By Paul Goble
“Eighty-five percent [of Russians polled by the Levada Center at the end of 2010] say that they do not have any idea about where their country is headed or whether it has a future,” attitudes that have reduced their time horizons to only a few weeks that led to apocalyptic speculations as well, according to the leader of that survey firm.
In a commentary in “Vedomosti” and in an interview to the “Osobaya bukhva” portal, Lev Gudkov says that the expression of such attitudes is “especially interesting” given all the discussion by President Dmitry Medvedev about modernization and innovation in recent times (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article/252911/bez_buduschego).
And he notes that 2010 ended “on a note of growing uncertainty: the usual hopes in the population that ‘everything will be fine’ in the new year … were combined with a high level of concern, collective tension and suppressed aggression with which people were dealing with some difficulty.”
When Russians are asked to identify the causes of their uncertainty, Gudkov continues, they first of all point to matters of immediate concern such as fear of inflation, infrastructure catastrophes and “a feeling of general defenselessness” and “constant conern abou the future of their children or the health of those close to them.”
But when they are queried about whether they believe the assurances of the government that “it is in a position to deal in the near future with economic problems,” Gudkov notes, “about half of the population is extremely skeptical,” with the more urban and better off being more so than their rural or poorer counterparts.
Economic instability, the sociologist points out, “is combined with a sharp feeling of social constraint and the absence of defense. Fifty-eight percent of all Russians and 73 percent of Muscovites with higher education say they do not feel that they can count on the laws to defend them.
Moreover, Gudkov says, their concerns about their incomes are being “intensified by a growing understand that the present political system has turned out to be not simply a break on the development of the country but [in and of itself] represents an ever more seiroius threat for society and its future.”
Russians and especially the most educated “ever more strongly are worried by the trajectory of the possible evolution of the regime, Gudkov says. And the more harshly the powers deal with their opponents and critics and the more closed off they are relative to society, the more often and the more insistently these qusitons are being raised.”
Over the course of the last decade, economic growth and earnings from the sale of oil “allowed the existing powers to buy the support not only of influential groups closely connected with the media, the bureaucracy [and other parts of the elite] but also broader strata of the population.” And “censorship neutralized any expression of social dissatisfaction and protest.”
But the economic crisis and evidence of official incompetence and unconcern has thrown into high relief the rickety quality of the bureaucracy and the uncertainty of daily life for everyone in Russia, and that conjunction, Gudkov argues, “is disturbing people today much more than in the past.”
Moreover, there is a breakdown in relations between the powers that be and the population. This is manifested in various ways, Gudkov notes. “Three quarters of the population of Russia related to the higher leadership with great doubts, customarily keeping its own opinion for ‘internal use,’” just like in Soviet times.
In addition, he says, “it has become obvious that the system of unlimited power is reducing the effectiveness of administration, subordinating tasks of the strategic development of the country to issues of retaining power and the personal enrichment of the circle of peple near the highest leadership.”
Because the powers that be select people for positions not on the basis of qualifications but “on personal loyalty and opportunism,” the sociologist says, “it is inevitable” that the quality of governance will decline and public participation and trust in the institutions of government will fall as well.
Politics under “the authoritarian regime” is no longer a sphere of “common interests.” Instead, “social life has become poor in events, and among them an ever larger place is occupied by catastrophes, scandals and crimes,” a pattern that further reduces public confidence in those in charge, in society as a whole, and in the future.
Another divide is between the center and the periphery, a development that “is dangerous in its own right but is still more so because the provinces which form the social base of Russian authoritarianism draw after themselves the more developed minority of the center,” to the detriment of all.
Given what the regime has done, it is important to focus on “the absence of resistance from the side of society,” a shortcoming that reflects the breakdown in social ties and the willingness of the powers that be to use both carrots and sticks to ensure quiescence if not active support.
When mass disorders do occur as in the case of the Manezh Square violence, Gudkov insists, they are the product of that trend rather than of “cynicism” and reflect the growing sense in the population that the use of force by the powers that be is either “complete illegality” or “the manifestation of unrestrained greed and a lack of consciousness” by those in power.
Gudkov’s portrait of Russian society is not a pretty one. On the one hand, it suggests that the current regime may be able to continue for some time given the sense of defenselessness among the population. But on the other, the obvious lack of legitimacy of those in power and their reliance on force alone suggest that the entire edifice could change quickly and radically.
Russians clearly sense that if outside observers do not, and that explains why more than eight out of ten of them now say that they do not know what their future or that of their country will be and even more why they have reduced to time horizon to only a few weeks, an almost unprecedented event for that society.