Thursday, March 28, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin, Opposition Don’t Understand that Alienation Doesn’t Mean Inertness, Moscow Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 28 – Neither the Kremlin nor the opposition understands that widespread alienation among the Russian people is not equivalent to inertness but rather contains within itself “a latent civic activism” which under certain conditions could coalesce and threaten the existing regime, according to a leading Moscow sociologist.

            In the lead article in the current issue of “Vlast,” a journal of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Aleksandr Galkin, a senior scholar at that institute, surveys the current state of Russian society and suggests some of the reasons it is being misread by both the regime and the opposition (

            Both of them misread the reasons behind the upsurge in protests at the end of 2011 and the ebbing of such protests in 2012 largely because they each considered only temporary fluctuations in popular opinion rather than the underlying conditions and expectations which have shaped them.

            Many analysts, Galkin says, have confused occasion and cause for the upsurge in protests at the end of 2011. The occasion was widespread electoral fraud, but the cause was “much deeper” and involved the efforts of those who had lost their positions earler to recover them with the assistance of the population.

            Many of these opposition figures and some among the authorities based their analysis on the “theory of ‘the middle class’ that was at one time popular in the West.”  Its emergence, those who bought into this idea, believed or feared that the rise of a middle class would transform Russian politics.

            Galkin observes that “in the 19th century, the Russian public not without a certain irony recognized that fashions in Paris arrived in our capitals after a five year delay and in the provices after a ten year one.  In the 21st century, as is well known, things take place much more rapidly.”  But with regard to theories, Russia often up one after it has been rejected in the West.

            That is certainly the case with ideas about the middle class, something that has be deconstructed and shown to be more subdivided especially during the recent economic crisis.  Moreover, in Russia, the middle class never had the numbers or the independence that its members had elsewhere.
            Indeed, the sociologist continues, “the middle class if one applies this term to Rusia not only does not show (and cannot show) an essential trend toward growth.”  And because that is so and because Russians have begun to recognize that fact, they have given birth to “a quasi-theoretical child,” the notion of “the creative class.”

            By definition, such a “class” cannot be large and thus cannot in normal times be expected to lead the country into “a bright future.” Instead, Galkin says, it is likely to remain “a minority with little influence” unless deeper tectonic shifts in the population give one of its leaders the chance to tap into popular attitudes.

            At present, those attitudes in Russian society have their roots in the reaction of people to the events at the end of the Soviet period and in the 1990s, events that have led them to be cautious about any future change and opposed to any use of force to resolve situations and have left them ambivalent and distrustful of both the regime and its opponents.

            Galkin lists five “currently dominating attitudes” among the Russian population: first, the belief that the current regime reflects the interests of the rich but not of the broader population; second, the conviction that the wealth that some have was the result of “machinations” in the 1990s rather than merit; third, the certainty that under current conditions, there is little chance for the emergence of a more just society; fourth, a belief that ordinary peole have few chances for social mobility; and fifth, the conviction that law is not the basis of justice but only a tool of those in power.

            In this situation and given their historical experience, Russians find that “the most natural form of manifestation of dissatisfaction with the authorities” is alienation. But the alienation works in both directions with the authorities not trusting the people and the people not trusting either the powers that be or the leaders of the opposition.

            Such a situation means that problems build up until they reach crisis proportions, Galkin says, something he suggests that the leadership of the country recognizes at least at the level of words as being very dangerous. But at the same time, he says, the powers “not infrequently” view alienation as equal to inertia, passivity and indifference.

            That assumption is “at its base incorrect,” bcause “alienation contains in a hidden form a high potential not only of dissatisfaction but of civic activism.” Under certain conditions, the sociologist argues, it will burst out, and the task of those in power is to ensure that it doesn’t coalesce under its most radical opponents.

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