Staunton, September 29 – The high level of popular support for Vladimir Putin despite increasing impoverishment and income differentiation reflects the survival of “not a few major totalitarian institutions” from the Soviet past, and their continuing impact in turn means that those who will come after the current Soviet leader may be even more anti-liberal than he is.
In a discussion this week at Memorial, the head of the Levada Center polling agency sought to explain what he calls “a unique situation” in which support for the Kremlin leader remains high despite the kind of socio-economic decline that normally costs a leader that kind of backing (lenta.ru/articles/2015/09/29/stabilnost/).
Gudkov said it would be wrong to suggest that propaganda was responsible for the victory of the television over the refrigerator. Instead, he said, other deeper factors are at work, including the disintegration of the middle class after the Crimean Anschluss, a development that has significantly lowered the potential for protests in Russia.
In response to the annexation of Crimea, he continued, a major part of what had been the middle class shifted from opposition to support of the government, pushing Putin’s approval rating up from 64 percent to 87 percent and reducing the liberal component of Russian society to only eight or twelve percent.
That makes it difficult to predict what will happen next, Gudkov said that “it is clear that the era of stability has ended and that the situation in Russia is becoming uncertain,” with some expecting a catastrophe and the rapid collapse of the regime and others believing there will be “a long and slow degradation of the state and its institutions.”
Clearly involved in this pattern of support are the increasingly repressive measures the government uses against its opponents, Moscow’s exploitation of the trauma many Russians still feel about the disintegration of the USSR, and a shift away from the notion that Russia must catch up with the West to one that denies such a need.
Gudkov reported that “the outburst of militant patriotism” over the last year has in many ways was the flip side of the “earlier sado-masochistic self-beating” Russians engaged in when they talked about Russia as “’a backward country,’ ‘an Upper Volta with missiles,’” and the like. Now, feelings of self-respect among Russians have risen markedly.
But he argued that “the current social-political situation” in Russia “must be explained with the help of the concept of totalitarianism.” Post-Soviet Russia has retained “without any serious changes” the main totalitarian institutions” of the soviet past, including the army, the police, the special services,” as well as the criminal investigation, penal, and educational systems.”
“All the changes over the last quarter of a century have taken place only I those spheres which were not connected with the reproduction of collective symbols and ideas – in economics, technology, communication, mass consumption and culture.” That divergence has created in society “strong tensions.”
“It isn’t surprising,” he said, “that the system functions above all on the unreformed totalitarian institutions of the Soviet past” or that “now the foundation of all social relations has become force (in the sociological sense of this word)” with the authorities prepared to ignore the rights of various groups of the population.
As a result, Gudkov continued, “the structure of society is degrading and simplifying into an amorphous and voiceless majority, deprived of mechanisms of expressing its interests and forming a resource for the authorities to whom belong all collective values and ideas.”
As a result, totalitarian ideas continue to inform the populace as well as the government, he said, something that gives rise to enormous dissatisfaction and aggression in all strata of the society, “which has split up into a multitude of petty groups with extremely low levels of mutual trust.”
That is perhaps most clearly seen in the radical rise in income differentiation where the top ten percent of the population may have as much as 27 times the income of the bottom tenth, controlling 76 percent of all financial assets in the country and making Russia the most socially unequal country on earth.
That pattern in turn gives rise to a sense of injustice, anomy, frustration and the disintegration of social contacts, and to the growth of suicidal attitudes. He noted that such things are “paradoxically” found more often in the rural areas than in Moscow and the major cities, making them less obvious to outside observers.
One consequence of these attitudes is that few Russians look very far into the future, the sociologist said. “For 70 percent of the population,” the future is only the next three to five months, and consequently, people “prefer to passively adapt themselves to the gradually worsening conditions of life” than to do anything about them.
Gudkov warned in conclusion that “the present-day Russian anomy may strongly influence the future of Russia” because it may preclude the coming to power of those who support democratic transformations. Research shows that the frustration many Russians feel is directed precisely at those groups rather than at the state – even when the political programs of the opposition reflect positions “close to the majority of the population of Russia.”