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Shifts in Popular Mentality


The 1999 and 2003 election cycles revealed significant shifts in Russia’s political and ideological landscape over the preceding decade. At the start of the market reforms Russian society had been split into two big camps of Communists and democrats. These ideological labels were imprecise and disguised the conflict between traditionalists (Communists) and reformers (democrats).  

Yeltsin triumphant

At that time most of the democrats espoused radical liberal solutions and enjoyed an impressive support of 40 to 45 percent of the socially active population. They proclaimed the supremacy of the “Western” economic and political patterns, denying that the Soviet past could offer any usable elements. The traditionalists, on the other hand, insisted on Russia’s “own way” and fought to preserve its identity shaped both by its Soviet and pre-Soviet history.

Boris Yeltsin shedding a tear during his resignation speech

In the course of the 1990s this ideological polarization was diffused and transformed into a number of ideological-political strands. The most spectacular – threefold – decline was in the ranks of the supporters of radical market reforms, and for obvious reasons. At the start of the reforms of the early 1990s, the democrats had embraced enthusiastically and uncritically a set of attractive but abstract ideas, such as democracy, human rights, and the market economy. By contrast, at the close of the decade the general population had firsthand experience of homegrown liberalism in all its concrete and often unappealing political and economic realities.

The disappointment with the liberal prescriptions translated into a general disaffection with the West, blamed for its support of the Russian “shock therapists.” As a result, a considerable number of former liberals and “westernizers” went over to the side of the nationalists.

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