Kiselev Speaks About Stress in the Russian Electorate

Maxim Kiselev, a professor from Moscow State Lomonosov University’s Higher School of Business, a director at the Skolkovo Insitute for Science and Technology, a graduate of Yale’s Department of Sociology (PhD ’96), and former Fox International Fellow spoke this Tuesday afternoon about Russian voter mentality and the economic and political situation in the country.

“Russia is in an in-depth economic crisis,” he said. “Despite hoorah propaganda, the crisis is still going on.”

The numbers support Professor Kiselev’s announcement. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, GDP has dropped by 5 percent, income by 10 percent, education by 10 percent, and investments by 15 percent. This year, 76 percent of Russians reported feeling personally impacted by the depressed economy, up from 53 percent the previous year. And economists agree that the worst is still to come.

In his talk entitled “Crisis in Russia: How People Cope with Stress, and How It is Reflected in Their Electoral Behavior (view video),” Professor Kiselev attempted to resolve the puzzling question: If the Russian economy is under such duress, why did most voters support United Russia (the majority party) and why did so few Russian oppositional voters participate in the September 18 Russian State Duma elections?

Kiselev pointed out that members of the Russian public that might otherwise vote against United Russia did not, for the most part, participate in the recent election. He explained that most of such potential voters focus on their own daily business and economic well-being.  When asked about the participation of young liberals of big cities such as Moscow, he pointed out that this population is the farthest from politics of the entire Russian public.

Kiselev further explained that those that do vote in the Russian elections continue to elect the establishment parties, in spite of the economic crisis.

“Everyone experiences such discontent with the government but still votes for the governing party,” Kiselev said.

Professor Kiselev argued that the Russian people are falling prey to four psychological phenomena – projection, rationalization, stockholm syndrome, and replacement – that allow them to make sense of the economic downturn without placing blame on the current government.

Projection, Kiselev explained, is the misattribution of one’s personal guilt that takes the form of blaming another person or institution.

“Who is in charge of all problems in Russia? The Americans,” he said, explaining how projection as a response to stress takes shape in the Russian discourse. “This is the worst time in Russian-American relations ever. Even in Soviet times, there was not the same kind of anti-American moods in Russia.”

Professor Kiselev went on to describe rationalization, his second principle, by discussing the rhetorical use of Crimea in Russian public discourse. The Russian people, he posited, warrant or justify the economic downturn through the rationalization that “at least Crimea is ours.”

Stockholm syndrome, as Professor Kiselev describes it, can explain the process by which Russians begin to empathize with institutions partly responsible for the economic crisis– such as the Kremlin—just as hostages are observed to develop close bonds to their captors after long periods of imprisonment. Kiselev explained that Stockholm syndrome in the Russian populace could be seen as the response to a form of cognitive dissonance; since the public does not change its behavior, they in turn change their very beliefs.

Professor Kiselev explains that the final psychological phenomenon, replacement, involves increases voter apathy and the populace’s disengagement from politics. As a result of crisis, according to Kiselev, people focus on the demands of their domestic lives and careers instead of taking interest in civic engagement.

“Russians just have this attitude that what is going on at the political level is no longer a value. It is replaced by the value of family,” Professor Kiselev confessed.

Although Professor Kiselev did not offer many solutions to cure the symptoms of stress in the Russian populace, he did venture a guess as to what it might take for the Russian public to become more politically involved and push back against the government establishment.

“The economic state of the country would have to be 10 times worse than it is now. People would have to be totally hungry and deprived from pretty much everything,” he regrettably concluded.

Professor Kiselev’s talk was the first talk in this year’s series “Contemporary Thinkers Program: Focus Russia,” sponsored by the Russian Studies Program, with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation and the European Studies Council at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

Written by Anthony Kayruz and David Kurkovskiy.

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October 6, 2016