Is There a Demand for Modernization in Russia?
No. 3 2009 July/September

According to widespread belief, the new Russian order conforms
to the “sovereign” political culture of the country, which makes
this order stable and irreplaceable. I believe this is a completely
erroneous assumption and has harmful repercussions, which I am
ready to prove.

In fact, both an institutional analysis of the government system
and sociological studies show that the new Russian order is
extremely unstable and has very little legitimacy in the eyes of
the public.


Many would associate the causes behind the establishment of a
parasitic state and the stupor of modernization in Russia with its
national political culture: as the culture, so is the result, they
would say. Understandably, those pleased with the result will find
this explanation quite satisfactory. Yet it is amazing that the
Russian public at large, who are very unhappy with the current
situation, also complain for some obscure reason about “this
special culture of ours.”

Here are some purely logical arguments against this “verdict”
for Russian political culture.

First, political culture is a complex notion
and therefore is not unequivocal. Any explanation of a political
process using this notion is likely to be multi-layered,
complicated and vague. So let us not rush to make references to
political culture.

Second, there are often multidirectional trends
even within one political culture. The prevalence of one tendency
over another may depend on the socio-historical situation and
specific circumstances. In this event claims that the dominant
tendency is an authentic expression of the national political
culture may work as mere propaganda or political myth-making.

Third, any national political culture in the
contemporary global world is a volatile and elusive phenomenon.
Even the latest descriptions of political cultures are not suited
for interpreting or predicting the future of nations.

Now we will move on from general judgments to specific
assessments. Leading sociologists from the Levada Center – Lev
Gudkov, Boris Dubin and Alexei Levinson – presented a sociological
manifesto with a consistently critical view of Russian political
culture in a series of interviews in Novaya Gazeta (2008, Nos. 23,
40, 46, 60, 63, and 82). The very name of this series – “A
Composite Sketch of the Russian Man in the Street” – is symbolic,
as it describes the results of sociological studies that bring
multiple scientifically-proven accusations against the average

This individual, who learned to adapt to the political regime in
the Soviet era, has adapted to a “repressive state” again. Of
course, he does not want repression, but demands that the incumbent
authorities deliver what the authorities of yesteryear provided –
socialism. That it, this individual still seeks a paternalistic
attitude from the government.

The Russian man in the street reasons as follows: “Even though
my salary is not large, it is guaranteed, and my work is calm and
not strenuous.” In general, Russians crave order, not freedom; they
believe in a “special path” and reject Western values, which are
alien to them. They support the incumbent political regime and
their “loyal discontent” seems to be the only thing with which they
can confront the government. This only strengthens the existing
political system. Therefore, Russian public opinion “legitimizes
and takes for granted the things that the Western community would
find unthinkable.”

Many assessments presented by the Levada research – and other
studies, as well – testify to a sad social reality: Russians do not
trust each other and see no opportunities to influence social
development outside of their immediate milieu. Social unity is
sustained not by the solidarity of Russian citizens, but by
official agencies; patriotic values are largely declarative (when
asked “What is patriotism?” 70 percent of respondents said: “It is
love of one’s native country,” and only 20 percent associated
patriotism with the wish to “do something for their country”).

And yet, the verdict is not final and it can be appealed. The
Russian man in the street deserves rehabilitation. For the sake of
consistency I will formulate the features – very popular and quite
imprecise – of Russian mass political culture and comment on

First Feature. Russians have inherent
paternalistic expectations and a considerable portion of the
population (41 percent according to the Levada Center) is nostalgic
about the Brezhnev era.

This is not surprising. A majority of Russians supported the
renunciation of the Soviet system, hoping for a better life and a
larger income. Instead, they found themselves hit by a
socio-economic downturn unprecedented in its intensity and
duration. During the subsequent economic revival, the country never
reached the pre-crisis economic and consumer level it had achieved
during the Soviet era. On top of that, during both the economic
slump of the 1990s and the revival of the 2000s, the gap between
the very rich minority and the poor majority was rapidly
increasing. Therefore, the argument that “life used to be better”
is economically motivated and quite justified.

Is the Russian craving for real order in the country an obstacle
to modernization? Not at all; on the contrary it facilitates it.
For years Russians have persistently posed the question of national
development before the progressive elite: Where is the government?
Indeed, public opinion reflects a strategic lack of modernization
in the country – a shortage of useful and developing statism, which
can and should be an important conceptual element of Russian
modernization. This does not imply backtracking to
authoritarianism. The state must play a strategic, innovative and
organizing role. Consider India’s experience; its tremendous effort
to modernize and democratize a huge and disintegrating society
would not have been possible without statism – the ideology and
practice of the government’s constant developing impact on public
life. Perhaps we should also go along this path of socio-economic
modernization – by building a multi-ethnic nation-state?

Second Feature. Russians are known for a very
high level of xenophobia, which allegedly exceeds Europeans’ by an
order of magnitude (the Levada Center reports that the increasingly
popular slogan “Russia for Russians” is supported by more than half
of respondents). Consequently, ultranationalists are likely to come
to power in a genuinely free election.

But if we consider nationalist sentiments in the West, we will
see that the electoral success of the ultra-rightists in Austria,
Germany and France belie the low level of xenophobia in Europe. We
should also keep it in mind that by comparing the mindset of
Russians and Europeans before 2008, we would actually be comparing
a deeply injured and split Russian society with a prosperous
Europe, basking in economic and geopolitical success.

As to estimates, I will cite the opinion of Leonty Byzov, a
leading Russian sociologist who sees a rather rapid growth of civil
identity in modern Russia. “As many as 55.6 percent of those polled
preferred to call themselves ‘citizens of Russia;’ 38.1 percent
stated their nationality, including 34.2 percent who said they were

As for the radical slogan “Russia for Russians,” the share of
its supporters peaked at 17.1 percent in 2001-2004, but has not
increased since, remaining at 10 to 11 percent.

Third Feature. The stable mass support that
Vladimir Putin receives points to the monarchic mindset of Russians
and the fact that they do not need democracy.

The monarchism of Russian political consciousness should not be
overestimated or dramatized into a myth. Consolidation around the
leader in transitional societies is an anthropologic law, not a
national trait. The support for Putin as president rested on two
socio-psychological factors – expectations for social stability and
national unity. Putin’s presidency met those expectations to some
extent, which sharply contrasted with Yeltsin’s rule that
degenerated into painful phobias of social instability and of a
disintegrating country.

By the end of Putin’s first term sociological studies indicated
that a majority of voters had no illusions about the outcome of his

Table 1 shows the “balance” of public evaluations of Putin’s
successes and failures, based on an opinion poll conducted by the
Levada Center in March 2004.

Table 1. Putin’s Achievements and Failures during His
First Term (% of all respondents)

Remarkably, Putin’s achievements and positive opinions of his
policy are associated with a higher standard of living and related
optimism. With regard to all other Russian problems Putin has a
negative balance of achievements/failures, and he scored the lowest
when respondents were asked about the fight against corruption.

Tsarist illusions are retreating into the past. For example,
halfway through Putin’s second term the Kremlin began to leak
information that Putin was considering a third term as president –
and received quite discouraging feedback from opinion polls. An
overwhelming majority (81 percent) of Russians opposed abolishing
nationwide presidential elections and allowing parliament to elect
the head of state.

More than half of those polled (67 percent) objected to making
Russia a “parliamentary republic” in which the prime minister (that
is, Putin) becomes the real head of state, and to abolishing the
article of the Constitution which limits the president to two
successive terms (54 percent). Russians also rejected the idea of
Putin’s transferring power to his successor with a view of coming
back in one election cycle (49 percent opposed this option and 29
percent supported it).

There was a considerable gradual expansion of pubic demand for
democracy during the Putin presidency. Despite efforts by the
authorities to “guard” Russians from such “alien ideas” as open
criticism of the government in the mass media and the need for a
political opposition, these very ideas have been firmly established
in the mind of the Russian public as a social norm. The Levada
Center reported in 2000 that more than half of the Russians
surveyed believed that criticism of the government in the mass
media “benefits the situation in the country” (56 percent), while
about one quarter of the respondents (27 percent) held the opposite
view. In 2004, the share of the supporters of government criticism
in the mass media increased to 65 percent, whereas the share of
those opposing it dropped to 21 percent.

In 2000, the ratio between those who supported and those who
opposed the idea that Russia needed a political opposition was 47
to 29 percent, respectively. In October 2004, 66 percent of the
respondents agreed that Russia needed public movements and parties
opposing the president and which were capable of influencing
developments in the country. The share of those who believed
otherwise decreased (21 percent).

The attitude of Russians towards a multi-party system has
undergone radical changes as well: a system of two or three
political parties looked increasingly attractive in 2000. Support
for a one-party system decreased from 43 percent in 1999 to 34
percent in 2004. Also, the public was negative and sceptical about
a decision to do away with the direct election of governors and
introduce a proportional electoral system that does not envision
the election of local deputies in their constituencies.

The beginning of Putin’s second term was marked by a barely
visible, yet very significant, shift in public sentiment. A broad
public demand emerged for real, systemic and socially-effective
changes; it formed peacefully within the framework of the
stabilization consensus.


According to the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center
(VTsIOM), the number of Russians who are confident that the country
needs vigorous and radical changes (44 percent) almost matches
those who call for stability and progressive reform (48

There is a prevailing opinion – both in Russian government
circles and with the public at large – that the reformist potential
of advanced groups of Russian society is close to zero, since
representatives of the new middle class, a fortiori wealthy
Russians, are interested more than anybody else in preserving the
status quo under which they have advanced to more advantageous
social positions.

To confirm or disprove this “verdict,” the author of this
article, with assistance from the Liberal Mission Foundation,
researched the Russian “development elites.” The target respondents
were representatives of socio-professional groups, well-known in
their regions and professional associations, with an established
social status, prestigious positions and who perform important
public functions (governance, defense, protection of law and order,
jurisprudence, entrepreneurship, corporate management, healthcare,
science and education, mass information and public expertise). We
did not poll top government officials or heads of large
corporations (i.e. the ruling elite).

The results of the research show that Russian elites, despite
their cultural narrow-mindedness and weak public influence, have a
potential for facilitating the development of society. The elites
actually form a milieu for the creation and growth of public

This positive trend manifests itself in the growing number of
new public associations that bring together professionals,
apartment owners, coalitions of people seeking to defend their
rights and interests, and groups of volunteers working with
children and young people.

A critical view of the established system of government and its
effectiveness clearly prevails in development elites. The Russian
ruling administration regards the “power vertical” built at the
beginning of this decade as its major achievement and a token of
social stability. However, an overwhelming majority of respondents
believe that the strengthening of the “power vertical” has resulted
in an excessive concentration of power and the bureaucratization of
the entire system of governance, and thus has decreased its social

This turnaround in public opinion among the elites clearly
reveals new important social circumstances. First, the advanced
part of Russian society no longer regards the strengthening of the
“power vertical” as a progressive concept of state-building: its
viability for mobilizing the will of the nation and legitimizing
the ruling regime is extremely low at present.  Second, the
main point of the social and political development agenda
henceforth is the quality of the government.

The results of the poll show that Russian elite groups pointed
to the “functional failures” of the incumbent government in the
vital directions of social development back in the pre-crisis
spring of 2008. The government failed to bridge the gap in incomes
between the rich and the poor, resolve the problem of affordable
housing, ensure the right to fair court hearings and improve health
care. In addition, the prevalence of negative and very negative
evaluations shows that the government has obvious troubles in
ensuring free elections, developing education, establishing and
maintaining uniform market rules, ensuring the personal safety of
citizens, and protecting the right of private property. Also, elite
groups are very displeased with the way the government determines
and implements its national economic strategy.

Contrary to the widespread claim, an absolute majority of
respondents in elite groups (in all groups with the exception of
law enforcement) do not share the idea that the development of the
Russian nation should rest upon the unquestionable primacy of the
state in public and economic life. The Russian development elite
has made a civilized choice, if it is understood as the choice of
institutional principles of development. They are practically
unanimous in the belief that the nation should evolve under two
basic principles: the supremacy of law (including with regard to
the authorities), and competition in the economy and politics.

The model of state capitalism, lobbied and implemented at the
top level, by no means enjoys the support of the Russian
development elites. A majority of them would prefer normal
capitalism with common, genuinely state rules of the game, which
benefit honest competition and the broad development of

An analysis of the sociological data helps reveal and formulate
the pressing demand from the elite groups to the country’s
leadership for a new course of governance and national development.
Here we should first of all note the points of consensus within the
elites, i.e. the development priorities, supported by an absolute
majority in elite groups. These priorities include:

1. Government investments in the development of human

2. Adjustment of the reform strategy in the housing and
utilities sector;

3. Ensuring real political competition, separation of powers,
openness and accountability of the government to society;

4. Bringing the party system to a decent form, worthy of the
citizens of a free and civilized country;

5. Replacing the appointment of regional governors by the
Russian president with a new procedure, based on public opinion and
people’s will in the regions;

6. Development of self-dependence for local self-government,
including the right to own property and collect taxes, which would
help perform self-government functions.

Along with the above points of elite consensus, we should
highlight prevailing opinions in the following important
imperatives of national development:

  •  systemic government incentives for private and corporate
    investment in fixed assets and technological renovation;
  •  a more open and competitive procedure for forming the
    government, ensuring a real discussion of alternative government
    programs and selecting the best ones;
  •  enhanced parliamentary control over the executive
  •  reform of the judicial system that would ensure citizen
    (consumer) control, as well as honest criteria and procedures for
    corporate responsibility on the part of judges;
  •  an end to government control over the information policy
    of the mass media, while ensuring effective public, not
    bureaucratic, control over the observance of public interests in
    the field of mass information.

Judging by the number of responses given by those respondents
who stick to the old course, they are in the minority, comprising
one quarter to one-third of all polled elite groups. State security
officers, the main beneficiaries of the regime of the 2000s, are in
fact the only elite group where the supporters of the old course
dominate. But another part of the “security class” – army officers
– does not favor the incumbent regime or its succession, and
support changes instead.

Unlike state security officers, the bureaucracy is very much
divided. Even in federal agencies, the supporters of the old course
only make up slightly more than 50 percent, while regional
officials, dissatisfied with the degree of their influence upon
federal and regional affairs, are increasingly supportive of
institutional changes aimed at the system’s liberalization. In all
other elite groups, the number of supporters of the old course is
quite small and never reaches one quarter of respondents.

The position of the business community deserves special note.
Business people tend to believe that Russians have little
capability for civil self-organization or discipline. On the other
hand, many entrepreneurs are wary of the West, or, rather, the
West’s policy towards Russia. While giving a very negative
assessment to efforts by the ruling administration to establish and
keep uniform market rules, most Russian business people come out
against the concentration of economic advantages within a small
group of state-owned companies, calling for the liberalization of
economic and political life and for the development of
self-dependence for local self-government.

It looks like “the party of the old course” has no consolidating
ideas. The “power vertical” no longer inspires; the establishment
of state corporations only aggravates the division and strife. The
threat from the West is not obvious or serious enough, whereas the
institutional insufficiency of the government system is quite
obvious to everybody, even to the powers-that-be, not to mention
economic or public groups.

The results of the study show that the share of liberals – i.e.
those who stick to the principles of the supremacy of law and
competition – in Russian elite groups is nearing half of all

Liberal views among the Russian elites are shared by almost
every-fifth security official (more often an army officer than a
policeman), every third official, about one half of all
entrepreneurs, managers, lawyers and doctors, and the absolute
majority in science, education and the mass media. It is noteworthy
that Russian liberals are active participants in public
associations that enjoy the trust of society and bring together
professionals, neighbourhoods, rights activists, parents of
students, athletes, culture lovers – in other words, they are more
active than others in creating public capital.

So what is the significance of these obvious trends presented by
sociological studies? If the incumbent government system were more
open and sensitive to public opinion, the consolidation of liberal
preferences in economic, civil and – in a considerable portion of –
government elite groups would end up with a replacement of the
ruling administration and/or the political course. After all, it is
for such an adjustment of government policy – preferably
evolutionary and procedural – that political systems are needed.
But the current Russian political system does not work. The “power
vertical” was built in the 2000s with the sole purpose of reducing
or eliminating the dependence of the ruling administration on the
will or opinions of subordinates, including the elite groups.

Many experts have repeatedly warned that the powers-that-be are
driving themselves and society into an institutional trap, because
the bureaucratic mechanisms of systemic stability, when tested, may
prove to be mechanisms of systemic inadequacy that only worsen the

The Russian institutional trap is the mechanism of the
functioning of state and political organizations which is hard to
change. Importantly, the established procedures determine, shape
and adjust public conduct to a considerable extent. So when we
speak about the opinions currently prevailing among Russian elites
and their desire for change, we must have considerable

On the one hand, a majority of Russian elites share President
Dmitry Medvedev’s program thesis that “freedom is better than
non-freedom” and are ready to accept it as an ideological
foundation for national consolidation. It is an extremely important
sociological fact, as it provides the necessary condition for the
beginning of change and its possible success.

On the other hand, Russian elite groups are not ready to launch
public change on their own because they lack initiative; they are
incapable of collective action and of determining the policy of the
state. In modern Russia, successful people mostly practice the
strategy of individual adaptation; they shun public activity and
are often prone to social cynicism.

This is not only a matter of fear for the authorities. People
who profess consumer individualism – being focused on their own
survival, adaptation and on competition amongst themselves –
mistrust each other. The “horizontal” mistrust within elite groups
is very strong and actually matches the mistrust of officialdom.
Jealous mistrust of each other is the major factor that undermines
the ability of “the best people” for public cooperation in general
and collective influence upon the authorities in particular.

Thus, the consumer adaptive individualism and mutual mistrust
within elites, together with the specifics of “sovereign
democracy,” are a major obstacle to a normal political withdrawal
from the crisis through the establishment of effective parties or
factions within the ruling party. Yet an obstacle can be overcome.
How long can the difference in potentials between the rather
liberal Russian elites and the oligarchic system of bureaucratic
capitalism build up? Presumably, it may take a long time. But this
is not important any more, since the economic crisis that began in
the autumn of 2008 has turned a change of government policy,
something that used to be wishful thinking, into an issue of vital

The key factor in the development of Russia at the beginning of
the 21st century is the contradiction between resources (natural,
technological, social and human) which are sufficient for
modernization, and the inefficiency of the state which leads to a
very ineffective use of the above resources (national resources in
the first place), their insufficient development and even
degradation. Russian public opinion has raised the issue of quality
of government, putting it at the top of the national development
agenda. This social demand cannot be ignored – particularly in
conditions of the globalization of information, economic and human
exchanges. There is broad public accord concerning the need to
build an effective political system and modernize the state
administration as the first crucial move in socially-effective