Grassroots Modernization

Map of Russia and Russian Flag adapted from images at

The rise of diversity and individualism in Russian society is undisputed. However, these new trends are observed, first and foremost, in the private sphere, in consumption, and in everyday practices, while the political realm remains “frozen.”

(PONARS Eurasia – Maria Lipman, Maria Volkenstein – December 17, 2018)

Maria Volkenstein is the President, CEO, and Founder of the VALIDATA Market Research Agency.
Maria Lipman is an Editor-in-Chief of Counterpoint journal, published by the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University


Modernization, as it applies to Russia, is a tricky subject. Soviet Communism was in itself a modernizing project: it repudiated the ancien regime and radically reformed traditional Russian society by exterminating those social groups that were the most obvious carriers of national traditions: the nobility, peasants, and the clergy. The Communist leadership conducted massive industrialization, urbanization, and secularization. The education level rose tremendously, the Soviet people were granted suffrage (albeit in a single-party political system) earlier than most of their Western counterparts, and women joined the Soviet workforce in significantly larger numbers than in Western countries associated with modernity. Soviet modernization employed brutal methods and was a top-down process since the Communist party-state had absolute control over all spheres of life. People were forced to join state-organized mass organizations, while any signs of autonomous organization were treated as grave crimes: in the Stalin era, such offenders were executed (nearly always on trumped-up charges), and even in later periods punishments for organizing outside government structures were severe. As a result, the Soviet environment thoroughly eradicated all pre-revolutionary memories and skills of social organization; social ties were severed and every Soviet citizen found himself or herself one-on-one with the formidable Communist state.

While the Soviet people’s social behavior was tightly controlled, their private lives – including family and gender relations – were less rigidly regulated. As such, those habits and practices, though of course affected by the oppressive state, continued to bear the imprint of earlier, more traditional patterns.

After the collapse of Communism, state controls were substantially relaxed, but society-at-large failed to overcome the Soviet atomization and people did not evolve into a political force. When Vladimir Putin became president, his efforts to strengthen the state and re-centralize its power were greatly facilitated by this societal weakness.

In recent years, the Russian political regime has become more authoritarian and repressive, demonstrating zero tolerance toward opposition activists. Yet at the same time, civic activism has been rising. Statistically, this rise may be not very significant, but in large urban centers, first and foremost in Moscow, civic initiatives-charitable, educational, human rights, environmental, and so on-are increasingly mature and effective. These developments, as well as the modernization of everyday life, have prompted some Russian sociologists to talk about “grassroots modernization.” Maria Volkenstein, who has been engaged in market research for over two decades, took part in a discussion on this social phenomenon organized in November 2018 by InLiberty, a Moscow intellectual discussion venue. Maria Lipman spoke with Maria Volkenstein regarding her contribution to the InLiberty discussion.

Maria Lipman: In very general terms, how has Russian society changed since Soviet times?

Maria Volkenstein: It depends on which particular realm we’re talking about: certain parts of the society have definitively broken away from the Soviet ways, but in others, modernized practices exist side by side with a desire to preserve a “traditionalist ideal.” For over 25 years, my company Validata has observed societal dynamics, mostly by conducting focus groups, in-depth interviews, and other qualitative methods. Most changes that we have observed reflect a shift away from late Soviet habits and lifestyles and are closely related to the rise of the market economy, digitalization, and the penetration of the Internet into all spheres of life. I would not say, however, that we are witnessing a comprehensive, nationwide process. Instead, I would focus on empirical data in several spheres of life that appear important to me. What I’m talking about is rising trends, directions of social change-although these do not describe the general state of things or give a full picture. One of these realms is, of course, family.

The availability of home appliances and the disappearance of consumer shortages and shopping lines have made women’s lives easier. A Russian woman has more free time than her Soviet counterpart; the distribution of housework between man and woman has become fairer, whereas in Soviet times all the drudgery, as well as childrearing, was the woman’s responsibility. And we’re talking about working women-the level of higher education attained by men and women was essentially the same, as were their salaries in comparable positions.

The development of banking services has had an effect on the distribution of finances in the family. In the past, it was common to have a shared family budget, whereas today both the man and the woman have their own accounts and their own banking cards, i.e. each has his or her own money. Prenuptial agreements have not taken root in Russia; Russians look upon them as immoral and conflicting with family values. Meanwhile, the importance of property has been growing-especially in the case of one’s apartment. Divorce is fairly common, and with divorce, there arises the issue of property. This explains why common-law relationships have become so widespread: it is seen as a way to avoid property issues; if the relationship falls apart there will be no legal property claims.

Lipman: Which social groups do you have in mind? Are we talking about reasonably well-to-do residents of large urban centers?

Volkenstein: The trends I am discussing here, of course, characterize relatively wealthy urban dwellers as well as members of younger generations. These groups can, with strong reservations, be referred to as the Russian “middle class.” One can also trace similar perceptions in other social strata, but in the above-mentioned groups, they are more pronounced.

Housing habits have changed: young couples commonly live separately from their parents, either taking out a mortgage or renting an apartment. This makes a woman more independent and enhances her self-respect.

These changes have had no effect, however, on deeply rooted ideas that the man has to be the breadwinner and the woman only up to a point. In the family, the woman’s main responsibility is the children.

The years of perestroika and the hardship of the early post-Soviet period demonstrated that women, on the whole, were better adjusted to dramatic social changes. They had mastered “managerial” skills and multitasking in the earlier period of dire shortages: they knew how to enroll a child in a nursery school, get food, help older kids do their homework, keep the apartment clean and tidy-and also work full-time. This experience made them flexible and entrepreneurial. During the same period of economic hardship, men often lost their main function as the breadwinner, leaving them humiliated and depressed.

Lipman: In his book The Russians, published in the 1970s, Hedrick Smith described Soviet women as “liberated, but not emancipated.” Do you think this characterization remains accurate?

Volkenstein: I would say this formula generally applies even 40 years later. In the more provincial regions and relatively high-income social groups, women proceed from the assumption that the man should provide for the family and her own earnings will be spent on her own needs. She will make her own decisions whether or not she wants to get a job and have a career; in general, she will choose a way of life that is to her liking. The result is a peculiar intertwining of a modern emancipated pattern with a more traditional model. In this playful gender confrontation, a woman is not ashamed to admit that she manipulated a man in order to lure him into marriage, and the man sees nothing wrong about admitting that he has had numerous female sexual partners.

Interestingly, these days, women prefer to refer to themselves as their families’ “head managers,” not as housekeepers, as they used to describe themselves.

Parallel to the new modernization trends, Russian people demonstrate a marked “traditional bent.” Both men and women are anxious to slow down, as it were, female emancipation: a woman should remain feminine, and the man should be strong and manly. Women seek to preserve the advantages of emancipation-nobody wants to give up the right to be active and independent-yet at the same time, they want to keep the benefits of the “traditional” pattern.

Lipman: In the InLiberty discussion you spoke about an important shift in childrearing…

Volkenstein: The humanization of childrearing was one of the earliest and most important changes brought about by perestroika. And although school is one of the most conservative institutions, these trends soon reached schools.

The idea that children should not be restrained has become increasingly popular. It is believed that children should look for what is interesting to them and likely to make them happy. In the past, parents insisted that they would choose the right path for their children. These days, relations between parents and children are no longer guided by such an approach: parents can no longer plan their children’s future because they don’t know how, don’t know what to tell them. They have no more idea of what the future holds than their children do. These days a child is much more likely to hear something like “The main thing is for you to be happy. You are the best, you are wonderful, so creative! You should look for ways to fulfill yourself.”

Looking at children as personalities with their own interests is a modernization concept of enormous importance. And at least for now, this trend remains strong, the rising political and ideological pressure of the state notwithstanding.

Lipman: Can you, please, talk more about the social implications of the market economy?

Volkenstein: Experience with financial crises has taught people not to plan far ahead. At the same time, the crises, as well as the development of the banking system, have broadened the diversity of ways to use money. A reduced time-frame for planning pushes people to opt for a kind of behavior that can be described as “here and now, and let come what may-we’ll adjust just as we did on earlier occasions.” We have just conducted a survey of people’s reactions to the pension reform raising the retirement age. People easily calculated how much money the government has “taken out of their pockets”-in focus groups, they complained that they didn’t know how they would survive. But at the same time, they showed no intention of changing their financial behavior.

In the Soviet Union, there were no credit cards or checkbooks. Everybody had fixed salaries that they took home twice a month and put in a drawer, or maybe to a savings bank where they saved money, sometimes for many years, to buy durables. Today, an individual is engaged in a permanent individual financial pursuit-he decides which financial products he will use now, which banks are the right choice for deposits, where to get credit and at what interest rate, how to switch money from one banking card to another in order to make money from bonuses and cash-back deals. In one of the focus groups, I had a respondent who had 127 (!) banking cards that he kept playing with all the time!

I would argue that this kind of individual searching activity and the rising diversity of financial behavior is also evidence of modernization.

Lipman: What about employment? Have you noticed shifts in how people look for jobs?

Volkenstein: A common pattern in the Soviet days was to find a good job and settle down there. Today, young people, in particular, assume that no job is the “final” stop; it is just a step to the next.

The concept of a “prestigious” job has been eroding. These days there’s nothing abnormal about not having an office to go to and working from home as a part-time freelancer-it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

In the employment sphere, as in other contexts associated with modernization, there is growing diversity. Even those who live deep in the provinces can find a job by using or other similar resources. Of course, this is not very common, but the opportunity is there, and mobility is growing, albeit slowly.

It is worth noting that in recent years a businessman-an entrepreneur-is no longer seen by definition as a gangster or a conman. Being wealthy does not necessarily make one the target of social condemnation, as was the case up until a decade ago. Adjusting to the market economy can also be regarded as an element of modernization.

Lipman: You mentioned digitalization as a factor that promotes grassroots modernization. Can you please talk about the way it affects socializing?

Volkenstein: The rise of communication in social networks is a fairly recent phenomenon. People look for and find old friends and acquaintances, reach out to people in other countries, and organize groups around (a broad variety of) shared interests, some of them practical, others recreational. They play games with one group, join another at rallies, think of ways to get better discounts with one group, engage in professional discussions with another. A broad range of social activities has emerged that did not exist before. There is no topic that cannot be discussed on the Web; one can easily find the social support group one needs. People have learned to come together for a great variety of causes-a far cry from Soviet times. The nature of socializing has essentially changed, becoming more complex and multifaceted.

Of course, I should mention the rising interest in volunteering and the fact that charitable activities are becoming a matter of social prestige. Though both trends are in their early stages-see the survey below by the Levada Center in June 2018-they are certainly present, and network communication is of paramount importance.


For a long time, one turned to one’s close circle for all kinds of advice. One would draw on the same people to recommend a good doctor, provide childrearing advice, help you choose the right car or a cool sweater, and even to help you make decisions about the appropriate political behavior. This behavioral pattern has changed before our eyes; today, one looks for this kind of information on the Internet, in social networks, forums, etc. This means that an individual has to choose from a broad range of options and make his and her own decisions. This, in itself, is a manifestation of grassroots modernization.

Lipman: So far, you have focused on everyday habits. What about state-society relations?

Volkenstein: Despite all the modernization changes, there is a spoonful of tar in this barrel of honey. In fact, it is not entirely clear how much honey there is in the barrel, and there is much more than a spoonful of tar. A pail sounds more like it.

People’s perception of the state is that it is the one realm where modernization has been the slowest and progress is very hard to achieve.

In focus groups, people are always talking simultaneously about an ideal state-the way it should be-and the real state, the one that currently exists. This conflict is “resolved” with the help of the deeply rooted mechanism of double-think. In my long years of professional discussions with ordinary people, the same conversation has repeated itself with amazing regularity:

“Large industrial enterprises should not be in private hands-they must remain state-owned,” a respondent would say.

“But do you believe that the state is a better manager than a private owner?”

“No, of course not, the state is much worse.”

“Is there more or less corruption at state enterprises?”

“Of course, there’s more! But state ownership is the right thing anyway…”

People are willing to delegate human rights and other humanitarian functions to the state, notwithstanding the fact that the phrase “They treat us like cattle” has been repeated [with regard to the government] from one focus group discussion to the next, year after year and even decade after decade.

Lipman: In one of his articles, Samuel Greene described the strange balance of “the people’s preparedness to see the state as simultaneously dysfunctional and yet legitimate, unjust and yet worthy.” Do you agree with this description?

Volkenstein: Yes. And I would add that the expectations that the state should assume responsibility for social protection are gigantic-as is the conviction that the state will not live up to these expectations…

People may condemn the government and Putin as they talk in their kitchens, but when somebody, such as Aleksey Navalny, takes to the streets and protests against the government, this behavior is disapproved of and condemned.

As soon as the state and the government begin to put greater pressure on society, as they have been doing in recent years, the old Soviet skills of hiding and subterfuge come in quite handy. This cat-and-mouse game with the government is habitual, and even if it had been forgotten in the 1990s and 2000s when the government was less intrusive, people remember it at the drop of a hat.

I remember the moment-around 2006-07, I guess-when people in focus groups suddenly became afraid to talk. They immediately remembered that skill.

Overall, however, people do not have a sense that freedom has been taken away from them. In fact, just the opposite is true. It is commonly believed that there is too much freedom. It is also not true that Russian people are yearning for justice and would like their leadership to be replaced. Written on the Russian “modernization banner” is “adjustment”-every individual decides for himself or herself how he or she is going to adjust to the changing conditions. In the 2000s, the most important word in any focus group was “stabilization”; today, it is adjustment.

Lipman: In conclusion, please say a few words about public perceptions of foreign policy.

Volkenstein: Russians’ perception of foreign policy dovetails with their relations with the state. It would be wrong to say that anti-Western sentiments emerged after Crimea. It is just that until then those sentiments were not so strongly manifested. I estimate that since the 1990s a steady 15 percent Russians have shared very strong anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. In 2015, these sentiments burst into a blaze.

Their perception of foreign policy can be described as delegating one’s own sense of dignity to government institutions. The inferiority complex of a citizen of a former great power needs an outlet. Barely a focus group has passed by that someone has not brought up the [famous line by Emperor Alexander III quoted by Putin on various occasions] “Russia has only two allies, its army, and navy.” When, how, and why this impediment to modernization will be lifted is anybody’s guess.

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