Resilient Russia

There is a particular breed of Russia watcher who likes to predict the country’s imminent collapse. For such ‘experts’, Russia is perpetually on the brink of social unrest, instability, and possibly even revolution. The apparent popularity of President Vladimir Putin and the seeming strength of the Russian state are just facades hiding a seething cauldron of discontent which is likely to boil over the moment that the state opens up the lid by relaxing the forces of repression. The ‘Putin regime’, in other words, is doomed. It’s just a matter of time.

You’ve no doubt read this sort of thing. It’s pretty common. So too is another type of analysis which maintains that Russia is stuck in terminal economic decline. The only way out of this is ‘deep structural reform’, but the ruling regime is incapable of carrying out such reform, as it would undermine the interests of the oligarchic clans which prop it up. Barring regime change, the only way Russia can do is down.

The fact that the Putin regime stubbornly refuses to collapse or even show any tangible signs of serious weakness doesn’t deter pundits from repeating these ideas. An example is an article in today’s copy of The Guardian. Written by French academic Marie Mendras, the article’s content is pretty much summed up by its title, ‘Putin’s Russia is a sinking ship’. Don’t be fooled by the World Cup, Mendras says:

The overwhelming majority of Russia’s 140 million people worry about declining living standards, falling health and education levels, material insecurity, and corruption. A few weeks ago, protests erupted in many regions and across social classes against a government plan to raise the pension age … this demonstrated a swell of mistrust in the authorities … sociologists at the independent Levada Centre in Moscow point to a rising pessimism. … Domestic social anger, civic demands, youth opposition, and ‘temporary diasporas’ [caused by the ‘brain drain’] may converge to create difficulties for Putin. … Putinism as a formula for stability has run its course.

Let’s take a quick look at Mendras’s evidence. For sure, Russians worry about ‘material insecurity’. Living standards did decline substantially in 2014-2016, but since then they’ve begun to rise, albeit slowly. I don’t know about education levels, but health certainly isn’t declining. On the contrary, Russian life expectancy continues to increase. As for the other stuff, let’s have a look at what the Levada Centre actually has to say about social attitudes. Mendras’s article links to what Levada calls the Social Sentiments Index. This has indeed taken a sharp dip in recent months, probably because of the negative response to the proposed pension reform. But if you look at the Index over the longer term (as shown among some other charts here), you can observe that while it goes up and down in the short term, over the past 18 years the general line has remained remarkably stable. It’s possible that the current dip could turn into something more substantial, but as yet it’s far too early to say that. It could just be a temporary phenomenon related to the pension issue.

Another Levada index (the Consumer Sentiment Index – to be found just under the Social Sentiment Index) suggests a much more positive picture. Consumer sentiment has risen quite dramatically since 2016. This suggests that Russians are much more optimistic about their economic situation. In the long term, that it is likely to translate into more general social satisfaction.

As for Russians’ overall attitude to their country’s development, yet another Levada Index (entitled ‘Assessment of situation in the country’) shows a sharp decline in positive attitudes in the last couple of months (again, most likely connected with the pension issue), but even now more Russians think that their country is going in the right direction (46%) than the wrong direction (42%). Again, one can’t easily predict what the future holds and whether the recent drop will continue further downwards or prove temporary, but the data at present doesn’t justify alarmism.

Indeed, it may indicate that the Russian state is in a rather stronger position than its critics make out. The need for pension reform has been clear for years. But until now the Russian state has felt too weak to enact it. The pension issue is precisely the sort of ‘deep structural reform’ that many insist Russia has to carry out. The problem with such reforms is that they tend to be very unpopular. This is why governments often avoid them. But in the aftermath of Putin’s decisive re-election as president, and after Russia’s successful weathering of economic recession, the Russian government apparently now feels that it is strong enough to get away with it. And the evidence would suggest that so far it is. As the Levada data shows, the government has taken a hit as a result, but it’s not a massive one. As for the protests which Mendras mentions, it is noticeable that they have been far less substantial than those over a previous attempt at pension reform in 2005. The Russian state looks as though it will be able to weather the negative reaction to its current plans relatively comfortably.

At a conference I attended last year, a group of experts from Russia and the English-speaking world almost unanimously agreed that Russia was far more resilient than generally portrayed. In the past four years, it has endured a collapse in energy prices and consequent collapse in the value of the ruble, economic sanctions, and war (in Ukraine and Syria), and yet has emerged remarkably unscathed. That suggests that the Russian state possesses quite deep reserves of strength.

Over the past decade, I’ve read so many variations of Mendras’s thesis that I’ve lost count. All sorts of reasons have been put forward to explain why the ‘Putin regime’ is doomed – demographic decline, economic failure, Western sanctions, the supposed alienation of Russian youth, and so on. So far, none of them have amounted to anything and all the predictions of impending collapse have proven untrue. That doesn’t mean that they can’t come true in the future, but I’m not betting on it.

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16 thoughts on “Resilient Russia”

  1. You’ve no doubt read this sort of thing. It’s pretty common. So too is another type of analysis which maintains that Russia is stuck in terminal economic decline. The only way out of this is ‘deep structural reform’, but the ruling regime is incapable of carrying out such reform, as it would undermine the interests of the oligarchic clans which prop it up.

    *cough* carnegiemoscowcenter *cough*

    All sorts of reasons have been put forward to explain why the ‘Putin regime’ is doomed – demographic decline, economic failure, Western sanctions, the supposed alienation of Russian youth, and so on.

    And there’s one book that puts ALL forward (except alienated youth): Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash (Lourie).

    Most annoying about “crussialism” is that at its heart it’s a cop-out with benefits. Because the Putin era, like any era, will one day draw to a close, it doesn’t matter how many times a crussialist botches their analysis or puts out misleading information – in the end they will be “vindicated”.

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  2. Good post. We should take note of both the good and the bad; there is no need to defend Russia on issues where it needs to improve; but it in this case, the pension reform, we can point to any country that has put a reform through and the usual social unrest that follows (I think of France). I am much more concerned about another American major crisis than about a Russia crisis. As a European who lived in Russia 1992-1997 and 2006-2012 I am astonished how much US inner cities today remind me of the poverty in Moscow city in 1991-1992. Russia has moved forward; the US is domestically downplaying populist reactionary sentiment while its middle class is in a downward spiral.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “There is a particular breed of Russia watcher who likes to predict the country’s imminent collapse”

    Merely a “breed”? I thought it was a prerequisite for being a Russia Watcher ™ – like hating the dill, despising the Regime, crying crocodile tears over “Russian tragic history” (c) and having not idea whatsoever about the common Russians and their interests.

    In reality, the “Downfall of the Regime is imminent” (c) is not a result of the analysis or a thoughtful prediction – it’s a mantra, a self-help chant. Because if you presume the collapse of Russia by default, this absolves you of… everything! You don’t need to treat Russia as equal, you don’t need to design a working policy toward Russia, hey, you don’t even need to “confront” Russia – it will collapse on its own without any “wasteful” efforts of your own. Also – you totally should NOT study Russia and try to understand it. It’s going to collapse anyway. Any moment now.

    Besides – all those Russia Watchers want Russia to collapse. Either because they believe in the magic(k) and thus assume that their crowing will by the principle of sympathy harm Russia in reality, or because they are genuinely butthurt after 2016 so they want anything to happen and have their “revenge”.

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    1. UPD.

      Quotes from the article:

      ” A narrative of high approval ratings (allegedly between 80 and 85%) was essential to impose a “landslide victory” in the pre-determined March presidential vote, which explains why a serious contender like Alexei Navalny was not allowed to run”

      and

      “The exceptional popularity of Navalny and his anti-corruption foundation shows a new politics in the making.”

      🙂


      ^”Thinking about Russia”, oil, canvases, 2018.

      Like

  4. I live in the UK and I wish similar research was done about my country.

    It would perhaps explain why the Brexit happened which has divided and paralysed the political system here.

    It would give a snapshot of what people are thinking

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  5. Sheesh. The section was disappeared by mysterious computer gremlins.

    Enormous efforts shoring up the “Putin regime” which is always on the edge of collapse. (But Russia has always been doomed (here’s Time in 1927) and it was altogether finished in 2001, but it seems that the intensity of the doom saying has been stepped up as if wishing so made it so. Has an ‘open society’ doomed Russia to fail? (September 2012); Russia Is Doomed (March 2014); Why Putin’s Adventure in Ukraine Is Doomed (April 2014); Putin’s Nationalism and Expansion Strategy Is Doomed to Fail (September 2014); Sorry, Putin. Russia’s economy is doomed (December 2014); Remember Russia? It’s still doomed (January 2015); Morgan Stanley thinks Russia’s doomed (February 2015)).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. >not linking to Russia Universe

    “In Western mainstream political discourse there’s one concept that remains no matter what. The eternal return of this concept can be witnessed in news programmes, talk shows, newspapers and films over and over again. I’m talking here about the ‘Fall of Russia’. The Eternal Fall.

    The idea of Russia as a country in terminal state has a long history behind it. The image of Russia as a ‘collossus on clay legs’ was popular way before the 1917 coup, then after the Soviet Union was established, then after the fall of the USSR in 1991, then – during the Yeltsin’s turbulent 90s and finally – fast-forward to Putin’s Russia of nowadays.

    Don’t get it twisted – Russia has many serious economic and social problems. I know it much better than any BBCNN ‘Russia watcher’ because I’m a common Russian living in Russia, so I see the signs of crisis every day. But ‘crisis’ doesn’t mean it will necessarily result in a revolution/regime change (we had enough), and even the latter isn’t equal to ‘collapse’.”

    “Thus, these real Russia’s problems do exist and they serve as the realistic basis for the mythology of ‘imminent Russian collapse’. This Western ‘collapsophilia’ can be referred to as crussialism (from crush + Russia + [certain amount of] realism). Crushialism has been an inseparable part of Western master discourse of Russia for years, just like, for example, Russian mainstream media recently exploits the migrant crisis in Europe. The plot is simple: ‘we’ are not as f*cked as ‘we’ are – look – ‘they’ have so many problems in Russia/Europe. If we adopt this collapsophilic vision, then Russia is in the mode of Eternal Fall, yet it is always reintepreting itself and coming back to normal like nevalyashka (Russian for roly-poly toy).”

    https://russianuniverse.org/2016/03/09/crussialism/

    Like

    1. Nope. JT is not banned. But thanks to your message, I did find her comment stuck in the spam filter along with her subsequent messages asking for the comment to be posted. I have no idea why WordPress has taken a dislike to JT.

      Like

      1. “I have no idea why WordPress has taken a dislike to JT.”

        MACHINES UPRISING! It has began!

        […]

        Well, you know the drill, folks. Glory to Robots!

        Like

  7. As an IT guy:

    J.T. username is fairly short, she may be posting of several message boards and perhaps from different IPs. Overzealus spamfinder is overzealous.

    Like

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