Not back in the USSR.

Photographer: Michal Cicek/AFP/Getty Images

Putin's Soviet Revival Misfires

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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One of the pillars of President Vladimir Putin's new national ideology is that Russia should occupy the Soviet Union's onetime prominent place in the world. That aspiration, however, keeps hitting snags in areas where the Soviet Union excelled, such as space launches and ice hockey. These misfires  may present a bigger threat to Putin's regime than falling living standards.

On Saturday, a Russian Proton-M rocket carrying a Mexican satellite crashed less than 10 minutes after takeoff. It was the latest of at least seven Proton mishaps since 2010, and the second major Russian space incident in three weeks. Earlier this month, a Progress cargo ship failed to dock with the International Space Station, apparently because a Soyuz rocket malfunctioned. There have been plenty of successful launches, too, but the Proton failures have become so frequent that Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, the rocket's maker, is facing mounting insurance premiums and difficulties finding foreign clients.

QuickTake The New Space Race

Dmitri Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of Russia's defense industry, pointed to similarities among the Soviet and Russian programs. "What happened to the Proton yesterday has already killed these missiles in 1988 and 2014," he wrote in his blog. "The Soviet and Russian experts have rushed to conclusions and never found the reasons for the engines' anomalous behavior."

If he's right, the problems plaguing the Proton in recent years have been known since the dying days of the Soviet Union, but were never fixed. They now have a more damaging effect, because the system as a whole is more fragile. "In the U.S.S.R.," Andrei Sinitsyn wrote in the business daily Vedomosti, "critically important dual-use industries such as aerospace worked under threat of reprisals and enjoyed unlimited resources. Now threats are ineffective and resources are limited, both objectively and subjectively (because of corruption)."

Then there are the setbacks in sports. On Sunday, the Russian national hockey team lost 1 to 6 to Canada in the final game of the world championship in Prague. This compounded Team Russia's failure at the Sochi Winter Olympics, an event that Putin intended to use to showcase his country's post-Soviet glory. Canada, often beaten by the formidable Soviet team in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, triumphed there, too.

The Canadian team that went to the championship in Prague was weakened, because some of its stars were kept at home by the National Hockey League play-offs. Russia had more of its top players available, but wilted disgracefully in the second period. Then, the Russian team did something no Soviet squad would ever have done: It skated off the ice before the Canadian national anthem was played to honor the winners. Only a handful of players remained, led by NHL star Alexander Ovechkin, who tried to stop his teammates but mostly failed.

This happened just a few days after Putin had a much-publicized hockey triumph of his own. In a May 16 exhibition game of the amateur Night Hockey League, with Soviet hockey stars such as Sergei Makarov and Viacheslav Fetisov, as well as some top pro-Putin politicians and businessmen on the ice, Putin scored eight goals. He only took up the game in 2011, but few retired professionals, let alone governors or billionaires, would be willing to tackle him or deny him a pass. I'm not sure he would have done as well against non-Russian opposition.

The Prague defeat was a cold shower for the pro-Putin breed of Russian patriots: This is not how hockey was played in the Soviet team's golden days. "We need to become a normal power first," the Russian team's spokesman, Igor Larin, said after the game. "Once we become a normal power, we will play like Canadians." Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian Parliament's foreign affairs committee, immediately tweeted: "What is he talking about? Has he forgotten that we've beaten Canadians many times?" And in fairness, Russia's squad did make it to play Canada in the final.

That modern Russia isn't the Soviet Union is both a blessing and a curse for Putin's regime. It's a blessing because the country is, despite Putin's dictatorial leanings and efforts to strengthen the state sector, an open capitalist economy. That makes Russia more resilient in times of crisis, confounding analysts who fail to understand that, at least as far as the economy is concerned, the Soviet revival is only skin-deep. Russia's economic performance in the first quarter of this year beat expectations.

The differences are also a curse, because even as Putin uses propaganda to raise the hopes of revanchist Russians, he's unable to deliver on his promises. So he's unable to create Soviet-style showcases meant to demonstrate the nation's power to the world, such as the aerospace industry that sent the first satellite and the first man into space, or the invincible USSR ice hockey machine.

According to a recent survey by the Levada Center polling agency, 19 percent of Russians believe the country should go back to the Soviet development path, and 55 percent believe it should have a path of its own, distinct from the Western one. Given almost universal support for Putin's actions in Ukraine and pride in the country's Soviet past (30 percent of Russians think of Stalin with "respect" and only 5 percent with "fear and disgust"), that special path may be just a modernized, idealized idea of Soviet policies. 

I suspect that the failure to repeat Soviet glories hurts Putin more than higher inflation and lower wages: In the 70 years of Soviet communism, Russians endured much worse economic hardship for the sake of living in a proud superpower. Putin needs to deliver more world-beating successes for his nostalgia-based strategy to triumph, but that's impossible without either recreating the repressive Soviet system or creating a business climate that would allow the private sector to restore the country's glory. He seems incapable of either, and that makes him vulnerable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net