The predominant tone of news stories coming from Moscow is relentlessly pessimistic. Empty stores, prices out of reach for those goods that can be found, lack of fuel, massive unemployment and the promise of new problems and greater uncertainty ahead are what the American news audience hears about from the former Soviet Union.
To assess the situation more objectively and to put events in the perspective of how ordinary Russians are coping in these difficult times, we conducted a telephone poll of a cross-section of 525 Moscovites last month to get a first-hand account. Many of the questions were repeats of items we asked of a similar sample conducted in August of 1991, just after the abortive coup attempt.
To be sure, the feedback we received was hardly glowing, but there are several signs of the determination and resilience that have carried the Russian people through so many crises and disasters in their history.
Russian optimism is first evident in personal terms. More of the Moscovites polled said they expected their lies to get better in the next year (24 percent) than expected them to get worse (16 percent). While that is down from the 31 percent optimistic response just after the August coup, the pessimistic response is actually a percentage point lower than in August. The predominant response, then, continues to be "no change," hardly a sign that Moscovites have given up hope.
Nor was much change evident in hopes for the Russian economy. While there was a slight decline in those expecting their economy to be as strong as those of major Western `D countries in the next five years (from 13 percent to 10 percent), there was an increase in those expecting such growth in a 5 to 15 year span. Skeptics may wonder whether that will occur because of the sad outlook for Western economies rather than because of Russian growth, but these responses again reflect a high degree of relative optimism -- particularly in light of the low expectation of Western economists of being able to jump-start the Russian economy.
Perhaps the most surprising response in our December survey, however, came when we asked Moscovites whether they would like to move to the United States. This has long been a major question about the Russian people, particularly at the height of the Cold War and Soviet control. We expected that, being more "modern" or cosmopolitan than their fellow Russians, Moscovites would be especially motivated to be aware of and attracted to the relative abundance available in this country. Yet, less than 20 percent of Moscow respondents said they would either be very likely or somewhat likely to move to the United States if they were given the opportunity. That was also less than 5 percentage points higher than in the heady days following the overturn of the August coup.
The major continuing news coming from Moscow concerns food shortages, and Moscovites in the survey indicated that it had indeed affected them. That, however, had more to do with food quality than good quantity -- with only 40 percent of survey respondents saying they were eating less than a year ago in contrast to the 78 percent who reported a decline in the quality of what they were eating.
Indeed, less than a third of respondents felt that it was likely that thousands of Russians would die of starvation in the coming year, only 6 percent felt mass starvation was "very likely." As Moscow's deputy mayor, Sergei Stankevich, put it last winter, "All attempts to compare the situation in Moscow with that in Ethiopia are totally without foundation."
That is also reflected in what Moscovites felt they needed most now from the United States. As in the August poll, the predominant need expressed was not for American goods but for American technology and know-how. The priority given to technical assistance was lower (37 percent) than in August (43 ++ percent). The largest decline (from 16 percent to 8 percent) in felt needs from the United States was for direct financial aid -- the kind that American politicians have also been most reticent to support.
To be sure, there were plenty of results from the survey to reinforce the bleak picture of post-Soviet life to which we have become accustomed. More than two-thirds said that the quality of their lives has gotten worse in the last year, and almost 80 percent said that someone in their family was unable to get needed medical care. About half had taken on an extra job for needed finances.
Thus, it came as little surprise to find Boris Yeltsin's job approval had declined since the August coup. What was surprising was the rate of this decline -- far sharper than George Bush's plunge over the same period in the United States. Only 24 percent of Moscovites now rated his job performance as good or excellent compared to more than three times that many in August (77 percent). Yet most of that shift went to the "fair" category, with only about 1 in 6 rating his performance as unsatisfactory.