The Russian political culture and splinters of communismRecent events in Russia raised lots of questions regarding the modern Russian political culture and political system.  In order to understand the roots of ongoing protests and its possible consequences we have to look at the Russian political culture which is quite complex to understand. 

With its communist past, Russia still remains distant from fully absorbing democratic values even though “democratization” was meant to start off right after the dissolution of the USSR. Still, modern Russia is considered as a super-presidential country, where the power of the President is in reality unlimited. But are people in Russia satisfied with this order? Is the average Russian ready to give up a part of his political freedom in the name of Great Russia?

One of the major stumbling blocks before the advance of the Russian political culture is the irredentist, imperialism-yearning nationalist sentiment within the public. Giving up part of their own political freedom in return of territorial expansion seems as a justifiable sacrifice for some segments of the population. And Putin is the one who gave such nationalists new hopes about bigger, mightier Mother Russia. After the dissolution of the USSR, Russia was left in a state of disorder and poor economic situation which required strong leadership and management skills that Boris Yeltsin (first president of Russia) failed to show possession of. However, with President Putin’s coming  to power, the Russian economy experienced a revival, and he brought to an end the search of many for a strong leader that “would make Russia great again” and thus dreams about the Great Russian empire resurged. All those conditions made his charismatic leadership popular with the public.  And in this respect, the annexation of the Crimea immensely contributed to Putin’s growing charisma.

Surveys conducted in November/December 2016 have shown that most of Russians do not see any other alternatives to replace Putin and would vote for him again. But does it really mean that there are no alternatives? Probably, it is not about the lack of alternative candidates but the lack of information and knowledge about those alternatives. The interest of the Russian people, especially youth, in politics tends to decrease each year. According to the results of a survey conducted by “Public Opinion” Fund (Фонд “Общественное Мнение”) only 37% of youth take interest in politics, while 63% show no interest at all. The rate of participation in elections is another criteria, showing the rate of interest of the Russian citizens in politics. According to the results of a social survey conducted by the abovementioned Fund, 33% of the Russian youth rarely participates in elections, while 25% does not participate in them at all. So, these numbers clearly indicate an apathy that is dominating among the Russian youth. That’s why we can claim that the political culture in Russia is yet to get formed and let’s hope that the process is already under way, although it may seem that quite the reverse is going today. Let’s look deeper and see what is going on in reality. Just several days before the protests, the Russian internet channel “Dozhd” (“Дождь”) conducted a small survey among people in Moscow asking if they know who Navalny is. Most of them, especially young people admitted that they are not interested in politics, and they didn’t even know who Navalny is. So here is the question: how come that the youth that didn’t know even Navalny’s name several days ago are now among protestors? Now let’s switch to the answer. The documentary that sought to expose the corrupt practices of Prime Minister Medvedev, “He’s not Dimon” (“Он вам не Димон”) produced by the Navalny-founded anticorruption foundation was the main reason that has shaken Russians. But didn’t these people already know about the existence of corruption in Russia? Of course they did, but as I have already mentioned it is not common for an average Russian to be actively engaged in politics. So the probable reason is the financial crisis in Russia, which severely affected regular people’s earnings and brought upon them a growing deterioration of their living conditions. The online survey that I’ve conducted among a group of people participating in protests in one of the Siberian cities, Tyumen has explicitly shown that most of the participants were driven by weakening economic conditions rather than Navalny’s film. The survey was conducted among 2 age groups: 18-35 and 40-55 years’ olds. 

85% of correspondents belonging to the second age group (40-55) were mainly complaining about decreased pensions, inflation, wages, etc., while 63% of the youth was aware of the real situation and mentioned the investigation made by Navalny and corruption as the main reason of the uprisings.

 

As shown in the graph, the Russian GDP has noticeably decreased since 2013 and keeps on plunging, which directly affects how people’s basic needs are met. This graph proves the above-mentioned idea of deterioration financial situation’s negative impact on the population and its contribution to mass rallies. This time it is not even about the political order and system but about basic human needs, and according to Maslow’s popular pyramid of needs, basic needs should be fulfilled first.The History of the Russian Revolution and other rallies occurring in Russia due to the poor economic conditions suggests that economic grievances played a vital role and were one of the most important factors in many cases of social unrest It is the case in modern Russia as well, and people were waiting for a solid reason to vent their growing anger with the government’s policy which directly affected pockets of regular citizens. In quite a timely manner, Navalny provided a much-awaited trigger. The Kremlin’s traditionally silent response to the film was another reason contributing to the growth of dissatisfaction in society. 

But Russia has already faced the wave of protests in 2011-2013 which didn’t bring any noticeable changes. So does it mean that this time the same scenario is going to be repeated? Let’s compare those two events to answer this question. 

First of all, the conditions are different. In 2011-2013, the Russian economy was prosperous; however this time severe economic conditions contribute to the growing anger among Russians. The reasons for protests in 2011-2013 were political rather than economic, as people were dissatisfied with the results of presidential elections and the demonstrations were mainly limited to the major cities: Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, this time the movement decentralized, and many other regions expressed their frustration with current conditions. In 2011-2013 Russians were protesting against Putin’s inauguration and asked for a fair election. Unlike the current protests, the demonstrations of 2011-2013 were small-scale. Although the past and present events significantly differ from each other there’s one detail that connects these 2 events: A. Navalny was involved in both demonstrations of 2011-2013 and 2017. The difference is that now he’s not just one of the activists but the leading oppositional force behind the protests. Despite those differences and severity of the situation, there’s one more issue which even worsens the situation and shows that this time Russia may be on the verge of a massive uprising. Unequal distribution of the national budget is a serious challenge facing modern Russia. The biggest part of the budget is spent on 2 main cities of Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg) which in turn causes anger in other regions. And nowadays big amount of money in exchange on national peace and security is being spent on another region, Chechnya

Taking into consideration that the population of peripheral regions is bigger than those residing in the capital, it becomes clear that if the protests are going to spill over to the periphery, then it’ll be even harder to suppress the dissent, which looks more realistic today. 

Now let’s trace back to the Russian Revolution of 1917. A century passed, but today we face some similarities. The consequences of WW1, famine and depressed economic conditions led to the revolution. The WW1 brought about horrific suffering while millions of people died during the war that didn’t bring the victory to the Russian side. The lower segments of the population were exhausted and were ready to destroy the existing system. Today, Russia is confronting the West while its own development is slowing down. It is another Cold War from which Russia gains nothing, but loses a lot in a long-term perspective. Again just as it was a century ago the middle and lower classes of population are not happy with the existing system at all. The lack of appropriate knowledge about the current political environment among youth and the immaturity of the civic stance play into the hands of radicals such as Navalny. The current conditions are quite appropriate for another revolution.  It is still difficult to predict the future but I think that according to the above-mentioned facts and analysis of events, most probably this time the protests will gain more traction and will bring forth noticeable changes in Russia, and those changes might pose an existential threat for the incumbent government. 

 

 

References

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В. Путин: рейтинг, отношение, оценки работы / ФОМ. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2017, from http://fom.ru/politika/10946

Большинство россиян любят Путина. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2017, from https://utro.ru/articles/2015/02/26/1235498.shtml

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Pleitgen, F., & Said-Moorhouse, L. (2017, March 27). Why are Russians protesting with ducks and sneakers? Retrieved May 26, 2017, from http://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/27/europe/russia-protests-explainer/

 

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