What is going on in Russia? The views and values of ordinary Russians

Map of Russia and Russian Flag adapted from images at state.gov

Subject: What is going on in Russia? The views and values of ordinary Russians
Date: Thu, 17 Dec 2015
From: Karen Hewitt <karen.hewitt@conted.ox.ac.uk>

I am attaching the talk which I have given (with adaptations) to various groups of non-professionals who are interested in Russia. Some professionals in the audience, sometimes, but it was not intended for them.

What is going on in Russia?
The views and values of ordinary Russians

(2nd July 2015)
By Karen Hewitt

Lecturer,Oxford University Department of Continuing Education

I have spent the last 26 years trying to explain Britain to the Russians and – to a more hesitant extent – Russia to the British. Since I spend up to two months a year in cities all over Russia, living and talking with Russians, and not seeing or speaking to other westerners, I may misunderstand a lot, but I am not like a journalist looking for a story and listening to other journalists.

What we hear in Britain – and in Western media generally – about what is going on in Russia is so different from what I observe in all those cities and towns, in the universities and schools and public offices, in the shops and markets that I feel an obligation to challenge our media. The situation has been hugely exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis – in which outrageous things have been said on both sides – but with far less evidence and far more falsification on the ‘Western side’. That there are significant lies in the mass media of both countries is clear. That there is disturbing ignorance on our side is clear. So I decided to be more systematic than usual in exploring what ordinary thoughtful Russians believed was going on. To ask lots of questions and to take lots of notes.

A brief history of Russia as seen by Russians since the 1970s.

Many generations among my correspondents but this background should help

Anyone born in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s would have spent their childhood in a predictable world. They had a home, albeit often a communal home, food, electricity and (usually) running water, paid employment, serious education, a national health service, cheap travel within the country, long holidays in the summer, and an ethos which encouraged ‘joining’ things and doing things together. Lots of summer camps, lots of sport, lots of group ‘voluntary work’, lots of joint projects in which grown-ups and children joined (such as building community centres.)

This life was reassuring in many ways. It did not encourage individual decisions, work based on enterprise and personal initiative. It did not encourage dissent. By European standards (though not by the standards of most of the world) what was available in homes and domestic products was limited and shoddy; stepping out of line could be and often was punished though with nothing like the widespread ferocity of the Stalin years. For most grown-ups it was a matter of looking over your shoulder and teaching your children to be discreet. But for most children themselves, the virtues of the Soviet system – stability, lots of attention to children as a group, and a firm ideology or belief couched in optimistic and cheerful terms – gave them a happy childhood.

In my early years in Russia (I went first in 1984) and then annually or more often from 1988) I was at first suspicious of these widely prevalent accounts of happy childhoods. What about those who were often unhappy or traumatised – by families, by individuals, by social expectations?. The Soviet Union must have had numbers of unhappy children, especially those trapped by illness or the alcoholism of their parents. But the system was child-friendly in its values and practices. The difficulties and restraints become much more obvious as those children grew up – if you were somebody who wanted to argue, who wanted to go your own way, who wanted to take initiatives or who loathed committees.

Most adults were probably reasonably content within work groups – and there was work for everyone, even if it was not very strenuous and involved long holidays; going on holiday in groups was also normal. More people were able to move out of communal flats where they had just one room of their own into their own flats. In terms of getting hold of things – the system worked like a black market – a deficit market – people learnt how to use the system. Prosperity seemed to be gently increasing even as Brezhnev slept.

But Brezhnev died in 1982 by which time the economic problems of the Soviet system were becoming all too obvious, at least to those in power. He was followed by Andropov who died in 1984 and Chernenko who died in 1985, leaving the way clear for Mikhail Gorbachev to become General Secretary and hence leader of the Soviet Union. Russians – and the other Soviet peoples – were about to enter years and years of chaos after decades of stability and stagnation.

Gorbachev had to deal with the consequences of economic stagnation and the collapsing price of oil. There were no resources left. He tried to liberalise markets – and politics. Political liberalisation was more exciting, especially for educated people, and went far farther than anyone had envisaged, very quickly. That’s what most Westerners remember.

But how does anyone turn a black market into a capital market? If what you can buy is regulated by a lack of goods rather than a lack of money, how do you free up and double or treble your domestic production – and keep some kind of control of money so that people learn what you can spend and what you have to save. How, in fact, to change totally the relationship between work, productivity and money, if the people governing the country and trying to do this have had no experience of our kind of economy and social structures?

And just as important -how do you teach people about money who have lived all their lives with rationing? Rationing is fair – and also get-roundable. Getting round it depends on what you can barter. Money is not so significant.

The Soviet perestroika reforms meant that people started losing their jobs. People were paid less. Inflation took hold. But at the same time there was nothing in the shops, because if you were controlling supplies and it seemed likely that they price would go up, you held back the goods in the warehouses. People were worried about the increasing lack of control and responsibility as other people started showing initiative.

For at least two years before the Soviet Union was broken up – deliberately by Soviet leaders – in December 1991 – people were getting more and more confused by different economic and value systems that were co-existing, though they made no sense operating together.

On 2nd January 1992, Yeltsin, now President of the Russian Federation, divorced now from all those other countries which had made up the Soviet Union, declared that prices were liberalised. Sellers could charge what they wanted. With a few exceptions prices would not be controlled by the state. (Rather too late, he realised that in fact state assets technically belonged to the people.) By the time his advisers had devised vouchers for the population so that they could realise some of their assets, the vast wealth of the country was in the hands of really clever ruthless entrepreneurs – the people whom we call ‘oligarchs’ and their slightly lesser ranks of the very rich, called ‘New Russians’. Naturally these people were helped by the advisers who flooded in from Western countries and who were eager to turn Russia into a ‘Western-style’ country which would be helped/controlled by experienced ‘democracies’. (Lots of money was put into Russia to help with developing civil society, but it was a tiny fraction of the money put into Russia in order to exploit an economic situation which was devastating the population.) And so began what the Russian refer to as ‘the nineties’.

The country suffered hyperinflation and therefore the people lost all their savings; they lost their jobs; industry collapsed as did the agricultural farms. One disaster fuelled another: for example the Soviet welfare system vanished since it made no sense in a new entrepreneurial world. The creaky but universal national health service was – Russians were told – not the way to solve health problems. Everyone except the British explained you should privatise the health system – which meant that most people could not afford doctors except those brave doctors who went on working without pay. Nobody could pay the school teachers either, but teachers were old ladies who went on working anyway, and who were officially despised for it.

Most of the population lived on organic vegetables grown on their own dacha plots. But they could buy Mars bars and Snickers bars and increasingly cheap computers which the children demanded. Meanwhile the shops began to fill with posh foreign goods bought with dollars by those (mostly in Moscow) who had managed to land jobs with foreign firms. So this society which had in Soviet times been based on pretty equal distribution of wealth became the most unequal of societies – the fabulously rich; the very rich, and the vast majority of the struggling poor who wondered every month whether they would get paid. And then the homeless.

The death rate shot up – the majority of men were dying before they reached 60 – of illness, alcohol, joblessness, and essentially of broken hearts. The birth rate went right down: why have babies in this chaos? And there was no cheerful ideology to keep people together. In fact there was no coherent system of values at all which, even when most people are essentially decent, is deeply traumatising.

By 1997, with Yeltsin, an alcoholic in thrall to the squabbling courtiers around him, the economy looked briefly as if it was slowly normalising. Inflation had come down to, say, 25% – and people were finding ways to work. But then there were world economic convulsions, and Russia (by now hugely in debt to the money institutions of the world) defaulted on its debts in 1998. Once again there was serious inflation and this time – because foreign investors were affected – the world took notice. But the Russian population mostly laughed. They had lost all their savings, their assets, their right to public assets and their security six years earlier. They had little or nothing left to lose. And so Russia staggered into 1999, with the people, on the whole, disillusioned, confused, ashamed and exhausted. At the very end of 1999, Yeltsin announced that he was resigning, and that, until proper elections should take place, he was appointing someone else to take over – someone virtually unknown to the people – Vladimir Putin.

Putin has been in power as President for 11 years, and in tandem with President Medvedev for 4 years from 2008-2012. From the Western point of view – for reasons which are, I think, deep in US geopolitics, Putin was rather quickly demonised.

From the point of view of ordinary Russians he brought stability, coherent policies and a doubling, trebling, of their personal incomes and the wealth of Russia. He made the oligarchs pay taxes, he broke up some of the illegal empires of energy wealth and nationalised them, He dealt with local warlords in distant parts of the Russian federation and insisted that governors should be appointed from Moscow, so that he could keep an eye on them. With the oil money his government built up a huge emergency reserve so that it would never again be the basket-case of world economies, and he and his ministers devised and largely carried out federal-wide improvement projects in Education, Health, Agriculture and Infrastructure. People are hugely better off than they were, and although of course there are plenty of poor people, they too are better off than they were. (The homeless have gone from the streets of Perm, where – as with everywhere else in Russia) they were obvious and pitiful and shameful to their fellow-citizens in the 1990s.) Not all of this is attributable to the policies of the Government, still less to President Putin – oil prices are important – but from the ordinary Russian’s point of view, they have much to be thankful for under Putin.

There is more censorship than there was in Yeltsin’s years when there was no censorship at all – about anything. There are opposition websites and some newspapers but other opposition newspapers have their editors replaced by the authorities. There are state television channels which follow the government line with daily focus on the President and the kind of ‘analysis’ by which the decisions of the government are always shown to be correct; on the other hand, these news programmes show – on the whole – more of what is going on in the world than our national BBC programmes, for example.

[As for other domestic problems: I have yet to hear a teacher in higher education in Russia who does not complain about the Minister of Higher Education, the lowering of standards, the lack of attention to the humanities, the chasing after money rather than scholarship, etc etc. (When I tell these indignant people that you can hear exactly the same complaints in Britain, they are astounded. Surely Britain is a civilised country?!.)

Corruption is also a complaint: why haven’t Putin and Medvedev done more to combat it? In fact they are doing something. Russia is slowly – but too slowly – climbing up the list where the least corrupt nations are at the top. 136 out of 175 countries. But there are interesting observations by ordinary Russians about this corruption.]

So where are we now: or rather where were we in late February 2014 when the crisis in Ukraine erupted.?

What can I say about this which won’t be shouted down by one side or the other?

Ukraine is an unhappy country, put together out of several large areas with different histories, cultures, faiths and loyalties. In 23 years its leaders, mostly quarrelling oligarchs from all sides, have failed to think about Ukraine as a pluralist country that can develop its own pluralist sense of pride. The economy has dropped more than that of any other post-Soviet country and many people live in real desperate poverty.

Ukraine is related to Russia. If you ask how – my analogy is to say: take Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, roll them into one and say this is a nation which has a long, long relationship with England. Imagine what you would say about that. It would not be easy. Ukraine’s relationship with Russia is intimate, historical, full of love and solidarity, but damaged by bitterness and a sense of oppression. Lots and lots of family and friends on both sides. And three million Ukrainians working in Russia.

Now for the questions which I have asked Russians – hundreds of Russians from the Arctic to the Caucasus, from Smolensk across European Russia, across the Urals, to Siberia and on to the far east, to Vladivostok. I have been to all these places and I have talked. I have extensive notes. But I know that I can be biased as we all can, in what I want to hear. So I circulated about 300 university teachers of English with 8 questions, and asked them – entirely optionally – for their answers and those of their friends and relations. Later I turned the questions into Russian and asked especially for the opinions of men. As a result I have about 70 detailed answers from teachers, lawyers, engineers, IT specialists, business people, journalists, students, pensioners. Educated people – so not sociologically accurate BUT typical, it seems to me, in the range of answers and the kind of answers that they give.

Some people would say that in their answers, these ordinary thoughtful Russians were unduly influenced by mass-media propaganda. To that I would say two things: a startlingly high proportion of Russians use the internet and watch foreign TV channels. They have access to many sources of information and misinformation – more than their British equivalents. And even more important, millions and millions of Russians including probably more than 50% of this sample have friends and relations in Ukraine whom they phone or write to or skype with, often daily. They are living in a complicated connected world. Of course their views are not just parroted.

(1) Are you more or less satisfied with the annexation of Crimea? The vast majority, about 9 out of 10 approved of Crimea seceding from Ukraine. They objected to my word, ‘annexation’. The Crimea used to belong to Russia, its inhabitants had long wanted to return to Russia, they held a referendum and they voted to leave Ukraine and then – to ask Russia to accept the autonomous republic as part of the Russian Federation.

Although Russian special forces popped up all over the place, no violence took place and no-one was killed. (I was surprised that my respondents did not make much more of the peaceful change of power)

The Russians said ‘It was right to let them decide: they have decided.’

A number complained that their own hard-earned salaries were being taxed to pay for economic aid to Crimea. This was not ideal for Russia and some of my respondents should be put down as ‘against the inclusion of Crimea’. But they did not doubt that it was a very good move for the people of Crimea.

One or two pointed out that probably the main aim of the Russian government which was certainly active in the process, was to ensure the integrity of Sevatopol.

As for the small minority of those who disapproved, they did not explain Why – except one who said that it was against international law. Perhaps the others felt the same objection, but they answered with a vigorous ‘No’, and left comments and explanations to those who supported what happened.

I spoke at length to a thoughtfully sardonic Crimean teacher who said ‘Most of us voted to leave Ukraine and then to join Russia because we were terrified of becoming victims of violence like the wretched eastern Ukrainians. Even in those early days we could see what was happening as the Kiev government turned against the people in Donbass. And we said, No way! We must escape that. So thank you East Ukrainians for showing us what would have been our fate!

She said the Crimean Tartars were worried at first, but after a year most of them have stopped being worried.

(2) Would the Annexation of eastern Ukraine be a good idea. A large majority said, ‘Certainly not! What for? Russia has never sought to grab eastern Ukraine which belongs to another country – utterly unlike Crimea.’ This big majority insisted that this was an internal problem which Ukraine must sort out for itself. But of course this opinion, pure as it might be is difficult – remember my analogy with Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland/Ireland. Many Russians frequently expressed pity for the victims. And many knew relations and friends in the Donetsk and Lugansk separatist regions who were hoping for some kind of support.

A year ago, answers such as ‘It is nothing to do with us.’ ‘It is unimaginable that we would invade Ukraine’ were even more common. In April last year (2014) I met no-one who thought that Russia would or should invade eastern Ukraine. But my most recent responses have included some long and thoughtful ruminations on the problem. Only one said firmly, ‘Invade Ukraine and bring the civil war there to a quick halt!’ and one said ‘ so many people are suffering, so many civilians. Perhaps we ought to do something to avoid genocide.’ But there was more of ‘If the separatists think they can no longer live within Ukraine, after a year of fighting, what should Russia do then? If there is no hope for peace?’

Here is one such response.

‘I honestly do not know. The Ukrainian government is set on not granting any degree of autonomy to the region, and the Russian language has been denied the status of the second official language consistently, despite the fact that a large proportion (more than half according to some sources, both Russian and foreign) of the population there speaks Russian as their first language. However, to me that does not mean that Russia should take over by military force, as this would be an invasion of another country’s territory, which is completely inacceptable. At the same time, I am appalled at the double-standard the EU has shown in this matter: while upholding the rights of ethnic minorities in European countries, the EU openly supports a government that discriminates against their own people. I believe that the Russian government is right to apply political and economic leverage in order to support the large Russian community in Eastern Ukraine.’

Two people took what I would call a Ukrainian line. They explained that the east Ukrainian separatists are ‘terrorists’.

And various people in Rostov who are going backwards and forwards across the frontier pointed out that after a year of fighting, the militias fighting for Donetsk and the separatists were almost as bad as the Ukrainian Nazi militias.

Several respondents had experience of the refugees who came to Russia. One said that 19 members of her husbands family had now moved across the border to Russia where they had relatives. Maybe they were not exactly refugees – but they had left their homes and jobs and ordinary life to escape to Russia. [I have personally interviewed at length a shy 20-year-old refugee from Ukraine, living now in Perm. His own story showed that militias (probably on both sides) lose all sense after a time. ]

(3) Do you believe your government when it says the Russian army is not fighting in Ukraine?

This was a tricky question. Few people simply said, ‘I believe them’ or ‘they are liars’. They all know that ‘the West’ accuses Russia of using its military to destabilise Ukraine. They all know that Putin and his ministers say this is not true. So who is right?
Some people said ‘I know lots of people in the army and they do not know anyone who is fighting in Ukraine. Rumours are bound to be flying about, so if they say they know nothing, then there aren’t any soldiers there.’

Another argument was as follows:

‘The claim is true. I’m not a person to take on trust whatever the authorities and mass media say. I’ve witnessed bitter moments of blinding my nation (Afghanistan, Chechnya), but those lies were evident: mothers buried their sons in Siberia, Nizhny Novgorod, Volgograd, Rostov, Ekaterinburg… and with that, you understand, the army presence in an aria was impossible to conceal. I’m 45 now and belong to the generation of mothers whose sons are draft age. Since 2014 I’ve heard of not a single case of a mother losing her son in military operations in Donbass.’
[In fact mothers have protested, but there have been small numbers, and government efforts to suppress comment. So that isn’t quite true. ]

Others said, ‘Of course the Russian army isn’t there. If they were they could defeat Ukraine in a week. OR Why doesn’t the Kiev government present proof – photos, satellite evidence, captured prisoners. Not just two prisoners and five passports, – as if soldiers would have their passports anyway. The Americans keep talking about this huge Russian army, but they have not seen it, and they cannot identify it.

A lot of people said, ‘I don’t know’.

Many said – ‘we know that there are Russian volunteers. I know of people who have volunteered to help the east Ukrainians.’

And who are these volunteers? Well they may be enthusiastic idealistic students; friends have talked to me of several such students and have described their accounts. Other comments: If there are real army people there, I bet they have been sent by exasperated officers who want us to DO something. Not chief command, but lower down where they feel Russia is not responding to a disaster as it should do.

Some one said: I know those boys who drive the lorries full of humanitarian aid to Donetsk. They are not against the aid but they are so frustrated. ‘Why let the Ukrainian militias destroy all these civilians without responding.’ And somebody else said ‘Veterans can’t live without war. If they were professional soldiers once they will get to Ukraine somehow. ‘

But is the Russian government lying?

One inspired person said – ‘I think what they say is 80% true.

And here is a provincial journalist who seems to know what he is talking about:

‘It was a habit in the USSR to conceal the presence of its military in war zones. [He gives examples] People living in Russia well understand their recent history. They know that if our weapons are fired in Ukraine, there are Russian soldiers firing them. Not the army, not thousands of companies, not whole divisions. Not the airforce, not ballistic missiles. But special forces, signallers, reconnaissance troops, tank drivers. They are there. Not in the statistics. But the coffins arrive back in Russia.

I suspect that respondent saying ‘it’s 80% true’ would agree with him. Small numbers of special forces. The Russian government is 20% lying. Others, in their answers suggest something similar.

‘I think it’s not completely true. It would be a lie to say, that there are large groups of Russian soldiers fighting for Donbass, but it would also be a lie to deny Russian army’s participation. I do not know to which extend our army is involved and it’s hard to find out amongst all this propaganda from both sides. But still I believe, that most of rebels fighting for Donbass are Donbass people.’

And then comes the troubled justification.

‘It is hard for me to judge as, obviously, we are brainwashed (as well as all the others). I think there might be someone from Russia fighting in Donbass but I also think people from Donbass need someone to help them. What we see is the Ukrainian government oppressing the Russian population in their historically multicultural country. For me it’s like oppressing people who speak French in Canada. Europe is not willing to help Donbass and when I see (on TV) the civilian population of Donbass (the old, women and children) being killed by the Ukrainian government I can’t but justify the presence of Russians in Donbass helping their “brothers”.’

(4) What more of practical action can Russia take to help solve the crisis in Ukraine?

To this question there was widespread gloom -‘There is nothing more that we can do.’ ‘This is a questions for the Ukrainians, it is nothing to do with us; and they do not want to solve it.’

The minority who thought that Russia was actively meddling in Donbass said ‘Withdraw all our military, and the Ukrainians will defeat the separatists, so the war will stop.’ Or ‘Russia wants a destablised Ukraine under its control. So it does not want the war to stop.’ I had perhaps 3 answers like that. I wrote to one of the respondents asking if he could explain how a destablised Ukraine could be in the interests of Russia: expensive, messy, very unpopular with the majority of Russians, inviting the wrath of western countries, and ruining even further the Ukrainian economy so that it cannot pay it debts to Russia. My respondent replied that there were several theories – he listed 7 – all of them ingenious, far-fetched, and miles from real-politik which is what Putin is usually accused of.

Many people mentioned continuing humanitarian aid – which is getting more urgent, not less; decent treatment of refugees, long-term visitors and immigrants from Ukraine.

The gloom included assumptions about American intentions. ‘The war will not stop because the US does not want it to stop. Probably the EU would like it to stop, but the EU is – and has been for a long time – America’s poodle.”

This thoughtful answer – from another sceptic -sums up many responses:

‘I think that Russia has done more than enough. In 1995 Russia managed not to fully stop, but at least kick start the peace process in Chechnya at the very brink of obvious military victory over the Islamists. Still our government was wise enough to see further than immediate political gain. So Poroshenko’s team as well as other negotiators have a lot to learn from Russia who, unlike many countries in Europe knows how to deal with such problems. I think that Poroshenko had better chances in the beginning when Donbass claimed more autonomy for local authorities and especially tax freedoms. The situation is worse now. It would be best for both parties to stop fighting and start negotiating. Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war. But nobody cares.’

One person was blunt: ‘I don’t know what Russia can do. But I’m sure that to stop artillery firing in the east Ukraine there will be enough one telephone call to Ukraine from the US.’

(5) What about the sanctions. Should they be lifted?

Three months ago I was in a car with a lawyer aged about 60. The conversation had turned to sanctions. The lawyer was rapidly becoming apoplectic, not so much with rage as with the extreme frustration of the intelligent having to deal with the stupid. He kept taking his hands off the wheel, and I feared that we might be serious victims of this international device to make Russia ‘behave’.

‘Sanctions!’ said my friend. ‘What on earth have sanctions to do with us! We didn’t start the war! We are not prosecuting the war! The war is being fought on Ukrainian territory by Ukrainians against other Ukrainians. By what logic should the US impose sanctions on Russia which has nothing to do with the trouble that America itself stirred up. How are we to blame?’

If in less vigorous terms, that view is almost universal. Even the strong anti-Russian-Government respondents think that the sanctions are illogical, ineffective, and causing unnecessary trouble to business trying to develop internationally. The pain to ordinary people has been the Russian government’s reverse sanctions in which food from the EU is barred from entering Russia. Interestingly no-one objected to this in the sense of saying that the Russian response should be abolished. Sanctions and counter-sanctions were part of the package.

Almost nobody expected them to be lifted; people regularly pointed out that the US is not hurt by them, and wishes to go on hurting Russia, while the EU is hurt by them, and many European countries, let alone their businesses and producers would like to see them lifted, but the EU is America’s poodle. (This view is certainly drawn largely from Russian media and propaganda. It also happens to be true.)

Given that they are here to stay, how have sanctions affected ordinary Russians. There was a distinct divide between the responses of people from Moscow and St Petersburg and those of the rest of the country. The people in the capitals miss the foreign cheeses, and chocolate and the doubling of the cost of foreign travel. Most of the rest of the country is less troubled: I couldn’t afford those foreign goods anyway. I always buy Russian food and there is plenty of it and it is good.

Also, many people argued that the sanctions have thrown the Russian economy back on its own resources and productions. So there are more local businesses, more initiative, less dependence on imports generally. So the sanctions are actually improving the economy.

Now that last point is certainly part of what the government tells the people. I don’t know how far it is true. Probably the government doesn’t know either, because Russia is a huge country. But one or two people mentioned specific new activities in their areas.

Everyone said that prices had gone up – partly because of sanctions, partly because of low oil prices. But this was part of life. No financial difficulties were like the disasters of 15 years ago. A nuisance, a tightening of belts, a pulling-together.

It’s strange but the fact is that sanctions imposed on Russia have united our country.

Or from someone more sceptical, and in other answers critical of the government:

‘If you hate Putin, punish him, but if you hate all the Russians, we will also hate you. The most severe sanctions were imposed after the MH-17 tragedy. [The Malaysian airliner crash] The West was not right. We don’t know who was really to blame! The other sanctions have not much angered me and my friends. I hope the sanctions will be lifted.’


Question 6. Is a drawing together of the Russian Orthodox Church and State a good idea?

I got a wide range of answers to this, but rather little analysis. If I divide them into three, the smallest group – but still a reasonable number – said ‘Surely this is a good thing’. ‘What is the problem?” ‘Russians have always been spiritual’.

The next group – a third, say – said that they did not understand my question because they did not recognize the situation. The Russian Constitution insists on a separation of Church and State; different religions are recognized within the constitution; the political elite sometimes make official visits to Mosques and Buddhist temples and Synagogues as well as the Orthodox Church with which a big majority of the ethnic Russian population identify. The papers publish photos of political leaders with lots of leaders of different faiths: that is part of acknowledging the varied cultures that make up the Russian Federation. Russia is – and is recognized – as a multi-faith and no-faith culture.

Many pointed out that they thought of themselves as Russian Orthodox, but this was for them a cultural identification rather than a spiritual one. They didn’t expect to go to Church, but it was useful for the soul to take the fast seriously. [Fasting in Lent has recently become almost an obsession; I am in Russia during April each year, and so I arrive at the height of the Fasting Season. Fasting means cutting out meat, butter and dairy produce, sometimes fish but rarely alcohol. So in the bakery they will warn you that such and such a loaf is not good for Lent Fasting because it contains milk; in restaurants and in canteens there are special Lent menus. With a mixture of moaning and enthusiasm much of the population joins in, at least during the week before Orthodox Easter. Then they have huge feasts with eggs and special decorated cakes and a glorious cream cheese dish flavoured with many good things. At such moments many Russians will look at you solemnly and say they are Orthodox at heart – but in the next breath they can begin to mock fat corrupt priests.]

Anyway, this group can’t understand my question because they don’t really think it is happening.

And then a slightly larger group admit that they are worried. Most of them are not worried very much. When I have asked friends who are religious themselves, they have shaken their heads slowly and said, ‘ I don’t like it. I think religion is a private thing and it is no part of my religion to be reflected in what our government does.’

Others – non-believers – were more scathing. The Orthodox Church is an institution which is always trying to get more power. That’s a tendency in all countries but it should be resisted.

Several said that the Orthodox Church is now de facto an arm of government – ‘And what I hate most about it is that these elites used to be atheists and now they adore the church.’
‘It’s a very worrying influence, mostly due to the Russian Orthodox Church’s long connections to the FSB (former KGB).’

The actual views that the Church seeks to impose on the people – or at least it declares its position with seeming Kremlin complicity – include strong disapproval of gay people, strong disapproval of ‘western moral standards’, and a belief that Russia must take its own spiritual path. Which tends to proud isolationism.

So some of the objections by this group are to ‘Mediaeval opinions – but what can you expect of the Church?;’ resentment that any institution is telling you what to do with that kind of authority; attacks on the assumption that there is a connection between the Church and the 144 million Russians – who are diverse with diverse opinions. Still, this moderate answer was most typical.

‘I don’t think it’s a good idea. But right now (as I see it) Russian people do not see any threat in that. A lot of people from Russia do not believe in saintliness of clergy. We have seen a lot of photographs in our press and blogosphere showing priests in luxurious cars and wearing hugely expensive cloaks. We may go to church, we may skip church. It’s not a big deal. That’s why most of us do not care about the problem.’

That was certainly the view of students in classes where I asked the question. ‘No big deal.’

Finally I had several respondents who retorted, reasonably enough – What about your Queen in Westminster Abbey? What about your Archbishop in Canterbury? Our constitution is secular; yours is not.

Questions 7 and 8 On Active students and on the Immortal Legion.

These were alternative Questions; I was wanting to find out if there was an increase of civic activity in Russia recently, and 3 people from 3 different cities spontaneously mentioned the increased enthusiasm of their students. But the question was obviously irrelevant for non-university respondents so I replaced it by one about the Immortal Legion walks on Victory Day. Neither turned out to be an ideal question but they raised some interesting points.

Plenty of university teachers said that students are students, they vary, some years are more active than others; they are ignorant and immature except for a few…. ‘A very dull lot this year…’ Etc.

But a significant number said that more and more of their students (at least in the humanities) were taking up voluntary work such as helping in orphanages, visiting elderly people, donating blood. The students organize such activities themselves, but clearly there is a national mood going round the country. It is certainly helped by government-approved media. But that doesn’t mean that it is less real. Two years ago there were really devastating floods in the Russian Far East Thousands of homes destroyed, tens of thousands homeless. Through TV channels there were appeals for money and help, and thousands of students volunteered. Normal decent responses. But many teachers thought that the response was more vigorous than it would have been in earlier years. Also, following the example of Britain, much was made of student volunteers at the Sochi Olympic Games. I spoke to lots of students who went there as volunteers and they were as excited as their British counterparts. As a result it has become fashionable to be helpful and to volunteer for Russian activities. (And I do not use ‘fashionable’ cynically but as a way of tracing a trend.)

Moreover several respondents noted that students are more politically active. Of course they are a small minority, but bigger and noisier than they were. Here is an enthusiastic comment from one teacher in her thirties.

‘My students are very inquiring, I’ve been teaching for 11 years already and do think that the young people are more open, sensitive and what is really amazing – patriotic! About 10 years ago 90% of students of Foreign Languages Department wanted to leave the country and now they all want to stay, they broaden their horizon, get involved into many voluntary projects, they help so many people!’

Now I want to look at the other question. What do you think of the Immortal Legion. In Soviet times there were two important national holidays – 1st May and 9th May. 1st May – workers’ day – was so linked with the Soviet Union that it could not be celebrated except as a communist festival. So it is still a public holiday, but most of the population who can do so rush off to their dachas to begin planting for the summer season. It’s a spring break of several days.

9th May was celebrated in Soviet times as the great Victory Over Fascism Day. Military hardware was brought out onto Red Square, and in cities and towns up and down the country the army paraded and people both rejoiced in the repelling of invaders from their homeland and mourned the millions who had died. It has always been a public holiday but in the 1990s not so much was made of the display. The Russian Federation was not at war, the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union was about a different world in a different country, and Russians had other things to worry about.

In Putin’s time, not immediately but slowly, Victory Day has been brought back as a patriotic holiday, with the idea of uniting all the people. With 27 million dead, every Soviet family suffered deaths, let alone the wounded and traumatized who did return. And ‘Soviet people’ included of course the peoples living in what is now the Russian Federation. So this seemed to be a day to bring them all together.

Is it a day for showing off the military? Not nearly so much as it used to be – until this year when Putin made it clear that the display of military equipment did have a political agenda.

This year there was a huge official build-up to the 70th Anniversary. Everywhere were posters, declamations, exhibitions, people-participation in events before the great day. But also in response to aggressive and hostile actions by the west, there was also a lot of military stuff on display.

Several times, as carefully as I could, I raised the question of whether this was an appropriate public holiday 70 years after the event. ‘You no longer celebrate throwing Napoleon out of Russia. When are you going to stop celebrating throwing the Nazis out of Russia?’

And almost always the answer was as if I had seriously hurt the person I asked.

‘Karen, surely you understand – so many people died. And they died for us, and we must not forget that. Children forget so much these days so it is very important to tell them about their great-grandfathers.’

‘But why Victory? Isn’t this a bit too late for Celebrating Victory?’

‘It doesn’t mean that we are thinking of other peoples as enemies. It means that we are proud of ourselves.’

Now to the Immortal Legion or the Immortal Regiment. About four years ago in some Siberian city, a group of people decided to walk behind the usual marching soldiers and youthful cadets, holding home-made posters with a photograph of someone in their family who had been killed in the war. It was a local initiative which caught on very quickly and spread across the country. By 8th May 2015 (when I was in Perm as part of an official Oxford city delegation) thousands of Permians spent the evening making posters ready for a walk in a procession the next day. And so in Perm on May 9th, out in the big parade area we had ballet and soldiers, children, and a Perm-made tank that went all the way to Berlin, mounted on a lorry – that got big applause – and largish crowds. But after these displays there came, walking down Komsomolsky Prospect 30,000 Perm citizens, carrying posters. [Population – one million.]
It was entirely people-led; it was entirely civic, and it was very moving.

What did my respondents say. Almost all of them said that this was a wonderful idea that came from the people, represented the people, and gave pride and love to everyone. Even the most extreme sceptic said ‘On this matter I have not yet made up my mind’ which was some kind of grudging approval. But one young pacifist-humanist could not quite approve.

‘Again, a difficult question. On the one hand – Immortal Legion is a good idea for national rejoicing and preserving the national historical memory. It caught public’s attention and was widely shown on TV. But on the other hand – isn’t it better to show national rejoicing in some more socially useful arrangements? Helping the poor, orphans or even just planting trees. To my mind it was better, when some years ago we had a celebration of Victory day planting a pine tree and placing a sign with a name of relative, who died during the war. I think, our ancestors would have approved it more.’

One of the words that appeared in answers to these two questions about Civic Society was ‘patriotic’. It occurred quite often. And it raises the question of when ‘patriotism’ is a good thing and when it is not.

One of the accusations levelled against Putin by ‘the West’ is that he has encouraged nasty kinds of nationalism; that in order to bolster up Russia he has given quiet support to various neo-Nazi Russian groups.

I want to say something about this immediately. I do not doubt that there are unpleasant Russian ‘nationalists’, just as there are unpleasant British ‘nationalists’ quite a number of whom expect to see increasing attention to their views in this country. Russian neo-nazis have their websites, their anti-Muslim, anti-Semite, anti-Caucasian, anti-Ukrainian views. They have drunken fracas and they can be murderous. But I have never seen or heard any Russian approving of such groups – including the most fiercely patriotic and enthusiastic followers of official Russian propaganda. Of course I meet a selected number of people both in Russia and in Britain. I don’t meet extreme nationalists in Britain. But in both cases these people seem to be fringe groups, not welcomed at all by governments or officials.

On Victory Day in Moscow, as I said, the government brought out missiles and advanced armaments – the biggest display ever. In that sense Russian nationalism was to the fore. In a short speech Putin thanked the Americans, the British and other allies for helping to defeat Nazism in 1945 – and quietly indicated that they had chosen not to come on this 70th anniversary. He talked about the fight for humanity to which all these Russian citizens’ ancestors had contributed, And he showed off Russian strength to the foreign dignitaries.

Then – advancing on Red Square came a mass of ordinary people. And to the confusion of the Chinese President, Putin got down off the tribunal and went to join the walkers, carrying a picture of his own father who fought in the war. In this crowd he was one of half-a-million.

Is this an example of grotesque government propaganda? Is it an example of the President taking over the local civic demonstrations of the people? Or is it a way for the President to be part of the people. (He was after all, walking in the midst of thousands some of whom probably did not feel totally enthusiastic about him.)

Would Obama do this? Would Cameron? Does it matter?

I ask these questions as I come on to the last question which I sent out to my readers.

(8) Has Russia changed recently. And if so, for the better or the worse.

Some people said nothing much had changed except prices had gone up. Usually the implication seemed to be – life is generally dull or gloomy and we have to put up with it.

A smallish minority said it had definitely changed for the worse: no respect for human rights, too much Church-propaganda, terrible mass-media, a generally brain-washed population.

“Russia has changed for the worse because of the active governmental propaganda: all those talks about ‘external enemies of Russia’, ‘Russian spiritual bonds’, and ‘greatness of Russia’ make me sick.”

The majority however said, ‘Yes, something has changed. A coming together of people, a sense of being Russian with pride.’ So what makes one respondent sick is obviously related to the pride felt by others. Is it, though, more than grand words from top people transmitted through the population?

Here is a comment by a very thoughtful correspondent.

‘Russia has changed a lot for the last twelve years (not many changes since 2013, as I can see). There are very good things – for example, in bigger cities rather successful work against corruption is being held; people have become “sated” with food, goods and pleasures and are looking for something else. And still, there are things that seem to me sad and savage – the mentioned “closeness” of State and Church, some types of discrimination, censorship in media, for example.’

And now, from a provincial city – and I could have picked up many other comments:

‘I think Russia has changed and is changing for the better. People are becoming more patriotic, they are more confident in their future (you can see that by the number of babies being born) – our birth rate is definitely going up! More people are willing to work for the benefit of the country. Not only for their personal survival.

‘Another thing that I notice, since I am in touch with this sphere, is that they are closing down a lot of orphanages, because there are just too few children in them. They are merging several orphanages into one, because we don’t need that many any more. One reason is that less and less babies and children are abandoned and the other thing is that a lot are being adopted. There is a whole boom of adoptions, I know several families, who have adopted children even having their own ones. That is another positive tendency that says that people are becoming more empathic to others, they are not only centered around their personal lives, but looking outward, trying to help their “neighbours”.

‘A national idea is being formed again, which has been sadly lacking after the fall of the USSR.’

Or as someone else put it:

“This did not happen overnight but gradually. The people are straightening their shoulders…”

I could go on but I will leave it there and wait for questions.

Answers came from: Arkhangelsk, Barnaul, Belgorod, Blagoveshensk, Chelyabinsk, Chita, Khabarovsk, Kolomna, Krasnodar, Kurgan, Kursk, Magnitogorsk, Moscow, Naberezhny Chelny, Novgorod, Omsk, Perm, Piatigorsk, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, St Petersburg, Tomsk, Tula, Tver, Ulan-Ude, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg.

Extra contributions which are of interest:

Are you more or less satisfied with the annexation of Crimea?

‘Yes. In 2010 (!!!) I had a backpacking summer travel in the Crimea and stayed overnights at dozens of ordinary homes I had never known before. I returned to Russia rather startled with the poverty and despair those people lived in, as well as with their strong resolution to start military actions against Kiev, in case the Ukrainian government proceeded with the pro-NATO policy and turned their back on Russia. Lots of people were keeping arms in the cellars (I saw that!!) and men spoke about their readiness to defend “Crimea, the Russian land” (as one Cossack, aged 30 said, “We are Russian, and if Kiev ever trenches on our right to be Russian, we are organized, armed and ready to combat, we’ll defend our land”). The atmosphere of hatred between various parts of Ukraine was shocking and really frightening. It was evident, it couldn’t last long.’

‘So, what I want to say is: 1) the conflict in Ukraine is a result of long-time domestic tensions; 2) any forces that have been fueling the conflict are merely using the ground that became badly ill because of unwise actions of the Ukrainian leaders in the 00s; 3) the other scenario in March 2014 would have probably meant severest civil war in Ukraine, with much more drastic consequences for Ukrainians than they are having now.’

(4) The Russian government has repeatedly called for a negotiated peace settlement in Eastern Ukraine, and worked at the Minsk 1 and then the Minsk 2 agreements. Is there anything more – anything practical – that the Russian government can do to bring about peace?

‘I think no, because it’s not our problems, really I don’t understand why whole World asks Russia to make something for peace. The problem first considered Ukraine, their politic, economic and social habits, they make it by own causes. Many of Ukraine people wants to live in Russia, EC and other countries, because they can’t live in Ukraine. What and why should we do else. Russia helps refugees, but EC and USA don’t, so why?’

Has Russia changed for better or worse?

(An extreme view, but one which is supported (or seems to be supported) by official government propaganda.) ‘I do not want my children to live according to European stereotypes and standards – and they, to put it mildly, have degraded recently, if to recall only the gay policy!!! This is DEGRADATION of the moral values and this is diseased mind which is being imposed on Russia, a strong and independent nation. I do not want to live among gays and lesbians. These are abnormal cases which are popularized by mighty Europeans and Americans, who want to control the world, but are actually losing the game, because it’s impossible to oppress people who have their own identities (Russians, Muslims, Jews…).’