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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Public Opinion Isn't Divided; It's Schizoid

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Public opinion polls in Russia are a hopeless matter. Each year Russian sociologists conduct complex research into the public mind, and in each study we are told that Russians do not want to choose between the two evils that politicians and intellectuals are always putting in front of them.

You get the impression that we live in a land of strange people. About one-quarter of the population has leftist or communist views. Slightly fewer hold "liberal" values. No matter what happens in the country, these figures stubbornly refuse to change. Over the course of nearly a decade of "liberal reform," the number of liberals has decreased slightly, but not dramatically. The most important thing to note is that the overall number of people who have clearly defined ideological views is becoming smaller and smaller.

So, what about the majority?

Most just want to be happy. That means that they are categorically opposed to nationalization while at the same time thinking that most privatized enterprises should be immediately returned to the state without any compensation. They believe in a free market, but only under the condition that the government maintain strict price controls. They fear inflation, but advocate sharply increased state spending and sharply reduced taxes.

Only at first glance would you think that they support a mixed economy. In reality they are definitely for certain principles. The problem is that these principles are mutually exclusive. The people long for radical change, but are deathly afraid of revolution. For this reason, they esteem Stalin more than Lenin and Leonid Brezhnev more than Boris Yeltsin.

They are for a firm hand that is unrestricted by laws or "formalities." At the same time, they value liberty and oppose even the smallest violations of civil rights. They seem to want to see a Pinochet, Ivan the Terrible or Stalin running Russia, but only if strict constitutional limits are observed. And without mass repression. Although, some people should be arrested …

Of course, it is easy to make fun of this confusion. A lot of this kind of "analysis" is unfair, especially concerning economic issues. After all, there are ways of increasing state spending without significantly increasing taxes and there are ways of expanding the public sector that don’t amount to nationalization.

However, it is hard to imagine a harsh dictatorship that guarantees personal liberties.

The problem is not so much the contradictions — Russia is not the only society with such views — but the fact that the people don’t seem to acknowledge their existence or their scale.

Society is disoriented, but won’t admit it. During Soviet times, we were con-ditioned to believe the authorities could do anything. We have come to believe that any policy can be implemented if the politicians really want to.

In other words, the public not only desires completely contradictory things, but also is fundamentally convinced that the government is capable of doing this if only it can muster the will. The so-called "Putin effect" can be explained by the fact that he originally presented himself to the nation as someone who really can be everything to everyone. He was supposed to be simultaneously a pitiless dictator and a confirmed democrat; a believer in the free market and a leader capable of controlling the smallest detail of each enterprise in the country.

Already, though, this image is coming under question from both liberals and communists. For now, most of his support comes from people without ideological views. The pro-Kremlin Unity faction is designed precisely as a party without ideology in order to reach this group.

Unfortunately, a party without an ideology is capable of winning power but not of ruling effectively. It is Putin’s fate that he will create crises with any action he takes.

And he will create crises if he fails to act as well. After all, society can’t wait forever.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.