Staunton, June 16 – Social networks among Russians have grown and deepened over the last two years, according to a poll conducted by the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, thus creating the basis for the rise of civil society and more protests by making Russians less dependent on the state.
In a commentary on this 6,000-person poll in “Vedomosti” yesterday, Ekaterina Schulmann of that academy says that this, not the responses to explicitly political questions, is the survey’s most important finding. (For the poll, see ranepa.ru/about-the-academy/consulting-services/evrobarometr.html; for her analysis, vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2015/06/16/596463-lyudi-stanovyatsya-blizhe).
“The least valuable part of the research,” she says, “is its political block. Much more important is that portion devoted to how people assess their own lives and what they would like to change. And within that, the most significant concerns changes in “social capital” with “the growth of so-called strong and weak social ties.”
Put in simplest terms, Schulmann says, “’strong ties’” are defined by the researches as those which exist between people who could ask each other for a loan or take a vacation together, while “’weak’” ones are those in which the participants feel free to ask for a recommendation for a job or for a child in school.
It is of course “difficult to say how realistically citizens asses the strength of their ties and their extent and how closely their ideas correspond to reality.” But “what is important is something else: in comparison with the result of 2012,” respondents say that now, “the number of their strong social links has doubled, and the number of weak ones gone up by 1.5 times.”
“The importance of this fact for social and economic self-assessment of people is enormous,” Schulmann says. The study’s authors seek to link this trend with what they call “’political optimism,’” but in fact, “there is nothing political in this optimism” and it does not speak to public attitudes toward the leadership of the country.
“People who feel themselves part of a social network think that they can get by without the state: their feeling of subjective well-being is growing not because they are well led but because they have become more confident in themselves,” Schulmann continues. And that is explained by “a different correlation.”
That is the one “between the growth in the number of ties and the reduction of trust in government institutions,” and consequently, the reason for such a rapid growth in the number of social ties “is not state policy” which in fact has “destroyed any chance for legal political and social activity.” Instead, it lies elsewhere.
Specifically, it is a product of the joint impact of relative material well-being over the last decade “and the corresponding growth of labor and residential mobility and new information technologies” like mobile phones, Skype and online social networks, according to the Moscow scholar.
“It is difficult to overrate the importance of this trend,” she says, because it shows that the social atomization of Soviet times is being overcome. “Post-Soviet citizens like graduates of children’s homes and jails knew a lot which an individual shouldn’t know,” but they lacked “the basic habits of social life which are based not on a struggle of all against all … but on cooperation and the exchange of services and trust.”
Such a growth in horizontal ties provides “the substrate out of which grows civil society” rather than as some imagine from “’correct values’ or democratic convictions.” Those are “secondary,” she says.
And here lies a paradox, Schulmann argues, that “all political regimes of a semi-authoritarian type encounter.” Such feelings of community “make people at one and the same time braver and happier” and that means they are pleased with much that is happening but are ready and able to protest against what they don’t like.
Many Russians to this day accept the “vulgarized Marxist myth” that “only ‘people driven to despair’ protest. In fact, for protest, one needs resources: the starving do not take part in political life but rather look for food.” With the growth of ties, Russians are acquiring some of the resources needed to protest.
But there is a problem: “the political regime does not foresee any legal mechanisms of civic activity: neither protest not expressions of loyalty. Therefore, it suppresses the first and imitates the second even though it could incorporate both one and the other if it were a little more open and democratic.”
How will the Kremlin respond? Schulmann asks rhetorically, suggesting that “Each hybrid seeks its own methods, but they reduce nonetheless to two [opposing] strategies: resist and collapse or adapt and democratize.”