By Nikolai Popov


What happened in Russia during the twenty years after Gorbachev came to power and sweeping reforms began in the country will still be assessed for a long time to come and perhaps this will lead to more sober conclusions concerning the current processes in politics, the economy and the life of the people. The evaluation of changes brought about in the last twenty years depends very much on the age of the respondents: a third of the present adult citizens did not live under socialism at all or lived only in their childhood. They learned about Gorbachev and perestroika and, the more so, about socialism from newspapers of the 1990s. Therefore, it is difficult for them to understand what the reformers of the mid-1980s wanted to change.

Even elder people find it difficult to assess clearly whether the radical reforms of the last twenty years proved useful or harmful: so much has been proposed and promised during this time. The word perestroika has a collective meaning and includes dozens of programmes and slogans of various periods. Some of them looked like a thought-out plan, while others were typical Soviet propaganda. At first, acceleration was proclaimed. It was an attempt to catch up with the West in industry, first of all in machine building. Glasnost was preceded by the struggle against glowing reports, an attempt to restrict lying in reports and a pretence that all is well.

Then perestroika was launched as a hybrid of socialism and market, accompanied by publicity and democratization of the Soviet system, as well as the new thinking together with the curtailing of the Cold War, confrontation with the United States, and the dissolution of the Warsaw bloc. This process developed further and went out of control. The shock therapy alternated with putsches and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the conflict between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet, elections to the Duma and the Chechen wars.

Are the people nostalgic about the Soviet Union with its socialist system? On the whole, yes, they feel nostalgic even now, and in the mid-1980s, the majority of the people had no intention of giving up socialism or breaking up the Soviet Union. No wonder that the reformers of that time offered the Swedish model as an example the combination of socialism with market relations. Accordingly, the opinion polls held in those years showed that the population was ready to say yes to private enterprises in trade, services and small-scale production, with state control over large-scale industry, transport and mining.

In general, the majority of the people accepted the idea of combining socialism with a market economy and democracy: limiting party control, holding real elections to the higher bodies of power, and allowing private enterprise and cooperatives. The same idea was expressed in the popular slogan of that time more democracy, more socialism.

What has remained of the socialist ideas of that time? Today 22 percent of the respondents advocate socialism in its pure form, and this figure has not virtually changed in the last five years. Accordingly, the number of people who support parties like the Communist Party of the Russian Federation has remained the same in the elections held in the last ten years. Regardless of how the people call the social system preferred by them, many of their notions accord with socialist ideas or the idea of a social state. Two-thirds of the population continue to believe that the state must provide jobs for its citizens and guarantee the subsistence minimum.

Why did the Union break up?

No one has replied to this question clearly. Whatever explanations are given, most people firmly believe this ought not to have been done: 64 percent of those polled regret that the USSR has broken up, only 16 percent approve of its disintegration, and 17 percent think that this makes no difference to them. These figures have not changed in the last ten years. Most people believe that the break-up could have been averted, though over a third (38 percent) of the population think it was inevitable.

This nostalgia for the Union is expressed by the public approval of rapprochement and integration of former Soviet republics in any form: 54 percent of the respondents supported a union between Russia and Belarus; 11 percent disapproved of this idea, and 26 percent remained neutral. Opinions about a common economic space between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan divided in almost the same way: 54 percent of the respondents approved of this idea, 15 percent disapproved, and 24 percent were neutral.

At the same time, shortly after the disintegration of the Union, most respondents did not hope for a new union in the near future. In 1993, asked what future awaits the Community of Independent States, only 9 percent expressed hope for integration and strengthening of ties between the republics, while 38 percent predicted a long and difficult search for an accord, 14 percent foresaw deepening of conflicts between republics, 16 percent predicted a break-up of the Community, and 22 percent were undecided.

Poverty and inequality

The main aim of the perestroika and reforms improvement of the life of the broad sections of the population has not yet been achieved. Two-thirds of the population remain poor and a considerable part of it live in abject poverty, below the official subsistence minimum of 2,400 roubles a month. The official level of poverty is about 17 percent, 25 percent according to the World Bank, and, according to sociological estimates, it ranges from 25 to 40 percent of the population.

People assess their living standards in this way: 8 percent replied in opinion polls that they did not have enough money even for food, and 34 percent said that they had enough money for food, but buying clothes was a serious problem to them. Thus, 42 percent are obviously poor citizens, and their number is diminishing very slowly. Two-thirds of the respondents think that the rich are becoming richer and the poor poorer. This is confirmed by statistics: in Russia the incomes of the richest 10 percent of the population are 19-20 times higher than the incomes of the poorest 10 percent. In the United States, this gap is 14 times and in Finland, 3 times.

Despite the widespread poverty, many hope that next year will be better for them. For instance, at the end of last year, 27 percent of the population hoped for an improvement in their living standards in 2005, 13 percent expected worsening and 42 percent thought their living standards would remain unchanged. It was rather an expression of optimism or pessimism, not estimates based on calculations.

At the same time, assessing the prospects of growth of the public wellbeing, many respondents do not hope for quick progress. Asked when they expected a decent life in Russia, one percent of the respondents replied that it had already come, three percent think it will be in one, two or three years, and 15 percent think it will be in four to ten years. Thus, only 19 percent expressed an optimistic view. Another group of respondents (17 percent) believe that a decent life will begin in 11 to 20 years, when a third of the present population dies out, 22 percent do not see any prospect of an improvement in the next 20 years, and 26 percent think that the Russians will never have a decent life.

Talking about the urgent problems of Russia, the respondents always name poverty, high prices and unemployment. So, lasting poverty of most people, growing inequality and an unfair social system are the main fruits of the reforms carried out in the last twenty years. The promised socialism with a human face has not yet been built. Perhaps we will have capitalism with a human face.

Capitalism with a human face

In short, oligarchic capitalism, not democratic socialism, has been built in the course of perestroika. Moreover, this was done in a way that, at first, the people did not notice the substitution. Events developed rapidly: the depositors lost their savings in banks; the lack of goods led to the wild growth of prices, economic crisis and a shock therapy. First cooperatives appeared, joint-stock companies were formed according to four variants, the state property was divided by issuing vouchers together with privatization and loans-for-shares auctions at the same time. And then bang! All valuable property has been divided, and Russia has become second in the world in the number of multi-millionaires.

It is not easy for ordinary people to assess the consequences of all that. On the one hand, there are three million entrepreneurs in Russia. Together with their relatives, they form a ten million-strong army of people engaged in small business. Ten million more people are engaged in medium business. At the same time, 51 percent of the employed continue to work at state-owned enterprises, and 40 percent do not work. Among them are pensioners, unemployed, housewives and students most of whom are not linked with business. Therefore the attitude of people to so unexpectedly emergent capitalism is highly contradictory.

Since most people are no longer linked with socialism in its Soviet form 65 percent of the respondents think that transition to a market economy was necessary, 24 percent (such is the approximate number of socialists) do not agree with this conclusion, and 11 percent remain undecided. As in most developed states, 60 percent of Russian citizens would like to work for hire since they are not inclined to enterprise. At the same time 52 percent of them say they have friends and acquaintances with some experience of private enterprise (44 percent with successful experience and 53 percent with less successful or unsuccessful). In any case, 64 percent of them would like their children to have their own business.

In the opinion of most people, business is a risky affair: 87 percent think that competition in private business is waged by dishonest means and 81 percent believe this is dangerous because of the criminal atmosphere in business. Nevertheless, 81 percent of the respondents have a favourable view of small and middle businessmen.

There is another aspect of the attitude to business whether it is honest and legal. An equally vast majority of respondents, 78 percent, think that today it is impossible to conduct business honestly, without violating laws. Big business is assessed even more categorically: 88 percent think that a greater part of big private capital has been gained by dishonest means, and 80 percent believe that today it is virtually impossible to raise big capital honestly in Russia.

This explains why the attitude to capitalists is very contradictory: 53 percent take a good or rather good attitude to big entrepreneurs (not moguls, but simply big owners and managers) and 41 percent dislike them, 35 percent have a rather favourable and 59 percent a rather unfavourable opinion of the tycoons; 74 percent assess negatively the role of big capitalists in the history of Russia of the 1990s, and only 19 percent view it positively.

Many people think the financial and industrial circles constitute a threat to society: 73 percent believe it is quite possible or rather possible that the oligarchs, big businessmen, may gain full and real control over power in Russia in the near future, and only 22 percent do not think so. Furthermore, many believe it is not a distant threat but present-day reality. Asked who wields real power in Russia today, 40 percent replied it was exercised by the big capital of the oligarchs, 21 percent think that real power is held by the president, 12 percent believe it has been seized by organized criminals, 9 percent think it is held by bureaucrats, 4 percent mentioned local government bodies, 3 percent the State Duma, 2 percent the leading officials of regions, territories and republics, and 1 percent think it is exercised by the people.

Accordingly, 62 percent of the respondents, see a revision of the results of privatization as the only way to fight the political oligarchy of business. Furthemore, most of them proposed very radical measures: 34 percent think that the state must restore its property of all natural resources and enterprises extracting and processing oil, gas, coal and ore, and in the opinion of 19 percent, the largest banks and enterprises now owned by the oligarchs must be returned to the state. 14 percent proposed various forms of redemption of large enterprises by the state, and only 13 percent were against revising the privatization results. Class antagonism is still there.

The euphoria of the first elections is over

The organizers of perestroika and subsequent capitalist reforms promised to draw the broad masses of the people into the government of the state. True, not every cook can run the state, but she must have the possibility to take part in free elections and send the right people to government bodies. During the opinion polls held in the early 1990s the people noted the possibility of electing their best representatives to government bodies as an essential feature of democracy. Civil society cannot be built right away, but free elections are the basis of democracy and a guarantee against authoritarian rule.

After the euphoria of the first elections in 1989 and the early 1990s the hope that the Duma and regional elections can change the life of the people for the better faded: the results were garbled, seats in the Duma were paid for by big business and criminal bosses, and the people again remained overboard. Today two-thirds of the people do not think their participation in elections will enable them to influence important government decisions influencing their life. The political parties do not reflect the interests of the people and, as a result, only two to three percent of the voters express deep confidence in them, and the same number of voters trust the State Duma.

On the whole, it can be said that the political sentiments of the people in the last decade are characterized by political alienation and a lack of belief in the possibility to influence the adoption of important decisions. This became clear in 2004 and in the beginning of this year when the people firmly demonstrated their opposition to replacing privileges by money.

Twenty years ago Mikhail Gorbachev made a courageous and desperate attempt to reform socialism and replace the totalitarian regime by democratic rule. But neither intellectuals nor ordinary people were ready for radical and quick changes. It turned out that young top officials were more prepared for such changes. They gave up their party posts and went into business. As a result, neither democratic socialism nor liberal capitalism or a law-governed state have been built. Nevertheless, the people have changed a little: they have become less timorous, prepared to accept more economic and political freedom and relying on themselves, rather than on the state.