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April 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 4)
New Collectivism: A Cure
for Russia's Ills
Gontmakher, Moskovskie Novosti (liberal weekly), Moscow,
Russia, Jan. 30, 2002
In some publications,
it is said that the transition is under way from Homo sovieticus
to Homo economicus. This is considered a rather positive
development. Now, so the thinking goes, the typical Russian
is beginning to behave according to economic considerations,
which are replacing the circumstances (primarily ideological)
bequeathed to us by Soviet man.
Comfort Since the Soviet Union's end, Russians
have endured a sharp drop in living standards. Moscow's
homeless brave subzero temperatures at an outdoor soup
It would not be wrong to suppose that if people come under the
direction of the laws of the marketplace in their daily lives,
then these laws automatically shape their internal world in
the image and form of Western (primarily liberal, individualistic)
From this it does not necessarily follow that the Russian state,
having re-established its footing, ought to be concerned with
the formation of its citizens internal worlds. For a certain
period of time and up to a certain point, only a totalitarian
state is capable of this.
Can one say, on the basis of the stage of the market transition
and generational change, that Homo economicus has triumphed
In my opinion, the most basic challenge for Russia, on which
its future largely depends, is preserving the population in
the most literal, physical sense.
Only two banal facts are apparent on the surface: The population
of Russia is declining from year to year, and the average life
expectancy of a citizen (especially a man) is at an unprecedented
peacetime low. The loudest cries come from those who speak of
the annihilation of the Russian people owing to a worldwide
conspiracy. Unfortunately, it is not just hysterical chauvinists
who believe in this gibberish. The situation is far worse and
more complicated. What do we see?
1) A widening discrepancy between the size of Russias
population and the territory it occupies. At the same time,
from as far back as the late Soviet era, there has been a redistribution
of people, from north to south and east to west. Restrictions
continue on population movements to large cities from villages,
settlements, and small cities. This creates a mood of mass dissatisfaction,
not only among those forced to flee places where they have lived
for decades but also among native residents of regions who are
unhappy with the influx of new arrivals.
2) There has been a drop in qualitative indicators. There are
growing numbers of invalids. The country has been unsettled
by epidemics involving illnesses of a social character (tuberculosis,
AIDS, venereal diseases); a continuing high rate of heart disease;
the spread of drug abuse; the impoverishment of a significant
portion of the population; neglect of minors; and a falling
level of education.
Theoretically, of course, the current challenge might be met
by a basic increase in labor productivity. Even if investment
were to flood in tomorrow, it would immediately become clear
that, for many employment vacancies, one could not find people
who are sufficiently healthy or who have sufficient education
(especially technical or management training).
In addition, the current economic restructuring, multiplied
by the expected effects from entry into the World Trade Organization,
would cause the unemployment of at least 10-12 million peoplepeople
now working for nonviable enterprises. This absolutely unavoidable
action would require the state to allocate significant resources
for retraining workers. It would be another factor hindering
rapid growth of the gross domestic product (GDP).
Now, back to the question of values that drive people. It would
suffice if some 15-20 percent of the Russian people showed concern
for the future of the Russian nation. Such concern apparently
does exist. First, as noted, it is manifested in a deformed
fashion as hysterical chauvinism (the genocide of Russians).
Second, some of the most active and advanced citizens strive
quite selflessly to change the situation, uniting to preserve
public health and rehabilitate the population. Third, this subject
is occasionally identified with the growth in religious sentiment.
Hence, one can state with a high degree of certainty that there
is a critical mass concerned with the fate of the nation. There
is insufficient political will, however, to turn this mass from
hysteria to constructive action. The state has not realized
the depth and extent of Russias ongoing crisis. The year
2000-01 saw growth in GDP, a budget surplus, and a reduction
in inflation. A degree of complacency became evident. The political
elite is committed to election cycles. A four-year horizon for
thinking is sensible, however, only when the existing order
has been reliably secured. What kind of action is needed to
right this situation?
1) Attracting compatriots and migrants back to Russia. According
to specialists estimates, up to 5 million Russian-speakers
could, under certain circumstances, return to Russia as permanent
residents from [the near abroad], providing necessary labor
resources of adequate quality. We ought to consider how to attract
to Russia non-Russian-speakers, too. We must think about quotas
for people from the far abroad and a stricter policy toward
2) Increasing the birth rate. Increasing benefits for children
and other direct means will not have the desired result. The
birth rate will increase to the advantage of the marginal part
of the population. But there are other possibilities: free fertility
treatment and artificial insemination.
3) Securing a satisfactory childhood. The federal program Russias
Children, which has been implemented for the past several years,
will, in the best of circumstances, lead to a dissipation of
resources. [The program, established by presidential decree
in 1994, deals with social, economic, and health issues concerning
4) Preventive measures directed against the high mortality rate.
5) New budget priorities. These are very expensive. The country
faces a choice, however: Continue with significant expenditures
along these lines or face direct threat of degradation and extinction.
Obviously, these expenditures should not conflict with the severe
financial policies of the past several years. There are several
basic approaches, including special taxes. Another possibility
would be philanthropy by large- and medium-sized businesses.
In general, however, all the efforts of the state in the social
sphere are likely to be for naught and even harmful if local
self-government remains in its current sad state.
As in the past, the government does not trust the nascent civil
society. We need to strengthen the funding for local self-government
and to introduce a practical mechanism for dialogue between
the state and society, together with competition by civic, nonprofit
organizations for budget resources to allow them to deliver
services. In the final analysis, it is this kind of new collectivism
that Russia needs.
Yevgeni Gontmakher is the director of the Department of Social
Development of the Russian government.