Free from Morality, Or What Russia Believes In Today
No. 3 2007 July/September
Svetlana Babayeva

RIA Novosti Senior Analyst. 

In 2006, President Vladimir Putin said at an economic forum in St. Petersburg that some countries subsist by the power of ideas. “Russia is precisely one of them,” he said. “A country, first of all, that seeks to build a society of justice based on moral values.”

Starting in the spring of this year,
the question of morality started appearing in the President’s
speeches with noticeable regularity. Putin is a pragmatic man and
hides all traces of sentimentality, but as he read out the annual
state-of-the-nation address, he suddenly spoke about “the moral
values uniting all of us,” which he called “as important a factor
of development as political and economic stability.” Toward the end
of the speech, he again returned to the issue using expressions
that rarely occur in his personal vocabulary. He described the
government’s inattentiveness to the problems of average Russians as

Except for some comments about Boris
Yeltsin, the address was overtly technocratic and its genre did not
need to be dressed up. That is why the four passages concerning
morality seemed especially unusual. Notably, Putin aired this topic

A month and a half later, the Russian
President took up the issue of justice and moral values again. The
fact that the word ‘justice’ is very popular in Russia and imparts
an almost sacred sense has long been noticed by historians,
philosophers, political scientists, and sociologists. Nevertheless,
the allusions to morality in the President’s speeches deserve
special attention.

Similar motives appeared in the
speeches of Vladislav Surkov, the deputy chief of the presidential
administration staff. Additionally, sources claim that, according
to convictions in the Kremlin, the next president, whoever he might
be, will have to concentrate on society’s moral norms, in addition
to the oil and gas sector.

It seems that even the top-rank strata
of society have developed a need for morality, together with the
more down-to-earth strata. This could partially explain the
incredibly high ratings of director Pavel Lungin’s movie “The
Island.” Its popularity ratings proved that people crave for moral
guidelines and clear notions of good and bad to a greater degree
than they crave for religion per se.


What precisely is known about the
values of Russia today? What do the people around us, our friends,
society and the state encourage? What do we classify as shameful,
disgraceful, irresponsible in terms of social behavior, or
inhumane, in the final run?

Forming the web of new immaterial
relations after two decades of tectonic shocks that the country has
lived through is a difficult business. To paraphrase the U.S.
researcher Abraham Maslow, the satisfaction of primary needs like
housing and food comes first. Next in importance are the natural
instincts (for example, security), followed by spiritual values and
deeper reflections. But first, one must get down to the business of
organizing the household. (It should be noted that many people
never get beyond this phase, although it is broader than the mere
primeval necessity of survival.)

Add to all of this the completely
changed structure of society. It is not that the people lost
everything in a blink of an eye and are now regaining the material
values, earned by toil in the past. The change has been
overwhelming. It affected the criteria of professional and social
advance, the notions of what is desirable or respectable, and the
hierarchies of goals and tasks. This process of restructuring is
still continuing.

The vacuum of ideas, compounded with
the insecurity of material status (the Russian market still remains
an unpredictable place), makes it impossible to set and fulfill
objectives (materialize one’s dreams) or cause aggression or
unwillingness to make progress. People have developed the ability
to “enjoy the moment,” contrary to what the gurus said about the
ability to go beyond the moment to consider distant consequences of
current events, since this very ability sets man apart from the
animal world.

Famous psychologist Rollo May was
guided by the notion of ‘role confusion’ when he spoke about
cultural norms, which an individual is unable to observe. This
gives rise to frustration, which eventually causes cruelty and
conservatism on the part of the individual. These are the
mechanisms of self-defense that result from the individual’s
mismatch with the world and with other people.

Presently, the economy is growing,
people are developing faith in the future and even the pessimists
acknowledge that there have been great changes for the better –
noticeable in various sections of society. But increasing material
standards do not always generate immaterial enlightenment that, in
its due turn, produces the common truths responsible for bonding
society together and allowing it to move forward. Hence, the
resultant movement lacks both vector and meaning.

Public life has provisionally split
into two general trends – business and glamour, where the politics
is obscure and social project-making is awkward. That is why some
people revel in the pleasures of Courchevel, while others get
soaked with beer. May each of us get what is affordable. Along with
it, all the strata are busy settling in life. Some seek to regain
the Soviet-era goodness, even though these memories have witnessed
changes over years and induce images totally different from the
reality of 20 years ago, which consisted of dreams of a new TV set,
a suite of furniture, and long queues in the stores just to buy
some sausage.

Today, people enjoy the ability to move
from a two-room apartment to a three-room, replacing the
Russian-made car with a foreign model, gazing into Japanese- or
South Korean-made TV sets and carrying handbags by some impressive
French designer.

But Man shall not live by bread alone,
as it were. This may partly explain why glamour, overblown to the
point of fatuity, blooms in some social classes, while other
classes pour out their aggression everywhere – from street scenes
to foreign-policy speeches. Just stop for a moment and watch the
conduct of your fellow human beings, as hordes of people try to
overtake, press or push others, both literally and figuratively.
The assertion of one’s own importance through the humiliation of
others (often at a subconscious level) seems to be happening all
around us.

Theaters, books and parties have turned
into tools for escaping the reality. They serve to fill the vacuum
that has formed between career-climbing and moneymaking. Even the
most successful and pragmatically minded sections of society
display this escapism. It reveals an underlying deficit of
fundamental things – meanings, heartiness, unification around some
idea and, generally, of all things comfortable, kind, reliable,
comprehensible and eternal.

“The things that society feels
nostalgia for perfectly illustrate what it is craving,” says VTsIOM
[Russian Public Opinion Research Center] director Valery Fyodorov.
“It craves order, organization, unification factors or even
congregating rituals. Beer cannot replace all those


Social Darwinism is a rather
non-inspirational topic. As for the lures of luxurious Courchevel,
“not everyone wants to go there,” a top businessman commented
recently. Russian society has been living for many years without
any kind of moral guidelines, principles or commonly accepted
notions of unification. However, the overt use of brute force,
lavish money and clout cannot uphold the social system forever.
Life will eventually require something that is only found in a
different dimension. Perennial values, as one might call it. An
alternative option is the irreversible marginalization of society.
It is also true, however, that the word ‘society’ scarcely applies
to Russians today, since the Russian people mostly exist as
suspended and isolated particles toiling their way to the surface
or resignedly sinking to the bottom.

Yet social volatility is on the wane
today and after almost twenty years people have acquired a new
sense of space and time, looking around them and pondering casual
rules and meanings. The youngsters of the 1990s have grown to
maturity; some have become humbled, while others have shed their
crimson jackets [a status symbol of the so-called New Russians in
the early years of post-perestroika reforms, especially among the
nouveau riche with poor taste – Ed.], learned foreign languages,
settled down and started to raise children. But suddenly an eternal
problem has sprung up. “The conflicts of generations between
fathers and children have existed for ages and won’t vanish in the
future,” says Valery Fyodorov. “But there is another thing that has
existed for ages, too. It is the set of basic precepts for living
that the fathers instructed their children in. Today’s dilemma is
what precepts they should teach.”

However correctly society might be
developing in a “capitalist” or “bourgeois” vein – call it any way
you want – its development still does not create a basis for
eternal values and commonly accepted notions.

For instance, there are obvious and
well-established biblical commandments, such as, ‘Thou shall not
kill.’ These are readily acceptable. But today, commandments such
as, ‘Thou shall not steal’ appear rather problematic. Take, for
example, a corporation manager who knows that his boss is extorting
money. How should he react and how should he view his superior? Not
in the sense of direct practical actions, like ‘whistle blowing’ to
the upper management, or reporting the theft to the Prosecutor’s
Office, but simply in the evaluative sense? Should the boss be
admired because he is so shrewd and has panache for such behavior?
Or should he be despised because he robs from the corporation and
country, and consequently, robs his subordinates – both employees
and people? Or should it all be ignored because there is no way to
stop such activities anyways and hence a waste of time and

The conduct of drivers on the road
provides yet another example on routine Russian life. How do we
describe the brazen individual who tries to squeeze his car into
the lane in front of you, risking an accident just because he needs
to get somewhere in a hurry? Can he act like this merely because he
has an important position, is wealthy, and in a hurry? He is a
damned scoundrel but stay away from sorting it out with him – you
don’t have enough nerves to set every pig down. In the West,
drivers flash their high-beam lights, or pour scorn on the driver
who ignores the rules of the road. If the transgressor happened to
overlook a sign or became lost, his fellow drivers will attempt to
politely assist him. But if he violates the traffic regulations
simply because he finds it convenient, this is considered
inadmissible behavior from the perception of commonly accepted
norms. Not the law as such, since the police do not lurk behind
every road sign. The uncoded regulations are more important in this
case – the transgressor showed disrespect for others by putting his
interests above theirs. (Even though people in some parts of
Southern Europe often do not bother to use their safety belts, for
example, and have a habit of flashing their lights at approaching
cars to indicate that road police are checking drivers’ speed, this
does not break the universal basic norms of society.) As a European
journalist noted recently, traffic regulations are the same for
everyone, whether he or she drives a Rolls Royce or an old

Today, Russia offers no shortage of
examples of opposite behavior. How do we describe situations where
government officials ride in luxury cars escorted by a motorcade?
Or when adults swill liquor in city parks in plain view of
children? Or when people make bonfires in the woods? And how do we
explain to children that it is no good to cheat others and build
fortunes on other people’s misfortunes? How do we explain that men
behave like wolves to other men?


At this point, we must draw a line
between the values of the individual and values of society. They
augment rather than contradict each other, although they are not
exact copies of each other. The most vivid example of this is the
treatment of extramarital liaisons in the West. Society generally
does not chastise people for such affairs anymore, but social
morals do not entice everyone to become free-loving roués
either. Socially successful and affluent personalities set an
example to others, yet this does not mean that get-rich-quick
schemes and career leaping are hammered into the heads of children
from the cradle. On the other hand, adolescents are stimulated to
learn the value of money and experience. It is no accident that
teenagers from many well-off families in the West do not shun work
during vacations.

Another example of a typical Western
approach: it is quite honorable to fight for one’s country and
nation. Those who die in combat become heroes, but if one must
surrender to save his life, this is acceptable. The value of life
is the highest value. He who surrenders remains a hero all the
same. (In Russia, however, such an individual will be considered a
traitor or a coward at best.)

Finally, there is the purely
down-to-earth social aspect. A Friday night relaxation in a pub is
a normal thing. People should shake off their tensions, and drinks
seem to prove convenient to these ends. But it does not mean that
such a retinue of relaxation becomes the norm under every
circumstance. Everything has a strict segmentation – the pubs are
for drinks, parks for strolls and bikeways for bikes, although they
are all meant for relaxation and removing stress.

The West places emphasis on the
self-realization of the personality through respect for oneself and
for others. On balance, the family, social and economic laws
produce an accumulation effect that has prompted other countries to
look at the West over the decades (if not centuries) with a certain
amount of envy, which sometimes stimulates imitation or kindles

Russia faces the dual problem of
forming both values for society and values for the individual. And
what values are there to offer and who (or what) should become
their sources and carriers? This is the biggest dilemma of the

Historically, it was Russia’s ruling
class that produced all of the norms, concepts and motivation for
actions and regulations. It is worth recalling, though, that the
sages of antiquity also spoke about a class of guardians who
carried on the values of society. “What those who have the chief
power regard as honorable will necessarily be the object which the
citizens in general will aim at,” Aristotle said.

The philosopher lived in an epoch of
societies composed of classes, but today’s proponents of
Western-style liberal democracy also believe that the state must
play a significant role in the formulation of rules and norms.
Francis Fukuyama writes in The Great Disruption that a statement on
the impossibility of administering the morals is only partly true.
Government cannot compel citizens to follow norms that run counter
to innate instincts or interests, yet it can (and does) designate
more informal norms. The abolition of segregation in the U.S. in
the 1960s due to the creation of civil rights laws and franchise
played a crucial role in the change of public norms regarding
racial issues.

Rollo May produced a formulation that
sounds relevant for modern Russia. He referred to Spinoza, who
wrote about freedom from fear. Spinoza believes, says May, that the
state should relieve every man from fear so that he may live and
act with a sense of protection and without doing damage to both
himself and his neighbors.

This means that the ruling class bears
responsibility, at the minimum, for initializing unifying truths
and notions, which will help transform the country from a bunch of
chaotic atoms into a real society. The truths and notions will not
grow from the bottom, but if they do they will come in the form of
a marginalized concept of living that will spoil some and be
rejected or ignored by others.

In this respect, North American
researchers say there is little hope that the types of endemic
mistrust found in southern Italy and Russia will go away on their
own anytime soon. The natural abilities of the people in those
regions to create order sporadically will not suffice for changing
the cultural stereotypes of behavior (Fukuyama). Authoritative
Russian thinkers share this idea. “State power has a much greater
responsibility than ordinary citizens to observe moral boundaries,”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn said recently. “By doing this, it will set
an example to follow without coercing people to do so.”

The crux of the matter, however, is
that none of the people who have recently expounded on moral norms
bothered to clarify what sort of norms they were speaking about,
what kind of society they would like to see for Russia in, say,
five to eight years from now, and what they classify as ‘moral’ or
‘immoral’ behavior. Putin spoke about “respect for the native
tongue, identical culture, identical values, the memories of past
generations, and every page of our history.” Frankly speaking, this
is an appeal for honoring the national heritage – the
traditionalist foundations that certainly should be present in the
culture of every nation. But the situation of an open global
information society obviously demands something more expansive.
What is more, the literal observance of this advice will sooner
halt society’s development and thus impair its prospects in global
competition than stimulate progress. It is scarcely possible to
formulate the concepts of evil or fairness exclusively on the basis
of a self-identical language and culture, especially when it comes
down to Russia’s multicultural environment. Self-identity is a
necessary but insufficient condition.

One more thing Putin spoke about was
justice – a notion that arouses some problems, too. Alexander
Auzan, for example, the director of the Public Contract Institute,
has vehemently refused to use that notion in his lectures in the
future because of its rather disjoining connotation. Some
politicians claim that justice will still be associated with the
“confiscate-and-divide” concept in the next fifteen or so years,
although the number of supporters of that idea will diminish along
with development of the economy and maturing of the generations of
people unlinked to the experience of Soviet-era

The notion generates other differences.
For instance, some believe that a healthy foundation incorporating
private property and individual freedoms was laid in the 1990s in
spite of all the nightmarish consequences. Then this stage passed
and other things emerged, such as the possibility to redistribute
private property freely and substitute the freedom of the
individual by skills of “playing to rule.”

Others disagree with this, saying that
the country is generally moving in the right direction regardless
of some major mistakes, since apart from structuralizing of the
economy, the assets of the average man in the street (TV
set–car–country house–good school–big wages) are also beginning to
take hold. But as soon as the man in the street realizes that he
owns something that he can lose, and that he has lost his
guidelines, he will look at the issue of justice from a different
angle. Thus, a surveyor of public sentiments commented: “We
understand now where we are. Revolutionary sentiments have
vanished, the situation has stabilized, objectives have appeared,
the outrageous chaos of the past is gone, and the game has acquired
rules. But many of us understand that the rules are

Russian society really needs a
readjustment across the board in order to eliminate injustices –
from labor relations in big corporations and small companies to the
habits of road policemen (who assess the rules of the road very
selectively), to the way retirement benefits are computed, to
heartlessness in the services sector, including inside the
government. Let us put the word ‘justice’ aside, though – at least
until the moment when it acquires a common meaning for most people.
After all, we can find good substitute words for it, like kindness
or respect.

But on this point, too, a momentous
problem arises. As shown in recent research, people distrust almost
everyone, apart from their families and one or two of their closest
friends. The level of trust in government institutions is so low
that even if the state wants to shout out a note of unification,
few will heed or believe it. This means that the state and its
separate representatives will first have to correct their own
reputations and the reputations of their institutions. Otherwise,
any talk about widening the radius of trust will lose all

The life of Russian society reveals a
peculiar feature. A decade ago, the mass media watched closely what
cars government officials used, what they wore, and where they
spent leisure time. Then, when the state bureaucracy was shaken up
by campaigns that forced them into Russian-made cars, it was
considered somehow improper to get into BMWs or late-model Toyotas.
Even though many inquiries did not delve into morality issues, and
sounded hysterical, they attained a certain result – many
bureaucrats were cautious not to behave in a manner that could draw
scrutiny. But what has transpired today? Government departments and
branches have replaced their fleets of corporate cars over the past
year, and now it is not considered inappropriate for a government
official to ride around in a car that costs $100,000 or more.
Compare this figure to the monthly pensions that vary from $100 to
$300 a month.

At this point, it would be worth making
a note on corruption. This problem began to subside in many
countries after decisions were taken to change the attitude of
whole sections of the population to corruption. A change of
attitude often marks a pivotal point in the development of a
society and changes their future from that of ‘negative’ to ‘stable
positive.’ Russia badly needs such a change of attitude now. Why?
Because no one has any idea how this problem should be treated,
especially if you judge from the multitude of actions and

The required result will not be
achieved without a high level of openness and

Scholars of social sciences say that
morality is possible in societies where public information
circulates freely. Erich Fromm wrote in this connection that “in
the absence of information, debates and the power capable of making
decisions efficacious, a democratically expressed opinion of the
people has no more meaning than the applause at sports

Again and again, yet another problem is
hidden here, and this problem looks the most dreadful even to those
who consider issues of morality quite topical for Russia. It
consists in the dangers posed by cartelism that instantaneously
voids any word, action or phenomenon of value. As a researcher
said, “the best way to discredit any reflections on morality now is
to make everyone talk about it and to let parties include it in
their election programs.”

Last but not least, the problem of
personalities. “There’s much to talk about, but who should do it?”
a political scientist said. According to sociologists, the Russians
think that even Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Patriarch Alexy II
cannot do it. Some expect the surfacing of unusual bright
individualities of the Putin-1999 mold (much more in the sense of
ability to present something new – and this is what society is
waiting for – rather than in the sense of unexpected
successorship). Others believe the next president will have to
raise the matter all the same and other personalities will take it
up after it.

If not, a totally different danger may
arise otherwise. As mentioned earlier, society cannot live
endlessly with moral ambiguity and social turbulence without
producing something from within itself as a natural protection
against external shocks. For a while not long ago, xenophobic
sentiments were being circulated, and not without involvement of
the government. The individuals responsible for spreading these
ideas hurried to to stop them when they noticed their snowballing
popularity in the masses, which craved for an object to vent their

Attempts of a somewhat different nature
are noticeable today, appealing to the experience of the Church.
Unfortunately, they imply allusions to church dogmas rather than
the commandments of Christianity. As we turn to God, we run the
risk of bumping into the institution of conservatism – let us not
say reaction – which is now admitted even by many religious people.
But since there is nothing else to turn to, we can expect a
somewhat convulsive reversion to the basic elements of

This reverse side of globalization has
already transpired in large parts of the globe. A loss of
self-identity in today’s universe (which, in Russia’s case, has the
form of chaos and incompleteness of self-realization) breeds a
desire for something understandable, simple, even totalitarian. A
desire for a leader who is capable of cleaning up society and
emphasizing lofty goals; a leader who can set the course and
personally lead the Crusade. And if the flirting with the topic of
conservative values continues, Russia will get a drastically
different leader – a Savonarola compounded with the priest Gapon
and Rasputin. A reaction-minded revolutionary, as it

The soil is still not ready for such an
individual to burst onto the scene, but this does not mean it will
not appear in the years to come. Eventually, there will be order
arising out of chaos, but not in the way that the Nobel Prize
winning physicist Ilya Prigozhin interpreted it. This will be an
authentically Russian interpretation.

That is why the lower the morals sink
and the longer that sinking continues, the tougher the measures
that one might offer or demand to rectify the situation. Russian
and world history abounds in radical steps, including the ones that
aimed to embed new values and morality – from the Crusaders to the
Great Inquisition to the Islamic and Socialist revolutionaries. It
would be highly desirable to eliminate any form of radicalism in
the field of human relations at the present time.