Lifestyle and Identity

The Levada Centre has just issued the results of a new survey. According to this poll, a majority of Russians (53%) do not feel that their value system and self-identity align at all with those of the West. In addition, 45% regard the ‘Western lifestyle’ (which was not defined) negatively, and only 30% regard it positively. The results are shown here.

TO WHAT DEGREE DO YOU CURRENTLY FEEL THAT YOUR VALUE SYSTEM AND SELF-IDENTITY ALIGN WITH THOSE OF WESTERN CULTURE?

  Feb.93 Oct.08 Sept. 14 Sept. 15
I feel this way at all times 1 3 2 2
This is fairly important to me 5 7 12 10
This is not very important to me 16 32 37 28
I don’t feel this at all 50 54 43 53
It is difficult to say 28 5 6 7

OVERALL, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE “WESTERN LIFESTYLE”: POSITIVELY OR NEGATIVE

  Oct.08 Sept. 14 Sept.

15

Positively 46 34 30
Negatively 30 42 45
It is difficult to say 25 25 25

The survey also found that 5% of respondents would definitely like to move to the West to work, and 18% would probably do so if they could, while 30% probably wouldn’t and 36% definitely wouldn’t (the rest didn’t know). These figures are almost unchanged from 2008. The primary reasons given for wanting to move to the West were economic (better living conditions being the most commonly cited) rather than political. Younger people (18-29), those with university education, and those who spoke foreign languages and travelled regularly abroad were generally more positively inclined to the West and more likely to want to live there.

Looking at all this, I suspect that the answers to the ‘lifestyle’ question are rather less significant than those to the more general ‘self-identity’ question, in large part because, as the charts above show, they have changed much more over time and so may be more reflective of current political differences rather than deeply-held beliefs. They may therefore be more likely to change again in the future.

Russian views about what they imagine the ‘Western lifestyle’ to be have in effect flipped 180 degrees over the past seven years: 46% positive and 30% negative in 2008, but 30% positive and 45% negative in 2015. A dislike of Western foreign policy might well be a factor in this change, as might a feeling that the West has become decadent and excessively liberal, while Russia has retained a more conservative outlook. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that this apparent divergence of values is a lasting phenomenon. The current level of international tension does not have to be permanent, and the values differences are, I think, overblown. Most Russians seem very happy to indulge in Western-style consumerism if given the chance, and Russian popular culture is not obviously any less ‘decadent’ than that of the West. I strongly suspect that if Russian-Western relations were to improve, answers to the lifestyle question would switch rapidly back to where they were seven years ago.

The same can’t be said of Russians’ failure to self-identify as Western. The 53% whose self-identity is ‘not at all’ Western is an almost identical figure to the 50% who felt that way in 1993 and the 54% who did so in 2008. It seems that there is a long-standing sense among a majority of Russians that they are distinct from the West. This sense is not just a product of current international tensions, and it is likely to persist.

One of the paradoxes of globalization is that in some cases it may actually accentuate perceptions of cultural difference. Lifestyle and identity have to be separated. What the Levada poll suggests to me is that the fact that Russians are adopting certain Western ways of living doesn’t necessarily mean that they will grow to feel more Western.

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17 thoughts on “Lifestyle and Identity”

  1. Paul, you wrote:

    “Looking at all this, I suspect that the answers to the ‘lifestyle’ question are rather less significant than those to the more general ‘self-identity’ question, in large part because, as the charts above show, they have changed much more over time and so may be more reflective of current political differences rather than deeply-held beliefs. They may therefore be more likely to change again in the future.

    Russian views about what they imagine the ‘Western lifestyle’ to be have in effect flipped 180 degrees over the past seven years: 46% positive and 30% negative in 2008, but 30% positive and 45% negative in 2015. A dislike of Western foreign policy might well be a factor in this change, as might a feeling that the West has become decadent and excessively liberal, while Russia has retained a more conservative outlook. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that this apparent divergence of values is a lasting phenomenon. The current level of international tension does not have to be permanent, and the values differences are, I think, overblown. Most Russians seem very happy to indulge in Western-style consumerism if given the chance, and Russian popular culture is not obviously any less ‘decadent’ than that of the West. I strongly suspect that if Russian-Western relations were to improve, answers to the lifestyle question would switch rapidly back to where they were seven years ago.”

    Before having any meaningful discussion about this, let’s come to the “common” definition of the term – what IS the “Western lifestyle”? Or, to be more exactly: “What does Russians understand by that term?”

    I won’t answer on behalf of “all Russians”, but, judging only from my personal experience, conversations with friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, by reading discussions and on-line posts, I can (admittedly – “kinda”) summarize what is understood by this “Western lifestyle” in (rather broad) segment of Russian citizens.

    1) Russians firmly associate “Western lifestyle” with the capitalist system, especially with its most ugly practices – financial oligarchy, rampant consumerism, slashing of social programs etc. After the “Rough 90s” the vast majority of Russian citizens had nothing but curses for the proponents of it.

    2) For Russians “Western lifestyle” presents itself as “post family” society – fewer registered marriages, higher divorce rate, fewer children or even “child-free” phenomenon, same-sex marriages, egotistical hedonism as a norm etc. Naturally, most of Russian citizens find it abhorrent.

    3) For Russians “Western lifestyle” is a commercialization of both the culture and education, when these two cornerstones of any national society become just “commodities” and not part and parcel of the nation-building process. Sure, Russians are consumers of the Western mass-culture and education – but they also don’t want for Russia to become the same.

    4) For Russians “Western lifestyle” is a post-moral one, where the people give only a lip-service to any religion, where the “7 Mortal Sins” are commercialized and sold as any other commodity, where the gender roles are (deliberately) blurred – and there exists a massive propaganda machine/advertisement apparatus to promote that. No comments.

    5) For Russians “Western lifestyle” is antithetical to the patriotism and ethnic self-identification. Both aggressively promoted “tolerance” and “multi-culturalism” on the one hand, and wide-spread practices of outsourcing and mass migrant employment ultimately, degrade a human being just to “employee” – a different kind of resource, a detail in the grand machine that should be easily replaced when there is need for that.

    6) “Western lifestyle” for Russians means, primarily, “earning more money”. And that’s ultimately, the main reason why it’s so appealing to many who are constantly argue that its “pora valit’” time. But here people confuse cause and consequence.

    Right now, most Russians are experiencing post-90s hangover from everything that had been crammed down their throats so aggressively by the so-called “Russian liberals” and democrats of Yeltsin’s caliber. One of these things – is the glorification of the “Western lifestyle”.

    Paul, you argue that we need “just” some sort of “Reload 2.0.” for Russians to become more “accepting” to the Western lifestyle. Well, this presumes that such a thing is possible any time soon. I, personally, don’t think so. Next – this kind of situation allows Russians finally to look upon themselves, to understand what they want for themselves and whether is some foreign lifestyle is much better for them. Why should Russians accept the Western lifestyle and the West shouldn’t accept Russian?

    Finally, after everything said and done, after the return to some semblance of “normal” relations between the West and Russia – do you really think that Russians with song and smile on their faces will just accept the legalization of weed, small-arms and gay parades?

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      1. Well, we are talking about some “abstract” Western lifestyle (as imagined by average Russian) here – not just American one.

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  2. Our perception of Western Lifestyle is quite vague. It’s completely formed by mass media, social media and what we can see from American movies, particularly comedies.
    So, it’s not about how we look at it, it’s about how they show it. Current economic and political situation aggravates it a lot.
    What comes to the conception and definition of “Lifestyle”, I believe it’s hard to evaluate the style of our lives at all due to increasing income disparity and rising inequality between living in Moscow and living in small provincial towns (I’ve got the first-hand experience of both). As you may know, our perception of everything depends in large part on how we feel.

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    1. Indeed, the problem with this survey is that ‘Western lifestyle’ isn’t defined, and so it’s just a matter of what people perceive that lifestyle to be, rather than an objective assessment of it, and their perceptions may be wildly inaccurate.

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  3. To me, the aspect of ‘western lifestyle’ that still surprises and repels me a little is all this long-term planning, constant calculations, thriftiness. What can I afford and what can’t I? How much do I save and how much do I spend? Planning your holidays years in advance. WTF?

    All this has very negative connotations in Russia (or used to have; maybe it’s different now).

    These incredible stories I heard about Germans going to a dinner party and paying their share of the electric bill (is it really true? can it be?)

    This (huge) aspect of the ‘western lifestyle’ is very much anti-Russian.

    Being fatalistic, acting on impulse – that’s how I see Russia. The future will take care of itself. The birds don’t sow or reap, yet the heavenly Father feeds them. Yeah, in the west, maybe Catholics are a bit like that. The Italians, the Irish. But not quite. Capitalism has suffocated them already.

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    1. Related to what you say, there is, of course, Max Weber’s concept of the ‘Protestant work ethic’, which is said to explain why northern Europe became so much more successful than southern Europe and the Orthodox world.

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  4. I note also that Lyttenburgh’s and Mao’s views of the ‘Western lifestyle’ differ enormously. For the first it is decadence (capitalism, commercialism, ‘post-family society, lack of religion); for the second, it is thrift, hard work, and long-term planning. All of which goes to show that the entire concept is perhaps a bit suspect, which may explain the relative fluidity of people’s attitudes towards it.

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    1. I’m listing only the most “popular” views of Russians right now. The stereotype of “thrifty”, not capable of sharing and bean-counting “Germans” is still alive and well in Russia, dating back 300 years at least.

      “Relative fluidity” is a nica concept… relatively. Sand, water, quicksilver and lava are all could be “fluid” in their own ways. Doesn’t mean that Russian views will change any time soon.

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  5. Oh, and by the way, about “decadent and excessively liberal”. I can only speak of the Soviet times, and back then I certainly remember much more ‘loose morals’ in Russia than anything I’ve seen in the US. Married people had multiple affairs, usually with co-workers, divorce was common, abortion an ordinary event. And in the States, the 60s were long gone and forgotten; it was, I thought, quite puritanic. Decadent and excessively liberal it certainly was not.

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  6. I spent most of my life in the west and frankly couldnt provide anyone with a decent definition of “western”.

    Frankly, imho the west changed a lot, and keeps changing a lot (so does btw. Russia).

    We could however opt to take from this polls that “the west” now is “the other” from Russias pov.

    It is a pretty good question wether Russia is “the other” from the pov of various western nations.

    For me and my circles in Germany, Russia is different but by no means inferior, while especially the American press basically reeks of epic and mostly unjustified condescension.
    The German press is also heavily hostile to Russia (the more “Atlantic” the more hostile), but that isnt as much of a thing with the normal population (which does view Russia somewhat stereotypically, but the stereotypes are a lot nicer then the American ones).

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