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A Russian Dreams
Has the Russian Protest Movement Given Birth to a Local Version of the American Dream?
Masha Charnay - Russia Profile - russiaprofile.org - 2.24.12 - JRL 2012-33

More than two decades of social and political reforms have seen Russian society transformed. Having traded the socialist system for a market-based economy and hopes for unfettered opportunities, how much closer have Russians gotten to reaping the promised fruit? And, more importantly, how well defined is the vision of what they ultimately seek?

Kremlin and Saint Basil'sOne of the more memorable phrases to come out of the recent protests in Moscow is: "We have started to dress more better." It is a quote from an interview with a Nashi activist who came to Moscow from the Ivanovo Region to attend a pro-Putin rally and was asked to enumerate the ways in which life has improved under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Her speech ­ incongruous not only on account of poor grammar ­ was quickly broken up into incisive memes that turned Svetlana into a subject of extensive ridicule. Scornful remarks aside, however, social research shows that Svetlana's concerns are not far from those of the rest of the Russian population.

Material welfare, and especially money, has become a paralyzing concern for many Russians, said Boris Dubin, head of the Department for Social and Political Research at the independent Levada Center. Public opinion polls support his point: more than 85 percent of Russians say they only have enough money to afford food and clothing ­ one of the reasons Svetlana's sentiments ring so true. Surveys also demonstrate that over the last decade, most Russians actually haven't "started to dress more better." Data from the Levada Center shows that the share of Russians who can't afford anything beyond clothing has decreased rather insignificantly ­ it was 93 percent in 2001. "At least 70 percent of the adult population do not make plans beyond the next few weeks," said Dubin. "Most Russians live in such uncertainty that they cannot afford to pursue any long-term aspirations that would embody something akin to the American dream."

Russian social structure, which places little emphasis on the importance of an individual's quest for self-realization or social mobility, is another reason why the Russian dream is so elusive, said Fred Weir, a journalist who has lived in Russia for more than two decades. "Russia was always more of a static society, " Weir noted. "People didn't choose it, they were born into it, and were usually condemned to a particular social standing with no hope of advancement. Hence I always thought Russians are more focused on the here-and-now, the survival issues."

The notion that ordinary Russians should follow a single, well-defined course toward success is entirely foreign to Russian society, said Alexey Levinson, who runs the Social and Cultural Research Department at the Levada Center. "I am sorry to disappoint you, but I don't believe there is such a thing as 'the Russian dream,'" he said. Priorities vary widely for people across the social spectrum, making any cohesive national set of values or life-goals impossible. As for pursuing the traditional vision of success that includes professional and financial achievement, the younger generation is the only one that can afford to do so, Levinson believes.

A study conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation shows that young people see economic success as a product of good education, hard work and connections. But Dubin believes that while being quite at home with these typically Western concepts, Russians are still ideologically opposed to embracing their underlying intrinsic values. "On the one hand, most Russians see the West as the origin of material welfare, rights and freedoms, which they would so like to have," Dubin said. "But on the other hand, they resent it as a foreign force that erodes everything 'Russian.'"

This is where the great myth about the mysterious Russian soul and the unique national destiny come into play. Russians have long since believed that they possess a certain set of cultural, spiritual and philosophical traits that inform their inimitable national psyche. Hence the need to defend their values and retain their independence vis-à-vis the West. But research shows that Russians are unable to list the exact characteristics that set them apart from others, and that the so-called Russian intelligentsia notwithstanding, everyone has abandoned talk of giving up any special intrinsic values in exchange for material goods.

Is it fair, then, to conclude that Russian society is indeed a patchwork of splintered groups with disparate ideologies and principles? And does the video with Svetlana epitomize just that ­ a collision between the average Russian youth from the provinces and the educated urban youth partaking in the protest movement? There seems to be only a partial consensus on this. Weir, for instance, recognized the protest movement as a cluster of people who could eventually come to embody the Russian dream through struggle and advancement. "They get their relative sophistication from their contact with the wider world, and they do yearn for Russia to become a 'normal' country. So, perhaps that's it: the 'Russian dream' is to be 'normal.'" But Levinson argued that contrary to what many say about the protesters, it is a mistake to think that the group shares any ideology outside the one that seeks to alter the political status quo. "This is an absolutely heterogeneous movement," he said. "Its members never have and never will belong to the same class and share the same personal aspirations." When their mission runs out, they too may part ways.

Keywords: Russia, Protests, Politics - Russia, Economy - Russia News - Russia

 

More than two decades of social and political reforms have seen Russian society transformed. Having traded the socialist system for a market-based economy and hopes for unfettered opportunities, how much closer have Russians gotten to reaping the promised fruit? And, more importantly, how well defined is the vision of what they ultimately seek?

Kremlin and Saint Basil'sOne of the more memorable phrases to come out of the recent protests in Moscow is: "We have started to dress more better." It is a quote from an interview with a Nashi activist who came to Moscow from the Ivanovo Region to attend a pro-Putin rally and was asked to enumerate the ways in which life has improved under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Her speech ­ incongruous not only on account of poor grammar ­ was quickly broken up into incisive memes that turned Svetlana into a subject of extensive ridicule. Scornful remarks aside, however, social research shows that Svetlana's concerns are not far from those of the rest of the Russian population.

Material welfare, and especially money, has become a paralyzing concern for many Russians, said Boris Dubin, head of the Department for Social and Political Research at the independent Levada Center. Public opinion polls support his point: more than 85 percent of Russians say they only have enough money to afford food and clothing ­ one of the reasons Svetlana's sentiments ring so true. Surveys also demonstrate that over the last decade, most Russians actually haven't "started to dress more better." Data from the Levada Center shows that the share of Russians who can't afford anything beyond clothing has decreased rather insignificantly ­ it was 93 percent in 2001. "At least 70 percent of the adult population do not make plans beyond the next few weeks," said Dubin. "Most Russians live in such uncertainty that they cannot afford to pursue any long-term aspirations that would embody something akin to the American dream."

Russian social structure, which places little emphasis on the importance of an individual's quest for self-realization or social mobility, is another reason why the Russian dream is so elusive, said Fred Weir, a journalist who has lived in Russia for more than two decades. "Russia was always more of a static society, " Weir noted. "People didn't choose it, they were born into it, and were usually condemned to a particular social standing with no hope of advancement. Hence I always thought Russians are more focused on the here-and-now, the survival issues."

The notion that ordinary Russians should follow a single, well-defined course toward success is entirely foreign to Russian society, said Alexey Levinson, who runs the Social and Cultural Research Department at the Levada Center. "I am sorry to disappoint you, but I don't believe there is such a thing as 'the Russian dream,'" he said. Priorities vary widely for people across the social spectrum, making any cohesive national set of values or life-goals impossible. As for pursuing the traditional vision of success that includes professional and financial achievement, the younger generation is the only one that can afford to do so, Levinson believes.

A study conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation shows that young people see economic success as a product of good education, hard work and connections. But Dubin believes that while being quite at home with these typically Western concepts, Russians are still ideologically opposed to embracing their underlying intrinsic values. "On the one hand, most Russians see the West as the origin of material welfare, rights and freedoms, which they would so like to have," Dubin said. "But on the other hand, they resent it as a foreign force that erodes everything 'Russian.'"

This is where the great myth about the mysterious Russian soul and the unique national destiny come into play. Russians have long since believed that they possess a certain set of cultural, spiritual and philosophical traits that inform their inimitable national psyche. Hence the need to defend their values and retain their independence vis-à-vis the West. But research shows that Russians are unable to list the exact characteristics that set them apart from others, and that the so-called Russian intelligentsia notwithstanding, everyone has abandoned talk of giving up any special intrinsic values in exchange for material goods.

Is it fair, then, to conclude that Russian society is indeed a patchwork of splintered groups with disparate ideologies and principles? And does the video with Svetlana epitomize just that ­ a collision between the average Russian youth from the provinces and the educated urban youth partaking in the protest movement? There seems to be only a partial consensus on this. Weir, for instance, recognized the protest movement as a cluster of people who could eventually come to embody the Russian dream through struggle and advancement. "They get their relative sophistication from their contact with the wider world, and they do yearn for Russia to become a 'normal' country. So, perhaps that's it: the 'Russian dream' is to be 'normal.'" But Levinson argued that contrary to what many say about the protesters, it is a mistake to think that the group shares any ideology outside the one that seeks to alter the political status quo. "This is an absolutely heterogeneous movement," he said. "Its members never have and never will belong to the same class and share the same personal aspirations." When their mission runs out, they too may part ways.