Vladimir Shlapentokh

Ноябрь 17, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 7:40 пп


Introduction: the theoretical perspective

After the failure of liberal reforms, Russian politicians and intellectuals have been engulfed in heated debates about its cause. Most intellectuals are now inclined to think that the reason lies in the archaic mentality of the Russian people who are unable to support the modernization of its society. This view was was advanced by Vladimir Yadov, the patriarch of Russian sociology, at the end of 2009 with his article, “To the question of national uniqueness of modernization of the Russian society.” [1] I plan to show in this text that, with the help of cultural concepts, it is impossible to explain the main problems of modern Russian society and the direction of its development. What I refer to, in particular, is the status of its modernization. As a rule, cultural concepts are based on the postulate generally accepted in American sociology, which states that a society is basically regulated by social values that are internalized by the members of the society during the process of primary or secondary socialization.

Here, I accept the most common definition of values—as a measure of the importance of an object in our surroundings and as a characteristic of the importance of the goals, of both the individual and the society. In my opinion, the cultural approach (Parsons became its main theorist in the middle of the 20th century) distorts the actual process of the regulation of society and does not fully explain how a society’s order is maintained, nor how the existing political and social structures are preserved. That approach is equally ineffective in explaining the process of change in a society, and prevents the understanding of how societal transformations occur, how the main structures of a society change—political, economic, social and technological—and how the culture itself, with its values and images of the world, changes. These changes happen under the influence of objective factors (dynamics of the economy and the living conditions, technological progress, changes in geopolitical circumstances), and through the activities of the old and new elite. The role played by the initial values of the masses in the changes and transformations of a society is much smaller than culturologists suggest. The old Marxist paradigm of changes, with three of it known components (productive forces, production relations and superstructure), despite its overemphasis on economy and underestimation of autonomy of the “superstructure”, is more productive in the study of social dynamics than culturological schemas—searching for the cause or absence of changes in the values shared by the masses. Existing values cannot serve as the cause of either the stability or dynamics of a society, mainly because they are not independent variables in relation to that society; they themselves depend on what is happening in the said society, and rely mainly on the actions of the elite, both old and new.

In my opinion (which I explained in detail in my book, published in 2006)[2], people’s behavior, both verbal and material, is regulated first by external norms and rules. Values often serve as a tool for the rationalization of that behavior, which is imposed “from the top,” as an ideological “affirmation” of external, positive or negative stimuli, approximately as described by Skinner and, even much earlier, Hobbes. (In Parsons’ criticism of Hobbes, I am on the side of the English philosopher). Violation of the norms and rules attracts sanctions—direct punishments, from the loss of reward and chances for advancement to the loss of a job and criminal penalties, including imprisonment or even the death sentence. That is why the fear of sanctions is a much more powerful stimulus to people’s behavior than moral discomfort from the violation of internalized values, which also moderately affects people’s behavior. Ordinary people, whose behavior depends on the rewards and punishments of authorities and the nearest environment, cannot, by definition, be innovators, nor are they responsible for the stagnation of the society. The Stakhanovite movement, which was described by the Soviet propaganda as being a popular initiative that originated “at the bottom,” was, as we well know, organized by the actions of “the top,” as are all innovative endeavors in Soviet society. Practically all of the mass movements in America over the last half a century arose not at the initiative of ordinary citizens, but through activists, who have received support from the mass media, political parties and the government.

I profess a theory, in which the elite are the main agent of change in any society that has ever existed. By “the elite,” I mean groups of people able to influence the behavior and the consciousness of the masses. It is possible to distinguish three types of the elite—political, economic, and cultural. In a sense, this typology is close to the neo-Marxist allocation of three types of capital—political, economic, and cultural.

I view the political elite (domestic or occupational) as a group of people who are making strategic decisions; who have access to the buttons of power and control over the institutions that affect people’s consciousness. This definition applies both to the ruling elite and the oppositional elite, if its ideological institutions (including religious) have an influence on the masses and on certain positions in the state apparatus. The economic and cultural elite possess a well-known autonomy. In an authoritarian society, this autonomy is minimal; in a democracy, it is quite significant. This is especially true of the economic elite, which controls the economy. Its autonomy in a democratic society can reach such a level that the heads of the large corporations turn into feudal lords, which compete with the political elite. In an authoritarian society, the cultural elite as a whole serves the political elite, although it always includes elements of the opposition.  In a democratic society, however, its opposition significantly increases, although even here it serves the political elite, whether ruling or oppositional.

Only the elite, particularly the political, with its ruling and oppositional parties, initiates institutional changes in society, using the cultural elite to change the value systems of the population, especially among the most active part of that society—the young and the educated. Attacks on the old values, as a rule, always succeed, even if a minority of the population ends up being a “hard nut to crack” for the elite and continues to share the old values. In terms of the Marxist paradigm, quoted above, the elite represent the “superstructure,” which does not so much change under the influence of the “basis,” (orthodox Marxism affirms this), as it itself changes the “basis” and even “productive forces,” speeding up or slowing down their development.

By denying the key role of mass values in the development of a society, I insist on the enormous role of values, insofar as they are shared by the members of the political elite and by those who serve it, as well as by those involved in the management of people and the formation of their minds—journalists, teachers in both schools and universities, and researchers in the social sciences. The intellectual and emotional investments are much more stable in developing the values of “activists” than they are in the values of ordinary people. A famous phenomenon of the “old Bolsheviks,” described by Solzhenitsyn in “GULAG” (old party members, as they were dying in the camp, remained loyal not only to Marxism, but to Stalin personally) illustrates this idea. Most people’s values are highly mobile, however. I object to culturologists’ tendency to exaggerate the stability of values, even when they are passed from generation to generation. Each new generation can quickly assimilate values that differ from the values of their parents, because they exist in a different socio-political context, as a result, for example, of the revolutionary changes at home or abroad.

In my understanding, the values of the masses are reproduced, mainly because it is in the interest of the dominant “old” elite. However, if a new elite forms, it will use various methods to set new rules of conduct, force new values into the consciousness and change the roles of the old guard.

The approach to the study of the society being developed in this article is in an orthogonal relationship to the postmodern methodology currently dominant among many Western sociologists. Postmodern methodology tends to describe social processes, as if formed from the “bottom-up,” as a result of the activities of sovereign individuals, who are free to choose virtually all of its features—from political views and ways of describing the world and religion, to gender and ethnicity.

The Concept of V.A. Yadov

In his article, mentioned at the beginning of this piece, our famous master of thought speaks about Russia’s place in the world, as well as that which determines the nature of the Russian historical process. From the two dominant paradigms in modern sociology—“activist” and “culturological,” with an emphasis on “national characteristics”—Yadov chooses the first. Proponents of the first paradigm, according to Yadov, “focus their attention on the launch mechanism of change—agents, who, just as it takes place in a chemical reaction, launch the process.” Proponents of the second paradigm, if their point of view is simplified, argue that in every society, tomorrow will be the same as today, because, as Yadov wrote, the “historically traversed path is almost the cornerstone” of the future of the people and nations of the world system.

What is striking is that Yadov, having stated his commitment to an activist paradigm (although done in a footnote), in essence, forgets it in his later text and praises the Comparative Cultural Research which he, for some reason, calls a paradigm of “national characteristics.” Yadov also joins with Alexander Auzan, a prominent Russian economist and political scientist, in asserting that it is very difficult for Russia to leave its historical “path” because of the very characteristics that Yadov described.

Yadov joins the many authors who, after the year 2000 (in contrast to the authors of the 1990’s, who focused on the role of agents of change) began believing that the main problems with the modernization of the country lie in Russian culture. The culture of the “zero year” demonstrates the futility of fighting against the corruption and tyranny of officials, because “it always was”—a very convenient position for substantiating conformity and political passivity. Not surprisingly, the ruling party and a portion of the opposition share the theory of the eternity of corruption in Russia as they agree that the status quo cannot be changed.

Yadov’s data on the impact of Russian values on modernization

Yadov bases his culturological approach for explaining the difficulties of modernization in Russia on references to numerous polls:

1. Yadov refers to the data of Magoonand Rydven, which shows that “the Russians are characterized by a higher need for protection by the state” and they “expressed less need for freedom and independence, inclination to risk”, than the populations of Western European countries.

2. Yadov then mentions the research methodology of R. Ingelgart, according to which Russia’s populations, like other former CMEA countries, differs from the Western European population’s domination of the orientation of people on materialistic values, not post-materialism.

3. Later, there are cited allegations of Lebedova, apparently not based on the data cited here, but about how “post-communist societies are much lower than others, on a scale of trust, tolerance, values of self-expression.”

4. Next, Yadov refers to the conclusions by Yassin (empirical data not shown), that “in the most important areas there was a setback… cultural prerequisites of modernization deteriorated.”

5. Yadov then moves to the data collected by the Institute of Sociology, Academy of Science. In the period from 2004 to 2007, the proportion of those choosing the value of freedom has declined from 26% to 20%, while the proportion of supporters of a strong state has increased from 41% to 47%.

6. “The research of N.I. Lapin deserves serious attention,” wrote Yadov. Lapin came to the conclusion that a “tolerant symbiosis of diverse cultural values” is a typical rational response for Russians and is “its most significant obstacle” for innovations in Russia.

7. Yadov further quotes Kasyanova, who found that “Russians score highest on the test of “cycloid.” In a translation from the language of psychoanalysts into a more familiar one, it means that we are not inclined to systematically implement activities regardless of the sentiment.”

Silent axioms of Yadov

A careful comparison of the values of Russia’s population and those of other countries, identifying the role played by different types of values would be central to addressing the task that Yadov set for himself—studying the conditions for modernization in Russia, should the axioms, which Yadov tacitly assumes to be correct, be proven.

First axiom. The orientation of values and the mentality of the people, in general, act as independent and relatively stable variables, and are not the product of rapid changes in society (technological, economic, social) nor, most importantly, the targeting of power and the new circumstances created by the authorities.

Second axiom. People’s behavior “is in agreement with their own orientation of values,” and this behavior empirically affects the processes in the country. This suggests the importance of studying those values to determine the pace of modernization. I am not even raising the issue of credibility for the data provided by Yadov. Much of it, including the data from an international study by Ingelgart, is questionable, since the responses of the respondents are strongly influenced by such phenomena as desirable values and the impact of the authorities, which means that people respond according to the official values of society. (Ingelgart, for example, takes the answers of the Chinese to highly politicized issues “at face value.”)

If Yadov’s main axioms are theoretically and empirically unfounded, it is unlikely that the study of the degree of closeness of the Russian mentality to the Western mentality would explain what is going on in Russian society; neither would it explain why the pace of modernization does not suit many people, including the President. (On the other hand, the focus is not on the modernization of the society for some Russian authors, but on its “de-industrialization” and its movement backwards.)

However, let’s defer the reflection of the first axiom, and assume that the mass values—traditional in their nature—have a greater influence on the processes of modernization for the country (for some authors, such as Gudkov, this is crucial).

Comparing the mass values and indicators of modernization: the invasion of common sense

There is almost an absolute consensus on the pace of modernization in Russia is measured. The easiest way to view this is to take the well-known article by President Medvedev, Forward Russia (10.09.09), and identify his list of indicators and objectives for the modernization of Russia (or we could use the materials of the Institute of Contemporary Development, which is considered the “brain trust” of the President.)[3] Now let’s ask ourselves: What values that sociologists employ, as cited by Yadov, could have a direct impact on the problems of modernization, as listed by the president and his advisers? Is it possible for those values to affect the “export of unique technologies, energy efficiency and productivity or the development of new fuels”? Or perhaps they might affect the “level of nuclear technology of advances in information technology”? Or perhaps “the preparation by middle and high schools of a sufficient number of experts to prospective industries”, or “the concentration of efforts of scientific institutions on the implementation of breakthrough projects” with “an invitation, to work, with the best scientists and engineers from around the world”? I think not.

But let us look at the purely social problems. Only those researchers who ignore the Russian reality and the opportunities the masses have to participate meaningfully in political life, might argue that goals such as “creating an extremely open political system, a dynamic, active, transparent and multi-dimensional social structure and political culture of free, secured, critically thinking and self-confident people, with a modern, efficient court”, would depend primarily on these mass values, as being either the ratio of materialistic and post-materialist values or the nature of a “symbiosis of diverse cultural values.”

Undoubtedly, the traditional patterns of thinking and behavior contribute to the reproduction of the socio-political system which prevails in a society. That is exactly what helps to preserve the system that the authorities “like.” Cultural traditions work for the elite, which wants to preserve the status quo, be it in Russia, the United States or Saudi Arabia. Even the values that promote changes in daily life, and even in such a dynamic society as the American, are rather weak. By itself, the cult of individualism does not automatically imply a desire for change. The need for innovation comes in the mass consciousness, not because it yearns for change, but because it is imposed by technological progress (mobile phones have entered the life all around the world—from African villages to Manhattan—but not because the citizens thirst for a change). The need for change is dictated by a desire to survive in a competitive environment (economic or geopolitical), or is imposed by activists, agents or the elite.

Now we come to the main thesis of this text, and to the main claim against Yadov’s article. Once he has mentioned that he prefers the activist paradigm over the culturological, Yadov never returns to it in his text.

The main change agent of social consciousness—the political elite

In the 1990’s, influenced by the collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, an analysis process (in Russia and the West) would have revealed, in Yadov’s terms, that the activist approach and a belief that active social actors and, above all, the government would be able to radically transform the socio-economic and political structures of Russia, which, in turn, would change the mentality of Russians. However, at the beginning of the “zero” years, there was a dramatic shift in the cultural approach, in connection with the political processes in the country and the growth of authoritarian tendencies. The number of articles and books talking about allegations that Russia is fated to move on an authoritarian track indefinitely, and that the process of radical redesign is not possible because of the mentality of the Russian population, has increased. In Russia, Lev Gudkov, together with his colleagues at the Levada Center, stated this point of view in the article, Monitoring of Public Opinion (5, 2000), and in a series of articles in the New Gazette and the Independent Newspaper.[4]

The essence of Gudkov’s position is clearly articulated when he states that “the limits of the possible upgrade in Russia (or its internal defects) are outlined by the nature of existing institutions and related type of man, his morals.” Gudkov argues that, ultimately, the reason for “aborted modernization” lies “in the full immoralism of the Russian society.”[5] In fact, Gudkov’s position points to the Russian mentality as an obstacle to modernization (it categorically rejects any accusations lodged against the liberal elite, which was in power in the 1990’s). This belief is shared by many Western authors, by practically all those researchers quoted by Yadov, and, finally, by Yadov himself.

It is amazing how culturologists, insisting on traditional values, almost completely ignore the role of the dominating elite in maintaining and shaping a population’s orientation of values. Meanwhile, the elite—especially the ruling class—have a powerful arsenal of tools for implanting the system of values they deem appropriate for themselves and their society.

Means of ideological influence

First of all, there are the mass media, educational institutions, and all types of arts and literature. The current Russian elite uses these to plant ideas in the minds of Russians that 1) the West, and especially America, is an enemy of Russia; or 2) only authoritarian methods are good for the country. In the U.S., the elite are using these same tools to instill the importance of combating international terrorism and racial discrimination, or of supporting people with disabilities and quitting smoking. In both cases, the success that the elite has had in shaping public opinion is obvious. Not surprisingly, because a monopoly on the media and education is the first target of a totalitarian state. It is no accident that Obama’s administration was enraged by the conservative TV channel, Fox, and has even tried to take various measures to discredit it.

Reward and fear of sanction

Yet, there is an even more effective factor for introducing appropriate values to the consciousness of the masses. It is a system of tangible and intangible rewards and sanctions (fear), given for deviations in behavior and public remarks that go against the standards set by the elite.

If a scientist, having expressed himself to be, for example, against political correctness in the U.S., is unable to find work at a university, then this fact is perceived as a signal to all graduate students hungry for a career. There is no doubt that the vast majority of them will not only refuse to contradict the values of the relevant actions or words, but will almost instantly promote these values in their own minds and will have to prove to their correctness to their loved ones.

If Russian journalists see that their colleagues with pro-American views have no chance of gaining screen time on the main television channels, most of them will not only agree to do what is approved by the government, but will also transform their consciousness and predict America’s downfall; they will also repeat their projections to their friends over a glass of vodka (whiskey). If the authorities at various levels have started going to church and asking the priests to consecrate the room, then after a short period of time the number of people convincing themselves and others that they are truly Christians will increase geometrically.

New objective circumstances, rapidly changing values

The new conditions of life, whether created spontaneously or through the direct efforts of the elite, are rapidly changing Russian’s values, but again, the elite are acting as an instrument of these changes.

Yadov refers to data from Magoon and Rudnev, which shows that “the Russians are characterized by a higher need for protection by the state, express less need for freedom and independence, inclination to risk”, than the populations of Western European countries. Again, the cause and effect are reversed here. It is certainly not surprising that the Russians, living under constant pressure from the state’s arbitrariness and lawlessness, dream of being protected from it. Our investigators perceive this is as the reason the state plays a huge role in society. And the mass media has, in the last decade (in contrast to the 1990s), helped revive the cult of the state as the primary ambulance to ordinary people, with their propaganda of “State” and the glorification of the leaders who act as carriers of the state principle (recall Putin’s actions in the small city of Pikalevo in 2009, where the Premier Minister forced the managers of the company to pay the salary to its workers with complete disregard to the real situation of the market).

It is quite natural that, in the absence of stable rules in the economy, Russian citizens are not inclined (being sensible people) to indulge in dangerous experiments. Again, the Russian mass media and the speeches given by officials for decades, along with numerous TV shows such as Gangster Petersburg, Brigade or School (if we take the most successful), promote the consciousness of the masses (added to their own experiences) to picture a society in which fraudsters and gangsters reign. (Compare this with Soviet propaganda and Soviet films, which painted positive pictures of their world; these, too, were believed by the majority of citizens, even in those small towns, where crime reigned).

Gudkov points to the mutual distrust Russians hold toward each other and, again, links this feature to Russian traditions.[6] Let us note that the distrust is not only typical for modern Russians, but also for many other nations.[7] The fact is that the degree of distrust among ordinary people is a direct consequence of how the law enforcement system works in a society and how people are willing to comply with its laws. Again, if Americans believe that, in the event of a conflict with others, they may be entitled to an immediate intervention by the police, followed a trial, they have no reason to fear that a neighbor, a colleague or a visiting plumber is deceiving them. They feel they may take the risk of trusting that person and, as a rule, do not lose.

Strikingly, Russian sociologists also place the blame for its citizens and “national character” on social passivity; the fact that “an absolute majority, i.e. 90% of the citizens, believe that they are unable to affect any matters that go beyond the nearest circle.”[8] These sociologists do not write a single word about the fact that social passivity was imposed by the non-democratic state, which deprived the people of any chance for political activity. No less remarkable is the Russian citizens’ positive attitude toward corruption as a necessary evil, emphasizes Alexei Levinson, co-author with Gudkov, in his analysis of Russian society.[9] But doesn’t the adaptation of the population to the rampant corruption (a direct result of the actions by the authorities since 1992) lead to views of corruption as a “normal” condition of survival in a given society?[10] Even Gudkov said, in the same article, that “people adapt…through corruption, through family-related informal communication”.

The nature of social mobility and the values promoted by the authorities as well as by life’s circumstances, such as the terms of a promotion, are powerful factors that can almost instantaneously change the orientation of values in the citizens. Take, for example, the attitudes toward science and the profession of a scientist in modern Russia. In Soviet times, the prestige of the scientist was fantastically high. It was much higher than in America. And now? Today, the prestige of the scientist is surprisingly low in Russia. Gudkov and others argue that this is the result of the “oppression of motivation to achieve” in Russian value systems. Meanwhile, it is clear that Russian youth are quite rationally minded, and have adapted to the public policy regarding science and the real conditions of the life of a scientist in Russia. The change in the scale of the prestige given to the scientist has Russian youth yearning for a career in the civil service, which promises material benefits and a prominent place in society.

How the elite quickly and radically changed the values of the population in the Soviet times

20th century Russian history is a remarkable illustration of the above thesis, and convincingly refutes the view of the “impenetrable mentality of the Russian people.”

Let’s begin with the victory of Soviet power after the October Revolution. For a short historical period, the Bolsheviks were able to substantially destroy the value of many of the leading concepts of the pre-revolutionary society, such as private property, religion, xenophobia (including anti-Semitism), and instill a respect for the values of socialism, collectivism, social property, a planned economy, the friend of the people’s party, science and others. The Bolsheviks completely changed the relevance of pre-revolutionary history in most minds, and created their own icons such as the October Revolution, the Civil War, and Lenin.

The ease with which Stalin, in 1940-50’s, was then able to introduce Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism into the consciousness of the masses! Again, within a short historical period, the international ideology was replaced by a new, completely opposite ideology. The vast majority of Russians began to manifest the new perspectives on national relations, not only at party meetings, but also at home in the kitchen, with the closest of friends. And, from the heart, they would tell each other anti-Semitic jokes. (I am sure that now, in Russia, where Putin has clearly rejected anti-Semitism as a state policy, the hateful anti-Semitic jokes play a minor role in saunas, enjoyed only by the notable people of the country). The Kremlin introduced an entirely new interpretation of Russian history into the consciousness of the masses, which completely eliminated one of its variants, which had only been taught in the 20’s.

After 1985, Gorbachev and the liberal (before then, the oppositional elite in the 1960’s) made a new revolution of societal values. They have managed to significantly undermine respect for public property and the central planning system, for the state, its security forces and the army, and to inspire much of the population to respect the universal values that had been severely persecuted by the Soviet government—democracy and a market economy, political freedoms and private property. Again, an almost complete revision of the country’s history was made, which was then adopted by a large part of society.

When Putin’s regime was established, it brought another change to the structure of the population’s values. The significance of several positive and negative values have substantially increased, including the primacy of the state in public life; faith in the greatness of Russia and its key role in the world politics; a belief in the particular path of historical development of Russia and authoritarianism as the most appropriate form of the Russian political system; Putin’s contempt for the Western political model and democracy; hatred of America and Russia’s neighbors—the former Soviet republics and former allies (Ukraine, Georgia and primarily Poland).

Drawing a not so attractive image of the average Russian, Lev Gudkov and Boris Dubin attribute, among other negative traits, an acute xenophobia and an anti-Western—especially anti-American—sentiment; the belief that “Russia is surrounded by enemies.”[11] It is striking that neither of them say anything in their analysis of the anti-Western, Anti-Ukrainian and anti-Georgian slogans being pumped openly into the mass consciousness by the state and the all-powerful television; portraying things as if a kind of spontaneous xenophobia began spreading from the bottom and then infiltrated into «power relations, power structures, education, culture, and television”.

The rapid changing of values under the pressure of the elite in other countries

The active role played by the elite in changing the structure of values is a universal phenomenon. The most striking example from recent history is the transformation of values in postwar Germany and, particularly, Japan, which was successfully implemented during the short period of an occupation administration. Indeed, it is difficult to meet a Japanese or foreign author who would deny that the American military administration created a new mentality in Japan. But this does not deny the conservation of many elements of traditional Japanese culture, nor does it interfere with the fact that democratic values have become part of the population’s mentality.

In the U.S. and Europe, the changes to a population’s value structure, under the pressure of the elite, are almost continuous. In a short period, under the influence of state institutions, mass media, schools and colleges and the cinema, Americans and Europeans have changed their views on minorities, race relations, ecology, marriage, sex, and the roles of women in society.

Real change institutions is the business only of the ruling elite

The elite, and above all, the ruling political elite are the ones to introduce new values into the mass consciousness, in order to implement real change in society: the destruction of old institutions and the creation of new ones. Hardly anyone would argue that the Bolshevik elite established a new Soviet society, with its new institutions, in a surprisingly short time. In fact, the Soviet system, as it evolved in the first five years following the October Revolution, has not significantly changed. No matter how great the differences between Stalin’s regime and the subsequent regimes, soviet society remained as it had been made by a group of Bolshevik leaders between 1917 and 1922, until 1987-1989. Even after 1953, the changes that took place in Soviet society have always been the handiwork of those who had access to the buttons of power. All of the changes that took place in Russian society after 1991 were only the result of actions by the Kremlin—from the introduction of market prices to the abolition of gubernatorial elections.

It is wrong to assume that the initiation of changes in a democratic society occur “from below”, in a democratic manner. In fact, the difference between authoritarian and democratic systems is that in one case, people cannot directly influence the decisions of the elite, while, in the other case, people with a vote can approve or reject the proposed changes at the top, which are still coming from the political, economic and cultural elite.

The roles of the elite and the voters in initiating changes in the U.S. is very interesting to watch right now, in 2010, when the White House is trying to change the country’s health care system. Up to this time, none in America has discussed the Americans’ propensity for change, nor have they studied their values, as those authors cited by Yadov had done, looking at the values of the Russians in order to understand why there was no modernization. Most Americans were either against the reform or have treated it very skeptically. The movement “from below”, the so-called “tea party,” was strongly against the reforms. In essence, the reform was approved through the activities of the White House and the leadership of the House of Representatives, against the will of most Americans. All of the other important innovations in American life that have occurred in recent decades (the protection of minorities and women in being accepted at universities and at work, protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, the fight against smoking and fatty foods, and many others) were the result of the ruling liberal elite.

Where the political elite are from

There is not a more incorrect or unfair claim than that “every nation deserves its government,” and that “the way the people are, that same way is their elite”. Many Russian authors, whom I have quoted either directly (such as Gudkov) or indirectly (such as Yadov), are inclined toward this view. It finds support from both strident liberals, such as Leonid Radzikhnosky and Valeria Novodvorskaya, and frank apologists from the Kremlin, such as Gleb Pavlovsky and Sergei Markov.

In fact, by their definition, no elite group, including the political elite, represent the people. Take, for example, the socio-demographic characteristics of the political elite. In no country are the elite similar to that country’s population, whatever characteristic is taken into consideration—education, gender, nationality, professional experience, parents, property, tastes, or anything else. This is not only true for the hereditary elite (some wrongly believe that there is no elite without heredity), but also for the new elite. People who reach a level of big power, whether they are Roman freedmen or the children of workers and peasants, will have differed radically from their peers in childhood and school, either in terms of power, morality or intelligence. (Remarkable fact—the extraordinary longevity of Stalin’s Politburo members: Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov, Voroshilov, and others). It is difficult to argue that the Bolshevik leadership even remotely resembled the average Russian. Even the stable Brezhnev elite could not be presented as a sample of the population. The same is true for the post-Soviet elite. Among the members of the elite under Putin, according to the calculations of Kryshtanovskaya, in the year 2002, 100% had a higher education, 21% had a degree, 27% had a military education, 23% were educated in elite universities, and 21% came from the same city as the head of state.[12] And it was equally absurd to equate those who came to power in 1991 with the country’s population.

Undoubtedly, the cultural traditions of family, school and the street will have an impact on the mentality of a future member of the elite and its language, which is well illustrated by Putin and Chernomyrdin. But once the people are in power, they abruptly repel the environment in which they experienced the so-called socialization, even though its influence cannot be simply dismissed.

Since this text refers to the changes, then our attention is first and foremost attracted by the new elite, which emerges after great political events. The origin of the new political elite is very different; it is often a mixture of the old elite and new people. The proportions of this mixture are extremely important to society, because the carriers of the change are, first and foremost, people with a different past than the old elite. Of particular importance is the question of exactly who will be the head of state: a person from the past elite or one who had fought with it? That fact that Yeltsin lead the new Russia, ultimately turned out to be fatal to the society’s democratization. He not only drove the democratically elected parliament apart, (an act he did not regret, due to its negativity about the democratic process) but also organized their re-election in 1996, after first using their “administrative resources.” This is in addition to the fact that he ruled as an authoritarian leader; ready to dissolve the Duma at the slightest threat to his power. It was Yeltsin, not Putin, who defined the vector of Russia in political development and, indeed, sent the country on a path of unbridled corruption.

Motivation of the elite

Of course, one can assume that all members of the new Russian elite want to enjoy the power and privileges that it provides for as long as possible. It is also true that the elite are not indifferent to their national and international prestige, or to its place in history. However, members of the elite differ from one another in the way they want to achieve their goals.

If we are only speaking about the new elite, who first came to power in post-communist period in Russia, then they can be divided into three categories of people: clean “careerists,” hostile to that which poses a risk to their power, economic reformers and democrats.

The ideological past of the members of the new elite plays an enormous role here. If the people in power were involved in the protection of their ideals and had been prosecuted for this before, and if society has associated their names with their struggle for these ideals, then there is a high probability that by appearing in power, they will defend them, with some adjustments, rather than abandon them. No matter how you characterize the Bolsheviks, most of them were idealistic and wanted to shake up the world, risking their lives both before the revolution and afterward, during the Civil War. (An example in modern America: many Democrats in Congress voted for Obama’s health care reform in March 2010, although this will obviously cause them to be defeated in the upcoming election in November 2010.)

Among the beginnings of the new elite after 1991, there were not many who were truly enthusiastic about creating a new Russian democracy; there were more who were concerned about the creation of a market economy, considering democratization to be its byproduct. Concentrating only on the economic transformation significantly reduced the risk of a loss of power in the case of democratization. Look at the dynamics of the elites in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, where economic and political reforms have gone hand in hand. Then compare them with Russia, where the new elite has undergone relatively few changes since 1991; this confirms the correctness of choosing the course “for himself”—to favor economic reforms, but not political ones.

In fact, in the end, the victorious group among the new Russian elite was the one with a purely “materialistic,” careerist orientation, devoid of any ideology of innovation. Most of the senior members of the society were people who were only concerned with its power and enrichment. The elite was made up of either former high party officials—starting with a Politburo member, Yeltsin—or the rank and file scientists, or new entrepreneurs. According to Kryshtanovskaya, 70% of post-Soviet Russia’s elite came from the party and state apparatus.[13] This is unusually high, compared with countries in Eastern Europe, where the proportion of “red directors” to owners of new businesses (10% vs. 2% in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary) was much lower.[14]

None of Russia’s former dissidents were allowed into the country’s leadership. This is a striking contrast to what happened in Eastern Europe following the victory of the “velvet revolution,” when people like Walesa and Havel came to power. But Gaidar, the leader of the economic reforms, was not only an active member of the leading Party organization, as a Communist, but only left the party in 1991. It is certain that while the Kremlin was supporting him, he did not even remotely belong to a dissident movement. Even activists for Perestroika played a very modest role in the country’s top leadership under Yeltsin. Only Galina Starovoitova’s participation, as an adviser to President Yeltsin, weakly refutes our thesis example. Under Putin, the two groups of people who could be regarded as carrying any ideas—market or democratic—completely disappeared from the ruling elite. His imperial and nationalistic slogans used for legitimizing his rule were, in fact, false; his actual policies sharply contradict the imperial ideology.[15]

In the absence of even a small group of people with a democratic past in the new post-communist elite, the movement of the country away from democratization was a foregone conclusion. Two factors played a decisive role. First, the group of people in the ruling elite, who wanted to make their old ideals real, saw the modernization of the economy as their main task, looking at the problem of the country’s democratization as a minor inconvenience, even as they declared (via Gaidar and Chubais) their commitment to it. Most of the elite, including the economic reformers, came to power with a deep contempt for the ordinary people, which had been an organic property of the communist elite since Lenin. This is why the new people in power could easily collaborate with former Soviet officials of all ranks and with KGB members in pursuing dissidents. This also distinguished Khodorkovsky from others, and especially from Gusinsky, who appointed General Bobkov  (who had headed the KGB Department for the Suppression of dissents) as chief of his security services. At the same time, the need for changes in the economy was new, even to the Soviet elite. After all, the Soviet leaders, from Lenin on, experienced the full satisfaction of their political system, but had always been dissatisfied with the economic side.

The second factor that brought together all the members of the new elite—both those who had been in power before and those being caught up in it for the first time—was privatization, which opened them all up to the opportunities of becoming rich, and inflicted a mortal blow to the prospects of democracy in the country. Privatization has been at the forefront of the new economic elite in Russia, who have emerged from among the former party officials and “red directors,” along with their relatives and friends, as well as among scientists and clandestine businessmen. Almost all of them, with rare exceptions (such as Konstantin Borovoy), became enemies of the totalitarian state as soon as they acquired wealth, but at the same time were opponents of a true democracy. Almost all of them professed oligarchy (or feudal) ideology, which provided common ground for them with the political elite, who also rejected democratic ideals.[16]

Property and the new Russian elite

The thing is that the new elite, who came to power in 1991, fell into the trap that almost nobody has been able to avoid, especially since its victims included Yeltsin himself, the new leader of the country, along with his inner circle and, above all, his “family.” The Bolshevik elite had no such temptations, since the nationalization of property made it impossible to seize the properties of the old class. It could only rely on certain privileges, which ended with a departure from office and were not passed on for posterity. Some lower-level party officials recovered proprietary sentiments during NEP (which was infinitely weak compared with the 1990’s), but were ruthlessly suppressed by the Kremlin. Events developed quite differently in the 1990’s.

If the new elite leadership had belonged to the people, and had come with a democratic and ascetic orientation, then the trial of property ownership would probably have been overcome, as happened in Eastern Europe—although even there it was not going smoothly in that regard. Other events would have occurred differently if the mass media had freedom from the outset to uphold the law and had denounced the former nomenclature and the “New Russians” in the illegal seizure of property, as it did in Eastern Europe.[17][17] This did not happen, however, and the new elite—political, economic and even cultural—almost unanimously joined in the enrichment process, which is almost always of a criminal nature, more or less.

Privatization has led to a powerful fusion of power and big money, and the resulting corruption has become a normal occurrence in Russian society. As a result of this process, the vast majority of officials — from the head of a municipality in a small village, to the governors and ministers, from the generals in the army and the FSB, to the humble police officer or employee, which is in addition to a significant number of big business representatives — have been transformed into people who have committed federal crimes, and who illegally own private property. It is not only the party officials, but their children and relatives as well who have become hostages to Putin’s regime. Putin’s ruling class is no less afraid of democracy than Putin himself, and so for this reason they support all of his measures to eradicate the remnants of any real opposition in the country. Party officials at all levels, together with the ruling party, “United Russia,” take great pleasure in mocking democratic values and the Western political model.


The main reasons for the current problems Russia is facing in its weak prospects for the modernization of society lie in the nature of the political elite in the country. The profound mistake of those who explain the current situation in the country is that they are mainly looking at the mentality of Russians and Russian traditions. The confluence of different circumstances (including some traditions) led to the fact that the country is lead by people who are deeply hostile to any serious changes in the country, as this would pose a direct threat to their power and property. Only if Russia is able to develop a new, democratic, ruling elite, could the country return to the path of progress.

2 Fear in contemporary society: its negative and positive effects. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

[3] “Kremlevski mechtatel’”, Novaya Gazeta, 5 February, 2010.

[4] Critical analysis of one of L. Gudkov’s articles, see my article “Self-justification of Liberal Sociologists. Polemical comments, “Monitoring Obshestvennogo Mneniya, 2, 2001.

[5] Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 9 April, 2008; also, about this issue, see my article in Russian Civil Society: Elite Versus Mass Attitudes to Democratization in Jose Ciprut (ed.) Democratization. Comparisons, Confrontations and Contrasts, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008, pp.165-196

[6] Andrei Lipski, “Fotorobot rossijskogo obivatelya”, Novaya Gazeta, April 3, 2008 and June 30, 2008.

[7] See Inglehart, Ronald, et al., (2004). Human beliefs and values: a cross-cultural sourcebook based on the 1999-2002 values surveys. México: Siglo XXI, 200.

[8] Andrei Lipski, “Fotorobot rossijskogo obivatelya”, Novaya Gazeta, April 3, 2008.

[9] Andrei Lipski, “Fotorobot rossijskogo obivatelya”, Novaya Gazeta, April 3, 2008.

[10] The theory of the organic tendency of Russians toward corruption was recently derided by Yuliya Latynina, explaining how relatively quietly and easily the Georgian leaders have achieved success in the fight against corruption, which was considered just as eternal as in Russia. Latynina wrote: “In This country, a reform of the police was passed. And the country of Georgia has been synonymous with corruption, as in Soviet times and in times of Shevardndze, when in Tbilis there was no light, and police dealt drugs and people with the Pankisi Gorge. And then conducted a complete reform of the police, The police are better than in Israel or America, or at least as good. It does not take bribes at all. Not just does not take, but does not take at all.” (See “Kod dostupa”, Ekho Moskvi, November 22, 2009).

[11] Andrei Lipski, “Fotorobot rossijskogo obivatelya”, Novaya Gazeta, August 28, 2008.

[12] Kryshtanovskaya O., Anatomiya Rossijskoi Eliti, Moskva: Zakharov, 2005, p. 269.

[13] Kryshtanovskaya O., Anatomiya Rossijskoi Eliti, Moskva: Zakharov, 2005.

[14] Gil Eyal, Ivan Szelenyi and Eleanor Townsley Making Capitalism without Capitalists, London: Verso, 2000, p.166.

[15] See my text Contemporary Russia as a Feudal Society: A New Perspective on the Post-Soviet Era, (in collaboration with Joshua Woods), Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; “Aggressive Foreign Policy, an Instrument for the Legitimization of Putin’s Regime. Georgia’s Case,” The Cornell International Affairs Review: V. II, Issue 2, 2009.

[16] See my article “Big Money as an Obstacle to Democracy in Russia.Journal of Communist Studies and Transitional Politics, Fall 2008, 512-530.

[17] Gil Eyal, Ivan Szelenyi and Eleanor Townsley Making Capitalism without Capitalists, London: Verso, 2000, p.166.

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