Autarky in the Collective Consciousness

September 26, 2022
  • Vladimir Zvonovsky 

    PhD in sociology, Professor at Samara State University of Economics

Using survey data collected in the Samara region, sociologist Vladimir Zvonovsky examines Russians’ views on the impacts of western sanctions and whether they believe the economy can become more self-sufficient.

Figure 1. The share of supporters and opponents of economic autarky among respondents (N=1000, August 2022, Samara region.). Chart data: international cooperation 28%, self-sufficiency 53%, undecided 19%.
Samara is one of Russia’s largest regions. Located along the middle reaches of the Volga River, it hosts around 2.5% of the country’s population.

Now that Russian goods and businesses have become toxic in the West, Russia needs to devise new strategies for engaging the outside world. Of course, a year ago, 10 years ago, and even 20 years ago there was a widespread belief among Russians that they can do everything on their own and that nothing stands in their way.

However, today this idea is invigorated not only by a sense of self-confidence, but also by a resentment towards Western countries that have ended cooperation with Russia in a number of economic areas. Of course, regardless of sanctions, some Russians find armed conflict in a neighboring country unacceptable, and they do not support Russia's actions in Ukraine. However, when distant political events begin to intrude into people’s everyday lives, their assessments of these events change.

The majority for autarky

A survey of 1,000 adults in the Samara region conducted in late August by the Social Research Foundation ( reveals that approximately every second (53%) resident of the region believes “economic development in the country depends largely on self-sufficiency.” Slightly more than a quarter (28%) of respondents believe that developing "cooperation with other countries" brings positive benefits even in today’s prevailing circumstances. Another 19% were unable to give a definite answer. As we can see, for every respondent who supports economic cooperation with foreign countries, there are almost two more who favor autarky.
The most frequently citied examples of autarkic countries are North Korea and Iran. Although North Korea is the most striking example, its economy is very marginal and has had virtually no influence on either economic theory or practice. Meanwhile, Iran’s leadership has never argued that economic isolation is good for the country. 

The idea of autarky originated among ancient Greek philosophers, such as Democritus, Aristotle, Plato, and it was especially popular with the Stoics. Mercantilist economic theorists of the 16th and 17th centuries also wrote about autarky, though at the time the idea did not gain much of a following. Autarky later underwent a revival during the period of totalitarian rule by Mussolini and Hitler, though this economic policy of self-sufficiency later acquired a negative connotation after it was condemned by the Nuremberg Tribunal as designed for launching wars of aggression. In contrast, the formation of the European Union was based on strengthening economic interconnection and interdependence between European nations since theorists argued that economically dependent countries would not go to war with each other. 

Russia’s political leadership has never been able to form a coherent position on sanctions. Sometimes leaders say that western sanctions are good for the economy, while at other times they consider them harmful and damaging. Nevertheless, the majority of respondents to the survey conducted in Samara now view Russia’s isolation as a boon for economic development.

Support for autarky is greater among older generations of respondents. For every one supporter of international economic cooperation, there are three more who believe self-sufficiency is more important (20% and 61% respectively). Among young generations, the situation is somewhat different, where 37% support cooperation and 48% self-sufficiency. 

Lived experience can partly explain varying responses among different generational cohorts. Older generations of Russians lived their formative years during the Soviet period, which many today still regard as a high point in the country’s history. Back then, the Soviet Union was under only limited sanctions, but it focused resources on domestic production and consumption, as well as trade among members of the so-called socialist commonwealth. 

In contrast, young people are more ambitious and outgoing than older generations. They are interested in exploring what lies beyond the familiar and less likely to limit themselves to their own country and culture. 

How does professional background influence views on autarky? 

Greater international exposure has a significant impact on an individual’s beliefs about economic cooperation between countries. Employees of state enterprises and government institutions are more likely to favor economic self-sufficiency than individuals working in the private sector. And it is largely private sector enterprises that work with other private, and to varying degrees, foreign companies (58% and 49% respectively). 
“An individual’s professional experience matters. The greater exposure they have to foreign companies, the less likely they are to value economic self-sufficiency."
Figure 2. The share of supporters and opponents of economic autarky across job types (N=1000, August 2022, Samara region). Chart data (left to right): public sector, private sector, automotive industry, oil refinement, construction; legends: international cooperation, undecided, self-sufficiency.
Support for economic autarky depends considerably on the sector in which a person is employed. For example, workers in Samara’s automotive industry, which has experienced a recent exit of foregin carmakers, are more supportive of economic self-sufficiency than others (62%). Among those working in the oil-refining industry (Samara is home to six large oil refineries) the ratio of respondents who are confident and those who are doubtful about the positive benefits of isolation is 35% and 40% respectively. Although, these figures may just be a coincidence. They may be influenced by the fact that Russia’s automotive industry already feels the impact of western sanctions, whereas sanctions aimed directly against Russia’s oil industry will take effect only in winter. In other words, respondents who are employed in sectors where foreign partners have already severed ties with Russian companies are less likely to support economic cooperation.
Figure 3. The share of supporters and opponents of economic autarky among those experiencing work difficulties (N=1000, August 2022, Samara region.). Chart data (top down): Work suspension without pay, furlough, reduced wages, unpaid leave, reduced hours; legend: self-sufficiency, undecided, international cooperation.
The role of propaganda

More significant is the role that propaganda plays in the formation of an individual’s views on Russia’s isolation. This should not be surprising since people are informed about the situation in the country through expert analysis that is broadcasted in the media. If a person trusts assessments made by pro-government and state media, then he or she is more certain about the potential for a more domestically-oriented economy. On the other hand, if a person distrusts state media and seeks out alternative sources of information often restricted by the state, then he or she has doubts about the claimed strength of Russia’s economy.

Every second resident of Samara (50%) who has circumvented web restrictions by installing a VPN believes that Russia should work to cooperate with other countries. Among those who do not use a VPN, only about half (28%) think the same. The share of respondents (20%) supporting cooperation is even smaller among those who do not receive any information through the internet. As we can see, those who turn to many sources of information are less supportive of economic self-sufficiency in some pure form and more confident about the importance of international cooperation.

Although economic isolation and western sanctions have yet to impact a broad swath of Russia’s population, some residents of Samara have already faced challenges in the labor market. These new challenges have respondents convinced that continued economic cooperation with other countries is necessary. Those who have faced reduced work hours, furlough, or unpaid leave in recent months are far more likely to favor cooperation. These respondents probably attribute problems with their own job situation to broader changes in the economy and labor market that have occurred since February 24.

Those who assume that international cooperation works to the benefit of Russia are also more likely to insist on a quick and peaceful resolution to the conflict with Ukraine.
Among those who believe Russia should start peaceful negotiations with Ukraine, more than half believe that the country needs close economic cooperation with other nations."
For those who support continued military intervention, 15% believe the same, while almost five times as many (71%) favor self-sufficiency.

Socio-demographic factors (age, occupation, and sector) do not influence views on the need for international cooperation as much as propaganda or recent changes in the economy, especially in those sectors where western sanctions are already having an impact.
Figure 4. Confidence in Russia’s ability to substitute foreign goods and services that are no longer available (N=1000, August 2022, Samara region.). Chart data (top down): household chemicals, food products, personal hygiene products, construction materials, industrial equipment, aircraft & parts, drugs & medical supplies, consumer appliances & electronics, automobiles & parts, medical equipment.
In which industries is self-sufficiency most achievable?

Above all, respondents believe that the greatest potential for economic self-sufficiency is in agriculture and the food industry (93%), household chemicals production (92%), and in the production of personal hygiene products (91%). 

Respondents find it hardest to believe that Russia can effectively produce its own medical equipment (52%), as well as cars and auto parts (54%). However, the majority thinks that self-sufficiency in basic manufacturing industries is achievable. Of course, respondents are not experts, so their views reflect media perceptions rather than the real capabilities of Russia’s economy. 

Respondents who hold managerial positions at firms, manage their own business, or who work as farmers are likely to be more informed about economic realities than respondents with different professional backgrounds. So, looking at this group, we notice comparatively more reserved views regarding Russia’s ability to move towards greater economic self-sufficiency. Among managers, only 42% believe that domestic producers can replace imported goods in the automotive market, compared to 54% of all respondents. For domestically produced consumer electronics these figures are 48% and 59% respectively, and for medical equipment 43% and 52%. 

As we see, respondents whose professional background should make them more informed on economic and business issues hold more reserved views about the potential for import substitution. Qualified specialists express a similar kind of skepticism.
More than any other group, non-working pensioners believe in the potential for import substitution."
Figure 5. Confidence in Russia’s ability to substitute foreign goods and services across professional groups (N=1000, August 2022, Samara region.). Chart data (top down): medical equipment, automobiles & parts, consumer appliances & electronics, drugs & medical supplies, aircraft & parts, industrial equipment; legend (top down): specialists, managers, all.
In other words, relatively high levels of optimism are expressed among those who have the least contact with business and economic activity, whereas those who are more involved in everyday decision making in firms and other enterprises are more skeptical.

As mentioned before, those working in the private sector are more skeptical about the prospects for import substitution than those employed in the public sector. A similar trend is observed based on respondents’ educational attainment. Respondents with a degree in higher education are less likely to be optimistic about the prospects of import substitution. Put differently, those who have knowledge and experience working in the modern economy express greater doubts about economic development without cooperation with other countries. 
The younger a person is, the less confident he or she is that Russia can substitute Western products and services."
Figure 6. Confidence in Russia’s ability to substitute foreign goods and services based on how respondents consume information (N=1000, August 2022, Samara region.). Chart data (top down): medical equipment, automobiles & parts, consumer appliances & electronics, drugs & medical supplies, aircraft & parts, industrial equipment; legend: uses a VPN, does not use internet, all.
Differences across age groups are partly due to variations in lived experience. As mentioned before, older generations of Russians lived in considerable isolation during the Soviet Period. Meanwhile, younger generations, who have always lived with an abundance of imported western goods and services, feel the impact of economic isolation more acutely.  

Ordinary Russians who are uninterested in the fine details of economic policy draw their assessments on the state of the country’s economy from two sources: first, the situation at their place of work, and two, information received from mass media. The first source was already highlighted above. Regarding the second, it can be argued that access to independent media, which compete for consumers’ attention, shapes a respondent's views about the prospects of important substitution.

Among respondents who indicate having no access to the internet, the share of import substitution optimists is significantly higher than among those who do have access and use a VPN when browsing the internet. Among respondents who do not use the internet, the share of those confident in the ability of Russian companies to produce their own medical equipment is 68%. In contrast, among those who use a VPN the figure is 33%. Likewise, 70% of respondents who do not use the internet believe Russia’s automotive industry can be self-sufficient. Again, for VPN users, the figure is only 27%. As we see, greater access to independent sources of information is related to weaker confidence in important substitution. 

Russia’s “collective consciousness” bases assumptions about import substitution not on economic reasoning, but on a political logic advanced by the government. Likewise, how respondents assess this political logic determines their views on how the economy is likely to develop moving into the future. 

Therefore, we see that among respondents who believe hostilities against Ukraine should be continued, 61% are confident that import substitution in Russia’s automotive industry will be a success. While among those who favor peaceful negotiations, only 44% believe substitution will succeed. In other words,
“The confidence Russians have in their country’s future economic potential is largely determined by the extent to which they support the political leadership and its policies."
This study reveals that self-sufficiency as an idea is shared most by those social groups who themselves no longer actively participate in the country’s economy (non-working pensioners and people over the age of 60). Whereas those who have the most exposure to everyday realities in business and industry (i.e., managers and qualified specialists) are more likely to favor international economic cooperation.

Greater trust in state propaganda is also strongly related to support of autarky. While those who distrust state media, as indirectly evidenced by the use of VPNs, are more likely to favor economic cooperation with other countries.

The effects of sanctions and the departure of large western companies from Russia vary in their influence over whether an individual supports autarky. In those sectors where foreign companies have already left, like in automobile manufacturing, autarky is supported, but probably reluctantly so. And where sanctions are not yet making an impact, such as in oil refining, the share of respondents who oppose economic isolation is greater than the regional average. 

However, among respondents who face work difficulties, such as reduced hours, furlough, or unpaid leave, we see fewer people who support autarky.
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