Looking at Russia from the wrong reference point

Psychological research suggests that human beings do not evaluate losses and gains in absolute terms but relative to some reference point. This came to mind when reading Gregory Feifer’s book Russians: The People Behind the Power, which was published earlier this year.

The book is 350 pages of unrelenting negativity. ‘Putin’s system turned out to be all about dictatorship’ (page 34), Feifer says, and is ‘not based on popular support’ (page 38). ‘Anger is never far from the surface’ (page 43). ‘Poverty is endemic’ (page 47), is worse than in the Soviet Union, and ‘continues getting worse’ (page 65). One can observe ‘the obvious disintegration of the social fabric’ (page 70), as ‘hopes for a better life steadily decline’ (page 73). Drinking is ‘helping drive men’s life expectancy down’ and ‘the population continues to shrink. … It’s getting worse’ (page 89). ‘Putin’s self-interested authoritarianism is driving his country off a cliff’ (page 213), Feifer remarks. He concludes that the West must take a hard line against Russia and ‘must have no illusions about what kind of country they are dealing with’ (page 348).

As befits a journalist’s work, Feifer’s book is anecdotal rather than academic, and he draws unwarranted conclusions from his anecdotes. Putin does in fact enjoy popular support (an 87% approval rating according to a recent Levada poll). Surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever. Russia has enjoyed massive economic growth in the past fifteen years which has substantially reduced poverty. The mortality rate is declining, as is alcoholism, and the population is growing.

There are, of course, many bad things about modern Russia. But there are good things too. Feifer is far too one-sided. What explains this? I think that it may have something to do with the reference point he starts from. Feifer begins his book by describing his experiences in the Soviet Union at the time of the August coup in 1991 which briefly ousted Mikhail Gorbachev and ended with Boris Yeltsin forcing the coup leaders to back down. This is Feifer’s reference point – the heady, exciting days when he and others believed that the Soviet Union was going to become a liberal democratic, Western state. Seen from this perspective, the Putin era has been a terrible disappointment – thus the inclination to describe it in such negative terms.

My reference point is very different: it is the time I spent as a student in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Remembering the general dinginess, the difficulty of finding the most basic goods, the sullen and incompetent service, and all the rest of it, I cannot look at Russia today and think that the country has gotten worse. Despite all its flaws, it has obviously gotten a whole lot better.

Feifer’s problem, I think, is that he is comparing Russia not with what it really was at any time in the past but with an idea he had of what Russia could be, an idea which was quite possibly never realisable. The result is an unfair assessment of the country’s progress.

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