I'm sitting inside a run-down bus station in a little village about 2 hours outside of Lipetsk, which is itself about 10 hours from Moscow by train. The sun is struggling to force its way through the dirty windows of the terminal, but despite the shade provided by the thick layer of grime on the glass, the stifling heat penetrates just the same. It's somewhere around 96 degrees, I think.
The bus to Lipetsk is already 20 minutes late, and I'm worried about making my train back to Moscow. Never did I think I would long for Moscow so intensely, but after a week in and out of provincial towns and villages (all without hot water), Moscow is like an oasis on the horizon, rising out of the parched earth. But only if the bus shows up.
The red tiled floor of the bus station is wet, as an old woman has been mopping the floor for the last hour or so. Actually, my week in the provinces has taught me that people here look a lot older than they really are. So she's probably in her mid-50s. Every once in a while she shuffles back over to her bucket of muddy water to wring out the towel before wrapping it back around the broom. Thus is her "mop."
The bus station has that pleasant smell of water and dirt mixing, almost like when it rains. It's the smell I remember from my childhood when I had to clean the garage and after moving out all the bikes, tools, and other junk, got to hose it all down - the only fun part about garage cleaning day. Except now in the bus station, the water is quickly evaporating, taking with it the freshly-washed smell. In its place, the stations usual odor returns, something akin to a public restroom though thankfully not quite as intense. But it confirms my suspicion that perhaps in their more inebriated moments some Russians do use it as such.
Sitting across from me is quite literally the ugliest woman I've ever seen in my life. The only reason I'm sharing this with you is because it's not an exaggeration - this is the really the most unattractive woman I've ever seen, and so I feel like this is an important event in my life worthy of sharing. I'm not trying to be mean, just telling the facts. I guess "she-bear" is probably the most succinct way to describe her. I avoid making eye contact for fear that she-bear will bite my head off.
Naturally, I wonder to myself, "how in God's name did I end up in this place???"
Well, I'll tell you how, in hopes of gaining if not your respect and admiration for the rigors of social science, then at least maybe some pity. Pity for the long series of poor life choices that brought me to this bus station, beginning with the idea that graduate school would be a good thing. It's times like these when I wonder why I didn't go to law school...
First, I gathered lots and lots of data on each of Russia's 89 administrative regions. All sorts of economic, political, and social indicators for each region. While I complained about the tedious nature of this at the time, the thought of sitting in front of a computer in my room in Moscow sifting through statistical yearbooks now sounds like heaven on earth.
Once I had all my relevant data, I ran it through a series of calculations to produce pairs of regions that are identical except for one key variable. Thus, Tambov and Lipetsk oblasts have virtually identical economic growth rates, unemployment rates, higher education levels, urbanization levels, and ethnic compositions. Even their most recent regional elections were equally competitive. The only difference is that Lipetsk has a GDP per capita that is nearly twice that of Tambov. So, if we believe that wealth is an important factor shaping an individual's political beliefs, then in this pair of regions we would expect that difference to be apparent.
So now I have two regions, but then what? Since we want both urban and rural people represented, we start with the regional capitol. One voting district in the city is randomly selected, followed by a street within that district randomly selected. From there, we begin knocking on doors at the first house/apartment on that street. If they answer the door and agree to take the survey, we're in luck. If not, we move four apartments ahead and try again. If a person does agree, the fun doesn't stop there. Then we ask to speak to the person who most recently had a birthday - they're the lucky winner who gets to spend 30 minutes answering questions about politics in the muggy heat of the hallway (few people invite us into their apartments).
The process is basically the same for the rural areas - a rayon (district) is randomly selected, followed by a town randomly selected within that rayon, then a specific settlement within that town. And instead of having the luxury of going up stairwells knocking on doors of apartments, we trudge along in the heat going from house to house. Oh, and in the villages we have to watch out for dogs which don't seem to appreciate social scientists very much. I don't blame them, really.
Now, what's the point of all of these silly random headaches? I guess the proper answer, the one that my professors would want me to tell you, is that it's good social scientific methodology. By randomly selecting at every stage, we avoid introducing any voluntary or involuntary bias into who we select to talk to. Thus, while it might be tempting to select that apartment building over there because it doesn't look so scary and run down, it probably means there are wealthier people living there. And rich people think differently than poor people, so like it or not, you've just biased your sample.
Of course, the real reason I'm going to all this trouble is self-defense. It's so that when I stand up in front of my peers to present my work (or worse, in front of a hiring committee), nobody can accuse me of selection bias. One less fatal arrow shot my way, though it's still quite a pain in the ass. I also wonder whether it really matters if you've been shot by 21 poisonous darts rather than 20. In other words, there will be plenty of other fatal flaws in my work, I'm sure. But not selection bias!
Now, I'm sure most of you could care less about social scientific research design. And those of you that do care are probably my classmates whose brains have been turned to mush thanks to the infinite wisdom of KKV already. But to reward any of you who are silly enough to still be reading this, here are a few general observations I've drawn from my 20 interviews in Tambov and Lipetsk. Mind you, this is a small sample - 10 rural and 10 urban respondents, and while there's not selection bias, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's representative of all of Russia. But I would bet that I've talked to 20 more "regular Russians" about these political issues than most pundits in Moscow, not to mention outside of Russia. So in the very least, just know that these opinions are out there among the Russians...
1) Many respondents understand the pluses and minuses of democracy and authoritarianism. They know that under authoritarianism people can't select their leaders and can't criticize the regime. But they also believe that under authoritarianism things are more orderly, the state fulfills its functions better, and the economy is more stable. And so while they know that there are bad things about authoritarian government, many people seem to believe that the "positives" still outweigh the negatives.
2) At the same time, many respondents don't have a consistent set of beliefs about democracy and authoritarianism. Thus, they answer that "having a strong leader who doesn't have to worry about things like elections or parliament" would be a good thing. But for the very next question they also say that "having a democratic political system" would be a good thing. Thus, for many people these things are not mutually exclusive. This would suggest that either they don't really understand what democracy means, or that they're working with a very different definition of democracy than we do.
3) On that note, if you ask them to talk about problems that come along with democracy, they start talking about low pensions, unpaid wages, unemployment, high prices, and crime. Notice that none of these things really have anything to do with democracy per se. They are not components of the classical definition of liberal democracy. But this is what democracy means to Russians because this is what they had in the 1990s when they had supposed "democracy." This doesn't necessarily mean that Russians don't want the classic "goods" of democracy - free speech, elections, freedom of assembly, free press, etc. - but it does mean that any political elites trying to carry the mantle of democracy will have a hard time convincing people to follow them. Democracy and democrats have a bad name in Russia.
4) But how much do Russians really want the classic "goods" of democracy? When asked what the most important problems facing Russia today are, nobody - nobody - said anything about loss of freedom of speech, the loss of a free press, the strengthening of the state, the erosion of political competition. Again, it was all about pensions, unemployment, wages, and prices. Nor did people believe that protecting liberal rights are among the most important functions to be fulfilled by the state.
5) Regardless of what the want or don't want, the respondents with whom we spoke are extremely passive when it comes to politics. While nearly everyone could give examples of policies made by the state in the last 15 years that they were unhappy about, the vast majority of respondents expressed their dissatisfaction by talking about it with friends and family. Nothing more. A few people said they had or might be inclined to sign a petition in the future, but hardly anyone said that they would be likely to attend a demonstration, for example.
What does this mean for Russia's political development? It seems clear that the state has systematically be reducing the number of independent poles of political power - the media, the duma, political parties, the courts, the governors have all had their wings clipped by the Kremlin. It seems that the only force remaining that might be able to exercise political power in opposition to the state are citizens themselves by taking to the streets in large numbers. But as the many demonstrations in Russia in the last few months have shown, even this method is being severely restricted by the state. But beyond the state's actions discouraging mass protest action, my interviews demonstrated that most people are simply apathetic to political action and are unlikely to take to the streets anytime soon. So those of you waiting for a new revolution shouldn't hold your breath....
6) A series of questions were asked whereby respondents had to rate whether some of Russia's neighboring countries are more democratic or more authoritarian. Not surprisingly, their answers didn't really reflect the true democraticness of the countries under question, but rather reflected subjective opinions about what they thought of those countries. Thus, Estonia and Ukraine were most often labeled as fairly authoritarian countries, whereas Belarus is downright democratic. After all, "that Lukashenko is a good muzhik!"
7) People were asked to rate the political system in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Not surprisingly, they rated it fairly positively. However, when asked whether such a political system would suit Russia today, most answered that it would not, stating that "that was a different time, and things have changed now." I found this surprising, as most superficial surveys you read about in the news assume that because people rate the Brezhnev era highly they must want things to be like they were in "the good old days." Many people did mention problems with the Brezhnev era - empty shelves being the most frequent answer - but, like it or not, now they have a new system with new problems. So they'll get by.
So, there are some tentative observations. I'll again repeat the warning that this is a small sample and isn't necessarily representative of all of Russia. There will be another 20 interviews coming from Yaroslavl and Nizhny Novgorod, but even at 40 it won't be representative. The main attraction will come later this fall when we conduct a representative nationwide survey of 1,500 Russians. Then I might be able to say something definitive, though you'll probably have to wait for the dissertation to get the juiciest material. But like those waiting for the revolution, I wouldn't hold your breath - it might be a while...