That Russians are Feeling Better Because Things are Getting Worse Makes Sense, Urnov Says

August 3, 2015
Photo by Konstantin Charabov/RIA Novosti

Staunton, July 29 –– Because they are latecomers to a market economy and have not adjusted to it, Russians, “however paradoxical it may seem,” feel themselves “more comfortable” now that the situation is worse than they did when the economy was growing and the gap between what they want and what they can have was greater, Mark Urnov says.

Citing the work of American psychologist Richard Atkinson on the psychology of failure, Urnov, a political scientist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, argues that “when the situation in the country and the life of its citizens improve,” the expectations of people increase even more.

As that happens, individuals begin to understand that they cannot achieve what they want and then they get angry. But when the situation gets worse,” the gap between “I want” and “I can” closes and the level of anger and aggression is reduced. That has been true in Russia in the past, in 1998 and 2008, and it is true now.

In more developed countries, Urnov says, “people adequately assess their possibilities and even in a favorable situation do not make unrealizable plans. They thus achieve the goals they set and are satisfied with the results. [Consequently,] the gap between ‘I want’ and ‘I can’ arises when a crisis begins and the situation worsens,” just the reverse of the Russian pattern.

The reason for this reaction by Russians lies in their “past experience.” They can change in the future as they gain experience with the market, but that will take time because “70 percent of Russians doubt their own abilities and in crisis situations count on the state.” And that is made even worse by “a high level of distrust of people in collective action.”

Any protest begins “not only when things are bad for you but when the cause and those responsible for your misfortunes are known.” Because of intense propaganda, “the average Russian blames not the state or the authorities. They see the cause of all their misfortunes in a foreign threat.”

As a result, Urnov says, “the worsening of the situation works not toward the confrontation of citizens and the state but to the population’s rallying around the authorities against the foreign threat” — especially given that Russians’ views about the crisis are shaped by television and televised propaganda.

At the same time, he continues, even if the opposition were able to have free access to make their case on television, that would “not mean that people would go out into the street with political demands.” Instead, as now, people would still focus on addressing their own problems by themselves or with the state’s help rather than cooperating with others to press the state.

It will take “at a minimum” two generations to change this pattern, the Moscow scholar suggests, and in the meantime, many will be attracted to the mythologized version of the period of stagnation at the end of Soviet times. That is because they are too young to have experienced it and yet hear from their elders that the situation then was better than now.