Vladimir Putin, in particular, has had an active program of rebuilding a positive and unified official collective memory for Russia following the country’s catastrophic descent in the 1990s (Danilova, 2015). Since much of this project is built around the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, memory can justify Putin’s nationalist agenda. For example, the salience in Russian collective memory of World War II lent credence to Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, which the state media depicted as a fight against “fascists” (Fedor, Kangaspuro, Lassila & Zhurzhenko, 2017; Gaufman, 2015).
There is a palpable worry in much of this literature that narratives of the past will shape the political dispositions of the next generation, potentially normalizing state repression and locking Russia into an authoritarian future (Levintova & Butterfield, 2010; Nelson, 2015). And some research has shown that political values are generally constant across age cohorts, suggesting that admiration for the Soviet Union will continue to frame political understandings into the future (Zorkaia, 2010).
And yet, we cannot assume that the Kremlin’s memory projects have a direct causal relationship to subjective understandings. Indeed, there is more subtlety in Russian political thought than polling often shows (e.g., Carnaghan, 2001; Hale, 2011). Subjective understandings are formed in dialogue with particular contexts. Propaganda and mass media are two contexts, but they are not the only ones, and greater attention must be paid to the embodied experience of those individuals who are partaking in mediated remembering (Mihelj, 2017). Human lives are embedded in time and geography. Critical events, particularly those experienced in adolescence, have been shown to make a lasting, generational impression on social memory (Schuman & Corning, 2000). Although memory frequently meets the needs of the present, the salience of a lived past can also carry forward and shape contemporary assessments (Mihelj, 2014; Prusik & Lewicka, 2016; Szostak & Mihelj, 2017). The lived experience under Soviet government somewhat constrains any attempt to reinterpret the past.
The same cannot be said of younger generations who have no direct recollection of life in the Soviet Union. Perhaps for this reason, there has been a great deal of attention paid to studying the mnemonic frameworks of Russia’s youth. Mendelson and Gerber (2005, 2006) polled Russian youth and found surprising levels of support for the Soviet Union, respect for Stalin, and ambivalence about democracy. In two separate studies, Kasamara and Sorokina (2015, 2017) surveyed university students in Moscow and found that the Soviet Union remained a political ideal for young people and their values undergirded support for Russia returning to great-power status in the present and future. Krawatzek (2020) analyzed surveys of 16- to 34-year-olds living in major Russian urban centers and found little variation in historical memory across the age group, but found that uniformity was especially strong around certain symbolic events that are regularly referenced by state elites, such as the Great Patriotic War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nikolayenko (2008) compares young people in Russia and Ukraine, finding that Russians were more likely to lament the loss of the USSR. However, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Zorkaia, 2010), the focus on youth does not compare interpretations across generations—particularly when the methods are qualitative, which opens the research to wider subjective interpretation.
But time is not the only other factor that contextualizes interpretation. Space must also be taken into account. And, indeed, the field of memory studies expanded in appreciation of scale, especially in this “global age” (Assmann & Conrad, 2010). Moving beyond methodological nationalism, the importance of globalization is increasingly recognized by memory scholars. However, the concern has been largely focused on the transnational spread of mnemonic narratives (Bond, Craps & Vermeulen, 2016; Edy & Castleberry, 2019; Volkmer, 2006); the inherently shared nature of global events, such as the Holocaust (Levy & Sznaider, 2005); or the expanded salience of local memories due to a widely shared context across an imagined community (Bisht, 2018; Katzenstein, 2005).
Our interest in globalization and memory lies elsewhere. Rather than considering the globalization of memory itself, we ask whether the social effects of globalization can be observed in patterns of remembering. Just as a focus on official cultural memory might lead to methodological nationalism, the existence of global mass media could erroneously suggest that the erosion of national difference is uniform wherever these representations may reach. Both approaches would mistakenly present Russia as a monolithic whole. However, sociologists have shown that, rather than rendering place as unimportant, if anything, globalization has increased the salience of place. Globalization has spatially altered social experience. Scholars have noticed that, since 1980, certain cities have become more linked to one another as the commanding centers of the global flow in goods, services, people, and ideas. These “global cities” (Sassen, 1991) have come to resemble one another more than they do the countries in which they are embedded. Residents in these cities live lives that are markedly different from those of their co-nationals, and the experience of cosmopolitanism is likely to shape the frameworks by which they assess the past, present, and future. An approach to globalization and memory should not only examine transnational memory practices, but must also take seriously the ways that the lived experience of co-nationals may diverge when they are differentially linked to globalized experience across geographic space.
When it comes to subjective assessments of the Soviet past and their connection to Russia’s present and future, there has not been a study to contrast both generation and geography in analyzing similarity and difference. This study aims to provide such a bi-dimensional comparison.
Data and Methods
This investigation into collective memory of the Soviet past utilizes qualitative, semi-structured interviews across generations in two cities to reveal opinions on the Soviet past, as well as assessments of Russia’s present and future. Qualitative interviews allow respondents to answer spontaneously, providing greater input into the informant’s subjective understanding of the phenomenon at hand. Qualitative interviews thus allow for the emergence of unanticipated responses that yield new insights into the topic under study (Ragin, Nagel & White, 2004). Follow-up questions or prompts came directly in response to informant answers, which often revealed thoughts and ideas most important to individual respondents. The open-ended, semi-structured interview questions developed for the present study were designed to gauge the informants’ subjective perceptions of the Soviet past, contemporary Russia, and Russia’s future trajectory. The purpose was not to test a hypothesis proposed by the researcher, but rather to explore any emergent trends that might arise from open-ended questioning.
To gather this data, the second author traveled to two cities in Russia in the summer of 2010. The time period of data collection matters: Dmitry Medvedev was president of the Russian Federation, and the intelligentsia viewed his administration as a period of political “thaw” following Putin’s more authoritarian regime. It was a decade removed from Russia’s chaotic and brutal experience of the 1990s, and two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Young people at the time had virtually no direct memory of the Soviet Union, but the middle-aged and elderly had personal and direct life experience under the regime. For the former, then, the Soviet Union was a representation only; for the latter it was also a personal recollection.
The location of the data collection also brings an important variable into the qualitative analysis. Informants were drawn from two different cities within the Russian Federation: a major metropolis (St. Petersburg) and a small, provincial capital (Yoshkar-Ola). St. Petersburg, home to nearly five million people, has an enduring reputation as Russia’s beacon of cosmopolitanism. Built by Peter the Great to be Russia’s “Window on the West,” its very design mimics the architectural style and rational planning of European Enlightenment. It served as the capital of the Russian Empire for more than two centuries, establishing itself as Russia’s center for arts and culture. Situated 250 miles from the current border with Finland and 84 miles from Estonia, St. Petersburg is proximate to the European Union (EU). It is a major tourist destination for foreigners, as well as an easy point of departure for Russians traveling abroad. St. Petersburg may be considered a “global city.” Yoshkar-Ola, on the other hand, is deep in the interior of Western Russia, located in the large Volga river basin. With a population of about 250,000, Yoshkar-Ola is the seat of government for the Republic of Mari El, the established territorial homeland of the Mari ethnic group, who comprise about half of the city’s population. The city of Yoshkar-Ola is a good-sized and established Russian city, but it lacks the proximity to and regular interchange with the wider world beyond Russia’s borders.1 Yoshkar-Ola was selected by convenience sampling because of the second author’s preexisting academic connections in the city. While every place has its idiosyncrasies—unique personages and histories—in most ways Yoshkar-Ola resembles other Russian provincial capitals. Even its position as an ethnic capital city does not render Yoshkar-Ola unique in the Russian interior. There are a number of ethnic republics in the federation whose relationship to Moscow could be described as ambivalent (e.g., Chuvash, Kazan, Buryatia). Suffice it to say, having spent significant time in multiple provincial Russian cities, the second author found Yoshkar-Ola to be sufficiently representative for the purpose of comparison.
In both cities, informants were identified for the study using three methods. First, fliers seeking volunteers were posted on community bulletin boards in various public locations, such as universities, cafés, bookstores, and street corners. Similar postings were made on community Internet websites and chatrooms. Finally, informants were asked to recommend other people who might be interested in participating, a technique known as snowball sampling. All three methods yielded volunteers in both locations; however, the methods were differentially successful in each city. In St. Petersburg, the majority of volunteers came from online postings. In Yoshkar-Ola, snowball sampling was more effective than online recruitment. Admittedly, this difference in recruitment adds an important caveat and limitation to the data. Snowball sampling is not random, and online recruitment may oversample individuals who are educated and have access to computer technology.
Relying upon voluntary participation with no added incentive, it was difficult to recruit a high number of participants in the given time period (one month in each city). For that reason, no limiting parameters were placed upon inclusion in the study. All volunteers were interviewed, regardless of age, sex, education, occupation, income, or ethnicity. The resulting pool of participants was quite broad and varied.
The 26 interviews were evenly split between St. Petersburg and Yoshkar-Ola (13 participants, respectively). The overwhelming majority of our respondents were young. There were 18 informants between the ages of 18 and 27. The remaining interviewees were aged as follows: 37, 46, 52, 53, 60, 63, 74, and 85. With larger variation across decades in such a small sample, we decided to group the informants into two groups based upon whether they had personally experienced life in the Soviet Union during their late adolescence, the years most critical for memory and identity formation according to Mannheim’s theory of generations (Mannheim, 1972; Pilcher, 1994; Schuman & Scott, 1989). The oldest person in our youth sample was only 8 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. The youngest person in our older sample was 18 years old. While we do not have sufficient numbers to make claims based upon the unique position of each generation across Soviet history, we can, at a minimum, examine whether there are discernible differences across these two groups.
The majority of the volunteers (19) were female. Male informants were fairly evenly split by city and by age. Young females were slightly overrepresented in St. Petersburg (9) compared to Yoshkar-Ola (5), while older females were divided fairly evenly between the two cities. Among the young participants, five were currently studying (one was in graduate school), and the rest had a post-secondary degree, with the exception of two, who did not discuss their education. Among the older population, the two eldest did not have a high school degree, one had an advanced degree, and the rest had completed a post-secondary degree.
Given the size of the sample, we only have sufficient numbers to consider trends across city and across age group. The voluntary sample offered no other variations that were sufficiently strong to warrant analysis. We present these additional descriptions, but we did not notice any patterns based upon them, or the sample size was insufficient to make claims based upon these characteristics.
While we recognize that sample size for each demographic group is small, that is always a limitation of qualitative work. The reward, however, is the opportunity for inductive analysis, wherein trends and patterns emerge from the data, rather than being imposed upon the data by the researcher in advance. In-depth interviewing allows informants to guide the conversation in the direction that they find most important, and it captures the descriptive wording that informants themselves provide. Doing so allows the researcher, through analytic coding, to better understand the assumptions and motivations that underpin informant opinions.
Interviews were conducted in Russian and audio recorded for accuracy. The average length of each interview was about an hour; the shortest was only 30 minutes and the longest lasted two and a half hours. The audio files were transcribed by a native Russian speaker. Any quotations presented in English were translated by the authors. The first author analyzed the transcripts inductively (Charmaz, 2006; Strauss & Corbin, 1990), allowing for themes in the data to emerge via thematic coding. Twelve themes emerged from the data (e.g., “cosmopolitanism/nationalism,” “personal opinion of USSR,” “family opinion of USSR”). The content of the quotes was compared and contrasted within each thematic code, with close attention to whether trends in the qualitative content clustered according to generation or geography. In the remainder of the article, we share the general trends that were observed in the data and offer a discussion of the implications of these findings.
Among the four groups interviewed, there are areas of agreement as well as dissent in their responses. Principal among points of dissent are the qualitative assessments of life in the Soviet Union and levels of nationalism or cosmopolitanism. Youth informants bifurcate along geographic lines: respondents in St. Petersburg are notably more cosmopolitan in their attitudes about Russia’s place in the world today than those in Yoshkar-Ola. On the other hand, the middle-aged/elderly informants in both the metropolitan city and the provincial capital favored the USSR more than the youth and their answers did not vary consistently with geographic location; therefore, we describe our findings from older participants in both cities together. In this section we present the general trends we observed for comparison and contrast. In the following section we will discuss their potential explanations and implications.
Youth – St. Petersburg
Youth informants in St. Petersburg were generally liberal, well traveled, and cosmopolitan, with worldly views representative of a globalized city. Many expressed a degree of ambivalence in assessing the Soviet Union, acknowledging that they were too young to have many personal memories from that period. All of them cited both positive and negative attributes of it, with many concluding that the negatives generally outweighed the positives. Despite reporting that they mainly received positive messaging about the USSR from their elder family members, some came to their own conclusions that modern Russia is generally better. They acknowledged the social goods offered by Soviet system in the form of free education, healthcare, and housing, but most positive statements were tempered by inserting the informants’ own negative assessment. One female subject said that her parents “lived simpler lives than I do now, but I know they were missing something.” Roughly over half of this group made some mention of the USSR having stronger stability, social bonds, and community than modern Russia. Common negative impressions of life under communist rule were repression, uniformity, lack of freedoms and rights, and shortages.
Every young St. Petersburg informant mentioned the prevalence of positive interpretations of the Soviet Union among the older generations. Some informants claimed that they understood the reasons behind such positive assessments. The rationales they provided included the difficulty older people have in moving on or a narrow-mindedness bred by the Soviet system and provincial life. These comments could be taken as sympathetic, but were also clearly condescending in tone. Other youths pitted themselves against the nostalgic mind-set more acutely, citing frequent arguments with their elders. One informant expressed her concern that her parents’ generation had tried to raise their children to feel affection or nostalgia for the Soviet past, but it had caused confusion among those in her generation. She expressed a determination to teach her own children to “live in their own time and be ready for the future” as opposed to dwelling on the past. This group of informants only intermittently expressed such glowing perceptions of the Soviet past themselves, and usually in reference to their understanding that those in the Soviet Union experienced a more close-knit community and greater social stability.
Young St. Petersburg informants were most greatly distinguished from the other two groups in their cosmopolitan views of Russia’s place in the world today. Almost all of them had traveled abroad at least once, with most referencing trips to the European Union or the United States. Their assessments of life abroad were overwhelmingly positive, with several expressing hope to find work abroad and permanently relocate. When youth respondents in St. Petersburg described the positive attributes associated with the fall of the USSR and the dawn of contemporary Russia, they uniformly reflected Western liberal values. They were practically united in their appreciation for political and cultural freedoms, individual opportunities, social openness, and international travel. They generally expressed the view that Russia would continue to develop in the direction of liberal Western ideology and greater collaboration with other Western nations. They saw borrowing political ideas from successful Western nations as a good idea for Russia, as long as new ideas could be adapted to fit into Russia’s societal context.
As for the future, young respondents from St. Petersburg were generally optimistic for an enlightened, peaceful world, whether they hoped to stay in Russia or live abroad. One informant was particularly passionate about leaning into the future, proclaiming:
[Russia] should develop, and we will, and we need to want it. Don’t stand in one place, saying the past was better, and go nowhere but backwards. It’s over! We’re a free Russia, we have democracy and a constitution, and so many young people.
This quote reflects her perceived tension between the static backward-looking mind-set of the previous generation and the dynamic progressivism of Russia’s young people. Hope of the future is placed in youth and progress.
Although generally optimistic, St. Petersburg youth informants did point out significant problems appearing in the new Russia that could be obstacles to its advancement. The most cited issue was corruption, with some also referencing a moribund morality, which manifested itself in disrespect toward others or getting ahead in life by immoral means.
Youth – Yoshkar-Ola
Youth informants in Yoshkar-Ola were similar to their St. Petersburg counterparts in their perception of the older generation’s memories of the USSR as overwhelmingly positive, and in their favorite positive attributes of modern Russia. They differed, however, in their personal assessments of the Soviet Union and their conception of Russia’s present and future role on the world stage.
When asked how they perceive the Soviet Union, the Yoshkar-Ola subjects echoed their St. Petersburg peers in their uncertainty about what life was really like. Many among this group specifically described their conflicting impressions as being equally balanced between positives and negatives. Some of these informants seem to argue the pluses and minuses out loud in the interview, giving a positive example, and then a balancing negative, or vice versa: “On one side, yes, it’s good that the government provided for people. On the other side, of course, there were deficits, there weren’t any goods, there were horrible lines.” Several shied away from directly comparing the two systems, explaining that people always want what they do not have, or that each generation wants things a certain way, implying that direct comparison is futile.
Commonly cited negative attributes of the USSR were lack of freedom and choice, repression, shortages, and restriction of personal expression. Commonly cited positive attributes were stability, unified community, and peace. While St. Petersburg youth had cited some of the same benefits of the Soviet system, they did so without emotion, while some young residents of Yoshkar-Ola seemed to romanticize them. One informant with a particularly positive impression of the period said:
It was a fairly free time, when people lived communally, though that may not sound so pleasant to some societies. People lived with a common family, common interests, common ideology.…People’s impressions [of that time] are warm and tender. People considered themselves significant in that period.
Yoshkar-Ola informants referenced nostalgia among their elders almost as consistently as their metropolitan peers did. They too explained the difficulties older people face when adjusting to change, and several were even more vocal than their St. Petersburg counterparts about abandoning the old mentality in favor of something new. One difference was that the Yoshkar-Ola subjects more often cited examples of romanticized memories in their own close family members, as opposed to referencing the older generation as a whole. One informant spoke of his grandmother, saying:
She lives in an illusion that she has had throughout her life. And she doesn’t want to leave it. She doesn’t understand that things were actually different from what they told her. She doesn’t know. I won’t spoil her life, I’ll let her live normally.…They had a bit of a different life and I respect that.
A few informants sometimes slipped into this warm conception of that time themselves, describing cozy impressions of a stable, peaceful community that they never actually knew, but heard about from their families and Soviet films.
Views of Russia in the modern world set Yoshkar-Ola informants apart from metropolitan youths. Few in this group had ever traveled abroad, and this was reflected in their worldviews. Several expressed a sense of contentment living their whole lives in the small city and a deep-rooted feeling of Russianness that gave them a strong love for their homeland, rodina, and a desire to stay tied to it. Although some expressed vague future hopes to travel abroad, more talked about their national pride and the “special path” of the Russian nation. Their almost mystical references to the Russian spirit and the proud ancient soul of the country sharply contrasted with the St. Petersburg youths’ enthusiasm for global telecommunications technology and political liberalism.
The noncosmopolitan, Russia-focused views of the Yoshkar-Ola youth did not amount to expansionist aspirations, but rather a preoccupation with domestic Russian matters as opposed to those of a global community. They were united with their St. Petersburg peers in that the most valued attributes of modern Russia for them were political and social freedoms and the ability to travel abroad, despite most in this group having yet to experience the latter. They were generally hopeful for future development, but acknowledged a more varied assortment of contemporary problems in Russia, including people’s selfish pursuit of money, corruption, instability, alcoholism, and mismatched development between the large cities and the provinces.
Middle-Aged/Older – Both Cities
The informants of this age group ranged from 37 to 85, and therefore were all adults in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. They were thus able to give much more colorful and detailed descriptions of life in the USSR, and their views on it varied widely. They generally agreed with the youth groups about positive new aspects of life in modern Russia, but they identified many more post-communist problems than young informants did. And, perhaps as might be expected given their ages relative to the younger group, few of these informants spent much time describing their hopes for the future. In this group, city of residence at the time of the survey did not appear to shape patterns of responses. This may be related to the fact that many members of this group mentioned growing up in smaller towns and only moving to their current residence later in life. The youth group, on the other hand, mostly mentioned growing up in the same city in which they lived at the time of the interviews.
In remembering the Soviet Union, many older Russians referenced the positive impacts social provision of education, healthcare, and housing had on their lives. Some common areas of positive remembrance were community involvement in the Pioneers, official holidays and celebrations, and respectful, mutually helpful relationships between citizens. A few informants illustrated the stability and order of the system by describing their certainty of success in life:
We had a stable life, protection. There wasn’t fear about tomorrow, there was certainty that you would finish school and go to university. No matter what, you could go somewhere for higher education.
Some informants exhibited favorable attitudes toward the security they remember feeling in such a highly predictable and controlled system. As one remarked: “By the strength of the Soviet government, I was protected.” But the informants were not entirely positive in their judgments of the Soviet past. While some spoke only of how their personal lives were shaped by the Soviet social order, others were more aware of macro-level political and economic issues and the freedoms enjoyed in the outside world. Some referenced shortages and waiting in lines, past repression of their families, and the tight control of communist ideology.
In comparing the past to the present, a few of these informants felt things had become decidedly worse, one or two felt they were better, and the rest seemed ambivalent about the changes. The large latter subgroup felt that their personal lives had not changed qualitatively, so they had no reason to judge one system over the other: “I can’t say the USSR was better. Now we live freely, then we lived freely. But there was more order then.” Those who favored life in the USSR mourned their loss of socially provided services and felt cheated by the new, unstable life they did not choose or desire. The informants who felt life had stayed the same or became better agreed with the younger group that freedom, openness, choice, and the ability to travel were positive aspects of life in modern Russia. One in particular was very adamant about the importance of freedom: “Now it’s so good that people have freedom, they can express themselves, even write! Even speak!” All informants in this group, regardless of their assessment of the USSR, identified similar problems in modern Russia. Most lamented declining morality manifested as alcoholism, crime, selfishness, and the pursuit of money, and seemed more concerned about these issues than were the young respondents.
In terms of Russia’s future generations, this group often spoke of the differences between themselves and the younger people, noticing that they were becoming out of place in this era. One seemed particularly aware of this generational divide:
Our generation is somewhat forgotten. They [young people] are already quite different, they can stand up for themselves, they understand and will say something. But since childhood we were told to keep quiet, don’t go against anything. And now we still can’t.
In relating Russia to the rest of the world, most in this group were more nationalistic than cosmopolitan. They tended to agree with the Yoshkar-Ola youth informants that Russia is special because its spirituality, territory, and history give it a unique path. Their responses were focused on internal issues more so than international collaboration. Most in this group did not mention ever traveling abroad, only to the other Soviet republics, and they had known very little about the outside world under the USSR. A notable exception was a historian, the most liberal and progressive-minded of the group, who was well aware of the outside world and the shortcomings of the Soviet system.
These findings suggest three curious contradictions that we will now discuss in turn. First, we will consider the difference between our older informants’ qualitative assessments of the Soviet Union and the depiction of older Russians as described by our younger informants. Although our older informant sample was small, when prompted, those interviewed displayed a variety of mnemonic tendencies. These ranged from one particularly liberal progressive, to those who were fairly indifferent to the changes their country had weathered, to those who mourned the lost past, bitter to the present forced upon them. This cross-section contrasts with the almost monolithic picture of the older generation painted by the younger informants. When describing mnemonic trends among older Russians today, youths from both cities referenced “many” older people being nostalgic, older people “often saying” how the Soviet Union was better, and other similar generalizations. One informant gave a particularly sweeping characterization, lamenting:
Old-school people who were born in the USSR, like my grandmother—they don’t change their habits or traditions. They vote for Communists; they generally say that kind of government is better. They think the USSR gave them a lot. They can’t take the new Russia. I mean, the new Russia is still in formation, it is still crafting its image on the world stage, but still, they can’t accept that.
Although our sample group of older Russians did not seem so uniform in its praise of Soviet rule as this quote may claim, the respondents’ admissions of the faults of the USSR and the benefits of modern Russia came only when asked specifically in an interview setting. Everyday interactions between older and younger generations may be more likely to reveal differences in impressions of the past, and the elder group alluded to this by addressing their feelings of disconnect from the younger generation. Our sampling strategy may have also played a role in the disparity between youth expectations and the reality of older people’s responses.
The second contradiction that we present comes from the opportunity we are offered for a comparison between our observations of Russian youth political opinions ten years ago and the subsequent political development of Russia, at home and abroad, through the last decade. The Putin regime’s turn toward more authoritarian policies and expansionist actions makes a stark contrast to our findings of political attitudes among Russian youth ten years ago. Our study found the St. Petersburg youths to be cosmopolitan and eager to adopt Western political values as part of a liberal new Russia, possibly a reflection of the Medvedev-era political “thaw.” They were also well traveled, with many praising the social institutions of the EU and expressing a desire to permanently relocate there. Some described hope for Russia’s new place in the liberal international order, and they gave no indication of expansionist leanings. The Yoshkar-Ola group were more nationalistic overall, with fewer advocating for the adoption of European institutions to Russian politics. Some agreed that a “special path” exists for Russia, and most were more loyal to their country, planning to remain there throughout their lifetimes. But even this stronger sense of patriotism seemed to be domestically rooted, emphasizing an internal spirit and the historical significance of their homeland, not in its foreign policy ambitions or territorial expansion. One informant even noted that Russia is not an aggressive country and should not be treated as such on the international stage.
Given Russia’s subsequent developments, it is worth noting that many of the young informants in this study predicted the ideology of Russia to be firmly headed in the direction of liberal democracy. Most youths seemed to see the future of Russia as an inevitable, exciting development toward a Western political system. They were enthusiastic about the progressive adoption of liberal Western rights, with many using the word “freedom” often when talking about modern Russia and its future. One informant seemed to trust his government to respect his freedoms absolutely:
There is no need [to fear government]. We have human rights, and we don’t need to fear the laws we have. It’s just an unjustified fear. There is no reason for this anymore. We should just get rid of it. It is necessary for new generations to grow up and not relate in such a way to power.
While the optimism in the above quote is more representative of the youth interviewees, there were a few informants, all males, who cited major problems in Russia’s new “democracy,” with one even claiming he expected significant repression in the coming decade and hoped to leave the country before then. Arguably, this sole dissenter had the most accurate prediction, but he stood out in our data for his cynicism.
The optimism expressed by young Russians in 2010 seems very much at odds with the Russia of the present. As President Putin has clamped down ever tighter on the media, personal freedoms, and his own hold on his office, the past democratic hopes of these young Russians seem increasingly naive. The 2014 Crimean annexation was antithetical to our respondents’ hopes for a peaceful, nonexpansionist Russian future and unity with other Western nations. The 2020 Russian constitutional amendment that gives Putin a legitimate route to remaining in power until 2036 similarly dashed expectations of a turn toward competitive democracy and political freedom.
These developments would likely have shocked our 2010 respondents, but recent research helps to explain the apparent contradiction. As Sanina (2017) has documented, post-Soviet Russian educational institutions maintained a kind of “patriotic education,” a kind of Bourdieusian “habitus” carried over from Soviet practice, but now divorced from its ideological moorings. The result was a noncritical respect for the state and the military without a developed appreciation of nationhood or civic understanding. This patriotic education would not be easily observed unless activated by a state and military-based operation such as the Ukrainian war and the annexation of Crimea. Plus, as Krawatzek (2016, 2020) notes, the state has become more subtle in its orientation toward youth political socialization, honing in on a few key symbols while allowing heterogeneity to flourish. Therefore, our interviews can capture the heterogeneity, but the central state mythology remains intact so that it may be utilized when necessary to promote the Kremlin’s goals. These studies offer some useful perspectives for interpreting the data from this study and the apparent shift in youth political opinions in Russia over the last decade.
The third contradiction involved the meaning of the Russian identity in the era of global cities. Although our young informants all share Russian nationality, the St. Petersburg informants displayed political affectations more in line with those of other globalized cities than of their own countrymen in Yoshkar-Ola. With St. Petersburg’s close proximity to and contact with the EU, its youth have often witnessed firsthand the political practices of European liberalism. St. Petersburg is also a wealthier and more populous city than Yoshkar-Ola, allowing for more connection to globalized networks and their penetration into daily life. These factors could contribute to the cosmopolitan youths’ preferences for greater political connectivity with Europe, willingness to mimic foreign political systems, and increased integration between Russia and the rest of the world. Rather than emphasizing Russia’s differences, young people in St. Petersburg longed for greater similarity to, and inclusion in, the global system. Yoshkar-Ola’s interior geographic position and smaller population keep its citizens more insulated and isolated from such ideas. While young people there appreciated their liberties, the idea of Russia’s uniqueness weighed more heavily in their responses. They sought to acknowledge a special, set-apart path for Russia and encouraged the preservation of its historical heritage.
Our research shows St. Petersburg leaning toward Europe and Yoshkar-Ola holding back, which raises poignant questions of what it means to be Russian in today’s globalizing society. As St. Petersburg and Moscow are by far the country’s largest population, cultural, and business centers, a turn to the West represents a different Russian political identity. On the other hand, residents in the provinces could claim that these globalized cities are not indicative of the “real” Russia. Rather than being the vanguard of Russian culture, the capital cities could be perceived as disconnected and even irrelevant. Russians in the provinces might even reject liberal and globalized values as an identarian stance contrary to Russia’s own capital cities. Russia is certainly not the only country facing this dilemma in the globalized present, but its political implications could be especially important given Putin’s bid for greater authoritarian governance.
While these findings are robust, it is important to note that this foray into a bi-dimensional comparison of collective memory of the Soviet Union is not without its limitations. As was mentioned above, informants in St. Petersburg were largely recruited online, which may overrepresent the interconnected and cosmopolitan population within the city. In Yoshkar-Ola, more informants came from snowball sampling because there were so few respondents to the fliers and online postings. It is possible that this difference may be driving the trends we observed. However, it is also possible that the cultural difference between the two cities explains both trends. St. Petersburg, as a more cosmopolitan metropolis, has a higher degree of regular impersonal interaction, such that individuals there would respond to anonymous postings on the Internet, whereas residents in Yoshkar-Ola were more likely to wait until there was a personal introduction to establish trust—which suggests a less cosmopolitan outlook. With the current data, we cannot adequately parse these mutually exclusive possibilities.
Neither is recruitment the only limiting factor in this study. A second limitation is inherent to qualitative methods, and that is the inductive nature of analysis. Qualitative research is beneficial precisely because it provides space for informants to direct the conversation toward their own values and interpretations, thereby offering new knowledge about the issue at hand. We find that young people in St. Petersburg drew more upon international comparison in assessing the Soviet past and normatively assessing Russia’s present and future. But the mechanism for the effect is the regular opportunity for participation in a global network. There are likely other ways to consider such an opportunity—education, travel, etc.—and we cannot with available data easily isolate the “city” effects from these other confounding variables. However, research is an iterative process, and the relationship between qualitative and quantitative methods is often dialogical in precisely this way: qualitative work generates new hypotheses and generalizable statistical methods can robustly test them. Replicating this study using quantitative surveys with a truly random sample would alleviate the current limitations and could more accurately target and test these claims.
As the Soviet Union retreats further into history, its meaning becomes increasingly mediated, resulting in a more malleable representation of the past. Those who lived in the Soviet Union appear to be somewhat insulated from a generic, broad-brush stroke mnemonic framework for interpreting the past. The diversity of viewpoints in the older generation suggests a diversity of experiences of life under Soviet rule. In this group that can recollect their own lives in this time, neither age (within the group’s broad range) nor city of residence seems to condition perceptions of the Soviet past; rather, a lifelong collection of experiences under Soviet and post-Soviet rule results in a variety of qualitative conclusions. The power of personal memory is further demonstrated by the older group’s tendency to reference very specific details in their recollections of life in the USSR, such as consumer goods or food products available in childhood, whereas younger respondents give answers as if from a textbook (albeit from different publishers).
Without this staying power of personal memory, the young group relies less on experience and more on outside factors such as interaction with the globalized world to build frameworks of Soviet memory. Thus, the cosmopolitan St. Petersburg group have constructed different views than the provincial Yoshkar-Ola group. While young people throughout Russia are prepared to reject the cultural schema that they presume underpins their elders’ assessment of the past, they themselves normalize an interpretation that is grounded in a contemporary culture that reflects their own lived experience. Rather than drawing on personal memory of the Soviet Union or adopting viewpoints based on older relatives’ memories, our interviews suggest that the experience of living in a cosmopolitan metropolis conditions one’s interpretations relative to those residents in provincial—but still urban—social environments in Russia. This disparity supports the “global city” construct and the continued importance of place in the globalized world.
Furthermore, a correlation exists between interpretation of the Soviet Union and contemporary political identity. Rejection of Soviet norms appears to reflect a preference for globalization and liberal ideologies, while acceptance of Soviet norms reflects a worldview couched in national identity. The political orientation of cosmopolitan youths fixated upon a liberalized Russia that has not yet materialized and, in fact, seems less likely to do so now than when the data were originally collected. A decade can make quite a difference, and it would be informative to compare the findings from this study to the contemporary relationship between Soviet memory and political values. This study suggests that the memory projects conducted by the Russian state at the turn of the millennium had not greatly impacted the young people in our study, whose opinions were much more tied to their contemporary social environments than to any unified narrative provided by the state. However, recent increased efforts by the Putin regime to manage historical narratives could possibly be responsible for more favorable views of Soviet-era accomplishments, such as the winning of the Great Patriotic War, among Russian youth. Further research can elucidate the continuing importance of Soviet collective memory in the contemporary political climate and the impact of generations in comprehending the political present. As Vladimir Putin continues wielding influence over memory and present political views, the power of globalization still conditions the context of Russian life and may well change the shape of the future, as well as memories of the past, in coming years.
In one respect, Yoshkar-Ola does have an international edge: the Mari people share a linguistic root with the Hungarian and the Finnish people. The local university has a center for international relations that is sponsored by the Finnish government. Rather than distorting our findings, we think that it adds a conservative bias to the study, lessening the strength of any observed difference between the “provincial” and the “global” cities.