By Paul Goble
Over the past 15 years, opportunities in Russia’s regions have increased to the point that their residents “often feel much more successful than do Muscovites and Petersburgers, according to a new study carried out by scholars at the Moscow Institute of Sociology.
The study, Capitals and Regions in Present-Day Russia: Myths and Realities 15 Years Later (in Russian, Moscow: Ves Mir, 2018; 312 pages), compares survey data from the first years of Putin’s rule with new polls conducted in the last year or two (lenta.ru/articles/2018/03/09/provincial/).
One of its authors, Svetlana Mareyeva, says that improving conditions in the regions mean that “the conflict between Moscow and Russia is disappearing” and that as a result, fewer people from the provinces feel they have no choice but to move to the center in order to make good careers.
But another, she says, is that the economic crisis has hit residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg harder than it has hit others, something people in the provinces can see and that has had a major impact on how they assess both their own position and its relationship to possibilities in the capital.
In terms of most objective measures, Mareyeva continues, “life has improved in all types of settlement both in rural areas and in cities.” Moreover, “life has become more similar.” Today it is much less important “whether you live in Samara or in Moscow” to predict what you own and what your life chances are.
In both places, the sociologist says, “people have approximately the same selection of durable consumer goods, technology and property; and there is the Internet and mobile links. Fifteen years ago, the differences were significant.” There are still differences, but they have “begun to decline.”
Of course, “the megalopolises offer more opportunities beyond any doubt. But there too a rapprochement is taking place.” And that convergence is affecting how people in both places evaluate their own situations and their comparisons with life in the other. Fifteen years ago, everyone said big cities provided the best opportunities; now, people in both places are divided.
Indeed, Mareyeva continues, “the share of those who say that it is easier to achieve a number of things in the provinces is significant.” That is most notable in small towns and villages, less so in small and mid-sized cities. But Russians now see more equal chances in education and employment between Moscow and elsewhere.
These trends mean that “some major oblast centers have the chance to represent an alternative to the capitals” for many Russians, surveys show. And that means that in this regard, “the conflict which existed between Moscow and the entire rest of Russia 15 years ago is disappearing,” all the more so because the big cities have suffered more from the crisis.
But there is another factor at work: residents of the capital are more critical of how much they have achieved than are people in smaller cities where a far higher percentage of people feel they have been successful. In Moscow, “every tenth resident thinks that he or she has not done anything significant.”
Nonetheless, the sociologist says, the surveys show key differences among rural residents, residents of smaller cities and people in the capital city. “For residents of the capital freedom is important, that is, ‘to be master of oneself,’ and to have variety in one’s life.” For those in smaller cities, what matters is the respect of those around them.
And “in rural areas, people most often talk about the possibility of living no worse than others.” Only 15 percent of Russians connect success with wealth, and 11 percent with prestige property. In Moscow, people connect success with high positions, but only 17 percent of them do so. Single digits link success with power in all three categories.
“The nominal indicators of incomes in Moscow and St. Petersburg always were higher, and they are so today as well. But life there is much more expensive.” Moreover, 15 years ago, there were fewer people in middle income groups and more at the top and the bottom in Moscow than was the case elsewhere.
“But over the last 10 to 15 years, the Moscow and Petersburg models have become more similar to those in the provinces.” On the one hand, that is good because it reduces tensions. But on the other, it reflects a tendency that is dangerous in the long term: the devaluation and reduction of investment in education for oneself and one’s children.
Now, the sociologist says, Russians in both cities and rural areas “do not see any need” to do so. Education is less important for many jobs, while “at the same time, the number of workers with mid or lower level qualifications is growing.” As education has declined in importance so too have the places where it is offered.