Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 7

By Elena Bashkirova

In ten years, the process of postcommunist transformation has fundamentally altered every aspect of public life in Russia, yet it is impossible to give an clear-cut assessment of the results.

In the socioeconomic sphere, revolutionary changes in forms of ownership, the development of private initiative, and integration into world economic systems have not yet brought an end to the crisis. The task of creating an “effective proprietor” is far from resolved. Institutional transformations in the economy such as the creation of a stable banking system and stock market have not been particularly successful, as demonstrated by the crisis of August 1998. And the standard of living and quality of life of the Russian people require no commentary.

Outwardly more noticeable are the successes in transforming the structure of the state and the political organization of Russian society. Since 1993 there has been a new constitution in Russia, which proclaims such universally recognized democratic values as human and civil rights, freedom of speech and religious freedom, the right to private ownership, the division of power, independent local government and so on. Several democratic institutions are up and running in Russia: Elections are held at all levels, legislation has been passed which is designed to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, there is a technically independent legal system, numerous independent print and electronic media are published, a multiparty system is being established.

An objective analysis of how these democratic institutions function in contemporary Russia, however, points to the unequivocal conclusion that they are weak and underdeveloped. There are signs that democratic institutions and mechanisms in Russia today are being deliberately corrupted (by the authorities themselves, among others), and that society cannot find an effective means of counteracting this. This is a serious cause for concern. It prompts some Russian political scientists to describe the social model which has evolved in Russia as “manipulative democracy.”

To keep Russia’s development along democratic lines, it is essential to create social institutions and mechanisms–independent of the authorities–which are capable of protecting the interests of society and its individual citizens. The experience of countries with established democracies attests to the fact that such functions can be performed by civil society, which functions successfully where it depends on the “middle class”–that is, the reasonably well-off (independent), educated and socially active section of society.

In today’s Russia it is possible to identify several institutional structures which form part of civil society. Most of them, however, are underdeveloped and–more important–ineffective. It would appear that it is the weakness of civil society which is holding back the transformations in the political and legal sphere.

A third important element in the transformations underway in Russia is the change in public outlook. It is traditionally held that mass consciousness is more inert than political and socioeconomic spheres. Nevertheless, in periods of rapid, revolutionary change, value systems may also be subjected to significant shifts. It may also be argued that institutional changes in all other spheres are only truly irreversible when they are accepted by society and incorporated into a new system of the values towards which that society is geared. And, in this respect, changes in the public’s outlook may serve as one of the most important indicators of the reality and effectiveness of social change as a whole.

In 1999 the independent research center ROMIR carried out sociological research designed to analyze the current Russian value system and to establish its interconnection with the formation of civil society.

The results point to the fact that the process of postcommunist transformation is exerting a powerful influence on the mass consciousness in Russian society. Changes in forms of ownership, the development of private initiative, ideological pluralism, the establishment of democratic institutions and elective organs of power have brought about deep changes in the societal value system. At the same time, the state of the mass consciousness of Russian society is noted for its extremely contradictory nature, segmentation, and ideological and political diversity. The results of the survey dispel a number of very widespread myths about the nature of Russian society. For example, that the values of the Russian people are in deep crisis against the background of market transformations, entailing both the moral degradation of society and a loss of national identity. Conversely, the changes have had very little effect on traditional values such as the family, children, friends, work and religion. There is even an increased role for these values, for it is in them that people seek understanding and protection from life’s hardships. An analysis of respondents’ answers to questions about traditional, universal human values reveals Russians’ apparent priorities (in descending order of significance): family (almost 95 percent), work (83 percent), friends and acquaintances (81 percent), free time (68 percent), religion (43 percent) and politics (38 percent).

The most important factors affecting changes in the mass consciousness are economic and political instability, the fact that most of the population is living in poverty, dramatic social stratification, the weakness of the authorities and the long-drawn-out search for a solution to the crisis. All these factors serve to heighten uncertainty in the future, and increase the apathy and closed nature of the people.

Russians today display a very limited aptitude for social organization, and the potential for social activism in society is catastrophically low. The research reveals a very low level of participation in various voluntary associations: More than two-thirds of respondents said that they are currently not members of any voluntary organizations. Some 24 percent belong to trade unions, but only 3.6 percent play an active part in them. And no more than 1-1.5 percent belong to such organizations as voluntary social support services, ecological organizations and animal protection societies, creative associations, youth clubs, women’s organizations, human rights organizations and so on. On top of this, only one in ten of those who are members of such associations play an active part in them.

The survey recorded a low level of trust in other people, which undoubtedly complicates the forming of social ties. Thus, almost 74 percent of Russians think that “one should be very cautious in one’s dealings with people”, and just 23 percent of respondents said that they were prepared to “trust most people.” To assess the level of social tolerance, respondents were shown a list of various groups of people and asked to choose whom they would prefer as their neighbors. Russians were most wary of drug addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals, emotionally unstable people and those suffering from aids. Meanwhile, people of different nationalities or political extremists did not cause serious concern.

Values in the field of economics are determined above all by material considerations and the fear of losing one’s job, and they may be described exclusively as “values required for survival.” In the public mind the idea still prevails that work should be the basis of a person’s social position in a fair society. Thus, almost 81 percent of Russians think it important that “a person’s position in society should be determined by achievements,” 61 percent think it “debasing to receive money which one has not earned,” 82 percent that “if a person does not work one becomes lazy” and 54 percent that “work is a duty before society.” In the current climate, by no means all Russians can count on their own efforts to overcome their economic difficulties. Most of the population feel the need for state paternalism. Almost 92 percent think that society should guarantee that the public’s main needs are met. Some 56 percent consider the reduction in the difference in income between people a key issue.

On the whole, then, economic problems are perceptibly holding back civil and social activity. Nevertheless, to judge by the results of the survey, Russians still have a great potential for optimism and faith in their own abilities. In response to the question “Are you happy?”, the answers split right down the middle: 48 percent consider themselves to be happy (of which 6 percent are “very happy,” and 42 percent “fairly happy”), while 49 percent are unhappy (of which 40 percent are “not very happy” and only 9 percent “very unhappy”). Answers to the question as to what extent people influence the course of their own lives also split roughly down the middle: 50.5 percent implied a low level of influence on the course of their lives, while 49.5 percent said that they determined their own lives rather than being governed by circumstances. The absence of any tangible results from the economic transformations is causing Russians increasing disappointment in the current political system, in the majority of institutions of power and in the whole experience of the last ten years. Assessing the current political system in Russia on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is “very bad” and 10 is “very good”, 91 percent of respondents gave negative assessments (from 1 to 5), and 37 percent answered “very bad.”

The human rights situation in Russia is catastrophic, to judge by the results of the survey: Only 0.7 percent think that the rights of the individual are fully observed in the country, and some 15 percent think that they are “observed to some extent.”

Russians show very little confidence in any of the major state, political and social institutions. Only 2.8 percent have total confidence in parliament, and some 15 percent have some confidence in it; for the legal system the corresponding figures are 4 percent and 30 percent; for the police 7 percent and 22 percent; the armed forces 22 percent and 43 percent; the church 21 percent and 35 percent; the press less than 5 percent and 25 percent. Notably, it is those institutions on which normal democratic society depends–the parliament, the press and the legal system–which elicit the least confidence. One consequence of the negative attitude to the current political system is a clearly expressed nostalgia for the old communist regime. In assessing that regime, 55 percent of respondents spoke well of it, and only 13.5 percent described it as “bad” or “very bad.” At the same time, political apathy is on the increase in Russian society. The public’s passive interest in politics remains quite high: 67 percent of Russian citizens receive information about political events via the media on a daily basis. People are increasingly unwilling, however, to take an active part in politics themselves. A mere 0.7 percent are members of political parties and organizations, and only 0.3 percent are actively involved in those organizations. In the current climate, Russians have no faith in their real potential to influence political events by membership of this or that political association. Party work has become an activity for the political elite alone at a federal and regional level.

During the period of postcommunist transformation, the main democratic values have been assimilated by a significant section of Russian society. However, from the results of the survey it can be stated that basic democratic values and institutions still do not enjoy sufficiently broad support. At the same time, democracy and democratic institutions are clearly perceived in a unique way. In abstract terms, when discussing “democracy and civil society as a whole,” most Russians express a positive attitude to them. For example, over 47 percent consider the democratic political system to be suitable for Russia; of these, 6 percent assess it as “very good” and 41 percent as “probably good.” About 28 percent reject democratic methods of government. However, when assessing concrete procedures and rules of democracy and their effectiveness in the current situation in Russia, support among Russians for democratic values is not very high at all. Thus, 54 percent agree with the statement that “democratic systems are not very good at maintaining order;” and only half that number disagree. Even more Russians–62.6 percent–are convinced that “there is too much empty talk and not enough action in democratic systems.” Significantly, 15-20 percent of respondents are quite unable to give an opinion on democratic institutions and procedures.

In other words, in the mass consciousness of Russians today, democratic values accepted in principle are hardy seen as realistic instruments for solving the toughest problems facing society. And among these problems–a list of which was given to respondents–the following order of priority emerged: 55.4 percent–maintaining order in the country, 23.2 percent–fighting inflation, 18.3 percent–granting the public the opportunity to influence important decisions, and 1.3 percent–defense of free speech.

Recently there has been trend towards a decline in the numbers of supporters of democracy as the basis for Russia’s political system. In conditions of deepening crisis, more and more Russians think that the authorities’ central task is to impose order in the country. But there is no consensus as to how to overcome the crisis: Most of the public do not see a clear solution either in democracy or in authoritarianism, especially when there is no confidence in any of the institutions of power.

Against the background of the “ongoing crisis” in Russian society, there are no significant changes in Russians’ political and party preferences. The proportion of supporters of left-wing views (about one-third of the public) and liberal views (about 15 percent) has remained stable for several years. The only noticeable tendency in recent years has been an increase in popularity for patriotic, great-power ideas and slogans which almost all political groups try to employ. In their approach to the social and political structure of society, patriotic, great-power ideas conflict in many respects with the values and principles of civil society. In relation to this, it is a particular cause for concern that there are clear signs that this patriotic great-power ideology has the best chance of becoming the basis for the authorities’ declared consolidation of society, and of being endorsed as the dominant ideology in contemporary Russia. The democratically oriented political forces–which would potentially be capable of opposing these trends towards authoritarianism and great-power politics–remain splintered and are supported by an insignificant section of the Russian public.

In recent months political life in Russia has witnessed several important events which could lead to serious changes both in the mass consciousness and in the value system of the Russian people. Russian society, which could not wait for the end of the “Yeltsin period,” now has new authorities as a result of parliamentary and presidential elections. It is these authorities which must solve the problems of overcoming the crisis and determining the priorities for further development. But no less important is the problem of correlating the ends and the means for achieving them. The prospects for democracy and civil society in Russia depend crucially on which methods–democratic or authoritarian–the authorities select for resolving social problems. The first decisions and steps of the new Russian administration–the way the election campaigns were run, the renewal of military action in Chechnya, increased confrontation with the West–as yet give rise to more fears than hopes. But that is a subject for further research.

Elena Bashkirova is president of the ROMIR Research Group.