Saturday, November 3, 2007

Living Large in Russia: Economic Boom is Cultural Context for Authoritarianism

This morning's Wall Street Journal's got a fascinating piece on the politics of the Russian economy. The story is a case study on the economic fortunes of the Starodubovs of Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Starodubovs were featured in the Journal as a personal example of the hard times facing the post-Soviet Russian population:

When The Wall Street Journal first visited the Starodubovs as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, salami was also an important issue. To get some, Svetlana and her husband, Vitaly, had to stand in line for three-and-a-half hours in the winter cold holding baby Irina.
The paper has kept up with the family's progress. The Starodubovs have steady jobs and economic security today, and their fortunes are seen as an important bellweather of popular feeling on Russian President Vladimir Putun's political future:

The Starodubovs' ascent from the hand-to-mouth existence of the 1990s to relative security today helps explain why President Vladimir Putin is perceived so differently in Russia than he is in the West. For many here, he is a hero. After nearly two decades of crazy desperation and living from one day to the next, the relative calm of the Putin era feels like such a tremendous achievement that for many in Russia, it's more than enough to earn their loyalty.

"To tell the truth, I don't know who runs out of money these days," says Vitaly. "I don't think anyone is that badly off."

Since Mr. Putin took office in 2000, about 20 million Russians have been lifted above the official poverty line (another 20 million remain in poverty, according to government figures). An oil-fired economic boom has brought long-awaited stability after a string of crises in the 1990s and more than doubled average incomes, adjusted for inflation, since 2000. A middle class is growing, but so is the gap between rich and poor. Still, the government is scrambling to pour tens of billions of dollars into rebuilding Russia's crumbling roads, power networks, hospitals and schools, all of which have seen little investment since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Rising incomes are the big reason why nearly half of Russians say they want Mr. Putin to stay on when his term ends next spring, even though that would require changing the constitution. Mr. Putin has said he won't do that, but recently said he might become prime minister after the March elections.
The Starodubovs say they like the stability Putin has brought to Russian. Their lack of concern for Putin's autocratic tendencies is an example of Russia's authoritarian political culture, which is charaterized by attitudes of dependence on the state, and the need for protection and security.

Read the whole article, in any case. Cell phones, DVDs, and the internet are regular features of Starodubov family life. A very Americanized family life, in many respects, and quite different from the Stalinist existence under the old Soviet Union (nothwithstanding the lingering cultural authoritarianism).