Times Сhange, But Problems Worrying Ordinary Russians Stay The Same
November 16, 2023
  • Lev Gudkov
    Academic supervisor of the Levada Center

Based on years of public opinion surveys, Levada Center sociologist Lev Gudkov discusses what problems in the country most worry Russians and how they have changed throughout the post-Soviet period.

The original text in Russian appeared in Gorby and is being republished here with the author’s permission.

For 25-30 years, the Levada Center has been asking Russians at least twice a year what they consider to be the most pressing and worrying problems in the country.
Each time, the list turned out rather long – with 30 or more items, including:

  • the inability to obtain justice in Russian courts;
  • pollution;
  • rising tuition for education and hurdles to obtaining a decent education;
  • the influx of migrants;
  • the abuse of power by officials;
  • the harshness and brutality of police;
  • culture in decline;
  • bad roads.

Unlike experts, politicians and technocrats – who all understand the word “problem” to mean something that should be resolved – the masses see a “problem” as the dismal state of a certain sphere of public life.

The average person considers certain circumstances a “problem” when he or she looks at them from the standpoint of a desired, but practically unattainable state. The tension lies in the fact that the “desired” is not something fanciful, but rather something that corresponds to his or her ideas about “normal life,” about what is proper and just.

The understanding that attaining this “normal life” is impossible paralyzes his or her willingness to do something to change the current situation. One can blame the people themselves for this, attributing it to “learned helplessness;” however, a more serious explanation is that most of the “problems” reported in sociological surveys cannot be resolved with the tools available to the population.

The state has a monopoly on the technical capabilities and the resources for resolving them. Thus, each of the problems noted by respondents contains a hidden appeal to the authorities as the only force capable of improving the situation, on the one hand, as well as a reproach aimed at them (“look how poorly you govern us”), on the other.

At the same time, it is taken for granted that people themselves – by organizing, by creating political pressure on the authorities in elections, by taking part in the activities of parties and public organizations – cannot drive change for the better. Indeed, one can only hope for the best, appealing to the good will of the state’s rulers.

The table below shows the results of sociological surveys taken in 2023 in which Russians were asked about the most pressing problems in the country.
Each of the problems mentioned by respondents represents a bundle of questions and reasons for concern. For example:

  • The special military operation forces people to think about the loss of life, destruction, mobilization, the uncertainty of the outcome of the confrontation with the West, the consequences of sanctions and bans, and what would happen if the hostilities were move to Russian territory (few people can completely suppress thoughts about explosions, terrorist attacks and shelling happening in the regions bordering Ukraine).
  • Unemployment, a particularly relevant problem for young people outside of Moscow and St Petersburg, fuses, on the one hand, with the impossibility of social advancement, changing your consumption and lifestyle, and obtaining a quality education (it is a vicious circle – limited personal and family resources and high tuition are barriers to mobility and obtaining good work), and on the other hand, with chronic social depression, drug addiction, alcoholism, jealousy, aggression, etc.
  • The inaccessibility of medicine, understandably, is of greater concern to older people, especially women.

All of these are not separate causes for concern, but a system of interconnected problems, with the rise of some anxieties leading (as in communicating vessels) to a decline in others or their fading into the background.

Looking back, you see that over these decades it was not so much the set of problems noted by Russians that changed, but their perceived acuteness and intensity –worry and anxiety caused by the awareness of their own helplessness; their inability to deal with the problems on their own; their reliance on the state to address them and/or the state’s failure to help.

Yet some things clearly changed. Today, respondents very rarely report arrears with wages or pensions (in the mid-90s, 67% of respondents reported them), the closing of enterprises (41%) and the weakness or helplessness of the state (in 1998 this was considered a pressing problem by 37% of respondents).

Fears about crime are going away (declining from 48–50% in the late 1990s to 8% in 2014-16).

The threat of illness and death from Covid or AIDS has decreased (only 13% mentioned it this year). Compared to the early 2000s, the perceived likelihood of losing your job has halved, with the share of responses about unemployment decreasing from 40% to 16% (March 2023). Moreover, the nature of the problem has changed: the fear of losing your existing job has been replaced by that of being unable to find a new job that meets your expectations, which is noted mainly by respondents from rural areas and small or medium-sized cities.
Whereas in 2009 the economy was considered the most pressing problem by 45% of respondents, today (in August 2023) the figure is 13%. Still, over 25 years the average share of respondents who consider the state of the economy, industry and agriculture to be bad is 32% (!), making it a dominant feature of the mass consciousness, no matter how much the authorities claim otherwise.

The ingrained consciousness that the “crisis in the economy” is not an event, but rather a process in which we have been living for the last 35 years has given way to new anxieties – in particular, the special military operation and the impact of the confrontation with the rest of the world, the country’s isolation and sanctions.

Since 2018, anger has remained over the pension reform (when the pension age was raised). Meanwhile, it seems that people are least concerned about such problems as restrictions on freedom, violations of human rights, state censorship and the like (they are mentioned by 4-7% of respondents), though this is not the absolute number of people who are concerned, but only a reflection of priorities – the hierarchy of the most pressing problems in the lives of different population groups.

Whatever the dynamics and fluctuations of individual “problems,” there are several themes that are cross-cutting and have not left the consciousness of most people throughout all the years of sociological research.

  • The list is invariably topped by “rising prices and tariffs” (mentioned by 70%, an absolute majority of Russians).
  • In second place is “poverty, broad impoverishment” (51%).
  • Third place is taken by “unemployment” (34%), followed by “corruption, bribe-taking” (31%).
From the chart we see: the mass consciousness is dominated by worries about chronically unresolved problems from everyday life.

Even though 25 years is one and a half generations, the nature of the challenges facing an ordinary, “small” person has not changed during this period.

In our picture of public opinion, which is based on what Russians themselves say, there is not a trace of concern about the threat posed by the “Russophobic” West and its harmful influence, the danger of the loss of “traditional values” or other ideological horror stories and myths peddled by the state and its propaganda.
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