Thursday, July 9, 2015

Russians Partake of Putin’s Conservatism as Passive Spectators, Goncharov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 9 – Russians who want to rise through the political system now must support Vladimir Putin’s conservative platform, but those in the broader population are not required to do so and don’t because they participate in political life only as “passive spectators” who ceremonially approve the elite but don’t want to take part in political activity at any level.

            Consequently, Stepan Goncharov argues, it would be a mistake to read Putin’s high approval ratings as an indication that the Russian population is deeply committed to his specific “conservative” values as a guide for the country’s development (

            Instead, as the Levada Center sociologist notes, “the function of this passive observer consists [only] in the ceremonial approval of the existing powers in elections,” adding that “it is extremely indicative” of this situation that “only every fifth Russian” wants to take an active role in even local politics or believes that elections can solve the problems of the country.

            Thus, “conservatism for ‘simple’ Russians appears as a set of rules” which the elite requires from them and which provides an explanation as to “how we are distinguished from others by appealing to historical circumstances.” The Kremlin promotes the idea of Russia’s “special path” but this doesn’t have much content for the population.

            Indeed, when sociologists ask Russians in focus groups to define what this concept means, many of them cannot, Goncharov says; but from their comments one can see that “morality must be their own traditional one but the material level of the population just like in Western countries.”

             “Official conservative fulfills another role: it gives a certain form to society and provides internal rules of its existence.” Conservatism thus is viewed “as loyalty to the policy of the state, as patriotism for show,” rather than as the basis for action. “The majority considers it sufficient to simply love the Motherland, and only a third that they must demonstrate it in actions.”

            It thus turns out, the Levada Center expert says, that “the ideas of ‘a special path’ and patriotic education elicit approval at an emotional level but are not the subject of reflection by the majority of Russians.”

            “What then is the cause of the political apathy and indifference to the state ideology?” he asks rhetorically.  For such an ideology to involve the masses, the experience of other countries and of Russia itself in the past, there needs to be “a model of an ideal future.”  But the Kremlin is not providing that and does not welcome anyone else’s model.

            As a result, “in the course of conducting our research,” Goncharov continues, “we have encountered a deficit of ideas about a better future, an extremely low level of expectations about it, and at times, the absence entirely of a picture of the future.” 

            Given the traumas Russians have undergone over the last 30-40 years, he says, “no one has the right to demand enthusiasm” from the population. Any effort to talk about the real problems of the country and the world “generate among Russians only ironic smiles: ‘in our world,’” they says, “’geopolitics triumphs and not naïve arguments about democracy.’”

            The only countries which are well off in the opinion of most Russians are those which control a sphere of influence around themselves and resources at home. “In the world of this logic, the strong always defeat the weak, and therefore the only means of remaining a powerful country is to conduct a policy” based on enhancing the country’s power.

            Moreover, he continues, “the ability to challenge the US as the world’s hegemonic power compensates for the psychological trauma formed as a result of the disintegration of the USSR.” Not surprisingly, that vision of the world “inevitably leads to the growth of anti-Western and in the first instance anti-American attitudes.”

            And it means that for most Russians, “the best variant of the future is a return to pre-perestroika Brezhnev times.”  But the consequence of that, “however paradoxical it may seem is that conservative views about the future do not allow [Putin’s conservative] ideology to become a mass phenomenon.”

            That is because most Russians do not want to have the kind of restrictions placed on them concerning their personal lives that Russia’s conservative politicians would like to see set in stone.  And that leads to the conclusion that “the conservative idea is viewed” by most Russians not as something of their own but rather “as a plaything of the Russian elite.”


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