Cover image for Out of Order: Russian Political Values in an Imperfect World By Ellen Carnaghan

Out of Order

Russian Political Values in an Imperfect World

Ellen Carnaghan


$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02974-0

344 pages
6" × 9"

Out of Order

Russian Political Values in an Imperfect World

Ellen Carnaghan

“Are the Russian people responsible for Russia’s move away from democracy? Carnaghan’s book shows that the Russian people seek an orderly society, but not a new dictatorship.”


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  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
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One common explanation for the failure of democracy to take root in Russia more quickly and more thoroughly than it has points to inherited cultural values that predispose Russian citizens to favor an autocratic type of governance. Ellen Carnaghan takes aim at this cultural-determinist thesis in her study of Russian attitudes, based on intensive interviews with more than sixty citizens from all walks of life and a variety of political orientations.

What she finds is that, rather than being influenced by an antidemocratic and anticapitalist ideology, these ordinary citizens view the economic and political system in Russia today very critically because it simply does not function well for them in meeting their everyday needs. They long for order not because they eschew democracy and free markets in any fundamental way, but because they experience them currently as chaotic and unpredictable, leading to constant frustration. As a result, there is reason to be optimistic about further progress in democratization: it depends on improving the functioning of existing institutions, not transforming deep-rooted cultural norms.

In the Conclusion, Carnaghan applies her argument to elucidating the reasons why Russians have responded favorably to what Westerners see as moves in an antidemocratic direction by Vladimir Putin’s government.

“Are the Russian people responsible for Russia’s move away from democracy? Carnaghan’s book shows that the Russian people seek an orderly society, but not a new dictatorship.”
“Carnaghan has written a useful research study about Russian attitudes toward democracy.”
“This book deserves a wide and diverse readership among Russianists, survey researchers, and students.”
“All in all this is a fine and instructive book that should be read by anyone interested in Russian political development.”

Ellen Carnaghan is Associate Professor of Political Science at Saint Louis University.


List of Tables


A Note on Transliteration

1. Out of Order

2. The Tangled Web of Culture

3. Russians in Their Own Words

4. Abstract Notions of Democracy Versus Current Experiences

5. Views of Markets: Russians Confront Inequality

6. Views on Order, Disorder, and Democracy

7. Views of Change: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

8. What Russians Want

9. Conclusion





Out of Order

In Russia, many things do not work out as intended. A case in point is the construction of new political and economic institutions after the collapse of Communism. Competitive elections occurred, individual freedoms expanded exponentially, and ordinary people long denied the blessings of liberty embraced new opportunities and in some cases prospered in ways Communists deemed neither possible nor prudent. But under Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, what some called “democracy” took the form of a president’s ordering the shelling of the parliament, then pushing through a constitution that granted inordinate power to his own office. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, worked to strengthen the “power vertical” created by that constitution, moving to end the election of regional officials, closing down critical television networks, and threatening citizens who tried to build the foundations of an independent civil society. Under both men, elites resisted sharing their power, corruption undermined governmental accountability, and citizens had few mechanisms available to influence those who would rule them. In the economic sphere, markets seemed to protect the wealth of the few while providing limited opportunities for the many. Even so, Russia’s wealthiest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ended up in jail after challenging Putin’s control.

Ordinary people experience these erratic effects of systemic transformation in direct and immediate ways. For the average Russian citizen, the collapse of the Soviet system meant food shortages, electrical outages, and snow piled up in the streets and on sidewalks because municipal services ceased to function. The transition to a market system produced government budget shortfalls, along with delayed paychecks, cutbacks in social services, and a decaying urban infrastructure. Greater freedom for some took the shape of higher crime rates and a steady stream of terrorist acts—including numerous bombs in subways, airplanes, and other public places as well as hostage situations in a Moscow theater and a Beslan grammar school. The outcomes of all these changes—imperfectly functioning institutions with some democratic and some autocratic features—are experienced by ordinary citizens through arcane rules, surly bureaucrats, bribe-collecting traffic police, and offices that remain mysteriously closed during their reception hours. In this book, I show how the sometimes disorderly and unpredictable reality produced by political and economic transformations has shaped the political values of Russian citizens.

In making this case, I challenge the notion that cultural traditions are largely continuous across time and serve as effective limits on the kinds of institutions a country can sustain. A number of scholars have argued that ordinary Russians today drag behind them, if not a thousand-year legacy of serfdom, at least a heavy cultural tradition of autocratic and paternalistic government. Because of that past, the argument goes, Russians were not prepared to become democrats. Rather, they are thought to be fearful of granting freedoms to others, even if they want those freedoms for themselves; overly ready to cede their rights to government, as long as those who rule promise to look after their subjects; and intolerant of the disorder that accompanies democracy. So, for instance, Aleksander Dugin has argued that the ancient and geopolitically rooted values of Eurasia are innately hostile to Western liberalism. Tim McDaniel noticed aspects of a “Russian idea” that remained constant from the time of the czars through the present and that undermined efforts at reform. Frederic J. Fleron Jr. worried that some Westerners might be “attempting to foist off too much democracy too fast onto a society that is striking for its lack of democratic traditions.” James Alexander argued that Russian political culture in the 1990s suffered from “formlessness,” from political values and beliefs that were “fractured, contradictory and elusive,” because Russians were trying to make sense of their changing environment with a set of cultural tools better designed to negotiate the autocratic past.

My approach in this book is different. Rather than looking for origins of present values in geography, distant history, religious traditions, or long-standing cultural norms, I look for more proximate sources in the world that people presently inhabit. Rather than asking whether Russian citizens have the right values to sustain democratic institutions, I examine the values that existing institutions and the reality they create actually encourage. I argue that during the Soviet years, ordinary Russians inhabited an autocratic system, adapted to it, but did not necessarily adopt its values. Similarly, they presently inhabit a political system with some democratic elements, such as elections, and other features that hearken back to Russia’s autocratic past, but it is not popular preferences that pull the Russian government away from democracy. For most of their lives, Russian citizens experienced the outputs of their governing system as officially produced disorder—from the unpredictability inherent in a system in which citizens had no rights against the state, to the inefficiencies of state planning that made it difficult to buy toilet paper and soap, to the dislocations of transition and its attendant bouts of hyperinflation and financial collapse. These experiences in their own lives, not the experiences of their forebears centuries ago, have left Russians with a preference for order.

Because of that preference for order, some Russians have little use for the niceties of democratic practice. To them, representative institutions seem too fractious, social disorder appears too threatening, and a market society looks like a dangerous place where ordinary people have few chances and had better be wary of pickpockets and thieves. But not all Russians view the world in the same way. Others, while still attracted to “order,” imagine a country where everyone—even the people in charge—obey the law, where rights are respected, and where people are free to pursue their own goals in their own ways. For these Russians, their visions of order are entirely consistent with much more democratic institutions than they have ever enjoyed.

Scholars trying to explain the rapid collapse of Communist institutions that gave way under the pressure of reform have noticed that those institutions inadvertently encouraged the very behavior that led to their demise. Instead of encouraging people to work hard, use resources frugally, and report production outcomes accurately to their supervisors, the incentives built into economic structures encouraged people to shirk, hoard, lie, and steal. Instead of building loyalty to central governmental bodies, political incentives caused all players to seek their own private good at the expense of the community. These observations, though, have focused on elite behavior. I extend the logic of these arguments to the level of ordinary citizens and to the values inadvertently encouraged both in the late Soviet era and the early post-Soviet era. The complex and often disjointed reality of the Soviet and post-Soviet systems has been well described, but scholars of public opinion have paid little attention to the effects of this disorder on popular ideas and values. Instead, most scholars of Russian public opinion have tended to assume that the regime produced what it intended, whether that was relative material security during the Soviet years or political freedom under Boris Yeltsin. I, by contrast, focus more on the immediate reality of what ordinary people experience in their political and economic lives and the effects that immediate reality has on their social and political values.

The result of locating the sources of present values in the daily existence of living citizens provides a more hopeful picture than the one that students of political culture usually draw. If popular values are formed in the present rather than the distant past, no nation, not even Russia, is closed off by culture from the possibility of democracy. No existing historical reality is necessarily immutable. Of course, it may be the case that Russia’s leaders no longer intend to move the country closer to democracy. While the early years after the collapse of the Communist regime saw increasing freedoms and greater political competition, under Putin it seemed that progress toward democracy stopped, or even reversed course. Even if the values of Russian citizens favor more democratic elements in their political system, that is no guarantee of a democratic future.

Talking with Russians

In this book, I give ordinary Russians the time and space to describe the sources of their political orientations. My analysis is based on intensive interviews with sixty Russian citizens, interviews that were conducted between 1998 and 2003. I interviewed people in Moscow as well as in two Siberian cities—Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk—and three cities in European Russia’s “red belt”—Smolensk, Ulyanovsk, and Voronezh. Russia’s red belt is composed of areas that retained Communist Party officials in power well into the 1990s and that tended to elect Communists or nationalists in federal elections. I also traveled to a variety of small towns in the region around Moscow in order to interview people in places where the positive effects of change had been very slow to arrive. The people I interviewed were from all walks of life and displayed a variety of political orientations, from a promarket New Russian with a stunning apartment in the heart of Moscow to an elderly Communist who supplemented her pension by selling piroshki at her small-town bus stop. They included a young hairdresser upset about dwindling opportunities, one of the founders of one of Russia’s first citizen-based movements, computer operators, electricians, teachers, doctors, and retirees. Respondents were selected to maximize variation in age, education, and region, since these are factors that have been shown to affect political orientations. Although the main focus of this book is the political values of Russian citizens, a smaller sample of interviews with Americans is used to show where Russian interpretations are distinctive and, more often, where they are not.

Where mass surveys provide a very accurate picture of the distribution of ideas across a population, intensive interviews open a window into the logic and operation of a smaller number of minds. It is possible to examine apparent contradictions in people’s ideas, to uncover the concerns that lie behind policy preferences, and to tease out why individuals think the things they do. These were open-ended interviews during which the respondents were free to talk at length, to contradict themselves and then to try to explain those contradictions, to tell stories and give examples. From this detail, a richer, if necessarily smaller, picture of the ideas and values of ordinary Russians can be drawn. The large number and high quality of mass-opinion surveys that have been conducted in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union have already given the Russian people a chance to speak. The intensive interviews on which this book is based give them a chance to explain what they mean.

Studies based on intensive interviews in Russia and elsewhere have been successful in uncovering insights not immediately apparent from large-N surveys (surveys with large numbers of respondents). One of the masterpieces of the genre is Robert Lane’s study of the men of “Eastport.” Lane explored the social and psychological foundations of the ideas of working-class and lower-middle-class American men and traced some of their political beliefs back to the relationships they had had with their fathers. Jennifer Hochschild was able to use the understanding she gained from intensive interviews with Americans to explain why people in the United States do not support a redistribution of wealth. Intensive interviews were particularly helpful in this context because the answer lay in conflicting ways of thinking about justice, not something that would have been immediately apparent from standardized questionnaires. In the Russian context, one of the most penetrating studies is Nancy Ries’s examination of the stories of suffering that Russians tell one another on a daily basis. Ries showed how ever-present litanies of despair and disrepair helped to reproduce the society about which people were complaining. Taking on a topic particularly unsuited to examination through multiple-choice questions, Dale Pesmen used a combination of intensive interviews and participant observation to explore what Russians mean when they talk about the “Russian soul.” Using an approach similarly grounded in the logic of letting ordinary people speak for themselves, John Dryzek and Leslie Holmes were able to extract the underlying logic of three political discourses in Russia. Unlike Pesman’s and Ries’s books, the present study is more focused on political life; unlike the work of Dryzek and Holmes, it plumbs more extensively the social sources of the ideas expressed.

My analysis of intensive interviews with Russians has produced some intriguing findings. For one thing, the interviews show how everyday life and immediate personal experience influence the political orientations of many Russians. My respondents’ assessments of representative institutions, for instance, were based not on an abstract ideal of how democratic institutions are supposed to function, but on the imperfect operation of the institutions of their own experience. Similarly, their reactions to market reform reflected the shortcomings of Russia’s markets, not cultural predispositions toward an egalitarian distribution of wealth. For many of my respondents, the immediate social context of their lives was chaotic, threatening, or at the very least unpredictable. And this sense of imminent social disorder had a strong influence on many political orientations. The people most troubled by this social disorder were less likely to support democracy and less likely to have confidence in public officials. However, they were also unlikely to advocate institutional changes, since change itself is an element of the disorder that alarmed them.

But not all Russians shared these concerns. Some of the people I interviewed were strong supporters of democracy. These democrats often were able to perceive patterns in processes that remained incomprehensible to others, among them the internal wrangling characteristic of representative institutions or the interparty strife of elections. They saw democratic institutions as tools by means of which to take control of their environment, not as contributors to social chaos. Even Russia’s democrats tend to favor “order” and a “strong state,” and analysis of the interviews provides insight into what appear at first to be internal contradictions in their ideas. When the people I interviewed spoke of “order,” they often meant a society in which law restrains everyone’s behavior—even that of errant government officials—so that freedom may flourish in community. Many of my respondents—democrats and nondemocrats, free-marketeers and market skeptics, pensioners and youth—suffered from passivity in the face of power. As a group, they were highly skeptical about the possibilities of positive change. They have not yet embraced their new roles as citizens because they are not sure that their political context has fundamentally changed. Their passivity may make progress toward democracy dependent on the good intentions of those who govern Russia—probably not the wisest bet.

A Preview

This book proceeds in a number of steps. In Chapter 2, I build the case for examining popular orientations in the context of the immediate circumstances of ordinary people’s lives. I argue that those circumstances—particularly experiences with government institutions, concerns about family economic security, and perceptions of the order and predictability of daily life—color political orientations at least as much as do cultural values inherited from the past. I offer a reinterpretation of Soviet and post-Soviet political culture as a response to current social disorder.

In Chapter 3, I describe the methodology used in the book. Intensive interviews permit respondents to explain their ideas, to clarify the reasoning behind their choices, and to illuminate the logic linking one idea to another. As a result, they provide us with unique opportunities to understand the political and social values of ordinary people. In the Russian context, intensive interviews are especially helpful in untangling apparent contradictions in popular values in a changing society. The Russian respondents are drawn from cities and small towns across Russia, and, also in Chapter 3, I examine the political and economic circumstances in the places where I conducted the interviews, thereby illustrating the variation in circumstances that the respondents—and all Russians—face. In addition, I describe a smaller sample of interviews with Americans that I used for comparative purposes. In some ways, Russian ideas make more sense when we understand how they differ from and how they parallel ideas of people with the great good fortune of living in a much more politically stable and generally prosperous society. Without that comparison, it is too easy to think, say, that imperfect support for democracy is a particularly Russian feature, when it may in fact also be characteristic of populations with more exposure to better-functioning political institutions.

In Chapters 4 through 8, I present findings based on analysis of the interviews. In Chapter 4, I show how imperfections in the operation of Russian political institutions encourage imperfections in citizens’ democratic values. Listening to the Russian respondents’ comments on the operation of legislative institutions and on the role of law in organizing society makes it clear that what looks like flawed support for democracy can be better understood as a fairly nuanced critique of the flawed operation of existing institutions. My respondents like democracy in the abstract much more than they like what goes by that label in their own experience, and they do not share many of the beliefs that supposedly are characteristic of traditional, undemocratic Russian political culture. My respondents want to see democratic institutions improved, not dismantled. Poorly functioning institutions have left their own mark on popular attitudes, however, and the results may not strengthen democracy overall. Widespread disillusionment regarding the ability of ordinary citizens to influence officials means that citizens are unwilling to work very hard to improve those institutions or to deepen whatever democratic elements those institutions already have.

Many Russians are skeptical about the virtues of free markets, and that includes people who otherwise favor democratic institutions. In Chapter 5, I show that market-skeptical democrats are not profoundly different from liberal democrats in Russia. Based on my sample, both groups think economic life should be governed by principles of desert and that not all people deserve the same things. Neither group favors an equal distribution of wealth. Both groups see a significant role for government in the economy, particularly in establishing the conditions under which people can act for themselves. Both see notable shortcomings in Russian capitalism. Where market-skeptical democrats differ from liberal democrats is in the significance they give to those shortcomings. The problem, as they see it, lies in an economic system that is founded on the strikingly unfair distribution of state property and that rewards criminality and connections more than hard work. Unlike liberal democrats, market-skeptical democrats are not ready to endorse an economic system that does not yet provide opportunities for the majority of Russians. Comparisons with American respondents show that Russians do not seem to have a culturally distinct set of economic expectations. Chapter 5 also illuminates why ordinary Russians—even Russian democrats—support the apparent creeping authoritarianism of the Putin regime. To many of my respondents, Putin seems to be reversing the worst offenses of the Yeltsin years, when regime cronies made vast fortunes, snatched up media outlets, and used their ill-gained wealth to influence political outcomes. By limiting the freedom and taking the property of the very rich, Putin seems to these respondents to be creating the foundation of a political and economic system that might possibly serve the interests of ordinary people.

Chapter 6 looks beyond poorly operating political and economic institutions to broader societal malfunctions and how they affect popular attitudes. Both in the late Soviet period and during the first decade of reforms, the lives of ordinary Russians were marked by considerable unpredictability and social disorder. The end of the Soviet Union meant that the borders of the country constricted, frontier-style capitalism replaced state economic planning, and one set of governmental institutions were replaced by another, which in turn went down in flames in October 1993, to be replaced once again. Inflation soared, real incomes plummeted, and those in power seemed more interested in who would defeat whom than in solving the problems that ordinary people faced. Given this context, it is perhaps not surprising that Russians appear to have a distinctive concern for order: in opinion polls, they often rank order as more valuable than democracy or freedom. In Chapter 6, I examine what the Russian respondents mean when they talk about order and its inverse, disorder, and how concerns about order affect support for democracy. Among my respondents, people who feel they live in the midst of a highly disordered world are more willing to sacrifice democratic procedures and freedoms. People less troubled by social disorder are more supportive of democracy, less willing to sacrifice freedom for other social goals, and more likely to understand a “strong” state in terms consistent with democratic institutions. For these democratic Russians, their desire for both order and democracy is based on an interpretation of order that bears little resemblance to the order provided by past autocratic regimes but that has a lot in common with what is seen in Western democracies. They see order as providing the conditions under which individual freedoms can be realized, and they see a strong government as a mechanism for the accomplishments of popular goals.

In Chapter 7, I examine the degree to which ordinary Russians perceive changes in their political lives. Perhaps surprisingly, given the global significance of the collapse of Communism, not all my respondents perceive significant change in their political status. While respondents with a relatively sophisticated understanding of political life and greater support for democracy tend to see and understand the changes that have occurred in Russian politics, less politically sophisticated and democratic respondents tend not to perceive the same changes. People who do not see how political institutions have changed are unlikely to change their relationships to those institutions. They remain disaffected and apathetic, unable to act as citizens because they still understand themselves to be subjects.

In Chapter 8, I address what Russians want from government and what they would change if they could. I find that support for the existing political system is not related to whether people favor democracy or markets. Nor is support significantly predicted by the demographic attributes of respondents. Support is, however, related to perceptions that the regime has been successful in creating an orderly and predictable environment. Respondents who are troubled by what they perceive as the “disorder” in their society are more likely to feel that those in power rule in their own personal interest, not for the public good. Although there is considerable dissatisfaction with the existing system among some respondents, there is very little enthusiasm for change. This contrasts with the American sample, where there is a stronger sense that the existing institutions are the right ones and there is more apparent willingness to change them. Given recent political and economic upheavals and continuing material insecurity, change seems to many of my Russian respondents to be too risky. As a result, they are both allegiant to existing institutions—in that they do not want to change them—and alienated from those same institutions, insofar as those institutions fail to serve popular needs.

In Chapter 9, I offer some concluding observations. I summarize the main findings of the previous chapters and extend them in an effort to answer one of the more intriguing questions facing students of Russia today: Why did so many Russians support Vladimir Putin, despite the apparently undemocratic direction in which he tried to take the country? One of the things that is clear from the intensive interviews is that, when Russians are given the opportunity to explain their thinking about democracy, markets, change, the insecurities of their daily lives, what they expect from their government, and how they understand their roles as citizens, many of the apparent contradictions in their ideas begin to dissolve. Russians’ political and economic values are formed in the context of a society that is out of order, where government officials are thought to line their pockets at the public’s expense, where new economic opportunities appear to be reserved for the few, where a daily subway ride can be a lesson in fear or frustration. The political thinking of ordinary Russians is in many ways a reflection of this disordered world. This book shows, then, that popular political preferences to a significant extent are rooted in the present rather than the past. From the point of view of building democracy in Russia, this finding is encouraging. After all, the present is easier to change than the past. But at least for now the Russian present remains a challenging place, and current political and social structures are not able to meet the needs of most citizens. As a result, popular longing for order creates potential problems for the democratic project. It encourages Russians to look a bit too favorably at energetic individuals who flout rules and democratic procedures to get things done—people such as Vladimir Putin. And it inclines some Russians to accept highly flawed institutions because the dangers of social and political change are too palpable to ignore.

This book, then, treats a number of important themes. In addition to an examination of Russian attitudes toward democracy, markets, order, and change, it offers analysis of what ordinary Russians imagine a good state and a good society to be. And it connects these themes to the issue of social order, a desired but—for many Russians—elusive goal. In short, this book provides a foundation from which to better understand Russia’s mix of democracy and autocracy. In a world where many governments mix democratic and autocratic elements and many people suffer under political institutions that do not address their concerns, understanding how ordinary Russians relate to government and to the world it creates illuminates the situation of many citizens in an imperfect world.

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