Thursday, June 18, 2020

Russians Clearly See Negative Futures for Their Country But No Positive One, Levinson Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 16 – Because two futures they expected to achieve have been taken away from them in less than a generation, Aleksey Levinson says, they are not willing to identify another positive future for their country but rather focus instead on a variety of extremely negative images of Russia’s future.

            The head of the Levada Center’s socio-cultural research section says that his work with focus groups shows that both ordinary Russians and their elites have “a quite clear image of the future, which people fe4ar, and completely lack an idea about a future which they would like to see come” (

            The unwillingness of Russians to fasten on a positive image of the future reflects the fact that twice in the last 40 years, they have seen an image of the future which they believed had positive aspects come crashing down around them: “the idea of a bright communist future” and the notion that Russia could quickly become a liberal democracy like those in the West.

            The communist future proved a fraud and collapsed leaving many uncertain about any future, Levinson says. It was then replaced by another vision of a positive future for Russia, liberal democracy that its advocates said could be achieved quickly and easily but didn’t because of the failings of the democrats themselves and the success of authoritarians.

            The authoritarians who now dominate Russia were able to do so in large part because of what the democrats did. They believed that they had to maintain their position in power by any means, not only betraying what they said they were for in the eyes of the population but giving the authoritarians an opening and costing Russia’s faith in a positive future, Levinson continues.

            This happened remarkably quickly, he says, over the course of only a few years when “the democrats with their own  hands gave power to those who were on the exactly opposite end of the political spectrum” and thus Russia passed from “the chief democrat Boris Yeltsin” to “a representative of the other part of society, Vladimir Putin.”

            When that happened, Russians concluded that Russia wasn’t going to have the promised democratic future either. A deep silence hung over the country because two futures had disappeared and a third positive one was not to be seen.  What then could Russians expect instead?

            As a result, the Levada sociologist says, at about that time, “the Russian future was lost.” When he asked people to identify the best and worst possible futures for their country they could imagine, they had no trouble talking about the worst, including disintegration and war; but they seldom say anything about a positive future other than expressing the hope to copy the West.

            “There simply weren’t any ideas about a good future,” and with time, Russians became convinced that the best they could hope for would be a continuation of the stability they saw around them in the early years of Putin’s rule, however many shortcomings they felt it manifested. They did not have any idea with which to challenge it.

            Recent focus groups both with ordinary Russians and with members of the Russian liberal elite show, the researcher says, that little has changed.  The latter are at best divided about 50-50 between optimists and pessimists, but the optimists don’t go beyond wanting to move in a Western direction, although less radically. Some see a Romania option as the best possible one.

            Younger Russians are somewhat more positive, but they too often lack a positive vision of the future they want and will work for; and Levinson concludes that “the absence of a future or, as Lev Gudkov once called ‘the abortion of the future’ and its absence it public consciousness is of course not health. It is necessary to think in the present about the future.”

            What is striking is that in their personal lives, Russians do not live without an image of the future they want for themselves and their families. They have goals and they work toward them, but when it comes to Russia as a whole, they don’t behave in the same way – and this form of intellectual stagnation forms the basis for political, economic and cultural stagnation as well.

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