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MOSCOW — Post-communist Russia has gone from a friend of the United States to a rival under President Vladimir Putin. It is challenging the West on a number of fronts, including its involvement in the Ukraine and Syria, while also cracking down on dissent at home.
All of this echoes the Soviet Union, critics say. "Putin is blatantly exploiting the Soviet nostalgia," opposition politician Boris Nemtsov said a year before his still-unsolved assassination in February.
But how similar is the Russia of today to the communist regime that ruled from 1922 until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991? NBC News spells out the main similarities between Putin's Russia and the U.S.S.R. — and the differences.
One of freshly elected Putin’s decisions in 2000 was to restore the Soviet national anthem from 1944 — the one he grew up with. Two-thirds of the population approved of the move by 2002, according to leading Russian pollsters.
The newish song comes with tweaked lyrics — there are no more mentions of the Communist Party, for example. They were, however, written by the same octogenarian poet who penned the Soviet anthem.
In Soviet times, there were no parties other than the Communist Party, and membership was a prerequisite for career advancement. Nowadays, Putin's United Russia party dominates the federal parliament and most local legislatures, and officials in the executive branch, businessmen working with the state and even artists are sometimes card-carrying party members.
Nowadays, though, political alternatives do exist — including a modern communist one. And it is quite possible to make a career without a party affiliation.
By the mid-2000s, up to 80 percent of the Russian ruling establishment was made up of people with backgrounds in security services, according to a study by acclaimed sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya. The trend was confirmed in numerous subsequent studies. Above all, this included the Soviet secret police, the KGB, which handled counter-espionage and brutally suppressed political dissent.
The KGB's successor the Federal Security Service (FSB) was stripped down in the 1990s but it is now back to being both powerful and feared. It is tasked with fighting spies and extremists, but it also monitors the political opposition to the government. Putin himself is a product of the KGB, having served in the service from 1975 until the collapse of communism in 1991.
Some things have changed: In Soviet times, the KGB was the operative arm of the Communist Party, which ran the country. Now United Russia Party is run by KGB veterans.
Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s feared leader who ran the country with an iron fist from 1924 until 1953, purged, imprisoned and executed his critics. Even in post-Stalin times, the regime punished those who threatened or disagreed with it so dissidents were fired, jailed, expelled, confined to psychiatric wards and harassed by the KGB.
Russia’s opposition today also fights an asymmetric battle: Its leaders face criminal cases and regular arrests, thugs harass them at events and officials drown them in red tape.
But things are different today. More than 8,000 people were convicted in the post-Stalin era on dissent-related charges. Now Russia has 50 political prisoners, according to rights group Memorial, confirming that political persecution is limited to a handful of show trials, small-time harassment and alleged vote rigging.
Soviet media broadcast only what officials wanted it to, and access to foreign media was banned. In the 2000s, one of Putin's first moves was to bring back under state control the leading television channels, Russians' main source of information. They have since turned into pro-government vehicles.
Nevertheless, Russia has many independent small media outlets that offer alternative points of view. Now because of the Internet, cable and the accessibility of international print media, Russians can get their hands on a wide variety of organizations — even NBC News.
Going It Alone
Russian policymakers tried embracing capitalism, liberalism and Western-style democracy after 1991, but by 2015 the country is back to antagonizing the West on ideological grounds. Moscow's backing of Syria's President Bashar Assad, who the White House firmly opposes, is the latest but not the only example of that.
A key difference is the ideology underpinning Russia's stance in the world. Communism has been traded for conservatism — Putin paints Russia as the healthy opposite of a lawless, immoral West. State-endorsed religion also plays an important role, with traditionalist values touted as an alternative to the “godless” Western tolerance.
But Russia is a capitalist economy now, which means deeper integration in the globalized world and more personal freedom — to work, travel, learn and soak in Western values.
In Soviet times, “sodomy” was punished with up to five years in prison. In Putin's Russia, “promotion of homosexuality” to minors carries fines and arrests, and public displays of same-sex affection or transgender behavior can result in public abuse. But homosexuality is not a crime anymore, even if some people are intolerant of it and public figures often speak out against it.
"There are no dangers for people of different sexual orientations [in Russia]," Putin insisted in 2013. But echoing the public ambiguity on the issue, he lambasted in a different speech the same year "the hollow and fruitless [Western] tolerance."