Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part II: Russian Society Today: Life, Opinions, Nostalgia

Civil Society in Russia: Its Role under an Authoritarian Regime, Part II: Russian Society Today: Life, Opinions, Nostalgia

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In Part II of this essay on Russian civil society, I explore life, opinions, and nostalgia in contemporary Russian society. I examine how family life has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the challenges demographic shifts bring to the country, emotional and psychological factors that impact Russian society, the influence of the media and the Russian Orthodox Church on people’s lives, and the growing nostalgia for the Soviet Union and what it means.

Family Life

Life in Russia has changed drastically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gone are the food shortages, shoddy products, long lines, cramped cooperative apartments, limits on private property, restrictions on moving about the country and foreign travel. Instead, Russians are now free to choose where they want to live, where they want to work, and when and where they want to travel. Consumerism is rampant, and Moscow and St. Petersburg have some of the best restaurants in the world. Life has, indeed, changed for the better for the urbanites and much of Russia’s youth. The market economy, the widespread use of the internet, and digitalization have transformed much of Russian life.

Not everyone has benefited from the new Russia, however. Rural Russia is rife with problems, poverty still abounds, and a growing number of Russians are expressing nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union. Amid the material and political changes to Russian society, there remains a strong desire, particularly among members of the older generation and those who do not feel an affinity for the West, to preserve much of the traditional way of life and the ideas and ideals that bolster it.

One area where both change and retention of more traditional attitudes is evident is in the position of women in the family. During Soviet times, the burden of housework and childrearing fell entirely on women—although most Soviet women did not have the luxury of staying at home. They had to hold jobs, often performing manual labor. The satirical magazine Krokodil had frequent cartoons of women performing backbreaking work while men stood by drinking vodka and giving them orders. Today, that unfair distribution of labor has largely ended. Women and men share household tasks and responsibilities, and with the availability of home appliances and the abundance of food and consumer products, life for women has become easier. They have more free time, family life is more balanced, and they have more independence. With the modernization of the banking system and the work environment, women can now have their own bank accounts and credit cards, which provides increased financial independence. Women no longer feel required to work outside the home. They feel free to make their own decisions about home and a career and can choose the way of life they prefer.

However, in provincial Russia and even among some high-income social groups in the major cities, the more traditional view of the role of women is still popular—men should provide for their families, but if women work, anything they earn can be spent for their own needs. In the 1970s, American journalist Hedrick Smith described Soviet women in his book The Russians as “liberated but not emancipated.” This assessment is not outdated. Despite changes that have given women more independence and choices, the traditional views of men and women—men should be masculine breadwinners and women should be feminine and responsible for child-rearing—prevails across much of Russian society. Such views are reinforced by age-old institutions like the Russian Orthodox Church. During the height of the coronavirus, a Russian Orthodox official advised Russian women not to reprimand their husbands during the lockdown to avoid domestic conflict, and if they did, they should punish themselves for doing so. The Moscow Times reports that Bishop Panteleimon, the head of the church’s department for charity, instructed women to say: “If I criticize, then I’ll make 10 bows in the evening … or I won’t eat chocolate or surf the Internet all day.” This statement suggesting the subservience of women to men comes three years after the Russian legislature decriminalized first-time domestic violence—a staggering setback for women, especially since as many as 36,000 Russian women face daily abuse at home, according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report. Although there is discussion underway to reimpose criminal punishment for this crime, the coronavirus has delayed the work of the legislature.

Attitudes toward children have also changed. In the past, parents and grandparents had a strong influence on children’s lives from their early days until well into adulthood. Grandmothers were largely responsible for raising the children while the parents were at work. As children grew older, parents were more influential in selecting their future path. Even after they got married, children frequently remained dependent on their parents because housing was scarce, and they were often unable to find separate living accommodations.

That has changed. Most young people now live very different lives. Parents have less influence on their children, and children are freer to make their own choices and pursue the lives they want. Housing in most parts of Russia is no longer scarce and has been privatized. Young people, like everyone else, have access to mortgages and credit cards and are therefore able to live independently from their parents when they reach adulthood.

Life in Statistics

One of the more noticeable changes from the Soviet system is access to statistical information. The official Russian state statistical agency Rosstat frequently publishes data about various aspects of life in Russia, but because Rosstat is a government body, its data are considered by some to be suspect. There are also several independent polling organizations whose work varies in accuracy and reliability. The best known and most reliable of them is the Levada Center. Despite the dedication of the pollsters, there is still a reluctance on the part of many Russians, particularly those who grew up in the Soviet Union, to answer questions about their private lives, much less about their political views. More recently, however, as the younger generation has come of age and is not burdened with the fears and mistrust that their parents often have, data have become more available and more reliable.

A survey conducted on October 30–31, 2019, and published by TASS, the Russian News Agency owned by the Russian government, revealed information about Russians’ views of life and the future. According to this survey:

[A]bout 50% of Russians said that they are satisfied with their lives, while 22% said they were dissatisfied…. One-fourth of Russians are optimistic about the future, 25% are confident that their lives will improve in a year, about 41% believe that nothing will change, while 23% think that things will just get worse. Half of those polled (48%) are concerned and worried about their future, but their number is falling…. One in four respondents said they are optimistic about the future (26%) and almost the same number (23%) are neither optimistic nor worried about it.

A similar poll conducted on June 5 among 1,600 respondents—days before the coronavirus restrictions were eased—indicated that Russians believe that their personal situations have improved. Sixty-five percent had a positive outlook, but 32 percent said their personal situation was bad. When asked about the overall situation in the country, 56 percent had a negative view, but 38 percent had a positive view.

Other recent polls have looked specifically at living conditions and class structure. Analyst Paul Goble examines one such poll by Rosstat. The state statistical agency reports:

35 million Russians live in houses or apartments without indoor toilets, 47 million do not have hot water, 29 million do not have any running water inside their residences, and 22 million do not have central heating. In fact, only 62.7 percent of the Russian population[1] has the usual accoutrements of modern existence—water in the house, plumbing, heating, and gas or electric ranges.

These are surprising statistics coming from an official state agency. They remind us that when we talk about life in Russia, we must not just judge the country by conditions in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but we must take a broader perspective that includes the living conditions of millions of Russians throughout the country.

Russians’ own perception of where they fit in the economic structure of the country is an important measure of the state of Russian society. According to a poll published by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, “69 percent of Russians consider themselves to be ‘middle-income’ while 27 percent consider themselves to be ‘poor.’ Only 1 percent of respondents said they were ‘rich.’ The remaining three percent said they had difficulty responding.” A similar poll conducted by the state-owned Sberbank indicated that the percentage of Russians who consider themselves to be in the middle class is declining because of real income stagnation and the overall deterioration of the Russian economy.

Russia Beyond, which is an arm of the state media company TV-Novosti, recently compared how life has changed for the average Russian during the past 10 years. Among the noticeable changes are that Russians are traveling more and leading a healthier lifestyle. Of note is that the official poverty level (12.9 percent) is considerably lower than what the Russians themselves assess it to be (27 percent).

Table 1. Comparison of Key Demographics, 2009–2019


Demographic composition and corresponding trends are important tools for measuring the prospects for the development of any society. For Russia, this is a particularly challenging issue today. Throughout its history, Russia has been a multiethnic state. Even after the Soviet Union broke apart and 15 independent states were formed, the largest of them—Russia—still laid claim to more than 100 nationalities within its borders. The diversity of its ethnic groups, religions, and languages has enriched the country, but it has also imposed unique challenges on society and the government. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal,” has described Russia as “a kind of ‘mixed breed’ culture that incorporates elements of both the East and the West, like ‘someone born of a mixed marriage.’”

The Russian nationality is the largest ethnic group in the country and dominates politics and economic and social structures. The Tatars—descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde—are the second largest nationality and live predominantly along the middle Volga River region in the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. There is also a significant Tatar population in Crimea and other parts of Russia.

The Crimean Tatars have been a source of political tension for Russia since it seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Many Crimean Tatars have refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of their homeland. The Kremlin has responded by arresting many of the Crimean Tatar leaders and dissolving the Crimean Tatar Mejlis—the representative body that existed when Crimea was part of Ukraine.

The Tatars share their religious faith with the Muslims of the North Caucasus who inhabit a patchwork of Muslim republics, among which are Chechnya, Ingushetia, and multiethnic Dagestan where more than 30 local languages are spoken. For centuries, the North Caucasus has been a hotbed of dissent and rebellion. Joseph Stalin exiled entire ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars, to Siberia and Central Asia during World War II under suspicion that they were not loyal to the Soviet Union. Those who survived were finally permitted to return to their respective homelands after Stalin’s death.

In the 1990s, Russia waged two wars against Chechen rebels who sought to establish their own independent country of Ichkeria. Although the rebellion was suppressed, pockets of resistance remained for years. There are still rebels representing various Muslim ethnic groups of the North Caucasus engaged in skirmishes with Russian troops in the very mountainous terrain of the region. Russia also continues to launch raids against rebel strongholds and has managed to eliminate most but not all the resistance forces.

In addition to Russia’s large native Muslim population, there are millions of Muslims from Central Asia living in Russia, either as Russian citizens who settled in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union or as temporary guest workers. These guest workers perform much of the menial labor most Russians eschew and provide an important source of revenue to their families in their home countries.

The Kremlin perceives two serious demographic challenges today. The first is the growth of the Muslim population of the country. The second is the decline of the ethnic Russian population. The birth rate of the Muslim population far outpaces that of the Russians. The ratio of Russians to Muslims is expanded further by an influx of Muslim immigrants and guest workers and an outflow of Russian emigrants to Europe and beyond. As the Kremlin sees it, the challenge is to maintain Russian dominance in a changing demographic environment.

The Muslim Grand Mufti recently predicted that within the next 15 years Muslims would account for 30 percent of the population. This has raised concerns among many, but particularly with some officials of the Orthodox Church who, according to The Moscow Times, fret that “there won't be any Russians left in 2050.”

It is hard to take this dire prediction seriously. The Kremlin is not going to stand by and watch power shift into the hands of the leaders of the non-Russian republics of the middle Volga region. Nor are those leaders going to challenge the Kremlin directly. But the leaders of Muslim regions may assert themselves more and use their increasing leverage to attain more rights for their people and to slow down or even try to prevent attempts by the Kremlin to pursue efforts at Russification and homogenization of the country.

The decline in the Russian population has been a serious problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Millions of Russians found themselves outside the borders of the Russian Federation as 15 new countries were born. Many returned to Russia, but others stayed in the countries in which they were residing at the time the USSR ceased to exist. For Russia, this has meant the loss of a significant cohort of its compatriots. It also created major problems for the new countries with Russians who were now considered foreigners and many of whom refused to integrate into the societies of their new homelands. This was a particularly serious problem in Estonia, Latvia, and the Transnistria region of Moldova. Likewise, the large Russian populations in Ukraine and Kazakhstan have caused major political problems, particularly in Ukraine, but potentially in Kazakhstan as well.

Within the Russian Federation, the population has been decreasing for several decades as the number of deaths has been exceeding the number of births. It was not until 2013 that this trend reversed itself, but this development lasted only four years before it again shifted into negative population growth. According to Rosstat, in the first 10 months of 2019, deaths outnumbered live births by 259,600. This is the highest population decline since 2008, which until 2019 was considered the lowest point in Russia’s demographic crisis.

President Vladimir Putin has expressed concern about Russia’s demographic losses and has made “sustainable natural population growth” one of Russia’s national development goals. “Demography is a vital issue that will influence our country’s development for decades to come,” he said at an economics conference in 2017. There remains, however, a noticeable gap between Putin’s words and reality on the ground. Not only is the population declining because of the imbalance in the birth-death ratio, but there is also an outflow of population through emigration and the slow death of rural Russia. Both trends do not bode well for the development of the country and a healthy society.

Emigration has been a major factor affecting Russia’s demographic policies for decades. The Soviet Union’s ban on most foreign travel made it very difficult for anyone to leave the country, either for pleasure or for permanent relocation. International pressure on the Kremlin did allow for several waves of Jewish emigration and the departure of some prominent dissidents and so-called “refusniks”—Soviet citizens who wanted to leave the country but were denied permission.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia became an independent country, travel restrictions and emigration policies were relaxed. Foreign tourism flourished, and ordinary Russians sought opportunities for education and employment abroad. A “brain drain” of many of Russia’s brightest and most talented professionals occurred as they moved to Europe and North America in search of better jobs, higher pay, and more opportunities for their families. Children of the rich and mega-rich were among the outflow of Russian citizens seeking a better life for themselves. Their parents purchased plush apartments and villas in Europe and the United States for themselves and their children. Efforts by the Kremlin to get them to return to Russia, to repatriate their wealth, which had been deposited largely in foreign banks and properties, have met with limited success. Many of the most senior members of Putin’s administration, allegedly including the president himself, have actively engaged in such ventures and do not want to give up the privileges and luxury in which they have ensconced themselves and their families.

Many ordinary Russian citizens who do not have the financial resources or the connections to pursue opportunities abroad wish they could, according to recent surveys. The independent polling agency Levada Center polled 1,601 respondents in 50 Russian regions from September 26 to October 4, 2019. The poll found that 53 percent of Russian respondents ages 18 to 24 would like to emigrate. According to The Moscow Times, “this marks a 16 percent increase in five months and is the highest share of respondents since 2009.” The same survey showed that among 25- to 39-year-olds, 30 percent want to emigrate. Among all respondents surveyed, including all age groups, 21 percent expressed a desire to leave their homeland.

The German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, in analyzing this poll and similar surveys, attributes this desire to emigrate to low salaries and the difficulty paying for good, private health care and education. As far as young people are concerned, Deutsche Welle notes that they do not believe the state media’s propaganda about “great Russia versus rotting Europe.” On the contrary, many of them see more opportunities for themselves in the West than in Russia.

For centuries, rural Russia has been the heartland of Russian life, the provider of sustenance for the nation, and the root of Russian culture and heritage. Russian writers and revolutionaries alike have idealized rural life and have sought inspiration in it for the future of the country. But the image they portrayed and the ideological expectations they had defied the harsh realities of rural life. Neither the simplicity and purity of the peasant soul of the novelists nor the revolutionary fervor of some of the revolutionary leaders of the late 19th–early 20th centuries reflected the complexities and cruelties of life beyond the urban centers, the expanding industrial enterprises, and the country estates of the nobility and the gentry. It would take the Bolsheviks and the upheavals that followed the 1917 revolution to transform rural Russia into a tightly controlled agricultural complex of collective and state farms. Millions of peasants lost their lives as the Soviet authorities seized all private property; exiled, imprisoned, and exterminated millions of peasants; and transformed the naive, idyllic image of rural Russian life into a modern version of serfdom. Peasants left the countryside in droves for the cities and were conscripted into serving the burgeoning Soviet industrialization behemoth. Rural Russia as it had existed for centuries began a slow death. According to the Demographics Institute at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, “the USSR began with 85 percent of its population residing in the countryside and ended with 74 percent of them as city dwellers.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet system, many of the collective and state farms have been replaced by private farming. This has transformed the economy of the agricultural sector. Because farming can no longer rely on large-scale state financing and must succeed based on new economic principles of capitalism and technological modernization, employment in the agricultural sector has changed significantly. Only the most successful farmers can survive. The multitude of agricultural workers who were employed in the often-inefficient Soviet agricultural enterprises has had to abandon their villages as they searched for employment elsewhere.

Unemployment in rural Russia now ranges from 30 to 55 percent. Young people today typically abandon their villages as soon as they can. Consequently, most of the remaining residents are elderly. Russia now reportedly has more than 20,000 villages that are totally abandoned and another 36,000 with fewer than 10 residents each. Few of these villages have reliable food supplies or medical care. The remaining residents are living out their final days in villages where they have spent their entire lives. Once they are gone, these villages will join the ranks of the tens of thousands of ghost towns that were once a vibrant part of rural Russia.

President Putin sees this demographic crisis not just as a threat to the economy and social structure of the country but also to Russia as a distinct civilization, and he is turning to technology to address this problem. In an interview that aired on Russia’s main television channel on May 17, 2020, but was recorded in late September 2019, President Putin said that Russia was “more than merely a country, but truly a distinct civilization.” Being “a multi-ethnic country with many traditions, cultures, and faiths,” Russia must maintain its status and power by nurturing modern technology, he said. “If we want to preserve this civilization, we need to focus on high technologies and their future development.” Putin singled out the importance of Russia leading in artificial intelligence, advanced genetics, unmanned vehicles, and hypersonic weapons to maintain a competitive edge and defend its independence. Without maintaining a lead in such technologies, Putin said, “it would be impossible to secure the future of our civilization.”

It is puzzling why this interview was aired at a time when Russia has been struggling with one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus pandemic in the world and its economy has suffered major blows from that and a cataclysmic drop in oil prices. No new initiatives in the areas of science and technology have been announced, and Putin himself essentially went into isolation during the pandemic, leaving it to governors and other officials to deal with the deadly consequences of the disease. What has caught most commentators’ attention is Putin’s remark that Russia is not just a country but a “distinct civilization” and he sees a multi-vectored threat to Russian civilization. Whether technology advancements alone can provide the solution to Russia’s problems, including its demographic ones as well as other societal ills, is questionable. Without major policy changes and increased investment in social needs, health care, education, and other basic services, it is hard to see Russia maintaining itself as a “distinct civilization,” as envisioned by Vladimir Putin.

Life Measured in Emotions

The emotional state of a nation—the overall mood—helps to shed light on the nature of its society and how it might react to major policy decisions or political shifts at the highest levels of authority. Two contrasting emotions that Russian analysts focus on as important measurements of the emotional state of their society are suffering and happiness.

Russian literature is replete with emotionally tortured characters and depressing scenes of misery and despair. The works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky are illustrative of this aspect of Russian life. Although written in the 19th century, there are features of Dostoyevsky’s characters and plots that are still relevant today.

Oleg Yegorov of Beyond Russia offers a contemporary description of this aspect of the Russian soul. Yegorov argues that Russians have elevated suffering to an art form. He expands on this important point by arguing that

our ability to focus on the dark side gives us our national reputation.… If Russia is considered consistent in one thing, it is being a country of joyless, brooding people. Ours is a history of harsh winters and constant foreign invasions, coupled with frequently inhumane reforms by rulers such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin, to name a few. All of this contributed to a population living almost constantly on the brink. The levels of stress alone were not consistent with healthy living.

Yegorov references research conducted by American psychologists who investigated how Russians deal with stress. According to this research, the secret Russian weapon against stress is the “love of suffering.” “As it turns out,” Yegorov continues, “our habit of brooding, complaining, near-destructive levels of self-analysis and love of consuming tragic fiction all work together to rescue us from ‘actual’ suffering and depression.”

Evgeny Osin, Deputy Head of the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation, explains that by doing so, Russians embrace sadness and pity instead of trying to block it. When faced with negative feelings, according to Osin, Russians do not feel despair and do not let these negative feelings break them. Instead, they take it as natural: “Okay, this sucks, whatever, screw it, let’s move on.” According to Osin, “this approach—embracing sadness and pity instead of trying to block it—shows that Russian culture is closer to Eastern ones, where pain is considered an inevitable part of life. After all, all of us have no choice but to move on.”

This explanation of what is often described as a Russian fatalistic approach toward life and toward the political situation in the country offers a different interpretation of how Russians react to stress and misfortunate than is usually perceived in the West. While many outside Russia see Russians as impassive, indifferent, defeatist, Russians view their behavior as an effective coping mechanism against stress and the many negative aspects of life they face.

At the opposite end of suffering, sadness, and pity is happiness. Are Russians happy? This is a very subjective emotion and not easy to measure. Certainly, there are many Russians who are kind, thoughtful, generous, considerate, and positive in their outlook on life. But what do pollsters and psychologists say?

The state news agency TASS reported at the end of 2019 that most Russians (84 percent) felt happy. The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center published a similar poll in which 81 percent of the respondents claimed they were happy. The Moscow Times, however, reported very different survey results. According to their poll published on January 31, 2020, only 42 percent of the respondents were happy, which the newspaper noted was a decline from a similar survey in 2018–2019. Andrei Milekhin of the ROMIR research agency and vice president of Gallop International explains that a decline in happiness “… can most often be explained by two factors: no observable life improvement…as well as a sense of injustice toward yourself.”

Another factor that can affect happiness is rising nationalism and a sense of pride in the country. The level of happiness reportedly spiked after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. A similar surge occurred in 2008 after the five-day war with Georgia. The problem with relying on nationalism as a means of increasing happiness, which, in turn, tends to translate into support for the regime and its policies, is that it is a short-term phenomenon and must be frequently reinforced or it loses its effectiveness. We witnessed such a decline in the last few years as people lost their enthusiasm over the annexation of Crimea and realized the large burden it placed on Russian foreign policy and the increased economic cost it imposed at home.

An important gauge of the future development of any country is the attitude of its youth. In general, young people tend to be optimistic, enthusiastic, energetic, and excited about the future and their own personal plans. This is a positive sign that youth will contribute to the country’s development and further advancement.

What about Russia’s youth? How do they view themselves and their place in the world? There have been many surveys and, as stated above, their results vary depending on the nature of the survey, the cohort questioned, and the phrasing of the questions. Undoubtedly, there are many young Russians who share the optimism, enthusiasm, energy, and excitement of youth in many other parts of the world. But there are also indications that segments of Russia’s younger population do not have the same views of the future.

Margarita Izotova, a psychologist at St. Petersburg Medical University, has studied the state of happiness among teenagers in St. Petersburg—Russia’s second largest city and one of the two major crossroads of international influence in Russia. According to Russian analyst Paul Goble, Izotova has found that “38 percent of that cohort say that they have never felt themselves to be happy. That is not a good sign for the future, she suggests. But perhaps an even worse one is that every eighth one of them when asked ‘do you want to be happy?’ responds by saying ‘I don’t know.’” Perhaps such a negative response reflects the Russians’ frequent focus on the dark side of life, as described above by Oleg Yegorov.

A more comprehensive survey of Russia’s youth and their views was conducted over a larger expanse of territory, covering 52 regions of Russia and including the opinions of 1,057 respondents aged 10 to 18. According to this survey by Mikhailov and Partners, a private Russian communications consultancy firm,

62 percent of youth say they are patriots. Sixty-seven percent say they are not interested in politics. Regarding views toward the LGBTQ community, 13 percent of Russian youth say they trust sexual minorities, 68 percent say they have normal views, and 17 percent say they have negative views. A total of 46 percent of Russian schoolchildren named ecological problems as an area of concern, though 9 out of 10 say that Russia needs new environmental protection laws. Only 31 percent named corruption as a problem that needs to be immediately addressed.

These views reflect a certain similarity to those of their parents, notably patriotism and political apathy. On other issues, however, younger generation Russians are more progressive than the older generations and share more in common with their European counterparts. This difference can be attributed in large part to the widespread use of social media by Russian youth, their exposure to alternative sources of information, and the concurrent loss of control over information by the authorities. It is interesting to note that the younger generation expresses less concern about corruption than their parents, 81 percent of whom regard corruption as a serious problem. This may be attributed to the fact that young people, by and large, have not yet experienced the all-pervasive corruption that their parents must contend with almost daily.

Interaction within the Body Politic

How people interact with one another and within the framework of the norms and institutions established by the state and society is another important guide in measuring the nature of society and the prospects for its growth and evolution. In the previous section, I discussed what I called “life in emotions” and focused on suffering and happiness as two predominant feelings experienced individually by most Russians.

Other features mark Russian society collectively that have been the subject of both foreign and Russian examination and analysis for centuries. The Marquis de Custine’s famous Journey of Our Time, written in 1839, or more recent works such as James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe and Hedrick Smith’s The Russians offer penetrating analysis into the Russian soul and the strengths and weaknesses of Russian society. Russian writers, sociopolitical observers, and ordinary Russian citizens, such as Yegor Zhukov, who was profiled in Part I of this essay, offer equally if not more profound insights into the nature of Russian society, how it sees itself, and how it copes with its often-challenging environment.

One of the major issues in Russian society is how people relate to each other. Zhukov, the young blogger and political activist, spoke eloquently of this at his recent trial on charges of extremism and quoted Alexander Radishchev, who wrote of Russia’s social and political conditions more than 200 years ago and the suspicious and often harsh ways Russians treat each other. Yegorov, writing for Russia Beyond, which is associated with a state media outlet, offers a contemporary depiction of what he describes as Russian society’s greatest weakness: its indifference and lack of trust. Yegorov makes a sharp distinction between the inner circle of close ties with families and friends, which are deep, sincere, and intimate—often to a degree of intensity that we in the West do not experience—and the attitude toward those outside this circle.

Yegorov argues that “skepticism and indifference are a national trait. We certainly care a lot about our relatives and close friends. … The bad news is that, in Russia, altruism usually begins and ends within that circle of close friends and family.” Putting it bluntly, Yegorov says: “Most of us are cynical and extremely skeptical people, who don’t like each other, and frankly speaking, don’t give a rat’s ass about each other.” He draws on one of the rules by which inmates of Stalin’s gulag (the network of labor camps) lived and by which many Russians still live: “Don’t trust, don’t be afraid, don’t beg.” Yegorov acknowledges that life is very different now from how it was during the totalitarian communist regime, but he maintains that people still tend to rely only on themselves. “We count everyone outside the closed circle of nearest and dearest (be it police, government, society, and person in the street) an indifferent agent at best, if not utterly hostile. And it’s not much fun to live in such an atmosphere.” “Will this last forever?” Yegorov asks. “I hope not. But as a true Russian, I am pessimistic about it.”

These traits of indifference and lack of trust have consequences for Russian society. Although, as we saw in Part I of this essay, encouraging signs exist that people are more willing now to protest when actions or inactions on the part of the authorities intrude into their personal lives, such collective responses are still infrequent. Russians prefer to remain indifferent and uninvolved. This is reflected in one measure by the lack of interest in supporting charitable organizations. According to the 2018 Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index, Russia ranked 110 out of 144 countries where people supported charitable organizations, donated money, or volunteered their time. This is not to say that Russians are indifferent to suffering and assisting individual cases. There are many instances, particularly with the growing use of social media, when individuals have come to the aid of families suffering a health crisis or responded to failures by authorities to provide proper services, such as adequately responding to catastrophes like wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters.

Indifference and lack of trust within society have both positive and negative consequences for the authorities. On the positive side, these characteristics make it easier to manipulate public opinion. Because many Russians are suspicious of the motives of others, they fall easy prey to conspiracy theories spun by the official media and the authorities. The frequent claim that Russia is surrounded by enemies who are trying to weaken Russia, steal its resources, and diminish the lives of the Russian people is accepted by many as fact. Alexey Levinson, a sociologist at the Levada Center, said: “There is a strong belief in our society that Russia has a mortal enemy that can have different names…and is supported by the CIA or Pentagon.” Logically then, if Russians do not trust each other, why should they trust other countries? This conspiracy theory has worked to the Kremlin’s advantage over the years. It has been repeatedly directed against the United States and NATO and has been successful in rallying society’s overwhelming support during times of tension, most recently during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s war in Ukraine’s Donbas, and the Kremlin’s efforts to cause disarray throughout Ukraine.

On the negative side for the authorities, society’s indifference and lack of trust are manifested in the Russian people’s disdain for them and their system of control, primarily the judicial system. Russia’s judicial system is notoriously unfair, arbitrary, and unjust. It is another political tool the authorities use to maintain control over society and particularly over anyone who dares to challenge them.

The recent sentencing by the regional court in Penza of seven activists ages 23 to 30 to long prison terms—from six to 18 years—for allegedly planning terrorist attacks during the 2018 presidential elections and the soccer World Cup is a case in point, and it ignited a firestorm on social media. Some compared the trial to the show trials of the Stalin era. Several of the men claimed they were tortured to extract confessions. Human rights activists insist the case was fabricated and harsh prison sentences were imposed as a warning to other members of civil society who expressed views contrary to those of the government. In this instance, the authorities ignored the outpouring of negative reactions on social media, but public opinion is not always dismissed. In some recent court cases, especially those that have attracted high-level attention in Moscow, the authorities have responded to public opinion. Public opinion, therefore, can play an important role even in an authoritarian state. It is monitored carefully, listened to attentively, and manipulated deftly as an important tool in managing the components of the body politic.

Influential Institutions

The News Media

Control over the news media is a fundamental requisite of any authoritarian regime. Russia is no exception. Under the Soviet regime, there were no independent news organizations. All sources of news, information, and opinions were state-owned and controlled. The only independent sources of information were foreign news broadcasts that were usually jammed; foreign publications that were smuggled into the country; and illegal self-published dissident literature (samizdat) that was often handwritten, assiduously copied, and surreptitiously distributed among those opposed to the communist regime.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the news media became free. Independent newspapers, television, and radio stations took advantage of their newly won freedom to dominate the flow of information reaching the public, often drowning out the state-controlled media. But this uncontrolled and, at times, out-of-control media owned by some of Russia’s richest new oligarchs did not survive for long. One of President Putin’s first moves after he became president was to crack down and take control of the independent media. Within a few years, most media outlets were taken over by the state. Today, few independent print and broadcast media are operating in Russia.

This was a major propaganda victory for the Kremlin. Maintaining control over the news media means maintaining control over the message. The Kremlin applies pressure on the remaining independent news outlets when necessary. On many occasions, this pressure manifests itself in intimidation, violence, and even the death of journalists critical of the Kremlin.

With the rise of social media, which is now very widespread in Russia, particularly among the younger generation, the Kremlin has begun to lose control over the message. According to a poll from the Levada Center published on August 12, 2019,

Whereas a decade ago 94 percent of Russians obtained information about domestic and international affairs from [state-run] television, today only 72 percent do, the report says. It also shows that the most loyal television viewers are the oldest Russians: over 90 percent of those of pension-age rely on TV to obtain information, while only 42 percent of those under 25 watch news broadcasts.

The same Levada Center poll reports that

[O]ver the last eight years the popularity of Internet news outlets and social media has grown 250 percent—to the point where a third of Russian adults now obtain most or all of their news from web-based sources. In addition, a majority of Russians are now habitual social media users and sharers; among Russians under 25, 85 percent are ‘daily’ or ‘almost daily’ users.

Russia’s youth are tuning out state television and turning to independent news websites, such as Dozhd’ (Rain TV), and messaging apps, such as Telegram, to find out what is going on in the world. The Levada Center’s poll shows that Russians “under 35 are now more likely to get information about domestic and foreign developments from social media than they are from television.” As for print media and radio news broadcasts, their audiences have dropped by over 200 percent in the past decade.

This precipitous decline in official sources of information is accompanied by two important indicators of the attitude of Russian society toward the news media and information flow. The first is a significant increase in the belief that freedom of speech is one of the most important freedoms. A Levada Center poll published in November 2019 showed an increase in the past two years from 34 percent to 58 percent. The second indicator is that the Russian public is gradually gaining faith in independent news outlets and social media and is rapidly losing trust in state television news. The Levada Center reports that 10 years ago “roughly 80 percent of viewers believed what they were told on TV. These days, the figure hovers around 55 percent.”

This decline in trust in the state media and the rise of independent news sources and the largely unfettered internet are major concerns for the Kremlin and its supporters. President Putin and the Russian legislature have taken measures to restrict the use and operation of the internet in Russia and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the coming years. This has not yet prevented the free flow of information from reaching Russian internet users. On the contrary, it has further galvanized the efforts not only of political activists but also of ordinary citizens to counter state media messaging and play a more active role in sharing information and influencing public opinion.

The Russian Orthodox Church

Religion has played a special role in Russia for more than 1,000 years. It was one of the founding principles of the first East Slavic state in Kyiv. It was a pillar of Tsarist rule. It was nearly exterminated during the Soviet Union. And it has been revived and exalted in Putin’s Russia. That religion is Russian Orthodox Christianity—the most prominent and influential religion among the four faiths that the Russian government acknowledges as “traditional religions.” The other three are Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. Roman Catholics are tolerated, as are some Protestant churches. Other religions and sects are treated differently. Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned in 2017, and Mormons have had to reduce their religious activities to comply with a 2016 anti-terrorist law that banned most religious proselytizing.

Except for the Soviet period, the Russian Orthodox Church and its leadership have enjoyed a very close relationship with the Russian state. With the return to legal status and freedom to operate unconstrained by state restrictions, the Russian Orthodox Church in post-Soviet Russia has been enjoying an unprecedented revival and strong support from the authorities. The Russian government has been eager to put its weight behind new laws that strengthen the Church’s role in society. A law signed by President Putin in 2013, for example, criminalized actions that “clearly disrespect society” and are aimed at “insulting believers' religious feelings.” This law was enacted following the famous “protest performance” by a rock group known as Pussy Riot in Moscow’s main church—Christ the Savior Cathedral—on February 12, 2012. Two of the performers served two years in prison for hooliganism. Although the new law has been in effect for seven years, few citizens have been prosecuted under it. The most notorious case was that of a 22-year-old man who was given a suspended three-and-one-half-year sentence for playing Pokémon Go in church.

Support for the Russian Orthodox Church has come not only from the authorities but from a wide segment of society—from ordinary citizens, some of whom maintained their faith, often secretly, during the Soviet era, to more liberal members of society who saw the revival of the Church as another important step in destroying the remnants of the old Soviet system.

Even before the Soviet system collapsed and the Russian Orthodox Church regained its freedom, attitudes toward religion were changing. The years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) offered new opportunities for people to express their faith and openly practice it. Young people, often as a sign of defiance toward the official atheism of their parents, would wear crosses on chains around their necks, attend church services, place icons in their homes, cross themselves, and pray openly. One of the most vivid manifestations of this change was the final scene in a defining movie of the time, Repentance. In a line at the end of the film, an old woman asks a stranger if she is taking the right road to the church. The stranger replies she is not, and the old woman asks: “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?”

In recent years, however, there has been increasing criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church for what many perceive as its overbearing influence on government policy, its ostentatious display of power and wealth, particularly on the part of the patriarch and other senior church leaders, and its aloofness and lack of understanding of the real-life problems of ordinary Russians, 79 percent of whom think of themselves as Orthodox Christians. Even some of the most devout Orthodox parishioners are questioning the relevance of the Church to their lives. This is not good for the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in the power structure of the state and the state’s relations with society.

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center explains what happened to sour the relationship:

Russia’s church authorities did not engage its new parishioners in serious conversation about the modern world. Instead, they talked to them with the same didactic tone as the old ladies, telling them about their formal requirement to light candles before the church icons in a certain way, how to dress, and how to observe all the Orthodox fasts properly.… There was no debate about the language and meaning of the liturgy, the relevance and mission of the church in the modern world, or greater participation of the laity in the services. The new Christians wanted the church to disavow the power and wealth of the state and remain the friend of the oppressed. Instead, the bishops made themselves busy with the reconstruction of the grandiose tsarist-era Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the center of Moscow.

The latest criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church erupted in 2019 in public protest over the construction of a church in one of the few remaining open spaces in the center of the city of Yekaterinburg. Such a manifestation of discontent against the Church would have been unthinkable even several years ago. In a reverse of the many previously unsuccessful protests against construction projects that would harm the environment or directly encroach on people’s lives, this protest was successful, and the construction project at this site was abandoned.

This event is viewed by many as marking a significant change in society’s relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church has undoubtedly lost support from among the more liberal elements of Russian society, those who have been supportive of the Church because they believe in freedom of religion as a civil right. The Church, however, retains strong support from the state, from the conservative forces in society, and the large, traditional segment of Russian society. Baunov speculates that the protests in Yekaterinburg “…are in some ways a manifestation of a newborn secular, cultural, and political outlook reminiscent of Western Europe. They are a rejection of the church as archaic not just because it collaborates with the state but as archaic in and of itself.” He also speculates that the liberal-conservative divide over support for the Church “…may even shape party politics in the future [much as it has in the West]. The West’s culture war may have arrived in Russia.”

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union

Society’s Yearning

President Putin once said that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He was expressing the emotional trauma of millions of Russians, many of whom found themselves living outside the borders of their homeland, who felt adrift in a world that no longer made sense to them, who were uncertain of their future, and who did not know how to deal with the past—a past that had just been negated by the decision of a small number of politicians.

The past for many countries can be a burden that can redound heavily onto the ability of governments and societies to cope with current problems and set a course for positive development for the future. Those countries that have directly confronted and reconciled with the sins and misdeeds of the past have been able to move forward more successfully and have nurtured a more cohesive and wholesome society.

Today’s Russia has not yet come to terms with its Soviet past and is still experiencing regret, nostalgia, pain, and even anger over a loss that is still incomprehensible for many of the older generations. One day the Soviet Union was there; the next day it was not. The uncertainty and anxiety this monumental event evoked in the hearts and minds of millions of former Soviet citizens were palpable and only increased in intensity as their lives were affected by political and economic turmoil.

These feelings still exist today, particularly but not exclusively, among the older generations, and they intensify as doubts about Russia’s future and the ability of the country’s leaders to ensure the people’s economic wellbeing grow. It is not surprising, therefore, that nostalgia for “the good old days,” “for better times,” for the “glory days” of the Soviet Union is popular among Russian citizens. According to a Levada Center poll conducted in December 2019, 66 percent of the respondents regretted the fall of the Soviet Union and shared Putin’s view that its collapse was a disaster. This is the highest percentage in 10 years. The same poll indicated that there is growing glorification of the Soviet Union even among young people.

The Moscow Times reported in June 2019 on the results of a Levada Center poll about some of the reasons for nostalgia for the Soviet Union:

A majority of Russians believe that the Soviet system took care of the common man and woman.… Fifty-nine percent of Russian respondents said “the state took care of ordinary people” when asked to name the defining characteristics of Soviet rule…. The absence of ethnic conflicts (46 percent) as well as economic growth and lack of unemployment (43 percent) were the second and third most common responses, Levada said. Constantly improving living conditions (39 percent) and advancements in science and culture (31 percent) placed fourth and fifth in Russians’ ranking of Soviet life.

Commenting on the poll results, the newspaper noted that

[F]ewer respondents identified Soviet life with longer lines in stores, international isolation and the persecution of dissidents than they did in past polls. The “idealization” of the Soviet past does not imply that Russians would prefer to live in the Soviet Union, Levada sociologist Karina Pipiya said. “All that the USSR is now glorified for is largely a consequence of what Russians are unhappy with now: low income, inequality, and corruption,” she wrote.

Yegorov writing for Russia Beyond last December also examined nostalgia for the USSR and the pluses and minuses of Soviet life. On the plus side, most people felt secure. “Soviet life could be quite boring, yet many felt that basic goods and opportunities were somewhat guaranteed for everyone for life, through the system of social services, pensions, etc.” On the negative side, Yegorov noted that career opportunities and salaries were limited, as was mobility within the local labor market and throughout the country.

Another aspect of Soviet life that ranks high in people’s minds is pride in the country and its achievements. A recent Levada Center poll shows that 87 percent of respondents are proud of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, as they call World War II, and 50 percent cite space achievements as a source of national pride. Patriotic education among youth also is remembered favorably. Yegorov enumerated the ideals promoted by the state that he called not “all that bad,” including “friendship of all nations, building a great peaceful society without class barriers, free of poverty, greed and other vices (communism, in other words).”

On the negative side, Yegorov points out that “as a totalitarian state, the USSR was great at establishing ideals but very bad at telling its citizens the truth (which, of course, helps with feeling proud). By the end of the Soviet era (the late 1980s), only children could believe that the USSR, with its collapsing economy and constant lines in shops, was the best state in the world.”

Perhaps the most positive aspect of Soviet life was the claim that everyone was more or less equal. As Yegorov explains,

Equality was a thing in the USSR: almost no one had much, but almost everyone has something. Sure, there was an elite of sorts in the USSR—big officials, distinguished scientists, artists and so on, who enjoyed privileges…. But the salary gap between top-managers and regular workers was not as big as it can be now.

On the other hand, although everyone was “equal,” the quality and quantity of goods and services were poor. Yegorov continues his explanation:

Everyone could afford bad food and bad clothes. Material wealth hardly existed in the USSR—at least for the majority of its citizens. And though basics were guaranteed, even those who worked hard could rarely rise above the mediocre level of consumption. So why should have one worked hard? Basically, that was one of the (many) reasons for the Soviet socialist economy eventually collapsing so dramatically.

The name most closely associated with the Soviet Union is Joseph Stalin. It is both bewildering and troubling that more than 67 years after Stalin’s death and almost 30 years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Stalin’s popularity in Russia is growing rather than diminishing. According to the Levada Center, the number of Russians expressing their “respect” for Stalin increased from 29 percent in 2018 to 41 percent in 2019. Stalin’s approval rating in his role in Russian history has also been growing and reached 70 percent in 2019. The same poll reported that only 19 percent had a negative view of Stalin. This is a significant increase from 20 years ago when Russians were split about evenly in their assessment of Stalin. As for how the respondents viewed whether the successes Stalin achieved were worth the cost of human suffering and loss of life, 46 percent agreed that they were, while 45 percent disagreed.

What is most surprising regarding contemporary views of Stalin are the results of a poll conducted by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center. It reported that

[A]lmost half (47 percent) of young Russians (age 18 to 24) say they have never heard about the people killed during the Great Purge under Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Of those age 25–34, the number decreases to 30 percent. What is even more astonishing is that for those 60 years old and older, 12 percent said that they have not heard of the killings during the Great Purge of the 1930s.

It is hard to believe that among Russian citizens 60 years old and older, there is anyone who does not know about Stalin’s Great Purge. Those who deny any such knowledge either must not be telling the truth or are suffering from dementia.

What explains this astonishing rise in positive attitudes toward Stalin? Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center offers his explanation. He cites popular admiration and demand for a firm hand and refers to Levada Center polls that show that 45 percent of the respondents affirmed their belief in the need to concentrate power in the hands of a single individual. Kolesnikov notes that surveys show that

[F]or many Russians, Stalin embodies a model of “order” (an attractive but abstract concept) and of “justice” (especially social justice, as there was no sharp division between rich and poor when he was in power). Russia’s current ruling class intuitively encourages a quiet rehabilitation of Stalin so as to benefit by association from these two concepts: if a politician supports Stalin, then by implication, they are also for order and justice.

Kolesnikov draws an interesting parallel between Stalin’s and Putin’s popularity. He argues that “when Putin behaves in a more authoritarian fashion, Stalin also become more popular: a trend that helps explain the jump in approval for Stalin after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.”

Despite these surprising figures that suggest a nostalgia for the Soviet Union and Stalin, do the Russian people feel so strongly about the past that they would like to live in the past? A poll conducted by the state-operated Russian Public Opinion Research Center revealed that only 5 percent of the respondents wanted to live during the Stalin era. Forty percent said they preferred to live in present-day Russia. Almost the same about (37 percent) expressed a preference for the later Soviet period (1964–1986), known as the “years of stagnation,” most closely associated with the rule of Leonid Brezhnev and a period of slow economic growth, but also a time of social and economic stability. Just 4 percent wanted to return to the chaotic years of the 1990s when Russia emerged as an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country, under President Yeltsin’s leadership, experienced high inflation, widespread crime and corruption, and economic collapse. And 3 percent wanted to live during the final years of Imperial Russia before World War I and the October Revolution of 1917.

The Role of the State in Glorifying the Soviet Past

How the state addresses the role of Stalin and the achievements of the Soviet Union directly affect the attitude of society toward Russia’s past. The Kremlin has done nothing to discourage the slow rehabilitation of Stalin. In fact, it has openly encouraged the glorification of the Soviet past that was directly associated with Stalin. The most prominent achievement was the Soviet people’s victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). That victory is increasingly attributed to the “genius” and “brilliant leadership” of Stalin. There is no event in contemporary Russia that is more celebrated and regarded with such veneration as this victory. May 9, which marks the anniversary of the end of the war, has become a lavish celebration that unites all citizens of the Russian Federation in the pride of victory and the admiration of the glorious achievement and sacrifices of the Soviet people. Stalin increasingly figures as the “efficient manager” whose leadership was essential to the Soviet victory.

Monuments, billboards, pictures of Stalin in store windows and subway stations are becoming more popular. Even a newly built Russian Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to the Russian Armed Forces at a military theme-park near Moscow and touted as one of the tallest Orthodox cathedrals in the world was initially designed to contain murals featuring President Putin, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and other officials and a giant collage honoring victory in the Great Patriotic War and featuring a portrait of Stalin—a man who was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of tens of thousands of priests and the destruction of countless numbers of churches. When it became known that these paintings were being prepared, there was a loud public outcry. In response, the paintings were removed.

Although most of the monuments to Stalin are not erected by the state (they are usually put up by local Communist Party organizations), they are not discouraged by regional or national officials. Some Russians have vehemently objected to the growing rehabilitation of Stalin; however, the government has largely remained silent other than to admit that Stalin is a controversial figure.

By taking an ambiguous position on Stalin, the Kremlin can avoid direct association with the worst abuses of the Stalin regime, with the terror, and with the mass murders of millions of Soviet citizens. On the other hand, the Kremlin claims that it is the direct successor of the Soviet Union and consequently of its more positive achievements—the transformation of the country from a largely peasant society into a major industrial power, the attainment of superpower status and the military rival of the United States, and the first country to send a man into space. Russian state television pushes this positive narrative by associating the achievements of the past with the current regime while minimizing the negative aspects of the Soviet Union—its repression and extermination of millions of its citizens. This is particularly important now when the most notable accomplishments of the Putin regime—economic growth and the annexation of Crimea—are losing their impact on a society in which the hashtag #Krymnash (Crimea is ours) no longer arouses nationalistic fervor as economic conditions continue to deteriorate, most recently due to mismanagement, fallen oil prices, and the devastation brought on by the coronavirus. The failure of the Putin regime and society to come to terms with Russia’s past and to conclusively condemn Stalin and the crimes of his regime makes it difficult to move forward toward a better future, toward a more democratic and just society.

The future of any country depends on its ability to reconcile with its past, to constructively face the challenges at hand, and to entrust the younger generation with chartering a course forward. For Russia, its troubling past is a heavy burden with many conflicting interests vying for influence over its narrative. As Carnegie Moscow Center’s Kolesnikov has so astutely stated: “The war over historical memory for the minds and souls of the next generations is arguably Russia’s greatest battle.”

Washington, DC
June 2020

[1] The current population of the Russian Federation is 145,934,462, which includes the 1.967 million inhabitants of Crimea.

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The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.


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