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Russian Province and its Inhabitants (a case of observation and its tentative description)

русская версия

Опубликовано на портале: 05-05-2011
Мир России. 2011.  Т. 20. № 1. С. 3-33. 
Тематический раздел:
One of the key problems in understanding contemporary Russia’s development,to our opinion, is the lack of the non-judgmental knowledge about the life ofpopulation and management processes on the local level. It can, however, beresolved through an unbiased observation and descriptive studies based on thenon-theoretical schema description. We have been conducting such studies duringthe last 5 years (42 expeditions in about 80 settlements, primarily towns).The article provides an attempt to describe the life of contemporary provincialRussia in three aspects: (1) territorial, administrative and economic organizationof space, (2) social structure and life styles of local population, (3) structure oflocal government and power relations.A preliminary 'snapshot' of activities in a local society shows that the realorganization of life is a lot more multifold than the one that exists in formalclassifications and schemes developed by sociologists and used by officials. Asa result of the non-compliance between schemes and reality any reform imposedfrom above is either being neutralized or adapted on a local level to the realities ofthe local government and population. However, such neutralization processes areusually invisible, if we consider the official information (i.e. municipal statisticsor local opinion surveys).A problem of inconsistence between the municipal status of settlements(urban or rural) and their historically determined social weight is being revealedas well. The lack of sustainability in municipal structure is a lot more evidentin the case with urban districts – their administrative and territorial statusis still quite amorphous. The municipal differences in social and economiccharacteristics and their development prospects are determined by the access todifferent resources, including the latent ones (i.e. seasonal works, illegal smallbusinesses, etc.), which can only be revealed through participant observation.According to this principle two settlement types can be distinguished: developingand escheated ones.Within the social structure of settlements several groups can be distinguished,which are quite isolated with respect to each other. These are the groups of'indigenous' settlers, seasonal cottagers and landowners, and seasonal workers.At the same time the social differentiation is based primarily status differences(‘people’ and ‘elites’) rather than economic resources. The most common form of structuring local elites is a so called 'civil society of public servants' – aninformal community of people with relatively similar statuses, who can affect thedecision-making in local governments.The research has shown that many common perceptions of the life styles ofpeople in provincial Russia (poverty, alcoholism, total corruption, religiosity, etc.)are mythical. Yet mythical as well are the dominant perceptions of the exclusivestate healthcare system and the generally accessible education.The structure of local government and power relations is also ratherversatile. Along with the less numerous examples of (1) the real municipal selfgovernanceand (2) politicized municipalities, where authorities keep the balanceof interests, more common are the following two types: (3) municipalities,which have practically turned into manors of local entrepreneurs and municipalofficials, and (4) municipalities with officials, who support the Soviet structureof government.At the same time different strategies of the local government can bedistinguished with respect to their relation to the voting population. The firststrategy is biased towards those, who are in desperate need of social support(pensioners, budget workers, lower officials). The second strategy is based on the'insider interactions' with those, whom the government officials make businesswith or provide with possibility of making business for a certain rent or bribe(seasonal workers, entrepreneurs). In many settlements there has formed a socalled administrative business, which makes income on various compensationsfrom entrepreneurs. Thus, the official political and public activity in settlementsis mostly imitational. The real local politics is basically a reflection of a strugglefor resources.
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