Russians don’t much like the West

Susan Richards
25 February 2009

Russian attitudes to the West are known to have soured in recent years. But it may surprise Western readers that the majority of Russians now express a positive dislike of the West in general, and particularly of America. Nor do most of them regard liberal democracy as a model towards which Russia should aspire any more, either.

These are the findings of an ambitious new socio-economic study entitled ‘Are Russians Moving Backwards?'  by Sergei Guriev of the prestigious New Economic School in Moscow, Aleh Tsyvinski of Yale University, and Maxim Trudolubov of the business newspaper Vedomosti. The research is based on the findings of regular opinion polls and on a mass of data on values, attitudes and perceptions between 2003-2008 which have not been drawn into the policy debate before. [1]

The findings are stark. When Russian attitudes to democracy and the market place are compared with those of other countries, Russians come out as among the least enthusiastic  in the world, a good deal less keen even than the people of Belarus.  

The obvious response to these findings is that attitudes will change over time, as people get richer.  But this study appears not to bear out these hopes. For where you might have expected young Russians to like the West more than their parents, in fact, the opposite is true. The youngest respondents (20-year-olds) showed the same degree of dislike of the US as their grandparents, while the 35-45 year olds were less hostile to the US.

Nor can we comfort ourselves with the thought that the more Russians are exposed to the West, the more they will like it, and us. For Russian attitudes right across the social spectrum do not differ markedly. Richer Russians do like the Western model better than the poor, but the difference is not significant.

These attitudes contrast markedly to the findings of the first studies of the beliefs of Russians after the fall of communism. Surveys in the early 1990s reflected a people excited by the idea of the market economy. Disillusionment with the market set in sharply after a painful decade of economic chaos and reform. In the early 2000s, when Putin's government pulled back from the process of democratisation, including reining in the press, Russia's people  were right behind him. When the government reversed its liberal economic policy in the mid-2000's, the population backed him.

Significantly, these changes in attitude took place during the Russian economy's boom years. The obvious conclusion to draw is that this was because the effects of growth had not trickled down to everybody. But this study seems to refute that interpretation.

Contrary to popular belief, the last decade of economic growth did not just benefit the rich: all the measures of economic well-being improved. Unemployment and poverty went down by half, and real wages tripled. Russians were taking their holidays abroad, buying cars and mobile phones to an extent that would have been unimaginable in the 1990s. An index of life satisfaction taken in 2008 comparing the same representative panel of Russians whose attitudes had been charted since 1994 found that people were substantially happier than in the late 1990s.

The authors point to the fact that Russians have made a false connection between positive economic outcomes and the reversal of market and democratic freedoms, and adjusted their beliefs accordingly. They have come to associate market reforms with poverty and unemployment. 

When asked in the first quarter of 2008 whether Western society  was a good model for Russia, 60%  responded negatively, and only 7.2% came out as strongly positive. This response is particularly intriguing in light of the fact that 47% saw Western society as delivering much fairer outcomes than Russian society.  And this attitude has only hardened over the last 4 years. 

It would be comfortable  for us to blame these negative attitudes on the machinations of an autocratic political elite who have clawed back an almost Soviet control over the hearts and minds of the population. But this study does not bear out that reading.  The facts suggest something more interesting. What comes through loud and clear is that if Russia were fully democratic today, its people would vote for the reversal of many pro-market reforms.

In other words, far from being imposed from the top, the study suggests that the pervasive anti-Westernism of Russia's people may poses a serious dilemma for the leadership. Should the leadership wish to implement further liberal economic reforms, the authors suggest, this could prove a binding constraint.

They point out that with the main market infrastructure now in place, the country faces a new economic challenge: how to build a knowledge economy in Russia.  The economic growth Russia now needs depends on it developing a culture of technological innovation. And this in turn appears to depend fairly directly on political liberalisation. The authors maintain that both Putin and Medvedev seem to understand this: by way of evidence, they point to the leaders' campaign speeches in February 2008, which stress the intrinsic value of freedom as a pre-requisite for the ‘innovation economy'.

Whatever the authors really mean by this, it would be deeply unwise to take the leaders' words in these speeches at their face value. But none the less the underlying point they are making is crucial. It would follow from these findings that even if President Medvedev did have the power and the will to change the regime's direction in the interests of building a knowledge economy, taking ‘the people' with him would be a problem. 

What chance of change?

The authors of the report conclude that these attitudes are unlikely to change. They remind us that ever since the 15thc the Russians have seen themselves as the standard-bearers for an alternative kind of civilisation, under the banner of Orthodoxy.  They observe that it was this belief that fuelled the sharp divide that emerged in the 19th century between the Westernisers and the Slavophiles, who argued that Russia must resist the temptation of following the path of European development, in favour of a spiritually superior Russian path.

How alarmed should we be by these findings? It is tempting to quibble that the Russian people had, and still have, no idea what they are talking about when they reject democracy so glibly. After all, they have had no experience of it. At the time when they were most enthusiastic about it, in those final days of Soviet power, what they were invoking was not so much a political option as a magical spell which they trusted would, when pronounced, yield ‘liberation'.

Still, the authors' conclusions should not be dismissed. This would risk echoing the mistake the market fundamentalists made when, believing in ‘the end of history' they imposed on the rest of the world a model a set of political values which was the hard-won product of Europe's particular history.

The attitudes in this report certainly reflect forces deeply rooted in Russian consciousness. These go back, indeed, far further than the 15thc, to the basic facts of Russia's unpropitious position on the map. The underlying culture of its people has been conditioned by a wretched climate, unreliable rainfall, (mostly) poor soil and a short growing season.   The  experience of surviving in these difficult conditions forged a deep-rooted mentality very different from the European one out of which liberal democracy developed. Russia may no longer be a peasant society. But the high premium on the solidarity of the group over individuality and  initiative so characteristic of peasant societies has not changed.  

A glance at the map reinforces the findings of this report in another important respect too. Russia is a vast land which is not on the crossroads to anywhere, it reminds us. The suspicion of ‘foreign' ideas echoed in this report is deeply rooted in that geography. It will take far more than a decade or two of exposure to foreign travel and a global market place to change it.

Western policy makers should pay attention to this report. But they should also bear in mind that the pendulum of Russian history will keep on swinging. This study is based on a particular period in the swing away from Western political ideas and models. How long this swing will last is a question beyond its remit.

[1]  Life in Transition Survey administered by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank, Fall 2006. Also on data collected by Russia's Public Opinion Foundation, including quarterly surveys of 34,000 Russians in 68 regions on various aspects of their lives 2003-2008. Also on multi-country opinion polls including Pew Global Attitudes Survey and European Social Survey

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData