There is an old Soviet-era Russian joke about two rival groups of archeologists who cannot agree on the age of a mummy discovered in Central Asia. At their wits’ end, they call in the NKVD — the name of the dreaded KGB in Stalin’s time — to settle the dispute.
The NKVD men, in their dark-gray suits, enter the cave where the mummy is being kept. They emerge early the next morning looking disheveled and exhausted.
“Well,” ask the archeologists, “did you determine the mummy’s age?”
“Yes we did,” answered the chief interrogator. “He finally talked.”
In the old days, it certainly would have taken a bit of not-so-gentle persuading to get opinions out of almost any citizen of that country. Whether those opinions were truthful or not would have been another matter entirely.
But in today’s Russia there are opinion polls — and don’t doubt that people tell pollsters what is truly on their minds and in their hearts. Most Russians today are outspoken and forthright, even when their anonymity might not be fully protected.
Last month, Russia’s leading polling organization, the Moscow-based Yuri Levada Analytical Center, conducted a survey of 1,601 people aged 18 and older. The independent, nongovernmental research organization of sociologists, political scientists, economists, psychologists and market researchers was founded by Yuri Levada (1930-2006), a research scholar who began systematic studies of public opinion in 1988, when his country was still called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The two most critical questions in last month’s survey — considering the burgeoning confrontation in Russia today between the government and the people — were: Do you support acts of protest; and, are you satisfied with the performance of President Vladimir Putin? At first glance, the results of these two polls appear paradoxical.
On the one hand, support for protesters has gone down. Only 9 percent of those surveyed “positively support” the protests, with 24 percent saying they “lean toward supporting” them. This compares with 12 percent and 32 percent respectively in a December 2011 poll that asked the same question.
As for those who “lean against support” for the protesters, the figure this August was 32 percent (compared with 26 percent last December). In the recent survey, people who “positively did not support” the protests constituted 21 percent of those polled, up from 15 percent in December.
You may well think this would correspond with a rise in support for Putin — but it didn’t. His approval rating last month had dropped to 63 percent from 69 percent in May, while his disapproval rate has increased by 3 percent, to 35 percent. Of course, this is still a high approval rating for a president. Maybe U.S. President Barack Obama should strip down to his waist and shoot a few prairie dogs.
What’s going on in the world’s largest non-democracy? Are the people cynically turning to that old Russian saw ni boga ni chorta (neither god nor the devil) in their attitudes toward authority and change?
At work here is a nationwide state of demoralization. In fact, the people’s hearts tell them to follow the protesters. But years of being browbeaten into a state of political torpor has left them numb. Apathy is surely the worst enemy of a downtrodden people; and it is just that apathy ruling the hearts and minds of the people of Russia today.
Yet despite the general demoralization, there are those who are out on the streets proclaiming their opposition to the new suppressions forced on all Russians by Putin and his crass cohorts in the police and courts. Russia is in a state of cold civil war.
The all-female punk rock group Pussy Riot, three of whose members are now facing two years of harsh treatment in jail, stands out as a symbol of that opposition. But in actuality, the opposition has brought together people from all walks of life and ages. Their leaders, such as lawyer Alexei Navalny and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, are seemingly undeterred by the increasingly brutal escalation of the repression brought to bear on them by the government.
In considering these factors, keep in mind that Russia has never really experienced democracy in its 1,000-year history. As comedian and satirist Mikhail Zadornov has quipped, “Our democracy is about as democratic as our communism was communistic.”
Russia has seen the dismantling of its empire and the encroachment of seemingly hostile states, backed by NATO, along its borders. A siege mentality dominates the country’s policy. Russians are pretty much united in their feelings for the need to have a strong leader. To many of them, democracy is synonymous with fragmentation and weakness. This explains Putin’s sustained popularity.
The majority of Russians look back at the “democratic” 1990s as a lawless decade in which the poor got poorer and the rich got obscenely rich. There is considerable support for the immediate release from prison of ex-president of the oil conglomerate Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky — 31 percent in the August survey. Yet few feel that he is suitable as a political leader. Many Russians see his wealth as having been acquired not through hard work but as a result of embezzling the state of its rightful bounty.
Of course this is unfair to a man who has totally reformed himself and has shown, throughout nearly nine years of detention and incarceration, that he is a genuine democrat dedicated to the welfare of his country. Nevertheless, the word “democracy” does not have the ring of clarity and justice in a country that associates many of its features with corruption and decline.
Political commentator Dmitry Oreshkin, an associate of the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, explains that “the government has the power to sweep up protest activities, but they are powerless to bolster their (own) popularity.”
Indeed, an aphorism penned many years ago by the poet Alexander Tvardovsky (1910-71), who also edited the Soviet Union’s leading literary magazine, Novy Mir, still holds today: “The cannons are going into battle backwards.” Putin’s government has turned the weapons at his disposal — so far only figuratively, thank goodness — on his own people.
The Russian economy is clunking ahead on the one piston of natural resources, as the service sector, education and the nation’s health deteriorate; and the political climate created by the regime is becoming ever harsher, with the curtailing of freedom of assembly and speech, particularly the freedom to criticize the Orthodox Church, one of the mainstays of Putin’s legitimacy today.
Russia is steadily entering a state of stagnation similar to the one that existed during the long reign of Leonid Brezhnev between 1964 and ’82. Putin’s popularity, while declining, may still be high. The masses may be turning off protest and turning toward an apathetic cynicism that’s been so characteristic of Russian society for much of its history. Satirist Mikhail Zadornov put his finger on the problem when he said: “We have democracy now; all we need is democratic people.”
But the opposition is not going away. Putin holds a strong hand because society sees no alternative to him at this moment. Yet there was no visible alternative to Brezhnev in 1982 either. A decade later, the Soviet Union was a thing of the past.
The very fact that Russians fearlessly state their opinions and the protesters no longer fear the consequences of their protests attests to the resilience and strength of the entire citizenry. It’s only a matter of time before they take hold of those cannons — again, only figuratively — and turn them on their self-proclaimed masters.
That would signal the beginning of a genuine and, hopefully, secure democracy.