‘Life Has Become Better, Life Has Become Happier’: Why are Russians More Optimistic than Before the War?
April 26, 2024
  • Sergei Shelin 

    Journalist, independent analyst
Journalist Sergei Shelin offers his explanation of why Russians are more positive than before the war and confident about the future, despite the ongoing fighting and hardening Western sanctions. He warns that this perceived “era of prosperity” is fragile.
The original text in Russian was published in The Moscow Times and is being republished here with their permission.

After two years of war, the average Russian, according to every pollster, is quite satisfied with his life.

The land of happiness

In March 2024, the so-called well-being index measured by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which reflects people’s life satisfaction, as well as their happiness and social self-esteem, reached its highest levels in years, including before the war. Thirty-six percent of Russians surveyed identified themselves as extremely happy and only 5% as extremely unhappy.

In interviews with FOM, 58% of respondents reported that their family, friends and colleagues are at ease, with only 34% noting anxiety. Such an optimistic ratio has not been seen for quite some time. (The measurements above were taken before the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack, which, naturally, frightened many, yet even just two weeks after the ratio of “at ease” versus “anxious” did not change dramatically – 49% to 44%.)

Guarded optimism also prevails in Russians’ assessment of their personal financial situation. As many as 29% of those surveyed by FOM expect it to improve in the coming year, versus only 10% anticipating a deterioration. Back during peacetime, among the broad masses there was no such confidence in the future.

Eighty-four percent of those surveyed by VTsIOM add that they are generally satisfied with their job. The state pollster summarized the data in broad strokes as follows: “the Russian who is satisfied with his job has a good income, is fairly young and has attained a high level of education. Meanwhile, the Russian who is dissatisfied with his current job is characterized by older age, a poor financial situation and education below a specialized secondary level.”

Today’s Russia, it seems, is a country of happy people, who are relaxed, prosperous, advanced and satisfied with what they see when they look around.

The secret of joy

How to explain this? “Stable demand for labor is the most important positive factor in reducing anxiety and increasing people’s life satisfaction,” concluded researchers at RANEPA based on a February survey.

This actually explains a lot. The war eliminated unemployment as a factor affecting people. Technically, unemployment persists: in February 2024, according to ILO methodology, there were 2.1 million unemployed people in Russia (66.2% of the pre-war, February 2022 level).

However, the fact is that for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost anyone seriously looking for a job can find one in a matter of weeks. True, only 40% of those surveyed by the RANEPA researchers reported that it is now easy to find a job. Yet this figure is much higher than before, with doubts, if expressed at all, due to inertia.
The war did not simply boost the bargaining power of employees vis-à-vis employers. It also opened up a lot of unexpected opportunities for enterprising and hardworking people.
Deposits by individuals were up 26.1% year-on-year in February 2024. Pictured is a Sberbank branch in Yekaterinburg. Source: Wiki Commons
“The demand for labor has increased significantly in import-substituting industries seeking to occupy market niches after the exit of foreign firms from the country,” Central Bank analysts note. “There is a migration of labor between industries. An outflow of workers is going on from trade, services and agriculture to manufacturing and construction.”

The analysts also did not fail to note the “influx of internal labor migrants to the new regions due to higher wages; in particular, there was an influx of people employed in construction and agriculture, as well as drivers and loaders.”

Anyone who wants to make a lot of money fast knows where to do it.

But recently conquered [Ukrainian] territory is not the only place. In a way, Moscow also became a “new region” after hundreds of thousands of skilled workers emigrated. Each departure is a vacancy for a talented person from the provinces.

Besides Moscow and the “new regions,” the areas surrounding Moscow and St Petersburg (Moscow and Leningrad regions, respectively) are now particularly attractive for internal labor migration, as many enterprises working for the war are located there, not to mention oil and gas producing regions. Overall, the country is split: 43 of Russia’s regions recorded an influx of workers in 2023, while 42 saw an outflow.
Most of the migrants left Siberia and the Far East. The war-related bonanza did not reach them.
Trophies are not shared

The benefits clearly do not accrue to everyone. Whereas the real wages of workers at “organizations” in February 2024 were up 9.2% versus the last pre-war month, real public pensions over the same period increased only 3.0%.

Taking into account Rosstat’s tradition of embellishing data, let’s assume that pensions remained approximately the same as before the war, while wages (at least at “organizations,” i.e., large and medium-sized enterprises) visibly went up.

Intuitively, wages rose faster in industries that work for the war (machinery, computer production, chemicals, metallurgy and construction), as well as food production. Meanwhile, they likely rose slower than average in science, education, medicine and social services. Still, perhaps not a single major category of workers can say that their income has fallen.

So-called inflation perceptions have also changed favorably in recent months. Most Russians agree that prices are not rising so fast anymore.

As for perceptions of state largesse, the less a respondent relies on it, the better he speaks of it. For example, rich households are much more likely (51%) than poor ones (32%) to believe in the effectiveness of Putin’s latest program of cash subsidies for big families. Russians who can realistically apply for this money look at it more soberly than those who need it less.

Indeed, the increased loyalty to a belligerent, archaic and reckless regime on the part of wealthy and successful people is a phenomenon that has not yet been fully explained.

But really: business is now sort of booming, the entertainment industry has gone into overdrive and the atmosphere in the country is relatively relaxed – it can easily be mistaken for normal life. Ukrainian attacks near the border seriously worry only a small percentage of Russians, while the terrorist attack at Crocus seems to be an exception to the rule for now.

Let us not downplay the importance of flashy undertakings, which remind the public of the regime’s power, pomp and strategic robustness. One such undertaking is the obviously unprofitable high-speed railway between Moscow and St Petersburg, for which Putin recently ordered financing and the start of construction of which was marked with ceremonies.

The high-speed railway has a history going back decades, with each successive attempt to build it ending up a mess where courts had to figure out how much was stolen and by whom. But for now the grand reboot of this expensive, long-term civilian project is helping Russians feel like prosperous subjects of a self-confident world power.

Behind the facade of optimism

Few people in Russia are aware of the dubiousness of this bonanza.
Neither the regime nor the Russian economy has and cannot have the resources to simultaneously wage war and actually improve the quality and standard of living.
Evacuation from a flooded area. Orenburg Region. April 2024.
Source: Wiki Commons
The promotion of ostentatious projects like the high-speed railway masks a general decline in real spending on infrastructure, renovation and other long-term needs. In some places, such as where flooding happened in Orenburg and neighboring regions, the decline of vital infrastructure is already manifesting itself, though the full effect will be felt only in a few years’ time.

The feeling of general satisfaction – which, though aggressively transmitted from above, is actually experienced by many – helps Russians not to see the gap between their own growing incomes and a stagnant supply of goods and services.

Only in February 2024 did retail sales, excluding seasonal factors, get back above the pre-war level, but just barely and most likely only thanks to help from Rosstat. In addition, there is now less new housing than before the war (again, excluding seasonality).
Construction of a new Vkusno i tochka restaurant in Tyumen, May 2023. The sign says "Opening soon. We're hiring". Source: Wiki Commons
Only food service is actually up (growing 14% since the war started). But increased trips to Vkusno i tochka (the rebranded McDonald’s in Russia – RP) could not obscure the stagnation in every other segment if Russians really wanted to see it. At least for now, Russians are not fixated on it and rather are behaving like optimists, confident in the future.

An unsure person who does not expect anything good in the future would now rush to spend his higher earnings. But the average Russian expects good things and is therefore calmly saving the extra money for the future. In fact, he is giving it back to the state.

In February, deposits by individuals were up 26.1% from a year earlier. This is the biggest growth on record. Recipients of “contract money” (for serving as a contract soldier – RP), military payments and burial benefits have surprisingly turned out to be quite thrifty. In the regions that supply the biggest numbers of soldiers, deposits jumped even more: in Tuva by 73%, in Sevastopol by 51% and in Buryatia by 38%.
In fact, this is a voluntary war bond. Russians are limiting their spending and handing over their money to the authorities without realizing the riskiness of this financial exchange. Just like they do not realize the fragility of their current prosperity.”
The regime is planning to spend the nation’s savings on itself and is now thinking about how to get its hands on it.

Ordinary citizens’ calm faith in the future is attributable to the fact that they have forgotten the panic that gripped them the autumn before last, when mobilization was announced. Yet Putin can call a new round of mobilization tomorrow.

The decline in anxiety and rise in life satisfaction, driven by the higher demand for labor, can be wiped out by a single order from the leader. Should he suddenly decide to wage a more total war, then the current labor shortage will be solved by bonding workers to enterprises. Their newfound sense of self-worth will simply be abolished.

The current widespread satisfaction is paradoxical. After the mobilization experiment of the first year of the war, the regime temporarily stopped testing the obedience of its subjects. Gullible subjects have perceived this respite as the beginning of an era of prosperity that cannot be overturned and begun to behave accordingly.

This peace can be canceled at any moment – or it will simply fall apart by itself. But while it lasts, it looks very durable.
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