It is striking the degree to which contemporary discussions of Russia avoid dealing with Russian society. This was not always (and is still not entirely) the case: cultural historians in particular have long studied the evolution, revolutionary dismantling and partial persistence of the institutions underpinning social relations, and the end of the Soviet Union brought a revival of interest in the long story of Russian society. The difficulties of Russia’s post-Soviet transition, however, and its ‘failure’ to democratize, have led many to take society out of the picture: because the social factors that may have led to Russia’s retrenched authoritarianism seemed so deterministic and path-dependent, social scientists have often preferred to ignore them, looking instead either to agency or to the impact of formal political institutions, present and past. Even the long-running argument about Russians’ supposedly weak social capital and overall lack of trust is generally explained as a result not of societal factors but of political choices made by elites, mostly over the course of the 20th century.
I will not deal here with the question of whether those disciplinary and methodological preferences were as intellectually robust as they were politically correct; much of the social science done in and on Russia in recent years has been excellent and enlightening. Nor would I suggest that no (or even not enough) attention is being paid to Russian society; indeed, fascinating work continues to be produced by sociologists and anthropologists of various ilk. But the vogue for politics and political economy has meant that this social research, when put in the broader context of Russian area studies, is almost inevitably reduced to a dependent variable. Certainly, politics and the political economy do produce social results. My task here, however, is to demonstrate that social factors may also produce political results.
On the surface, this seems obvious enough. The transformation of economic grievance into political mobilization in Pikalevo, Baikalsk and other so-called monogoroda – towns heavily dependent on a single industry for employment and revenue – as well as in larger cities including Vladivostok and Kaliningrad forced the Russian government to react, through a combination of cooptation and repression, where it would probably have preferred to remain aloof. The regional elections in the fall of 2009 provided a second illustration of the hypothesis that complete political complacency cannot be expected of the population if the government does not hold up its economic side of the bargain. Perhaps more importantly, however, the elections may have demonstrated the remarkable degree to which a large section of the population, if not the majority, is willing to buy into the system even when it falters. Lastly, the reemergence of the motorists’ movement – with new tactics and new leadership but the same demands – reflects the ability of Russian society to generate and sustain grassroots engagement and, indeed, to set at least a portion of the political agenda in a sustained manner, despite what we think we know about social capital and trust.
But those examples are almost too obvious. The question I want to address here is as follows: are there fundamental social processes underway that have the potential to drive the evolution of the Russian state and, if so, how might that occur over the next ten years? In the following pages, I will outline what I believe to be four and a half key phenomena and then lay out two basic scenarios for how they might evolve: one that is inertial (but not static), in which current trends continue, and another in which certain key changes occur that allow society and state-society relations in Russia to develop along a normatively more ‘optimistic’ pathway to 2020.
Four and a half key social phenomena
Before I launch into a discussion of the four and a half key social phenomena that I argue will shape Russia’s future, I should explain two basic assumptions that underpin my understanding of Russian society. The first has to do with deinstitutionalization: Russia is not entirely devoid of social institutions, but it is close. In treating institutions here, I take the sociological definition of an institution as a set of engrained rules and norms governing behavior for individuals or groups of individuals that allows one to predict with reasonable accuracy what the reaction will be to any given action. Thus, in saying that Russia is almost devoid of institutions I do not refer to all of those myriad establishments laid out on paper, enshrined in bricks and mortar and endowed with budgets of varying generosity; rather, I am referring to the fact that none of these ‘paper’ institutions – whether the law in general, the apparatus of the state, higher education or the Russian Orthodox Church – allows Russian citizens to predict with reasonable accuracy how any given social or state-societal interaction will proceed. Moreover, with the partial exception of the Caucasus and other longstanding ethnic communities in the Urals, Siberia and the far north, the Soviet Union and the turmoil of transition together succeeded in eviscerating whatever horizontal social institutions may have existed in the past, whether religious, ethnic, tribal, land-based, familial or otherwise.
The second assumption flows from the first: in a deinstitutionalized environment, certainty is at a premium, and the balance between certainty and uncertainty is the key commodity in any social interaction. This increases the relative trust placed in people who may be termed nashi – ours – and reduces trust in people who may be considered chuzhie – other (although it may have no discernible impact on the overall stock of trust). This endows those able through their status or station to manufacture and manipulate uncertainty with a tremendous degree of power. And this catastrophically lowers the appetite for risk.
That last point about risk leads directly to the first of the four and a half key phenomena. There is a common myth in the discussion of Russian politics – and particularly Russian civil society and civic engagement – that Russians are passive. This is not true: Russians are aggressively immobile. The difference is more than semantic. Passive people may not be easily led, but they are relatively easily pushed. Aggressively immobile people are difficult to move in any circumstances, precisely because their immobility is strategic and rational. An environment bereft of social institutions is one in which there are few if any share and replicable pathways to success. As a result, the relative comfort and prosperity that any Russian citizen may enjoy is the result of a singular, unique set of circumstances, owing exclusively to that citizen’s ability to cope with her or his uncertain environment (the order of the pronouns here is not arbitrary; women are generally significantly better at coping in Russia than men). Change, then, threatens to undermine these achievements, potentially forcing the citizen to start again in the face of uncertainty – a wholly unattractive prospect. This is true on both the micro and macro level. Russians living in failing cities such as Pikalevo are thus unwilling to leave not because they feel good about their prospects at home, but because they have no certainty that they will be able to navigate a new set of bureaucratic and other formal and informal relationships in a new setting. Similarly, Russians oppose liberalizing and democratizing reforms not because they are happy with the status quo of political and economic monopolization, but because any large scale change risks sweeping away achievements built on extremely shallow foundations.
The second phenomenon is the particular way in which the so-called ‘resource curse’ has manifested itself in Russia: rather than fuel outright repression (a la Myanmar) or heavy handed populism (a la Venezuela), the abundance of natural resources and associated rent flows has cushioned a mutually agreeable divorce between the government and its people, following seven decades of overly intimate relations. It is often said that the implicit Putin-era social contract in Russia has been one in which the population agree to ignore politics in return for economic growth. I would modify that somewhat: the implicit social contract, if there is one, affords maximum autonomy to both sides of the bargain, provided neither significantly impinges on the interests and comfort of the other. It is an inherently fraught arrangement, though, similar to Soviet-era divorces in which irreconcilable spouses were forced to continue living in the same apartment: there is bound to be some friction. Oil, gas and the economic growth they generate provide some lubrication, but there remain limits to the degree of alienation that is possible. The fact of shared space becomes most evident on Russia’s roads, where the elite and ordinary citizens live on two sides of an almost institutionalized lawlessness, in which the elite are forbidden nothing and the non-elite have no recourse.
The third phenomenon is thus increasing friction. The more the elite and the non-elite crystallize and defend their own individual achievements – whether in the form of armored motorcades or high fences around even modest private landholdings – the more conflict becomes inevitable. The debasing of the public space in order to maintain the private, what Michael Burawoy referred to as ‘involution’, helped people cope with the tumult of transition, but as Russia’s ‘new normal’ has been established and appetites begin to grow again there is a creeping privatization of the commons. It is not only the roads that have seemingly become the private domain of the elite, together with the lives of those who happen to be on them. Moscow’s sidewalks and courtyards are continually and repeatedly privatized by anyone who wants to park a car. Public nature reserves become the private hunting grounds of anyone with sufficient access to a helicopter, and the country’s forests are littered with the remains of countless picnics, as though the forest itself were disposable. This relentless extension of the rules of elite and mass private behavior into Russia’s shared social spaces is an irritant for all involved, as each individual encounters behavior consonant with his own behavior but dissonant with his personal interests. The natural reaction is an attempt to extend, provided the means are available, the power of one’s professed (but not performed) social norms onto others – an attempt that, given Russia’s lack of functioning social and socio-political institutions, is doomed to fail and produce only more irritation.
The fourth phenomenon is a relatively new means of coping with the second and third phenomena, what I’ll call ‘individual modernization’. The advent of globalization – by which I mean not so much trade and economic interdependence as global communication and global culture – opens up avenues that were not available to Soviet-era dissidents. Certainly, gaining access through illicit radio reception or samizdat to the world beyond the U.S.S.R. was an important part of both challenging the Soviet regime and building an autonomous moral space outside its ideological boundaries but inside its geographical borders. But the end of censorship, the opening of borders and the growing availability of the Internet and other communication technologies has fed an explosion of individual strategies of identity formation within modern Russia. In Moscow but not only, adherents can be found for all of the fashion trends, schools of thought, political and social undercurrents and economic projects present in the world at large. Young, educated, dynamic and mobile Russians – as well as a good deal of their older compatriots – are seemingly as likely to identify themselves with a global meaning as with a local one. This is true in much of the world, but in the Russian context of deinstitutionalization, state-society alienation and the constant friction of the public space it takes on particular importance: while remaining physically present in Russia (or at least resident), Russians may take themselves socially, politically and intellectually out of the Russian space. The consequences of this are contradictory. On the one hand, this is potentially tremendously liberating for a large number of the country’s best and brightest. On the other hand, however, it greatly lowers the degree to which those same best and brightest may be willing to invest in the modernization of Russia’s own social space.
The ‘half’ phenomenon, finally, lies somewhere between the third and the fourth phenomena just described and is this: despite its faults, Russia’s current system of social and political relations has its adherents. These are not just those in the elite and below it who are consistently able to maximize their benefit from the manufacture and manipulation of uncertainty. Even those who are not on the winning end of that bargain invest in the system’s survival. Witness, for example, an appeal made in June 2010 by a group of schoolteachers in the town of Voskresensk, not far from Moscow, to President Dmitry Medvedev. The teachers, who were drafted into serving on the local board of elections during the municipal elections in October 2009, now find themselves at the center of an investigation into electoral fraud in which they themselves admit they were complicit. What they want from Medvedev, though, is not to right the wrong, but an intercession simply to prevent them from being prosecuted. Referring to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russians who, like the Voskresensk teachers, helped falsify elections in 2009, human rights activist Sergei Kovalev told Ekho Moskvy radio, “Lying has ceased to be a means of hiding the truth and has become instead a ritual of loyalty and patriotism.” That may be overstating the case: the Voskresensk teachers are unlikely to have acted out of any great patriotism, and they were probably threatened with dismissal or at least docked pay if they didn’t cooperate. But the reality is, when faced with a situation in which they could protect their positions by cooperating with the investigation in service of the truth, they chose instead to seek shelter in the lie. This is a deeper degree of cooptation than we see among the young men and women who join Nashi and other government-run youth groups in exchange for a trip to a lake and money on a cell phone account; the latter is simply opportunistic, while the former is calculated.
Russia 2020: Scenarios for the Future
From where we stand today, there appear to be two potential scenarios for the future: one inertial, in which existing trends continue until they descend into outright crisis; and a second, in which a few key factors shift and a more ‘optimistic’ storyline emerges. I will start with the first, as a baseline. To call this scenario inertial, however, is not to say that it is static: social processes cannot simply stand still, and it is unfathomable that nothing at all – or even nothing significant – would change over the next ten years.
In the inertial scenario, all of the phenomena described above remain in place: aggressive immobility, state-society alienation, increasing social friction, blossoming individual modernization and an active conservative constituency. Over time, as the state’s retrograde apparatus becomes increasingly ineffective and continuing political and economic monopolies reduce marginal economic growth to nearly zero, social friction increases and alienation becomes harder and harder to maintain. Eventually, this pushes the state into a more forward relationship with society, first to set rules in defense of elite privilege, and then to regulate social relations themselves in order to maintain stability. But because nothing changes within the state itself – the active conservative constituency is sufficient to overcome any pressure from the creative and entrepreneurial classes whose political ties with Russia are increasingly weak – this amounts to a re-privatization of the commons, rather than a de-privatization. Thus, individuals of the non-elite are pushed out of the common space, in the name of harmony and stability, but are then increasingly deprived of access to it altogether, as the captured state redistributes the benefits of the public space to the elite. This, then, is a scenario of alienation pushed to its limits, generating conflict and dragging the state into a futile and counterproductive authoritarian engagement with society. The result by 2020 will be a Russia with a severely fractured political and social space, a stagnant economy and extremely low levels of political identification between citizens and the state to which they nominally belong. But because of the aggressive immobility of both the masses and the elite, the only way out of this situation will be through profound and protracted crisis, sufficiently decimating individuals’ prosperity and comfort that change begins to look relatively more attractive. Given, however, that change will come in a climate of political alienation, the absence of a true public sphere and the lack of legitimate, ingrained horizontal social institutions, it is highly unlikely that change will be democratic.
The second, more ‘optimistic’ scenario likewise assumes that all of the four and a half key social phenomena remain in place but supposes one crucial difference. At some point early in the second decade of the 21st century, say in 2011 or 2012, the Russian government, faced with increasing social (and, indeed, intra-elite) tensions and a continually faltering economy, pushes towards maximum economic integration with the West, particularly with the European Union, and the latter reciprocates. Thus, Russia would join the World Trade Organization, conclude a free investment and trade deal with the EU, drop visa requirements for EU citizens and obtain visa-free travel for its own citizens to Europe. Over time, a growing number of Russian citizens would begin to form institutional relationships and strategies based on their newfound unfettered access to the European space, for education, entrepreneurship, investment and other purposes, compensating for the lack of institutions at home. This has two important implications domestically. First, it enriches and empowers the internationally integrated members of Russia’s middle class (the internationally integrated members of Russia’s elite being already rich and powerful) relative to the broader conservative constituency; importantly, the integrated citizens gain institutional foundation for their prosperity and comfort that the non-integrated citizens do not enjoy. Second, by it draws into sharper focus the losses in terms of opportunity cost that these same internationally integrated citizens suffer as a result of Russia’s own deinstitutionalization. Taken together, this is sufficient to produce a consolidated domestic constituency for change, which will gradually drag Russia’s retrograde and reluctant (but not belligerent) state into modernity. It will be a difficult road, and it will not be completed by 2020, but reversing the standard logic that demands democracy as a prerequisite for integration may actually be the best way to secure Russia’s eventual democratization.
 I will deal with each of these examples in more detail in the full paper.