Friday, August 4, 2017

Russians Fencing Themselves Off from the West and from Each Other, Commentators Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 4 – Russia is fast becoming “a land of fences” in which “the unpredictability of the authorities, the stratification of society, and the absence of any defense of private property is making people ever more cautious and closed off from one another,” according to five Russian observers with whom the Rosbalt news agency spoke.

            This walling off, the agency’s Tatyana Khruleva says, is both “physical and mental.” As soon as an individual has sufficient money, he will “begin to erect ‘walls’ … between himself and those who stand lower on the social latter. And some of them even break away from the entire country by choosing to emigrate” (

            Philosopher Maksim Goryunov argues that people shut themselves off from others because they “do not trust the space in which [they] are situated. If I feel that it is aggressive and dangerous … I will seize a tiny bit of land and establish there my own zone of security and comfort.”

            In one sense, he continues, “these Russian fences are like the Dutch dams.” The Dutch seized land from the sea; and Russians are seizing territory “meter by meter from the surrounding environment which toward them is extremely aggressive,” not only environmentally but socially and politically.

            Because the common space is so “uncomfortable,” Goryunov says, “Russians as quickly as possible seek to return to their yard where everything is rational and in order.” It is of course possible that the surrounding space will become more orderly and then people won’t need such fences, but “certainly this will not be in our time.”

            Petr Bychkov, a political psychologist at St. Petersburg State University, points out that wealthy people in all countries try to separate themselves from others “but all the same not to the degree they are doing so in present-day Russia.” The country’s “difficult history” has made progress in this regard much slower.

            In Russia, he says, “the process of enrichment as a rule takes place very rapidly: if yesterday an individual was nothing, then today he may be in a position to avoid a 1.5 million US dollar house with an enormous fence.” And he may want to have that fence because he is aware that he could lose everything overnight.

            This also explains why Russians are so reluctant to invest in their own country, Bychkov says. But he adds that “the Asiatic mentality” of Russians is also at work. As Nicholas Berdyaev noted, Russians combine in themselves “an insane submissiveness and faith in God with an unrestrained propensity to revolt and atheism.”

            On the one hand, he continues, “we speak about the need to strive to democracy so that every voice will be heard.” But on the other, “the Asiatic mentality dictates that power must be untouchable.” This unstable combination leads to the desire to “close oneself off” from everyone else in at least a small space.

            And there is an additional factor at work: “Even if an individual earned his wealth absolutely honestly, if he is surrounded by poverty and devastation, he of course will close himself off” for self-protection.  Thus, the cause for fences and walls is “not in people as such bt in the conditions in which they are forced to live.”

            Political scientist Grigory Golosov says that Russia is in this regard in fact quite typical of other countries with poor but rapidly developing economies.  Until the level of interpersonal trust rises as it has in Western countries, people who gain any additional wealth feel threatened by those around them. 

            For things to change, he argues, Russia must reduce social and economic inequality and come up with reliable measures for the protection of private property, something the country as of yet lacks.

            Aleksandr Konfisakhor, a political psychologist, says that it is universally true that wealthy people seek to separate themselves off from others, although they usually do it by the selection of the places they go rather than by erecting walls.  In Russia, however, they prefer walls and fences because “no one feels himself secure” physically or economically.

            “Unfortunately,” he adds, “I do not think that in the foreseeable future there will be any significant changes for the better. Russians have a completely different psychological type: we never seek to bring others up to our level. On the contrary, it is the norm to show that you are rich and successful” compared to these others.

            And Sergey Shelin, Rosbalt’s observer, says that “the striving to separate oneself from everything around is completely natural in our unnatural circumstances.”  Fences and walls provide a certain sense of protection from a broader world in which there is no such sense available.

            He suggests that the reason for this does not lie in the authoritarian system alone. “An authoritarian order is all the same order. It forces all including bureaucrats and policemen to live within certain frameworks. But we do not have such frameworks,” and instead, we build fences and walls.

            “One sociologist quite usefully called our regime ‘a state of the bosses,’” one in which the bosses do what they want” within the limits of their particular possibilities.  That worked when resources were large but as resources are becoming ever more restricted, each of them feels himself to be a potential target from whom everything could be taken.

            And Shelin concludes: “Many of those who know partially or completely are leaving Russia are hardly critics of the political regime, they aren’t poor, and they aren’t people who have suffered a career collapse. They simply find things here ever less comfortable and more horrific.”

            “Such a system is our know-how,” the observer says. “That is how we distinguish ourselves from a large part of the world, and it is a system where changes for the better simply aren’t anticipated.”

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