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Working paper

Trial by Fire: a Natural Disaster’s Impact on Attitudes toward the Government in Rural Russia

Lazarev Y. A., Sobolev A. S., Soboleva I. V., Sokolov B.
This study aims to explore the psychological foundations of political support under a nondemocratic regime by investigating the impact of a natural disaster on attitudes toward the government. The research exploits the enormous wildfires that occurred in rural Russia during the summer of 2010 as a natural experiment. Since wildfire spreads due to the direction of the wind, the local distribution of fire is as if random: one village may burn while the neighboring village is left unscathed. We test the effects of this exogenous variation with a survey of almost 800 respondents in randomly selected villages, 34 of which were burned and 36 of which were unburned, in the four regions of Russia that were most severely affected. Contrary to the conventional scholarly wisdom that suggests that natural disasters cause people to blame politicians, our study finds that in the burned villages there is higher support for the government at all levels, namely for the United Russia Party, the village head, the governor, Prime Minister Putin, and President Medvedev. Most counterintuitively, the rise of support for authorities cannot be fully explained by the generous governmental aid provided to the villages that were damaged by the fires. We interpret the results within the framework of system justification theory, developing it by adding to individual characteristics the factors of the political regime and the demonstration effect.