Russia’s Born-Again Citizens and Their Discontents

Map of Russia and Russian Flag adapted from images at

(Kennan Institute – – Boris Grozovski- November 21, 2019)

Boris Grozovski is a prominent Russian journalist writing about the country’s economy and development. His work has appeared in Forbes Russia, InLiberty, the Moscow Times, the New Times, Vedomosti Daily, penRussia and others.

The year 2019 saw numerous signs of Russian society awakening from its post-annexation-of-Crimea slumber. Young people were at the forefront of this past year’s wave of political protests in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg. Many of those in their twenties feel that Putin’s regime is stealing their future and has gone too far in invading their freedoms.

Apart from politics, it was local causes, such as protecting green spaces in cities or fighting waste landfills in the countryside, that energized civic movements. In 2019, instances of successful fundraising for legal assistance or to help activists pay the large fines imposed on them by the authorities were on display throughout Russia.

Russian society is showing a growing appetite for politics and is learning to establish horizontal ties. Previously it was a lack of civic culture that held back Russia’s democratic transition. This time it is the state’s growing repression that might stifle a burgeoning civic renascence by scaring away some of its leaders and putting others on lockdown. Will the state once again succeed in postponing the populace’s awakening?

Dazed and Confused

Post-Soviet Russia’s difficulties with democracy are neither a riddle nor an enigma. The regime’s growing autocracy has fared well, with a lack of civic culture, a scarcity of social capital, and little recognition of democracy as a value registered among the population’s attitudes.

All ratings and indexes of record-Polity IV, the Fraser Institute, Freedom House, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators-place Russia among authoritarian regimes. But Russians themselves are unsure what kind of regime they live under. In a recent Friedrich Naumann Foundation poll, 36.8 percent of respondents said that Russia was a democracy, but 30.8 percent could not tell whether or to what extent Russia was a democracy. This probably means that over two-thirds of those polled have trouble understanding what “democracy” means.

Russian society’s understanding of the institutions of democracy is similarly shaky. Only 26 percent of those polled think that the media should be free (30 percent are convinced that media should always be under state control, while 40 percent assume that state control is needed in some situations). In a recent Levada-Carnegie poll, 45 percent of respondents thought that concentrating all political power in one person’s hands was preferable to distributing it, 46 percent thought otherwise.

Only 18 percent of those polled by Levada in 2015 saw democracy as a kind of social order that allows its citizens to exert control over politicians. Only 17 percent of Russian respondents think that citizens should have more influence on political power, a World Values Survey (WVS) finds. The survey also includes a finding that most people in Russia say they are comfortable with a situation in which a powerful leader, unconstrained by a parliament or by competition, rules the country. Most Russians name economic and social problems among the most acute and urgent issues afflicting their country. Only a small minority mention eroding civic and political freedoms as a matter of concern.

The institutions that underlie the workings of democracy and a market economy are not independent of the attitudes prevalent in a given society. Institutions function well only if they are aligned with public morals. If this connection is broken or nonexistent, the rule of law cannot be established. That, in brief, is the thesis of Professor Guido Tabellini’s article, “Institutions and Culture,” published back in 2007.

Establishing a Culture of Extraction

Why did most Russians accept democracy and markets only superficially in the 1990s and early 2000s? Why did the civic culture not develop as fast as some had hoped? That diffidence, those lags, were no accident, the economist Leonid Polishchuk and his colleagues write in “Chronicles of a Democracy Postponed.” In its quest for democracy, Russia had almost nothing to rely on. One could argue that pre-revolutionary Russia did have an experience with the institution of private property. But, facing independence, Russia lacked a home-grown manual for assembling a functioning democracy.

The traumatic experience of the early post-Soviet years made a collapse of the short-lived civic culture almost inevitable. The ruling elites did some democratic window dressing but relied on authoritarian rule in pursuing their policies. The trauma they inflicted exacerbated anti-democracy attitudes. The nascent civic culture withered and authoritarian tendencies strengthened. In the early 1990s a vicious circle was set in motion that Russian society is only starting to emerge from.

The early post-Soviet years were a critical juncture for the kinds of institutions that would emerge from the ruins of the USSR. Those new institutions turned extractive rather than inclusive, says Polishchuk using the terminology of the economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their widely acclaimed book, Why Nations Fail. Extractive institutions are so termed because they are designed to facilitate elite groups’ efforts to extract the resources and value from a given community. Institutions are inclusive if they are designed to facilitate broadening access to the fruits of the community’s economic activity.

Russia’s early post-Soviet authorities decided to sacrifice political representation for the sake of market reforms. Otherwise they would have had to contend with broad swaths of opposing publics. The constitutional crisis of 1993 led to pro-government forces shooting at Russia’s parliament and the government later imposing a “super-presidential” constitution on Russian society. The “representation vacuum” that followed enabled an oligarchic system to emerge in subsequent years. The state’s policies fell under the control of a narrow circle of the powerful and wealthy, leaving most of the population out of the decision-making process. Elections became staged and fully controlled affairs.

Since that time, all key policy decisions have been made by a group of the president’s close associates, not by representatives of society as a whole. Extractive institutions helped protect their power and property. Those institutions survived the transfer of power from Yeltsin to Putin and consolidated further. They now serve the interests of Russia’s new elites, which, beginning in the early 2000s, took over from the oligarchs.

The big bang of the early 1990s led to the spread of survival values. The term, suggested by University of Michigan professor Ronald Inglehart, encompasses a focus on individual and family well-being, economic egotism, and civic apathy. Those attitudes spread in Russia between 1990 and 1995 and then remained embedded for more than a decade, says the WVS, of which Inglehart is one of the founders. During those years there was a sharp decline in the overall level of trust (the share of people who thought that others could generally be trusted) and in the share of people interested in political participation, while the number of respondents who believed that people ought to take responsibility for their own lives declined.

Russian society’s withdrawal from public and political life presented the rent-seeking elites with an opportunity to consolidate their extractive institutions even further. By the time economic well-being improved and civic sentiments reawakened in the late 2000s to early 2010s, authoritarianism had become so entrenched that civic society could not weaken its grasp.

Thus, postponing a democratic transformation for the sake of market reforms, as happened in early post-Soviet Russia, resulted in the triumph of authoritarianism in the long run. The vested interests that benefited from the early market reforms and privatization were keen on tightening their control and turning their winnings into rent sources. This set the stage for the success of the extractive institutions and the further degradation of Russia’s law enforcement and judiciary, the economist Polishchuk concludes.

Born-Again Citizens

A recovery from the post-communist traumas was slow, but it occurred on both civic and political fronts. People joined disaster relief programs, people returned to politics. When in 2011 Putin said he would run again for the presidency, having already served two consecutive terms and then served as prime minister while Medvedev ran a largely caretaker presidency, many protested. The early 2010s saw the emergence of NGOs, whose activities would be impossible without horizontal coordination. For instance, the Liza Alert search-and-rescue organization was established in 2010, and the Nuzhna Pomoshch (Help Needed) project was launched in 2012. Foundations that had been created earlier, such as Podari Zhizn (Gift of Life), experienced an increase in public attention and active participation.

This civic reawakening slowed, first because of state pressure, then because it was muted by the euphoria the annexation of Crimea caused. The “Crimea effect” has been fading since 2016. Political rallies have since grown more numerous, young politicians willing to run for office have emerged, and protests against unwanted construction or environmental violations have intensified. Every successful civic action showed that change could be effected through the joint action of numerous individuals.

Russia’s economy is a major irritant, too. Over the past eleven years (2009-2019), the Russian economy has stagnated. Household incomes, in real terms, have not grown. Corruption has persisted, while the state has financed the army, the defense industry, and the police instead of alleviating the effects of a stumbling economy on the citizens. According to the sociologist Ella Paneyakh, people perceive stagnation is full-scale depression because of the high level of inequality. The poorly justified increase in the minimum retirement age, pushed through in 2018, only added fuel to the fire.

Public opinion polls indicate that Russians feel strongly that the political and economic situation in the country is moving in the wrong direction. Support for the authorities is declining and people are less tolerant of corruption, polls show. However, citizens do not have a positive agenda, and neither politicians nor civic leaders have a clear answer to the traditional Russian question, “What is to be done?” This is partly the result of strong government propaganda and partly the lack of an education in civics. When asked what is best for the country, a strong leader unconstrained by institutions or a democratic form of government, respondents split fifty-fifty. As for economic matters, paternalistic sentiments are still strong, especially in smaller towns, as no one wants a repetition of what happened in the early 1990s.

One more problem, one that became evident in 2019, is the intensity of the repression. The government is trying to quash the protests using all possible means: criminal prosecutions, heavier administrative fines, legal suits filed by businesses that have allegedly suffered great losses because of rallies. This is an understandable strategy that aims to render civic resistance a dangerous and costly endeavor to those who engage in it.

Will the young shoots of civic freedom survive the hard times? Will wider circles of Russian society eventually join the civic activists? Or will the government succeed in frightening some people and disorienting others, just as it did in 2014, when the Kremlin secured another three to four years for itself? In any case, Russian society is starting to feel its power, and its interaction with the Russian authorities has turned into a dance, as the political scientist Sam Greene framed it. One might say that in the beginning, Russian citizens saw Vladimir Putin as a musician, whose music helped them “feel an exciting closeness to others” and “feel part of something big, exciting, maybe even a little dangerous.” But now the audience is becoming tired of the music, and many are dancing out of sync.

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