New Collectivism: A Cure for Russia's Ills

Cold 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 kitchen.

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.

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) models.

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 Russia?

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 Russia’s 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 people—people 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 Russia’s 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 illegal immigrants.

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 Russia’s 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 children.—WPR]

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.