Wherever Russians eat, they always look for the bread on the table. Russia has a cultural stereotype of bread as something of great value and the stuff of life. Yet, in reality, the cult of bread—and the Russian superstition against wasting it or throwing it out—is a historical consequence of decades of hunger. 

As Russia's economy falls on hard times, a significant segment of the Russian population is turning again to subsistence on bread. This doesn’t affect the entire population, just those who have long been mired in poverty and those in the lower middle class who are now joining them. Today, Russia’s social pyramid looks a lot more like a drainpipe than a trampoline.

These people must rely on what historian Oleg Khlevniuk calls an old Russian combination of bread, potatoes, and vodka. Khlevniuk's triad was the nutritional core during the Stalin years and remained so even in later, somewhat more prosperous years. 

The third product, vodka, has persisted as a universal currency (one could call it a hard currency, despite its liquid state). It remains the easiest way to escape reality, and a source of revenue for the state budget. It says a lot about the state of Russia that official vodka output grew at a staggering rate in the Stalin era, from 30 million deciliters in 1924–1925, to 81 million deciliters in 1952.

Russians’ subsistence on the breadline acts as a substitute for more radical action, such as taking to the streets in political protest.

Natalia Zubarevich, an expert in economic geography, argues that as the Russian periphery tries to adjust to the economic crisis, people living there will grow dependent on subsistence farming (plus foraging for berries, mushrooms, and nuts).

At the same time, the revenue potential of traditional sources of extra income—moonlighting, seasonal work, construction gigs, and the like—is falling because the downturn is affecting the informal economy as well as the formal one.

This economic crisis also has a new element that makes it more challenging than previous crises: a palpable drop in the real value of pensions. Economist Tatyana Maleva estimates that half of the Russian population depends heavily on pensions. They are the sole source of stable income not just for the pensioners themselves, but often for entire households they live in. 

Maleva also highlights another further problem for Russia that is unknown in developed countries: a high number of poor people are keeping their jobs, rather than slipping into unemployment. The current crisis is replicating the peculiar model of the Russian labor market, where economic misfortune leads not to rising unemployment and structural adjustments, but to declining salaries and shrinking workdays (and workweeks). 

Moreover, as Marina Krasilnikova of the Levada Center notes, we are seeing an "anchoring of poverty." Households are increasingly focusing on everyday consumption and key priorities, postponing major purchases, transitioning to cheaper products, and spending money primarily on food and clothing. 

People are adapting to the current crisis (the onset of which caught them off guard as badly as it did the government) by resorting to survival tactics, a more primitive lifestyle, reduced expectations of oneself and the surrounding world, and declining labor productivity. 

In November 2015, the index of positive consumer sentiments, as calculated by the independent Levada polling center, dropped to 64 percent of its record high it reached in March 2008. In a survey conducted in the same month, two thirds of respondents said they expected the economic crisis to last more than two years. The same proportion said they expected annual inflation to reach 30 percent. (It was just 13 percent in 2015.)  

This begs the question of how the Russian public, which is now properly aware of the full extent of the crisis, will react in 2016. 

Naturally, the government will seek to avoid mass protests by fighting the illusory "fifth columns" of alleged would-be revolutionaries, trying to distract the public with all sorts of foreign conflicts, especially trade wars and information campaigns against Russia's alleged enemies. 

And yet, even though the crisis is all too reminiscent of the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland and is likely to get only deeper, the Russian government's fears of a "color revolution" such as the one that took place in Ukraine are groundless. 

Instead, ordinary people will tighten their belts, as they did under the Soviet regime. As the average Russian turns to bread, potatoes, and vodka (and occasionally berries, mushrooms, and nuts), he will go into standby mode, adapting to the “new normal.” He will pare down his expectations of life, of the government, and of everything else, as well as reduce any personal consumption. 

Indeed, Krasilnikova believes that the average Russian actively hopes for the absence of major changes. 

This scenario fits the analysis of sociologist Seymour Lipset, who argued that citizens make political demands and permit themselves the luxury of analyzing political situation only once they have reached a certain level of well-being. Lipset's hypothesis was borne out by the nature of Russia's last major opposition protests in 2011–2012, led by middle-class Russians who benefited from the prosperity of the preceding decade. 

The Russian government also benefits from the fact that most of the population tends to view the state as the provider of symbolic benefits, such as the takeover of Crimea, rather than as a source of tangible benefits or fair arbitration. Russians have got used to surviving without the government's intervention, and even learned to endure its “regulations.”

The “Putin stability” which was the much-heralded achievement of the president’s first two terms in office, has given way to negative stabilization. This new, suffocating stability is endangering the development and mindset of a country that is turning again figuratively—and sometimes literally—to its traditional diet of bread and potatoes.

This article originally appeared in Russian in Gazeta.ru.

  • Andrei Kolesnikov