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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Decade of Consciousness

For 10 years now a chorus of politicians, journalists and sociologists has been telling the public a story as simple and appealing as the fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood. The story goes like this: Society was deformed by seven and a half decades of life under the Communist regime. The public consciousness was warped in exactly the same way. And to the extent that a new life takes shape in Russia, that consciousness will change (according to the now much-reviled Karl Marx's famous thesis, existence determines consciousness).

In the fullness of time, society will come to understand the wisdom of liberal reforms. Future generations will be proud to stand up for enterprise, private property and Western values.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the launch of reforms in this country, the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Integrated Social Research, together with the Independent Institute for Social and National Issues, summarized the results of sociological surveys conducted over that period. If the ruling elite and its ideologues have any interest at all in what their own citizens are thinking, they would do well to study this report.

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The public consciousness has most definitely changed -- in what direction is another matter. At the dawn of the reforms more than 63 percent of Soviet citizens supported the idea of private enterprise, and were even prepared to give business a try themselves. Over the next 10 years, during which the ruling elite promoted market values with all the energy of their Communist predecessors, the number of people viewing business favorably dropped to 52.6 percent.

During the 1990s scores of pundits explained that people would have to get used to social inequality. But even here the new propaganda met with only limited success. In a recent poll, 35 percent of respondents said that Russian capitalists were ruthless and exploitative. At the beginning of the reform era only 26 percent were of that view.

The poll results become even more interesting when you look at the issue of property rights. After 10 years of privatization, the public's attitude toward private property is significantly more negative than it was during the Communist era. In fact, the notion of renationalization is finding ever wider support. Eighty-eight percent of the population are in favor of state ownership of the energy sector; 72 percent believe that machine-building plants and foundries should belong to the state. Sixty-three percent of the population now insist the state should exercise exclusive authority over the housing sector. This number has risen dramatically in recent years.

The percentage of the population that supports the liberal market economic model has decreased steadily over the past decade, during which a series of revolving-door governments has been busily constructing that very market economy. In 1994, 12.5 percent of the population backed the liberal model -- a low number in itself, given the nearly unanimous support for this model among the ruling elite. Now popular support for the liberal model has fallen to just 8 percent. The Soviet economic model continues to enjoy the support of 18 percent of those polled. But 37 percent now favor a mixed economic model with a strong state sector.

The most unpleasant surprise for the champions of Russian liberalism is that people's views on political and economic issues vary little with age. Sociologists note that the responses of 18-year-olds and 55-year-olds yield nearly identical results. Social status, not age, now seems to be the leading factor in determining people's attitudes.

Two-thirds of those polled consider Russian-style democracy to be mere window-dressing designed to conceal the authoritarian state beneath ("Democratic processes are nothing but a sham. The country is in fact run by the rich and the powerful".) It doesn't follow, however, that Russian society is incapable of achieving democracy. While the population overwhelmingly rejects liberal economics, it still gives strong support to such basic democratic principles as equality before the law (up from 54 to 83 percent), an independent judiciary (up from 41 to 46 percent), and so on.

It's no wonder the majority of those polled rated the results of reform as unsatisfactory. And if our chief criterion for determining the success of reform is not loyalty to the system, but rather people's capacity to think critically and to draw their own conclusions despite the constant din of propaganda, then the polls paint a rather optimistic picture. Ten years have not passed in vain.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.