In December 2016, 53 percent of Russia’s population said they wanted to see decisive changes. Only a third (35 percent) believed that everything should remain as it is. Questions posed in different formulations indicate that the number of supporters of change could be as high as two-thirds of the population.

But what specific changes do people want? Putting all the supporters of change in one camp would be a serious mistake. Only the narrow elite and expert circles have ready formulas for change. Among the broader groups of the population, there is no coherent understanding of the desired course to be set. There are only very murky, scattered, and often contradictory ideas.

The majority of supporters of reform want changes in the social sphere rather than in politics. It is enough to recall here that half the population is ready to reelect Vladimir Putin next year, and as many as 80 percent approve of his actions as president.

During a quarter of a century of sociological surveying, the majority of Russians have been concerned primarily by economic issues: inflation, low wages, insufficient social payments (up to 70 percent of people), poverty, destitution, declines in the standard of living (up to 50 percent), and the risk of unemployment (up to 40 percent). Even minor changes for the better in these spheres are the most desired. All other issues, however acute, are pushed into the background.

The majority of our respondents, accordingly, are not concerned with democratic rights and freedoms, and are incapable of independently identifying violations in these areas. For example, no more than 5–7 percent of Russians pay any attention to the tribulations of independent television channels, newspapers, internet publications, and radio stations.

Corruption is worthy of special mention. About 30 percent of those polled regard it as an acute social problem, making it a notable subject among secondary issues. High-profile corruption scandals, however, attract the attention of a far greater proportion of the population.

As for how their desired changes could come about, the majority of the population has no idea. Even the progressive, socially and politically engaged section of society has no alternative plan.

During the last year, the Levada Center pollster carried out a series of group discussions with Moscow activists, volunteers, supporters of various political parties, and representatives of the capital’s middle class. Summing up the materials from the conversations held, we can identify several incomplete scenarios for change based on the individual statements and diverse ideas of the respondents.

According to one scenario, changes can only take place following a total replacement of the authorities, because “everything is rotten and the whole system has to be changed.” This would require, for example, an election in which the opposition is entirely victorious. People with democratic beliefs are usually of this opinion.

The weakness in this scenario is that few of those polled believe that this option is possible in the near future. Hardly anyone believes that the people currently in power will leave of their own accord: “Who in Russia has ever given up power?” Some talk of the weakness and the lack of organization of the opposition parties: “They’re just like all the rest.” Many simply don’t see anyone apart from the usual faces on the federal television channels. Television in Russia remains the main source of news, and the man on the street simply doesn’t recognize anyone who doesn’t appear on television.

The majority of those asked don’t believe that it’s even possible for the stagnant bureaucratic system to be changed: “They will never let decent people into power,” “Even if someone decent breaks through, the system will break them.” People complain about the domination of certain people who say the same thing day after day. Although the respondents insist that there are in fact honest people with new ideas in Russia, hardly any of them can name any.

In the opinion of others, renewal will only take place as a result of the complete self-destruction of the system under the weight of its economic problems (a further drop in oil prices, the exhaustion of the reserves of the Stabilization Fund), or as a result of civil war between the rich and the poor. For the participants in the group discussions, this scenario seems to be the most comprehensible and probable. However, it is not desired, as the route to it lies through upheavals.

In the third scenario, the changes will take place in the distant future of their own accord, thanks to the gradual building up of civic links, the development of civil society, and the enlightenment of the rest of the population. This is the option clung to by those who believe in carrying out small deeds. These people have almost entirely given up any hope of seeing any tangible changes within their lifetimes.

Finally, the changes might come unexpectedly from above, when a “new Gorbachev” appears. A proportion of the respondents hope that the role of reformer will, in fact, be taken on by Putin himself. This would be the most desired and convenient option of all of the scenarios: change everything without changing anything, without sacrificing anything, without expending any effort. The authorities will change themselves.

The main problem with this scenario is that it simply won’t start implementing itself. Even Putin’s supporters admit that it is impossible to influence him, to get him to “hear,” “find out,” or “sort it out.” Probably the only way to attract his attention is to publicly ask the president to deal with a particular problem during a live television phone-in.

And so, half of the population wants changes, although they are not the changes that the democratic community is talking about. The inability to significantly influence the situation under any of the scenarios described increases disorientation and depression in Russian society. Even those who are prepared to act don’t know where to begin or who to listen to. This leads to a reluctance to take on any responsibility and to think long term.

In this situation, only three approaches make any sense: fit in with the existing system; do what you have to do, and whatever will be will be; or emigrate. Public moods of this kind are unlikely to be favorable for the development of innovations and the demonstration of initiative that is so essential today for the support of economic growth. What they are highly conducive to, however, is conserving the current state of affairs and keeping society under control.

  • Denis Volkov