Staunton, June 8 – Because of their experiences of the last half century with the collapse of the Soviet system and the rise of a new authoritarianism, Russians think primarily in terms of idealized pasts rather than imagining any new possibilities for the future, Vladislav Inozemtsev says. And that has left them “locked in the present” with little chance of escape.
Unlike other countries and the Soviet Union which set goals and pursued them, “all Russians could do was privatize and divided what had already been built,” the Russian economist and political analyst says. This “fear of the future and love of the past” was not something Putin created, but it is something he uses (ridl.io/ru/utrata-russkoj-mechty/).
This obsession with stability, rejection of any thought about the future, and obsession with thinking about the present only in terms of the past has its roots in Soviet times, the experiences Russians endured during the collapse, and the Putin system’s destruction first of politics in the normal sense and then of the economy.
Those who lived in the Soviet Union of the 1980s were “raised along within fantasies about the construction of communism within a paradigm that consisted of two absolute conditions: first, the assumption that change was possible and desirable; and second, tha t progress was inevitable. Tomorrow just ‘had to be’ better than today.
These values, Inozemtsev says, “permitted the Soviet people to roll up their sleeves and work for perestroika and the destruction of the communist order with a Komsomol-like enthusiasm that is difficult to imagine now. What happened next took its toll.” It destroyed this paradigm and led people to fear the future.
Indeed, the economist continues, “rather than creating a new kind of person, [these developments] destroyed what had existed. The new way of live killed off any desire to strive for the future or expect anything positive from it. At present, we can barely understand how much Russian society has been shackled by that.”
This shift in perspective made possible the two developments of the last 25 years that have left Russia in such an unenviable position. First, and beginning with the 1996 presidential elections, Russia saw the destruction of political life. Even when economic conditions improved, Russians did not demand as the experience of other countries suggested they would participation.
“By 2010,” Inozemtsev says, “Russian politics had been dealt a death plow, and after some minor convulsions in 2011-2013, politics in Russia were replaced by pure administration” with the people excluded and the rulers running everything from the top down.
“By the next decade,” he continues, “it was the economy’s turn to be purged. For the modern Russian elite, no real ‘economy’ actually exists. There is only a fixed amount of assets for elites to use and from which they can extract profits.” Such an economy is “unique in that it does not need development.”
According to Inozemtsev, “the ruling elite’s wealth comes not from expanding asset capitalization but from a constant cash flow exceeding its consumption. In such a situation, zero growth is almost ideal. The quality of life of the population does not rise as they spend most of what they earn immediately and thus must continue to work, while elite wealth multiplies.”
As one would have expected, “the last decade saw a rapid decline in growth at its beginning and stagnation since then. Prosperity fell for all except the ruling elites. Many analysts predicted the system couldn’t remain stabile given falling incomes, but reality has proven them wrong.”
This means that “there was no such thing as ‘a Putin consensus’ in the first decade off his rule and no reason to look for a successor in the second. Just as post-Soviet Russians didn’t care about politics earlier, they do not care about the economy.” For them, retaining a basic level of income is enough, and “they care little for growth or the chance to run a business.”
That is “why a ‘modern’ economy in Russia disappeared in the 2010s just as ‘modern’ politics disappeared in the decade before.” Looking ahead, the regime will face more serious challenges and that it will have to attack many freedoms that Russians had taken for granted in order to remain in power.
The last 30 years have dramatically devalued Russians’ expectations for the future and led them to discuss the present exclusively in terms of the past, either the Soviet past or the post-Soviet past. As a result, at present, “most people want to ‘go back’ to something, some to the 1960s, others to the 1980s, and others to the 1990s or 2000s.”
Russia is thus not a normal country requiring only minor adjustments. It is mired in the past; and “without radically changing their point of view,” Inozemtsev suggests, “waiting for any serious change is a fool’s errand.” Instead, Russians must recover the most important freedom they have lost: the freedom to think about a future different from the present or the past.