Thursday, January 23, 2020

Russians Favor a Strong Hand in Charge Until an Alternative Presents Itself, New Quantitative Study Finds

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 20 – In comparison with the residents of other countries, Russians favor a strong hand at the top of their state, but this attitude has varied over time and often rapidly changes when a genuine alternative kind of leader and leadership presents itself, according to a new quantitative study.

            The research by Artyom Zemtsov, a graduate student at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, is published in the latest issue of the Moscow journal, Politeia ( and by the Liberal Mission Foundation (

            Drawing on Western studies of authoritarian attitudes and using poll data collected by the Levada Center, Zemtsov tests four hypotheses: first, “authoritarian normative views enjoy in a stable fashion over time greater support from Russians than do non-authoritarian ones;” second, “when alternatives to ‘a strong hand’ are offered to individuals, their support for that falls;” third, support for authoritarianism varies by demographic variables; and fourth, “the influence [of these] on the normative views toward ‘the strong hand’ are not the same.”

            According to Zemtsov, his first hypothesis is largely confirmed; but “at the same time it would be incorrect to speak about the dominance of authoritarian orientations among Russians as a certain constant.” At the end of Soviet times, when Russians “massively supported democratic transitions and there were almost two times more opponents of ‘a strong hand’ than supporters.”

            That provides support for the second hypothesis: when Russians are given a real alternative to a strong hand, many of them are likely to shift to it. The third hypothesis is confirmed only in part as the impact of demographic variables is less than is typically the case in other countries.

            But at the same time, the fourth hypothesis is supported because Russians in many groups are more prepared to support a strong hand in the abstract than an actual one while Russians in others are more inclined to support a particular embodiment of a strong hand than the more general principle.

             Zemtsov says that this pattern reflects the working of the political system on attitudes as much as of attitudes on the political system and suggests that it is possible to rephrase the observation of Stein Rokkan and Angus Campbell and say “authoritarianism in the political culture of Russians harmonizes with the institutional structure of the authoritarian regime.”

            There are many sources of support for a strong hand among Russians, the investigator says. Among them are cultural inertia, the sacred nature of the image of a strong leader in Russian history, pragmatic calculations and an adaptive strategy to the existing order and a desire to show support for the status quo.

            But it must always be kept in mind, Zemtsov concludes, that “despite the really high popularity of this mythogem [in the Russian Federation,] as soon as present-day Russians are offered alternatives to ‘a strong hand,’ support for that form of rule significantly declines,” a warning to its rulers and a basis for at least some optimism about the future. 

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