Staunton, May 25 – The mass consciousness of Russians has been undergoing serious changes, economist Mikhail Dmitriyev and psychologist Anastasiya Nikolskaya say, with the pandemic accelerating two trends: increased hostility among Russians toward the powers that be and a decreased desire for a strong hand to rule over them.
They base their conclusions on focus groups, but their words are attracting attention because they were among the first to predict the mass protests in 2011-2012 (znak.com/2020-05-25/eksperty_sprognozirovavshie_protesty_na_bolotnoy_kakim_rossiyskoe_obchestvo_vyhodit_iz_karantina).
By the middle of 2019, they say, participants in their focus groups made clear that they wanted a legal state, the defense of personal rights and freedoms, respect for political procedures, greater participation in political life, and more justice in the Russian Federation. Interest in these things has only increased over the last year.
And “at the very same time, Russians have “become more critical about foreign policy,” breaking with what had been called “’the Crimean consensus’” and calling for better relations with all countries and avoiding getting involved in conflicts with them. Those attitudes too have increased over the past year.
What has been taking place, they suggest, is a growing divide between the values of the population and the values of the powers that be, a divide that has deepened since the onset of the pandemic and especially in response to the measures the government has ordered to try to flatten the curve.
“If at the beginning of the period of self-isolation concerns predominated,” Nikolskaya says, “the overwhelming emotion now is not concern and not fear but irritation and even anger.” And that anger, she continues, is not diffuse. It is directed more at the federal authorities than the regional ones and most of all at President Putin.
Dmitriyev adds that there is growing evidence that the population wants to act on its anger, at the very least by considering issues that only months ago would have been taboo. Russians are now discussing quite openly the comparative advantages of parliamentary systems rather than presidentialist ones.
At the end of 2019, there was a brief period of sympathy for opposition leaders, he continues, “but this period was short and with the beginning of the crisis, all this disappeared.” Nikolskaya adds that people don’t trust the opposition just as they do not trust existing political institutions.
She offers an intriguing story about an interview she did with an 88-year-old St. Petersburg woman about her life. Her life had been relatively good, and “therefore, she is for Putin. But at the end of our conversation she suddenly said … ‘But on the other hand, I understand that we are people from the last century. And the president is too.”
“You need another president,” the woman told the psychologist.
Dmitriyev says that another striking development in recent months has been talk about independence for the regions. Earlier, no one spoke of that. But “now it is encountered in particular in a focus group we conducted in Yekaterinburg; and there were similar attitudes in a few Far Eastern focus groups as well.”
These shifts, the two say, not only mean that the referendum on constitutional amendments won’t pass if there are no falsifications but also that at least some Russians will be thinking about engaging in protest actions of one kind or another once the pandemic restrictions end.