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Russia's Openness to the World: The Unpredicted Consequences of the Country's Liberalization

Kremlin and Saint Basil's
Date: Fri, 10 Jun 2011
From: Vladimir Shlapentokh <shlapent@msu.edu>
Subject: Russia's Openness to the World: The Unpredicted Consequences of the Country's Liberalization

By Vladimir Shlapentokh
[Professor of Sociology, Michigan State University]

Following the collapse of the Soviet system, Russian society opened up to the world. Undoubtedly, this has transformed the country's socio-economic landscape forever. While more openness has brought many positive developments, it has also come with unanticipated negative consequences that threaten the country's liberal future. This report shows how misleading it is to glorify uncritically the "open society" ideal that is exemplified in the views of many Western thinkers from Karl Popper to George Soros.

One of the most influential aspects of opening up to the rest of the world was the newfound freedom to travel abroad. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the majority of Russians could not leave the country. This included emigration to other countries, of course, but also encompassed general travel (e.g. as tourists, students, visiting scholars, etc.). Indeed, overseas travel-especially to the West-was a privilege enjoyed by only the select few who enjoyed the trust of the KGB.

With the implementation of Glasnost (openness in Russian), Mikhail Gorbachev started to relax these restrictions in the 1980s. It was Boris Yeltsin, though, who provided a full-scale opening of society after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This made Russia as open as any Western society, wherein people could enjoy the unrestricted flow of information as well as the freedom to leave the country, either temporarily or permanently.

Unlike Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin began rolling back many of the reforms, mirroring the Soviet political system. Paradoxically, though, he left the freedom to have contact with foreign countries intact, including the ability to travel. The Russians have shown a remarkable indifference to the dismantling of several liberal freedoms, as long as their ability to travel freely continues. According to a 2011 poll conducted by the Levada-Center, a leading independent firm monitoring public opinion in Russia, 41 percent of Russians consider the freedom to leave the country to be an important value. In contrast, only 13 percent view the possibility of participating in meetings and demonstrations to be significant.

The opening of the floodgates toward more openness, which had precedents in both Peter the First's push for modernization, and in Khrushchev's attempts to ease Stalin's total closure of the Soviet empire, has made a big impact on modern-day Russia. Today, even the most remote parts of Russia have been deeply influenced by this change. Four very important developments, together with the new openness, have contributed to the pervasive changes-positive and negative-that have taken place within society; none of these could have been envisioned by the leaders who initiated the process of opening up.

The first of these has been the globalization of the international economy, beginning in the last decades of the 20th century. This has increased the flow of labor migration, students studying abroad and tourism, as well as the flow of consumer goods and capital across international borders. No less than one-third of the Russian population is involved, in one way or another, in communications with foreign countries; this is a real revolution in Russian life.

A second major development has been the proliferation of Internet access. This has made it possible for ordinary people to establish connections with people and institutions anywhere around the globe. With it has come the ability to search for jobs, find places to study, and even to connect with potential spouses.

The third development has been economic privatization. This has led to unprecedented levels of corruption, even for Russia. At the same time, there has been a feudalization of society, combined with the central administration's control over the country weakening, and a regular redistribution of property. These have increased societal uncertainty. All of this has diminished the safety of individuals and their property, thus increasing the desire of those with newly acquired wealth to secure a safe haven abroad, in the event that it becomes necessary to leave the country.

The fourth development is the disappearance of a cohesive public ideology that persuades people to be concerned about the interests of the country and society as a whole. On the one hand, this is a positive trend because openness is inimical to any authoritarian ideology in its various versions. On the other hand, the lack of a strong ideology has encouraged people to either leave the country and/or to be indifferent to public causes.

The general benefits of openness

There is no doubt that the freedom of movement that has accompanied globalization and openness has brought great benefits to the country. Foreign companies investing in Russia now employ several hundred thousand Russians. The presence of a large number of foreign firms collaborating with Russian companies has produced employment with decent salaries, introduced new technology, and enhanced the skills of Russian managers. In addition, access to the international market has provided consumers with diverse options for buying goods and services. Even those with meager incomes benefit because the international market delivers goods and services at a low price.

The Russian education system and scientific community have also benefited from the regular stream of visiting foreign scholars that more openness has provided. This trend resembles the way in which scholarly interactions were practiced prior to the Russian revolution, especially in the first half of the 19th century. The return of some Russians, after they have earned scholarly degrees in the West, can only be seen as having a positive impact on Russian society. Even one of the president's aides has a Harvard degree. In addition, the permanent stream of Western movies, actors and musicians have made the cultural life in Russia incomparably brighter than in the past.

Exclusive benefits for the upper middle class

While having a more open society has benefited the entire country in many ways, it is especially true for people of a higher social status. This includes those who hold a relatively high bureaucratic position, educated people working in the media and arts, middle- and high-level business people, and those who are employed in the financial sector. The upper middle class makes up 10% of the population, and earns a decent income by Russian standards. Indeed, while the average household earns $500 per family member a month, the upper middle class earns more than a $1,000 per family member.

According to available data, the members of the upper middle class have been able to significantly enhance their quality of life in post-Soviet Russia. In particular, they have gained the ability to buy expensive high-quality foreign consumer goods and services. In fact, 20 percent of them now buy from abroad, rather than relying on domestic sources. They may also take a foreign vacation two or more times a year.

The benefits for elites

The upper middle class has clearly been better able to tap the benefits of openness and globalization than the lower classes. However, it has been the political and economic elites who have gained the most. They make trips to London and Paris for weekend getaways. They celebrate with birthday parties at the most famous and exclusive resorts around the globe. They seek healthcare at the best hospitals the world has to offer. Many members of the elite make sure that their children attend the best high schools and colleges that Europe and the United States have to offer; they often seek to secure permanent residency for them so that they can stay after they complete their schooling. Those who are of child-bearing age even go so far as to try to have their children born abroad so they will receive citizenship in the country of their birth.

Interestingly enough, the ability to consume superior goods and services from foreign countries does not reflect the most important role the external world plays for the elite. These countries offer safeguards for their personal and financial security. This desire to secure their wealth abroad stems from the uncertainty that comes with living in a politically unstable country. Indeed, almost all of them would face criminal prosecution and have their assets frozen if the regime were to change, because their wealth is tainted with illegal activities. Thus, the elite often stash their wealth in offshore bank accounts, buy stock in foreign and hybrid foreign/Russian companies, and purchase luxury real estate abroad. Nobody in Russia was amazed when newspapers such as the Moskovskii Komsomolets or Argumenty i Fakty reported on the foreign stock holdings of Tatiana Golikova, the Minister of Health Services. Nor were they shocked when it came out that First Deputy Premier Minister Igor Shuvalov owns real estate in Austria and England. In short, investing abroad is like buying an insurance policy.

Almost every high official has a close relative who is actively involved in managing their offshore holdings. Indeed, the fact that the wife of the Omsk governor, Leonid Polezhaev, has stock in foreign companies-as was recently reported in the newspaper Novay Gazeta-amazed nobody in the country because it is such a typical scenario. The foreign countries serve as insurance for more than high officials, though. The minister of internal affairs, Rashid Nurgaliev, has acknowledged that many middle-ranked police officers have property abroad. Today, Russians own or rent 400,000 houses in Britain, 350,000 in Germany, and 250,000 in France.

Another elite group enjoying the newfound freedoms that have come with more openness has been the Russian mafia. Criminal associations no longer have to risk having their common assets-which were once used to help arrested criminals and their families-confiscated by police. They can now easily hide their personal and "public" assets abroad. The Russian media have made numerous reports about the legions of criminals and corrupt officials who are able to safely hide overseas.

The Russian leaders as beneficiaries of openness

Much like the elite as a whole, the top Russian leaders have an interest in secretly establishing safeguards in the West. Putin and his close friends, like Igor Sechin, have gone as far as merging Russian semi-state companies with foreign corporations that promise them either direct or indirect ownership of legitimate Western stocks. Hardly anyone in Russia is blind to the fact that the top leaders and their advisors have established a "golden parachute" for themselves abroad. Far from being unique, this practice of officials ensuring their interests in other countries parallels the actions of many leaders of contemporary authoritarian regimes in Central Asia or Africa.

Ironically, the leaders who secure their interests overseas often go into ideological diatribes against the West-particularly the USA-threatening hostile actions. These cannot, however, be treated as a serious attempt to strengthen Russia's geopolitical role in the world. All of Putin's and Medvedev's anti-American declarations are aimed only at convincing the public and military that they are Russian patriots, to sustain their flimsy legitimacy. Even their attempts to address the weakness of the Russian army are largely a propaganda smokescreen.

The actions and behaviors exhibited by the current Russian leaders to ensure their future fortunes have very little precedence in Russian history. Neither the last Russian tsar, Nikolas the Second, nor any of the Soviet leaders were as focused on personal gain as Putin and his gang. Perhaps only Anna Ivanovna, one of the first heirs to Peter the First, can even remotely compare. She governed the country with her German lover, Ernst Biron, and other foreign advisers between 1730 &1740. Putin's personal indulgences, such as his love of organizing a variety of expensive international sporting events, parallel her personal whims. Meanwhile, the country suffers from low-quality medical services, an inept system of education, bad housing and many other problems.

Openness and democracy

The assumption that openness always promotes democracy and guarantees it will function turned out to be wrong, since the extension of openness and the fading away of Russia's fledgling democracy have been evolving simultaneously.

Open borders can actually help the regime to stifle democracy. Considering the growing crackdown on any opposition that threatens the current administration, the ability to travel has provided a conduit to encourage those who challenge the government to leave the country. Indeed, the Kremlin routinely suggests that such people should emigrate because they might face harassment, or even imprisonment. In doing so they have merely modified the practice employed by Brezhnev's regime in the 1970s, when it discovered that it was possible to use Jewish and German emigration to rid the country of undesirable people in order to save Détente.

Paradoxically, openness has led to a decline of the positive role the West has played in Russian political affairs. Today, Western donors provide only meager financing to Russian liberal organizations. When compared with Putin's fierce persecution of opposition leaders, this small token of commitment can hardly provide the necessary resources needed to combat the return to authoritarian rule. This is a serious threat to freedom and democracy, yet the West, for the most part, sits on the sidelines.

Openness as a blow to Russian patriotism

Openness has had a major impact on Russian society by diminishing the loyalty and respect Russians have toward their country. The closed society of the Soviet Union made it difficult for people to access information about life abroad. This made it impossible to even think about leaving Soviet society for another country. In the 70s, Andrei Sakharov believed that, even if they had the right to choose their place of residence, no more than 10 percent of the first-rank Soviet scholars would prefer to live in the West. Sociological data show that people tend to ignore the higher standards of living of other people if there is no real chance of achieving the same. This helps to explain why societies can be stable even when there is a high degree of social inequality. Ones' neighbors tend to be the source of highest envy, while moguls in New York are not. Hence, since people in the Soviet Union did not have even a remote possibility of moving to the West, the higher standard of living there was considered out of reach. Random nationwide surveys that I conducted in the 1970s showed that most Russians obediently followed the logic of the fable about sour grapes. This allowed them to be comfortably convinced that the quality of life in their country was much higher than that in the United States.

Globalization, which carries a heavy Western influence, radically changed the world's perceptions about attaining upward mobility, as the Western lifestyle suddenly seemed to be within the reach of the masses. Even if most Russians do not have the money to travel abroad, one-third of them now have relatives or close friends who live abroad, and most people know of someone who has traveled to a foreign country. In the past, American movies were limited in their ability to release in the USSR. There is now a torrent of foreign films, particularly American, on all of the television channels. This has exposed all Russians to the affluence of foreign lifestyles. In short, more openness has changed their views on attainability, even if some of those views are utopian.

During the Soviet times, the high standard of living enjoyed in the West did not spoil the mood of the Russians; it is now one of their sources of deep frustration. According to the Levada-Center, half of the population did not have confidence in their near future at the end of 2010. The collapse of Soviet ideology, combined with the possibility of traveling outside the country, has made emigration and temporary residence abroad both acceptable and attainable for many people. No longer are emigrants condemned as traitors for their actions by an absolute majority. Today, only 14 percent of the population disapproves of emigration. Most of those who disapprove-many of them are old and have a low level of education-are unable to take advantage of the opportunities that can come with more openness. Thus, their condemnation of emigration is often a way to rationalize their disadvantages.

The lure of foreign countries is so strong that a call for allegiance to Russian culture, tradition, and religious orthodoxy are not strong enough to counterbalance this pull. Many people regularly proclaim a commitment to their motherland, while simultaneously claiming superior spirituality over America and the rest of the world; such views are not reflected by their patterns of behavior. For example, the anti-Western sentiments proclaimed by many Russian elites have not changed their Western lifestyles. Nor have they diminished the desire to keep their property, money and children abroad. This mixture of admiration, envy, and hatred toward America and the West is similar to the respect, fear, and hatred that the elites in the Soviet republics used to have toward their bosses in Moscow. It also parallels the attitudes exhibited toward London or Paris by the elites in the colonies of Western empires.

Emigration as a fixture in Russian life

Emigration is one of the most important elements of Russian contemporary life. According to official data compiled by the Auditing Chamber, 1,250,000 people have left Russia in the last three years. As one Russian journalist noted, this number compares to the mass exodus of nearly 2 million people following the October revolution. According to conservative figures produced by VTSIOM, a pro-governmental public opinion firm, one out of seven Russians want to leave the country for an extended period of time. 36 percent of all Russians, and 52 percent of those with a higher education, know someone who has emigrated. The Levada-Center reports that 53 percent of the middle class want their children to go abroad permanently, while up to 30 percent of business people are considering their own emigration.

The attractiveness of living abroad has motivated those with the ability to emigrate-I refer to these as "active" people-to do so. Assets that help facilitate this group in moving abroad can include having a higher education, a professional career, sports and music skills, and wealth, as well as having connections with powerful people abroad. As one analyst noted, these people "are the best and brightest." This trend of active people moving abroad is by no means uniquely Russian. Indeed, the same pattern occurs in any country where people have the necessary assets to make seeking better opportunities overseas a viable option. Nor is it a phenomenon that takes place exclusively between countries. Those who have the means to seek better prospects by relocating within a particular country often do so.

For many active people, the attraction of going to a foreign country stems from more than the promise of a higher standard of living; some of them, particularly the elite, already enjoy a high standard of living. Russia is a place where energetic Russians and foreigners can get rich under the right conditions (e.g. the ability to collude with the bureaucracy). Material factors alone are not, therefore, sufficient stimulation for them to leave. For many Russians, it is the possibility of self-actualization through the use of their full skills and talent, combined with the possibility of increasing their standard of living, which provide the major incentive to leave their home country.

Another driving force for people seeking emigration is the desire to live in an orderly society. This is true for both the elites and the population as a whole. It is mostly the elites, however, who fear for their own safety and that of their families. Even though they employ guards and live in gated communities, there is always the threat of kidnapping. While this risk cannot be compared with countries like Mexico, the threat is always there. This scenario, along with a lack of security in holding property, has undoubtedly led many Russians to think about emigrating.

Education as the most powerful stimulus for emigration

Studies show that, in Russia, a high level of education, whether or not the person actually holds a degree, increases the desire to emigrate. In 2008 one-third of those who had pursued a higher education wanted to live abroad in one capacity or another (e.g. as temporary or permanent workers, students, etc.). Only 37 percent of highly educated people declared they were indifferent to going abroad. The motivation to leave is particularly high for scholars. According to official government data, 25,000 first-rate scholars left the country between 1989 and 2004, to reside overseas permanently. In addition, another 30,000 first-rate scholars have taken temporary positions abroad. This trend has also spread the diaspora of Russian scholars, as they are increasingly taking jobs in places where they previously had little contact (e.g. South East Asia and the Middle East). Two-thirds of the population believes that these scholars will never return; the data support this view.

It is not just sophisticated people with a higher education and scholarly talents who are likely to emigrate. Many Russian musicians are members of the most prominent orchestras, and Russian athletes have joined soccer and hockey teams around the world. This ability to go overseas has had a huge impact on the prospects for women, who make up a large percentage of the active people. Indeed, it is difficult to name one performance at either New York's Metropolitan opera or the Bastille opera in Paris that does not include Russian women. It is also difficult to find a Western country where women have not emigrated as mail-order brides. This is due in part to the perceived "exotic beauty" of Russian women. This perception has also led to an increase in sex industry work. Oftentimes these women leave Russia to seek an exciting "life abroad."

The students look abroad

Emigration is certainly on the mind of the country's young and talented people, even in the face of great uncertainty and risk. The pursuit of educational and vocational aspirations has fueled this gaze abroad. Unfortunately, Russian students suffer from a lack of teachers, music tutors, and sports coaches at home. This, combined with a lack of adequate training facilities, has led 15 percent of new degree holders to leave the country each year. These talented students display a higher willingness to emigrate than older and more mature scholars. They choose to attend high-quality graduate programs at foreign universities, in order to attain the education that their elders received under the Soviet system. Indeed, you can hardly find a foreign university that does not have Russian graduate students. Perhaps the most telling indicator that students seek better prospects abroad is the fact that 45 percent of college graduates are considering emigration, while only 18-24 percent firmly desire to stay in Russia. Unlike graduate students from other countries, only a few Russian students choose to return to their country after graduation.

The negative impact of emigration and immigration on the mood of the country

While optimists may have an unwavering faith in the intrinsic abilities of Russians, even they cannot fail to consider the negative psychological effects emigration has on those who stay. These are people who have the same mentality as the peasants who stayed in the countryside during the 1960's and 70's, while young and educated people went to the city to seek better prospects. In both cases, many of the people who stay behind acquired a feeling of inferiority.

While more openness has led to high levels of emigration, it has also led to a growing number of immigrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus. Most of these new arrivals have a low level of education and seek jobs as unskilled laborers. Several Russian analysts lament the fact that the vacuum being created by Russian intellectuals leaving is being filled by low-educated people who do not have professional skills.

The decline of professionalism

The openness of the country has also contributed to the dominance of feudal-based, non-meritocratic criteria-especially loyalty and nepotism-for the selection of cadres. Paradoxically, within the USSR's closed society, the influence of political considerations in the selection of cadres had less of an impact on a person's ability to get a job than the influence of personal considerations today for the most important positions in Putin's open and "free" Russia.

Many young people refuse to devote themselves to professional careers in the sciences, engineering or medicine, as their fathers and grandfathers had previously done during Soviet times, because Russian society does not appreciate work in these key spheres. Lacking faith in the opportunity to develop an honest career at home, many professionals are pursuing options abroad. Hence, the media has covered a variety of stories highlighting the low level of professionalism within the country, from the Kremlin all the way down to police officers, pilots, intelligence officers, teachers, scholars, and doctors. For example, Russians watched in horror as their military, which has become increasingly incompetent, lost the Kursk submarine. They also viewed the botched attempts of the special services to save hostages during several terrorist attacks. Last but not least, they had to endure fires in and around Moscow during 2010, as poorly trained firefighters tried to put them out. Indeed, the cult of professionalism, which was quite high in the Soviet Union era, has almost disappeared in contemporary Russia.

It was remarkable that Medvedev raised the issue of professionalism in Russian society at a major meeting of Russian and foreign scholars on May 22, 2011. It was pointed out at the meeting that, despite a large number of university graduates, it is still difficult to find 20 young professionals who would be skilled enough to work in Skolkovo, the Russian tech hub located outside Moscow. Medvedev also noted a lawyer who got his law degree from a technical college, while another doctor he knew studied law. It is ironic that the fundamental sciences were in better shape during the Soviet period than they are now, despite the fact that the country was then closed.

Openness and the economy

While globalization and more openness have brought some benefits to the Russian economy, the negative consequences of open borders have been enormous. The increased concentration on exporting oil and natural gas has opened Russia to the "Dutch disease" of relying on fuel production to earn most of their revenue. Russian leaders are mostly concerned with facilitating the production and distribution of oil and gas for foreign consumers, by helping Russian and foreign companies extract these resources. The theme of the de-industrialization of Russia is permanent, according to an analysis of the Russian economy by Moscow authors. Even the military-industrial complex has suffered from openness, as the army increasingly refuses to buy military equipment made in Russia, preferring arms made in NATO countries-an organization that is still formally considered to be a potential threat!

Openness and separatism

Russia faces another big challenge in its ability to keep the country's federation cohesive. Putin was able to stifle the most egregious forms of separatism during his tenure. However, he was not able to address the root causes of the separatist tendencies due to the combination of foreign influence and the strong feudal elements within his regime. Today, Moscow's prestige is lower than it has ever been in Russian history. The capital is treated with contempt by many provincial residents, who see Moscow as an occupying force whose only interest is in exploiting their territory while providing little in the way of help and assistance. Thus, regions in the Far East have much stronger economic ties with neighboring countries-China, Japan and South Korea-than with Moscow and the European part of the country. The same can be said of the Kaliningrad region. The republics of North Caucasus, Chechnya, and even Tatarstan-located in the heart of European Russia-have strong relationships with the Middle East as well as the rest of the world.


For both better and worse, globalization has influenced nearly every corner of the world, although to varying degrees. Russia's ability to check the destructive processes that have accompanied openness depends on strengthening institutions that can mitigate these processes. Feudal relations, corruption, crime, separatist tendencies, and the personal enrichment and power consolidation of the elites and the highest leadership are collectively eroding the institutions and cultural beliefs that make a country united and strong. This has put Russia in a weak position for resisting terrorism, and/or potential attacks from its neighbors. In short, Russia is not in a position to be a major geopolitical force despite its nuclear arsenal, the size of the country, its natural resources and its position within the UN Security Council.

The destructive impact of openness on Russia would no doubt be even stronger if oil and gas prices were not so high. With the enormous revenues generated by the export of fuel, the Russian leadership is, so far, in a position to mitigate various shocks within society, including those generated by openness. With the potential fall of fuel prices, a scenario that the Russian leadership hopes will not happen in the next decade, the precarious stability within the country might be tested to its limits.

A recent article in Novaya Gazeta by Alexander Ausan, a prominent economist and political scientist, depicted a gloomy scenario if the country's leaders do not liberalize and modernize Russian society. He predicts that, if the current situation does not change, the majority of Russia's wealthiest people will be living in London in ten years' time. The active people who do not leave the country will end up working as the guardians of the properties of moguls living (mostly) abroad, while Tadzhiks will make up the majority of the labor force. Their employment will be supervised by the managers appointed by those living in London. All talented children will immediately be moved abroad.

While the exaggerated dystopian future picture painted by Alexander Ausan is hardly realistic, there is a serious probability that Russia will become a very different country if it is unable to make the necessary adjustments.

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