Apathy erodes Russian democracy

By Marietta Chudakova

Financial Times

Published: July 19 2005

The depressing behaviour of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, and the subservience of the country’s parliament and judiciary are well known. Yet Russian society itself is in much worse shape.

Apathy extends right across the population. Most Russians are no longer interested in politics or anything outside the sphere of their own personal interests. There are few personalities of sufficient moral standing around whom the society can coalesce.

Russia is no longer – if it ever was – a civil society; it is just an amorphous mass of residents. This could become the foundation for very serious and negative events – in the event of a referendum, for example. The Russian majority now (in sharp contrast with the early 1990s) would happily vote for radical leftist or fascist policies or leaders.

This is not scare-mongering. Opinion polls show 35 per cent of Russians consider Stalin a positive figure. More than half think censorship is necessary, want to see the 1990s privatisations reviewed, think all businessmen are criminals and consider the period of stagnation under Brezhnev the best time of their lives.

Most Russians, long accustomed to endless queues, shortages of food and clothes and buying their winter boots from under the counter, do not understand why the country had to change. For most, the only obvious results of reform have been economic hardship, inevitable at a time of rapid transition, and sharp and sometimes baffling changes in their everyday lives – from watching advertisements for female hygiene products and American thrillers on television to seeing homeless people on the streets.

The words “freedom” and “democracy” have become swear words, symbolising the sins of the new society and the growth of social divisions. Hatred of the rich by the poor has once again reached the levels of the first years after the Bolshevik revolution. The recent sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the anti-Khodorkovsky protests organised by the political masters of his trial, both echo and help sustain one of the longest lasting Soviet myths: the poor are good; the rich are crooks.

In this atmosphere, it is hardly ­surprising to see the resurrection of the Stalin cult – as witnessed by the desire to erect Stalin monuments in various parts of Russia to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the ­second world war.

Even more worrying is the potential readiness to accept a leader who would promise to rule with an iron fist and to “restore order”. It has become painfully obvious that Russia has failed to acknowledge the legacies of its communist history; indeed, it is further from drawing conclusions today than it was 15 years ago.

Today, many of those who not long ago called themselves liberals are publicly admitting they did not really mind Soviet censorship and that the broad mass of the population has little use for freedom. Political analysts say this attitude reflects disappointment with the results of the fundamental restructuring of society. But the emergence from a totalitarian political system could not be anything other than long and painful.

Russia started to implement liberal reforms very late. By the early 1990s there was almost nobody left in Russia with memories of living under normal economic conditions – in contrast with other eastern European countries where socialism lasted a quarter of a century less. Abnormal economic conditions, with pay not linked to the quality or quantity or work, with people used to the same low but guaranteed wages, had destroyed normal attitudes to work. Today this is very noticeable: if most people are unprepared for hard work and personal initiative, this increases the general apathy and nostalgia for “order”. The order that ­people are really looking for implies the return to equal pay for everyone and the repression of those who ­succeeded under the new system.

Russians traditionally underestimate the present; its opportunities remain unnoticed and unrealised. The past is overrated and its lost opportunities lamented, while the future is seen with passive alarm. Today, the main ­constitutional rights are still respected; freedom of expression has been sharply curtailed in television, but still exists in print. There have been some ­promising signs in the past two months: the most active part of ­Russian society has managed to block the partial rehabilitation of Stalin by stopping monuments to him being put up in two Russian cities. There have also been protests against the imprisonment of Mr Khordorkovsy.

Undoubtedly, there are opportunities for expressing one’s thoughts and forming a civil society. The worrying thing is that while no one has yet given the order to lie face down, everyone is already on the ground.

The writer, a member of Boris Yeltsin’s presidential council from 1994 to 2000, is professor of Russian literature at Moscow Literary Institute