Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe

7. Views on role of Russia in the region, and the Soviet Union

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In most Central and Eastern European countries, there is solid public support for “a strong Russia” to be a counterweight against “the influence of the West.” This sentiment is most evident among Orthodox Christians, who share a religious affiliation with most Russians, and among people who believe their country’s values conflict with Western ones. It is less common in countries that have tense relationships with Moscow. Indeed, Ukraine and Georgia (which have experienced recent armed conflicts with Russia or pro-Russian separatists, including an ongoing clash in eastern Ukraine) are exceptions to the broad pattern of pro-Russian sentiment found in other Orthodox-majority countries.29

While many people in the region see the need for Russia to play a strong geopolitical role, this does not necessarily mean that the West is seen in a purely adversarial light. Majorities in 15 of the 18 countries surveyed say they think their nations should “work closely” with the United States and other Western powers. That said, in most countries where Orthodoxy is dominant, American companies are viewed less favorably, on the whole, than Russian companies. And in NATO member states in the region, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the U.S. is not seen as a wholly reliable ally; many people in these countries are skeptical that the United States military would come to their aid in the event of serious conflict with Russia.30

In former Soviet republics, views are mixed about whether the USSR’s breakup was a positive or negative development. And while people in most of the countries surveyed see Mikhail Gorbachev’s historical legacy as more positive than Josef Stalin’s, only in a few of the 18 nations do as many as half the respondents rate Gorbachev’s place in history positively.

Majorities in most Orthodox-majority countries say they view Russia as a protector of Orthodox Christians around the world. And Orthodox Christians are generally more likely to view the patriarch of Moscow as the highest authority of the Orthodox church than the patriarch of Constantinople, despite the latter’s traditional status among church leaders as “first among equals.”

Broad support for Russia in most Orthodox countries

Orthodox-majority countries more likely to favor a strong Russia

A quarter century after the end of the Soviet era, support for an assertive Russia is widespread across Central and Eastern Europe. Majorities or pluralities in 12 of the 18 countries surveyed express agreement with the statement, “A strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West.” These feelings are especially widespread where Orthodoxy is the majority religion; roughly half or more of adults “completely” or “mostly” agree that a strong Russia is necessary in each Orthodox-majority country surveyed, with the exception of Ukraine.

Support for Russia is lowest in some of the places where relationships with Moscow have been particularly contentious, including Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States. Even in these countries, however, religious disparities persist. In Ukraine, where just 22% of those surveyed say a strong Russia is necessary to balance the West, the share of Orthodox Christians who express this sentiment is double that of Catholics (23% vs. 11%). And Orthodox minorities in Bosnia, Estonia and Latvia are much more likely than their countries’ general populations to say a strong Russia is necessary. (In Latvia and Estonia, most Orthodox Christians identify as ethnic Russians.)

Pro-Russia feelings are not necessarily accompanied by hostility toward the West. Even in Orthodox-majority countries, the prevailing public sentiment is that it is in the country’s interest to “work closely with the U.S. and other Western powers.” In the Catholic-majority and religiously mixed countries surveyed, meanwhile, respondents are consistently more likely to agree that it is in their country’s best interest to work with the U.S. and the West than they are to say a strong Russia is necessary to balance the West.

To help identify factors most strongly correlated with the view that a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West, Pew Research Center conducted a regression analysis of the survey’s results. This statistical analysis finds that two factors in particular are closely associated with this position: Orthodox Christian affiliation, and the view that a conflict exists between the values of the respondent’s country and Western ones.31

More people in Orthodox-majority countries than elsewhere see positive influence of Russian companies

In Catholic-majority countries, fewer see Russian companies as having a good influence

People in Orthodox-majority countries also are more likely than those in Catholic-majority countries to say Russian companies are a “good influence” in their country. And in most Orthodox-majority countries, people give equal or higher ratings to Russian companies compared with American companies. In Catholic-majority countries, on the other hand, American companies consistently receive better ratings than Russian ones.

Views about American companies also are related to the age of respondents; in most countries surveyed, adults under 35 are more likely than their elders to say that U.S.-based businesses have a positive impact in their nation.

Russian respondents were asked not only about the influence of American companies in their country, but also about the influence of Western nongovernmental organizations. In both cases, the prevailing view among Russians is that these entities are a bad influence in their country.

Compared with Russian or American businesses, Chinese companies are generally less well-regarded in the region. But in most former Soviet republics surveyed, including Russia, more people give Chinese companies a good rating than a bad rating. In most of the countries that were not part of the Soviet Union, the prevailing view is that Chinese companies are a bad influence in their countries.

Some former Soviet republics lean toward Russia, others toward European Union

Large differences in former Soviet republics on ties with Russia and EU

In the former Soviet republics, opinions vary over whether their countries should ally more closely with the European Union or with Russia. (Russians themselves were not asked this question.) And many people say they prefer having strong ties with both Russia and the European Union. Notably, in the Baltic States, pluralities take this view.

In only two countries do clear majorities choose one side over the other; most Armenians favor stronger ties with Russia, while most Ukrainians support stronger ties with the EU.

Nearly half of Ukrainians see Russia as major military threat

Most in former Soviet republics do not see Russian military as a major threat

Some Western politicians have expressed concern over possible Russian expansion in the region, and some residents of the former Soviet republics included in the survey share this concern. In Ukraine, which lost effective control over Crimea to Russia in 2014 (and is still engaged in a conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine), 47% see Russia as a “major” military threat, while 34% say Russia is a “minor” military threat and just 13% say it is “not a threat” at all. And in Georgia, which endured a military conflict with Russia in 2008, most of the population calls Russia either a major (35%) or minor (46%) military threat, while just 14% says it is not a threat at all.

In some countries, religious and ethnic differences appear to factor into these views. In the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, where wariness of Russia as a military threat is relatively high, Orthodox Christians and ethnic Russians are considerably less likely than others to view Russia that way.32

Half of Russians blame Western countries for Ukraine conflict

Mixed views on who deserves the most blame for recent conflict in eastern Ukraine

The ways in which blame is assigned for the recent violence in eastern Ukraine largely mirrors other patterns in views toward Russia. To the extent that they blame a party involved in the conflict, people in Georgia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – among whom majorities see Russia as a military threat – lay primary responsibility on Russia or pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Populations in Moldova, Armenia, Belarus and Russia, meanwhile, tend to blame the pro-Western Ukrainian government and Western countries.

At the same time, many people in the region do not take a clear position on who is to blame for the Ukraine conflict, saying either that several different parties are to blame or that they do not know.

NATO members in the region not convinced U.S. would offer military support against Russia

Skepticism over U.S. military commitment to NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe

Nine countries in the survey were once part of the “Eastern Bloc” aligned with the Soviet Union, but are now members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a collective defense arrangement that includes the United States. The survey reveals widespread skepticism in these countries, as well as in Greece (a NATO member that was not part of the Eastern Bloc), over the military commitment of the U.S. to defend them in the event of a serious conflict with Russia. Only in Estonia and Romania are majorities confident that the U.S. would use force to defend their country in the event of a serious conflict with Russia; many people in the NATO member states say they do not know or do not express an opinion on this question.

In Hungary and Bulgaria, pluralities say they think the U.S. would not use force to defend their country in the event of a serious conflict with Russia.

Soviet era and its leaders inspire mixed feelings

In a few former Soviet republics where people tend to express positive views of Russia, majorities also say they see the 1991 breakup of the USSR as a “bad thing.” Ethnic Russians and older people are more likely than others to feel this way.

Older people more likely than younger people to say dissolution of the Soviet Union was a bad thing

In Armenia, Moldova, Russia and Belarus, at least half view the USSR’s dissolution in 1991 as a bad thing for their countries. This sentiment is most widespread in Armenia, where nearly eight-in-ten of those surveyed feel this way.

In Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine, where majorities or pluralities say the USSR’s breakup was a good thing, ethnic Russian minorities are less likely than other ethnic groups to say this.

Across nearly all former Soviet republics surveyed, age factors into people’s views. Adults ages 35 and older are more likely to view the USSR’s breakup as a bad thing for their country, while those ages 18 to 34– who were either small children or not yet born when the USSR fell – are less likely to see it this way.

Stalin seen more positively than Gorbachev in Russia

Opinions about two significant Soviet leaders, Josef Stalin (who was in power from 1924 to 1953) and Mikhail Gorbachev (who was general secretary of the Communist Party from 1985 to 1991), offer another window into how people view the USSR. Stalin has been blamed by historians for brutal policies that caused millions of deaths, while Gorbachev presided over the final years of the Soviet Union, a period of great economic turmoil.

Neither man receives positive ratings across the region. But while Gorbachev receives higher marks in 12 of the 18 countries surveyed, Stalin’s reputation fares much better in Russia. In fact, a majority of Russians (58%) say they have a “very positive” or “mostly positive” view of Stalin’s historical legacy, compared with just 22% who say the same about Gorbachev. There is a similar pattern in Georgia, Stalin’s birthplace.33

Views of Stalin are much more negative in most of the region’s Catholic and religiously mixed countries, and in countries that were never part of the Soviet Union. For example, only 6% of Poles express a positive view of Stalin.

Even in some Orthodox-majority countries that were once Soviet republics, however, there is widespread negativity toward Stalin. In Armenia, Moldova and Belarus, for example, more people give negative than positive assessments of his legacy in history. And Stalin’s legacy is seen especially negatively in Ukraine, which suffered a massive famine in the 1930s in which millions died. Seven-in-ten Ukrainians say their view of Stalin is very or mostly negative.

Gorbachev, while lionized by some in the West for policies that contributed to the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, is unpopular in much of Central and Eastern Europe. Only in a few countries do as many as half or more of adults say he has played a positive role in history.

In Russia, adults under the age of 50 (that is, those who were born after 1965) are more likely than older people to have a positive view of Gorbachev. A quarter (25%) of those ages 18 to 49 say Gorbachev played a very positive or mostly positive role in history, compared with 17% among Russians ages 50 and older. (Most people in this older group had come of age before Gorbachev came to power.)

Russia’s role in the region

Orthodox countries more likely to see Russia as protector

By overwhelming margins, Orthodox populations across Central and Eastern Europe say they view Russia as a protector. In every Orthodox-majority country surveyed except Ukraine, most people completely or mostly agree with the statement, “Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians outside its borders.” This sentiment is strongest in Armenia, Russia and Serbia, especially among Orthodox respondents.

Fewer people in Catholic-majority and religiously mixed countries say Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians outside its borders.

The survey also asked respondents whether they agree that Russia “has an obligation to protect ethnic Russians outside its borders.” (Russian politicians have cited a desire to protect ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics and in areas such as Crimea, which Ukraine lost control of in 2014.)

Majorities agree with this statement in every Orthodox-majority country other than Ukraine. As in Ukraine, fewer than half of all respondents in Estonia and Latvia agree that Russia should protect ethnic Russians in other countries, even though majorities among sizable ethnic Russian minorities in all three of these countries agree Russia has an obligation to protect their rights. (See the Overview for more details.)

Many ethnic Russians have maintained family ties across national boundaries since the end of the Soviet era, when their official ties to Russia ceased to exist. In former Soviet republics with large ethnic Russian populations (other than Russia itself), at least four-in-ten ethnic Russians say they have relatives in other former Soviet republics with whom they had communicated in the 12 months prior to the survey. Within Russia, roughly a third of respondents (32%) say they have relatives in other former Soviet republics with whom they have spoken or visited in that period.

Orthodox Christians look to patriarch of Moscow or local church leaders

Many Orthodox Christians in Central and Eastern Europe look to Moscow for religious guidance. In every Orthodox-majority country that lacks its own autocephalous (self-governing) national church, Orthodox Christians are more inclined to view the patriarch of Moscow than the patriarch of Constantinople as the Orthodox Church’s highest authority – in most cases by margins of at least five-to-one – even though the patriarch of Constantinople (currently Bartholomew I) is often said to be “first among equals” among Orthodox patriarchs around the world.34

Meanwhile, in most countries with their own autocephalous churches, majorities or pluralities see these national church leaders as the highest Orthodox authority. Only in Greece do Orthodox adults tend to see the patriarch of Constantinople as the main authority. Considerable proportions of Orthodox Christians across the countries surveyed say they do not know or cannot answer the question.


  1. The Ukrainian regions of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were excluded from the survey due to security concerns.
  2. The survey was conducted before then-candidate Donald Trump raised questions during the 2016 presidential campaign about the American commitment to NATO.
  3. A logistic regression analysis predicted the probability of agreeing (completely or somewhat) with the statement, “A strong Russia is needed to balance the influence of the West.” The independent variables in the model included religion (Orthodox, Catholic, unaffiliated, Muslim or other); religious observance (those who say religion is “very important” in their lives) and being in agreement (strongly or somewhat) that there is a “clash between our country’s values and those of the West.” The model controlled for ethnic Russian identity, age, gender, level of education and country of residence.
  4. In Lithuania, the other Baltic state, there were not enough Orthodox or ethnic Russian respondents to analyze in this manner.
  5. Polls commissioned by Carnegie Europe in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia also have suggested that substantial shares in these countries have positive views of Stalin, even though substantial shares of people also say he was a “cruel tyrant.” And in Russia, polls conducted by the Levada-Center suggest recent improvements in how Stalin is regarded.
  6. While “first among equals” among Orthodox patriarchs, the patriarch of Constantinople is not imbued with governing authority over other patriarchs, aside from the power to call and preside at gatherings.
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