24.07.23 Review

Inverted Sentiment: Russians’ social well-being is influenced by their political leanings

Indicators of Russian social well-being are in a peculiar state, largely influenced by the nation's political climate. Interestingly, they showed a sudden improvement following the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite clear signs of economic recovery and positive objective indicators, the optimism among Russians seems to be waning. A notable generational gap emerges in the evaluation of personal financial situations over the past 12 months and prospects for the future. Younger generations maintain higher levels of optimism, but they are notably more sceptical about Russia's economic prospects.

According to a recent survey conducted by the 'Levada Center', it appears that most Russians have not been greatly affected by sanctions, with only about 10% of those polled reporting facing any hardship as a result of them. However, nearly half of those surveyed are concerned about the freezing of Russian foreign currency assets, and just over 20% are worried about the departure of Western brands and the limitations on international travel.

Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian well-being has been following some unusual patterns. Based on data from 'Levada Center' surveys, between 2018 and 2021 there were notably lower evaluations of the state of the Russian economy and expectations for the future compared to assessments of family material well-being. However, following the start of the war, these metrics experienced a significant and abrupt upward surge, maintaining remarkably high levels even after a brief dip in the autumn of 2022. This trend bears similarities to the situation observed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, although expectations were relatively modest during that time.

Levada Center Social Sentiment Index, 2012-2023

Despite the long-term optimism displayed by Russian citizens, recent data from the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) suggests a potential indication of diminishing 'social mobilisation.' From 2017 to 2021, an average of 30% of respondents believed that the country's situation would get better in the next three to five years, with an equal percentage expecting it to remain unchanged, and another 24% thinking it would worsen. Fluctuations around these averages were not particularly pronounced. However, after the onset of the war, a more resilient group emerged, with 45% of respondents anticipating improvement, 22% expecting things to remain the same, and 12% fearing a decline. The proportion of those expecting an improvement in their family's well-being over the next three to five years rose to 48%, compared to 40% before the war.

Interestingly, despite the lack of significant impact of sanctions on respondents (as demonstrated below), there seems to be a lack of rational explanation for why 1.5 times more respondents now believe that the Russian economy will improve compared to the previous five years.

On the other hand, short-term economic prospects over the next six months to a year demonstrate a more complex dynamic. Immediately after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, short-term expectations surprisingly improved, defying economic logic. Prior to the war, data from FOM indicated that an average of 18% of respondents expected an economic improvement in the short term, while 21% anticipated a decline, and 45% expected no change. However, after the war began and during the economic turbulence in March to June 2022, the number of optimists doubled, with 33-36% of respondents expecting an improvement in their lives. Subsequently, despite the economy showing signs of stabilisation, a decline in positive expectations began, reaching its nadir in November 2022. Even though official statistics indicate widespread economic growth in the first half of 2023 and apparent increases in citizens' incomes, Russians have not regained their previous optimism. While the proportion of those expecting the situation to deteriorate remains at a record low, the share of those who believe that nothing will change has reached 42%, almost reverting to the pre-pandemic levels of 2018-2019.

In your opinion, how will life in our country change in six months to a year: will it be better than today, worse or the same? 2010-2023, % of those polled

The latest survey conducted by the Levada Center presents a rather paradoxical picture when it comes to the assessments of economic conditions across different age groups. The evaluations of changes in material well-being over the past year indicate a decline from younger to older age groups. Among respondents aged 18-34, the average index of such evaluations stands at 62, whereas in the 45-65 age group, it drops to less than 30. This means that a considerably larger proportion of respondents stated that their financial situation had worsened, while a smaller group claimed it had improved. Predictably, expectations regarding the improvement of one's personal financial situation follow a similar pattern, with younger age groups showing greater optimism compared to their older counterparts. However, this trend reverses when it comes to assessing the prospects of the Russian economy. Among those aged 24-35, the economic prospects index reaches approximately 40 points, while for those over 50, it stands at nearly 70. In other words, young people evaluate their current situation more favourably but exhibit greater scepticism regarding the future of Russia's economy and the country’s economic potential.

Assessments of the economic situation by age group, June 2023

This effect cannot be entirely attributed to the choice of preferred information sources. On average, individuals who depend on television as their primary information source tend to give more positive ratings to their financial situation over the past year, their prospects for the upcoming year, and the country's economic outlook. Conversely, readers of Internet-based media and Telegram channels tend to provide the lowest ratings on all three indicators.

Assessments of the economic situation by sources of information, June 2023

According to datafrom the Levada Center, the most significant factor in evaluating the impact of sanctions is the respondents' material well-being and whether they belong to low-income groups. For example, 45% of those who consider their means barely sufficient for food are concerned about sanctions, with 35% stating that sanctions have led to problems such as rising prices or other financial difficulties. Nevertheless, a significant majority of respondents (62%) maintain that sanctions do not bother them, and this notable level of indifference has remained consistent since the late summer of 2022. Further, when asked if sanctions have caused any problems for them or their families, 87% of respondents answered that they had not. 

Those who primarily rely on television as their main source of information show a higher level of overall concern about sanctions compared to those who consume news from the Internet and Telegram channels. This is likely due to the fact that independent media and bloggers generally share the view that the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy is minimal. Russians are most concerned about the freezing of foreign currency assets (48%), followed by the departure of Western companies and the inability to travel abroad, which concern just over 20% of respondents.

As a result, almost three-quarters of those surveyed (73%) believe that Russia should continue to pursue the same course of action, regardless of sanctions. However, a higher demand for seeking compromises to mitigate the impact of sanctions is observed among lowest-income consumer group. This appetite for concessions and compromise is also more prevalent among younger age groups, with 28% of respondents aged 18-24, and 25% aged 25-39, expressing the need for compromise solutions.

As evident from this overview, Russians’ assessments of their social well-being are significantly influenced by political leanings and social norms, while simultaneously being bolstered by relatively positive trends in income dynamics and production indicators.