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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Unpacking Freedom

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A report last week that the percentage of Russians who favor the re-imposition of some form of censorship has risen from 49 percent in November to 57 percent now has led some both in Moscow and elsewhere to draw apocalyptic conclusions about the future of Russian freedom.

But a broader study published in Moscow recently by Yuri Levada, one of Russia's leading pollsters, suggests that changes in popular support for one form of freedom may not lead to changes in the level of support for other kinds.

In that study, Levada compared changes in Russian attitudes toward particular freedoms in 1999 as against those in 1995.

He found that during that five-year interval, the values assigned to freedom of speech, multiparty elections, and Russia's rapprochement with the West have declined, while people's attitudes regarding freedom to leave the country have remained practically unchanged, and evaluations of free enterprise and especially the right to strike have improved."

According to Levada's data, 53 percent of Russians said in 1994 that Russia had gained freedom of speech and the press during the last decade while only 47 percent said so in 1999. The percentage saying that freedom to leave the country represented a gain stayed nearly constant at 45 and 43 percent in those two years. And the number identifying the right to strike as a gain rose from 23 percent to 32 percent.

Such a pattern challenges the assumptions about the nature of the spread of freedom made both by Russians and by those in the West who have sought to promote a free society in Russia. Both groups have tended to assume that progress in one area will more or less automatically translate into progress in another or that retrenchment in one area will lead to retrenchment in all.

But Levada's comparative data suggest that the situation is far more complex, that changes in support for one kind of freedom may in fact say little about changes in support for another kind of freedom at least in the short term. And they point to three broader considerations that those who are concerned about promoting the extension of freedom appear likely to have to incorporate into their thinking.

First, both individuals and groups not only understand different things under the term "freedom" but value them differently. That is almost certainly true in all societies and may be situationally specific. Both the data Levada provides and the conclusions he offers reflect this linguistic problem. But that in turn suggests that those who would promote freedom must be concerned with expanding its definition as well as its practice.

Second, changes within the hierarchy of valued freedoms may nonetheless be added together in a way that shows a broader trend. The same surveys that Levada cites to make his conclusions also show that between 1995 and 1999, the percent of Russians who considered that they are free people living in a free society rose from 29 to 36 percent, with the share of the population believing that they are not in that situation, falling from 58 to 51 percent.

And third, evaluations of different forms of freedom may vary especially in response to short-term changes, but over time ever more aspects of freedom are likely to be included within the popular understanding of what is free and what is not. That in turn means that welcoming progress in one area or bemoaning its lack elsewhere in each case need to be put in the context of the general trend -- and that trend appears to be moving in a positive direction.

In addition to these three considerations, Levada's work opens the door to some broader reflections about the precise relationship among support for different kinds of freedom in different kinds of societies. Those considerations in turn are likely to lead to greater understanding of the complexities of progress toward freedom more generally.

And such a deeper understanding of the nature of freedom almost certainly will lead to the elaboration of new ways to promote it, a development that only further underscores the value and importance of the initially unsettling information that these Russian surveys provide.