Russia: an increasingly ‘normal’ country…with an abnormal regime

One of my regrets of 2017 was, for reasons beyond my control, not getting to speak at the Yeltsin Centre in Ekaterinburg. I confess I am not the greatest fan of Yeltsin-the-Man – for all his successes bringing down the USSR and crushing some of its more unpleasant remnants, he was a destroyer rather than a creator, and as Tony Wood trenchantly demonstrates in his Russia Without Putin, in many ways Putin is an heir not just to the failures of the 1990s but also the policies. Nonetheless, the Yeltsin Centre appears committed to the best ideals of Yeltsin-the-Symbol in hosting a series of very interesting lectures, especially on the social and political processes shaping Russia and the world.

Recently the indefatigable Ekaterina Schulmann – whom every serious Russia-watcher should follow – delivered a fascinating lecture on the evolution of Russian society, and fortunately Znak has published a detailed summary of her comments. There is much in the lecture to explore and enjoy, and I will not try and do it full justice. Rather, what I want to focus on is her core point, that especially since 2014, Russia has been moving towards what Westerners might consider ‘normalcy,’ with less of the atomisation, survivalism and dependence on state institutions that has so consistently dogged Russian politics and society. In terms of the global values map reproduced below, the country is slowly but surely moving to the right.

I think she is absolutely correct, and one of the – many, many – tragedies of the current geopolitical struggle between the Kremlin and the West is that hysteria and paranoia, on both sides, have obscured all the reasons to be cheerful. The corollary that Schulmann raises is that Russia doesn’t need (indeed, should avoid) some new revolution. Ket me reproduce, in my clumsy translation (if in doubt, go to the original), some of her closing paragraphs:

We do not need to make a new revolution to improve our lives. We have a really low quality of public administration, but it is sub-standard relative to our level of social development. We are at heart a healthy society. We are an urban country: 74.4% of our fellow citizens live in cities. Our literacy rate is 99%, and more than half of the population has a higher than average education. In this sense, we are at the level of Israel and Canada. Most of our fellow citizens are not engaged in physical labour. We even have a falling prison population. We could have a political system which suits us more, life could be much better without any revolutionary upheavals. The authorities should meet society’s needs, and the society does not need mass repressions, control over public space, censorship, or bans on meetings – none of this is needed. This is just unnecessary.

In fact, the simple observance of the Constitution and the rolling back of the repressive measures of 2012-14 will give us, without any grand struggles and huge sacrifices, a much more responsive political system. People want to be listened to, people want political participation and competition. They want to go to rallies and not get their skulls cracked by the National Guard, they want to go to vote and see candidates who represent them on the ballots. People want a party system that meets their needs, people want a public sphere, in which they can talk about what matters to them, not the ‘crimes of the Kyiv junta’ committed some year or other.

We are closer to normal than we ourselves think. Our ideas about fears of a disastrous future are based on nothing. Apocalyptic expectations, which, of course, are also pushed by the state-run media, do not conform to reality. It does not mean from this that nothing bad could happen to us. It could – and that would be even more painful, because then there would have been no rhyme or reason, it would just have come out of the blue, and for nothing. It could have been different and it could have been much better.

Of course, saying Russia ‘just’ needs the Constitution upheld and Putin’s recent repressive counter-proto-revolutionary measures rolled back is a little like saying the economy ‘just’ needs rule of law and an end to corruption – easy to say, not so easy to do. But this is an absolutely crucial point. For all the arbitrary authoritarianism and capricious kleptocracy of the Putin years, this has coexisted with a too-often-unsung process of social development, even a still-unfinished but not insignificant degree of legalism. It may take years, it may take political generations, but the foundations for a process of democratisation, liberalisation, normalisation, Westernisation, whatever one wants to call it, are there.

And this is, of course, a challenge for the Kremlin and the upper levels of the elite whose power and privilege depends upon it. While he may not – probably does not – think of it in these terms, much of what Putin does these days is, if not to reverse this process, to obscure it. The increasingly paranoid quest for fifth, sixth (seventh?) columnists at home, the rabid and xenophobic propaganda too visible on state TV, the presentation of the world as a hostile place, committed to keeping Russia bound and subordinated, all of these are distractions. But the good news is that the very reason why the volume and pitch of these distractions is getting greater and greater is that it has at best limited impact. Russians are still organising and forming bonds of social cohesion, they are supplementing the TV’s vision of the world with one they gather on the internet or through personal experience, they pin on a St George’s ribbon on Victory Day but have no willingness to see blood and treasure expended in Syria, Venezuela and, probably, the Donbas.

A normal society and an abnormal regime. For now, the latter gets the airtime, but in the long term, the former will win out.



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  1. Igor Reichlin

     /  January 27, 2019

    There’s no doubt that Ekaterina Shulman’s ability to formulate concisely and calmly the results of sociological studies and to spice them with her own analysis is like a gold nugget in the general muck produced by many Kremlin-watchers. She stops short, however, of delivering more specific recipes for action to the watched powers. Do they exist? Or is a wholesale reform of the relationship between the state and the public unavoidable? Shulman herself talks about a clear need in the society, especially among the 20-to-40 generation, for mutual respect between the state and the society rather than reward-and-punishment attitude to the public the state has been practicing over the past 15-odd years. This kind of change is the most difficult to engineer and is unlikely, IMHO, to take place from within the current generation of political, administrative and business elites.

  2. Normal and abnormal don’t strike me as political science terms for evaluating a political system or society. This is a medical diagnosis.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  January 28, 2019

      Fortunately I have never claimed to be a scientist of any kind! Seriously, these aren’t terms I’d use in a peer-reviewed book, but in this context I think it is clear that Schulmann and by extension I mean by them

      • TotalCowage

         /  January 28, 2019

        “but the foundations for a process of democratisation, liberalisation, normalisation, Westernisation, whatever one wants to call it, are there.”

        I’m not so sure of the argument’s validity, when information technology is rapidly pulling up all the roots of the above in the West itself: In an era of Trumpism and Brexit, where the ability to get an idea repeated hundreds of times on Facebook is worth a division of troops, and of cross-border crime that the Western states have don’t legislation on the books to even define yet, let alone prosecute, the era Schulmann is referring too of normal nation state behaviour belongs to a few decades ago at best.

        And whilst the West muddles around, other societies are already coming out with hard answers to that radically different world; China’s social credit system is one example of how a totalitarian state can be both aware of, and utilizing the massive soft power of technology in it’s own interests (espionage, IP theft etc), but also terrified of and denying it too it’s own people… with, from the point of view of the needs of a functioning nation state in said new world, what may (or may not) be actually somewhat valid reasons.

        At the very least, anyone even in the West already knows the social problems of allowing people to be anonymous online arseholes, and those of us who’ve had worse experiences, the almost impossibility of getting the state or anyone else to be able to protect you the average citizen from them.

        So maybe Russia is actually better prepared for The World To Come than the West too, and that’s a good thing? I don’t know, but I certainly don’t think it’s as obvious that Russia is “abnormal” for these now abnormal times. Undesirable is perhaps a better word, but as the typical meme respond would have it, “That’s just like, your opinion man” … and therein lies the rub today.

      • It is. I wasn’t being naughty. However, probably someone like Stephen Kotkin or others would quickly wire brush you and lay out the case why the current regime in Russia is decidedly normal, rather than abnormal. The regime is surely a product of the society, and would not have lasted this long, were it a transplant from Mars.

  3. keith lewis

     /  January 30, 2019

    As someone else pointed out, what is normal here? The West may be moving away from the very model that Russia is moving towards. Now, the whole survival versus self expression values thing is interesting, however, what does that mean here? How would that interact with say, global warming, which is likely to be quite destructive soon, and automation, which may very well trash the economic system we currently have right when Russia would be wanting to further economically liberalize, depending on what happens.

    Now, I disagree on the social credit system, as from what I understand, that’s mostly a myth out of bad reporting on how some stuff in China is working internally.

  1. In Moscow’s Shadows –

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