I swear, this crop of Republican candidates is definitely taking the whole "let's move backward" thing too far. In this episode of Corn Dog Time Machine:
[Bachmann:] "It really is about jobs and the economy. That doesn't mean people haven't [sic] forgotten about protecting life and marriage and the sanctity of the family. People are very concerned about that as well. But what people recognize is that there's a fear that the United States is in an unstoppable decline. They see the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the Soviet Union and our loss militarily going forward. And especially with this very bad debt ceiling bill, what we have done is given a favor to President Obama and the first thing he'll whack is five hundred billion out of the military defense at a time when we're fighting three wars. People recognize that."
There's not much that Michele Bachmann isn't afraid of, and she's pretty darn sure that every single thing she's afraid of represents an imminent danger to the United States. Being afraid of the rise of the Soviet Union, though? That's pretty old school, what with the notable handicap of them not existing anymore.
I've long thought that there's a certain group of conservatives who took the breakup of the Soviet Union harder than the Soviets themselves did. It was a simpler time, after all: Sure, the entire world could end in the span of half a day, but politics was much more straightforward. All you had to do was hate the communists, and anyone who associated with the communists, and anyone who sympathized with communists, and anyone who you suspected might sympathize with communists, and anyone who proposed anything that, when looked at cockeyed, sounded a little damn communist to you.
When the Soviet Union broke up, all that was gone. All the great speeches about tearing down walls, all the pounding-the-podium speeches about how we must remain resolute—that whole box of political tools got taken away. Sure, there's plenty of other threats, but it's just not the same thing, dammit.
So I think this rather commonplace "misspeaking," conflating modern Russia with the old Soviet Union, serves as comfort both to conservative speakers and listeners. It is something familiar, a nice grandma-knitted sweater that smells of better times, back when redbaiting was all the rage and the only thing a Republican presidential candidate needed to know about foreign policy was there was this one big country we hated, and everything else could just follow from that.