In the May / June issue of Foreign Affairs, the great historian
Richard Pipes has a piece titled “Flight From Freedom: What
Russians Think and Want.” Pipes, who wrote the definitive
history of the Russian Revolution (“The Russian Revolution”),
knows a thing or two about the psyche of the people in this often
But in light of the assassination of the recently anointed Chechen
President Akhmad Kadyrov the other day, and the Kremlin’s
reaction to it, some of Pipes’s thoughts and findings are worth
exploring in more detail.
Following the bomb attack in Grozny, Russian President
Vladimir Putin made a very public show of elevating Kadyrov’s
27-year-old son Ramzan to deputy prime minister. That’s 27
and the kid was in charge of his father’s security force; a secret
network that has terrorized Chechnya’s citizenry, which is why
some of us find Putin’s move rather disturbing, to say the least.
More broadly speaking, however, Pipes examined scores of
public opinion surveys of the Russian people over the last few
years. His report is duly footnoted, but for my purposes I will
only note that the polls come from sources such as Izvestia. Here
are a few tidbits from his research.
--Under Putin, “Russian democratic institutions have been
muzzled, its civil rights restricted, and its cooperation with the
international community far from assured.” [Pipes]
But the evidence is the Russian people support the
antidemocratic actions and no more than one in ten cares about
democratic liberties and civil rights. Russia’s agrarian past, with
emphasis on the peasantry, makes the country the least
politicized of any in Europe.
--In both 1917 and 1991, the government collapsed “almost
overnight, with people seemingly indifferent to their fate.”
--Survey question: What do you connect most directly with the
idea of our nation?” 35% answered, “Where I was born and
grew up,” only 19% opted for the “state in which I live.”
Russians don’t trust the state at all. 82% feel they have no
influence over the national government.
--76% of Russians favor restoring censorship over the mass
--In the 2003 Duma elections, “none of the winning parties had
even one mention of the word ‘freedom’; all the slogans were
about banning, locking up and punishing.” [Pipes]
--Only a quarter or so of Russians regard private property as an
important human right.
--On the spirit of entrepreneurship. Question: “Would you
accept an executive post?” Only 9% responded affirmatively,
63% said “No, under no conditions.” 60% would opt for a small
but assured income. [The younger generation is more disposed
to risk taking though having visited Moscow in the last 1
years and seen the incredible consumption in the form of black
Mercedes, I would argue the debt loads of these same folks must
--Russia’s “self-image is contradictory.” They “brim with pride”
when asked how they feel about themselves, citing the heroism
of World War II and leadership in space exploration, for
example. But when asked to think of themselves in relation to
others, “Russians suffer from an acute sense of inferiority” with
the lowest level of self-esteem among five nations studied in one
survey (the U.S. being highest).
--With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the people are
struggling to create a new identity based on a blend of tsarism,
communism, and Stalinism.
--The people seek a strong government, which translates into a
“military prowess that foreigners will respect or just fear.”
--78% of Russians insist that Russia must be a great power.
Asked in 1999 to name the ten greatest men of all times and
nations, the respondents named nine Russians. [Ironically, the
only foreigner was Napoleon, which Pipes concluded was
“presumably because he was defeated on Russian soil.”] The
first five on the list were Peter the Great, Lenin, Pushkin, Stalin
and astronaut Yuri Gagarin.
--When asked how they would like their country to be perceived
by other nations, 48% said “mighty, unbeatable, indestructible, a
great world power.” Only 22% wanted Russia to be seen as
“affluent and thriving”; 6% as “educated, civilized, and
cultured”; 3% as “peace-loving and friendly”; and 1% as “law-
abiding and democratic.”
--74% regret the Soviet Union’s passing.
--In an October 2003 survey, Russians were asked to react to a
coup staged by the Communists. 23% said they would actively
support it, 19% would collaborate with insurgents, 27% would
try to survive, 16% would emigrate, and only 10% would
Richard Pipes sums it up.
“In aggregate, the conclusions from surveys of Russian opinion
are far from encouraging. Western commentators watch with
dismay as Putin slowly and deliberately transforms Russia into a
one-party state. But they fail to recognize, even more ominously,
that Russians by sizable majorities actually approve of his
actions. Putin’s victory in the 2004 presidential elections is
certainly due in part to his stifling of the opposition. But he is
popular precisely because he has re-instated Russia’s traditional
model of government: an autocratic state in which citizens are
relieved of responsibility for politics and in which imaginary
foreign enemies are invoked to forge an artificial unity. The only
desire that Putin has not yet satisfied is restoring Russia’s status
as a great military power. But if his response to other public
demands offers a model, then this wish, too, is likely to be
provided in good time.”
And now, also watch his moves in Chechnya.
Hotts Spotts returns on May 20.