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Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Russian Newspaper Murders

For those of you in the U.S. (only half La Russophobe's worldwide audience) PBS is currently re-airing its prescient 2004 documentary "The Russian Newspaper Murders." Look for it on your local station. At the time, the program asked: "Is Russia returning to a Soviet-era repression of the media?" Now, we can see that the answer is unquestionably clear. Here's the commentary of Harvard University's Russia scholar Richard Pipes; his remarks seemed to many quite cynical, but now in hindsight it is very clear that they were not nearly cynical enough. His concluding hope, that "people will want to have a voice in how their government is run, and come to rely on law," seems almost childish in the light of the pogroms Russians are permitting against Georgians and the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of the last major Russian voices speaking for the rule of law. 1,000 attended her funeral; it should have been 100,000.

When the Communists were in power, we had no way of knowing what ordinary Russians thought because all the media, without exception, were controlled by the Communist Party and expressed its interests. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the situation in this respect has undergone drastic change. Russians have adopted with great enthusiasm western methods of public opinion polling and we now have reliable information about their thoughts and wants on almost every subject. The leading polling organization is the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, directed by Iurii Levada. The results from this and other such institutes are regularly reported in their own publications as well as in the popular daily, Izvestia. The information provided below dates from 1999-2004.

Unfortunately, the results of these polls are not encouraging.They indicate a preference for order over freedom, suspicion of democracy and the free market, and nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Russians emerge as a people who mistrust everyone except their closest family and friends, as individuals who, in the words of one opinion survey, live in "trenches" feeling surrounded on all sides by enemies.Such attitudes have at least three causes. One is the age-old tradition of autocratic government which gave Russian citizens no voice in affairs of state and forced them to rely on their own efforts to survive in a harsh climatic environment. Another is the disappointment which Russians have experienced when the expectations they had of democracy and capitalism after the collapse of communism did not immediately bring them stability and prosperity. And the third are the actions of the country's powerful president, Vladimir Putin, who has contempt for democratic procedures and is reverting Russia to a one-party state, promoting political apathy.

As a consequence of these factors, today's Russians view democracy as a fraud: 78 percent of respondents in a 2003 survey said that democracy is a facade concealing a regime in which real power is exercised by rich and powerful cliques. Only 22 percent express a preference for democracy, whereas 53 percent positively dislike it. 52 percent believe multiparty elections do more harm than good. Altogether Russians feel they have no influence over government, whether national or local, and hence are quite prepared to live under a one-party regime.They attach little importance to liberties. Only one in ten Russians would be unwilling to surrender the freedom of speech, press, or movement in exchange for "order" or "stability." A recent poll brought out the stunning fact that fully three-quarters of Russians want the restoration of censorship on the mass media. The reason seems to be that they are disturbed by unsettling news as well as by the impropriety of some of the spectacles presented on television.

Russians hold the judiciary system in contempt, believing that the courts are thoroughly corrupt. They refer to court proceedings as auctions in which the highest bidder wins out. Businesses prefer to resort to arbitration. Others resort to the mafia. Many of the non-political murders which occur in Russia (and whose culprits are never caught) are the result of this kind of private "justice."Nor are Russians more positive about capitalism. 84 percent of respondents of a poll published in January 2004 asserted that in their country wealth could be acquired only by illegal means, mainly by exploiting the right connections. They want the state to be much more involved in directing the nation's economy. They attach little value to private property, which only a quarter or so regard as a basic human right. Slightly more than half the population considers nonpayment of debts or shoplifting to be "fully acceptable behavior." They prefer financial security to wealth: 6 percent are prepared to accept the risks attendant on private enterprise, whereas 60 percent would opt for a small but assured income. They pine for the great power status which Russia enjoyed during Soviet days.

When asked to list the greatest men in history they rank them, in this order, Peter I, Lenin and Stalin, who have in common that they enhanced Russia's place in the world. When asked how they would like their country to be perceived by other nations, 48 percent of Russians says "mighty, invincible, indestructible, a great world power." 22 percent want it perceived as "affluent and thriving" and a mere 1 percent as "law-abiding and democratic." These findings help explain why 74 percent of respondents in one poll regret the passing of the Soviet Union. Asked how they would react if the Communists seized power as Lenin had done in October 1917, 23 percent of respondents say they would actively support it, 19 percent would collaborate with it, 27 percent would do their best to survive, 16 percent would emigrate, and only 10 percent would actively resist.

These results do not bode well for Russia's future as a democracy and a member of the international community. But it must be borne in mind that they are not due to some genetic predisposition of Russians for autocratic government. Rather, they can be explained in terms of their historical experience. Throughout the 700 years of its existence as an organized state, Russia has had to administer too vast a territory with too limited resources to indulge in democracy such as is possible in small and wealthy countries. It relied on the police and bureaucracy. The population at large, alienated from the state which extracted manpower and taxes but gave nothing in return, relied mainly on its own resources. It became exceedingly privatized, lacking in the sense of social and political belonging.

Because Russians do not trust each other, they rely on a powerful, authoritarian state to protect them from each other. The Communist regime, during its 70 year reign, reinforced these traditional attitudes.If Russia is given several decades of peace and stability, it may well develop different attitudes. "Order" and "freedom" then will not appear as alternatives but as complimentary values. People will want to have a voice in how their government is run, and come to rely on law. But this will take time.


Penny said...

....and a mere 1 percent as "law-abiding and democratic.".

Sad. There will never be the "Rose" revolutions sweeping the streets of Moscow. Putin wins.

The Poles, the Ukranians, the Hungarians, the Baltic states have moved on and ahead, even China will, by the force of capitalism, will move on to a better place in time.

As an American, I'm glad we didn't pour money down the Russian rat hole in the 90's. I doubt the outcome would have been different.

Oil money is the only thing keeping Russia from descending into the rot found in the sub-Saharan Africa or the despotic ME.

I stand by my analogy of Russians to geriatric zoo animals that require a keeper. Communism, especially super-imposed on an insular, risk adverse culture, was toxic. It will be generations, if ever, for democracy to takes root.

winsc2 said...

Shocking statistics. I knew of some of the work of the Levada centre on racist attitudes but hadn't seen these figures before.

I agree with Penny about the toxicity of communism. Throw out every moral absolute, destroy the churches and kill the priests and you leave a moral vacuum which is not just neutral but destroys every aspect of civil society - for generations to come. Like radiation pollution, you don't see it, everything seems ok, but the DNA of the nation is being corrupted, unseen.

Few nations in history have done that so systematically, so ruthlessly, so successfully, as the Bolsheviks.

"Sow to the wind, reap the whirlwind".

The criminal classes have not just taken root in Russia since the 1990s. There has been an organised and developed criminal sub-culture, with its own language, customs and castes for generations. Criminal slang is 'hip' amongst young Russians today. This criminal society was like another national group - Tartars, Chechens, Ingushetians. It was a feature of the gulag era and life in the camps was made intolerable for many politicals as a result.

Criminality is part of the post-1917 DNA of the nation(Yes it was there before, but 1917 gave it the fertiliser it needed mature).

That is why rebuilding Russia needs more than a change of government. The systematic moral decay of generations needs to be reversed. Society needs to be rebuilt at an intellectual and spiritual level. How will enough unity of purpose develop amonsgt tired, emotionally beat up, ordinary Russians struggling to feed their families? (I agree that there is no chance of a colour revolution, by the way. Nations that have gone that route has something still left in their DNA in which their revolutions could take hold)

The task seems almost impossible. Russians may feel the need for this revival but they recognise the elusiveness of the end that they seek.

I am deeply suspicious of the Orthodox Church, with their history of KGB appointments, and cynical about their desire to be back at the centre of Russian cultural life but I wonder.... There are good priests, whose hearts are set on helping their troubled nation to find peace. Do they have a role in this? I don't know.

How much easier it is for Putin to substitute a return to the former 'Glories' of the USSR as world power in place of this moral and spiritual revival. But it is a shallow goal - Like a man in a desert dying of thirst who sees an oasis far off but discovers only when he gets there that it is salty and cannot be drunk, that it will poison him rather than save his life.

Russia is already awash with oil money; it is becoming recognised as powerful by the rest of the world in the way that fellow pupils all recognise the school bully. It is returning to its days of 'Glory' as a world power. Some glory.

Does this actually make anyone's life there better?


Sorry, I've gone on. End of Sunday sermon....

Incidentally - watch the Russian Newspaper Murders. I saw it a few years ago and it caused one of those jaw dropping moments of insight that I won't forget in a hurry. It is one story but it encapsulates what is happening all over the country.


17 ugly raccoons said...


Mind your own business. You have no any authority over us, moral or other, so just go and pound the sand. I hope your ramblings giving you some kind of self-esteem, though, or else you are really pathetic. You're not needed, Westerners, so get lost.

La Russophobe said...

UGLY: "Yawn" and "mine your own business" are rather large contradictions. If it's so boring, no need for anyone to mind their business. See? And we'll be glad to get lost just as soon as you stop sending weapons to Venezulea and Iran and money to Cuba and Hamas and Hezbollah and leave the Georgians to build their own state however they see fit. Got any plans to do so any time soon?

17 ugly raccoons said...

LR: It's boring to search through posts&comments here for some sense. But my attitude for all these posts and comments - yes, 'mind your own business'. About Venezuela and Georgia - I heard all that things before. Destroy the wall and we'll get lost, stop trying to preserve your territorial integrity and we'll get lost, don't stop the stealing... er, privatisation of your national wealth and we'll get lost... Sorry, that old tricks aren't working now. Try to invent some new things.

And we'll done anything which we consider as good and profitable for us. As I said, you have no authority over us, so your lamentations are rather funny.

La Russophobe said...

UGLY: If you can provide weapons to Venezuela, we can provide them to Chechnya. Are you ready for that? There's nothing tricky about it, only American power versus Russian power. Do you want to fight? Russia can either remain totally within its current borders and do as it likes, or it can fight and lose, or it can change its regime. Which do you choose?

17 ugly raccoons said...

LR: Bring. It. On. I'll not even point out that Venezuela never was one of States. But, if US will start supplying weapons to Chechnya then we'll have reason to fight this war until last Chechen.

And your options aren't correct. Firstly, regime change in Russia, preferable for Russia, by no way is preferable to US. Secondly, 'new Cold War' will be fought by much wider array of means and methods, with much less restrictions. Thirdly, Russia has much less to lose, than US.

So my choose is to change the regime ('Russia - for Russians', yes, not for West or for some lame conceptions like 'democracy'), and full speed ahead.