Much ado about nothing?

Thursday, 24. June 2010     2 comment(s)
Sinikukka Saari
Senior Research Fellow - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

I have often heard the claim that promoting democratic values in Russia is somehow an immoral exercise. As the argument goes, the values of individualism, open competition and liberal democracy are alien to Russia and Russians, and hence Russia should be left alone and allowed to define its own values and standards without outside involvement.

I have always protested against this simplistic way of looking at the issue. Russia is unique – just like all other nations on earth – but there are no grounds for Russian exceptionalism. I believe that Russia is not more different than most (unlike an edited volume by a Finnish academic publishing house claimed in the early 2000s).

However, I recently discovered an interesting survey called the World Values Survey, which has been carried out periodically since the 1980s. The basic idea is to assess what kind of values people around the world have and how those values are changing over time.

As one can imagine, the values people hold dear vary a great deal from country to country. I approach the cross-cultural variation here by looking at just one dimension of value orientation: self-expression versus survival values. Strong self-expression values indicate that people take responsibility over their choices, they accept pluralism in society easily, and value civil and political freedoms. When emphasis is on survival values, the self-expression values are weak, other people are viewed with mistrust and pluralism in society is feared. Order and conformity are valued higher than freedom of choice.

The survey indicates that there is a gradual global trend of moving from survival values towards self-expression values. The trend is further strengthened by economic growth. However, Russia is one of the most striking exceptions. Despite economic growth, survival values dominate among Russians.

So, does this mean that Russia is, after all, more different than most and that its values are not compatible with the western ones? Despite the risk of being accused of stubbornness, I insist the answer to the question should be no.

Russia’s place on the map of world values is far from exceptional: one can find states like Ukraine and Moldova - and even few EU member states like Bulgaria and Estonia - next to Russia on the values map. Also, people tend to value those things they can practice and to play down the importance of the things they don’t have. Once there are more alternatives available and more channels to practice democracy around, these issues are likely to grow in importance - also in Russia.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (2 comments)

3.7.2010, Jeff Jackson

The idea of survival instincts versus self-expression provides an interesting analytical framework to view alongside the over-simplified claim that democratic systems fail to operate in Russia. Combining these value orientations with economic growth and political stability is quite a tricky task when trying to argue that Russians are fundamentally different than westerners. For one thing, the turbulence of the 1990s is still embedded in Russians’ memories, and much of the economic growth may be viewed with skepticism by a bulk of the population because the wealth became consolidated in an upper echelon of society and often restricted to population centers like St. Petersburg and Moskva. Perhaps individual expression and survival are two different categories rather than two ends of the same scale. In other words, the person focused on survival still finds outlets for self-expression, and thus the trend perceived in the study on values is inconclusive evidence – at least when applied to Russians. Resilience is a dominant characteristic that I have personally observed in Russian people many times, but so are their abilities of expression. Given this, there may just be a chance that they trust in their own resilience regardless of the political system ruling their land.

19.7.2010, Sinikukka Saari

Thanks for your interesting thoughts, Jeff. I would kindly ask you to elaborate a bit more on what do you mean by self-expression in this context. There is relatively little room for political self expression in today's Russia, and I think that most observers would agree with me on this. Abilities of artistic expression are not what the survey had in mind -- I think that this is what you are referring to.

Discuss the topic

Personal information