Sunday, July 20, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Belief in Unchanging Russian National Character a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Moscow Sociologist Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 20 – Russian national character like that of any other people changes over time, and those who insist otherwise, including some in Moscow, are engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy intended to keep Russians from changing themselves and their society in ways that would be good for both, according to Vladimir Rimsky, a sociologist at the INDEM Foundation.

            Rimsky tells Aleksandr Sitnikov and Andrey Polunin of the Svobodnaya pressa portal that “contemporary social psychology does not confirm the thesis about the unchanging nature of the mentality” of a people. As conditions change, he said, so too does the mentality or habits of mind of those living under them (


            A belief that Russian national identity took shape in medieval times or the period of Peter the Great is “an illusion,” Rimsky says.  But the notion that the Russian mentality has remained constant “leads to one purely practical consequence: We do not try to really do something in order to become different. And this is a mistake.”


            The Moscow sociologist says that it is his view that “today the majority of Russians lack a desire to take part in the resolution of public problems.” One could blame this on their mentality as many do, but a better explanation is that “in Russian society, there simply have not been created the conditions for the realization of civic initiatives.”


            That is true both about very specific issues like university entrance exams and about more general problems like corruption, Rimsky says.


            Moreover, he notes, the mentality of a nation can “be changed quite quickly, over two or three decades” as the recent examples of South Korea and Singapore show.  But despite what many believe, it has happened in Russia as well, as the judicial reforms of Aleksandr II in the 1860s show.


            As a result of the tsars reforms, a whole class of lawyers emerged who while they “understood very well what decisions the authorities needed,” were prepared at least some of the time to “take decisions which were the exact opposite.” That pattern transformed how Russians viewed the courts.


            Moreover, Rimsky continues, while “people have national and ethnic characteristics” which set them apart, a great deal of their behavior is “defined by the social relationships and social milieu” in which they live.


            In support of that argument, he gives the following example. Russians assume that from time out of mind, people in Russia “have not obeyed the laws and there is nothing that can be done about this.” But Rimsky continues, he has had many conversations with Germans and Americans who have come to Moscow to live and work.


            Despite their national backgrounds, he continues, “after a short time in the Russian capital, almost all of them begin to violate traffic laws and to give bribes to the traffic police.  One American woman” told him, Rimsky says, that “it would never enter her head in America to bribe a policeman, but in Moscow ‘it is impossible to do otherwise.’”


            Her comments make two points. On the one hand, they show that people adapt to the milieu in which they find themselves.  And on the other, Rimsky says, they indicate that Americans and Germans began to “’live by law’ comparatively recently, a hundred years ago.”  Russians can make the same transition if they don’t believe their mentality prevents them.


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