Staunton, May 28 – Russians are now far more concerned about defending what they have than in getting something better, Lev Gudkov says. Consequently, if the Kremlin does try to take away something the majority thinks is rightfully theirs, such a step would almost certainly put the survival of the current regime at risk whatever the polls now say.
In the course of a wide-ranging conversation between the director of the Levada Center and economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, both Moscow experts offer some remarkable insights into where Russian society now is, why it is in that condition, and how its relations with the powers that be have changed.
Gudkov suggests that since 2011, the idea of “the good tsar and the bad boyars” in which Russians look to their leader with hope and blame their problems on the bureaucracy has ”ceased to work. An increasing share of the population blames President Vladimir Putin for their problems, considers him guilty of corruption, and is prepared to hold him responsible.
That means, he continues, that if Putin takes any steps that threaten the well-being of a large part of the population, steps like raising the pension age or requiring more payments for health care, both of which could happen, then the Russian leader could find his support in the population collapse just as Yeltsin did in the 1990s.
“For the majority of people,” Gudkov says, “what is important are not plans for improvement but rather the preservation of what is and an avoidance of things getting worse. If the authorities take something away that people consider untouchable, then it could happen” that the authority of those in power could be seriously shaken.
Underlying that pattern, the sociologist adds, is the “very slow dissolution of the Soviet distribution system and of the consciousness that he authorities must take care of people,” at least to some minimum standard. Everyone knows that the [authorities] will not make people happy or rich,” but they must do that or else stresses in society will grow.
Inozemtsev brings up another issue: the possibility for change in Russia. Noting that the intensity of regime efforts to “try to convince people that without this power, without this system and without it, the country will fall apart,” that raises the possibility that “if this pressure from above disappears Russian society could be changed and be integrated into a normal society.”
Gudkov agrees. He says that “there are no fatal internal cultural bases that would prevent Russia from becoming a contemporary society.” But he adds that “the system of force which penetrates society and which calls forth mass mechanisms of adaptation to force is conceived with us as a certain constant” rather than something that can be easily dispensed with.
That helps to explain why many Russians look back to the Brezhnev era with nostalgia, the two agree, especially given the turmoil of the 1990s. During that decade “and even a little earlier, Gudkov says, “an identity crisis arose in mass consciousness. There was a sense of the coming to an end.” And it was “completely masochistic.”
People felt that “we are worse than everyone else, we are a nation of slaves,” and that having failed under communism, Russians had been cast on the ash heap of history. “The idea of enemies completely disappeared at that moment because about half [of Russians] said” what is the point of searching for enemies when the problems are in ourselves?”
But those attitudes didn’t last very long. Russians began to view “the West as a utopia that they could not achieve,” the standard of living fell by 50 percent, and “xenophobia, internal and external, rose” in its place. Russians began to view the collapse of the USSR as a Western conspiracy and so on.
Such attitudes did not disappear when the Russian economy recovered in the early 2000s, as one might have expected. That is because, Gudkov argues, that “the change of regime required a change in legitimation,” something that would be based not on democracy but on “an appeal to our national traditions,” the promotion of “neo-traditionalism” and “a special path.”
Those values were always there waiting to be called forth, and he suggests the image of iron filings on a paper, spread in disorder, until a magnet is placed under them and they “quickly configured themselves to it.” A significant share of Russians would still like to live as people do in the West but they are not ready to do anything for this.”
And the situation is getting worse, the two men say, because the best and the brightest see their futures not in Russia but abroad. Gudkov quotes Ivan Krastyev’s observation that “the misfortune of our Russian situation is that the middle class instead of working to change the situation prefers to emigrate,” thus lowering the pressure for change.
Gudkov agrees. Indeed, he says that Russian institutions are “working as a mechanism of negative selection,” choosing not the most competent but the least as long as they are loyal and thus promoting more generally what he calls “a critical mass of incompetence,” one that will support the idea that the use of force is the answer to any problem.
Given this, he continues, “the regime cannot long survive. It is in this sense condemned. Levada wrote that all our history is a chain of short regime cycles, because no procedures of changing power have been worked out, each regime change takes on a catastrophic character” destroying both the powers and the population.