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Russia's Crisis Of Conscience: How Widespread Apathy Threatens Its Very Society

Russians have one of the highest levels of indifference, or anomie, in the world. They don't know whether they want tea or coffee, much less democracy or authoritarianism.

Inside the lives and minds of a nation
Inside the lives and minds of a nation
Olga Filina

MOSCOW — Two researchers at the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg have given Russia a disturbing diagnosis: extremely high rates of anomie, or indifference and lack of social norms.

The findings may offer a crucial new key to understanding the problems in Russian society.

Anomie is a phenomenon that was first recognized in the late 1900s. In short, in a society with high levels of anomie, people find it difficult to state a preference: Do they prefer tea or coffee? That is an inconsequential question, but societies with high levels of indifference can’t answer important questions, either — like where the line should be drawn between freedom and security, whether a capitalist economy or government-controlled economy is better, or how to navigate questions of freedom of speech and censorship.

“In our research, we used the term anomie to refer to people being uncertain about society’s norms, not knowing how to act appropriately in a particular situation or role,” explains Christopher Svoder, one of the researchers. “We based our research on the results of the World Values Survey, which showed that Russia has one of the highest rates of anomie in the world, even when compared to other post-soviet states and developing countries.”

A society can live with anomie, but what exactly does it mean for the country? The report’s authors notice that countries in transition generally have much higher levels of anomie than countries that are developed and stable. The modernizing and reforms that happen with the transition from communism to capitalism make it hard to hold on to old values, and the new ones are disenchanting. But that can’t be the only reason for Russia’s values problem. We have had stability for about 10 years, and people use the same old sayings to talk about themselves. We haven’t really developed a national identity or even political preferences.

Learned apathy

“You shouldn’t criticize the society too much,” says Anna Andreenkova, vice director of the Institute of Fair Social Research. “It’s true that Russian citizens have much more trouble stating their political preferences. But you should also ask the question: Is the problem that people see Russian reality that way? Or is it in fact a problem with the political reality in Russia? Even political scientists don’t understand Russia’s political parties.”

It’s actually not that Russians are unsure of their position on values. According to the European Social Survey, Russians very clearly value individualism over solidarity. You could almost say that resourceful Russians have created a norm in a world without norms — and that norm is to orient their lives around personal success and power.

“The paradox is that the one value that respondents clearly hold is not exactly a sign of a healthy society,” explains Vladimir Magun, a sociology researcher. He says that such a strong preference for individualism is in fact a sign of anomie itself — and that overcoming anomie would require spreading values like responsibility, honesty and solidarity throughout society. “Societal opinion in today’s Russia is not mobilized in defense of responsibility, honesty and solidarity. Instead, its resources are spent on false goals like fighting for the ‘correct’ sexual orientation.”

One of the consequences of anomie is the creation of “private” morals that apply to certain groups, who then refuse to have contact with other people and don’t participate in the larger society. Sociologists say that explains both low participation in elections and garbage on the streets. The question is, how governable is a society without norms? Of the two normal means for regulating behavior — laws and morals — neither is working very well in Russia.

No signs from above

One of the ways to emerge from a crisis of anomie is to look for leadership from the country’s elite. Unfortunately, that path is not very promising, since Russia’s elite show just as much confusion and anomie as the rest of the country.

According to another survey commissioned by the non-profit group Community, Russians frequently offer contradictory answers in areas like “materialism vs. spirituality” and “act now vs. wait.” Respondents who self-identified as either middle class or members of the intelligentsia were more likely to give contradictory answers than other respondents.

Of course, neither the middle class nor the intelligentsia are at the very top of society. But any hope that leaders in government and business will provide more guidances to the rest of society is in vain. A long-term study of the true elite’s values also found a number of contradictions.

For example, the elite tend to hold post-materialistic values such as self-realization, openness and freedom, but are also aggressively anti-American. And all of these post-materialistic values don’t prevent the elite, particularly the younger generation, from preferring an authoritarian government. But they also say they value freedom, leading researchers to characterize this group as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Values and invaluable

There is one potential ray of hope for Russia. All of these international and national surveys are based on a Western conception of values. Maybe for Russians, authoritarianism and democracy are not necessarily antonymous. Several studies have shown that Russians are prepared to die for certain causes, something that would be unimaginable if they were totally apathetic. Some researchers interpret this to mean that Russians have a concept of “sacredness” that is not quite on the same order as a Western “value.”

Unfortunately, this is not much comfort when considering what’s important to the Russian masses. The debate about democracy is still mostly being held among elites, with most average citizens not caring either way. Where the masses diverge from the elites most is with regard to ethnic minorities and migrants. While elites want nothing to do with xenophobia, surveys show that the majority of Russians would be prepared to support the slogan “Russia for Russians.”

Will that become the national value that holds us together? At the moment, neither the elite nor the masses have fully accepted democratic values, and it is possible that other, less democratic, values will be pushed on society. It would be good if our “sacred” ideals didn’t allow that.

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