Russian Mentality: Uncertainty and Fatalism

On March 19, 2002, at the Rosbalt News Agency, Zinaida Sikevich, a reputed sociologist from St. Petersburg, presented her analytical report 'Ten Years of Russia's Reforms as Seen by Her Citizens'. The materials Mrs. Sikevich presented concerned the specifics of Russia's - and St. Petersburg's - society. The following is the abridged version of that report. When speaking of Russia's mentality, one must consider that it was forcibly broken twice within the past century. For the first time it happened during the Bolsheviks' 'modernisation' and 'the forming of the Soviet man'. Then, in the end of 1980s, the consciousness of the Soviet man was speedily transformed to fit into the liberal model of values.

Figuratively, Russian mentality is like a two-ply cake. The Bolsheviks broke down the preceding political institutions of Russia and cleverly adjusted the people's everyday notions to the new reality. They instilled in the minds the priority of 'labour collective' over individual interests and the idea of equality as the equivalent of the levelled distribution of incomes. Russia's Christian Orthodox self-identification was transformed into class self-identification and the belief in the Kingdom of God was replaced with that in the inevitable coming of Communism. This is why now the system of liberal values is opposed not just by the Soviet but also by the traditional Russian psychology.

The core of the traditional and mostly unconscious Russian outlook is the belief in favourable fate and the hope that things will 'somehow work out'. This is why 83.6% of all respondents in a poll conducted in St. Petersburg in 2000 agreed with the old saying 'whatever is done is for the better', singling it out of 42 proverbs offered. These words are the quintessence of the typical Russian optimistic fatalism coexisting with passivity and non-interference with life that goes on as if 'all by itself', while people think, 'All I can do is hope' or 'Let's hope for some luck'. This position is the polar opposite of the basic reliance on individual initiative typical for the Protestant ethics, according to which one must make oneself and one's life.

The other basic element of Russian mentality is the peculiar interpretation of the value of the freedom of will understood as non-restricted self-assertion with no regard for anyone else. In Russian mentality, fatalism and will compete unceasingly and yet, paradoxically as it may sound, rather add to than oppose one another. I believe these are the ancestral myths comprising the social forms of the collective unconscious, in which conscious values, the idea of the norm and social expectations are rooted.

According to the results of research done between the years 1996 and 2000 by the Laboratory of Ethnic Sociology and Psychology of the St. Petersburg State University, the basic values of the Russian people include the following: egalitarianism, collectivism as a preference for group as opposed to individual self-identification, paternalism and the Russian version of etatism, that is, adherence to strong consolidating state.

Egalitarianism is interpreted as the rejection of the social stratification of the modern society. The mass consciousness adheres to the traditional approach to wealth. Of the total number of respondents in a 1997 poll in St. Petersburg, 66.3% agree with the saying 'Honest work won't grow your stock'. A content analysis of responses involving the words 'socialism' and 'capitalism', meaning the Russian forms of these two economic and political systems, revealed that 28.8% of all respondents believe the largest merit of the gone-by regime was equality among people, which some of them called social justice, while 29.6% said inequality was the largest flaw of the present system.

For its supporters socialism represents not only justice but also 'true freedom' and 'happy life', while capitalism is to them a phantom society where everything is untrue, where instead of freedom there is only its semblance, civil rights existing on paper only and life itself being illusory. While the former system 'held social guarantees for everyone', as believed by 12.3% of the respondents, the present one, according to 6.9%, is 'the sinecure of thieves' where 'only bandits and thieves thrive'. Besides, many think socialism means 'the power of the people', existing for the people and in the interests of the people, while capitalism is 'the power of money', that is, of the rich.

Continuing with the poll, the supporters of the present system are all young people, mostly highly educated, residing in St. Petersburg. In provincial Russia, there is a lot of nostalgia for socialism. In the town of Michurinsk, the Tambov Region, where a control group was polled, 74.4% of the respondents supported socialism and only 25.6% supported capitalism.

Equality represents the 'lost Eden' where 'all were together for better or for worse'. People were 'brethren', each 'feeling the elbow of the next man'. Inequality is bad in that it sanctifies 'exploitation', 'justice for the chosen' and 'contempt for the poor'. That is, inequality is 'Edenfor some and hell for the rest'. The use of biblical notions shows that in all their outward atheism the Soviet man always remained a profound believer, except Eden for him was replaced by communism with 'plenty of everything for everyone'.

Considering that 10 years is too short a time for basic values to change, it is easy to understand that the mobility of social statuses and the income-based division of people, the opposite of the basic value of collectivism, causes in many people the sense of uncertainty and of the instability of their personal lives. Interestingly, according to the results of the aforementioned poll where folk proverbs were used as associations, 71% agreed with the one saying 'My pocket is lean, yet my soul is clean', only 29% identifying with its opposite, 'Money in my purse makes me welcome anyplace on Earth'. The other such pare of opposites was 'A penny from each makes a beggar fed and rich' (68.5%) and 'Friends go together yet count their money apart' (31.5%). It seems that to the residents of St. Petersburg wealth is incompatible with morality and 'equality in poverty' is more moral to them than 'inequality in wealth'.

Paternalism is understood as the expectation of fatherly care from the state towards its ordinary citizens who play the role of children and whose estimation of the father-state depends, first of all, on how effectively it functions as such. In the 1999 all-Russian poll, 84.7% of the respondents believed that the state should extend its unflagging fatherly care not only to children, the old and the handicapped but also equally to every citizen. This opinion appeared to be universal, not depending on age, sex, the level of education or the place of residence of respondents. Nearly two thirds of those residing in St. Petersburg (60.7%) believed that the financial status of a family depended mostly on the government and not on the efforts of the family's members. Just 30.4% of all respondents had supplemental incomes, despite there being lots of opportunities for initiative in St. Petersburg.

The content analysis of the associations of respondents in the poll conducted in St. Petersburg in 2000 revealed that 48.3% of them were resentful of the government as of a bad father because it 'does not provide jobs for people' or 'humiliates people with unemployment'. Most respondents, with the exception of young male businessmen, had a basic stereotype of 'the good' as 'the fair distribution of incomes'.

According to polls, the current President of Russia is perceived as a kind though strict father who is deceived by 'bad' corrupted officials. Whatever a popular leader does, to the people it is justified by that he, as the father who is their own, has the right to punish or pardon as he wills. The tradition of perceiving the leader this way dates back to Peter the Great. While in pre-revolutionary Russia for a noble to make a career or for a peasant to survive they had to 'listen to their superiors' and 'be loyal', in the USSR the same things were called 'work discipline'.

Sociologists say the Soviet system allowed a citizen to remain socially infantile. On the other hand, now the social upward mobility and financial well-being of a person directly depend on his or her individual initiative. And this is why so many citizens feel unhappy as children abandoned by their parents. For this to change may take a much longer time than just getting used to social inequality.

Etatism is closely related to paternalism and is one's special perception of the state as a great power assuring, first of all, national consolidation. To a Russian person, the great consolidating power of the state is the rationalisation of sorts of one's ethnic feelings. In the research titled 'The National Self-awareness of the Russian People' done according to the method of free characteristics followed by a content analysis, the conception of values related to the historical past was used as an 'indication' of 'historical memory' and the indirect indication of the modality of orientation toward the consolidating state.

It was found out that to the respondents the Great Patriotic War was the central event of the national history making them (59.8%) infinitely proud of the state and the people. To just 2.1% of St. Petersburg's residents the war was associated with the tragedy of the siege of Leningrad and the bitterness of losses. Rather characteristically, the war is remembered not just by those who lived then but also by the young (37.1%). In the pre-revolutionary history of Russia, the greatest event referred to as such by 10.6% of respondents was the Patriotic War of 1812. The two wars were not only associated with the heroism of those who fought in them but also with the sense of national unity.

This way history serves as a compensation of sorts for what people lack in their everyday lives. One out of every five or six people perceived Russia not as the cradle of the nation and the birthplace of many great poets and scientists but only as a great superpower. About 5% of St. Petersburg's residents replied they were proud of all Russia'smilitary victories without exception, from the Ice Battle to the fall of Berlin. The memory of the great victories as if alleviates national resentment resulting from the collapse of the USSR, which to some St. Petersburg residents (11.3%) was the most bitter loss among all the other consequences of Perestroika.

Nostalgia for Russia's great-superpower past of 14.7% of respondents is also an unconscious compensation for true or imagined humiliation before the West. People are ashamed of the pittance thrown their way by the International Monetary Fund. They are irritated by store signs in foreign languages and by Russia's lackey's stance before the West, which in the Russian consciousness is the antithesis of being a superpower. Generally, to a Russian, the West is not a geographical term but an equivalent of some spirit, the way of life, the style of behaviour and the way of self-realisation, which is 'not ours'. This approach also dates back to the time of Peter the Great. In our time, position toward the mythologized West splits our society in two.

During the associative experiment in the year 2000 involving 783 respondents, a noticeable symbolic distance between the West and Russia was revealed, the mythologized West perceived sooner as 'evil' than as 'good'. To obtain the symbolic associative lines, two uncompleted sentences were offered: 'To the West, Russia is:' and 'To Russia, the West is:' This resulted in the following modal responses: To the West, Russia is: raw-stock base (9.5%), a cow to be milked (6.8%), enigma (6.5%) and feeding rack (5%). The ratio between negative and positive responses was 93.2% to 6.8%. To Russia, the West is: enemy (14%), economic assistance (11.5%), bad example (10.9%), and a school of life (8.5%). The ratio between negative and positive responses was 69.7% to 30.3%.

Comparing these responses we see that 'we' believe that 'their' attitude toward 'us' is just as bad as 'ours' toward 'them', if not worse. On the other hand, displaying negative attitudes toward and distancing ourselves from the West as we do, we still do not mind taking advantage of the West's financial resources (to :'the West is:', there were responses like 'rescuers when we need them' or 'the bottomless money-bag'). Remarkably, the combinations of diametrically opposed responses, such as 'enemy' and 'a hope for development' or 'dangerous lure' and 'life-belt' in the answers of the same respondents occurred in 30% of the total number.

Then again, 'we' are unconsciously proud of our being so mysterious. To the West, Russia is: 'an unexplainable natural mystery', 'brain-buster', 'sphinx', etc., while to Russia, the West is: 'normal good life', 'good roads', 'good-looking picture', etc. That is, to so mysterious 'us' the West is just trivial and boring. Also, positive responses toward the West, such as 'a goal for us to achieve' or 'an example for us to follow', came exclusively from young (25 to 35) male businessmen and financiers. People of the same age but of different occupations and social statuses, such as students or state employees, were far more critical, leaving alone other social, age and sex groups.

Interestingly, 72.3% of all respondents were sure the West was treacherously unfriendly towards Russia, just 25.1% believing otherwise and 2.6% having no opinion. Remarkably, in Russia one can only be either pro or contra the West, without the third alternative, so to say. Among the young, the number of those suspicious of the West was also predominant (56%) and that allows us saying this is a basic index in our national mentality.

In the fall of 1998, two thirds (67.8%) of the polled residents of St. Petersburg thought Russia must try and preserve her status as a superpower even though it might worsen her relations with the West. Somewhat less (65.2%) believed this would require achieving law and order and therefore toughening the regime in the country. In the year 2000, the poll did not contain a question about this, yet indirectly an orientation toward a strong consolidating state showed. For instance, 58.9% of the respondents welcomed the return to the music of the anthem of the USSR (the answers from 'totally approve' to 'sooner approve than not'). These were opposed by just 20.6% and 30.5% couldn't care less.

We expected that a motif of the war in Chechnya might appear in response to the uncompleted suggestions like 'What is bad in Russia is:' And it did: in 3 responses out of 783. I guess tough policies toward separatism agree with the etatism of the Russian public and that is why they are supported. This may be where the secret of the stable popularity of the President Putin lies. Crisis mentality is internally contradictive. What is clear, however, is that psychologically people take the transformation of their lives rather hard. This is the reason for the constantly growing psychological uneasiness and uncertainty as to what may follow. Today, this is the predominant condition of the majority of the citizens of Russia that, regretfully, we are taking with us into the 21st century.

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Author`s name Editorial Team