As Russia prepares to hold a presidential election, polling data indicates that an overwhelming majority of Russians have a paradoxical outlook on the country’s social and economic future: Russians want change, but they are generally opposed to significant reform and innovation.
The findings of the recently released nationwide poll involving 1,600 respondents – conducted by The Carnegie Moscow Center, and the independent Russian polling organization the Levada Center – showed that most Russians do not equate change with modernization. Instead, the concept of change is perceived to mean improved living standards. This helps explains why an electorate that doesn’t like the economic status quo can overwhelmingly support the reelection of incumbent leader Vladimir Putin, who is widely seen as a force for the preservation of the existing order.
“Putin’s main idea right now is self-preservation,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Center Moscow, said during a recent presentation of the poll findings at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute in New York. Kolesnikov co-authored a report on the findings with Denis Volkov, a sociologist and and expert at the Levada Center in Moscow.
The Carnegie Moscow/Levada poll, which did not indicate a margin for error, showed that 83 percent of respondents favored some sort of change – 42 percent supported the notion of a comprehensive makeover, while 41 percent favored incremental change.
Contrary to the general perception that young people in Russia are the most forceful advocates of comprehensive change, the polling results showed that older Russians are. According to Kolesnikov’s and Volkov’s analysis, the most ardent supporters of an overhaul of the existing status quo tend to be 55 years old or older, poor, less educated and live in communities with far fewer than 100,000 inhabitants.
“These people have no interest in economic liberalization,” the report states. “They simply want to live better. The irony of their situation is that this social group is the least capable of understanding which policies would improve their personal circumstances, and this makes them perfect targets for populist politicians.”
Those favoring incremental change tend to be members of the urbanized middle class, the report adds. “Many of them [gradualists] support Putin and the existing political order, have college degrees, and are relatively affluent,” the report says. “They may want to fix a few minor problems, but they fear that a complete overhaul of the status quo could threaten their quality of life. This group would welcome a rational road map of nonradical reforms, if one were on offer.”
Muscovites comprise a unique subset, the report suggests. “Moscow is a case unto itself. Its citizens combine a preference for small, gradual changes with staunchly liberal views on the need for judicial reform, free elections, and media freedoms. … However, there are also plenty of people in Moscow, even some liberals, who support tighter state regulation of the economy.”
The poll findings are full of contradictory data points. For example, in response to the question who wants change, 10 percent of respondents answered “Putin and his associates” and 18 percent indicated “entrepreneurs.” Yet when asked who opposes change, 15 percent listed “Putin and his associates,” while 7 percent considered “entrepreneurs” as enemies of change.
Also, even though Russians tend to be skeptical of the need to modernize, almost two-thirds expressed readiness to adjust to new technologies and acquire new skills.
Kolesnikov said during his presentation at the Harriman Institute that Russians view the state, not market forces or individual actors, as the guiding force for change. “They want active state intervention," said Kolesnikov.
Recent history is a major factor in fostering apprehension about reforms. Bad memories about the ill-fated liberalizations pursued by Soviet era leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev remain deeply embedded in the collective consciousness. Likewise, post-Soviet Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, is also widely associated with a time of economic dislocation, as Russia made a tumultuous transition away from communism.
“The persistent preconception that these leaders [Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin] wrecked everything has become hardwired into mass consciousness,” the report says. “The same is true of the mythic portrayal of the 1990s as a time of chaos for Russia.”
At the same time, it seems as if Russians suffer from a case of collective amnesia. As a participant in a focus group convened by Carnegie Moscow/Levada said; “Has everyone forgotten that [under Communism] you couldn’t just buy a car or take a trip abroad?”
William Persing is a M.A. candidate at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.