Wealth divides and political opportunism are creating a toxic mix of economic sentiments in Putin's Russia.
MOSCOW - If there is one thing that can unite all Russians, it is the cult of money.
“On the one hand, everything costs something, on the other hand, you can buy anything if you have money," explains Russian sociologist Boris Dubin. "But it also seems like there is money everywhere, but I don’t have any, I never have any. That is the common feeling throughout Russian society.”
Dubin sums it up this way: “Money is the symbol, the connection, that brings different sectors of the population together.”
All-powerful money, the thing that someone else has managed to amass, is one of the most important socio-economic myths in modern Russia. But it is a conception that poses two problems: first of all, it has no relationship at all to reality; and secondly, it is not quite universal, since money does not really take the place of values.
That puts us squarely in front of another myth that lives in modern Russia: nostalgia for the Soviet Union.
That story speaks of a great empire, a united multicultural family, the Soviet people and a feeling of security about tomorrow. Although neither the ‘united family’ nor the ‘understandable and predicable future’ have anything to do with reality.
“It is baloney,” Dubin says. “But today it is considered the truth, and a truth that everyone agrees on. People from different regions and different economic classes all agree on it.”
There is room in the Soviet myth for social well-being - stable incomes, free health care that was the best on earth, and free education. This rosy view of the Soviet Union is also being passed down to younger generations.
This is a marked shift since the 1990s. Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, politicians tended to glorify pre-revolutionary Russia. That changed when Vladimir Putin was elected to his first term, shifting the government’s orientation and trying to build more of a connection between Soviet times and the present.
“A couple of years ago we asked if health care, education and other aspects of life were better or worse in the Soviet Union than in the West, and we didn’t see any differences in the answer related to age,” explained Natalia Zorkaya from the Levada Center, a polling and survey organization. “At the beginning of the 1990s, people expected really simple things, they thought, ‘we are going to start living like human beings.’ But instead there were difficult reforms that hurt a lot of people, and there was no understanding of why these reforms were happening or where the country was going.”
Zorkaya concludes: “There had to be some kind of psychological adaption mechanism, and that turned out to be nostalgia towards the Soviet Union.”
The percentage of people who say they regret the fall of the Soviet Union has been dropping continuously, to 49 percent of Russians in 2012, and only 22 percent of Russians say they want the modern Russian government to look like the USSR did. But at the same time, 51 percent of Russians are still convinced that the best kind of economic system is one in which the government plans everything. Only 29 percent of Russians think that the market economy is the best system.
The sentiment behind Soviet nostalgia is also related to that same cult of money - the feeling that there is lots of money around, but I don’t have any. But it is also related to a desire for stability, and Soviet nostalgia goes up noticeably during times of economic crisis.
But for the average Russian citizen, a real economic reason to long for the USSR has long disappeared. Today the average citizen makes about 1.5 times as much money as at the end of the 1990s, has more buying power and no longer has to worry about chronic shortages of things like beef. There are also more durable goods like washing machines, refrigerators and cars.
The truth, though, is that there is indeed no such thing as an average Russian citizen, and that is what makes the nostalgia for the USSR understandable. In the post-Soviet years inequality has risen sharply. Averages don’t tell the whole story. Income inequality is about four times as high now as in 1991, and only 60 percent of Russians have incomes that reach 1990 levels. The poorest 20 percent of Russians are only making half of what they did in Soviet times.
How the state responds
It actually is false that the government isn’t spending money on its people - in fact, in most areas the government spends more now in relation to GDP than it did in socialist times. But two notable exceptions are interesting - less is spent on education, for example, because there are 32 percent fewer children in Russia today than there were in 1985. There is also only about half as much spent by the Russian government today on scientific research than was spent during Soviet times.
Reading these statistics, it’s easy to feel like you might be one of those people who have not adapted to the new Russia, and to doubt that the government has chosen the right strategy. Worse yet, you might wonder if the government even has a strategy.
“The government has no vision of the future,” said Boris Dubin. “Goals and a plan for achieving them, understanding of the difficulties in policies, readiness to include diverse groups in the political process. Ideals, ideas, values, orientations. The government doesn’t have any of it."
Dubin says the state's "only real intellectual resource" is the past. "And by past, we’re not talking about Peter the Great, we’re talking about the Soviet past.”