Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 9

By A.I. Kolganov

(This article makes use of materials from the RNISiNP analytical paper “Russians on the fate of Russia in the 20th century and on their hopes for the new century,” presented by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.)

The consciousness of the members of Russian society is still riven by contradictions. Consensus on the fundamental questions, answers to which will determine the future development of the country, is an extremely long way away. Although some tendencies can be observed in Russia which suggest a consolidation of the public consciousness at least on certain issues, it mainly touches on abstract value judgments only.

On the one hand, this state of affairs does not offer a basis for a broad coalition of social forces around any particular positive program for reform or modernization. On the other, the commonality of value judgments and the significant level of agreement on the assessment of individual periods in history and concrete historical events, create a potential platform in society for consensus or compromise on future actions. But has the time for forming such a consensus in Russia arrived?

To answer this question, we need to establish exactly where the views of most Russians coincide and where they diverge.


Irrespective of any particular age, social or professional group, over 50 percent of Russians have a positive attitude to such historical developments as the reforms of the early 20th century, the new economic policy of the 1920s, the period of industrialization and the Khrushchev thaw. Negative attitudes predominate in almost all groups with regard to the Brezhnev stagnation, the collectivization of agriculture and Gorbachev’s perestroika.

It should be noted that these assessments have changed somewhat from results given in 1995. At that time the period of stagnation enjoyed a generally positive appraisal and few people gave a positive assessment of the reforms of the early 20th century. The change was brought about both by the influence of official propaganda, which for ten years has presented the early 20th century in an exclusively positive light (simultaneously extolling the virtues of Nicholas II), and by an independent reappraisal of the historical role of the Brezhnev period as the time when the crisis conditions which burst to the surface in the late 1980s began to develop.

Assessments of such events as the 1917 October revolution and the modern-day market reforms continue to divide society approximately down the middle.


As concerns the lessons which Russians have taken from their past, there is not even a semblance of consensus here. Only a few statements attracted between 30 percent and 40 percent of votes. These included: Russia should think for itself and follow its own path, rather than copy the experience of other countries (39 percent); reforms in society should begin with the economy, not with the political system and democracy (39.8 percent); Russia can only become a developed country when all the conditions are provided for those who want to work and earn money; those who do not want to do this should remain poor (34.6 percent).

It should be noted that a rather insignificant number of those surveyed support such statements as “the West is Russia’s eternal enemy; it is the West which counteracts its prosperity” (13.2 percent). However, at the same time just 4.2 percent of respondents agreed that “the western model of development is effective, and should be followed strictly.” Only 21.1 percent of those surveyed think that “socialism is much more suitable for Russia than capitalism.” But even fewer believe that “despite its individual achievements, Soviet power brought the country to a dead end” (13.5 percent).

All this shows that the Russian people lack priorities and values which unite them; most Russians have not yet firmly decided what they should do and where they should pin their hopes for the future.


This uncertainty in the mood of Russian society is in many ways determined by a negative assessment of most of the events which took place in the country between 1985 and 2000. A number of these events used to be supported by the majority of the population, and now are given a negative assessment by a similar majority. People are disappointed by their own actions, they have lost the illusions they once shared. For example, events based on a direct expression of the will of the people are now assessed negatively: The adoption of the 1993 constitution (51.1 percent negative) and Yeltsin’s victory in the 1996 presidential elections (66.5 percent). Negative assessments were also given to other important political steps taken by the Yeltsin administration: The Belovezh agreement and the collapse of the USSR (80 percent); radical market reforms (53.5 percent); the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation in 1993 (51.6 percent); the privatization of state property (77.5 percent); the first Chechen war of 1994-96 (53.1 percent).

Overall positive assessments were accorded to such events as Yeltsin’s early retirement (87.8 percent positive), the appointment of Putin as acting president (66.7 percent) and the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya in 1999-2000 (69.2 percent).

It is notable that the only clearly positive assessments are mainly linked to the end of the Yeltsin era and the hopes which arose in connection with this.

But what do Russians hope for? What do they want?


A 1995 survey already revealed a negative trend with regard to the assessment of a number of issues related to market reforms. However, only on one of these issues did the negative assessment exceed 40 percent. By 2000 the situation has changed.

While in 1995 just 38.6 percent demanded that the results of privatization should be reviewed and the leading position of the state sector should be restored, the corresponding figure is now 70 percent. In 1995 64 percent of Russians wanted to extend price controls. Now 72.9 percent support this demand. In 1995, just 37.6 percent of Russians thought it necessary to restore elements of state planning. This has now risen to 70.1 percent in 2000. In 1995 only 37 percent wanted the free sale and purchase of land to be prohibited; in 2000–54.3 percent.

Finally, in 2000 67.1 percent of those questioned wanted controls on business activities to be strengthened. Those who support this demand are typically employees of privatized companies.

The only thing which does not elicit mass disapproval is the free sale and purchase of currency (19.1 percent against in 1995; 29.1 percent against in 2000). Does this mean that Russians are now firmly opposed to any type of market reform, or is this just a negative reaction to the very poor results of the market reforms carried out by the Yeltsin administration?


When Russians were invited to assess which concepts provoked a positive reaction and which provoked a negative reaction, it emerged that the Russian consciousness is split. Positive assessments were given to such concepts as “work” (95.7 percent) and “collectivism.” That combination of basic values raises the legitimate question: where do the Russians really want to go?


In order to answer this question, we need to bear in mind that the Russian consciousness is experiencing a deep moral crisis. The vast majority of Russians agree that in the last 10-15 years there has been a weakening of such qualities as patriotism (72.9 percent), spirituality [dushevnost’] (81 percent), selflessness (82.9 percent), sincerity (84 percent), respect for women (77.6 percent), benevolence (85.7 percent), honesty (81.6 percent), respect for one’s elders (86 percent). At the same time, there has been a strengthening of qualities such as aggression (91.1 percent), cynicism (83.9 percent), suggestibility (57 percent).

However, it is not just the perception of the “external” moral situation that has changed, but also people’s own moral criteria. Russians are prepared to justify many acts which would have certainly been subject to condemnation under the old moral standards. Russians accept or tolerate such behavior as bribery (32.6 percent), unscrupulousness in business (42 percent), prostitution (42.8 percent), tax evasion (51.3 percent), draft dodging (62 percent), resisting the police (66 percent), traveling on public transport without a ticket (83.1 percent).

There are major differences in the level of tolerance between young and old, and between cities and the countryside. City-dwellers and young people have much more flexible moral principles than older people and those who live in the country.

At the same time, a comparison of the attitude of Russians and Germans to positive moral values shows that Russians demonstrate a stronger attachment to such values (for example, 96 percent of Russians rate conscience as a positive quality, compared with just 78 percent of Germans; work–96 percent and 82 percent respectively; law and order 93 percent and 88 percent; solidarity 92 percent and 80 percent, compassion 92 percent and 51 percent).

Russians still set very high moral standards. Situations where they are forced to witness a decline in these standards, or, worse, have to violate them themselves, provoke an internal protest. So how do Russians want to extract themselves from this crisis?


The disappointments of the last fifteen years have established an authoritarian political attitude in Russians’ minds. Dividing respondents according to political preferences, it is revealed that in every political group, including liberal marketeers, there are fewer supporters of political freedoms than there are advocates of the “firm hand”. In most political groups, more than 80 percent of respondents support the idea of the firm hand. This unanimity, however, certainly does not mean that Russians are prepared to part with their political freedoms. Just as in 1995, limiting these freedoms arouses protest.

At the same time, there has also been a growth in the number of people prepared to justify the use of force, in a number of examples, to resolve a crisis. The percentage of those prepared to tolerate the use of military force in conflicts which threaten Russia’s integrity has increased from 25.6 percent in 1995 to 45.2 percent in 2000. Support for confiscating the ill-gotten gains of “new Russians” has risen from 45.2 percent to 62.6 percent. However, the banning of political organizations and newspapers that oppose the current authorities is supported by just 12.3 percent of the public (10.6 percent in 1995); suspending parliament by 17.2 percent (18.1 percent); canceling all elections for the next few years by 19.6 percent (12.4 percent). Over the same period, the number of people who support a ban on strikes and other mass demonstrations has noticeably fallen from 18 percent to 12.2 percent.

To summarize the results of the survey: Although generally speaking there remains an adherence to democratic values and market freedoms, most Russians lean towards the idea of a strong authority capable of reviving Russia as a great power (this goal secured most support among respondents–42.4 percent), using state intervention in the economy to correct the results of market reforms with a view to achieving greater social justice, and limiting the profits of private capital.

It is this sociopolitical tendency that determined Vladimir Putin’s victory in the presidential elections. Voters saw in him a man capable of strengthening law and order, gearing the economy towards the needs of the ordinary people, and defending Russia’s national interests, while at the same time preserving democratic forms of government and the positive results of the market reforms.

There is no need to demonstrate that Putin’s ability to meet these demands is in fact very doubtful, and on certain issues totally illusory. The initially effective war against the Chechen guerrillas, which began with Putin’s ascendancy to power, eclipsed in voters’ minds many other acts of Putin’s which went against the mood of the electorate.

However, it is now clear that Putin has a very selective understanding of law and order, that he is even more inclined towards compromise with the West than Yeltsin was, and that his economic policy thus far is geared towards radical liberal ideas. This means that the voters will not see the expected rebirth of Russia from Putin, and he will not even manage to maintain the temporary period of economic growth.

The question is, how long will it be before Russia’s voters admit to themselves that they have once again become the victims of unfounded hopes? These hopes may in fact linger on for a very long time, if–as with Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996–the electorate is not offered a convincing, attractive political alternative.

Andrei Kolganov is a doctor of economics and a senior research fellow at Moscow State University.