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Russia-USA: a question of people's perspective

Many Russians, including those within the political establishment, are fairly convinced that Russia and the US are very much alike and, in fact, are two sides of the same coin.

Russia-USA: a question of people's perspective

Many Russians, including those within the political establishment, are fairly convinced that Russia and the US are very much alike and, in fact, are two sides of the same coin. The difference is that the United States focused its efforts on developing a market economy and building its global power while Russia was focused in the 20th century on building socialism and communism. Then the model failed, and today Russia is striving to revive itself and to be a superpower once again, this time on the basis of a market economy and democracy. In my opinion, Russia and the US have nothing in common and are, in fact, very far from one another. Below are 10 key concepts of national identity and character that prove how differently values were created, institutions and traditions arose, and how Russia and the US perceive their identities. Even in cases where these concepts seem the same for both nations, they are understood very differently.

1. Private property

Private property is one of the fundamentals of American society. Richard Hofstadter, an American historian, emphasized that in the process of setting up their new state, the Founding Fathers focused primarily on securing private ownership. They had seen the European monarchies, so they understood it was necessary, on one hand, to build up a system that would preserve property, and on the other, to set up a government that would not degenerate either into a monarchy or into a rule by the crowd. This meant that power should be based on mechanisms of transparency and accountability. People in government were to stay there for a limited period of time and then to be replaced with others. Historically, the institution of private ownership in Russia had several specific features. For example, the nobility received their lands and titles from a Tsar. Thus, from the very beginning, property was understood differently. Because property was received from the sovereign, the idea developed that property could be gained or maintained from being loyal to the sovereign. The nobility were also exempt from paying taxes, which made them even more dependent on the supreme authority and at the same time created a sense of power for state office-holders.

In the 17th century, European merchants had already observed the superiority of Russian authorities, in bribes to Russian customs officials, for example. During the 18th century, state monopolies were strong. For example, private companies were permitted to trade in salt only in 1818. In the last third of 19th century, business was booming in both the US and Russia. Industrial oligarchs, a financial system, and trade chains were quickly emerging. J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller and other titans of that era strongly opposed any attempt by the president or Congress to split up the monopolies. In Russia, according to historian Richard Pipes, "The political impotence of the Russian bourgeoisie resulted primarily from the experience of many centuries that the path to prosperity lays not through confrontation but through cooperation with the State."

Still today, cooperation with the government, or at least lack of any opposition, gives Russian businesses the opportunity to advance. Moreover, entrepreneurs do not just demonstrate harmony with the government, but they engage plans that bring interdependency to both parties. All remember the recent dialogue between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and metal industry tycoon Oleg Deripaska in a small town of Peekalyovo. Putin came there to calm down social protests and forced Deripaska to immediately issue a directive regarding the wage payments to factory workers. After that, Putin reminded Deripaska, "Give me back my pen, please." With this action, the prime minister both demonstrated his interference into the world of business and emphasized his right to intervene. The action proved publicly that it is the government who has the last word in any conflict or dispute with a business, not an owner or an employee.

At the same time, owners of major businesses receive government aid in the form of loans and subsidies while the government received shares of the companies in exchange. Presumably, this government support was crucial during economic crises, but the support seems to be different from similar practices elsewhere. In the previous year, the AvtoVAZ company was granted at least $2 billion in governmental financial aid, according to figures that appeared in the media, and it will receive at least $1 billion in 2010, even though few have any confidence in the cars produced by the company. The US may have lost its leadership in the global car industry, but people can still drive American cars. Unfortunately, Russian LADAs are much more outdated. In this example, like in many others, Russian taxpayers' money often goes to support inefficient and poorly performing enterprises without any discussion of their future potential and cost-effectiveness.

It is appropriate to conclude that Russian business is not much interested in improving economic standards. First, because efficiently operating companies may be deprived of government financial aid and loan guarantees. Secondly, because at any point, the government may decide that the state is a more efficient owner and so may take a profitable business or pass it to other owners. The main lesson learned by the business community from the YUKOS case was not to oppose the government, but to demonstrate loyalty. Why then do the members of the business community not join forces? There are at least two major associations in which every prominent Russian entrepreneur is a member – the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Oligarchs could participate in these two organizations to promote their interests and to advocate for their rights, using them for negotiations with the government. However, this doesn't happen.

There are at least two explanations. The first is that entrepreneurs compete with each other – not primarily for higher productivity or more efficient technology, but for a closer relationship with the government. The government names the winners of, for example, oil or gas field development. Bureaucrats do decide whose international projects are to be supported at the top level. Thus, business in Russia competes primarily not between itself or for customers, but for benevolence of the government. Consolidation based on this purpose is impossible, because then everyone should be equally close or far from the government. The second explanation is each business owner believes that he personally can avoid nationalization or straight state meddling if he is loyal enough. There is another factor for such behavior between business and the government – public perception. The idea of equality was strongly promoted in the Soviet Union, although it was equality in poverty instead of prosperity.

As a result, a steady negative public opinion of any kind of wealth has been formed for 70 years. However, it is important to add that historically rich people were never appreciated in Russia. The Soviet state just made stronger those national perceptions, liquidating both the aristocracy and the wealthy. Everything became public property, belonged to the state – which meant that it belonged to no one. After the Soviet Union collapsed, people began to acquire property for the first time in Russian history. However, Russians still hate the wealthy. First of all, neither the wealthy themselves, nor the government are doing anything to change this public perception. On the contrary, the government often supports such an attitude. Putin’s actions in Peekalyovo prove that.

Secondly, the most of the population is really poor and they have absolutely no reason to like the rich. In 2008, the richest 10 percent of Russian population had an income of 16 to 20 times that of the poorest 10 percent. According to unofficial statistics, the richest make 40 times more money than the poorest. According to polls, not more than 25 per cent of the population has savings. And the amount of money does not exceed basic needs, such as an economy car purchase or modest apartments’ renovation.

At the same time, Russian citizens do not often realize that anything they own is also property and needs protection. The majority of Russians live in apartments or houses that were privatized following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has further confused their perception of private property. Because the housing became theirs for free, it is perceived as not having any value. People mostly wait for government assistance to resolve their problems or they presume that problems such as theft and vandalism are an inevitable part of their difficult life. Only in the past few years have people begun to acquire material comforts using their own savings or banking loans.

2. Elected Power

"Good governance may be achieved not by consolidation or concentration of power, but by separation of powers," wrote Thomas Jefferson. Russia has a tradition of monarchy and, more than that, the tsar was considered God’s representative on Earth. Thus, the tsar's power came through the process of succession and with God's blessing. The sovereign, in his turn, appointed his local representatives to the government, agencies and courts. The people did not elect the best from among themselves. Instead, they were told who to respect and honor. Social scientists have compared the political mechanism in Russia with a similar one in Latin America in which a Leader points his finger (con el dedo) at a person or at a problem and the population follows his directive.

During the Soviet era, separation of powers was nominal. In reality, all decision-making was done by Communist party authorities. Well-developed political institutions have never existed in Russia. Russia attempted to introduce electoral tools in early 1990’s. The president, governors and parliamentary representatives were elected and directors of enterprises and factories were elected as well. However, this practice did not last for long for two main reasons. Having demolished the Soviet system, which produced only poverty, degradation and weapons, people wanted a miracle and believed they would get immediate wealth. With these unrealistic expectations, they turned to new directors who often were good political leaders, but poor managers. Disappointment quickly set in, and the population called for Vladimir Putin, who recreated the model of the strong state. People were tired of the chaos of 1990’s. They had been used to stability – albeit stability in poverty that was depressing, but stable, dull but predictable. So they turned to an example familiar to them. They called for "order."

First, the president appointed representatives to seven Federal Districts, then, in 2004, the election of governors was cancelled, and then police chiefs and judges in the regions became presidential appointees. In a certain sense, Putin restored the system Russia had for two centuries during tsarist period: Governors and governors-general were appointed by tsar to the regions, and their main function was to assure compliance with the tsar's orders. In the Russian empire, only the Polish and Finnish autonomous regions had separate legislation. Thus, we returned to the system that makes the power of Moscow the main source of respect, wealth, social status and official position in Russia. The current system in Russia is to some extent may be defined in an old Soviet word - "nomenklatura." It is a system of patronage in which positions are given based on loyalty to the leader and recipients strived to remain in position as long as possible.

Russian political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya explained how nomenklatura-based system is different from a democratic one. “In a democracy,” she said, “any politician is very much aware of the citizens. He needs their votes. That's why a politician is interested in satisfying people's needs. He wants to get elected again. So he is attentive to processes taking place on the ground. In the nomenklatura-based system a politician looks at nothing... but at what's happening at the top. All the bureaucracy is especially conscious of the moods of their bosses. And if the boss is happy ¬ all's well."

It is possible to argue that Russia still has the elections to the federal parliament and local legislatures, and there is still a popular vote for the presidency. That is true. However, Russia doesn't have a well-established system of political competition that could provide political parties with some independence and protect the process from being dominated by state power. The elections per se do not guarantee the autonomy of lawmakers and do not create values and accountability. Erich Fromm, one of the best scholars of the 20th century, wrote: "At least two requirements are involved in the formation of a genuine conviction: Adequate information and the knowledge that one's decision has an effect. Opinions formed by the powerless onlooker do not express his or her conviction, but are a game... Without information, deliberation, and the power to make one's decision effective, democratically expressed opinion is hardly more than the applause at a sports event."

That is what to some extent takes place in Russia. Citizens still can vote, but they cannot elect. It is similar to what Thomas Jefferson described as "elective despotism" and what he greatly feared.

3. Individualism

To Americans, there is nothing wrong in trying to be better than others. A self-made person is respected and becomes "a poster child," held up and admired. American beliefs encourage individuals to rely on themselves, trust in your abilities, and try again and again, even if previous attempts failed. It's not like that in Russia. Sociologists say that the main purpose for an average Russian is not to be worse than others, but not to be better than others. This tradition dates back to the traditional collective Russian way that was reinforced by the Soviet experience. Bright and outstanding individuals are seen as dangerous for the system. Being one of a crowd, one of a group is a principle well understood by Russians. Prominent Russian philosopher NikolayBerdyayev wrote: "Russians have always lacked commitment to individual rights and a capacity for self-organization of social groups and classes". There is no willingness among Russians to resolve problems by themselves, and no tools to do so even if they were inclined.

This is one of the paradoxes separating the intrinsic character of Russians and Americans. Russians have never been individualists. Public surveys still show that a majority of Russians believe: "Our people are used to doing everything together, so they do not tolerate those which put themselves above a group." But at the same time, society cannot consolidate to respond to its challenges. An individual – an oligarch or an ordinary citizen – will try to resolve a problem by himself, but he will not get together with others to establish a group in order to to eliminate the whole problem. In the US, the situation is almost completely reversed. In everything concerning their personal interests, Americans are very individualistic. However, their capacity for organization is very high when it comes to fighting against wrongs or protecting their rights.

Russia is a country of submission and humility in which individual rights do not get any protection ¬ at least this is how Russia was described by NikolayBerdyayev in the early 20th century. In Russia, there never existed the concept of the individual; there were kings and servants, masters and slaves. In the late 20th century, Russian philosopher Mirab Mamardashvili described Soviet citizens as people who "never face the consequences of their own actions." This is because they never act. They adjust.

The majority of population and the establishment as a whole are oriented toward adaptation. Adaptation is based not on freedom and individualism, but on submission and humility. For Russians, individualism is concentrated on a person’s inner world, not the outer one. This characteristic influences another specific feature of society – the perception of rules.

4. Rules and Regulations
As a Russian philosopher once said, any call for self-discipline is irritating for a Russian. The biggest surprise for a Russian in the United States is that Americans obey rules. The phrase "unfortunately, we cannot do anything for you, it's against the rules" is perceived by many Russians as personally discriminatory. Historically this impression is based on three key notions: 1) Rules are set by the government and they are unfair from the beginning; 2) Rules are applied to some and not applied to others, therefore 3) Those who do not have power need to immediately start thinking about ways to evade a rule because they do not have means to change it. Social scientists call such an attitude "eluding tactics," which means there is an intention to avoid or to buy off enforcement without any kind of direct protest.

This reaction is rooted in a deep historical disbelief in laws and rules being equal for all. In contemporary Russia, one simple example can be given: on Russian roads, there are special cars for special people equipped with flashing lights and sirens that are allowed to drive as they please without needing to obey any traffic rules and the traffic police are not allowed to stop them. The laws themselves have always been very severe in Russia. Moreover, there is a kind of unspoken presumption of guilt. In theory, a person can file a claim with the court if he was fired or if he believes a police officer was unfair, but this may take months and months. And courts in Russia traditionally are on the side of the government, not on the side of an ordinary citizen.

Another important feature of Russian laws is that they generally do not distinguish between premeditated violation and an ordinary mistake. In all cases you are guilty. This creates a feeling of hopelessness, lack of protection among citizens, and a feeling of power among the office-holders. It also gives rise to enormous corruption, because it is easier to pay a bribe than to prove your innocence or unproportanality of punishment. The main principles of justices, namely responsibility - unavoidability and proportionality ¬ were never valid in Russia. Court resolutions say that responsibility should be based on justice, impartiality, legal equality and proportionality. In reality, it is not like that ¬ and has never been.

5. Democracy and Freedom

Members of the Republican Party like to talk about nations that "deserve democracy." For Russians, it is very difficult to deserve or strive for democracy, because they do not know what democracy is. They have neither personal experience nor historical knowledge of it. Throughout the 1990’s, Russians were continuously told about the merits of democracy, however, their personal lives were difficult and full of chaos. In Western democracies it often happens that citizens are especially active in voting when they want to change something. In today's Russia, people go to the polls to vote against change. Instead of democracy and freedom, Russians choose stability and order. Democracy is perceived as chaos and freedom as anarchy.

One of the reasons Russian have such an irrational attachment to the word "order" is because their lives are filled with a constant feeling of unfairness. "Order" reflects a kind of dream in which they can achieve justice, prosperity and happiness. But this is unrealizable. A Russian does not link justice and prosperity with democracy and freedom. "Russians prefer freedom from the state to freedom within the state," wrote NikolayBedyayev. There is no public accountability and Russians are more used to waiting for changes initiated by a sovereign (or a government).

The idea of the individual has never been respected in Russia. A Russian does not claim respect, and he cannot respect others. Russians do not perceive their neighbors as people entitled to the same rights and bearing the same responsibilities. Russians are not familiar with the basic principles of democracy: responsibility, accountability and the possibility of impacting the process. One of the key achievements of the Founding Fathers was convincing the people of the value of information. A contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason said: "Let power flow from the people, but let us educate the people."

Americans are used to being surrounded by information. In the early 19th century, John Taylor said: "How can self-government be exercised if the state does everything in private?" Russia has no tradition of information or discussions. Discussions were held in 1990’s, however, most of them were not focused on finding the best and balanced solution, but more often seemed like muckraking to suppress an opponent. And most people felt that they were only observers, not a part of the process. People again began to clamor for order and control. When prime ministers and political favorites were changed so quickly in the late 1990’s, Russian philosopher Grigory Pomerantz said: "The people were looking for a Master.” And finally there was Vladimir Putin, who promised order.

Putin dedicated his first presidential term to establishing order. He fought terrorists, reined in regions with enormous autonomy and took down governors who were not willing to submit the supremacy of Moscow. By the end of his first term, Putin had accomplished his mission. He established order and in exchange, the people submitted to his power. The order paradigm then was replaced with that of stability.

Economist Alexander Auzan said that a new public pact then emerged: The state does not interfere with its citizens' private lives, and citizens do not interfere with politics. It was easy then, when the Russian economy was booming. According to official data, the size of the Russian economy doubled from 2003 to 2008. Personal income was growing at a rate of 8 to 15 percent year on year before the crisis. Budget expenditures were increasing 10 to 17 percent each year. Wages were growing and people were taking advantage of this new wealth. For the first time in the 20th century, Russians were able to take out loans, go on vacation, and make plans. Overall, they were able to use the benefits they had been deprived of during the Soviet era, especially ¬ during the last 20 years of the Soviet Union.

6. Territory

This might be feature that Russia and the US hold most in common. Both countries control huge amounts of territory, but the stories of the development of this territory and its current status are very different. Russia never had a Frontier, at least not in the American meaning of the word. In the territory beyond the Ural Mountains, at first there was no government at all. Later it became a prison. It was a place people went to escape the state, and later it was where undesirables were exiled.

In contrast, the Americans developed their West. Today the territory with a powerful infrastructure is a source of the US strength. In contrast, Russia’s vast territories are both a source of national pride, but also in permanent danger of degradation and instability. Russia’s unity is not based on integrated communications or common rules or even by control from Moscow. The country remains united because this is what most people want – for now. This does not mean that Russia will face a threat of secession, but it is hard to predict whether Russia will remain within the same borders in the long-term prospect.

7. External Threat

Russia has been in constant fear of attacks from the outside from both East and West. This fear is one of the primary features of Russian national identity. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote that it was the defining factor of Russian foreign policy. The target was always to create a belt of loyal states or satellites around Russia to assure a territorial safety. It was surrounded by dozens of countries with various political systems and different levels of development. According to many historians, the fear of being attacked became one of the meaningful causes for Russia’s post-war behavior. The Soviet state wanted not just the global domination of communism – it wanted security guarantees.

In its foreign policy, as well as in its domestic policy, Russia was never capable of taking into account minority interests. Russia often demonstrates “great power chauvinism.” It does not have the skills or desire to enter into a dialogue with "small countries." And Russia also lacks true experience operating within big coalitions where decisions are based on consensus and, hence compromises. Russia's foreign policy on an idea: You either win or lose. Compromise is perceived as failure. And only when all players accept Russia’s position on an issue does the country consider itself a winner.

This approach is harmful for Russia itself. The opinions of small countries and coalitions with participation of minorities play an ever bigger role in today's world. Compromise is an essential precondition of success. By continuing to play a zero-sum game, Russia is excluding itself from future agreements that could benefit Russia itself.

8. Wealth

Throughout its history Russia has been deprived of a middle class, a keystone of any society. In all aspects of Russian society – agriculture, trade, industry – there are examples of both desperate poverty and vast wealth. Poverty has always been the source of social unrest and with no middle class, any social conflict in Russia tends to be taken to the extreme. There were a few periods over the past 150 years of Russian history in which a middle class emerged. The first dates back to late 19th century, when industry and trade were booming in Russia. This nascent middle class, however, was swept away by World War I and the October Revolution. The second attempt took place in the mid-1990’s. Having weathered the first shock of the end of the Soviet economy, a middle class began to emerge in Russia’s big cities, which were attracting capital and work force. However, the economic crisis of 1998 crushed these developments. The third emergence we witness now.

However, the Russian middle class, or what exists of it, is different from similar groups in other countries for two main reasons. First, the middle class in Russia is neither a base for the regime nor a threat to it. Maybe this is why the authorities still address all their actions, decisions and communications mainly to low-income citizens. They are perceived by the government as the main threat to stability. The middle class have no interests, political preferences or values of their own. It is passive in the political process and, hence, excluded from it – to a great extent by choice. The middle class behaves like a TV audience; they are observers. There are many things they dislike, but they do not want to interfere.

The second characteristic of the middle class is its lack of fundamental values. They live on the ruins of the Soviet empire where the old values are no longer relevant and new ones have not yet been formed. Americans are much more perceptive to the limits of the good and the evil. Russians today do not have an understanding of what is good and what is evil. Their attitude toward wealth is a good example of that. Is it good or bad to be wealthy? If you see an injustice and try to amend it even when your protest threatens the stability of the whole society - is it good or bad? What norms and values do you pass over to your children? For Russians, they have not yet been defined.

Russian middle class is a thin slice of society with vague interests and uncertain future compressed between a tiny, but powerful group of wealthy and a huge group of those with a low-income who are the focus of the government's efforts. This policy is explainable but misguided, because the only group capable of creating a prosperous and at the same time stable future ¬it is the middle class and the creative element within it.

9. Elites

Russia’s “elite” should more properly be referred to as the establishment, because Russia does not have an elite in its classical meaning. The establishment in Russia is mostly nomenklatura, made up of people who have made it to the top by chance or by being loyal. The establishment in Russia is made up of neither professional politicians nor professional managers. Loyalty to the person who brought them to the top is an essential condition for staying where they are. Such office holders, hence, are guided not by the strategic goals of the nation's prosperity, professionalism or efficiency, but by maintaining the benevolence of their bosses.

The establishment has a clearly visible concern¬ to preserve their place in that class. Because there is no well-established social structure in Russia, leaving the top may mean not just one step down or aside, it may mean a fall straight to the bottom. This kind of fear is noticed by sociologists, and they believe it causes the members of the establishment to burrow deeper into the social group and to become one of many, rather than an individual. There are rules in the game, and the establishment obeys them. The Russian establishment also has no understanding of values. They have one clear interest – to survive and strengthen their status. As a result, their values are based on what is mainstream – both politically and socially. If there is a struggle against oligarchs, everyone supports the struggle. If a new figure is being appointed to a top position, everyone says what a great choice this person is without discussing his merits.

In the old European traditions, the aristocracy propagated and maintained society’s values and then transmitted them to other groups. Russia’s aristocrats are lying in cemeteries near Paris or Vorkuta and the Soviet leaders who came after them bearing different, but clear values also perished in camps and prisons. During the 20th century, the upper levels of society were liquidated twice in Russia. Those were the best, the ones who had proved they were not just passive observers. Then there was World War II and the sacrifice of more than 20 million lives. It was at this point that the Soviet nomenklatura emerged. Society was no longer paralyzed by fear, but it became dominated by stagnation.

Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik said that the ruling bureaucratic elite of the late Soviet era knew very well how to protect its power, but didn't know what to do with it. Not only could they not innovate, but they treated any new idea as an assault on their privileges. Self-preservation became the main goal of the Soviet regime, and it remains the goal of the establishment today.

10. Changes

Where do things stand today? For over eight years, Russia experienced continuous growth. But at the same time problems, bribes, business and transaction costs increased. The appearance of stability was improving, but the belief in a stable future was deteriorating. Russia has passed through the crisis, the economy is reviving and global trends are positive. In the fall of 2009 Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin announced that Russia had emerged from the recession. He added: "While oil prices stay at the level of $70-80 per barrel, the economy will continue to grow."

However, other economists and analysts have asked what kind of growth can be expected, how it is being built and what kind of quality is there. In Spring 2008, Zbignew Brzezinski wrote in "The Washington Quarterly:" "China in the last decade constructed a network of more than 30,000 miles of modern, multilane highways, while Russia is only now building its very first, at last upgrading the two-lane paved road between Moscow and St. Petersburg on the tract built centuries ago by Peter the Great... Russia is about 20 years behind the developed countries in industrial technology, but it also develops 20 times fewer innovative technologies than does China and devotes considerably less money to research." In Russia there are also concerns that the growth is based on the Soviet system and Soviet industries and their efficiency is declining. Many economists say that the huge social expenditures of the state budget increase paternalism and maintain social stability but do not create a future.

Russia was capable of restoring stability, but it is not able to move forward. The country is constrained by the past success from one side and by the current stability ¬from the other. This situation keeps the country from stepping into the future. Historically all major accomplishments in Russia occurred after a war or because of an external threat. Internal fear was also a precondition for modernization. Prominent Russian sociologist Yuri Levada used to call these "Stalin's alternatives." As early as the time of Peter the Great, he said, modernization was based on directives and internal fear.

Can the country end this trend? One scenario is that the people will decide they prefer modernization to stability and call for a reformer to rise up. However, so far there is very little prospect for that. The other scenario is that Russia remains in a state of eternal transition, where sunrise never moves from dawn to day.

Author: Svetlana Babaeva