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LOOKING AHEAD
05.06.2009

June 3, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)

Sergey Israpilov

IT'S TIME TO RECOVER CONSCIOUSNESS

To overcome the adversity of crisis, the Russian society has to give up consumerist illusions

SCANTY WEAL, BEAMY FANTASIES

Today's Russia can be recognized as a country with an advanced "consumer society". But unlike the nations of the "golden billion", the major goods, consumed in this country, are images and illusions. In order to purchase these goods, Russians frequently economize even on food and essential goods.

Metropolises, glistening with advertising lights, flows of luxurious autos and reckless restaurant hooperdoo fascinate the imagination of most Russians, though these advantages are still available for a narrow minority.

Personal incomes of Russians were ostensibly increasing throughout the abundant 2000s. However, this improvement was very uneven: while some were buying yachts, diamonds, and foreign stocks, the majority was still crawling out from the impenetrable misery of the 1990s.

In fact, the last sixteen years were marked with a significant reduction of consumption in most of commodity sections. On the background of a really impressing increase of oil and gas revenues, an ordinary Russian still restricts his expenses for basic needs, seeking a possibility to buy cheaper food and rarely traveling by train and by air.

Table 1. Physical amounts of consumption (trend)

Annual consumption of major consumer goods

1989

2000

2008

Bread, kg

115

118

101

Meat, kg

69

46

55

Dairy products, l

369

229

240

Eggs, mln

309

210

250

TV sets, mln

4.9

2.5

9.7

Housing, thous. newapartments

1210

375

714

Railway passenger transportation, mln

2372

1419

1278

Air passenger transportation, mln

90

22

40

Crop acreage, mln ha

112.1

69.1

76.9

Cattle stock, mln

45.3

16.4

21.1

CONTRACTION OF THE "CONSUMER PIE"

Statistics cannot comprehensively estimate the changes that have taken place in our life during the two decades. Today, free and qualified medical assistance is hardly available, and treatment of chronic diseases absorbs most of a pensioner's income. After the reform of education, a huge number of the youth is losing the possibility of higher education. The housing infrastructure, even built in 1960s, is exhausting its limit of secure exploitation. Meanwhile, the failure of the pension reform is fraught with a dire perspective for millions of citizens of a swiftly ageing country.

Even a relatively long period of stable growth between 2000 and 2008 has not compensated the social catastrophe of the 1990s. At the consumer market, growth was most spectacular in the sphere of "new economy", i.e. in the sector of entertainment, imposed with massive advertising technologies. At the same time, consumption of basic goods and products were swiftly declining. Generally, a change of the "consumer epoch" in Russia should be fairly characterized as an era of shrinking consumption of essential goods.

INDIFFERENCE AS THE BACK SIDE OF CONSUMERISM

On the background of the crisis, the exhaustion of "incoming traffic" is visible everywhere. The "social pie" has shrunk to a small bun. But still, the Russian society is blinded with the mirage of luxury and unbridled consumption.

Even faced with a necessity to return the money, borrowed in the period of ostensible boom for acquiring a better flat, a better car, or a plasma panel, the Russian consumer society does not still realize that these recent acquisitions on the background of a generally low living standard were inadequate. The population is just waiting for a weather change that would return the earlier amount of salary, or at least relieve the debts. The upper class is feeding itself with the same illusions.

The fact that the troubles of one part of the Russian population are not understood by their well-to-do compatriots, is only one half of the national problem. The second yawning gap has emerged between the prosperous metropolises and the impoverished province.

In 1990s, when I served in the army in the remote town of Yurga, the TV was focused on the warfare in my native Caucasus. In the icy abandoned streets, I stumbled upon dead bodies of homeless Siberians. Has the Russian society become more tolerant to their neighbors in deep water? The popular "Camera Obscura" program featured the reaction of people to TV actors who disguised themselves as beggars. Most of them squeamishly puckered or displayed aggression. Meanwhile, any person who would spend two days without food acquires features of a beast, driven with instinctive impulses.

CONSUMPTION THAT RUINS HEALTH

Statistic data convincingly indicate that underconsumption is dangerous for the society. Unfortunately, those Russians who are not engaged with hard physical labor and have a possibility to study statistics are mostly indifferent to the mischief of others – that has dramatically increased with the collapse of the mortgage market that was one of the major vehicles of popular illusions.

Realizing that it is not longer available to live for expense of future incomes, Russians haven't given up the fetish of consumption. Many of my students cannot afford a dinner but use super-expensive smartphones and I-phones. The fun they derive from those fancy means of communication can hardly compensate the harm from using cheap low-quality physical food.

In fact, self-deception had long become a tradition that alienates people from real problems. Since 2000, an average Russian spent most of his time for TV entertainment and alcohol abuse, which are things of the same kind. TV sets and bottles of vodka had been the most popular goods for the fifteen years of Russian "post-industrialism".

HOW TO OVERCOME APATHY?

The Russian society is very similar today to a non-responding computer. We are still consuming certain energy, but are unable to transform it into any positive and adequate impulse, or even try to reload ourselves. Most of the people are watching the floor or the pavement, expecting that "the top guys" make a correct decision. But the top guys are also increasingly focused on their own survival.

Moreover, the higher level you reach, the more awesome it is to look up and assess the whole picture. A huge part of the intelligentsia has consciously transformed into "office plankton", giving up the potential of understanding, reacting, and initiating a change. This reluctance from initiative is expressed in the universal application of a catchword, literally meaning "blunt": just bluntly work, bluntly earn, bluntly relax, but never really care.

This malady can hardly be healed with traditional political instruments. There is no reform that can overcome apathy, degradation, and devolution. It does not make sense to urge politicians "to do something": they see similar problems in the sinking Europe and the lopsided America. But if the problem encompassed only Russia, would that be better?

Still, something can be done: first of all, to get rid of illusions before they get rid of you. The hopes to hide in a safe haven, stealing common goods into one's small raft, are void: safe havens are not going to exist any longer. In case the fire of enraged poverty splashes out in the quietest places, the criminal boiler will burst at the same place.

What can we do? First of all, not to be "blunt". We have to look around and realize the truth, no matter how unpleasant it is. We have to stretch our hands to more desperate humans, and give up laughing at the sight of the neighbor's problems, as there are no "problems of other people" any more.


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