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What Numbers Can and Cannot Tell Us about Russian Politics

What Numbers Can And Cannot Tell Us About Russian Politics

New Trends in Russian Political Mentality: Putin 3.0. Elena Shestopal, ed. Lanham, Lexington Books, 2015.


Quantitative measures of political phenomena can be enormously appealing.  They seem to provide a parsimonious expression of political reality.  The “scientific” basis of quantitative methodology also lends to it a logical rigor not found in purely descriptive approaches of politics.   Unfortunately, they are often inaccurate.  The unexpected outcome of the recent US Presidential elections and the Brexit elections in the UK are two notable instances of the failure of quantitative measures in predicting political behavior.

This review of Elena Shestopal’s latest book, New Trends in Russian Political Mentality, Putin 3.0, begins with this cautionary note because the weaknesses of a purely quantitative understanding of politics is a premise that Shestopal and her team of coauthors readily accept and try to avoid.[1] In this book, she examines “images of Russian politics” that have been tracked for more than twenty years.[2]  She addresses these images in four different ways.  The “mentality of Russia’s citizens” in general is dealt with in Part 1 of the book.  Parts 2, 3, and 4 focus upon the perceptions of Russia’s citizens toward authorities, political institutions, and political leadership respectively.  Methodologically, she embraces “qualitative methods”, but resorts to quantitative methods in order to code and scale answers to open-ended questions and to provide analysis of the quantitative survey data.[3]

The strength of this book is found in those sections in which she engages in qualitative research.  Here is an example:

“. . . respondents do not realize their genuine attitude to politicians.  For example, one of the respondents expressed an indifferent attitude to Vladimir Zhirinovsky and rejected the possibility of voting for him.  After the interview, however, she requested that we leave her Zhirinovsky’s photo as a keepsake, and even clasped it to her chest.  It exposes the discrepancy between the rational and unconscious components in her image of this politician.  Other scholars also observed this phenomenon with regard to Zhirinovsky.  Exit polls after elections revealed that the number of people who really voted for him exceeded the number of those who told that to sociologists.  Thus, there is a contradiction between the verbal attitude and the actual political behavior.  It stems from people’s effort to conform to socially approved norms of political behavior.”[4]

A purely quantitative survey would not have caught this respondent’s “genuine” attitude toward Zhirinovsky.

Surely human beings are affected by societal norms.  However, there may very well be more to this than simply an attempt to conform to these norms.  In point of fact, most human beings are highly complex creatures.  In this complexity, individuals may very well embrace a myriad of even contradictory factors when making political decisions.

The writer who has put forth this idea more clearly, and more forcefully, than any other writer in history is none other than Leo Tolstoy, who devoted most of his most famous novel, War and Peace, to debunking the idea that a single causal variable can explain historical events.  He explains, “The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we discover, and each single cause taken separately or the whole series of causes appears to us equally as correct in themselves, and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the event and by its incapacity.”[5]  He adds, “. . .  And so there was no single cause for the events, but it happened simply because it had to happen.  There had to be millions of men, who had renounced human feelings and reason, had to move to the East from the West to kill their fellows, just as some centuries earlier hordes of men had moved from the East to the West killing their fellows.”[6]  In essence, the only way in which political reality can be understood is through the “uniform strivings of people” as the sum of the infinite number of infinitesimal events surrounding any particular event. The novel War and Peace is precisely that – a sum of the infinite number of infinitesimal events surrounding the event which gave birth to modern Russia (the Napoleonic invasion of Russia of 1812).

Shestopal’s rejection of a simplistic (i.e. quantitative) understanding of Russia is not the only thing she has in common with Tolstoy.  Her depiction of the 21st century Russian national spirit is remarkably similar to that found in War and Peace.  She writes, “. . . Russia’s political culture is characterized by a special type of nationalism … [which] arises from opposition to ‘an enemy’ or ‘a stranger.'”[7]  This results in an unconscious desire to see a “strong, firm government” which leads Russia as a great world power.[8]  This tendency is augmented by the Russian Orthodox Church, which supports the notion the “power is concentrated within the hands of a monarch.”[9] These two components are accompanied by the personalization of politics historically seen in Russia as well as a negative image of democratic and bureaucratic politics.[10]

The conclusive findings of this book are found in the post-script.  Shestopal concludes, “Today we clearly observe the end of a large historical period.  It commenced with Gorbachev’s perestroika (i.e. even before 1991) and finished in 2014.”[11]  She alludes to this post-communist period as a Time of Troubles – a period brought to an end by Western pressure on Russia for events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.  For her, this pressure, “. . . enabled Putin to consolidate the country into a coherent whole and reestablish the national self-respect, lost in previous years.”[12]  She writes, “Russia returns to its own self, to its historic origins and cultural code.”[13]

Where are we to turn in order understand this new Russia which has returned to its own self?  Shestopal’s book on Russian political mentality is a good start.  This must be followed by Tolstoy’s War and Peacethe foundational book of modern Russia.  Having digested both of these books, an astute reader cannot help but conclude that the “political mentality” found in Tolstoy’s book – with all its complexities and contradictions – is alive and well in 21st century Russia.



[1] Elena Shestopal, ed., New Trends in Russian Political Mentality, Putin 3.0 (Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2016).  Shestopal is the author or coauthor of all the book’s chapters.  This review recognizes that this book is the result of a team effort.

[2] Ibid., p. xiv.

[3] Ibid., p. 39.

[4] Ibid., p. 45.

[5] L. N. Tolstoy, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii, ed. V. G. Chertkov (Moscow, 1928), vol. 11,, pp. 4 – 5.

[6] Ibid..

[7] Shestopal, New Trends in Russian Political Mentality, p. 11.

[8] Ibid., p. 11.

[9] Ibid., p. 12.

[10] Ibid., p. 14.

[11] Ibid., p. 379.

[12] Ibid., p. 380.

[13] Ibid., p. 381.

John P. MoranJohn P. Moran

John P. Moran

John P. Moran is a Professor of Political Science at Kennesaw State University. He has also served in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Policy)/Chairman, Joint Chiefs; United States Mission to United Nations; United State Embassy, Moscow; and United States Field Systems Agency, Tokyo. He is author of From Garrison State to Nation State: The Russian Military and Political Power under Gorbachev and Yeltsin (Praeger, 2001) and The Solution of the Fist: Dostoevsky and the Roots of Modern Terrorism (Lexington Books, 2009).

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