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Russia Profile
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September 19, 2005
A Question of Value
What 147 Million People Consider to be the “Good Life”

By Dmitry Polikanov
Dr. Dmitry Polikanov is the Director of International Relations at the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM) [DJ: Charts not here.]

As Russia searches for its “special path” in foreign and domestic policy and debate in the country continues about its identity in the world, the issue of values emerges more and more often in statements by Russian officials and their foreign counterparts. Questions of this type have become the core of the debate on the future of the EU-Russia partnership and represent, for some, a stumbling block for further rapprochement with the West. Besides, the country’s system of values is a crucial factor that determines economic growth and further development. Not surprisingly, President Vladimir Putin expounded on the topic this year during his annual address.

“Above all, Russia was, is and certainly will continue to be the largest European nation,” Putin said in the April address. “The ideals of freedom, human rights, justice and democracy gained through suffering and hard-won by the European culture have been the determining value reference points for our society for many centuries.”

At the same time, the fact that, according to data we compiled at VTsIOM (the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research), only 26 percent of Russians surveyed believe that democracy is a universal value, regardless of national and historical particularities. Forty-two percent consider those who call themselves democrats to be “enemies of our state,” whose activities are in contradiction to our national interests.” The results raise questions about what percentage of the Russian population agrees with the president on this point. Have almost 15 years of reforms brought changes to Russians’ values, or are the majority still hostages of the Soviet system and mindset?

That the meaning of democracy differs across the population is just one sign of the society’s lack of a consolidating ideology. On the one hand, years of political turmoil have led to much disillusionment and resulted in deep disappointment with political parties, the efficacy of the parliamentary system and the efficiency of the system of power in general. As a result, nearly 60 percent of those surveyed, given three options on the political spectrum - left, right and nationalist - were unable to place themselves. A similar majority replied that differences are defined more clearly today by the divide between the rich and the poor or between class segments (workers, intelligentsia, businessmen) than by either political or religious identification.

On the other hand, this attitude contrasts with answers provided about the best direction for the country. Russians tend to indicate that they are at least somewhat tired of short-term solutions to their problems and living under technocratic rule. In particular, people would like to have a better idea of what lays ahead on the political horizon, a more comprehensive idea of future reforms and an idea of some tangible strategic goals for the country before deciding whether to support or oppose them. As a result, there is a tendency to identify such concepts as stability (44 percent), law and order (37 percent), Russia’s position as a great power (35 percent), the social security of the population (27 percent) and wealth and prosperity (25 percent) as the most important values for the country. In general, these are more unifying concepts that represent a sort of social “cement.”

The awareness of a lack of a national idea appears to have led to further atomization of Russian society. It has to be seen as “further atomization” because it is not merely a product of multiple shifts in national policy, and those responsible for making it, since 1991. In the Soviet Union, and particularly as the Communist system moved from a long period of stagnation into outright collapse, people became increasingly alienated from the state, moving toward greater dependency on informal links. Frustration over all-pervasive ideology was transformed into a greater focus on family issues and the gradual atomization of society. The early years of market reforms only exacerbated the problem, producing an even more substantial distrust of colleagues, business partners or governmental authorities. Within this context, it seems less strange that 43 percent of all those asked what they considered to be their patriotic duty identified supporting their family, while another 27 percent opted for bringing up their children in a patriotic manner. That another of the most-popular answers was honest labor at work (26 percent) only emphasizes the fact that concepts of personal responsibility do not appear to stretch beyond individual relationships.

There do remain some holdovers from the Soviet era, including a more militaristic conception of patriotism (28 percent of those surveyed said they were willing to serve to protect the country from external and domestic threats, and 24 percent said conscription was justified on patriotic grounds). This tendency is much less evident than earlier “my family is my Motherland” approaches.

More evidence for this is found in the low level of civic participation, with about 70 percent of respondents saying that they had not taken part in any collective public activity (aside from voting in elections) over the last two or three years. Even when it comes to combating the peril of terrorism, the majority prefers individual measures (learning first aid skills, demonstrating greater vigilance, buying personal weapons or simply donating money) to community mechanisms. One result of this is that a majority of Russians consider their families to be better off (on the basis of their personal experience within their own social networks) than the country as a whole – a phenomenon frequently mentioned by sociologists and politicians.

Under these circumstances, the dominating climate in the society is clearly conservative with a social-democratic flavor. “Social Democratic” is actually the only term representing a socio-political position that draws more positive responses than negative (46 percent against 36 percent, respectively). “Communism,” “capitalism” and “nationalism” all trigger clearly negative associations. Most respondents (52 percent) believe the country needs stability and a slow pace of reform instead of radical changes aimed at stimulating rapid economic growth (37 percent).

Another interesting split in polling numbers is the one between those who identify themselves as conservative in outlook and those who favor a more liberal line. About half of the population believes that there is a need to return to traditional values, expressing a clear preference for a paternalistic state responsible for taking care of its citizens. Linked with this is support for revisiting the shady privatization deals of the 1990s and the fact that so many respondents say they are ashamed of the fact that there are so many Russian billionaires. Forty-eight percent claim that moral principles shouldn’t change with the times.

But the numbers of those who support the opposite positions are also high, generally accounting for about one-third of all respondents and, on some issues, more than 40 percent. For these people, guaranteeing some sort of equality in starting positions are more important, after which they have little trust in paternalistic concepts. In support of this general conception of the need to change along with a changing world, 47 percent of respondents believe, for example, that “traditional” moral norms have become outdated. There is general support among this group for the prospect of pro-Western politicians coming to power in Russia and 41 percent define the protection of human rights and freedoms as an important issue, based on the belief that there can be no order without such conditions. While this does not mean that all of those surveyed who hold these views are active in their promotion or are ready to fight for them, they do identify meritocracy, personal success and social progress as positive values.

This “values divide” is also reflected in attitudes towards religion. While the general historical absence of Protestant influences, often associated with the development of a stable capitalist system, has left its mark, these attitudes are changing. The majority of people believe in God and in elements of superstition (astrology, mystical forces of nature, etc.) simultaneously. For many, religion is seen as part of a national tradition, identified as the traditional belief of their ancestors (42 percent) than compliance with the prescriptions of their faith and participation in church life (11 percent). Moreover, 17 percent of those surveyed consider religion to be a way for individual salvation and personal communication with God, while 24 percent identify its value in its provision of a code of moral norms. In ways, this indicates a certain distance from the traditional Orthodox approach, involving a somewhat mixed attitude that is incorporating, (however slowly), some elements of the Protestant paradigm.

The pragmatic question of “being well off” was also identified as a key objective in life by 56 percent of all respondents, but this ultimately translates into a divisive issue when the question involves greater risks to their well being, ranging from internal threats – in the form of the “oligarchs” – to external dangers – in the form of immigrants. If the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, it may become a source of significant instability in the foreseeable future.

Therefore, one of the primary elements of democracy a la Russe is a guarantee of socioeconomic rights – a legacy of the 1990s, with the “shock therapy” and financial hardships that accompanied it. Fifty-nine percent of respondents are not satisfied with the way democracy works in their country, even though only one-third blame it for the resulting chaos and label the system as appropriate for Russia. Half of those surveyed identified the population’s inability to influence decision-making as the main problem. An overwhelming 80 percent said the interests of the majority are subverted to those of people with more money. The core democratic concept was identified as universal equality before the law (45 percent), followed by equal rights (33 percent) and a president elected directly on the basis of universal suffrage (32 percent). Thus, any perceived threat to democracy is viewed through the prism of the inadequacies in the degree of legal equality and the aforementioned growing imbalance between the different economic clusters in society. This goes a long way in explaining why so many Russians favored the trials against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his associates. It also helps to explain why 46 percent of respondents see no threat to democracy from the increase of authoritarianism. For these people, the real risks lie in a completely different direction and have nothing to do with media freedom or political rights.

This conservatism on the part of the public has been further stimulated by an artificially intensified orientation towards the past. As the Russian elite has failed to supply the society with new ideas for development and orientation, many Russians search for things to be proud of in the Soviet past, boosting nostalgia for the country’s former achievements like the victory in World War II, which took place 60 years ago and has nothing to do with the challenges of the 21st century. As a result, the Kremlin ends up with people who take pride in the first space flight, but don’t give a second thought to the disastrous situation in Russia’s dying space industry today.

In conclusion, it is important to point out that despite some positive features, the basic orientation with regard to the values discussed above suggests two major drawbacks. First of all, they impede progress in the country. Prudent steps toward economic and administrative reform are justified by the need to maintain the hallowed stability and the social state beloved by the majority of Russian citizens. The result tends toward the preservation of elements of the past, carefully cultivated by inertia in bureaucracy that, naturally, does not look for ways to, or even see the point in, restructuring the economy, getting rid of the oil and gas “bubble” or doubling the GDP.

Secondly, the focus on “patriotic education” and the promotion of conservatism is not likely to consolidate society but, rather, to wash it out. Instead of strengthening the state, it promotes a snail’s pace and fence sitting, or on concentration on family and close ones. Combined with inevitable proliferation of the “pot of gold” and individualism as the idols of the younger generation, there is the danger that this will lead to disintegration and social passivity or, in the worst-case scenario, to social conflicts. This is clearly not what most Russians want or, for that matter, what the rest of the world expects from them.