Russian Social Fragmentation and Its Geopolitical Consequences

By Shlapentokh, Dmitry | The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Russian Social Fragmentation and Its Geopolitical Consequences


Shlapentokh, Dmitry, The World and I


Dmitry Shlapentokh is a professor at Indiana University at South Bend.

Those observing the tranquility in present-day Russia explain it in different ways. For some, this tranquility indicates that Russian society has finally reached equilibrium after almost fifteen years of turmoil. According to this viewpoint, the population has bought into the future envisaged by Vladimir Putin--that if the economy continues to grow as it has over the last couple of years and Russian society remains stable, the country will become a strong and prosperous state.

Other observers see the present calmness as the lull before the next revolution. They assert that the lingering poverty and the proliferation of extremist groups will eventually lead citizens to rebel.

However, the chances for sporadic violent outbreaks notwithstanding, my recent visit to St. Petersburg left me with the impression that Russia could hardly experience a great revolution. This is owing not so much to the economic improvements, or even to an abhorrence of violence, as it is to the fact that Russians, whether ordinary citizens or members of the bureaucracy, are too fragmented to engage in a collective action, especially a full-scale revolution. Because of this fragmented opposition, Putin's assurances to the population that Russia will become stable could very well come true. At the same time, however, this state could be extremely vulnerable to well-organized and cohesive forces, as the recent terrorist attacks in Moscow demonstrate.

Poverty and disunity

While it would be wrong to state that there have been no improvements in the life of many ordinary citizens, these improvements should not be overestimated. Even Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg's version of New York's Fifth Avenue, has a shabby appearance, despite the frenzied restoration under way for the city's 300-year anniversary.

And if one wanders a few blocks away, he is taken back in time to 1918, the time of the Russian Civil War. A makeshift market offers scraggly vegetables and various cheap trinkets as its major wares. The streets are filled with dirty, shabbily dressed people. They are part of the "new poor," whose members are not only the proverbial Russian grandmothers who have gathered alms since the beginning of the changes. The beggars now include young males in their prime and throngs of children and teenagers whose shaved heads and facial expressions would certainly have aroused the apprehension of Lambrozo, the Italian criminologist who supposed that people are born criminals and could easily be recognized from their appearance. One learns to move warily through the crowds, hands firmly in his pockets to protect his wallet from the pickpockets who ply their trade on all the major streets.

Representatives of the oldest profession are also abundant. One of them approached me and, responding to my curious gaze, said, "Are you looking for something? My price is 700 rubles per hour [$20-25]." Her condescending sneer and leather attire would have been more properly placed not in a house of sin, but rather in the old secret police headquarters on nearby Gorokhovaia Street, now transformed into a museum. According to the guide there, an elderly, intelligent woman, female secret police members were especially brutal during the Russian Reign of Terror during the Civil War.

While poverty and wealth have essential similarities all over the world, the Russian case has a distinct specificity. The difference seems to be spatial--that is, there seems to be nothing in the middle to separate the two extremes, at least from what I saw in St. Petersburg and vicinity. My trip to Vyborg, the old medieval city close to the Finnish border, could serve here as an example. After visiting the local historical archives, I stopped in a shop to get something to eat. The store was outfitted like the shops of my Soviet youth: canned fish, some sausages, cheap cookies. …

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