The Logic of Fear in Russia

In almost every debate on Russian politics you can find yourself driven into a cul-de-sac of logical fallacy.  Putin is no model of governance, but the opposition is a mess and the apathy of the public is surprisingly durable.  The conversation often turns around to the more uncomfortable territory of culture, values, and definitions of the public good.  I, for one, really don’t believe such a thing as a “democracy gene,” exists, and thoroughly reject any notion suggesting that the Russian people are consigned by fate to toil under authoritarianism forever – in fact I am happy to be titled as a hopeless romantic who will never stop believing that one day Russians will surprise the world.  But there is of course some legitimacy to the arguments regarding the post-Soviet mentality, and the importance of bearing in mind the structures and expectations that were left behind from the country’s social and historical experience.

Some of these themes are explored in this recent article by Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center in Vedomosti. Gudkov writes, “In our culture, values ​​focus primarily on what you can lose, rather than what you you can acquire.”  Below is the full translation.

russia-culture-of-fearThe Year of Unfulfilled Expectations and a Crisis of Power

The revolution of public opinion

by Lev Gudkov

The New Year’s poll by Levada Center did not bring any unexpected news. The outgoing year was slightly more difficult than 2011: the general population’s income, according to 62% of the respondents, remained the same as before (11% respondents experienced an increase, and 24% – decrease).

The most important and most often talked about events of the past year were the floods in Krymsk and Gelendzhik and the casualties (and, according to the Russians, improper behavior of the government) – with 30% of the respondents; presidential elections (including protests related to elections and inauguration) – 29%; increased prices (28%); the Olympic Games in London (26%); Serdyukov’s resignation (23%) and corruption scandals in the top leadership of the country (18%); the hurricane “Sandy” (14%); punk prayer and Pussy Riot trial (13%); the victory of Barack Obama in the presidential election in the U.S. (13%); the European Football Championship (11%) and Russia’s accession to the WTO (10%).

The logic of fear

Such an event structure is very consistent.  In our country, public opinion first captures disasters and accidents, and only then events from the category of public ceremonies, mass entertainment and public scandals. These features of the mass consciousness are not accidental. This is not just a result of censorship (Internet users in Moscow and other cities actually discuss protests or the degradation of the regime 50% more than the national average) – this is a reflection of the Soviet experience to adapt to the repressive state. In our culture, values ​​focus primarily on what you can lose, rather than what you you can acquire.

Fear is the perception of the reality. And this applies to everyone – not only ordinary people, but also intellectuals, academics and entrepreneurs (their tactics, as shown by special studies, differ from the Western practices). Long-term suppression of the freedom of action, individualism, human autonomy, independence and initiative produce unconscious skills to care only about how to keep what is already in their hands, and not to think about how you can improve your life in the future. Fear of the unknown, new, complex, and confusing, fear of change originate from the characteristics of the political culture of the Soviet times; the fear dictates the norms of social behavior or type of adaptation to a hostile environment: do not come out, do not act, then there is a hope that the problems will pass you. In other words, it is the usual tactics of the economical conformity. We do not notice it the same way as we do not feel the atmospheric pressure. Most of all these settings appear in the most dangerous area – in politics, where violence is represented in its naked and institutionalized form.

Trust in the government

The main events are associated with a slow but irreversible discrediting of the government, weakening of the public support, reduction of the regime’s social base, the symptoms of which are the mass protests and the growing incidence of corruption revelations. According to the general opinion of the respondents, the growing incidence of corruption revelations is not perceived as evidence of the seriousness of the country’s leadership to get rid of the bureaucracy abuses, but as a manifestation of ruthless struggle of different factions for power and budget resources. Reduction of public trust in all the institutions forms the basis of the regime: Duma and Federation Council, the electoral system, the courts, prosecutors, military, regional governance, but most notably, to the government and parliament (including a monopolist party – 38 to 40% and more Russians believe United Russia is the “party of crooks and thieves”).

This loss of confidence also applies to the president, who is a symbolic personalization in the authoritarian state. Motives for the loss of the confidence are different in the different groups, while the intensity of distrust and disappointment in the government also varies. But the trend is the same. Complaints are that the government cannot deal with decline of income and living standards of the population, and does not care about social protection. According to Russians, the government cares less not only because it is inefficient and incompetent, but also because it is immoral and corrupt, because the authority in the country, including the administration, senior officials, deputies, the police and the court, and so on, are exclusively concerned about their own selfish interests and the preservation of their dominant positions.

The fact that Duma and Federation Council are mostly composed of people who are not just well off, but really rich is perceived by respondents in poor Russia very negatively. 36% see clear incentives for the desire to obtain parliamentary mandate: access to the distribution of the budget pie or immunity from criminal prosecution, lobbyists’ access to resources management, opportunity to greatly increase their property, but not the desire to implement policies for public good; 31% respondents believe that they (Duma deputies) protect the interests of their “rich class” members exclusively. Another 27% of respondents believe that the possession of a large property, which provides access to parliamentary seats, is a sign of criminality, because, according to them, ownership of large size properties is always resulted from illegal scams, fraud and intrigue in power. (The minority – from 5 to 22% – thinks that predominance of rich people in the Parliament is a positive fact showing that those who are successful in business can work to the benefit of ordinary people.)

Public opinion does not have any illusions about the Duma as an independent branch. Parliament, courts, the federal media, and even the Russian business subordinate or depend on the president’s administration (in any case, the majority of respondents think so: 72% – in regards to the Parliament and the media, 64% – the judicial system, and 66% – the business). In other words, Putin’s authoritarian regime built in the past 10 years is responsible for everything that happens in the sphere of influence.

Public opinion in Russia, despite the propaganda, considers all the corruption scandals (the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Agriculture, prosecutors, military, aerospace industry, military industrial complex corporations, companies preparing for the APEC summit and the Olympic games in Sochi, etc.) – not a single event and facts, but the evidence of “complete disintegration” of the government (80% of respondents think this way). There is a strong conviction that top officials and Duma deputies work exclusively for themselves and their patrons; this conviction is accompanied by the notion that, due to its proximity to power and to the president, they are above the law, that their business is illegitimate in nature, they possess offshore accounts, etc. These views are shared by 85% to 90% of respondents. That is why the reaction of public opinion on the related events is quite paradoxical: for example, despite the widespread anti-Western resentment, the vast majority of Russians, familiar with these measures, support and approve the adoption of the “Magnitsky Act” by the Western Parliaments, imposing sanctions against senior officials and deputies (79% in 2011, and 74% in 2012).

Change of attitude to Putin

Public opinion named Putin “Man of the Year” for the past 12 years, although the number declined over the five years from 56% in 2007 to 28%. (Galina Vishnevskaya was recognized as “Woman of the Year”, although by a small number – less than 6% of respondents). It is hardly surprising given the Kremlin’s monopoly control over media. The legitimacy of the current regime is based on a combination of external and internal scary stories, buffoonery, idiotic showing off of the media people and artificially created feeling of the lack of Putin’s alternative.

After prolonged crisis of 2008-2010, criticism of the president, protected before from any criticism and accusations by the public, is growing. He is no longer the “father of the nation”; he is the head or referee of different groups, according to Russians, based mostly on special forces, police and other security forces, the oligarchs, bankers, business leaders, bureaucrats, that form the basis of the regime protecting mainly their own interests. Decrease of the credibility index of Putin is not only due to the growing number of his opponents, but also due to loss among his core supporters (see chart). Since August 2008, the tandem has lost more than half of its support.

We observe only the unfolding of certain logic of the authoritarian regime evolution passing several phases: the first is the establishment and strengthening of the regime that included control over the media and turning it into a propaganda system, repression of the independent political parties and organizations, control over financial flows obtained by security services and sham trials, raids of small and medium enterprises and the establishment of administrative rent (the system of extortion and kickbacks at all levels), corruption and “management” of the elections.

But when centralization is stronger, there is a higher probability that the government itself will be accused of the same charges used to discredit its opponents and enemies. The government tries to explain Russia’s problems and forces onto the society the idea of ​​fraud, conspiracy, the omnipotence of the oligarchs that was applied to Gusinsky, Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, as well as to “Washington”. As a result, the government has ensured that any other reasons for action, but the most primitive, selfish and criminal, were driven out of the mass consciousness. After the crisis and return to the presidential throne, Putin began to fall under the same scheme of discredit that was previously used against his opponents. People use the same logic when trying to explain the failures of the government, as public grows more conscious about the ability of the country’s leadership to ensure the continuous growth of living standards and incomes like in 2002-2008., i.e., before the crisis. When asked: “Do you agree that Russia’s population is already tired of waiting for some positive changes from Putin?” – 43% answered “yes” in 2010, 52% – in 2011, 56% – in 2012 (Do not agree – 40%, 36% and 33%, respectively).

And this process is irreversible. A pathological propensity to lie and use thuggish rhetoric that initially helped (Putin) to be recognized as a “socially familiar” character, now works against him. Where the Internet and freedom of information exist, there is critical information about Putin that is not forgotten and that creates a negative background attitudes in the society, for example, Marina Salie’s reports on his work at the City Hall of St. Petersburg, and the plagiarism accusations when writing a thesis, reports by Nemtsov and Milov about President’s palaces and yachts, rumors of his questionable personal life, and more. When asked: “Do you think the close surrounding of Putin is currently concerned more with – the country’s problems or personal financial interests?” In 2008, 56% responded “caring for country” (“personal material interests “- only 29%), but in 2012, the picture changed: 40% still talked about the government’s concerns over the “country’s problems”, and 41% chose “personal interests.”

A regime without complexes

The regime is losing control due to several reasons: first, because of the negative selection of personnel, focused exceptionally on loyal people (predatory, cynical, as they say, “without complexes”). Second, the regime contributes to decentralization and the rise of corruption by buying loyalty of the inner circle with property and power. Third, the regime arouses anger and irritation of the most active and advanced part of the society requesting the institutional reforms: it suppresses impulses for the structural and functional differentiation, i.e. development of the economy independent of the power (development of small and medium enterprises by maintaining a dependent court, the transfer of all the problems to a purely bureaucracy without appropriate or adequate mechanisms for representation of group interests).There existed two separate, yet interrelated processes: power was becoming less dependent on society and increasingly corrupt and decentralized. The very logic of the system was forcing its representatives to appropriate the positions and to distance themselves from the central government. On the other hand, the rising urban class protests forced the government to strengthen repression and control. Hence there are three possible scenarios: a) the prospect of “lukashenizatsiya” (Lukashenko) of Russia, b) division of the society, the end of stability, the weakening of the regime’s support, the growing threat of open social conflict, and c) open conflict within the government forced by the need to maintain networks within the elite, and groups of close friends. All three scenarios are reflected in the distorting mirror of public opinion that we are witnessing today.

55% of Russians think that the government “should be under the control of society” (more than a third of respondents, 35%, have the opposite view – the “power should be strengthened”). However, nobody, including the opposition, knows how to implement it. In this sense, the problems of the future depends least on the government that cannot do anything but to strengthen repressions; according to the Russians, the response to the repressions will cause a sharp rejection of the government and the weakening of its support. The problem is in the society, which should really want changes to be able to achieve them.