20 years under Putin: a timeline

Since last summer, the price of many goods in Russia has risen considerably, in some cases several-fold. However, according to opinion polls, many Russians refuse to accept the fact that the country has entered a crisis. Olga Melnikova analyzes this public reaction.


According to the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, an average Russian spends more than one-third of his or her income on food.


In psychology, denial is the first response to insurmountable circumstances, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. However, not everyone goes through all the stages. Many get stuck in one of them for a long time, and some never get out of it.

In the last six months, food prices in Russian stores have risen by 10 to 100 percent depending on the region. Dozens of items have vanished from store shelves. However, according to a December 2014 opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center, 43 percent of Russians said they were very concerned about the problems the country is currently facing, 34 percent said they were rather concerned, 17 percent said they were sometimes concerned, and 6 percent said they were not really concerned.

According to the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, an average Russian spends more than one-third of his or her income on food. If food is Russians’ main expenditure, why is it that 23 percent of them do not really care about it? This paradox can be explained as follows.

In a study conducted by a group of psychologists and sociologists at the request of commercial companies, respondents were asked to compare store receipts for food products they had purchased in the last three months and to say if they noticed any difference in prices or product selection. Participants were people of middle incomes, with salaries amounting to around 30,000 rubles a month. About 30 percent of participants said that they did not see any differences. According to them, both prices and product selection had remained the same, and they did not see any problems with either. However, an objective analysis of the receipts shows both price increases and a transition to purchasing simpler food products. Consequently, the researchers came to the conclusion that about one-third of Russians simply deny the fact of rising prices.

The researchers also noted that the majority of respondents who denied rising prices identified themselves as patriots. Moreover, this group of Russians has usurped the traditional notion of “patriotism” itself. Whereas before such “patriots” were “convinced from the start that they would lose [the feud between the conservative and the liberal groups of society], and therefore did not believe in social mobility and did not make plans [for the future],” now, for the first time, they have come to believe that their “enemies” (“the high and mighty” people who have achieved social success) have lost. Witnessing the panic and terror of the “high and mighty,” these so-called “patriots” are now sitting “tall in the saddle.”

However, according to the researchers, in reality, many “patriots” have no personal independent opinions whatsoever, instead relying entirely on official sources of information for their opinions. Since federal TV channels are forbidden to use the word “crisis” (instead talking about a “new economic situation”), about a third of Russians believe there is no crisis in the country.

As Levada Center director Lev Gudkov points out, “the more people are connected to the market economy, the more critical they are of the rhetoric and demagoguery of our president.” According to the Levada Center, consumption in cities with a million-plus population has been decreasing since last July. The collapse of the ruble boosted consumption for a short period of time in November and December 2014, when people felt forced to hastily make such planned but postponed purchases as appliances, cars, and real estate. Later on, however, many people tried to return these purchased items. According to Gudkov, regions will be affected by rising prices down the road: “It is clear that people in the provinces get their information almost exclusively from television. Prices on food products manufactured in Russia do not rise as dramatically there, [and] therefore the reaction of this part of the population is rather slow, if not unnoticeable, but it can be expected to catch up by spring [2015].”

The most frightening outcome of the crisis is Russians’ insensibility to other people’s misfortunes. “The surprising thing is that today, people seem to be completely devoid of solidarity,” researchers note.

It seems certain that, deep down, these “patriots” cannot but realize that prices are indeed rising. I interviewed a few such “patriots” in an attempt to find out what these people are driven by. It turns out that many of them are prepared to suffer privations for the sake of certain geopolitical gains (such as territorial expansion) that they consider important. They believe that had Russia not annexed Crimea, a NATO base would have been established there by now. As one said: “Only a fool would deny that the United States controls the actions of both Ukraine’s government and its armed forces. Don’t you see what lengths the United States has gone to in order to harm Russia? These specific actions are directed against Russia, against our prosperity and our well-being.” Another said: “Both the Russian president and diplomats are currently carrying out very delicate work aimed at preserving peace.” And yet another commented: “Think big, my friends. We are talking about our motherland. How many cheeses have we already eaten? It is time to tighten our belts.”

It is no surprise that, influenced by such perverted logic, the majority of “patriots” look for those responsible for their hardships in the most unusual places. According to them, the first to blame are Russophobic Western countries that destroyed Russia’s economy by introducing sanctions against it. Greedy retailers are seen as the country’s second enemy. “We are living under a hideous form of capitalism. Suppliers and stores set prices according to their whims,” said a PR expert. “Thus, there can be enormous price variations in two neighboring stores. It is businessmen that should be held responsible for such considerable price increases in local goods that were manufactured last year.” Businessmen apparently have no doubt that they will be held accountable for the rising prices. A few dozen brands have already left the Russian market, and many others are phasing out production. And this is only the beginning.

However, the most frightening outcome of the crisis is Russians’ insensibility to other people’s misfortunes. “The surprising thing is that today, people seem to be completely devoid of solidarity,” the authors of the abovementioned research noted. “They do not care at all if anyone dies tomorrow without medication. One would expect patients’ families to speak out, but it does not happen. For the first time since the 90s, Moscow is witnessing mass layoffs of physicians. Although there is an enormous protest potential, there are and will be no protests.”

There were no protests when the national cancer program that had been operating in 64 Russian regions since 2009 was terminated last fall. In the same manner, Russians accepted without complaint the destruction of the special needs education system and the collapse of the education system along with the Russian Academy of Sciences. This is the way the most cynical “patriots” that I interviewed justify their inaction: “So what if children die from the lack of medicine? They died from this before. In Africa, children die too.”

However, sociologists predict that sooner or later, people will inevitably have to face reality. “The critical anti-West attitude is at its height now due to propaganda, but it will gradually include our authorities, the government, bureaucracy in general and then the president himself,” Gudkov noted. However, there is no point in waiting for a social upheaval. “This would only be possible with consolidated actions of the opposition, but opposition forces today are suffering from demoralization and pressure. Thus, the opposition will hardly be able to take serious action,” the sociologist concluded.

It is hard not to notice that those who take a practical view of the current state of the country but are not yet prepared to leave it inevitably sink into depression, since they do not see what can be done to change the situation. They are willing to help those in need by doing good deeds such as collecting money for medical treatment, signing petitions, and volunteering. But that is all they are willing to do, as they have been repeatedly shown that no initiative goes unpunished. The example of Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven who was arrested on charges of high treason, is yet another reminder that our motherland keeps tabs on its citizens. Do you remember what you did last summer?