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3 July 2015

The state system of solitude

Individuals converge to become a society under state pressure

The existence of socially active citizens, their informed involvement and their control over the political agenda are often regarded as indispensable elements of democratic governance. And Russia has traditionally been perceived as a country with a modest level of civic participation. Sociologists attribute this to the fact that the means of maintaining a stable society lie with public institutions, and, subsequently, grassroots initiatives lose their vital importance.

Despite the fact that Russian nationals follow political events, foreign affairs and the war in Ukraine closely, as few as 23% of them are prepared to become more actively involved in politics. According to data from the Levada-Center, in June 2015, 60% of Russians admitted that the authorities are not accountable to Russian society. Russians do understand that this is wrong: officials use authority primarily for personal gain. A legitimate question arises, one that is indisputably troublesome for experts who study Russia’s society: Why doesn’t dissatisfaction with the deprivation of rights lead to open discontent? Let me draw your attention to the two, seemingly preeminent, ideas.

First. ‘Heroic times’

When analysing Russian society, you increasingly encounter the notion that phenomena cannot be explained without reference to the number of Russians who approve of Vladimir Putin’s activities. Indeed, why should one constantly pay such close attention to the popularity of one man? The only plausible explanation lies in the fact that the President is an embodiment of the Russian state system, and his ranking characterizes the extent of passive acceptance of the existing state order. The President has succeeded in personifying the system of power to such an extent that Russians cannot envision the future of the state without his presence. But these visions lack the tragic element and doom. Russians do not ruminate about the future of the country at all. They are far more preoccupied with their own future: rising prices and inflation, the quality of healthcare and education. The dire state of affairs as regards these issues comes as little surprise to all. And problems with housing and public utilities, roads and corruption in public institutions have long been subjects of self-irony; a symbolic ‘idiosyncrasy’ of Russian society.

The incongruence of the interests of the bureaucracy and national interests appears self-evident. Thus, the scale of corruption and the unaccountability of the state apparatus are an open secret; as few as 15% of Russians believe that civil servants declare all of their income. At the same time, it is clear that indignation at the substandard work of civil servants alone is insufficient to bring people to the streets.

For our citizens, the President is a far more significant figure in public affairs. And they prefer to live in the romantic, grandiose reality which has been manufactured around him. The need for a charismatic politician emerges, first and foremost, in historic moments of difficulty, the overcoming of which requires a unique personality capable of uniting individuals around an idea, a symbol. Undoubtedly, such a unifying idea exists contemporarily in the fight for the erstwhile, rhapsodized past, which has found its specific embodiment in reminiscences pertaining to the late Soviet state.

Disillusionment with the image of the President may be the main threat for today’s authorities, as this leads to growing protest moods. In 2011-2013, we increasingly observed indifferent attitudes towards Putin, which manifested themselves in widespread calls for a change of leader in 2013 at their peak and were accompanied by popular unrest. It seemed that his stock is already sliding with the public. However, the operation to reclaim Crimea and positive attitudes towards a demonstration of supreme force rallied all potential supporters of Putin.

Second. The weakness of horizontal ties

Resurrection of the heroic role of the national leader is becoming the main strategy of the state mechanism in its efforts to maintain citizens’ loyalty. Putin’s heroic role, however, has functional significance only for an undifferentiated society having a woefully underdeveloped non-governmental institutional structure. The integration of networks of social interaction into public policy indeed characterizes democratic forms of social relations. It is important to determine the specificity of poorly structured society in order to understand the prospects of a public outcry.

Defragmentation of a society is characterized by an acute narrowing of the circle of confidantes. Indeed, 70% of Russians ‘rely on themselves’, 60% rely on their relatives and friends, whereas 4% - on the state, and an even smaller number of 2% - on non-governmental organizations. We encounter the state of atomization of an individual in the milieu of similarly isolated and powerless ones. The lack of rights also implies a denial of any responsibility exceeding the scope of routine everyday contact. The very fact that a person doesn't engage for the common good puts paid to many of his or her moral obligations to the state and fellow citizens

Avoidance of participation in public life precipitates even greater social pressure. Declared indifference towards politics and ignorance render a citizen alone, perched in front of a TV set and exposed to rumours, whereas a lack of political views and beliefs leads to utter disorientation, since the content and tonality of television broadcasting are transitory. Hence, the complaints we hear from our respondents such as: ‘there are too many opinions lately’. Russians do not know what to believe.

Following the implicit guideline: that it is easier to save oneself alone, our fellow citizens prefer not to put forward public demands to the authorities and not to engage in the activities of non-governmental organisations. This behaviour is defined, to a large extent, by the environment: socially active citizens have a significantly broader network of acquaintances. According to data from the latest nationwide survey, as few as 10% of the citizens participate in non-political activities of organisations, associations and initiative groups once a month; are engaged in charity or voluntary work. However, it is precisely this one-tenth that has the widest range of contacts among members of political organisations and election observers.

Data from the latest survey compiled by ‘Eurobarometer’ indicate that the number and quality of social relationships have improved significantly since 2012. Political scientist Ekaterina Shulmann attributes these social trends to increased levels of material wealth and the emergence of new means of communication. As far as the formation of a new political agenda is concerned, although it surely cannot be argued that WhatsApp and Skype are solely responsible for the increase in social capital, newly acquired leisure time and the socially significant use of which cannot be overestimated. Such people are the most politically active, they are prepared to vote, address their queries to the authorities and to the media.

Limits to passivity

Their struggle for change, which undoubtedly distinguishes this small group of citizens from the majority, is triggered by the actions of the authorities targeted at de-institutionalization of the social milieu: persecution of independent NGOs, the closure of community councils in the regions and media which are beyond their control. One may say that the goal has been partially achieved. The non-governmental sector only recently emerged in Russia in place of the then crumbling state. Social institutions were established not as a result of an overall recognition of their relevance, and they do not attract grassroots support even now. One must admit that sustainable forms of social activity may only emerge through teamwork and when personal motivation is present. Regrettable as it is, vociferous personal motivation is most often observable subsequent to a violation of basic needs e.g. the right to work or maintain an acceptable lifestyle.

Data of the monitoring of ‘the Center for Social and Labour Rights’ indicate that, in the course of the last year-and-a-half, the structure of protests has changed significantly. While during the ‘fat years’ the government, trade unions and employers managed to settle conflicts in a timely manner, protest activity related to the fight for labour rights has become more impulsive due to the deterioration of the economic situation in the country. The number of participants of rallies and strikes who are ready to set out their demands is growing. From January to April 2015, the number of labour protests increased by 60% on the same period last year. Attracting new participants to the ranks of protestors; bypassing the existing, often ineffectual, forms of organized activity; the advancement of grassroots initiatives – these things could all signify the emergence of conscious and mature social demand.

The problem of fair structures of labour relations determined the history of the 19th and 20th centuries to a large extent. Thus, we are able to state that the gradual regulation of the duration of the working day and of remuneration resulted in the emergence of spare time and savings, greater autonomy for individuals and the tendency to recognize one’s own potential. An active, ‘mature’ society is now visible in large cities where the opportunities for the development of social networks are far more plentiful. The increasing popularity of non-political civic engagement, charity work or volunteering for example, among the limited number of metropolitans shows that a person of independent means equipped with a variety of tools of communication has already emerged in Russia: a person capable of looking for solutions to the problems; one who does not harbour an archaic attachment to ‘the leader’ but trusts in his or her own strength. It’s only a matter of time before he gains sufficient strength and the temporary obstacles which blight his path cease to exist

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