From, March 13, 2024, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note – “Traditional values” is an expression that the Russian authorities have been using a lot in recent years to explain why Russia has a “special path” to follow. Every time they further restrict civil liberties, they claim they are doing so in order to “protect” traditional values against the “threat” coming from the West. In order to make it clear to people what the state means by “traditional Russian spiritual and ethical values,” there are a number of official documents laying them out. But are those values truly traditional? Are they purely Russian? Do Russians really embrace those values as their own? What kind of values have been popular among Russians for the last 15 years? (And what about hedonism?) Is it even possible for a foreign country to “impose its alien values” on people? How different are the values shared by Russian from those shared by Europeans? To discuss all these questions, Opinionsmet with social scientist Maksim Rudnev, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo, Canada, who has been studying the subject for years.

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Question. – Let’s start by defining values. How do researchers describe what values are?

Answer. – I can give you the definition offered by a prominent contemporary researcher, social psychologist Shalom Schwartz. In his opinion, individual values are people’s abstract end goals, certain axioms, “the things that matter to me.” So, when people have a disagreement, they use values as their ultimate argument. Values don’t always coincide with what benefits you personally right here and now; in some cases, people may even choose their values over their immediate interest. But that’s because people can believe that there are certain remote and abstract things that are even more important.

Q. – What does the values scale look like?

A. – The most popular scale of individual values was suggested, again, by Shalom Schwartz. It is a circle formed by 10 (sometimes 20) values. These form two diametrically opposed dimensions: one ranging from Conservation to Openness to Change and the other one ranging from Self-Enhancement to Self-Transcendence.

The values that fall under Self-Transcendence are Benevolence (meaning that you take care of the people close to you – your family and friends) and Universalism (meaning that you care about the welfare of all people and about nature). The opposite sector, the one that falls under Self-Enhancement, includes values like Power/Wealth (meaning desire for social status and prestige) and Achievement (implying recognition from others).

The Openness to Change quadrant consists of Self-Direction (freedom of thought and choice, creativity), Stimulation (excitement, novelty, doing something daring, taking risks) and, to some extent, Hedonism (pleasure or sensual gratification). Hedonism is actually a borderline value between Openness to Change and Self-Enhancement because sometimes it has to do with your willingness to experiment, and sometimes with your selfishness and self-enhancement. The opposite sector, that of Conservation, consists of values that are perhaps closest to what new Russian laws and strategies call “traditional values”: Tradition (acceptance of customs, especially religious ones), Conformity (following the rules) and Security (safety and protection).

The latter three values, as well as the values in the Self-Transcendence sector, reflect group interests, while Self-Direction, Stimulation, Hedonism, Achievement and Power/Wealth are individual.

Q. – Would it be correct to say that this value model is not judgmental? In other words, there are no “good” or “bad” values here?

A. – Yes, all of these values are more or less socially approved – some perhaps more than others, but there are no values here that would be clearly negative, like deceit or betrayal. In fact, Schwartz is sometimes criticized for not including such “antivalues.”

Q. – And whose values are we talking about here? Is it some imaginary average person?

A. – No, these are values of a specific individual. In other words, you conduct a survey among a large number of people, but you question each person separately. Of course, later on you can generalize and draw comparisons between different categories of people or between countries. For example, you may want to see where Russians are similar to people in other countries – or, on the contrary, where they differ. . . .

Now, about whether values tend to change over time. The biggest trend is, perhaps, a pretty significant increase in Hedonism and Stimulation. This is quite surprising, if we recall how people’s lives changed from 2006 to 2021: Their welfare improved, their incomes grew. One would expect to see a major decrease in Power/Wealth, because people had satisfied their need for that. And indeed, we saw a drop in that value, but only a very slight one. Instead, as I said, we had a huge increase in Hedonism and Stimulation. My theory is that we saw a major shift in consumer behavior: While in the past, people focused on surviving, saving up and ensuring their security, today their focus is on consumption and enjoying life. Accordingly, they care more about having a good time, enjoying themselves, living large, etc.

Q. – How else do you explain this trend – apart from the fact that the study was conducted while Russia was enjoying a spell of prosperity? Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses; we had a few crises as well during that period. But still, the overall trend was positive. Could it be that the new generation of young people, who grew up during this period of prosperity, take it for granted that one should be able to enjoy life?

A. – We considered that theory, but eventually we had to abandon it. Contrary to our expectations, this shift happened primarily among older people. I mean, on the one hand, you’re right. The older generation of people gradually died off. These people were disadvantaged compared to others. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were in a very bad place. They lost their social capital. Many of them lost their lifelong jobs and their savings. They were castaways. Obviously, they were focused on surviving; hedonism was a very foreign idea to them. But the following generation, the next few cohorts, finally developed a joie de vivreover these 15 years, and it is this category that accounts for the bulk of growth in Hedonism and Stimulation.

But I need to make an important remark here. When I say that the value of Hedonism became more popular, it doesn’t mean that Hedonism is the dominating value now. It is still near the bottom of the ladder. If we look at some other European countries, we will see that Hedonism ranks a little higher there than in Russia. We have not yet caught up with Europe in this regard. In other words, we have only started shifting toward Europe. By 2021, we had more or less recovered from survival mode.

Q. – Are there any values where you observe a significant drop-off?

A. – We haven’t seen a dramatic decrease in any of the values. But the [COVID‑19] pandemic muddled the trends, pushing Security and Benevolence (i.e., caring for others) up. Before the pandemic, from 2006 to 2018, Security was drifting down, but the pandemic pushed it back up, and now Security is by far the top value.

Q. – I know researchers hate making predictions, but still. The last series of polls was taken in 2021, but then the war [in Ukraine] started in 2022. How will the war affect the values situation in Russia? After all, I hope you agree that it is a very dramatic event in the lives of many people in Russia.

A. – Absolutely. Generally speaking, one would expect to see some major changes, like when the pandemic hit or something even more dramatic than that. Security should go up, while Stimulation and Hedonism should trend down (on the other hand, Hedonism is linked to aggression). We should also watch out for Power/Wealth and Conformity, because Russian propaganda pushes the ideas of global hegemony on the one hand, and civil obedience on the other. I really hope that we get a chance to conduct the next wave of polls for the European Social Survey in 2024. It will be interesting to see the results. . . .

Q. – Let’s go back to the subject of how Russia compares to other European countries based on this and other surveys. Do Russians share pretty much the same values as Europeans? Or are we following our own, special path? Is Russia really the guardian of true European values, as the Russian authorities like to claim? Or perhaps we should accept that we are “Scythians” and “Asians,” as Aleksandr Blok said in his famous poem?

A. – Looking for differences is a popular pastime. It is always more interesting than looking for similarities. That’s how our brain works – we tend to focus on differences, even though things we have in common are often just as important.

In fact, if we compare Russia with other European countries, we will see that Russia is actually not that different from Eastern Europe.

Apart from Eastern Europe, some nations in southern Europe, like Italy and Greece, are also close to us in terms of values. Western Europe, where countries are wealthier and more democratic, are a bit more different, which is only natural. But I repeat, the overall hierarchy of values is pretty similar in all of those countries.

It’s hard to say whether Russians can be described as “Scythians” and “Asians,” because researchers rely on data from the European Social Survey, which only covers European countries. (The only exceptions are Turkey and Israel, which appear in polls from time to time.) There is also the World Values Survey, but it, too, shows that Russia is closer to secular East European countries and that the distance between Russia and Asian countries is about the same as between Russia and Muslim countries.

Q. – Does the picture of the Russian people you get based on these surveys match what the authorities call “traditional Russian values” – a term that is now enshrined in Russia’s laws and official strategies? And what does this term actually mean, in your opinion?

A. – Many people, including myself, have tried to figure out what the Kremlin means by that. I’m not sure whether we should keep on trying. Considering that the Russian state doesn’t have an official ideology today, this looks like an effort to invent one – or to find something that would take its place. These values are listed in the National Security Strategy.

Q. – If I may, I’d like to quote it here (Clause 91): “Traditional Russian spiritual and ethical values include, first and foremost, life, dignity, human rights and liberties, patriotism, civic duty, serving the Fatherland and feeling responsible for its future, high moral standards, strong family ties, productive labor, spiritual wealth over material wealth, humanism, compassion, justice, collectivism, mutual help and respect, historical memory and intergenerational continuity, and the unity of Russia’s peoples.”

A. – Basically, this is just a patchwork of quotes pulled from all kinds of sources, from the Domostroi1 to the moral code of the builder of communism. In addition to the strategy, we have other laws and documents that use the same list, but all these documents are pretty much useless. Nobody takes them seriously.

Q. – Besides, it seems to me that this set of values does not overlap that much with the values that the people of Russia seem to share based on your research.

A. – Well, let’s take a closer look. Let’s take collectivism, for example. It’s my favorite word. It has practically no meaning of its own. Even researchers often use it to denote different – and sometimes even opposite – things. Let’s say, collectivism means that group interest should take priority over individual interest. To some extent, this overlaps with Universalism and Benevolence (caring for others), while Self-Enhancement is the opposite of collectivism. But Russia ranks highest in Europe in terms of Self-Enhancement! So if we say that Russia is the paragon of genuine, “traditional” collectivism, other countries, like Sweden or France, should be considered supercollectivist compared to Russia, because Russia looks extremely noncollectivist compared to them.

“Strong family ties” hardly applies to us either, if you remember the demographic situation we’re in, with a flagging birth rate and a high divorce rate.

Then, there is an assumption that Russians are religious. Actually, this isn’t true. Russia is one of the most secular countries in the world. People here aren’t religious at all. And so on and so forth.

In my opinion, the term “traditional values” is used by the authorities to denote how they would like Russians to be.

These are just some guidelines, a set of standards to aspire to. It’s as if the authorities are telling people, “This is the kind of person you should be. You should be willing to sacrifice your own interest for the sake of the group, for the sake of the state.” But Russians aren’t like that – nor do they want to be like that. And, in all likelihood, they will never be.

Q. – Perhaps the people who write these documents like to think that Russians used to be like that? Traditionalists like to talk about the past. But is it true that Russians used to be like that? Or is this picture of the past, again, the product of someone’s imagination?

A. – Well, there was a time when the birth rate was quite high. But it wasn’t because the authorities promoted “traditional values”; it was because there were no contraceptives. On this point, I think I agree with the researchers who criticize the very concept of values, saying that major trends, like significant changes in the birth rate, have nothing to do with values; ultimately, they happen due to entirely different factors, like technological advances, level of higher education or accessibility of education. And while it is entirely possible that “traditional values” became less popular over the same period of time, it was not the root cause.

Q. – Would you say that Russia has its own peculiar list of “traditional values?” Or is it a more or less standard list of items that every regime uses when it comes to regulating people’s values?

A. – I would say it is a pretty standard neoconservative agenda. When someone wants to rally their nation, they invariably end up extolling the same norms: loyalty to the state, patriotism, collectivism, tradition, religion, family, etc. This may be Africa, Asia or South America. Any dictator will be likely to invoke the same mantras. It’s pretty universal.

Q. – How vulnerable are values? The official narrative claims that Russian values are constantly in danger due to Western influence (what they used to call “pernicious Western influence” 50 years ago). That’s why the Russian state constantly has to protect its values. Is it even possible to protect values by repeating again and again that “traditional Russian spiritual and ethical values” are what matter the most?

A. – I have never studied this subject specifically, but, as far as I know, propaganda generally is not too effective in changing people’s mindset, especially when it comes to core matters like values.

It is relatively easy to change people’s behavior, but as a result people shut up, clam up and stop discussing their values with others. Is it possible to change the things that people only think about without expressing them? I’m not sure. At the very least, you would have to completely isolate them from the rest of the world and make them completely dependent on the narratives that government-controlled television feeds them. Perhaps this could be done in the pre-Internet era, when we only had a small pool of media. But today? Perhaps, the categories of people who are isolated the most, those who don’t use the Internet, those who believe everything they are told, those who get their news from propaganda sources, may experience some change. But then again, these people are fertile soil for this kind of agenda. So, perhaps propaganda does little to change their personal values.

Q. – But doesn’t this mean that the West can’t “impose its alien values” on us either? Because that’s the scare the authorities have been selling to people. Is it even possible to “impose values” on someone?

A. – You’re right, these are two sides of the same coin. Claims like that offer you a glimpse into what the Russian authorities think about values and ways to foster them. Both their efforts to promote “traditional values” and their scary tales about the West “seeking to undermine our values” reveal that they think Russians are puppets who have no mind of their own. You can easily put something into their heads or remove something from their heads. But no, I repeat, it doesn’t work like that with values.

After all, the Russian state has been pushing the “traditional values” agenda for many years, perhaps since 2014-2015. This neoconservative shift did not happen yesterday. And yet all these efforts had little effect on [Russian people’s] values.

1[Domostroi (household manual) was a 16th-century collection of rules concerning religious observances and everyday behavior. – Trans.]