Thursday, February 25, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russians Ready for a ‘Softer’ and ‘More Civilized’ Iron Curtain, Levada Center Expert Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 25 – Russians, as a result of their history and actions connected with the rule of Vladimir Putin over the last decade, increasingly believe that their country must follow a “special” path, one that sets the stage for dividing it and them from the rest of the world by “a softer and more civilized” Iron Curtain, according to a leading Moscow sociologist.
That is just one of the many observations and conclusions that Boris Dubin, head of the social-political research department of the Levada Analytic Center, offers in a January report on “The Character of Mass Support of the Existing Regime” that has now been posted on the Internet (
Dubin, who has long enjoyed the reputation as one of the most thoughtful Russian specialists on the use of polling data, begins by pointing out four specific features of present-day social life in Russia: First, the sense of a lack of any alternative for the country’s development, a sense cultivated by the regime in order to keep itself in power.
Second, a general inclination among the population for adaptation, for “the support of the status quo today in order that tomorrow will not become worse.” Third, “the fragmentation or atomization of social and political life, a trend in which people operate in distinct segments rather than as part of the whole.
And fourth, “a more or less universal imitation” of all things. Dubin argues that “the best illustration of the imitative character of the regime is the present so-called tandem. Instead of differentiation, there is duplication,” thus giving the country “powers that be without representation” or politics, “without responsibility,” and “without effectiveness.”
Those characteristics of the population, the Moscow analyst continues, help to explain why people have highly negative assessments of almost all the actions of the powers that be, “except regarding the status of Russia in foreign affairs,” but nonetheless continue to provide it with what he calls “passive support.”
“In such circumstances,” Dubin goes on, “it is understandable, is supported and flourishes the idea of ‘a special path’ of development of Russia, the idea of a ‘special’ (sovereign) Russian democracy and so on.” And that “in fact” means “a return to a more civilized and 21st century spirit variant of the Iron Curtain.”
“What is important in this ‘specialness’?” the sociologist asks rhetorically. First of all, he says, it means being “excluded from having to follow general rules.” In addition, it means “exceptional” or special. Second, he continues, it means that the population, “oriented as it is to adaptation and stability,” is obsessed with catastrophes and feels Russia has “relative stability.”
And third, this “specialness” is reflected in terms like “special status,” “special order,” and “special department,” all of which are “an extremely characteristic part of the Russian powers that be,” their desire for taking decisions and actions outside of public view and beyond the reach of any “other forces, which might represent competitors.”
All this helps to explain the attitudes of the mass public in Russia, Dubin says. “It is customary to speak about the massive or very broad trust in the first people of the state or trust in the powers that be.” But in fact, one can easily show that there is no basis to speak about trust om the powers that be of any normal kind.
What is involved, Dubin says, is “a completely different” kind of public consciousness: it is rather “the transfer of trust by the majority” to the initiatives of those of higher rank. What is involved is not trust in the usual sense, Dubin says, but rather an indication of “the level of correspondence” between the individual and the leader’s behavior.
Where the figures of “trust” are at70 percent or higher in the Russian case, this is an indication not so much of support but rather of an attitude captured by the notion that “yes, such a model of power is customary with us. It’s normal, and we do not have any pretensions to it in this sense.”
Another aspect of this situation, Dubin says, is “comparatively new.” It is a sense that the powers that be, at least in the Putin years, isn’t trying to affect them but rather leaving them alone. That is rare for Russian political life, and it is something that many in Russian find more than acceptable, even if the powers that be are pursuing their own goals.
More generally, such feelings reflect a desire to avoid responsibility for anything in the present and a desire to flee into the past or think only about some distant future in which those now involved will not have to make any sacrifice. That reflects a very unusual understanding of freedom:”I am free to the extent that I am not responsible for anything.”
And that in turn is a product of the relative poverty of the Russian population and of its lack of social ties and social trust. There are exceptions within the Russian population, Dubin acknowledges, but this pattern however dysfunctional it may be in many respects is fully capable of being sustained for a long time, if no one challenges it.

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