In the 30s, 40s, early 50s, workers were a lot more DEAD!
I still have family who remember Stalin's purges, starvation and WW2. The same people say life in the USSR was only reasonable under the later leaders like Brezhnev. Nobody likes Gorbachev, but they would be first to admit that the differences in their lives in the 1940s and 1980s were vast.
During the purges of the 30s and 50s, the most dangerous place to be was a member of the central committee. Ordinary workers were not affected by the bulk of the purges (and to some extent did not even realize they were happening), with the notable exception of Jews during weird Stalinst manipulations like the Mingrelian affair.
As recently as 2009, 60% of Russians preferred the Soviet days (with older citizens that number is as high as 80%). And even for eastern bloc states like the Ukraine, 46% of the population regrets the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Those are by no means "middle of the road" estimates. What we now know (and everyone from Suny to Sudoplatov agrees) is that most 20th century estimates of Stalin's crimes are greatly exaggerated. Specifically, it was long thought that everyone who went into the gulag died there, and it wasn't until the post-soviet years that we learned most didn't.
So it depends on how you count (is famine murder?), but the number intentionally killed by Stalin is much closer to 6 million. And again, this was not primarily a worker phenomenon, but was centered more towards specific peasant classes ("kulaks") and nationalist separatist movements (particularly in the Ukraine). It was also something that wasn't totally known, until Khrushchev's "revelations" (which were also largely dishonest themselves).
Since you're comparing me to a Holocaust Denier, I'll refer you to Timothy Snyder (a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a history professor at Yale)'s article which summarizes a lot of the current thinking:
But again, I think what's perhaps most important, was that at the height of the purges, from 1934 to 1936, the absolute most dangerous place to be was in the central committee. During that period, 80% of the central committee members were killed. That's significant because the Stalinist nightmare is often explained as a willingness to sacrifice living humans for ideology, which I think is much too simple. It wasn't the obvious power relationship seen in Facism throughout that period of an elite group killing a subservient population, but of those in power actually killing each-other.
In absolutist terms that might be true. But it's mostly irrelevant since on average the regular population was not a member if the central committee.
It's like saying 'the most dangerous (deadly)' place in a prison is the execution room on execution day. For most of the population the most dangerous place was elsewhere.
> As recently as 2009, 60% of Russians preferred the Soviet days
Nostalgia is distorting and dangerous. It's like Western baby boomers who think wistfully about the old days. There was more pollution, there was more disease, there was less questioning of authority, there was more injustice, there was more impending doom. Another analogy is how some people sometimes perceive past relationships (ie. none of the troubles).
That's one explanation. Another is that things didn't actually change the way people wanted them to. Where as Perestroika was supposed to be a transition from authoritarian communism to democratic communism, the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in a transition from authoritarian communism to authoritarian capitalism.
State industries were basically given away to a small oligarchy through the "loans for shares" program, which resulted in a virtually identical experience for the average Russian, only without the nice state provided pension and benefits.
Russia also has an enormous rural population, which was celebrated and idolized through Soviet ideology. The transition to authoritarian capitalism was accompanied by a cultural shift that portrays rural Russia as being composed of stupid poor people.
I have very limited 2nd-hand knowledge, but that's the impression I've gotten from the people I knew who grew up in East Germany. They wanted reform of the system, but are unhappy with the reform they ended up getting. Some people wanted only a modest reform from authoritarian communism to a more democratic communism (as you mention), but even among those who wanted to abolish communism entirely and "join the West", many people thought what that meant would be adopting a democratic-socialist model along the lines of 1980s Scandinavia.
Many people didn't even really believe that the West Germans had ideals much different from theirs: they thought the idea that Wessis were really "capitalists" was Soviet propaganda trying to scare them away from reunification, and assumed West Germany was probably, in reality, just full of sensible social democrats. So it was a rude shock when they found out that Frankfurt bankers were more like American bankers than like Swedish social democrats.
It's interesting to see the contrast btwn the Soviet transition and the Chinese transitions away from core communism -forgetting that the SU had numerous other things to contend with (viz the delayed collapse of their late colonialist empire --the 'republics').
While the Chinese have moved away from the state as a direct employer and divested their enterprises and have moved away from providing pensions and benefits, the economic growth caused by their policies made those things a non-issue. That is, while the state retreated (and thus provided the same nothing to people) The SEZs and then then state-turned private and new private enterprise filled the void granting people hope and a vision of a future. People felt (and still feel, altho it might be on the descent) that if not they, their heirs have a chance at the future which they did not. On the other hand China is relatively natural resource poor and Russia is NR rich.
It would seem the transition was handled better by China than their fraternal twin, the SU. The unhurried transition probably helped, as well as culture (a Chinese family is willing to sacrifice a generation, if it has a promise of hope for the next -long view).