Russia Thinks America Is Bluffing
To Deter a Ukraine Invasion, Washington’s Threats Need to Be Tougher
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, expectations were high that Russia, rid of communism, would take a firm pro-Western course: democratizing its political system, granting its citizens unassailable civil rights, and rejoining the international community. Such were the promises made by President Boris Yeltsin when he took charge. But after more than a decade, these expectations have not been realized. Since ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin took over as president in 2000, Russia's democratic institutions have been muzzled, its civil rights restricted, and its cooperation with the international community far from assured.
What accounts for these unwelcome trends? Polling data from a variety of sources suggest that the answer is more complex than meets the eye. Although actions undertaken by Putin and his associates play a large part, there is a good deal of evidence that the antidemocratic, antilibertarian actions of the current administration are not being inflicted on the Russian people but are actually supported by them. This evidence also indicates that no more than one Russian in ten cares about democratic liberties and civil rights.
Before examining what Russians say and think today, it is necessary to look back at Russia's past. Despite its reputation for unpredictability, Russia is a remarkably conservative nation whose mentality and behavior change slowly, if at all, over time, regardless of the regime in power.
As recently as 75 years ago, 80 percent of Russia's population engaged in agriculture and lived in scattered, largely self-sufficient villages. (The country had only two major cities -- Moscow and St. Petersburg -- themselves made up of sizable migrant peasant populations.) In a predominantly rural society, the kind of social cohesion that Westerners took for granted in their own countries was very weakly developed: Russia was not so much a society as an agglomeration of tens of thousands of separate rural settlements.
National feelings, therefore, were also poorly developed, except at times of foreign invasions. Until recently, Russian peasants were more likely to identify themselves as Orthodox Christians than as Russians. The pre-1917 tsarist government, which punished any attempt by its subjects to interfere with politics, was a remote force: it collected taxes and drafted soldiers but gave its citizens virtually nothing in return. Until 1861, the vast majority of Russia's population were serfs, beholden to the state or to private landlords. As such, peasants could legally be beaten by their masters, be exiled, and be inducted into the army, but they were forbidden to protest to the authorities about mistreatment. Human rights was an alien notion to them.
Private property and public justice were similarly underdeveloped, arriving in the country relatively late and in an imperfect form. Whereas in England land was treated as a commodity in the thirteenth century, in tsarist Russia all land belonged to the crown until the mid-eighteenth century, when ownership was granted to the nobility. The great majority of peasants lived in communes, which held title to village land and redistributed it periodically to households to account for changes in family size. Only a small minority owned their land outright. An effective Russian judiciary did not emerge until 1864. Even then, the broad range of activities classified as political crimes were dealt with by arbitrary administrative procedures rather than by the courts.
These factors -- the absence of social and national cohesion, the ignorance of civil rights, the lack of any real notion of private property, and an ineffective judiciary -- prompted Russians to desire strong tsarist rule. With few lateral social ties, they relied on the state to protect them from each other. They wanted their rulers to be both strong and harsh, qualities designated by the Russian word groznyi, meaning "awesome" (incorrectly translated as "terrible"), the epithet applied to Tsar Ivan IV. Experience has taught Russians to associate weak government -- and democracy is seen as weak -- with anarchy and lawlessness.
Such is Russia's cultural inheritance, the net effect of which is to make Russians, even in modern times, the least socialized or politicized people on the European continent. Twice in one century -- 1917 and 1991 -- their governments collapsed almost overnight, with people seemingly indifferent to their fate. In both cases, governments forfeited their right to exist in the eyes of Russians because they had ceased to be "awesome."
The current mood of the Russian population can be determined from opinion surveys. The leading polling organization is the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, which is based in Moscow and directed by Iurii Levada (VTSIOM and VTSIOM-A). Its in-depth analyses of attitudes on a variety of subjects provide invaluable insight into the Russian mind. Polling is also conducted by the Institute of Complex Social Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IKSI), and Validata, a center for market and opinion research headed by Maria Volkenstein. Results of these surveys frequently appear in the Russian daily newspaper "Izvestiia."
These sources suggest that modern Russians, like their ancestors, feel estranged from both the state and society at large. Their allegiance is to family and friends, those they address familiarly as ty (as opposed to the more formal vy), and they feel little affinity with any larger community. Trust of outsiders, the basis of civilization in the West, is still largely absent in the country.
Russians openly identify with a "small fatherland." When asked, "What do you connect most directly with the idea of our nation?" in a 1999 poll, 35 percent replied, "Where I was born and grew up," whereas only 19 percent opted for the "state in which I live" (1/17).**(see endnotes)** Russians are far more asocial and apolitical than their Western counterparts, tending to withdraw into private worlds where they feel in control. They are said to live "in trenches," surrounded by enemies (10). Comparing citizens' attitudes toward their government in Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden, Validata surveys concluded that Americans and Swedes display the highest trust in the state, whereas Russians "don't trust the state at all" (3/20).
Democracy is widely viewed as a fraud. There is a prevalent perception that Russia's politics have been "privatized" and are controlled by powerful clans. Seventy-eight percent of respondents in a 2003 survey said that democracy is a facade for a government controlled by rich and powerful cliques. Only 22 percent expressed a preference for democracy, whereas 53 percent positively disliked it (9). Asked in another poll whether multiparty elections do more harm than good, 52 percent of respondents answered "more harm" and a mere 15 percent said "more good" (5/91). Political parties are also unpopular, and most Russians are quite amenable to living in a one-party state. According to a recent survey by the Center of Sociological Studies of the University of Moscow, 82 percent of Russians feel they have no influence over the national government; 78 percent say they even have no influence over local government (13).
Enhancing personal freedoms and improving civil rights do not attract much support. When asked to choose between "freedom" and "order," 88 percent of respondents in Voronezh Province expressed preference for order, seemingly unaware that the two outcomes are not mutually exclusive and that in Western democracies they reinforce each other. Only 11 percent said they would be unwilling to surrender their freedoms of speech, press, or movement in exchange for stability. Twenty-nine percent, meanwhile, were quite prepared to give up their freedoms for nothing in return, because they attached no value to them (14). A survey conducted in the winter of 2003-4 by ROMIR Monitoring, a sociological research unit, found that 76 percent of Russians favor restoring censorship over the mass media (15).
Such opinions led Alexander Yakovlev, a principal architect of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, to bemoan his compatriots' penchant for authoritarian rule. In an interview with the "Financial Times," he observed that none of the winning parties in the December 2003 Duma elections "had even once mentioned the word 'freedom' [;] all the slogans were about banning, locking up and punishing" (6).
The judicial system is held in contempt as both corrupt and subservient to the state, especially since Putin took over the presidency. In August 2003, the "Financial Times" reported that Russia's leading businesses had set up an arbitration system to bypass courts that they accused of lacking independence. Court rulings, a businessman claimed, were "swayed by local authorities, government, or businesses 'just paying' for their decisions. We have a new phrase in Russia: 'court auctions.' ... 'Whoever pays more, wins.'"
Russian attitudes toward private enterprise and property rights are hardly more positive. Here, too, the prevailing mood ranges from indifference to cynicism to outright hostility. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed in a poll published in January 2004, for example, said that wealth in Russia can be acquired only through connections. Four out of five respondents stated that the inequalities in wealth in modern Russia are excessive and illegitimate, and most blamed the country's widespread poverty on an unjust economic system (16).
Only a quarter or so of Russians regard private property as an important human right (1/10). One Russian analyst attributes this outlook to the uneven distribution of property in the country. By his estimate, a mere 3.6 million Russian citizens own assets worth preserving: "In Russia, there are too few people who have something to protect. And for this reason, there are too many who want to appropriate the belongings of others" (12). In accordance with this explanation, polling data indicate that slightly more than half the population considers the nonpayment of debts and shoplifting to be "fully acceptable" behavior (1/31).
The spirit of entrepreneurship in Russia also is weak, because the quest for security overrides ambition. In response to the question "Would you accept an executive post?" for example, only 9 percent responded affirmatively, whereas 63 percent said, "No, under no conditions" (5/119). Some 60 percent of Russians would opt for a small but assured income, with a mere 6 percent prepared to accept the risks attendant on private enterprise (1/14). With each passing year, an increasing number of Russians want the government to be more involved in the country's economic life (16). In 1999, 72 percent said they wanted to restrict private economic initiative (1/4). The only bright spot is that the younger generation is more favorably disposed to private enterprise and to fortunes accumulated by capitalist means than are older Russians (1/5).
OF TWO MINDS
Russia's self-image is contradictory. When asked, without reference to other nations, how they feel about themselves and their country, Russians brim with pride. They mention their "dramatic history, rich culture, friendships, honesty, openness, emotions, calm." They especially like to boast of their victory in World War II and of their leadership in space exploration. And they consider themselves to possess the greatest capacity for friendship of any nation in the world (10; 3/64 & 67).
But the picture changes radically when they are asked to think of themselves in relation to other nations. According to Validata surveys, Russians suffer from an acute sense of inferiority: they have the lowest level of self-esteem of the five nations studied (the United States has the highest). This observation leads to a convincing explanation for recent trends in Russian politics: having lost its sense of national identity after 1991, Russia is struggling to create a new one based on a blend of tsarism, communism, and Stalinism (3/14). People's identification with strong government -- at home and abroad -- is a central part of this effort. And a "strong government" means military prowess that foreigners will respect or just fear.
Many Russians still see themselves as surrounded by foes. Asked, "Does Russia have enemies?" in one poll, two-thirds responded affirmatively, citing (in decreasing order of perceived magnitude of the threat) "industrial-financial circles in the West," the United States, NATO, Russian "oligarchs" and bankers, democrats, and Islamic extremists. Russian observers explain that people need enemies because they provide the only source of national unity; the ideal of freedom, they argue, has proven unable to serve as psychological "cement" (2/103; 12).
To frustrate the designs of these imaginary enemies, 78 percent of Russians insist that Russia must be a great power (2/8). This desire manifests itself in a variety of ways. Asked in 1999 to list the ten greatest men of all times and nations, respondents named nine Russians. (The only foreigner was Napoleon, presumably because he was defeated on Russian soil.) The first five people on the list were Peter the Great, Lenin, Pushkin, Stalin, and the astronaut Iurii Gagarin (1/19). Apart from Pushkin, these historical figures have in common their success in making Russia a power to be reckoned with on land and in space. When asked why they admired Stalin, people answered, "He raised the country" (10).
Much of the nostalgia for the Soviet Union derives from the belief that it made Russia a great power on the world stage, a status it has since lost. When asked how they would like their country to be perceived by other nations, 48 percent of Russians said "mighty, unbeatable, indestructible, a great world power." Only 22 percent wanted Russia to be seen as "affluent and thriving"; 6 percent as "educated, civilized, and cultured"; 3 percent as "peace-loving and friendly"; and a mere 1 percent as "law-abiding and democratic" (13). These findings help explain why so many Russians -- 74 percent in one poll -- regret the Soviet Union's passing (1/9). Another survey, conducted toward the end of 2000, asked Russian citizens whether they considered the present regime or the one that had preceded it to be "legitimate, popular, and their own." Fully one-third applied these adjectives to the Soviet Union, a regime that had ceased to exist nine years earlier. Only 12 percent regarded the postcommunist regime as "legitimate," and only 2 percent called it "their own" (7). Hence it is not surprising that when asked in an October 2003 survey how they would react if the Communists staged a coup, 23 percent of respondents said they would actively support it, 19 would collaborate with the insurgents, 27 percent would try to survive, 16 percent would emigrate, and only 10 percent would actively resist (11).
Hostility toward the West, which is still seen by many as an enemy and a bearer of alien values, is widespread in Russia. The question "Do you feel European?" elicited the response "Yes, always" from only 12 percent, whereas 56 percent replied, "Practically never" (4/98). The United States is especially disliked, largely because it is seen to have usurped the global hegemony that Russia once shared with it. Every move the United States makes on the international scene, or in space exploration, is interpreted by the Russian media as yet another attempt to solidify Washington's dominance. The performance of American troops in Iraq was at first ridiculed ("Such fear and such hysterical shooting in all directions has so far not been seen in military history" was how one journalist put it in "Izvestiia") (8). When the war ended in a quick and decisive victory, the press once again dismissed the United States: the achievement was the result of bribes to the Iraqi army rather than the product of courage and sound military strategy.
In aggregate, the conclusions from surveys of Russian opinion are far from encouraging. Western commentators watch with dismay as Putin slowly and deliberately transforms Russia into a one-party state. But they fail to recognize, even more ominously, that Russians by sizable majorities actually approve of his actions. Putin's victory in the 2004 presidential elections is certainly due in part to his stifling of the opposition. But he is popular precisely because he has re-instated Russia's traditional model of government: an autocratic state in which citizens are relieved of responsibility for politics and in which imaginary foreign enemies are invoked to forge an artificial unity. The only desire that Putin has not yet satisfied is restoring Russia's status as a great military power. But if his response to other public demands offers a model, then this wish, too, is likely to be provided in good time.
1 Numbers in parentheses refer to the following sources (for books and journals, the page number follows the slash): (1) "Chelovek i vlast'" (Moscow, 1999); (2) Ibid., Appendix; (3) Validata, "Nations as Brands" (Moscow, 2003); (4) Vestnik Moskovskoi Shkoly Politicheskikh Issledovanii, no. 10 (1998); (5) Ibid., no. 13 (1999); (6) "Financial Times," Dec. 30, 2003; (7) "Izvestiia," Nov. 21, 2000; (8) "Izvestiia," April 10, 2003; (9) "Izvestiia," July 29, 2003; (10) "Izvestiia," Aug. 21, 2003; (11) "Izvestiia," Nov. 8, 2003; (12) "Izvestiia," Nov. 12, 2003; (13) "Izvestiia," Nov. 14, 2003; (14) "Izvestiia," Dec. 22, 2003; (15) "Izvestiia," Jan. 14, 2004; (16) "Izvestiia," Jan. 22, 2004.