Is Russia Fascist?

A painting depicting WWII through Russian ‘eyes’ at a Moscow market in 2022

The fact that I’m writing a blog post about this topic shows how detached from reality the commentary on Russia is. It’s understandable, I guess. But shoddy, media-ready ‘analysis’ from public intellectuals that does its best to ignore any sociological knowledge about the country is just really lame.

Tim Snyder’s NYT piece is a mishmash of historical analogism that focusses on Putin and sidesteps scholarship on Russian society. Snyder claims Russia (what, all Russians?) is fascist because it has a ‘leader cult’; celebrates a ‘cult of the dead’ via Victory Day; and is hostage to a myth of an imperial golden age. Very little of the essay, in fact almost nothing apart from a passing mention of Z people and rallies actually pertains to Russia beyond the Kremlin and some ideologists of questionable relevance (‘not Dugin again!’, said one of my undergraduate students).

All of these things are ‘true’, but they don’t really mean what Snyder says they mean.

At home, Putin has always been an ambivalent figure and never enjoyed unalloyed ‘enthusiasm’, even among his voting constituency. There’s loyalty and respect, even among the ‘morally opposed’. But that’s not a leader cult. The fact that so-called political technologists had to create so much PR for him, rather than let it naturally develop, proves the point. The guy never had an iota of charisma. He could never build a following like Trump.

A ‘cult of the dead’? There’s been a few pieces on this in the media. They tend towards a dangerous culturalism (the libel that Russians have a genetic ‘Asiatic’ predisposition to devalue human life and value violent domination). What Snyder ignores is the sociological research on the ‘Immortal Regiment’ marches, by scholars like Gabowitsch. Russians marching with placards of their ancestors who fought in the war is mainly not even a patriotic statement. It’s a rare permission to express personal loss, to experience connectedness, and to give voice to frustrated feelings of a need for communal activity.

The ‘Imperial Golden Age’? Well, this is true to an extent. I’ve written in this blog in the last 3 months that this does motivate some to support the war. But these people are a minority and in any case exist more visibly in societies like the US, France, and the UK. The irony here of Snyder’s comment is that it ignores the bigger golden age myth in Russia: the time people really pine for is the 1970s – the period of détente, peace, and the cementing of non-Russian elite power in the future independent republics of the USSR. Hardly imperial fare.

In reality, Snyder merely projects yet another US-centric take on what’s happening. This reflects liberal anxiety about Trumpism, real white supremacism in the US, and the militarization and securitization of US and Western societies.

Shall we actually look at some definitions of fascism?

I re-read Ian Kershaw recently and anyone who wants to understand pro-war sentiment in Russia should read his account of German society in WWII.

Kershaw’s is not the only definition, but it’s pretty simple. Fascism is based on hypernationalism that’s violently exclusionary and racial; It’s violent towards all political enemies; it’s macho, disciplined and militaristic.  Optional features: social ‘renewal’ based on romantic utopian thinking; irredentism/imperialism; anticapitalism; corporatism (people know their place in society)

On Kershaw’s definitions we do find some fascistic elements to the Russian regime. But this comes up against the contradictions in ethnicizing Ukrainians. The whole point of Putin’s irredentism is that in his view Ukrainians aren’t really Ukrainians, they’re frustrated and misguided Russians (actually he probably doesn’t even believe this). Yes, they are ‘incorrect’ and errant Eastern Slavs, but the whole racialized perspective on Russian attitudes towards Ukrainians is, once again, a US-centric projection. The dehumanization of the ‘other’ is present among Russians and Ukrainians since the start of the war (but of course the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in Russia was strong for a time now). But this is nothing to do with race or racism. Against Kershaw’s set of features, Russia is an insipid and equivocal ‘fascistic’ regime. Some of these features do not fit at all.

What about recent scholarship on ideology in Russia? Here we must turn, as Snyder fails to do, to Marlene Laruelle’s painstaking research. Her book is called Is Russia Fascist? Snyder commits perhaps the worst possible academic snub in ignoring it in his piece.

I know Laruelle’s work and I read her articles with my students every year. But don’t trust me, we can turn to the excellent reviews of the book. For example, this one by Roger Chapman. This is a positive, but critical review that unpicks Laruelle’s argument that Russia is a kind of illiberal state: rejecting global institutions, promoting economic protectionism and revaluing multiculturalism. Chapman questions why we need the term illiberal when in his view Laruelle could have just written ‘authoritarian/totalitarian’. The reason Laruelle does not use these terms is that in her view ideological diversity is still permissible and that coercion has some hard limits within Russia (so far).  

Laruelle (in Chapman’s reading) makes use of a different historian’s definition of fascism – that of Roger Griffin. According to Griffin, fascism is a ‘revolutionary-utopian form of nationalism’. It requires an anti-modern myth of regeneration involving the violent destruction of enemies. Enemies are racialized through an ideological doctrine that catalyzes mass mobilization to ensure domination of those enemies both at home and abroad. So far, pretty similar to Kershaw. Laruelle notes that by these criteria, “not only is Putin neither Hitler nor Mussolini, he is not even Pinochet”.

In a late-2018 piece for PONARS, Laruelle picks apart similar arguements Snyder has made before. She says his approach is comparable to those of an observer who would extrapolate from Charlotteville riots to conclude that white supremacists had an iron grip on US society. “Simplistic reductionist techniques and invalid reasoning further confuse the analysis—and bias policy responses.”

….

In my view, the ‘Russia is fascist’ argument is so far from the reality of Russian society that it amounts to dangerous disinformation. What do actual political sociologists find?

Political and social demobilization at every turn – even incorporation through a ‘party of power’ does not serve ideological purposes or help mobilize. On the contrary, incorporation by the regime serves its stasis and the continuing enrichment and insulation of the elite. With some visible exceptions (who now get a lot of undeserved attention) the elite is uninterested in ideology and even governance (so an Eichmann could hardly be found). There isn’t a banality of evil. Just banality. In some senses the ‘mafia’ metaphor is better (though I criticise it here and reprise an analysis of corruption as a ‘thing’ that drives the regime here). ‘Ideology’ and ‘causes’ are dangerous to this regime.

In actual fact, most Russians’ lives are profoundly depoliticized to an unhealthy extent. Ironically, here is where Russia is open to a charge of fascism: the idea of fascism as a creeping erosion of citizenship and the achievement of the aims of totalitarianism by procedural means. The irony? The scholarship of this ‘post-fascist’ fascism is about our societies.  About the UK, European states and the United States.

So, what is Russia as a political regime? Well, my recent take is here: an authoritarian neoliberal regime of some complexity. I argue that elements of this are present in our own societies and that many states are hurtling into the precipice Russia already occupies.

In Russia there are many forces of prefigurative politics, resistance and renewal, stacked against the seemingly dominant authoritarian power (the topic of my current book project!). Russian society has its share of neo-Nazi far-right forces which are both feared and leveraged by the elite. Other formations are far more visible and make Russia look more like….. Ukraine. There’s a liberal mainstream that dominates the ‘discourse’ beyond the state-controlled media and a strong communitarian strand of political thinking. Takes like ‘Russia is fascist’ ultimately show, once again, the unhealthy focus on the current elite, an elite that’s more and more disconnected from the majority. The invasion of Ukraine itself illustrates the intellectual, political, and institutional exhaustion of ‘Putinism’. But it proves little beyond that.

Creeping Russian mobilization meets growing public knowledge of the horrors of war

2022’s 9th May Parade and Immortal Regiment procession just outside Moscow.

Ilya Matveev and I were invited to talk about Russian responses to the invasion by Russia of Ukraine. We decided to use our six minutes of this experimental podcast platform ‘conversation six’ to talk more about Defensive consolidation. I use this phrase (here’s another take on it) to characterize the majority reaction to the war at home in Russia and here are my notes for the talk:

Why it’s still not a rally

There a low level of active patriotic responses to war (beyond symbolic Zedtivism), a lack of declaration, or effective framing, of war as an ‘attack on us’ – this is not what most people are ready to internalize, despite what the media says. Indeed, there’s a lack of unconditional belief in Russian state media – it’s gone too far in the direction of open propaganda and post-truth that there are signs people’s trust in it is going down. Added to that there are realities that are hard to ignore: Ukraine as an obviously weaker state than Russia – so why is it a threat? Culturally, politically, socially it really was seen (rightly or wrongly) as a ‘brotherly nation’. Zelenskyy as a puppet and ‘ukrofascists’ of course have some traction, but this is all pretty superficial because it has low salience to most people. And the absence of a real casus belli means that overall there’s far too much cognitive dissonance around for a majority, or even a big minority, to ‘rally’.

So, defensive consolidation is this highly ambiguous and contingent set of responses – it includes finding excuses to justify to oneself what’s happening, but which are logically very tenuous and even self-contradictory. To me what is noticeable among a lot of anti-Putinists is a kind of sunk cost fallacy – “Putin was wrong, but now we’ve started we see the world is against us, but precisely because of that we must go on regardless to the bitter end, because to lose will mean a broader disaster”. And even this is not necessarily an immediate geopolitical way of thinking (i.e. about NATO as threat) but tied to longstanding feelings of being a periphery and ‘other’ of the West.

Why is it consolidating? Because it involves a cleaving to forms of immediate authority but I don’t think that’s sustainable over time. So for example, people ask their village ‘elder’ what to do and he answers – collect diapers to send to IDPs. People do this, but already a wave of solidarity is passing for refugees. We see this at every level – ‘what can I do’? People genuinely of course have a desire as part of a socius to do something, but as Ilya says in the talk, the logic of Putin’s Russia is demobilization because of fear of any independent action and civicness. And in fact, when people ‘cleave’ they often find zero leadership and zero answers – authority is so very hollow in Russia.

So, will defensive consolidation break down and under what conditions? The consolidation will partly morph into new and emerging forms of microcivicness, because there is this huge pent up desire to improve Russia. Ironically, the war shows this more clearly than ever. People know they live in a country that lacks many of the goods others, including Ukrainians, take for granted or are willing to strive for. This is not sustainable. Right now I am tracking individuals and micro-associations that search for new forms of activism – from environmentalism to covert anti-war actions. Could this turn into a coalescence of diverse forms of social mobilization with time? Maybe not. How will Russia change? Probably in the least predictable way – in the first Chechen war, people could not have predicted Soldiers’ mothers at the forefront of resistance and protest. Now, who knows what the future catalyst would be to push elites to end the war? Could it be ethnic minority religious groups? Could it be militant unpaid workers? Could it be a consumers’ protest against rising prices?

Creeping mobilization meets hard limits in Russian state capacity

Some brilliant investigative journalism from BBC Russian Service and others has laid bare that the invasion was even more poorly planned and executed than we previously thought. Many soldiers were barely ‘led’ at all (in fact misled). And there are striking details in this long piece, from a lack of night vision equipment to descriptions of soldiers fending for themselves. Later the piece gives a lot of detail about the growing resistance among soldiers to continuing military contracts. Elsewhere the same author has given a good explanation of the war crimes in Bucha as stemming from the same problems of leaderless, drunk, desperate and brutalized-brutalizing troops.  Add into the mix doubts about whether the state will actually honour payments to wounded and provide even basic medical treatment beyond emergency care (which is woefully inadequate anyway). My favourite topics of stunted state capacity and the incoherence of governance meet up in this shitshow of a war. Any creeping ‘mobilization’ will be similarly incoherent – enlistment officers face even more obstacles than before because no one really wants to die for Putin (illustrated well in the BBC piece). Urgency too is always the enemy of this state’s machine. You screw up and the boss asks for it ‘yesterday’, even though he didn’t give you the tools to get it done in the first place. As with so much else, we end up with something worse than the previous improvised solution. It seems clear now that the Great Russian Army was an ‘improvised’ solution to the problem of force projection in a massively corrupt and cronyism-ridden Military Industrial Complex. We had a Potemkin village of an army, now with creeping mobilization we will get something ragtag that doesn’t even resemble a modern army. Like the Russian meme about IT projects – instead of good planning, testing and development, in Russia it’s ‘slap shit together and deploy’. We could call this the revenge of a century of ‘avral’ (rushing production targets).

Putin clearly does not want to declare a state of war – it brings too many uncertainties, and even personal risks to him. He doesn’t like that. His whole career has been about making short term, usually conservative decisions to avoid immediate risks, but which bring a huge long-term tail risk. Michael Kofman just wrote about how mobilization is a complex topic; although he emphasizes high manpower capacities on paper, I would emphasize that the state lacks capacity, political will, and actual popular support to translate that into reality.

On Not Talking to Russians about Downed Airliners and Murdered Dutch Children

From a Russian cafe: ‘We are Russians. We are not Ashamed

Because we’re talking endlessly about the inability of many Russians to admit they live in an aggressor, neoimperial state, or even register the reality of what’s happening, I thought I’d go back to this piece I wrote about doing fieldwork in 2014 and after.

I went back to the field after Maidan and Crimea, but just before the 2014 Malaysian airliner MH17 downing during the war in Donbas. I wanted to write about the sensitivities of doing fieldwork in such times where I was already seen as a representative of an enemy country. The shoot-down event is on my mind because of 2022 Ukrainian allegations that Russia is planning a false flag operation to shoot down an airliner over its own territory using Western weapons transferred to Ukraine.

Unfortunately, as with a lot of academic projects that are spun out of material for different purposes, the article is a bit of a mess. Too many themes and ideas. Boiling it down in this post, here are some of the ideas which still have relevance.

Political’ events are not experienced the same way and post-truth media makes things worse

I opened my news feed the day the airliner was shot down and experienced shock, disbelief and nausea. Pretty soon it became clear that Russian forces in Donbas were responsible. However, what was for me the defining ‘event’ was no such thing for 90% of Russian people. Firstly, there’s a tendency to delay and obfuscate big news like this – remember the flat denial and then spinning of the Moscow Cruiser sinking just recently. This seems ridiculous to people paying attention in the West, but it ignores that it buys time for the second stage: the post-truth coverage by Russian mainstream media. There are seemingly smart people who believe the corpses of the victims from the airliner were transported to Ukraine. This is not so different from 9/11 truthers. But this is in a society where media allows such post-truth versions space to breathe and spread. Having said that, at the time there were people who saw this event as THE dividing line. A crime so terrible that there would be no coming back for Russia. This was also communicated to me in the field. After this event some people already made plans to leave Russia, or even prepare for nuclear war.

People internalize propaganda as a structure of feeling even while avoiding ‘news’

That day I went to a birthday party held by some friends of mine who are well-to do in the cultural scene. They’re average, upstanding Russian middle-class – politically loyal people. Stupidly, I expected the ‘event’ to overshadow our party; most people were not aware of what had happened. Later I observed ‘avoidance’ as the most common response to what was going on in Donbas. While the television blares continuously in the background and clearly shapes how many people respond to the war on Ukraine, this effect is much more indirect and insidious than people generally think – it’s a vaguely felt itch at the back of peoples lives through their interaction with television as a form of verbal and visual wallpaper. While I don’t think direct comparisons to Nazi Germany really work in general, the ‘Ukraine question’ is a little like the ‘Jewish question’. Over a pretty long period of time, constant and building anti-Semitism in public life created a strong social desirability bias of hatred and blame towards Jews. Once war came, this in turn allowed enough fear, resignation and – mainly – indifference to be produced so that the Final Solution was possible by that small group of willing executioners and a much larger group of loyal bureaucrats – Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. Many ordinary Germans were also guilty of latent anti-Semitism which the regime successfully leveraged. The point is the mass of people for whom even after 2014, Donbas was a low-salience issue and so they easily fall in to the ‘structure of feeling’ that the regime helps foster: “Ukraine = bad, West manipulates and betrays, We are the victims, We won the war. We are righteous.” Just a few weeks ago, I mentioned the Malaysian airliner to a Russian who is deeply ashamed of the invasion and politically aware. They’d completely ‘forgotten’ it!

Silences and pauses can draw attention to the discomfort with political events

So my article is really about trying to interpret pauses and silences where people don’t acknowledge or mention the elephants in the room. I argue that forms of silence and acknowledgement of the other person through silences – uncomfortable pauses – are themselves forms of communication about ‘political events’. This is heightened when one of the people is a Russian and the other is a foreign person from a Western bloc state. I conclude the first section: “Interlocutors and researcher are forced to negotiate the event within their everyday encounters in a way that maintains civility and the possibility of an ongoing commitment to relations. This is the ‘intimate’ reconstruction of (geo)political subjectivities.”

Victim narratives go far back and scaffold the current shared ‘feelings’ in Russia

Some of the rest of the article is about how clearly, even in 2014, Russians articulated a victim narrative and how effectively Putin has manipulated this. (I came across this excellent post by Anna Razumnaya on victimhood stemming from feelings of inferiority and humiliation). This framing goes back to the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 where I first experienced the deep-seated sense of geopolitically ‘structured feeling’: outrage and resentment that was sincerely expressed, but mainly communicated through emotional reactions – like my colleagues demanding of me a ‘political statement’, and then walking out of our shared office in Moscow, or the ‘dirty’ protests where people smeared the US embassy with faeces. The conclusion here is that ‘willingly or unwillingly, we come to embody public diplomacy’ in some way in fieldwork under such circumstances. Is it possible to overcome the way we are unwillingly inserted into this position?

To confront or to maintain tactical silence?

Sometimes we have time and space to talk about geopolitics in a considered, intimate way with people who have different worldviews, but mostly not. We could argue that it is important to signal strong disapproval of the invasion and support for Ukraine. I think that’s true and essential for Russians talking to Russians. But for ‘non-native’ researchers, confronting people politically is completely at odds with anthropological practice in fieldwork.  But it is sometimes interlocutors who confront the researcher. What is she to do? Confront back? Unfortunately, this is part of the geopolitical script the Russian media have anticipated. More often people laugh at you: ‘You’ve been brainwashed by Western media.’ Adopt the ‘silent’ approach of many Russians themselves? Can ‘tactical silence’ express more? Can just the persistent presence of the representative of the other have jarring political effects? Scholar Yael Navaro talks about silent, phantom presences ‘irritating’ people even as they try to carry on as if nothing is happening.

Silence can invoke opposition and resistance, but it can also signal indifference and consent to barbarism. That’s why it’s important for Russians who oppose the war to carry on making small symbolic acts of resistance. As one activist said to me recently: ‘all I’ve got now are these anti-war stickers, but they mean so much to me.’

The visible resistance to war might allow a change of tactic: from being silent ourselves to forcing the silences and pauses on to those who say they support the war. Make them think, and make them confront the idiocy of the argument Razumnaya highlights: ‘We’re bombing Kharkov so that the West would fear us’

Can Soldiers’ Mothers End a War?

Middle-aged man in camo in central Moscow. In what way is Russia a ‘militarized’ society?

A conversation somewhere in Russia:

“So, did you get him an exemption yet?” [‘otkosili’ is a slang term which can mean legally or illegally get exemption or avoid service]

“Finally got him a ‘V’ ticket – legally – thanks to the hospital. It means he can’t be called up in peacetime. I talked to some people whose kids are serving right now. Some places it’s ok, other places it’s totally fucked up and they come back fucked up beyond all recognition. Better not to go. There’s still hazing.”

Whether or not the interlocutors were talking about ‘some places’ in Ukraine, or just military service in general I don’t know.  The mother went through a six-step procedure to get the ‘ticket’ and could not have afforded a bribe. The father had said: ‘either he gets a job or let him go to the army’. In any case, since 2016 it has become almost impossible to give a bribe successfully to get an exemption ticket.

Why write about this? I was asked to go on US cable TV to talk about ‘The role of soldiers’ mothers in ending the war in Ukraine’. I’ll post a link when it comes out. I don’t know why I was asked, or where this idea came from.

I guess I could summarize my answer: domestic NGOs like the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers (CSM) could historically put a lot of moral and political pressure on the Russian government. Now, with no independent press in Russia, they can only play a role in giving parents and soldiers good legal advice on their rights. They are not the only way of undermining the war though. There are always informal messenger and social media groups that can make a difference. Perhaps this war is different in that the personal contacts and social pressure of one’s immediate peers is the most important factor.

The longer answer:  

The first Chechen war in the 1990s saw a freer Russian press strongly criticize the loss of life of Russian soldiers and the conduct of the war. Mothers’ actions (sponsored by CSM) ‘had a profound effect on raising awareness and turning public opinion against the war’ wrote Amy Caiazza in 2002. Its members often kidnapped their own sons from military bases. What was different in the first war was that everyone had clear information from the press about the incompetence of the military campaign. The government was not trusted, and the army did not have a high standing in society.  Furthermore, the mothers had strong support from wider society for their actions. Caiazza writes that CSM was able to be quite activist in the 90s, though its success was more down to publicity and its influence on institutions low in the longer term.

She also notes the organizing principle based not on objection to men making war, but on mothers’ suffering. At least part of the success of the messaging was based on a bio-essentialist version of maternity and instinct. Mother’s activist actions were a ‘natural’ biological imperative to protect their sons and therefore they fulfilled their duty as mothers. This exploited well an ideological opportunity structure to gain legitimacy that has mainly been unavailable for groups trying to undertake civic action in Russia. This is not only ‘smart’ from a perspective that would see Russians more receptive to a conservative message like this. CSM avoided being identified as a feminist organization and instead proposed women’s rights as human rights (Caiazza 2002). This caused conflict with more radical feminist organizations in Russia, but the CSM’s public activities also drew plaudits. Caiazza also writes about the men’s anti-draft movement, which was largely unsuccessful.

CSM lobbied Parliament and got concessions on deserters. (Interestingly only Yabloko and LDPR voted against full amnesties!). Caiazza claims further success in the campaign influencing Yeltsin’s cuts to the size of the military. CSM failed, however, to prevent army service being extended from 1.5 years to 2. CSM also was successful in publicizing the individual resistance to military service – i.e. draft dodging and getting medical exemptions legally.  The second Chechen war saw more mobilization of public opinion behind the conflict and a controlled press coverage of it.

This present conflict shows how effective Putin’s destruction of free press has been in the long term, and how the new laws against discrediting the Russian military and spreading ‘fake’ information about the war, mean everyone is afraid to speak out. He has shown himself a master at demobilizing Russian society, but that does not mean that Russians are all falling into line, or that they automatically support the war. Much has also been made of the social profile of soldiers – many hail from peripheries – becoming a soldier is a way of getting social mobility, education, and ‘escape’ from places with no prospects. Most of my informants, even those who served at the time of Chechnya are quite nostalgic about some aspects of military service. However, if further mobilization is attempted, it is likely there will be large scale resistance to the draft. This resistance will be active and passive and it’s important we pay attention to the passive part because like similar phenomenon, it is a huge substratum of Russian political action that can easily be overlooked.

Soldiers Mothers Committee is still active. We should note in passing that soldiers rights were and remain a barometer of health of Russia as a civil society, not least because of the extremely brutalizing experience of being conscripted. Since 2014 it became harder and harder to do even the basic work of a human rights NGO in Russia because of NGO oversight laws. This law was used against organizations like CSM who got funding from abroad. Now, such organizations can mainly just observe and give free legal advice to the families of soldiers – for example on how to claim compensation for death or injury of the son. Here’s a more focused organization – the ‘Rights of the Mother’ NGO Fund, that operates mainly as a legal aid team with funding from various small firms within Russia, along with the small-scale online donation platforms that exist. RMF also provides free legal representation in court cases about discrimination in providing social benefits to the relatives of dead soldiers. NGOs can also document coercion of conscripts in the current conflict – young men forced to sign up to military contracts. The regime shows it is not willing to even allow a mild oversight by civil society of the most vulnerable citizens it asks the most of (laying down their lives). What does it tell us about the regime – that it cannot function without breaking its own rules and laws.

There’s also more qualitative research on how mothers responded to war by organizing – there is a book by Sergei Oushakine partly on this topic from the early 2000s. This research argued that sympathy for traumatic suffering is an effective mobilizer in Russia – more effective that claims of human rights or justice. However, there is always a risk that others and the authorities think there are suspicious motives (and the influence of the West). Finally, it’s possible that mobilization of civil society does not necessarily lead in the direction of claiming rights or righting wrongs, but risks leading to public calls for revenge and retribution. This is what Oushakine found after the Chechen wars. He called this the Patriotism of Despair which is the title of his book.

My own more recent research tends to partly support Oushakine’s earlier findings. Faced with the war there is a form of ‘defensive consolidation’ around the idea of a nation under threat, and of supporting the armed forces, ‘right or wrong’. However, that doesn’t mean over the course of the conflict more positive forms of solidarity cannot emerge. In fact, given the effects of the sanctions, Russian people might be inspired to work harder at permissible forms of social organization and support for each other. There might emerge politically acceptable grass-roots veteran associations and organizations that provide a muted or Aesopian form of opposition to war.

A final point is about ordinary resistance to the war – we find evidence of this among soldiers, ordinary people and among mothers. Russia is not so different to other societies during periods of harsh authoritarian control – there are only a few percentages of the population willing to take risks to stand up. But even this is encouraging.  At a more basic level, Russia is not North Korea – you can’t shut it down completely. People communicate in messaging services and create support groups including for soldiers’ mothers. It is thanks to informal groups we know how soldiers were tricked into signing contracts and so on. The formal organizations can only provide legal advice to relatives, but we also find out useful things from their interviews with the media brave enough to produce coverage of the war’s results

Journalists are trying to write about the human costs of the war in Russia. Here is an example about the many military funerals in Buryatiya – a poor region with disproportionate losses among the ethnic minority Buddhist population. The journalists writing this piece (published in Russia in Russian) also interviewed other journalists who report they are pressured not to write about the war. The parents of killed soldiers are also pressured not to talk to press. They are told their words (or photographs of funerals) will be used by ‘hackers in Ukraine who will steal the information and make fakes’. The relatives are even told not to answer calls from unknown numbers. Another interesting point from this article is that many soldiers felt a strong sense of responsibility to their comrades meant it was hard to refuse to go to Ukraine. But they did not mention patriotism, their martial vows, or their duty to the Commander-in-Chief and his aims.

“The military stands at attention at the head of the dead. The backs are straight, machine guns on belts are pressed to the chest. The faces are young, they look like high school students in the guard of honor near the Eternal Flame. Some of the soldiers are crying. Tears cannot be wiped away, and they flow down the cheeks.”

[from the Buryatiya piece]

What did I get wrong and right about the Russian Invasion?

At the end of January 2022 I made some educated guesses at the effect of a war on Russian society but I didn’t really believe it would happen. Now I take stock briefly.

Because I get so many abusive messages every time I post on this topic I have to make a disclaimer: I work on Russian society, not Ukraine. I have many Ukrainian colleagues and friends and my sympathies and support are with them. However it’s not my job to write about places and people I have an incomplete professional knowledge of.

‘More of the same, yet worse’ – this prediction so far is right. Russians are starting to – very slowly – wake up to the very significant reduction in living standards the war brings. However, like many other issues, we can observe delays and still partially effective efforts of the Russian government to lie to people about the causes. Some people are still ready to believe that inflation and shortages of some goods are due to Covid or other factors.

What I underestimated was the effect of nearly a decade of stagnant or falling living standards. People were already in a state of extreme pessimism and resignation. ‘Boiling the frog’ metaphor doesn’t even come close. This is a frog in a pan where the water long since evaporated. The frog is now a desiccated husk.

This weekend is the spring clean for those who own a garden plot. There was no enthusiasm for this task that many thought they’d left behind, but now planting vegetables is confirmation of a return to the worst of the 1990s

‘Mass civilian causalities and Russian confusion and chaos’. Again, while I’m no expert, this was proved terribly prescient. I didn’t write ‘so badly disciplined they would resort to looting and war crimes’ but the implication is there.

lack of appetite for war’. This is now controversial because every day someone points to polling and says: ‘the Russians enjoy this war and love Putin’. I’m not going to repeat my and other people’s criticism of polling. I stand even more strongly by my prediction. There’s a visible group of the usual idiots you can see in any country that because of their personal inadequacies just love to parade their skin deep patriotism. There’s good evidence that the majority of Russians despise feel either disdain or indifference towards the Z-people [thanks to Anton Shirikov for prompting me to rethink the wording here]. My research participants are mainly ‘blokey’ working-class guys. They have no time for this b-s. They’re more interested in whether their factory will still be working in June. In short, people are fearful for their material wellbeing and, yes, often callously indifferent to Ukraine. No one even mentions Putin any more, apart from the odd old person who leads a sheltered TV-centric life. For me his lack of visible leadership (since February) in explaining and arguing for the war speaks volumes as to the diminution of his status in actual fact among Russians.

‘Initial limited panic’ at shortages (real or imagined). Here too I think I got it right. Although I did not get right the massive sanctions. I underestimated coordination from the West. Can Russian agriculture feed Russians now? Maybe. There are issues with things like animal vaccines and seeds (remember that most commercial seed produces crops whose seed cannot then be re-sown). Nonetheless, with Chinese help, most Russians will only have to suffer high inflation on food staples.

Continuation of the ‘politics of fear’. Again, I underestimated how fast Putin would clamp down and allow the narrative of internal enemies and traitors to justify all kinds of score-settling. I also did not foresee significant emigration by the upper-middle class. Fascism lite? Bonapartism? Others (Greg Yudin here) are very quick to go down those roads. I think for the time being I’ll stick with my version of authoritarian statism inspired by reading Nicos Poulantzas. “the ‘masses’ are not integrated (partly because politics is replaced by a single party centre), and pernicious networks like security interests are ‘crystalized’  in a permanent structure in parallel to the official state”.

After the invasion happened I wrote a follow up post about defensive consolidation. This is a way for people to deal with cognitive dissonance around the Russian aggression. Defensive consolidation involves magical thinking and denial (China will help; the war crimes are staged). It involves a cleaving to authority (not necessarily the government, but your boss, your factory, your town leader), not out of loyalty or enthusiasm, but as a kind of relationship like that of an abused victim to abuser. The more Russians cleave to authority the more they are effectively ‘admitting’ to themselves how bad things really are. So my friend says ‘Russian troops are not aggressors’ and then says ‘we should delete this chat and move to Signal (an encrypted message service). She later talks about how many nightmares she has and cannot watch the news because they are so ‘rabid’ there. This is an example of ‘knowing and not knowing’. The finale is ‘I have to support my country in my own way now that everyone hates us’.

Recently, Sam Greene wrote that he thinks there is now a real rally around the flag. A top-down process using propaganda and repression. Sustaining such negative emotions is hard work and will not last, he predicts. Yesterday Ben Noble did a great thread on the same topic. A general increase in support for state institutions shows that a rally is not about particular actors and what is important is ‘social-desirability bias‘ strengthened by the costs of going against the war (prison, fines, or worse).

What’s next. Escalation with the West? A WWI scenario in Donbas? No one knows. Unrest and coups are unlikely but of course possible, especially if sanctions really do work or Russian forces keep taking very big losses. Can Russian people find a way to relate to their own state other than like a helpless abuse victim? Can they recognize their country’s guilt without resorting to excuses and whataboutery?

Contempt and Arrogance: How Russian liberals are complicit without (perhaps) even knowing it

Ranepa graduation ceremony. Source: https://en.newizv.ru/news/society/16-10-2020/the-prosecutor-s-office-demands-from-ranepa-to-disclose-data-on-enemies-of-the-people-among-students

Guest post by a Russian academic.

Prominent Russian educator and liberal Viktor Vakhstein recently defended liberal arts education in Russia after the authorities started auditing his programme at RANEPA. Vakhshtein sarcastically imagines the response of the ‘old guard’ of Soviet education:

 “To a person formed by Soviet education, this form of education seems wild. How does the student know what he needs? Where is the educational component? Half of the courses are in English – are you preparing political emigrants? Too many different disciplines – is it a factory of dropouts? Where will they work then? Graduates of the Academy of the Prosecutor General’s Office are very worried about the fate of Liberal Arts graduates: they read the titles of courses and see crowds of future dissidents who are deprived of “systematic education”, “patriotic education” and not ready for “labor activity for the good of the Motherland.”

But he insists that he prepared his students to face this conservative establishment. He exemplifies how this preparation will manifest itself, by imagining a conversation between the “police state” and his students:

“Let’s say a man armed with a government manual comes to talk to my students about patriotism. They print out the slides of his presentation, put the text of the current law “On Education” side by side and arrange a two-hour discussion in the form of a court session: does this conversation violate only paragraph 3 of Article 48 of this law or a few more paragraphs. He tells them about “protecting the state interests of the Russian Federation.” They divide into groups and conduct a fascinating historical investigation: how the idea of ​​”state interest” is connected with the philosophy of Machiavelli, the intrigues of Cardinal Richelieu and the activities of international tribunals. He resents the position of the “fifth column”. They politely remind him that the idea of ​​the fifth column (according to one of the four versions) was invented by the failed dictator Emilio Mola shortly before his death in a suspicious plane crash. I sincerely feel sorry for this person.”

https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2022/03/20/nazad-v-kazarmy

First of all, anyone who had a normal conversation in their lives, would see this more as an example of inability to communicate than a display of critical thinking. All the hypothetical students do in the example, is change  – or ignore – the framing, the context and the point made by this imaginary “policeman” interlocutor. When a communicator – like that hypothetical policeman in Vakhstein’s clever tale – has  absolutely openly set the frame of the present moment,  justice, morality and political interest,  then it is stupid to throw back at him some clever formal definitions from Webster’s dictionary, or quoting dead white Western men, or giving answers like “I know the law” or “history says otherwise”.

So, firstly, one should note that intellectually and psychologically, only narcissists and idiots ignore the pragmatics of conversation. Secondly, pragmatically and contextually, anyone who lived in Russia outside of protective bubbles of elite universities, and especially in the last couple of years, knows that quoting laws back at the police is useless at best. The same goes for quoting excerpts from the historical experiences of some countries, which – both the countries and the experiences – will be seen by the policeman as completely irrelevant.  

Apart from stupid, it is criminal because the conservative parents of these uni kids will read it and understand it in only one way: “why was Vakhstein allowed, for so many years, to teach our kids to be that stupid? Putin must be right. The fifth column is real”.  And the policeman who Vakhstein “pities”,  will not himself pity for a moment. He will get what he came for – the confirmation that the students are “brainwashed” and their education is, at best, irrelevant. And his rage will fall on those students – while the Vakhsteins of the world will be accepted as martyrs by Western academia.

This “commentary” by Vakhshtein shows how the intellectually brilliant,  pro-western, liberal intelligentsia continues to be complicit in making it all possible for Putin – because of their empty intellectual arrogance and genuine contempt for the “lower”, the older, the “uneducated” and conservative “masses”, for their grudges and traumas and opinions; how instead of working for better communication within Russian society, these intellectuals did everything to increase fear, bragging how they teach this arrogance and communicative, contextual daftness to kids; and how this very  contempt was made possible by spatial and social elevation, which in turn was made possible by high salaries that Putin paid these intellectuals  when, until recently, “our cosmopolitan academia” was the preferred discourse on the state agenda.

Who else will pay for this narcissistic arrogance? Well, this will be the people who actually worked all these years to give voice all parts of Russian society, including the conservative and the less educated, in hope to build communication and compromise.

[ed. We see a glimmer of reflection and understanding of the need for wider social communication in this interesting piece by Jeanne Kormina https://culanth.org/fieldsights/very-dark-anthropology-aphasia-presentiment-of-a-civil-war-and-anthropology-at-home:

the consistent political apathy of Russian anthropology has suddenly been revealed, making many of us unprepared for the new political reality that has forced us to redefine our positionality in the field. I do not mean to say that local anthropologists had not been interested in political activity before, but those who did such work preferred to study the pleasant and sympathetic people of their own social circle who engaged in protest actions in the big cities. A sort of class-based squeamishness, the roots of which one can find in the good old contrast between the educated intelligentsia and the “deep folk,” made the study of political apathy and political nonparticipation uninteresting and unpleasant ]

The Three Body Problem in Russian Academia

Considering the possibly international readership of this blog, we need to observe that Russian academia can be imagined as consisting of three parts. There is the most numerous body of people who have few means, either intellectually and/or by their social background and /or moral identity, or simply financially – too overburdened with over a thousand of hours of teaching a year to read all those (usually, Western old white male) scholars Vakhstein was lucky to read and to promote to his students as the names they should throw at an upcoming policeman. These are the people mocked by the Moscow “public intellectuals” with high salaries and cult followings – like Vakhstein.

But there is also a very thin layer of people who actually tried to build bridges of understanding between the actually-existing majority in Russian society and the “West”.  Unlike Vakhstein’s, my example will not be imaginary, but merely anonymous.  I have an acquaintance who is a head of lab, and who won this position, against the overbearing conservative establishment in his department, exclusively because Putin’s rhetoric until very recently was cosmopolitan. The government demanded publications in western journals, and he is one rare scholar who actually had the desire and the means to both understand the “deeper” conservative Russia, and to learn the Western academic discourse. Recently, the requirement to publish in western journals was officially withdrawn, because of – quite real – barriers and prejudices in Western academia. His conservative rivals are now gloating and revelling in their restored position, while he is told to sign the pro-war letter, or to lose the lab.

The lab which he spent 10 years building, introducing entirely new sub-fields, scraping the bottoms of his budgets to invite western lecturers, hand-picking smart graduate students who were eager to read both the latest French philosopher, and their colleague from Saratov; and to research Russians living beyond the Moscow ring round, to give these Russians voice, to clarify their conditions and opinions – and to “translate” it all for Western academia. Now, he says that his only priority is to keep the lab and to continue to give meagre scholarships for his students, while also being a shoulder on which these students cry (literally, not figuratively) because people in uniforms come to their meeting saying explicitly that if any one of them will as much as pip against the “special operation”, they will lose their position immediately.

I should add that my friend may be not such a smooth speaker as Vakhstein, but unlike Vakhstein, he can actually discern the context of communication, culture and power that is set by your counterpart. He knows how to listen, not just speak and “retort”. But while Vakhsteins of the world undoubtedly end up in some Western university as martyr, this head of lab just lost an opportunity for which he and his students worked very hard, to win a governmental grant to just that: research actual things in Russian society and “make it understandable” for the west. Why? Because the government made the grant conditional on being overseen by a scholar with a star-like reputation. And the head of the lab chose a Western scholar who gladly agreed. This was in January. In February, the university in which that Western scholar works, demanded that he severed the tie with Russia. He regretfully withdrew his sponsorship of the grant – nothing personal, but he had to obey, he explained. Again, the conservative establishment in that institution rejoiced. They never had Western connections, and now all the grants are theirs.

Russian academic boycotts, bans, and the global production of knowledge

circa 1955: American broadcast journalist Edward R Murrow (1908 – 1965) sits behind a console in a CBS television control room, holding a pen in the air, 1950s. There is a microphone in the foreground. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Guest post: Letter from a concerned scholar

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already provoked a serious humanitarian crisis, with an unprecedented number of refugees and displaced persons next to civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure. The Western academic community is correctly focusing its resources on supporting the victims of the invasion – Ukrainian and Ukraine-resident scholars and students among them. These are the people that deserve unconditional solidarity now and maximum support, both material and moral.

On the other hand, however, short-term initiatives and reactions – however decisive and crucial they are – have to an extent overshadowed the understanding of long-term issues. The war is likely to increase dramatically the share of people living in poverty in Ukraine, an already poor country – this would require more significant initiatives to strategically ramp up humanitarian aid and write off the country’s foreign debt, that have been raised by Ukrainian activists themselves.

The other aspect is that the disruptive effects of the war are likely to have a significant impact on other vulnerable populations. For example, the poorest African countries will probably be drastically affected by the drastic reduction of wheat imports from both Ukraine and Russia. Another issue close to many – in terms of the contradictions it implies, and the way in which they are handled – relates to the attitude towards Russian people and the Russian academic community in particular.

The invasion has already provoked an increase of repression within the country, accelerating a decade-long trend. At the very least, any kind of dissent about the war is now criminalized / punished in some form – but explicit large-scale repression is likely to be the reality on the ground of the Russian state even after the conclusion of hostilities. The ‘economic war’ with the EU, NATO and allied countries is likely to lead to an economic depression that may equal the one that took place in the 1990s. Overall, ordinary Russian people are likely to suffer for a long time from the consequences of the war. Many Russian academics living abroad are vocally opposing their government’s war of aggression; some have at least temporarily left the country in the last weeks, with an uncertain future ahead; many others have remained – either due to personal choice, or for lack of resources and connections.

The Western academic world is not fully unaware of the situation. However, the (more or less) open letters that I read in these days look dramatically inadequate. Some basically consist of calls for an overall ban on Russian scholars just because of their citizenship, sometimes in favor of (token) Ukrainian representatives. They also ignore the understandable desire for many Ukrainians to stay in Ukraine. This zero-sum game logic is sometimes reflected in actual academic policies, with explicitly anti-war scholars and cultural activists being de-platformed, or, with the same logic of collective punishment, students being barred from enrolling in universities. However, no states have expelled current students.  

Other documents acknowledge the plight of many Russian colleagues and formally declare solidarity with them but look somehow disingenuous in their stance and extremely ambiguous in terms of their actual implications. An example of the former: in an open letter addressed to Russian scholars, the (real) issue of de-platforming and collective punishment is sidestepped by the author who wonders whether such extreme positions aren’t’ just part of Russian ‘regime propaganda’. The implications of political hygiene tests for scholars are chilling, but they are regularly discussed with no reflexivity. With a few laudable exceptions, solidarity is almost always conditional to ‘actively’ stating opposition to the invasion. This hold many scholars – those who have remained in Russia in particular – to impossible standards: one thing is to voice opposition from abroad and being affiliated with a foreign institution, another is to do it while living and being employed in Russia; it is laudable that associations like European Association of Social Anthropologists and BASEES/ASEEES have been clear that they will not discriminate on nationality grounds.

These attitudes, in my view, raise serious issues about the approach and mindset of many Western academics. Here are a few points for debate.

1. Most Russian universities remain peripheral in the global production of knowledge even in the context of area studies – how is this power asymmetry acknowledged by such calls coming from richer Western institutions? Do they have the right to set moral standards for precarious researchers with little to no resources, at risk of being fired, fined, arrested? Does the often-imperialist attitude of Russian cultural institutions (and among many academics, to be sure) towards Ukrainian culture make this issue irrelevant?

2. To what extent are open letters writers and signatories aware of the characteristics of the political system, consensus dynamics, societal attitudes, opinion polls in Russia? Did the ‘national’ focus of much post-socialist studies research – often justified by de-orientalizing reasons – actually compartmentalize/provincialize the understanding of the post-socialist condition and its various outcomes? This can be seen from the surprised reaction of scholars from all kinds of states at the lack of an uprising or greater protest in Russia.

3. Are some terms – that to a large extent describe real issues – being abused to the point of being distorted to the opposite? Talking about Ukraine by silencing Ukrainian voices is indeed a very bad case of ‘westsplaining’, but isn’t it conceptually the same to discuss about Russian state ideology, politics, society without the contribution of informed and critical Russian scholars? Is it ‘whataboutism’ to ask about the position of ‘cancellers’ regarding BDS – or what their position would have been about scholars from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries (including Euro states) being not sufficiently vocal against the unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003? Should they have been de-platformed?

Any comparison with BDS is usually dismissed as ‘not relevant’ by those defending banning Russian scholars or ignored completely. The academic boycott of Israel is in reality not a unified position. For example, some support boycott initiatives in occupied territories but not BDS. However, many voices are advocating a more extreme position than most BDS organizations in relation to Russian academia. This deserves discussion and debate.

My thoughts return to Ukraine and Ukrainians at this time of their struggle. What scholars can do is maximize informed, analytical and critical voices from within Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Don’t trust opinion polling about support in Russia for the Ukraine invasion

testing artificial teeth. Buy the print https://shop.heathrobinsonmuseum.org/collections/unmounted-prints/products/pf-testing-artificial-teeth-2

A few posts like this have been written already. There was this post by Greg Yudin. And then this by Alexei Miniailo DoRussiansWantWar.

A major misunderstanding appears to be that people used to dealing with public opinion surveys fall into thinking in terms of ‘majorities’ when a careful examination reveals big holes.

Greg Yudin has consistently attacked polling. On philosophical grounds (that polling frames narrowly questions that are very complex and a reality that ‘opinions’ are never fixed or coherent) and technically – that Russian polling in particular is deprofessionalized and politically sabotaged. Yudin points out the very narrow pool of people willing to answer polls in Russia which could indicate a core of conservative-irredentist-chauvinist support for the regime and its aims at around 15%. These are my terms by the way, not his. Second his point is about the meaning of polling in authoritarian states as ‘feedback’ to the regime. People can’t voice fears and complaints easily in other ways, so they do it in polls. This means we should treat them not as ‘preference’ sorting, but as a very partial and narrow form of communication. I would add that this also exacerbates a tendency that only those that think they will be heard are willing participants, because the regime has been effective in closing its ears to the genuine majority for a long time. Yudin makes another point more broadly that meaningful political subjectivity is not really possible, and a broad wave of privatisation of expression occurs where people retreat into private and personal matters. Maksim Kats supplements Yudin’s point about non-responses to polling, having apparently got only a tiny response from 31000 calls just the other day. His story is one of refusal to respond to polling.

Alexei Miniailo did some polling experiments two weeks ago. The main point is one that Samuel Greene has made previously. People in a state like Russia tend to give what they think is a consensus/agreeable answer and, according to Miniailo, clump out of fear to what they think is the politically mainstream opinion: that the ‘special operation’ is limited, is intended to denazify Ukraine or defend Donbas, etc. This means the 40% that follow prompts can be said to be a ‘group’, but what they actually believe is not clear. Similarly, maybe 7% lie about their opinion. What cuts through? Talks between relatives and close friends.

My own contacts, in both private and ‘state’-sponsored market research are more critical than Yudin of political and social polling. I collate the thoughts of four people who have special marketing or survey expertise.

  1. Boris Sanich (former big-polling company exec)

Yes, there’s a Hobbesian morass in society and it’s detectable. But that’s true of any society. And of course TV ‘pumping’ up has an effect – but it’s more emotional than rational-or even measurable – one week it’s there in the news and ‘relevant’, the next it isn’t. Does that make it opinion? No. It’s like a balloon you have to keep feeding. But Yudin I think underplays how much metastasised resentment there is internally as a result of the terrible economy and this bleeds out in all polls – against Gayropa, against Ukrainians now, but tomorrow it could be against Martians. So Putin in a sense rides this dangerous, clifflike wave. So like the person that says ‘I’m with our boys and our cause is just!’ in the next sentence says ‘but this is like Pinochet and that concert with Putin was just downright scary!’.

Since even 2000 there’s been a veneer of professionalization in polling – a use of software and training in the Western techniques. Statistical ‘education’. But this masks a stronger countercurrent – faking results, ‘correcting them’, and extremely poor field practices in reality. It’s like those badly maintained trucks in Ukraine. They look nice from a distance on parade, but really the oil is old and the tyres about to fall off. People don’t actually hit the numbers, because they pocket the money and can use their expertise to simulate the ‘correct’ results that in any case they know the client wants. And right at the top there’s corruption in polling. And field research is expensive, calls are expensive. Yes of course there are reputable firms that will take your money but there is always a weak link with people – the human factor. Also, any political or even social polling is so politicized so even when you do a ‘real’ good job, you end up binning it or changing it. So if you’re still in the market doing this research you are compromised down to your toes. And you ending up lying to yourself. Remember also that again, Levada, VTsiom, FOM they don’t do any of this work themselves. It’s almost all contracted out. Of course a person with expertise can tell when a result has been fixed or fiddled with, or corrected for a weird standard deviation. We call it ambiguously, ‘cleaning the database’. But like me, a lot of principled people left the business because anything political ends up as ‘mut’ i pizdezh’ [murk and BS].

  • Gena Maximovich (owner of private market research firm since 90s)

Private sector market research and specialized social and political polling have parted ways. I agree with your previous commentator 100%. The biggest problem is poor field work, poorly trained polling staff and cleaning the data to suit the client. For my own part, this is why my firm is so strong, because we don’t do any of that and focus – until now – on private companies, particularly in the transnational sector. The elephant in the room that these political pollsters can’t openly discuss is their samples are shit – old and poor people answer and especially if there are inducements they spout all kinds of shit. ‘Bad field’ we call it. A lumpenaudience is all that remains. That’s why my firm only does scoping polling and any results we publish are based almost entirely on focus groups where I, or my subordinates have personally conducted the work and then signed off on it. Even there, with the main pollsters I don’t trust their focus groups because of the ‘bad field’ effect. Low professionalism is a problem with these mainstream pollsters who depend on the state. My customers need predictive power and if my focus groups are not corroborated with results in sales, I lose customers. But the political pollsters are focussed on supplying a self-fullfilling prophesy. Sure there is an impression of professionalism – auditing of results, recordings of call-centre polls, but they still are massively manipulated.

  • Galina Vasilievna – survey conductor.

I did phone surveying, before call centres became the main method, and I also did a lot of street and door-to-door. I can just summarise that the supervisors knew we made up results. They taught us how to do it so that it would not be obvious, although sometimes we got caught and our data got thrown out or cleaned. We would never get enough respondents and so some of us would just go home early and fill out the rest by hand. We would adopt the mentality of the kind of people we’d got answers from and make up variants based on these. [note to readers – this person was also a fieldworker for one of the most cherished databases at the heart of Western research on Russia]

  • Jeremy Morris – former focus group manager in ex-Soviet states.

My own experience is limited, but I think, revealing. I consulted for a Western media company who wanted market research on internet and TV consumption. They contracted to a Belarusian company. I was the ‘quality control’ and intermediary. The contractor continuously cut corners, basically bullied the focus groups into a particular line, and oversimplified the results to an egregious degree. When I tried to intervene the client was not really interested. There was a marked difference in the quality of the facilitator’s work between when I was physically present in the groups and when I was absent (and reviewing a recording). Just getting the contractor to hand over the tapes was hard. Of course, if I’d not cared, I would not have reviewed the tapes. Indeed, I was paid only to review 5% of the actual recordings. As I indicated with Galina’s story – this affects Western research too. The elephant in the room is how many scholars rely on ‘off-the-shelf’, contracted out data collection where more than one intermediary has a financial incentive to make the results ‘look good’.

Does public opinion exist? Does the majority support war? Opinion is highly managed via polling to produce clear results, legible to the political technologs in the Kremlin. Even now, Ukraine is not highly relevant to most Russians’ everyday lives and so any polling about the war is suspect. With the most recent results we see the clear effect of fear. Are people ignorant? No, not at all. Some avoid news. But that just delays the inevitable. The war is not ‘salient’, yet, but soon it will be. Lumping people into ‘war camp’, or ‘opposition’ is very problematic as these are not static, demarcated categories, even now. Like Aleksei Miniailo proposes, perhaps there are 40% who are agreeable – but is that ‘opinion’? Who are they agreeing with? Perhaps they align with the 20% (?) within that cohort who are genuinely enthusiastic for elite messaging around great power status, and a general conservatism. But regardless we cannot talk of a pro-war majority.

If you want more detail on polling debates and the background to Yudin’s interventions, then check out this post from 2019 on a similar topic.

Moscow war diary. Part 5. The absent voice of the Russian intelligentsia in the land of aspic

kholodets (Ukrainian recipe)

Final Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate

March 9, 2022
The flight of many representatives of the Russian intelligentsia, which many pro-European and anti-Putin residents of Russia admired for many years, now causes unpleasant surprise and annoyance for many, it seems. There is an understanding that there could be political persecution of Dud, Dmitry Bykov or Anton Dolin. But after all, it was they who for many years turned to the enlightened European audience of the country, to show citizenship, courage, etc., believing that it was important to fight the regime in this way. And what? Where is their courage and citizenship? They left the country of the new “Z-intelligentsia” like Zakhar Prilepin… Now the voice of the “Russian European” will not only not be heard, it will be absent. And it must be admitted that Navalny became the only truly courageous leader, person and intellectual. Others were unlikely to be threatened by what Navalny received (although Dmitry Bykov seems to have survived the poisoning attempt in 2019), but the haste of this flight is somewhat amazing for many and has not yet been meaningfully understood by anyone. Moreover, with the introduction of total censorship, this can only be understood in kitchens, as it was in the 1970s.

The metaphor of the “kholodets country” (jelly, aspic) was also born – it trembles around the edges when shaken (middle class and big cities), but remains almost unchanged in a viscous state in the depths. It seems to be ready to melt, but vlast’ freezes it all the time, it can be stabbed with knives, but this will not have such a noticeable effect on integrity when frozen. So it is with us – sanctions pierce the country with economic knives, but the authorities will simply keep this jelly with a frost and a distributive economy. Pieces in the form of the middle class will fall off of course, but it seems that it was so superficial … Moscow especially – like fat, appearing on the surface of the jelly. They’ll sieve it off and put it in the trash and all will be well.

March 13, 2022
It is interesting that business in Russia no longer considers itself as an independent political entity, but only as one of the classes according to Simon Kordonsky, which is trying to reduce costs and increase profits in the conditions of corporate capitalism, which the country has become for some time ago. In this sense, it can be said that business, like the military class, is depoliticized in Russia. The so-called “oligarchs” from the 1990s. after the Khodorkovsky cases found their place between the glamorous life of eternal travelers on luxury yachts and the role of cosmopolitan emissaries of the state and their interests in global capitalism. The most cosmopolitan of them tried to find a compromise in the new military reality – abstractly calling for peace like sophomore students. It seems that this was the worst solution for their image in Russia and abroad – for some, their statements seemed to be a surrender of national interests, while for others they were not anti-war enough. As a result, many of them rush around different countries on their business jets and quickly lose influence and money. At the same time, there was an influential cohort of state-owned businessmen in Russia who are at the helm of state-owned corporations, show high management efficiency and strive to implement advanced management technologies in their structures. The most striking figure here remains German Gref, who seems to have not yet expressed a clear position on what is happening and his Sberbank is still in working condition. “Systemic liberals” in business and government should soberly assess the depth of the defeat inflicted by the sanctions on the Russian economy, but they did not outline a visible political position. It is quite likely that now this is impossible, since the stunning economic attack of the West on Russia leaves them no other option than to put out the fire on the ship together with everyone, so as not to be branded as a traitor to national interests. In this regard, the West acted tough and consistently, but not entirely far-sighted, leaving no room for communication.


After the closure of McDonald’s and other global fast food chains that have been operating in Russia for many years, the question arises of replacing them with local businesses. At the level of government officials (Volodin), the departure of foreign networks was perceived with optimism, but Russian businessmen themselves react to this prospect with skepticism. A few days ago, the opinion of the owner of the well-known and large fast food chain based on Russian cuisine (mainly pancakes with filling) “Teremok” Mikhail Goncharov appeared. He believes that the unique technological, logistical and marketing solutions that McDonald’s possessed cannot be replaced in Russia and complains about the lack of targeted government support for national businesses:


“Teremok and other representatives of Russian business were not created as competitors to McDonald’s simply because we don’t know how to do it (meaning – as well) as they do. Neither technologically nor in terms of management and marketing.” https://tjournal.ru/opinions/562982-osnovatel-seti-teremok-mesto-makdonaldsa-v-rossii-nikto-ne-zaymet-my-tak-ne-umeem

“All this comes from decades of hard work by hundreds of thousands of executives, marketers and engineers, and even with the help of stimulating development (!) Government measures. So far, we do not have these measures at all. On the contrary, the existing measures and modes of operation stimulate the degradation and decay of any large business.”


In other words, Russian business was a diligent student of its Western competitors, but it is extremely difficult to make a quick import substitution under the current conditions. In addition, many medium-sized Russian companies are already facing problems with the supply and renewal of equipment, spare parts, with the breakdown of established supply chains and are experiencing a state of shock. Many people think about survival, not about development. Of course, regional producers of food and alcohol will survive by switching to a simplified product line, but this will not be a full-fledged replacement for Western companies. In fact, no one seems to know how the situation will develop in the coming year.


If we talk about the political subjectivity of medium-sized businesses (which are often a large employer in the regions), then we must remember that this subjectivity was also very limited and concerned only those aspects, inclusion in power structures that helped this business to have insider information and to influence the regional authorities in their interests. After the turbulent 1990s, when “power entrepreneurs” and “new Russians” actively entered politics, other times came: after building the “vertical of power”, regional entrepreneurs became part of the “Big deal” or “new social contract” between Putin and society . They remained loyal and donated to the needs of the regions within the framework of “social responsibility”, they could be deputies of city and regional parliaments, but almost never participated in non-imitation political activity. They kept quiet and made money. Various public associations of small businesses “Opora Rossii” or large corporations of the RSPP rather resolved government relations issues and lobbied for the interests of individual business groups, but also were not civil subjects.


It must be said that the position “business is not politics” or “business is not politics” or the neo-liberal version of corporate social responsibility (CSR) “we pay taxes, we give jobs and in this way we perform our civic function” (Milton Friedman) has become very popular in Russia . In the 1990s, a right-libertarian individualist cult of money and an “American story” of success in the vein of Henry Ford or Herbalife network marketing came into vogue among the country’s younger generation, who had abandoned any Marxist interpretation of the social order. Interestingly, the “dollar” and personal success in caricature form captured the minds of many Russians who believed that they could and should become personally successful outside the state and public institutions. In the 2010s, on the wave of new ideologization, Ayn Rand and her famous novel Atlas Shrugged came into fashion when they began to think that minimizing the participation of the state in one’s destiny and a competitive market economy would be a salvation from corruption and bureaucracy. Then the popularity of the idea of ​​“passive income” began to grow – playing on exchange electronic platforms in order to obtain long-term income, which will become the basis of well-being instead of a state pension.


Thus, business (small, medium and large) turned out to be politically subjectless and could only complain to the state about bureaucratic barriers and tax burdens. Now they all suffer from sanctions and each chooses his own path to salvation or survival. A thin layer of the urban creative class and innovative industries (IT, advertising, design) will most likely be suppressed or many will emigrate, there will be more state corporations and derizhism in industry and technology, small and medium-sized businesses will survive on their own – existing in a gray zone of increasingly less clear economic rules and chaotic market.


Will business have political subjectivity? Hard to say. Among the employees and office managers of large advanced Russian companies, their own “Ukrainian war” is already underway; many of them considered the earned style of Western consumption an important element of class superiority, they wanted to travel to Western European countries, someone even had real estate there. Now things have become complicated and they are of course unhappy. But they also have mortgages and are now afraid of losing their jobs, so their readiness for political mobilization is not so easy to believe.

March 14, 2022.
In the early autumn of last year, I became interested in the topic of the Latin American dictatorships of the 1960s and 80s. I watched the film “Kamchatka” (2002, directed by Marcelo Pinheiro) and read the novel by Marcelo Figueres. Somehow the clouds were gathering in Russia. Now everything is becoming more relevant – under different scenarios, it seems that there will be no good outcome for Russia. In the meantime every day I find out how colleagues leave the country – the intellectual circle is getting poorer. We stay. Nobody is waiting for us. Will there be something tomorrow? The war will continue…

“The film is seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, Harry (Matías del Pozo), who does not know that Argentina’s 1976 coup d’état is impacting his life. After witnessing the “disappearance” of dissident friends, a human rights lawyer (Ricardo Darín) and his research scientist wife (Cecilia Roth) flee the city and hide from the military police in a vacant summer house. With them are their two kids: Harry, who is fascinated with the escape artistry of Harry Houdini, and El Enano, his little brother. (Translated as “Little Guy” in the English subtitles, played by Milton de la Canal. The actual translation is “dwarf”.) The family adopts new identities and attempts to lead a normal life. Later, they are joined by a student who is using the alias Lucas (Tomás Fonzi). Their new life is difficult, but a visit with their estranged grandparents (Fernanda Mistral and Héctor Alterio) reveals that they are still a close-knit family. Subtly hinted, however, and used as a metaphor, is the mother’s constant smoking and El Enano’s renewed bed-wetting. Both serve to show how stressful and precarious their situation is.” Kamchatka (2002) – Plot Summary – IMDb

Moscow war diary. Part 4: Incriminating Evidence? Or polling fallacies

March 7-8, 2022.

Fourth Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate


Can the results of public opinion polls be incriminating evidence against Russia? Such a question arises when various well-known polling companies publish the results of their latest polls dedicated to supporting the so-called “special operation in Ukraine.” Following the well-known Russian intellectuals (Grigory Yudin), I would raise the problem of the status of public opinion poll data in non-free and non-democratic societies. I think that in addition to the system bias, which is caused by the specifics of the mode, there are some other aspects.


According to polls. FOM, VTsIOM and Levada find mass support for the war (special operation). But there are several buts. First, in the wording, instead of the clear and real word “war” (moreover, on a large scale), the official euphemism “military operation” and so on is used. This greatly reduces the drama: “war” is an important and emotionally laden word for any resident of Russia, some other term greatly reduces the attention of respondents to questions. Secondly, it is important how the structure of the questionnaires looked like – what topics and plots were asked before this block of questions about the “military operation”. The previous context of the blocks also affects the responses. Thirdly, G. Yudin is right – of course, there is an effect of socially approved answers, but no one knows how strong it is and how it is represented in different social and age groups. But similar effects can be observed to a lesser extent in Western countries – only in authoritarian regimes they are afraid of political persecution for “wrong” answers, and in democratic ones they are afraid of public censure and moral condemnation. This must also be taken into account. Fourth, the media (in any country) have a major impact on public opinion. And here, not only censorship or propaganda also begins to influence (let’s not be naive, it exists in countries with any regime, but in totalitarian ones it plays an outsized role), but the effect of self-developing mass information waves (mass “infection”) exists everywhere – in Russia with militaristic hysteria and in a world with a total rejection of Russia as part of the world. The echo of social networks and interactive communication – “moral wars” only intensifies this infection and information waves. Of course, the surrounding news agenda is now extremely pressing on public opinion and poll results.

[editor: Yudin updates his criticism of polling in Russia here. Others have more fundamental accusations of outright fraud and shady practices, but that’s for a later post]


And further. Leading Russian survey companies conduct their surveys according to international methods and the data is not drawn arbitrarily. All samples are accurate and measurements are made according to the methods. But technical sophistication does not mean that surveys show the complex processes that take place in societies at critical moments. [editor: other qualified persons disagree with this assessment and make a distinction between political polling and commercial commissioned surveys – again for a later post]


And most importantly, in a situation of social storm and obvious force majeure, public opinion polls in authoritarian or democratic countries give big failures. They measure something in an instantaneous jump in sentiment or in a situation of a giant information wave and a massive “infection” of public opinion with one idea. But what happens in different social groups and in everyday life – polls do not measure this – they falter like a compass at the moment it is affected by a magnetic anomaly. “Military field” operational anthropology works here – communication with people, all-round, correspondence, included observation. Here and now. At this moment. At the same time, it is important to focus not on the mood of your intellectual friends from the Facebook or Instagram feed, but to try to see the broader social picture in its complexity and ambiguity. Now in Russia it is difficult, the more valuable are the rare anthropologists and ethnographers who know the Russian language, who have been in Russia not only in the circle of prestigious universities, but there – in the very depths where poor people live …