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From Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, No. 58, 1997.


Renfrey Clarke


Russian Public Opinion in 1997



The embers of the Russian Revolution, whose anniversary was celebrated again this year, have not been totally extinguished. This was evident on 7 November this year (1997), when tens of thousands gathered in Lyubyanka Square in Moscow to commemorate the 1917 revolution and demand an end to the dismantling of the gains the Bolshevik victory brought them.
The size of the demonstration, one of the largest political gatherings of any variety in Moscow in the post-Soviet period, and its obvious militancy provided a further jolt for Russia's rulers after 10 days of the Moscow stock market indices looking like the cardiogram of a fibrillating heart patient.
Meanwhile, sociologists were continuing to chart the disillusionment of Russian citizens with resurrected capitalism.  During the year, there have been a series of illuminating surveys of how Russians now perceive the social system under which they grew up, and the one they currently inhabit.
On October 18, the Moscow daily Segodnya reported: "According to the latest public opinion survey conducted by the Public Opinion Research foundation, only 6 per cent of Russians are convinced that their country is moving in the right direction, while 54 per cent believe that Russia is going the wrong way"'.
In a survey by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTSIOM) in mid-October, 70 per cent of respondents gave the Russian president's policies a general thumbs down. Only 28 per cent indicated support. Earlier, in July 1997, an Institute of the Sociology of Parliamentarism poll found that a bare 11 per cent of those questioned indicated they had confidence in Yeltsin, while 61  per cent replied that they did not.
Where survey questions have addressed concrete "reform" measures, the results have typically been hostile - in the case of one policy critically important for 'the transition to capitalism, overwhelmingly so:  "As many as 58 per cent of Russians are against privatisation (only 25 per cent favour the sale of state property to private owners)", stated the Segodnya report. The article also noted that poll respondents opposed, by 52 to 27 per cent, Yeltsin's demand for dropping all restrictions on the sale and purchase of agricultural land.
The ideological preferences reported by poll respondents are consistent with these findings.  Citing a VTSIOM survey conducted during the summer of 1997, the magazine Interfax  Argumenti  i Fakty stated early in November: "48 per cent of the population prefer socialism, and only 29 per cent claim that the socialist system cannot in principle create normal conditions for the development of the country and its citizens".
Why should a clear plurality of Russians prefer socialism?  During July, the Institute of the Sociology of Parliamentarism found that 58 per cent of those it polled categorised themselves as poor or as "living below the poverty line".  A VTSIOM survey in October found 36 per cent agreeing with the proposition: "The current situation is intolerable". A Public Opinion Foundation poll on October 18 revealed that 58 per cent of employees were owed back wages; 25 per cent had still not received pay from the second quarter of the year.  Sixty per cent of respondents to a VTSIOM poll during the summer said they had lived better under socialism, and only 10 per cent disagreed.
The polls show that most Russians perceive the new capitalist order not just as materially disadvantageous to them, but as morally objectionable as well. When the VTSIOM survey cited by Interfax Argumenty i Fakty asked people which of a variety of possible reasons for poverty in the new Russia they thought were significant, 82 per cent ticked "the economic system" and 65 per cent "unequal opportunities", while 77 per cent thought "laziness and drinking" were important.
The more interesting findings concerned the reasons why people became rich.  Personal "connections" were thought important by 88 per cent of respondents, and "dishonesty" by 76 per cent.  The traditional capitalist virtues were barely in sight: "talents" were thought significant by only 50 per cent of interviewees, and "hard work" by a mere 39 per cent.  This last finding was ironic in view of a complaint persistently voiced by Soviet liberals in the late 1980s  that, because of corruption and "levelling", the Soviet system was failing to reward talent and hard work.  In this respect, it seems, capitalism has brought no improvement. The damning view of the reasons for wealth was not just due to envy.  The responses differed only marginally in the case of interviewees who were themselves high income earners.
When far more Russians want socialism than capitalism, but capitalism is restored all the same, it is obvious that Russian democracy is not all it is made out to be.  But the fact that the electoral process has failed to deliver the popular will is not due just to media-controlling plutocrats. Left forces have squandered enormous political opportunities. By failing to make an honest analysis of the errors and crimes of the past, by enthusiastically embracing Great Russian chauvinism, and above all by leaving little doubt that they crave a stretch of the feed-trough and would quickly be bought off by the capitalists if voted into power, the major groupings on the left have made themselves repellent to big sections of the potential anti-capitalist electorate.
That is not to say that the left has failed to attract new followers.  If elections had been held last July, as the Institute of the Sociology of Parliamentarism poll at that time indicated, the aggregate left vote would have increased from about 31  per cent in the December 1995 elections to about 37 per cent. But this remains strikingly fewer than the number of supporters of socialism, let alone of opponents of privatisation, within the population at large. It is the people in between - the 20 per cent or so who are hostile to the rule of private capital, and who are often conscious socialists but are not moved to support the existing left who can be looked to as the future source of dramatic new trends in Russian politics.
In recent years, masses of Russians have rejected the liberal demonising of the 1917 revolution.  A recent VTSIOM poll indicated that the number of Russians who consider the revolution to have been a historic tragedy has now fallen from 15 per cent in 1992 to just 8 per cent.  The number who think 7 November is a great anniversary worthy of celebrating has risen from 20 per cent to 47 per cent.

The author: Renfrey Clarke lives in Moscow, where he is the correspondent for the Australian Green Left Weekly.