In a race between a fridge and a TV, the TV would win
In dissecting the socioeconomic situation in Russia, a question has long been raised: “Which will prevail—the TV set or the fridge?” To clarify, this is a question about whether Russia’s population will start to express mass discontent with life in a never-ending and hopeless economic recession or can the state propaganda, against all odds, unite the people around their leaders and ensure the loyalty of the majority. Prognoses on the ever-growing social tensions and the threat that they might explode are regularly touched upon in interviews and texts by Russia-watchers. Thus, in an interview in 2015, Robert Orttung, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, cautiously claimed that, despite the government’s total control over the media, “there’s always a chance that something will happen” during Russia’s 2016 elections.1 Vladimir Pastukhov, a Russian political scientist and analyst, expressly predicted a revolution in 20172 and, a year earlier, even the collapse of Russia3, on the assumption that Putin’s current domestic and foreign policy continued.
Some Economic Context
Life is not easy for the average Russian. Even though wages are increasing in statistical terms, actual income is on the decline.4 One-tenth of the employed Russian population earns less than the 10,678 roubles established as the minimum living standard. Taking into account the wage earners’ responsibilities for their children, about 25% of Russia’s employed population lives below the poverty line.5 Meanwhile, economic experts claim that 70% of the population lives on a so-called survival regime, i.e. they have money to cover only their basic needs—food, clothing and living costs.6 Let’s add to that news about still unpaid wages and the reduction of wages in poorer provinces. The regular notices published since 2014 about banks having their operating licences suspended can today be seen only by analysts in that field. According to many analysts, pensioners—one of the unwavering foundations of Putin’s regime—are enduring hardship and poverty.7 According to official figures from the Ministry of Economic Development, a real increase in pensions cannot be foreseen in Russia for a least a decade.8
Not only has life in Russia got harder, but the quality of life has also declined significantly. Outside Russia, little attention has been paid to reports of trouble with so-called “import substitution”. When, in the summer of 2014, an embargo was announced against foodstuffs from “hostile” countries, the direct consequence was a price hike and lower quality food.
In Russia, it is no secret that a large part of dairy and bakery products are fake, and palm oil has been used to substitute several ingredients. Even the Russian media started ringing the alarm bell, as early as 2015.9 That year, Rosselhoznadzor, the body that regulates the quality of agricultural products, found that 80% of the cheese sold in Russia was bogus.10 In 2016, the import of palm oil into Russia increased by a record 59% compared to the previous year.11 Although growth of palm oil imports slowed thereafter, it remains stable at 10–12%.12 The praise for new Russian products by both domestic and foreign writers13 has a bitter aftertaste; though Russian manufacturers have introduced quality new food products to the market, their cost is still prohibitive for most people.
According to regional researchers, the recession is felt most strongly in provinces farther away from Moscow such as Khakassia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Astrakhan. In the opinion of Natalia Zubarevich, one of Russia’s leading experts on the regional economy, the situation is getting worse as state subsidies start to dry up even more.14 Of course, especially dramatic examples can be found—for example, a pensioner from Ivanovo Oblast who got six months’ probation for stealing bread and tea from a neighbour. The pension wasn’t enough, and the spouse had not received wages for more than half a year. The local news channel reported that being put on trial for stealing food from neighbours has occurred on several other occasions in this oblast.15
So Why Don’t They Revolt?
Against this background, it is even more remarkable that no major protests have occurred in Russia. The protests in March 2017, a so-called rebellion of schoolchildren, was vast and achieved an impressive attendance—up to 150,000 people—yet triggered no revolutionary changes. The nature of the protests is still disputed but, paradoxically, a large part of Russia’s population knows relatively little about them, because the media suppressed most news about the event.16 A strike by self-employed long-distance truck drivers in the spring of 2017 ended quietly with making the news, and a protest caravan of Kuban farmers that drove into Moscow in the autumn of 2016 was actually a protest against state benefits policy, not the system itself.
Overall, there are a significant number of protests in Russia—at least one per day. In 2015, 409 were counted.17 The peculiarity lies, however, in the fact that these protests are of an economic nature—they are held over unpaid wages, hospital closures, unexecuted repairs, and other similar everyday problems. A wealth of video addresses and appeals can be found on YouTube. A common scenario plays out so that a large crowd stands in front of the camera and someone announces their concerns. The main target for social protests and collective appeals is President Vladimir Putin.
We can start the discussion on why there are no revolts in Russia from here. The first reason is the image of the Good Tsar assigned to the president. To look at some of the video appeals made to him, it is clear that the narrative is largely the same: “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, save us from the despotism of local officials! They do not follow your orders [to increase pensions, give credit, etc.].” The notion that the president is not aware of what goes on in the regions, and upon becoming aware is able to solve all problems, has been attributed to Putin mostly by annual press conferences and televised interactions with the people. In these events—which get longer and longer each year—the president usually does solve some current problems: giving an apartment to a poor pensioner or assigning benefits to a cancer-stricken girl. It is no secret that the Russian president tries to control everything in the country, down to the smallest detail. He has, at various times, dealt with the price of buckwheat and potatoes and local fire-fighting problems, made gifts to those in trouble, and demonstratively punished executives at different levels, from a governor to a minister. All these success stories have been (over)amplified by the media, thereby creating the image of Putin as all-powerful.
The second and very important aspect is that the media have been able to give a very specific interpretation of the West’s sanctions: the aim is to destroy Russia and remove the beloved president from power. Since the state media have an almost total information monopoly in Russia, Western politicians’ attempts to explain that the sanctions have been tailored to minimise harm to ordinary people do not reach these same ordinary people, or do not convince them. Since March 2014—indeed the Maidan protests in late 2013—a siege mentality has been established in Russia in the statements of both politicians and publicists as well as through media coverage. Every random event can be interpreted as an attempt to destroy Russia. If tensions reduce, a new source of tension is created: a good example is Putin’s statement at the end of October that Western special services were gathering “ethnic biomaterial” with the objective to create a bio-weapon to destroy the country’s multi-ethnic population. It has been repeatedly suggested to the people that, even if life is hard, you must suffer for the preservation of the fatherland. Thus, the sources of the suffering—corrupt local leaders, or the West—have successfully been identified and frustration directed at them.
In addition to ideological reasons, the relative apathy of the people has other causes. First—and this has been emphasised even by Natalia Zubarevich—the economic recession has been gradual, and most people have had enough time to become accustomed to it. The BBC Russian service made an interesting comparison between shopping receipts for pre-embargo food and those of August 2017, calculating that the average price increase for the last three years was 69%. The same article said that an ordinary person did not feel such a price hike.18 This is absolutely true; speaking to people in Russia, the most common claim is that prices have increased over the last three years by 30–40% at most. The first price-increase shock, in late 2014 and early 2015, is successfully over and nobody wants to be reminded of it. I even noticed moderate optimism during my travels in Russia. It is based on the media’s success stories about fairy tale-like developments in agriculture, which is constantly growing due to the sanctions.
The other reason for people’s apathy is the change in the living environment in other ways. Throughout time, a typical strategy to ease recession at a time of crisis and to create jobs has been state-sponsored construction and infrastructure projects. The truth is that several Russian cities in which I have had the opportunity to stay during the last three years (from Sakhalin to Ivangorod) have ongoing building work—if nothing else, then at least new churches. Thus, the living environment for millions of people has been improved at least in terms of appearances. The state or regions have started a limited number of credit and benefit programmes that help, for example, families of young experts to acquire a home on favourable terms. It should be added that the unemployment rate in Russia is virtually zero. Ads looking for unskilled labour can be found on almost every other shop window in every town of any size. I have a suspicion that unemployment in Russia is held artificially low, if not centrally, then certainly at the regional level. Thus, I know of instances from several regions where the wages of teachers or government officials are curbed while new people are being hired.
Optimism is also maintained by festivals, cultural events organised with state support, or even nicely lit mid-town skating rinks. Not all of these events have ideological leanings, so it can be argued that a certain atmosphere of normality does exist in Russia. The media regularly sprinkle into this atmosphere a certain euphoric pride for the achievements of a country that, despite Western-induced adversity, is able to win ice-hockey trophies, establish modern factories and produce a cheese of a quality to rival the best French gourmet products. The fact that most people don’t see the first or second of these—let alone the third—is not a major obstacle. Russian sociologists have noticed a progressive simplification of the collective world-view. Polls show that people think in increasingly black-and-white terms, whereby the country’s political advances mostly trump the state of the economy.19
Natalia Zubarevich has claimed in several statements that the emergence of a state-wide protest movement in Russia is hindered also by differences between the regions and their problems. Average wages in the regions differ by a factor of more than four: in 2017 the highest wages are in Chukotka (92,452 roubles; about 1,400 euro) and the lowest in Dagestan (19,633 roubles; c. 290 euro). In addition, the regions differ in terms of environmental problems, tensions based on ethnic mix, the condition of infrastructure, and even climate. It can certainly be said that the problems of a person living in Dagestan differ greatly from the troubles creating headaches for people in Murmansk Oblast, and the worries of a Vladivostok resident will be alien to both of them.
Finally, it can be noted that, today, the race between a TV and a fridge has been won by the TV—the population of Russia has united to protect themselves against a foreign enemy. However, there is no reason to believe that wide-ranging riots and revolutionary upheavals would bring any good to Russia’s neighbours, at least.
2 https://imrussia.org/en/opinions/2802-vladimir-pastukhov -“it’s-the-putin-regime-that-will-spark-a-revolution”
9 https://www.vedomosti.ru/business/articles/2015/08/11/604361-produktovoe-embargo-rostu-tsen; https://1prime.ru/articles/20151103/821600683.html
12 https://rg.ru/2017/03/21/import-palmovogo-masla-v-rossiiu-snova-vyros.html; https://www.vedomosti.ru/business/news/2016/04/20/638464-import-palmovogo-masla
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.