Ben Aris in Moscow -
Could you be happy living somewhere where temperatures drop below 50 degrees Celsius in the nine-month-long winters? It seems hard to imagine, but the residents of Siberia's Yakutia in the heart of the Asian part of Russia – the coldest place in the world – seem to be: some residents joined the global meme of posting a video to YouTube of locals dancing to US singer Pharrell Williams' hit "Happy."
The video is bound to bring a smile to your face (especially the incredibly jolly dinner lady). But more seriously, a string of polls show that it is not just the Yakuts who are in a good mood: Russians are currently amongst the most contented people in Europe.
The knee-jerk interpretation is to equate happiness with prosperity and liberal freedoms. Russian income has risen 16-fold in the last decade and half, but incomes still remain lower that of every country in Western Europe bar Portugal. And counterintuitively, since retaking office in 2012 Russian President Vladimir Putin has been tightening controls over the media and opposition as well as introducing several repressive laws that target sexual minorities amongst other things. On top of that the economy is in the bin with little or no growth predicted for this year. Russians should be miserable.
Yet little of this seems to matter. A string of polls taken in April and May by both the independent Levada Centre and the state-backed All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM) showed that Russian satisfaction with their quality of life is close to an all-time high: in April, 46% of Russians said they were generally satisfied with their quality of life, compared with 43% of respondents in March and 40% in February, according to VTsIOM. Only 2% of Russians were "absolutely not satisfied" with their lives, and 39% were "somewhat satisfied, somewhat not," VTsIOM reported.
Even more significantly, the number of Russians who are unconcerned about growing old has also risen dramatically: two-thirds (64%) of respondents said they were not afraid of aging, with 45% saying they believed there were distinct advantages to old age, compared with 20% a decade ago.
This suggests a sea change in attitudes to old age is underway, because another poll conducted a few years ago found that 80% of Russians intended to continue in their jobs until they drop dead, which implies a basic mistrust in the government's ability to look after pensioners. Part of the reason for the reassessment may be Putin's decision to hike pensions by 50% as part of his 2012 campaign to be re-elected president for the third time – a move that has materially transformed the lives of many pensioners.
Putin the popular
The population also seem to be happy with the way the country is being run. Putin's personal popularity hit an all-time high of over 85% in May - well over 10 percentage points higher than in Russia's boom years of 2004-2007 – following his decision to annex Crimea, but this nationalistic euphoric glow has extended to the government as whole.
A total of 83% of Russian citizens approved of the activities of Putin as president in May, the Levada Centre found, up from 72% in early March and 65% in April, while the discontent with Putin's work dropped by half in January-May. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has also received a bump with his popularity rising to 65% in May, up from 48% in January. Currently, 60% of respondents said that things in general are going in the "right direction" against 43% that thought so in January.
Even more importantly for the Kremlin, the population's desire to protest has fallen to its lowest post-Soviet levels: in April 80% of the respondents said they would not participate in a protest if one were organised in their locale, versus 39% in February, according to the Levada Centre.
Conversely, the approval rating of the opposition leaders has also dropped precipitously. Once the rising star of the opposition movement and de facto opposition presidential candidate, Alexei Navalny's ratings fell to 20% in April, down from 34% in October.
A surge of patriotic pride that came with the annexation of Crimea in May can help explain part of Russia's current feel-good factor, as the Kremlin's success in facing down Washington marked for many the end of 20 years of humiliation inflicted by the collapse of the Soviet Union (indeed, polls show nostalgia for the USSR is also on the rise). But the persistently low unemployment rates – currently 5-6% – and the continual wage rises help. But probably more significant is that with per-capita income on the order of $17,000 a year, Russians are now making enough money to afford what they consider to be a "normal" life. Other polls have found that some 80% of Russians now identify themselves as middle class, even if sociologists and consumer-orientated companies put the "real" figure at closer to 30%.
Gloom further west
All this stands in stark contrast to Western Europe where a poll in the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections at the start of this month found over 60% of Europeans were not happy with their governments. Moreover, the wave of right wing and nationalist victories in recent elections, such as Britain's UKIP and France's Front National, was a clear protest vote against the establishment parties. (Only the increasingly powerful Germany escaped voters' retribution in this regard. This setup reminds one of the Tom Lehrer joke about Hen3ry [sic], a philosopher who, "especially enjoyed giving helpful advice to people who were happier than he was."
But more seriously, Russians are happy at the moment in the context of finally emerging from the chaos caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their standard of living has reached a point equitable or better than it was under communism and their pride has been restored to some extent. But how long will it last? The economic realities of the current slowdown are not lost on Russians. Consumer confidence has fallen, Russians bought some $14.5bn of hard currency in March on devaluation fears, up from the typical $2bn a month. And many have parked space cash in fixed assets like top-end cars or apartments as a hedge against a possible crisis caused by a more serious showdown with the West over Ukraine.
So clearly there still a long way to go until Russians can truly count themselves as content. But as the "Happy" video from Yakutia shows, for most Russians life still feels pretty good at the moment – and not many other European citizens can say that these days.
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