Choice in Russia

by emory989

I saw an interesting TED talk by a psychologist named Sheena Iyengar the other day. She was talking about choice, and mentioned that she had run a survey to collect data on attitudes towards choice in Eastern Europe; before administering the survey, she offered them several types of soft drinks, Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, etc – 7 to be exact – and one man’s response to the offer so surprised her that she began logging the responses.

Here, I interviewed people who were residents of formerly communist countries, who had all faced the challenge of transitioning to a more democratic and capitalistic society. One of the most interesting revelations came not from an answer to a question, but from a simple gesture of hospitality.When the participants arrived for their interview, I offered them a set of drinks: Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite –seven, to be exact.

During the very first session, which was run in Russia, one of the participants made a comment that really caught me off guard. “Oh, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all just soda. That’s just one choice.” (Murmuring) I was so struck by this comment that from then on, I started to offer all the participants those seven sodas,and I asked them, “How many choices are these?” Again and again, they perceived these seven different sodas, not as seven choices, but as one choice: soda or no soda. When I put out juice and water in addition to these seven sodas, now they perceived it as only three choices — juice, water and soda.Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans, not just to a particular flavor of soda, but to a particular brand.

This resonates with my own experience in Russia, but in its general alienness to American sensibilities, rather than particular attitude toward choice. The first thing that came to mind was a situation that suggests a society which has adopted an almost radical consumerism. Having worked at several elite schools in Russia, I’ve found choice to be available in such a way that it works to the detriment of both the school and customer.

Certain students in Russia are given an option of choosing the level at which they would like to study English. This is a problem because in the dominant classroom model, students are assumed to be on similar levels, and textbooks cater to that model; an upper-intermediate book will have material adapted to such a level, and it simply isn’t feasible to use it for a 45 or 90 minute lesson with a group of 10 insecure and only half-interested teens who are still at the pre-intermediate level. The number of unknown words, difficult questions to discuss, and a presumed knowledge of grammar require a level of discipline and drive that they simply don’t have. It’s very important to the success of a classroom that students be at approximately the same level – that means testing and separating students into groups.

Wealthy Russians, however, have gotten used to the idea that money gives them the right to choose everything. In effect, it means that if these parents decide that their ““How are you?” – “My name is Dasha”, “How old are you?” – “I’m from Russia””  child should be studying in an intermediate group, or if their elementary-level child really wants to study with her pre-intermediate friend, they’ll demand it until they get their way. Of course, all means that their child ends up learning very little, and harming the general progress of the group. I’m not sure if they pay extra or not, but the attitude of “I pay a lot of money for this service, and that means I own you”  is not something I’ve ever seen among people buying a service as part of group. In part, this is probably encouraged by Western ideas of customer service in hotels; in part, due to the bribe economy of the 90s that is only just beginning to be clamped down on. And it’s not true of the general population. However, it’s clear that the Western policy of consumer choice has been radically expanded in Russia in some contexts, and that in Russia this policy is both a product of and a reaction to the transition from the Soviet order to a capitalistic one, just as the attitude towards the seven soft drinks which Ms. Iyengar discussed is.

So that this blog post doesn’t get too long, here are some other interesting cultural oddities relating to choice in bullet-point form:

  • Menus in the post-Soviet space are quite often extensive; upon trying to order, you’ll find that only a few of the items are actually available.
  • Students and employees are routinely required by their organizations to attend political speeches and government gala type events; and yet, this doesn’t provoke outrage at the violation of one’s free speech – or, expression of choice in politics – but resentment at having been made to spend time on something so useless as a political event.
  • Russian schools and universities have no electives; instead, they have “tracks” in school – math or language. In university, the only choice you have is what to major in.
  • There are “correct” interpretations of Russian literature; one is not allowed to disagree with one’s teacher in judging Natasha Rostova in War and Peace. You are free to argue with your teacher, but you cannot turn in an essay which disagrees with the official version.
  • Before the events in the Ukraine, Russians often explained their vote for Putin by saying “there aren’t any other candidates”; other candidates were removed from the ballot due to suspect claims of illegitimacy by Putin’s party.