Friday, October 7, 2016

Russians Want Equal Opportunities, Not Equal Outcomes, New Study Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 7 – One of the assumptions which many invoke to explain the difficulties Russia has faced in moving toward a freer society is that Russians with their well-known sense of justice want equal outcomes and thus oppose policies that don’t have that result. But that assumption, Natalya Tikhonova of the Higher School of Economics says, is “a myth.”

            A senior scholar at the Center for Stratification Research at the HSE’s Institute of Social Policy presents her findings and those of other Russian scholars in this regard, findings that also include the notion that Russians are quite prepared to sacrifice for a better future provided they know what that future is likely to be (

            Living in a just society ranks second only to financial well-being as a Russian goal, she says, ranking far ahead of having a family, raising children, friendship, health and self-realization.  And “under justice, citizens understand a society of equal opportunities, in which the income of an individual depends on the results of his work.”

            Thus, Russians “dream of living in a society of equal opportunities but not of equal outcomes,” and three Russians out of five “consider that society should be profoundly differentiated.”  As for the other 40 percent, these are mostly pensioners whose ideas were formed in Soviet times.

            The current economic crisis, Tikhonova continues, “has cut incomes, but the social structure and the assessments by citizens of their place in society has not changed essentially.” That helps to explain why people accept the situation as temporary and why there is little interest in protests.

            Also helping to unify the nation are foreign threats, she says, “although this effect has already ceased to work, especially among Russians with high incomes [who] feel that they are suffering from the crisis more than others” because sanctions and other restrictions affect their way of life.

            Those lower down the income scale are reacting less to the crisis itself than to the loss of certainty that they will have jobs and that the state will take care of their needs. But despite that, 57 to 69 percent of Russians think the country is going in the “correct” direction – and by “correct,” they mean “along its own path and not copying the Western one.”

            “Russia needs another model, but another does not mean an authoritarian one with large numbers of victims,” Tikhonova says. Only about one Russian in 12 favors that outcome. Russians divide almost equally between whether being a great power or being a state with high incomes is the more important.

            Surveys show that Russians say they are prepared to give up a great deal for the strengthening of the country, with majorities expressing a willing to give up Western products, trips to the West, and holding foreign currency. Just under half are willing to give up using VISA or MasterCards.

            “However,” Tikhonova says, “these things for most of the population are not particularly significant: they typically buy Chinese goods and only 15 percent of Russians have travelled abroad.  When one talks to them about what is really important, they worry about freezing of wages, higher taxes, losing work, raising the pension age, and restrictions on the Internet.

            Thus, she says, the surveys show that for Russians, “the ideal Russia is not a raw materials exporting super power but a state with an independent position in the world, a developed economy, and a large amount of personal freedom.” An independent judiciary is also important; multi-party systems less so, especially less than freedom of speech and foreign travel.

            What is especially striking, Tikhonova concludes is that “even the poor call for freedom of entrepreneurial activity” and that here are almost no differences in attitudes about individual freedom from the top of the income pyramid to the bottom.

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