What Russians think

What has alarmed the dean of anti-Soviet academics, the famous Richard Pipes of Harvard University?

Professor Pipes, an ardent opponent of communism, has been aroused from his retirement by a number of polls taken to gauge what the Russian people think and want. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs (May/June 2004) titled “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want,” Pipes expresses deep regret that the Russian people continue to reject the Western economic and political model while yearning to restore Soviet power. Despite his best efforts, unparalleled propaganda, corruption, and subversion, the Russian people still reject the bitter pill of Western bourgeois democracy and capitalism.

“Democracy is widely viewed as a fraud,” Pipes reports. “There is a prevalent perception that Russia’s politics have been ‘privatized’ and controlled by powerful clans. Seventy-eight percent of respondents in a 2003 survey said that democracy is a façade for a government controlled by rich and powerful cliques. Only 22 percent expressed a preference for democracy, whereas 53 percent positively disliked it.” We should add that in this survey the Russians are not rejecting Soviet democracy, but Western bourgeois democracy.

With disgust, Pipes notes, “Russian attitudes towards private enterprise and property rights are hardly more positive. … Eighty-four percent of those surveyed in a poll published in January 2004, for example, said that wealth in Russia can only be acquired through connections. Four out of five respondents stated that the inequalities in wealth in modern Russia are excessive and illegitimate, and most blamed the country’s widespread poverty on an unjust economic system.” It would seem that these former Soviet peoples retain a profound understanding of capitalism despite the best efforts of the West and the Russians’ current misleaders.

“Only a quarter or so of Russians regard private property as an important human right,” Pipes adds. And “polling data indicate that slightly more than half the population considers the nonpayment of debts and shoplifting to be ‘fully acceptable’ behavior.” Another poll recorded that 72 percent of Russians wanted to restrict “private economic activity.” Obviously communitarian values remain very deeply embedded in the Russian people.

“Asked in 1999 to list the 10 greatest men of all times and nations, respondents named nine Russians. (The only foreigner was Napoleon, presumably because he was defeated on Russian soil.) The first five people on the list were Peter the Great, Lenin, Pushkin, Stalin, and the astronaut Iurii Gagarin,” reports Pipes.

While it is difficult to say with certainty without knowing the polling methodology, these results appear disappointingly nationalistic. One would have hoped that the Russian people would have retained more of the internationalist spirit of the Soviet era. Nonetheless, it is revealing that three of the five “greatest men” were from the Soviet period, with Lenin remaining the most revered figure of modern times. Pushkin, of course, was of African-Russian descent, a fact proudly emphasized in the Soviet era. The so-called “democrats” of the counterrevolution are noticeably missing from the list.

Again quoting Pipes: “These findings help explain why so many Russians – 74 percent in one poll – regret the Soviet Union’s passing. … Another survey, conducted toward the end of 2000, asked Russian citizens whether they considered the present regime or the one that had preceded it to be ‘legitimate, popular, and their own.’ Fully one-third applied these adjectives to the Soviet Union, a regime that had ceased to exist nine years earlier. Only 12 percent regarded the post-communist regime as ‘legitimate,’ and only 2 percent called it ‘their own.’”

These results not only confirm the high esteem still held towards the Soviet system, but pose a serious challenge to liberal democratic theory. How can Russian elections be proclaimed free, fair, and impartial by Western observers when only 12 percent of the electorate declares the regime to be legitimate?

“[I]t is not surprising,” Pipes concludes, “that when asked in an October 2003 survey how they would react if the Communists staged a coup, 23 percent of respondents said they would actively support it, 19 would collaborate with the insurgents, 27 percent would try to survive, 16 percent would emigrate, and only 10 percent would actively resist.” Imagine the results if the pollsters had foregone the negative term “coup” and used the less pejorative terms “revolution” or “general strike”! Once again, these poll results show how the values of socialism and Soviet life are deeply rooted among Russians.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.