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Lev Gudkov: We are suffering a nationwide hangover

A wave of social pessimism is flooding Russia, although it is not the only change in the public sentiment recorded by sociologists in recent years. Invest Foresight has discussed the key Russian public opinion trends with Doctor of Philosophy Lev Gudkov, Director of Levada Center, Russia’s independent polling and sociological research company.

Valery Levitin|RIA Novosti

– Can we identify any linear public opinion trends in Russia that could be traced clearly enough over the past few years?

–Today we are experiencing an anticlimax in mass sentiment marking the end of the Crimean rally. For five years, the public has been in a state of excitement, full of patriotic pride, feeling powerful. However, the collective euphoria started fading last summer giving way to the growing signs of continued irritation and discontent.

If this social pessimism is growing, we have good reason to ask what people are concerned about. Can we say that their greatest concerns are also evolving?

– As it is, the set of people’s immediate concerns is quite stable and mainly includes persistent anxiety and worries about their families’ health and well-being, children in the first place. These concerns do not arise in response to some specific unpleasant or threatening events – rather, they reflect the general feeling of extreme vulnerability and social insecurity, or, in other words, a form of awareness of the most valuable things in life.

The second place is firmly held by rising prices – the threat of impoverishment, the fear of poverty and loss of social status. Only now, this particular concern has been ousted by another factor – the fear of a major war. In our country, this fear rarely rises to one of the first lines. It has come as a consequence of the long-term mobilization and confrontation with the West. We are suffering a kind of nationwide hangover. After a surge of excitement comes a phase where we realized we will have to pay for confronting the whole world, for waging war on Ukraine and Syria. This causes more and more irritation. Moreover, people’s real incomes have been falling for a long time now. The accumulated effect of shrinking incomes is 11-13%: it is painful, but not catastrophic for the regime. Low-income Russians living in the provinces feel this more acutely. It is there that social discontent, the growing sense of social injustice, is concentrated. The most recent pension reform was a trigger, but it was not the reason – only a pretext that sharply enhanced the feeling that the government is dropping its social obligations and trying to resolve geopolitical problems at the expense of the people. People are generally happy with Russia reemerging as a great power and restoring the Soviet Union’s former image, when we were respected because everyone was scared. But nobody wants to pay for it. People refuse to share the costs. Furthermore, amid the frequent corruption scandals, people become increasingly interested to know – if the state has become so powerful, then where is the money? Looks like it is being stolen, never reaching the people. Yet, this discontent remains amorphous, unarticulated, because there is no political party in the current information space that would raise these questions. This is a diffuse reaction, not specifically provoked by anyone or anything. This feeling of increasing injustice tinges all public sentiments.

A ‘four Russias’ theory has become popular in our country, which says the population is quite clearly divided according to the types and sizes of the places they live in.

– This is a very good idea; it partly echoes the approaches of foreign researchers such as Richard Rose about the pre-Moscow Russia, the industrial Russia, and the post-modern Russia. There are different lifestyles in different localities, and social time flows differently there. Poor provinces are rural population and population of small towns whose lifestyle and income are hardly different from that of a village. Overall, it is half of the country’s population. Of course, it is a very depressive environment, with some typical social pathologies such as alcoholism, high rates of domestic crimes, suicides, de-population and drain of young people. In those areas many people believe that the past was better, they were moderately prosperous and there were guarantees. They idealize the Soviet past although few would like to return to those times. The ‘beautiful past’ is more of a reason to be discontent with the present. Television dominates the provinces. Social media and the internet are not so widely represented there. Therefore, the current culture of consumption that pours from television is in sharp contrast with reality. It creates envy and irritation, the feeling of deprivation and anger. Indeed, according to a March survey, the average per capita income in the country is just under RUR 17,000. Two groups of people feel optimistic. They are government members and young people – not from the provinces but from big cities where the labor market and the demand for educated young people exist, where the income is higher and, therefore, there is more security and optimism. 

– Does the Soviet nostalgia remain an actual spiritual power? 

– It is not the same nostalgia as the nostalgia of emigres for their abandoned motherland. It is something different. It is a way to express one’s discontent through idealized past. Nobody is going to return. Life in those times was not that alluring. But some of the exaggerated things seem attractive because for a very big part of the population it is already secondary knowledge and nobody remembers them. Based on stories of old people and propaganda it seems that the past was great. There was a united powerful country, guaranteed work, low housing prices, free healthcare and education. They don’t know or remember the stagnation, the dull hopelessness and constant deficit of everything, from food to books or medication. It is not a melancholy but a way to organize consciousness and a negative attitude towards the present day. 

– There is a phenomenon of high ratings of the current government and the president. They are falling but remain high. What is behind this phenomenon? 

– It appears high compared to the popularity of politicians in democratic countries where there is free press, political and economic competition, open criticism of the government. We are dealing with a completely different phenomenon, an organized consensus that is supported by a very powerful propaganda machine. In fact, it is the state’s monopoly that controls the main tool of manipulation of public opinion, television. Out of 22 federal channels, 20 are united into three major media holdings. They set the tone, agenda and the language for constructing reality. The opposition essentially has no access to the media and does not influence the public opinion. Moreover, the Kremlin can now use social networks and the internet quite successfully to promote the same ideas as on television. Therefore, the population has no choice. 

– International surveys show that certain shifts in values happen from one generation to another. According to your information, what divides our young people from the rest of society? Can we see generational trends in our surveys? 

– Our young people may look similar to their counterparts in European countries, but this is superficial comparison. In reality, young people’s lives are defined by the institutions they are involved in. Of course, our youth today is focused on a higher level of consumption, but the social meaning of  this consumption is totally different. In the West, consumption differences are linked to people’s personal resources such as their education, traits, place of work, and qualification; higher earnings and, correspondingly, a greater consumption are perceived as a fair standard of success, working abilities, and efforts taken. In Russia, the high level of consumption is seen as a result of proximity to power, having clout and specific individual traits such as blatant careerism, impudence and the ability to reach the top at any costs. This is why the focus on consumption as the main standard of human dignity is ambiguous and contradictory. 30 years ago, when we were just beginning our research, we thought that all social changes – as sociologists usually interpret it – will involve the youth, who allegedly introduce new paradigm and attitude as well as new perception of life and ideas. And back then, we observed something like that – young people had a more pro-west attitude than today; they shared democratic slogans and pro-market attitude and were notable for their particular liking for liberalism and being ready for change. But a few years later, we saw that the situation was not so unambiguous. 

We believed that a new generation would appear which would be unaware of the Soviet era lifestyle and would eventually displace Soviet people and bring much desired change. But this turned out to be quite different. This is not about the attitude young people have in the beginning, this is about the effect living circumstances and institutions have on it when the initial idealistic attitude collides with reality. This leads to clash of values, which results in cynicism and disappointment; young people get the impression that this is the way it should be and life is a lie and sheer opportunism. This all drastically affects life principles and makes some people adjust to reality, and this becomes their main life strategy – passive accommodation to circumstances which is typical for the majority. This is a dominant formula of the common passive behavior or attitude to life and political and social problems. In others, this provokes blatant careerism and inclination to act in any possible way. Some take to drink or put up with the situation and enter the downward path. Sociologists call such phenomena anomie, a term that mean social relations decay, social disorganization, and aberrant behavior such as excessive drinking, crime, suicide, and others. But the actual state of affairs can vary greatly in different regions, even in rural areas: the situation in southern territories, with their new forms of agricultural production and western technologies, can be different from that in deteriorating regions of non-black earth zone, with active and educated young people leaving. The population decline in rural areas affects even central regions. This is why young people who may look very similar to their western counterparts and wear similar clothes have a totally different, adaptive mentality. There are young people who differ from them. They live in big cities, especially where there are several generations of residents, their parents have a higher education and they are ready for change. This small number of young people is really close to those in Europe in terms of their attitude, mobility and the desire to improve their skills. However, most young people are opportunists who live by the rule “do not change the environment, adapt to it.”

– Does Russia have a different perception of happiness?

– There are several ways to measure ‘happiness.’ I am skeptical about all of them. Various countries have their own meaning of the word and their own ways to measure it. As a rule, Europeans use objective indices such as life expectancy, health, child mortality, education level, people’s trust in each other and in governmental institutions, as well as their participation in public organizations. And we, like many developing countries, use subjective criteria that are not that reliable. The most oppressed republics have the highest levels of happiness. During the dissolution of the USSR, Turkmenistan was the happiest one, according to surveys; today it is Chechnya. People are often afraid of saying openly what they think; in poor countries it is often considered unseemly or shameful to admit that you are unhappy. Many believe that if they say ‘I’m unhappy’ they will look like losers. So I am skeptical about it. Denmark is in the top-5 happiest countries in terms of objective criteria. But people there have different self-awareness. High expectations of others make people insecure and make them not sure that they are successful. They overthink to the point of exhausting themselves, they assume too much responsibility that leads to a constant feeling of guilt. Those people are far from being happy. A more developed person has higher standards, and such people are rarely truly satisfied.

– Is Russia part of Europe? 

– Of course it is. The identification with Europe has been changing quickly. During the dissolution of the USSR and immediately before people had an increased feeling of a total disaster, they thought that we were the worst, ‘Upper Volta with missiles’, that we could not live like that and we needed to return, as it was said, to the global development path, and that Europe was our common home. People wanted to identify with Europe and most of them believed that Russia was part of Europe. This feeling weakened as the discontent with the reforms grew, especially after the mid-1990s, and especially after the annexation of Crimea and the confrontation with the West. Most Russians currently think that Russia is not Europe and that Europe threatens Russia, non it a military, but in the cultural sense, that our values and traditions are threatened. We are witnessing a protective self-isolation behavior. Russia is distancing from developed countries that are perceived as a contemporary community ruled by democratic principles, rights, and freedom. It is partly a result of anti-Western and anti-liberal propaganda. Russians accept some European values, but some of them are being driven out.  In this sense I agree that Russia is not Europe. These are the consequences of totalitarianism, not to mention the older times of monarchy, lack of freedom and representative democracy. Only a few people have a high sense of self-worth, self-sufficiency and feel that they are guaranteed the right to life. Otherwise, we are a culture of subjects.

By Konstantin Frumkin        

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