From unequal Russian youth citizenship to caste- and estate-based perspectives?

I want to revisit the youth topic of my previous post. I offered there a mild ‘check your privilege’ criticism of the limited perspectives of Muscovite middle-class youth. Additionally, I offered an ‘apology’ for non-politically active or non-‘civically conscious’ young people. I basically said that Muscovites (and I would include all ages here, and other metropolitan areas) have quite a limited understanding of the lives of non-Muscovites. This was illustrated in my interviews with ‘older’ people too. I think this is partly a function of the quite narrow social and geographical circles of acquaintance that I observe.

One might object that educated Muscovites travel a lot, not only abroad, but also in Russia and develop friendships and acquaintance with people beyond their Moscow ‘set’. I would agree, but then I would add that this only exacerbates the socio-economic ghettoizing of relations. In that, while my young Muscovites develop friendships with, say, middle-class educated Spanish youth in their travels and thanks to their parents’ cosmopolitanism, their attitudes to ‘deep’ Russia still faintly resemble that of a bygone time. Okay, that’s provocative and unfair, but I was very much reminded of the narodniks when talking to some of the more politically active youth. And I mean that in a negative way – there is no consciousness of the need to connect to the majority of youth who may well see inequality as more important than identity politics. Of course, the narodniks failed, but at least they were aware of the divide between the different Russias (as is today’s Natalia Zubarevich).

As for travel in Russia – this is very much as a foreign tourist in one’s own land. In one case, I had to explain the workings of the Russian railway timetable, and the ‘local’ inevitability of DIY euthanizing unwanted animals, the limited consumer choice (this is actually the most shocking – to some it is incomprehensible that poor people are unlikely to spend a lot of money on fancy stuff, like ‘parmesan’ – cheese again!).

Okay this sounds like parody but it’s true (and I’ve actually toned it down not to offend too much anybody reading this – of course they are precisely those who speak and read English well!). To be fair, some cosmopolitan Russians recognise this split all too well, and even discuss it with me. Indeed some of the more embarrassing moments of my fieldwork are when Muscovite Russians tease me about ‘knowing more about the glubinka’ than they do. Or when I am asked sincerely about ‘what the locals think’. There are sensitive, thoughtful people who are aware of the great social divide and try to bridge it in their lives. However, even in my fieldsite, the real and metaphorically gated communities grow. Frankly, the more I observe this, the more embarrassing it gets. And I am aware that part of the embarrassment is the way in which this post might be read as insufferable arrogance on the part of a foreigner who can never have the same inside knowledge or linguistic competence as the native. Moreover, the idea of a class of Russians as foreigners in their own land is not new (Decembrists’ failure, partisan war of 1812, etc).

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So, why is this important? In the previous post, I also touched on the research I’ve done with colleagues on the ideas of youth citizenship. The split and mutual incomprehensibility of different Russian youth is no doubt mainly due to socio-economic background. However it indicates an open secret about inequality of citizenship as well. ‘Affective ideas of belonging’ was one way of looking at how frustrated young urban Russians were with their inability to get involved in the political workings of their country. Turning away from the insoluble problems is another response. I’m reminded of one of the first times I presented in my old institution in the UK, a Russian colleague approached me afterwards, and with slight hesitation began to question me. Had I not made a mistake in stating that my factory workers in 2009 were only earning 18,000 roubles a month (230 Euro)? In not, was I exaggerating how little they earned. Later on social media, a businessman stated that ‘even shop workers’ earned at a minimum 30,000 roubles a month. Clearly he’d never been to a small town, or even a provincial city. Finally, a couple of years ago, a very senior professor opened her comments to a roundtable with the observation that there was no economic crisis because people in Moscow continued to holiday in Cyprus.

None of my research interlocutors, bar one owns a ‘zagran’ – a tourist passport. To get one would involve taking at least two days off, and travelling to the oblast centre, possibly early in the morning, which is in any case a considerable distance (previously they could travel to the district centre). If a person has been mainly informally employed or self-employed, they may have trouble (or be wary of) filling out the work history form that is required to get a passport. Is it worth discussing ‘affective citizenship’ when the everyday experience of citizenship is so trammelled, or ‘shrinking’, a term sometimes used in a different context to talk about the limited avenues for democratic participation. Shrinking also has relevance when trying to pin down ordinary meanings of citizenship for these same people. Increasingly, people talk about the town, the district, to the exclusion of the national. Their sense of Russianness is localised. Quite ironic given recent focus on the ‘wholeness of Russia’ and increasing use of ‘Russian’ as an ethnic identity marker. So perhaps I shouldn’t be too quick to judge Muscovites for ‘identity politics’.

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Finally, all this reminds me of some really interesting research I’ve recently been engaging with – the first is Simon Kordonsky’s on today’s Russia as a kind of caste-based, rather than class-based society. I recently reviewed his English-language book (previous link) for Europe-Asia Studies. I’m now reading some of his Russian sources with my students.

A snippet from the review here:

“Dividing resources among estates is the core process of social life. Crucially, service not labour is the marker of compensation in this system. Therefore classes cannot fully emerge, instead there are non-titular estates of professionals – Kordonsky enjoys provoking the reader in a running joke that lumps scientists, lawyers, and prostitutes in the same category.  Similarly, persons receive estate rent and ‘pay’ estate ‘taxes’ based on their estate position alone. This is why the visible signs of estate membership are so important (think regalia, uniforms, cars with blue-lights); estates makes themselves known to other estates based on ritualised and symbolic practices, leading to widely accepted notions of ‘distributive’, rather than ‘corrective’ justice.”

Recently too, Anna Kruglova’s work has investigated ‘caste’. Presenting at the EASA in Stockholm this year based on research on industrial communities in the Urals she proposes that increasingly workers “get homogenized and ‘compressed’ back to their sosloviie (caste or estate).

Kordonsky’s perspective is pessimistic. Overall he proposes a static, ‘frozen’ system. Is social mobility possible? Can classes with identifiable interests form? While the democratic, market-based society to which Kordonsky opposes Russia is an ideal type, readers may question so stark a differentiation – after all, in the ‘West’, estate-like phenomena such as the increasing significance of unearned income, professional/estate ‘aristocracies’, barriers to social mobility, differential rights, obligations and inequality before the law also feature to various extents. Is it a step too far to think of Russia as a ‘caste’ society when ignoring how socially differentiated our own societies are?

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Is youth more than just a word? Civic consciousness in Russian youth today

Russia, Sevastopol, Crimea combined rally and concert in Moscow[A version of this post appeared on Ridl in late May. https://www.ridl.io/en/young-russians-are-not-just-young-and-russian/ A Russian version is also available here. With the ‘strapline’: Молодые россияне чувствуют себя неполноценными гражданами, т.к. в стране установлен персонализированный и патримониальный характер предоставления доступа к возможностям, социальной мобильности и привилегиям. I’ll be revisiting this topic shortly.]

Talk about Russian ’youth’ usually assumes one of two modes: either they are easily mobilised by patriotic rhetoric to support the state, or, on the contrary, about to form a progressive vanguard to bring down a corrupt regime. In each case I take a contrarian position. Not for the sake of it, but on the basis of some very old ideas in social research – the difficulty in even defining youth, and the mistake of thinking in terms of group consensus or even cohesive identity.

Let’s take the first point – is ‘youth’ more than just a word? Let’s turn things around – if you’re in your early 40s, are you middle-aged? You probably don’t feel that way. You’re 60. Are you old? I guess you don’t think so. Why then do we expect people who are 20, or 25 identify as ‘youth’? Or even hold positions or perspectives that are coherently similar or correlating to others in such a ‘cohort’. The label of ‘youth’ is invariably deployed by a more powerful group, as a label of insufficiency, of incompleteness. And yet as a term it is frustratingly lacking in explanatory power.

My ethnographic writing on Russia bears out such scepticism. I researched Russians in their 20s in an industrial town in Kaluga Region in the early 2010s. I have also researched relatively privileged and educated young people from St Petersburg and Moscow as part of collaborative projects with Russian sociologists. The people I speak to differ in some ways and are similar in others. In both ‘cases’ I found both political radicals and conservatives. Moreover, in equal measure I met both ‘individualists’ and ‘collectivists’. The best I can do in terms of commonalities is point to a deep need to express young people’s love for and sense of connection with their country, to engage in some way civically. In most cases, whatever their political stripe, youth are conscious that this is quite difficult, if not impossible in today. As a ‘public institution’ youth are objectified by the state either as a ‘problem’, or as a potential group for mobilisation. In either case, they acutely feel that they are incomplete citizens due to the highly personalised and patrimonial nature of access to opportunities, social mobility and privilege.

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Much has been written in the last few years about the visibility of young people in political and social protests in Russia. Who are these people and where do they come from? Undoubtedly this is a metropolitan phenomenon, despite people – including the young Muscovites I speak to – insisting that mobilisation of youth in places like Omsk is important in showing that protest is not just the preserve of the metro-middle-class. However, when I ask these young people the last time they spent time outside Moscow (where I do most of my research) they stumble. There is a real disconnect here. And while they deny it, these sincere and dedicated youth let slip a sense of moral, intellectual and political superiority. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that they would never really consider the idea of building a coalition with other young people. Their interests are dominated by identity politics dictated by privileged backgrounds. When one young woman told me that her strong and vocal opposition was based on personal experience of suffering, it turned out that what she was referring to was the anti-gay propaganda law.  I probed further – what about inequality of opportunity, about blocked horizons for youth without connections? But my 20-year-old students were quite clear that they personally were not, and would not be affected by these, undeniably real, problems. They still believed they could succeed by merit in Putin’s Russia, without ‘connections’. And while they may be personally right, reality tells a different story. Politically engaged, fervent even in their opposition, they were also naïve. They were already sophisticated operators in the Moscow market for opposition:  ‘Navalnyi is a means to an end. We can go to a rally without endorsing his candidature’. But their sophistication was that of the bubble network of Moscow. These were the children of what Simon Kordonsky calls the genuinely ‘free’ and active middle-class, which only exists in big cities and is a marginal ‘estate’ in the stratified system.  They have the most to lose from further political tightening for they exist in a narrowing niche, which emigration is further eroding (in a small sample, small numbers matter). But most consciously make a choice that emigration, for now, is not for them. Indeed, they say, just as proudly as any, that they are civic patriots and that it is youth that has a responsibility to take personal moral responsibility for its country. In general a sense of ‘belonging’ as an urge is important, but searches in vain to connect to a suitable civic meaning. As one young interviewee in 2013 research commented: ‘I do not feel like a citizen. A citizen is someone connected to the state. The state is formed of power… politics… I would not like to be a citizen… the state is over there somewhere and I am here. We exist separately.’

There are other niches as well, more representative of transition to adulthood in Russia. The most important is in the vast semi-formal and informal economy where permanency of employment is unknown. Many survive in a position of economic precarity due to lack of opportunities or the right connections. These include potential allies of the ‘oppositionist’ minded youth: like the IT programmer I know in his 20s, living from gig to gig. Most however have a lower level of education, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also consciously wary of the state. Earning money in the black economy can carry political meaning. For the plumbers, electricians, taxi-drivers and even underground factory workers of my research, it’s more than a convenience that the state is at arm’s length.  It obviates any necessity to make political compromises. It’s a form of freedom, impoverishing and precarious as it is. They make their own society of ‘opposition’ in the back of ersatz taxi-cabs, in garage blocks, and on the summer village plots. Even for those in nondescript blue- and white-collar employment, there is a sense of apartness from ‘society’ or politics. Is that any different from other countries? Well, no. But, the accelerated entry of these ‘ordinary’ (male) youth to the adult world – through the army and then encountering the ‘system’, where they see first-hand the difference in progression between those with pull and those without, makes them cynical and wary of the oppositionist youth. Young women are a different story – there is more buy-in to the ideal of social mobility through educational achievement, which is sometimes turns out to be real but more often, illusory. Youth divisions in a belief in social mobility, and by extension a belief in the ’system’, would be an interesting topic for sociologists to explore in terms of a gendered conformity/non conformity.

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However, there is a third niche for youth that’s more important than ever given the vast resources apportioned to it, and that is the security apparatus. Here I set aside the marginal projects like the abortive ‘Nashi’ movement or the more recent ‘preventative’ work of the Youth Army. I mean the opportunity given (a job, a salary, maybe even a shortcut to a flat) by an ordinary job in the interior ministry troops or special purpose police. Look at the faces of the policemen next time they’re called out to a rally in Moscow. These are the same future-oriented, optimistic, and probably just as critically thinking youth as those they are arresting. One of the most academically gifted kids I ever met in my research actively chose a career in the security forces (after a stint in the army) as a way of escaping small town life. Was this out of political loyalty? Not at all. However, beyond the job security and opportunity, a sense of ‘belonging’ was certainly important.

Here we return to the common feature of all youth, the question of their subordinated place in the order of things and their need for more or less active citizenship. Even for our invisible citizens, theirs is often an actively ‘negative’ sense of citizenship, avoiding formal jobs and the ordering purview of the state. Throughout Russia’s history the idea of visible, or conscious roleness – of the idea of the active young person becoming a part of change, has been a vexed one. This time is no different.

 

Hauntology and the trauma of social change: deindustrialising communities in Mumbai and provincial Russia

This post appears in the City and Society Forum: Haunted Cityscapes: Critical Dialogues, edited by Derek Pardue and published 13 Feb 2018.

When the editors of City and Society asked me to write this piece and gave some examples of previous publications on ‘haunted landscapes’ to engage with, I was immediately taken by a couple of suggested topics: the “eeriness of city spaces after deindustrialization, collective memory about public architecture that is somehow unspeakable”. Both relate closely to my own research on Russian small-town rustbelt communities. Maura Finkelstein’s ‘Landscapes of Invisibility: Anachronistic Subjects and Allochronous Spaces in Mill Land Mumbai’ was an obvious choice as a companion piece to my own work.

Published in 2015 Finkelstein’s article shows how deindustrialization is not an obvious linear process.  She explores experience of trauma through the gradual or sudden loss of working-personhood. This relates not only to a “question of mourning and nostalgia, but also one of economic insecurity for most of the global workforce.” Her fieldwork findings and reflections on Indian cotton spinners in Mumbai relate to discussions of precarity well beyond the purview of traditional blue-collar labor. Of particular interest is the literature that critically engages with the meaning of “precarious work” from a less Eurocentric perspective (for example Munck 2013, Paret 2016,  and subsequent reflections, for example on China, South Africa and Russia).

The main question posed in Finkelstein’s article expresses what in my view is a chief task of urban ethnographers today: “What might a global history of contemporary labor transformation look like if the remaining workers and remnant spaces of industry are allowed visibility and voice alongside narratives of disappearance and scarcity?” One of the answers for Finkelstein is that a ‘sense of being a worker permeated every conversation’ with informants, even as they lost their jobs or were already primarily engaged in other labor. This leads to her adoption of the term “allochronous space” to describe Mumbai’s mills. They are still working spaces, even as the gentrified and ‘modern’ city of 21st century India encroaches on an industrial setting little changed since the 1960s and predicated on an economy of empire and the global flows of cotton dating from the mid-19th-century.

Finkelstein doesn’t use the term “haunting”, but certainly the idea of the spectre of 20th century urban industrial landscapes can be adopted to further elucidate key ideas about space and people as they appear “out of joint”. The term “hauntology” comes from research in popular cultural studies by Mark Fisher. Fisher used this term to link nostalgia about British 1970s popular culture of his youth to what he saw as the simultaneous pendulum swing towards the neoliberal, post-Fordist consensus. Michael Grasso’s reading of Fisher sees this transformation as leading “to a culture of retrospection and pastiche” typified by a particular form of consumption: “destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar?” For those growing up in the final stages of the previous period of full employment and widely enjoyed socio-economic rights and privileges, the subsequent period and present are experienced as a “unnatural”, “rigged”, or, in the words of Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a “slow cancellation of the future”.  Like for the Mumbai mill workers, this is an example of “allochronically” experienced time, or at least diachronicity. The past expectations of the future are “cancelled”, yet the past, with its hopefulness, naïve beliefs, refuses to die in the present, even as the “majority” (the increasingly gentrified middle-class Mumbaikars) see in the mill workers and their factories, only ghosts of a time past.

How similar this sounds to the experiences of my Russian informants in a small deindustrialising town. I’ve written extensively about the multi-generational experience of workers there living out of joint. I call this an example of a social trauma of the unhomely present – disjoint and time, place and belonging. This is different from the acute trauma experienced by people living in big urban centres like Moscow in the period immediately during and after the extreme capitalist market reforms of the early 1990s, which is amply documented in both urban and rural anthropologies of postsocialism. But, in reality the processes of “restructuring” have stretched into the present, a period of more than 25 years and thus become a multi-generational experience. Hence, informants’ characterization of present time as a seemingly never-ending interval (the future is somehow never expected to arrive and the past socialist period is continually referred to as the time “before”). The sense of traumatically being out of synchrony with the times—that the present is somehow mocking and torturing a person—is experienced as an ongoing and growing process of trauma, rather than a single event. This idea of trauma as process in the postsocialist context really begins in Sergei Ushakin’s work (also spelled Oushakine).  It also helps us think of “postsocialism” as an analytic concept of relevance to the present and to global neoliberal processes – see Borelli and Mattioli 2013, and Makovicky 2014.

How does this painful haunting show up in terms of the relationship between workers and the urban landscape? What first appeals about the Finkelstein piece is the physical immediacy of the ethnographic encounter with the industrial city, even in its decline. The mixture of dust and food smells, also unmistakable in the Russian context, is the reminder of the town’s industrial worth even in the present. The fine limestone easily turns to powder under the wheels of trucks on its unsealed roads. Second, the hulks of abandoned buildings are emblematically haunting, but also misleading. The photo of Mumbai in Finkelstein’s piece shows the domination of the shininess of modernity in the form of new housing, but, peering closer, we see the decrepit looking but still functioning mill buildings.

 

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looks are deceiving – a still functioning Russian cement works. 

In deindustrialising communities the backdrop of the now-useless “worthless dowry” of disused mill, workshop and smoke-stack structures seems universal, but, in reality, reveals important differences in the degree of haunting, and as Alice Mah has shown, seemingly “ruined”, abandoned industrial sites remain connected with the urban fabric.  The term “worthless dowry” comes from research on urban technological networks by Maria Kaika and Eric Swyngedouw via Elena Trubina on the problems of post-Soviet urban regeneration. Most industrial settlements in Russia were purposely built and the land for their “industrial zones” is of little worth for redevelopment – too peripheral, disconnected from urban centres, or simply decrepit. Hence, the abandoned and half-finished buildings are left to rot rather than pulled down or repurposed. They are therefore an ever-present haunting reminder of the comforting and familiar rhythms of the Soviet factory (with guaranteed social housing, multi-generational employment and other benefits), and simultaneously the loss of meaning and status in the present, the cancelled future.

There is one road in and out of my town, Izluchino, 4-hours’ drive from Moscow. While many workers have found new jobs in the multinational corporations that have set up factories closer to Moscow, this means a long commute by car. Every working day a convoy of workers cannot avoid driving past the still standing brick chimneys that dominate the landscape. But there is no smoke except from the newly built German limekiln employing a handful of workers. The Soviets, both anxious and proud of their rapid achievement in building socialism in a backwards country were keen to mark the urban territory at every turn. Thus, the brick chimneys and buildings of Izluchino still bear the date of their construction: “1970”, “1980”, as well as the ubiquitous “Glory to the CPSU” [the USSR Communist Party]. Even beyond the industrial zone, one cannot escape the Soviet periodization of progress. When the USSR began building its nuclear arsenal, the town suddenly boomed with activity as limestone in great quantity was required for the railway to the world’s first grid-connected nuclear reactor in Obninsk. As a result, wooden barracks were built hurriedly in the town. Now they are more like slums, but still each one bears the year of its construction: “1960”, “1961” and the sports hall still bears the proud emblems of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, exhorting all Soviet people to engage in physical “culture” for the sake of the project of building communism. Outside the post office building, now mainly given over to selling Chinese domestic appliances, a forlorn whitewashed bust of Lenin looks on.

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Centre of town. photo courtesy of Balázs Gosztonyi

However, despite the seemingly worthless dowry of Soviet industrial modernity, the present-day workers like their Mumbai counterparts “are not relics of the past, their perspectives are relevant to contemporary understanding of deindustrialization” (Finkelstein). Their lived experience of trauma, and of dealing with dislocating social change is indicative and witness to broader issues relating to contemporary precarisation – as the haunting metaphor indicating a loss of future seeks to show. In such spaces, allochronicity means that values of work, dignity, and the sense of betrayal can live on – haunt – so to speak – long after the acute period of deindustrialization seems to have passed. In Mumbai former mill workers still separate out the categories of “work” versus “labor” – enforced cab driving is merely “labor” and not the same as millwork as it is lacking in dignity for the cotton spinners.

This could have been written about many former socialist urban communities, where cab driving, day laboring and informal economic activities provide a form of precarious survival, camaraderie of despair even, but also show up the stark contrast between the work-based certainties and social status of the past. Finkelstein notes “how one’s work comes to craft one’s identity is left unanswered” in much scholarship. Finkelstein is at pains to show how work, even after deindustrialization produces selfhood, but in a context of devalued or declining work, personhood comes to be experienced in a pale haunting quality.  Workers are “selectively invisible”, but their erasure is an active social process in postindustrial urban spaces. The state, media and of course redevelopment and gentrification all play a role. In the postsocialist context, after the obligatory propaganda of workers states, a reversal is observed, and in the media, a demonization of workers occurs. Finkelstein refers repeatedly to the incredulity of more sophisticated Mumbai residents on learning that cotton is still being spun in the city – surely these workers have been “dispersed” – or disposed of. Postmodernity has no use of these people.

A longue durée history of people at the sharp end of change and a truly global anthropology (or geography) of work and class must draw upon precisely these processes of making workers, work, and workplaces invisible if it is to capture adequately the ebb and flow of industrial and urban time.  Mumbai as fishing village gains global industrial visibility as cotton production moves there after colonialism. Recently there has been fruitful, if polemical, discussion of the comparability of aspects of postsocialism and postcolonialism – see for example Hana Cervinkova, Gruia Badescu, and Radim Hladík. The problems faced in Mumbai appear similar to those in Russia after socialism. They include obviously loss of markets and a dismantling of larger networks for the main product, but also the complex issues of public subsidies, alternative use of the production spaces for work not connected to the original purpose (the parallel informal economies mentioned above), redevelopment and zoning laws, and reneging state and private sector partners that once promised regeneration or simply pensions and basic social benefits.

At the same time, Finkelstein’s Mumbai piece shows how urban anthropology as well as being globally aware, also requires a commitment to people in, and out of place: an approach that tries to capture the embodiment of urban change in personhoods. Buildings as well as ways of city life are abandoned, repurposed, made invisible. But, these processes do not take place without parallel experiences at the level of the person – the socially embedded individual. And, it is the effect on people, as much as place that gives these events their political resonance.

The removal of Lenin busts across postsocialist countries (particularly Ukraine) in the last few years – minus Russia – is often used to symbolise the proper periodisation of ‘postsocialism’ – the end of that term’s usefulness and the beginning of a new era. However, I’d like to end this piece with a more problematizing example of politicizing urban change – the tearing down of 1960s low density housing in the heart of Moscow. More than Lenin heads, this project of urban renewal by urban planners reveals not the end of the postsocialist period, but the continuing haunting of the present by a promised and abandoned future in the socialist past. So-called Khrushchevki – small, prefabricated flats in five-story blocks are being pulled down to make way for high-density blocks sold to the urban middle-class (really a small upper-middle class minority) and for shopping malls, in a last gasp of Russia’s dysfunctional oil-based consumption binge.  Khrushchevki remain emblematic of the mixed-use public urban space – yards, gardens, distributed social housing throughout the city, also of the meager yet utopian project of socialism – family housing, albeit of low and cramped quality, for all. It is ironic that a totalitarian state had such a “democratic” vision for urban space. No wonder that of all the social protests of the last few years, the response to the Moscow authorities’ residential plans drew the widest response across the political spectrum. However, it was the residents themselves, another category of the invisible (pensioners and the urban poor), who were active in resisting the plans. Their ongoing residence in the heart of one of the world’s largest and most expensive cities was not just a question of the meaning of class, gentrification and modernisation.

People and place together constituted a political haunting of the seemingly neat present of extreme neoliberal capital logic dictating Moscow’s urbanscape. The past as utopian project, as shoddy and uncomfortable, but equitable and available for all, refuses to die quietly. So too do deindustrializing communities, as Finkelstein’s Mumbai research shows. Sherry Lee Linkon, a proponent of renewed working-class studies, makes a strong case for approaching deindustrialized landscapes in concert with their residents as “resources” that feed small, local efforts for renewal particularly in the sphere of memory and narrative. Linkon focuses on the literary, but in anthropology, there is pressing work to be done concerning how communities come to terms with urban and socio-economic traumatic change – whether that change is abrupt or relatively drawn out.

Patriotism and nationalism among ordinary Russians today

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I am giving a paper at Malmo University for the second RUCARR conference and this is a great excuse to revisit a topic I wrote about some time ago – Russian everyday nationalism and patriotism since the Ukraine conflict. So this blog post is in lieu of a paper for the conference – I hope I finish it in time!

In my article on ‘everyday diplomacy’ in the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, I was encouraged by Diana Ibanez Tiraldo to write about my experience of how geopolitical ‘events’ impacted my fieldwork relationships in Russia when I returned there in 2014.

In that article I talk about my sense of myself as unwilling representative of my origin country during fieldwork, and how, despite the unrelenting media campaign in Russia, most of my encounters that involved political talk were characterised by ‘civility’ and ‘silence’, or the agency of ordinary people in negotiating their way between the strident tones of state propaganda on the one side, and their genuine feelings of patriotism on the other. So the article is something of a contribution to what has been called ‘everyday geopolitics’ or popular geopolitics, but specifically thinking in terms of subjectivities. Therefore I make some use of the term ‘intimacy-geopolitics’, that comes from geographers Pain and Staeheli 2014. Consequently, I think about how ethnographers resemble or don’t resemble diplomats, or are inevitably hailed as representatives of their origin countries’ international policies. The article ends, not by focusing on how media propaganda around the Ukraine conflict activates nationalism in everyday contexts, but on the contrary – TV and internet endless, in-your-face, over-the-top rehearsal of tropes like ‘Kiev’s fascist junta’ and ‘crucified Russophone children’ seems to traumatise my Russian informants. The Russian state does such a ‘good’ job of speaking to the most unpleasant nationalistic perspectives that most people are left mute, bereft of any position of their own. As a consequence, if anything, nationalist discourse is externalised from the subjectivities of my informants – the state performs it for them, thereby replacing them as nationalist subjects.

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However, one thing I really wanted to return to was an issue touched on only tangentially in the article – the distinction between patriotism and nationalism and the ‘classed’ nature of discourses around nationalism. Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism was an important reference point here. Orwell sees nationalism as a ‘moral’ failing in modern societies and as present in all individuals. At the same time he makes the case for a kind of positive identity politics of place that does not require an ‘other’ to justify and sustain itself. For him this is patriotism. What starts out looking like a leftist apology for patriotism actually comes closer to a sense of unstructured, yet embedded communitas. I am particularly influenced by Stephen Lutman’s article on Orwell and Patriotism, published in the Journal of Contemporary History in 1967. Not only Lutman has highlighted how Orwell describes patriotism as defensive, originating in a communitarian political posture where one’s origin culture is cherished, but not to the detriment of others. Lutman traces how Orwell’s essay is the culmination of a long process of his thinking about the left’s need to acknowledge the power of patriotism and thus begin to consider how to utilise it in the cause of social change (in 1945 when the essay was written, much of Orwell’s earlier optimism on this count had dissipated – by this point patriotism has been reduced to at best a kind of defence against totalitarianism).

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Orwell contrasts patriotism to nationalism, which is often an ideological commitment that is intellectualised, yet not standing up to rational analysis – it is always negative because it is founded upon a commitment to competitive prestige. The most famous quote of the essay, actually relating to a leftist illusion runs as follows: ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. ’  Orwell’s vision of patriotism can be compared to the idea of cultural intimacy proposed by Michael Herzfeld.  And this may provide us with a way of thinking through Russian nationalism and patriotism today. That both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects of group loyalty can be simultaneously present and ‘performed’ by people. This resonates with many of my encounters with my Russian research participants, both before and after the Ukraine conflict, and before and after the Russian state-controlled media ratcheted up nationalist rhetoric against the perceived enemies in the West. Ukraine and Ukrainians as an ‘object’ of xenophobia and chauvinism, mainly (although not exclusively) take on a minor aspect of the ‘everyday discourse’ of nationalism, despite the media propaganda’s attempts to the contrary.

I offer three examples (all of which are included in the article) of thinking about nationalism-patriotism in a more nuanced way. Firstly, a long-term low level badgering by a few (the minority) of working-class research participants which I term ‘political testing’. This include provocative statements about Russia’s ‘victimhood’ status in recent history: from accusations about Western delays in opening the second front in WWII, allegations of separate negotiations for peace with the Nazis, to more recent events like the bombing of Belgrade in 1999.

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What did I really think about these things? I was prodded repeatedly, although usually in a relatively good-natured way. In the article I mainly focussed on this political talk, not as expressing nationalist views, but as a kind of invitation for acknowledging the traumatic Russian past, the often double-standards of the West in more recent history, and even, ethnographically speaking, asking me to acknowledge a kind of privileged positionality (I talk more about this in the article). Certainly, it does not relate to the now widely discussed ‘whataboutery’ of Russian discourse when presented with criticism (although I encounter a lot of that from some Russians). I’ve largely given up trying to engage with whataboutery – there’s a revealing anecdote about that in the article regarding Obama, Libya and Ukraine.

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The second example is related – a kind of generalised resentment about the ‘post-communist compact’ in Russia that has mutated into what certainly looks like negative nationalism as Orwell’s terms it (anxiety about the loss of Russian/Soviet prestige). One informant – Sasha, a factory worker – in particular is frequently fervent in his ‘bury the west’ rhetoric and likes to fantasise about cutting off Russia’s gas supply to the whole of Europe (‘to see how you like it, when you’re begging us for a crust of bread’). Certainly, this fits a  classic frame of analysis about nationalism as a response to decline. However, this is the same informant who despises the Russian government and insists on muting the television when any representative, including the president appears – ‘they don’t care about people like us’.

I call this response the ‘national patriot’ reaction to events. But how deeply does it go? One thing I’m interested in is how quickly a lot of analysis of current events seems to readily fall back into an adoption of a kind of uncritical acceptance of the old hypodermic needle effect of nationalistic rhetoric from the media. Sasha wasn’t particularly nationalistic before, so he seems to fit that model. However, he is the tiny minority. Overall, I’d say he, like many of my informants, is a patriot more than he is a nationalist (we’ll come back to Orwell in a moment). His problematic positioning does illustrate Paul Goode’s contention that every patriotism and nationalism are not easily distinguished and that one may easily transform into the other.

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Third and final ethnographic example. This is a recent acquaintance and not really an informant. A Professor of Physics from Moscow with whom I had a number of arguments in the summer of 2014. His basic position was that Ukrainians were inferior to Russians and that Ukraine historically had never been a coherent nation, and was in the present undeserving of statehood. This intellectualising, (flawed and false) rationalising of national superiority and inferiority is at the heart of Orwell’s argument.  My example nicely illustrates also how class difference may play a role; for Orwell, patriotism is largely unconscious, operating at the level of affect, whereas nationalism is a rationalising force – making it all the more dangerous and unpleasant.

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Two further reflections are in order. The first is on the the role of the state as an agent in forming public opinion. The second is on the artefact of polling data. While naturally sceptical of the very concept of public opinion, we can note one thing – states can be effective in amplifying sentiments, but the roots of those sentiments may be diverse – resentment at decline, loss of prestige geopolitically, are perhaps the least problematic ‘nationalist’ levers brought to bear here. However, I’d like to pause for a moment to consider whether it’s really the case that Russians, even after all these amplifying and mobilising efforts, are more ‘nationalist-minded’ than other Europeans, or even Americans. Here I follow the lead taken by Edwin Bacon in his latest book ‘Inside Russian Politics’. There he points to how survey polling reveals very little difference in xenophobic sentiment between different countries. In fact his headline finding is that Russians are far more optimistic about the chances to avoid conflict than those in the West. On the topic of patriotism he also notes that polling reveals people in the US and UK as more strongly patriotic than Russians.

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‘There must be a border!’ Danish People’s Party

A further look at some recent polling is even more revealing: Levada finds that in 2017 attitudes towards ‘foreigners living in Russia’ are the most positive since polling on this topic began (albeit only 13 years ago). As a proxy for ‘xenophobia’ this doesn’t sit well with a view on a sustained upsurge in nationalism. 54% think there should be limits on foreigners’ rights to live in Russia (in 2013 it was 81%). In the UK and US these figures are significantly higher. In my own country of residence, Denmark, the second biggest political party believes in a kind of immutable ethnic purity for the Danes, and around 50% of people don’t believe immigrants should enjoy equal rights. Back to Russia, but this time on ‘external enemies’. If in 2014 84% thought Russia had external enemies, now that figure is falling somewhat (in 2016 it was 68%). More encouragingly, 30% of respondents think that ‘talk of enemies is pursued by the authorities in order to frighten people’.

I hesitate to say that polling really tells us much about actually-existing, let alone ‘everyday’ nationalism. Certainly the amplifying effect can be measured, as I’ve said earlier. But what exactly is being amplified? Here I would return, tentatively to the idea that it is as much about a generalised resentment, disillusionment about the whole processes of social and political change in the last three decades in Russia, as it is about nationalism. Yes, some of this can be redirected towards external enemies, and yes, a lot of this resentment can be easily amplified thanks to the real hypocrisy of the ‘West’ in matters geopolitical.

Another way of saying this is to think of ‘nationalism’ as a ‘social fact’ in the same way Durkheim examined suicide. But Durkheim was wrong. His social fact of suicide turned out to be an artefact of different ways of recording deaths, rather than the ‘real’ meaning and causes of suicide itself. It is the same with nationalism – we should be careful of not mistaking state-discourses for ‘everyday’ nationalism and patriotism, which may turn out to be something quite different.  (Of course banal nationalism is another story, but something I’ve written about elsewhere).

What I’m not trying to do here is downplay the significance of the increase in nationalist propaganda at all levels propagated by the Russian state – from schools, to television, to the highest level of government itself. Indeed it was that elite-directed signalling that prompted my interest. What I hope to draw attention to is how it is problematic to impute a clear transmission belt effect to so-called ‘ordinary’ Russians, who are usually more than sophisticated enough to see they are being hailed in a particular way. Again, Paul Goode’s focus-group and interview research on this topic back that up. Secondly, I draw attention to a fact that I’m sure my political science colleagues wish to stress themselves – that this is a clearly conscious elite strategy of chauvinism and xenophobia.

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Surkov in suitable company

Indeed, there appears to be evidence that a lot of the Ukraine ‘adventure’ and its attendant rhetoric is associated with a particular individual – Vladislav Surkov. A better example of the arrogant intellectual one would struggle to find in Russia today. Recall the Orwellian reference point again: ‘one would have to be an intellectual to believe that…’. Surkov also strikes me as being a good example of the salience of the other point I wish to make – patriotism versus nationalism. Surkov wears his sophistication, dare I say it given the associations of the word, ‘cosmopolitanism’ as a badge of honour. Now, as the chief ‘theatre-maker’ of Russian politics, it’s not difficult to imagine that while having a vivid understanding of the meaning and potential for nationalist rhetoric, he would struggle to understand everyday Russian patriotism, as expressed by the kind of people in my research, and as distinct from nationalism. I can’t help but imagine he would react cynically to my position here. Any maybe that would just prove my point.

 

Cheesed off, but not because of sanctions. Immiseration, elite disconnect and neoliberal convergence.

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‘Get this straight, it isn’t even a question of whether you give the cheese up or not…’ (contemporary Russian version of Aesop’s fable 124)

With the constant, confusing and often misinformed media noise around Russia, you would be forgiven for believing a number of unhelpfully distorting half-truths:

That Russia has been a pariah state for a while (connected to sanctions after the occupation of Crimea and intervention in East Ukraine). That Russia is on a kind of lock-down with no outlet for protests and careful management of dissent by the state, or that Putin is so popular that protests are pointless or restricted to a small educated minority.

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‘tyrant-fellating’ gun for hire with former employer

Lastly, you might get the impression that oil money continues to keep the Russians reasonably quiescent – after all, the government spent heavily on social programmes before and after the initial shocks associated with the global financial crisis.

The aim of this piece is not to go into the all too frequent errors, overestimations of Russian efforts ‘against’ the West, the misunderstandings that conflate domestic-orientated actions with those directed outward. Overall, the obsession with a kind of ‘Cold War 2.0’ makes debate all about ‘us’ in the West and obscures or impedes analysis of the increasing similarity of social, economic and political crises in states like Russia and the ‘West’. In this blog post I will present a kind of thought experiment about what could be called provocatively ‘neoliberal globalizing convergence’ by focussing on the forms of elite enrichment and detachment from ordinary people; the impoverishment and precarisation of the majority of citizens; and thirdly, ‘cheese’ (specifically the lack of access to affordable cheese). This is one anthropologically meaningful symbol of the failure of governance for ‘the people’ – the latter a category important in Russians’ understanding of the social state (“why doesn’t the state do more to look after ‘the people’?”).

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An innocent-looking piece of Russian cheese

Elite enrichment is perhaps the one area where the Trump-Russia scandals may actually help us shed light rather than generate heat. As I write, it is emerging that Paul Manafort – who worked as Trump’s campaign advisor and who previously served Ukraine’s deposed president Yanukovych, is alleged to have laundered $75m dollars to avoid US taxes through a Cyprus bank tied to Russia.  The opposition blogger Alexei Navalnyi has long made Russian corruption through offshoring and laundering a mainstay of his political campaigns against the Russian elite. Now today in the US we have a kind of mirror image – albeit in miniscule form – tens of millions is chicken feed compared to the billions alleged to have been offshored by the Russian elite. What’s more, these are the proceeds of crooked state-budget tenders, and the ill-gotten proceeds of privatised, and then asset-stripped, Russian companies – a process stretching back to the 1990s, not the ‘legitimate’ earnings of a ‘tyrant-fellating’ lobbyist like Manafort. The point is, the Manafort revelations are just the latest, and most direct, US-Russia linked examples of elites operating to extract and then protect (otherwise taxable, or ill-gotten) wealth beyond nation-state jurisdictions.

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‘Pre-approval’ presumably refers to how rich you are

More importantly, inter-elite relations between the US and Russia aside, we should be more concerned with the plain fact that despite all the individually targeted sanctions by the US and EU against Russia, the ‘West’ is still the banker for the Russian elite. It is alleged that even the top level Russian political figures supposedly banned from the EU frequently travel to holiday residences incognito, perhaps even via those ‘non-governing nations’ – i.e. British and US sponsored tax havens, such as Gibraltar, or Russian favourites like Cyprus, where their wealth is stored alongside that of the West’s elite. If the global financialization-capitalist moment means anything, it is that public political punishment (sanctions), or national, or even international legal jurisprudence shouldn’t really affect the private flows of expropriated wealth from poorer countries to richer ones.

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As a formerly highly industrialised country that had the neutron-bomb treatment of ‘economic shock therapy’ as Russia did in the 1990s, the re-current ‘capital flight’ which  supports liquidity and financial speculation elsewhere especially after the financial crisis 2008-, has uncanny echoes of that earlier transition period from Communism.  As the global capital accumulation cycle entered a slowing phase, the opening up of the vast resource extraction economy that was the USSR acted as a kind of stimulus to Western economies, flooding the market with cheap industrial commodities while enriching a small group of Communist-party-connected elites. Analyses such as these serve as grist to the conspiracy theory mill within Russia, by presenting these processes as planned by the West, rather than the result of capital in search of assets suddenly arriving in a new market. Opportunism is domestically presented as a foreign directed criminal conspiracy to pauperise Russia.  Certainly, the wholesale asset stripping and under-the-radar export of resources formed the basis of economic and political power for the Russian elite and shifted abruptly a low inequality society to one of the most unequal in the world.  It’s easy to understand the attraction of conspiracies when proponent cite the well-researched work recently done by Thomas Piketty’s team. In reviewing the present position, they baldly state: “there is as much financial wealth held by rich Russians abroad—in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Cyprus, and similar offshore centers—than held by the entire Russian population in Russia itself.” (Novokmet, Piketty, Zucman 2017: 5). In this latest stage of offshoring, the main motor is not privatisation (now around 70% of GDP is produced by state-owned enterprises) or resource sale, but siphoning off state tenders and procurement ‘padding’ to the value of $17bn a year – or twice the state education budget for a country of 144 million people.

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I just love the irony of this British tax-authorities’ poster.

The important thing is that despite lip service paid to the effect of sanctions on Russia and the punishment of reducing Russian access to international money markets, so-called ‘round tripping of capital’ from emerging economies to offshore financial centres (OFCs) and back as foreign direct investment (FDI) remains par for the course in Russia. A parallel process, described by the Guardian’s Luke Harding, protects the incomes and lifestyles of elite individuals named in sanctions. Any celebration of news of the delayed extension of US sanctions applied to military exporters in Russia misses the point. Weapons exporters can get Russian state loans and don’t export rifles or planes to the US. We must leave ‘sanctions busting’ aside as a minor issue, however interesting we find the relabelling of EU and Norway-caught fish to come from Belarus, or the diverting of Scandinavian produce via the Faroe Islands.

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The well-known salmon fisheries located offshore from the Belarus fjords.

While ‘round-tripping’ FDI is not the same thing as ‘real’ FDI (Ledyaeva et al. 2015) which comes from transnational companies continuing investments in plant, production and personnel in the Russian Federation – Volkswagen cars being the example that features in my own research, in reality that ‘real’ FDI is also little effected by sanctions, except for an initial wobble in 2014-15. The ‘sanctions’ regime distracts from the ongoing and more fundamental incorporation of Russian economy and employment into the global capital systems – albeit with Russia forced into adopting a model of the low-cost manufacturing and relatively low-added value production activities – ice cream from Unilever, consumer automobiles from Hyundai, building insulation from Danish Rockwool. Gurkov and Saidov (2017) note two other more important points here – the MNCs produce in Russia for the domestic market, but now also for export, and increasingly move towards localisation of production – meaning that various parts of the supply chain – milk for ice cream, for example – are sourced from Russian suppliers.

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‘Gold Standard’ ice-creams. A Russian brand belonging to Unilever. Advertised as the ‘tasty pride of Russia’.

The point is not that sanctions should be targeting the jobs and livelihoods of ordinary Russians. That would be even worse than the status quo, which gives a veneer of political punishment, but leaves the game the same. The point is that the incorporation of Russia into the global economy has actually intensified under sanctions – not to the benefit of ordinary people, who increasingly face the same progressive deterioration in their living standards as elsewhere. If anything it is the ‘sameness’ of social suffering in comparison to other states that we should be more attentive to when studying Russia – rather than the obvious differences (such as political regime and ‘human rights’).

So it is here I want to move on to the second and more ethnographically informed part of this post: A parallel process to the preservation of capital for the elite in Russia is the progressive immiseration of ordinary Russians. Initially the general disruption in Russian-West trade due to the Russian embargo on EU produce led to many food staples becoming much more expensive and of dubious providence (including cheese). In addition, the difficulty in planning any investment in such a political environment led to increases in unemployment, indebtedness, wage arrears and underemployment among Russians. Finally, the continuing economic crisis was an easy excuse for the Russian government to further restrict welfare provision and other social budget items while ratcheting up the xenophobic rhetoric – ‘your pension isn’t inflation indexed, the rouble has crashed, but Crimea is ours, and look at Gayropa!’.

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A parody election poster referring to Medvedev’s comments to Crimean pensioners

The realities of everyday insecurity, impoverishment and long-term woe for many Russians pre- and post-date the sanctions regime, as Novokmet’s and Piketty’s research neatly summarises.  In this section I to focus on the 2009-present moment. Why 2009? Because it was that year that marked the end of a decade of real improvements in all Russians’ living standards. It was also the year I started doing my research on the Russian working poor in small industrial communities. There was one consumer staple that for me came to symbolise ongoing ‘everyday precarity’ of Russians’ lives: dairy products – or rather their recategorisation from affordable staple to out-of-reach luxury. Why focus on dairy? Elsewhere I’ve written about the symbolic significance of meat, beer, and other foods for Russians (Morris 2014). But milk and in particular, cheese, cuts to the core of Russians sense of the present as ‘not normal’, and in turn to unwelcome realisations about elite cynicism and disdain for ordinary people, or ‘cattle’ as some Moscow intellectuals like to call them.

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The common or garden Russian pensioner. Laser-focus on price tags

In the late Soviet period, cheese had become a familiar food staple – ‘Russian (rossiiskii) cheese’ was an affordable, if bland, standard dairy product. Despite the hyperinflation, destruction of savings, devaluations and other dislocations affecting Russians in the 1990s, ‘Russian cheese’ did not disappear from the shelves or diets of the urban consumers.   When I started ethnographic work in 2009, for most of my research participants, cheese, along with red meat had been consigned to the ‘occasional luxury’ category of their mental shopping lists. Indeed, I recall being quite annoyed that milk, cheese and salami were never bought at all by my first host family, until I was able to better appreciate the fact that despite having two salaries coming in from the public sector, they lived significantly below the poverty line (even giving up their domestic telephone). Our staples were macaroni and tinned fish, with chicken also a ‘luxury’. I recall well the disgust of my host when I bought some fruit juice – ‘what a waste of money – for chemical water and flavouring!’

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Cheese for me, but not for thee.

My experience is borne out by fine-grained survey research in Russia. Combining numerous data sources and taking a national overview, Strzelecki (2017, 10) notes that ‘the number of individuals who declare that they have too little money to buy enough food and those who cannot afford to buy clothes […] amounted to around 40% of the population. The low paid workers in some regions are now spending up to 80% of their pay on basic food staples [pdf link!](TsEPR: 2016, 5).

If poor Russian had long given up on being able to live a ‘normal’ consumer existence, with cheese and salami excluded from their diet, the sanctions regime suddenly gave the ‘middle class’ a taste of this experience. Because so many products, from dairy to fruit and vegetables, were imported, even the better off urban Russians in office jobs were suddenly faced with much higher prices as the Russian economy shrank by 5% percent in just half a year in 2015 and the rouble crashed. At the same time the state set about publicly destroying (bulldozing and then burning) tonnes of confiscated cheese and apple imports, refusing even to redistribute them to the needy. The shortages in imported staples coincided with the shrinking of the economy which meant that many ’better off’ Russians’ incomes were affected for the first time since the late 1990s. Only a small fraction of the metropolitan (Moscow and St Petersburg) middle-class have incomes ’indexed’ to Euros.

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If we bury this now, in a hundred years we will have a beautiful Parmesan orchard

Four years after the beginning of the sanctions, cheeses are back on the shelves, but the market now even more clearly reflects the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, with many more now in the ‘have-nots’ pile. In supermarkets forlorn packets of unbranded ‘Russian cheese’ sweat in cling-film alongside neatly packaged ‘President’ Brie (domestically produced by French subsidiaries – to avoid counter-sanctions).  A relatively protected group like Moscow pensioners (with numerous social benefits and a higher, inflation-indexed pension) would struggle to buy either product. Even a ‘lucky’ pensioner might live on only 250 Euros a month – from which they will have to pay for utilities, as well as food. The suspicious-looking and almost tasteless ‘Russian cheese’ now costs six Euros a kilo, the ‘branded’ President, over 12 Euros. Why ‘suspicious’? Because stories real and imagined abound of how cheese has becomes a ‘dark story’ of Russian autarky after sanctions, with all kinds of fly-by-night producers rushing to fill the gap with ‘surrogate’ products containing palm oil, or in some cases bulkers not fit for human consumption. By some measures up to 25% of cheese is not what it seems, by others, up to 80% of cheese is counterfeit. You might not have considered this before but cheese is a ‘secondary’ product of milk production, and requires over 15 litres of milk per kilo of cheese. Milk producers’ costs have doubled since 2012. It’s telling that milk production and consumption today in Russia is still 40% below the late Soviet-period figures; a lot of milk production is small-scale and doesn’t enter commercial distribution networks. Long distances preclude distribution, production is inefficient and imports play a significant role in the market.

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‘Something approximating cheese’

Of course there are other measures of the continuing downward spiral of Russians’ economic well-being – the 20-fold increase in consumer credit at punitive rates, the resultant delinquent loans and epidemic of aggressive debt collecting being one. But as an everyday ‘simple’ pleasure of the table, cheese can perhaps more starkly show how badly ordinary Russians live, how little an obscenely wealthy elite cares about them, and how large and increasing is the gap between them. More than that it shows how Russia is dominated by both very visible real disparities as well as the open secret of the counterfeit.  Adulteration substitutes for the real; and the longed-for ‘normal’ remains out of reach (what could be more a sign of normality than a bland holed triangular chunk of cheese). There are many parallels in the counterfeit political sphere of course – not least its rubber consistency and lack of aroma.

However, in a different sense, Russia is just a ‘normal’ country, just not in the mildly optimistic sense the political scientists Daniel Treisman and Andrei Shleifer (2005) predicted: a middle-income country facing typical developmental challenges. Instead, I would contend that Russia is ‘normal’ in a different way: the dominant politics of ‘austerity’ (I prefer the concept of a continuously residualizing social state); real income falls over protracted time periods; the end of upwards social mobility and the privatising of educational opportunity; the expansion of indebtedness and precarity ever more widely in the population; the strengthening of multinational corporations’ clout and the intensification of their role in the economy (a process actually accelerated by sanctions – see Gurkov et al. 2017). All these represent Russia as converging with the ‘West’, regardless of the media focus on authoritarianism and the ‘new cold war’.

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‘Time to fend off the debt collectors again’

[This post was written for the Focaal blog, associated with Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology http://journals.berghahnbooks.com/focaal/. A slightly different version was published there 16 November 2017: http://www.focaalblog.com/. Thanks to Don Kalb and others at Berghahn Press]

 

References
Igor Gurkov & Zokirzhon Saidov (2017) Current Strategic Actions of Russian Manufacturing Subsidiaries of Western Multinational Corporations, Journal of East-West Business, 23:2, 171-193.
Igor Gurkov, Alexandra Kokorina, Zokirzhon Saidov. (2017) The cul-de-sac of foreign industrial investments to RussiaPost-Communist Economies 29:4, pages 538-548.
Ledyaeva, S., Karhunen, P., Kosonen, R. and Whalley, J. (2015), Offshore Foreign Direct Investment, Capital Round-Tripping, and Corruption: Empirical Analysis of Russian Regions. Econ. Geog., 91: 305–341. doi:10.1111/ecge.12093
Morris, J. 2014. The Warm Home of Cacti and other Soviet Memories: Russian Workers on the Socialist Period.’ Central Europe 12(1): 16-31.
Novokmet, F, T. Piketty, G. Zucman. 2017. From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016. Working Paper 23712 August 2017 NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH, Cambridge, MA http://www.nber.org/papers/w23712
Strzelecki, J. 2017, ‘Painful adaptation The social consequences of the crisis in Russia’, Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich im. Marka Karpia, Centre for Eastern Studies, no. 60, Warsaw, Poland.
Treisman, Daniel, and Andrei Shleifer. 2005. “A Normal Country: Russia after Communism.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19 (1): 151-174.
TsEPR [Tsentr Ekonomicheskikh i politicheskikh reform – trans. Centre for Economic and Political Reform], 2016, ‘Kak vyzhivaiut rossiskie sem’i’ [trans. ‘How Russian Families Survive’], Available online: http://cepr.su last accessed 31 March. Direct PDF link: http://cepr.su/2016/12/21/%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%B8%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%8C-%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%BD%D0%B5%D0%B3%D0%BE-%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B0/ Summary in English here:  http://cepr.su/2017/05/17/low-standard-of-living-in-present-day-russia/

On the Coalescence of Protest

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I wasn’t going to write any more articles on the material collected as part of my Russian working-class project, but two things happened to change that this spring. First was an invitation by Irina Olimpieva to come to the jubilee conference of the Centre for Independent Social research. The second was the call for papers from the new-ish Journal of Working-Class Studies on ‘Popular Revolt and the Global Working Class‘. Both the Centre and the unrelated US-based journal are causes well worth supporting.

The result was a conference paper given in St Petersburg in May summarising many of the issues in my three papers on new independent trade unions, co-authored with Sarah Hinz in Post-Communist Economies, The European Journal of Industrial Relations, and forthcoming for Berghahn. I also reworked many ideas for a paper for JWCS which I hope will come out soon. In this post I will try to summarise the main points and the ideas that came out of interacting with union activists and scholars at  St Petersburg.

The CfP from the journal asks contributors to evaluate the argument that a global revolt is occurring against establishment systems of governance. Given this is a US-focused journal, I chose to contextualise the Russian working-classes long ‘patience’ in the 1990s, despite disorganised resistance from miners and others against Yeltsin. I used Paul Christensen’s ‘Labor Under Putin’ as an excellent summary to contextualise the difference between Russia and the US over the last 25 years.

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‘It is fair to speak of wholesale deindustrialisation; industrial production is still only 85% of its 1990 level and seven million industrial jobs have been lost (Christensen 2016). This is a 16% fall in the industrial labour force, in contrast to the US, where 4.5 million jobs were lost in the same period – or a 5% fall (ibid). It is often thought that the experience of postcommunist transition meant mass unemployment, but it more resembles the slow loss of industrial lifeblood as enterprises used natural wastage or fired women to reduce headcounts (unemployment reached a high only in 1998 at 14%). The massive destruction in the purchasing power of incomes is much more keenly felt in the living memory of working people.  People cannot forget the real terms reduction of those incomes as they were left unindexed throughout the high-inflation 1990s and early 2000s, and in some insolvent firms workers were affected by long-term wage arrears. This is important in the present, as Russians face a similar downturn in purchasing power of incomes after the sustained oil price fall in 2014 and other factors such as the Ukraine crisis.’

I concluded this section by comparing the ‘end of patience’ in Russia (people ‘endured’ the 1990s, and felt that ‘waiting’ had ended in the early 2000s) to that described in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s work on the US context (2016). The rejection of political-business-as-usual has led to Trump’s victory there, but even in Russia, there are limits to the authoritarian state’s capacity to defuse discontent based on injustice and inequality indefinitely, particularly at a time where these issues can only grow worse and become more visible. Patience may be a working-class virtue, but it is not a renewable resource.

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The second half of the paper asks whether, given the growing labour protests in Russia since the late 2000s (on which Petr Bizyukov presented and has widely written), these sporadic and unorganised disputes can grow into anything more than annoyances for employers and the government to be picked off, one by one. At first I wrote a draft where I pondered on the existence of an ‘event horizon’, beyond which mass protests at falls in living standards might occur (patience is exhausted). (Bizyukov’s previous data on protest to 2015 is below)

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Just like the press in the US and UK, mainstream Russia-watchers largely ignore the ‘pauperisation’ of society, so it’s worth underscoring the kind of poverty many Russians face. I am in debt to a colleague who pointed out some survey data that supports my own ethnographic fieldwork materials: Centre for Economic and Political Reform’s report on living standards in Russia today.  I used this data along with others’ to make the claim that today, because of stoppages due to falling demand, and compounded by currency devaluation, many Russian workers are experiencing the worst reduction in standards of living in living memory. Indeed, they are pushed back into almost third-world levels of subsistence. Strzelecki (2017: 10) notes that ‘the number of individuals who declare that they have too little money to buy enough food and those who cannot afford to buy clothes […] amounted to around 40% of the population’. The low paid workers in some regions are now spending up to 80% of their pay on basic food staples (TsEPR 2016: 5).

In the final draft of the paper, however, I deleted the references to ‘event horizons’ as pompous and difficult to justify. Instead I focused on the likelihood of a ‘coalescence’ of labour, political and social protest leading to regime transformation. This was based on what I heard from union activists and others in St Petersburg, but what does coalescence mean?

From the roundtable: ‘Is successful labour protest possible in today’s Russia?

The participants noted the maturing of the union movement, where people expect more from employers and employers are correspondingly more responsive to the needs and demands of workers – where there are active unions, of course.  Viacheslav Zhuiko stressed the division in workplaces now between those who are experiencing wage arrears and the rest underlining that where unions are present, employers now have to listen to demands. Karine Clément stressed that today we observe a sharper articulation of the distinction between the haves and have-nots in society. Petr Bizyukov highlighted the way labour protests today in Russia are always rooted in the ‘right to dialogue’ of workers.

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In her writing Clément notes that many ordinary people who participate in local and less ‘organised’ protests ‘have no previous activist experience, and may even have held negative attitudes towards activism and collective action before becoming involved’ (Clément 2015: 212). The same is true of labour protests such as the long distance truckers’ dispute in 2015 and its ’round two’ this year. This is one meaning of convergence-as-coalescence – the growing politicisation of protest that becomes a virtuous circle as people’s confidence in their right to a dignified life grows as does their realisation that economic and social problems have political roots. Petr Bizyukov illustrated this really well in his talk that touched on the Truckers’ protests, which started out as ‘patriotic’ and avoided blaming Putin, but which rapidly lost its political naiveté.

Another key participant of the conference, Aleksandr Bibkov highlights the common themes of protest in Russia as attempts to activate ‘dignity’ and a sense of ‘collective autonomy’. This also gives cause to think that convergence and coalescence between disparate groups – say political protesters of the Navalnyi ilk, and, say, people protesting the  destruction of Soviet-era housing in Moscow (motivated by corruption and private profit), could make common cause.

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After I had written the second draft, the UK elections gave me further cause to ponder the appropriateness of the term ‘coalescence’. David Timoney scathingly notes that the UK press were unable to ‘locate Labour voters’ until late in the day. It’s obvious why – there is now a startling disconnect between even the erstwhile centre-left press – represented by The Guardian – and the reality of Britain. It’s very telling that this newspaper spent most of the last two years supporting the line that a moderate leftist set of policies were impossible to sell to the electorate. In the end it seems clear that voters from all over the UK came back to Labour at least partly because of the effects of the Conservative government’s austerity policies on healthcare, education, and other public services.  Timoney notes that the ‘meta-story across the country is the return of substantive social and economic policy to the heart of political debate’. Can we see this as a coalescence of the concerns of different generations, classes, even? I would hope the answer is yes. Like in Russia, there is a limit to the degree to which people are willing to see their living standards eroded and essential public services gutted. At the heart of this, I would argue, lie the values of ‘dignity’. When politics assumes that the arrogance and callousness needs no window dressing, sooner or later we get the ‘coalescence’ of affronted dignity that transcends people’s ordinary political prejudices. Perhaps the same is possible in Russia. Without meaningful political party vehicles, activating, channelling and enacting Bibkov’s ‘collective autonomy’ is the hard part.

 

Petr Bizyukov had another interesting comment to make: in answering a question about revolutionary activity arising from Labour protest, the former tool maker and long-time researcher of labour disputes, said ‘be careful what you wish for. I’ve seen these guys up close and they don’t take any prisoners [referring to the Donbas coal miners’ underground strikes in the 1990s]. As a coda, I strongly recommend Petr’s recent work. He’s written on the increasing rate of ‘impatient’ and spontaneous labour protest, that bear witness to people’s despair.  He’s also written comprehensively here about precaritisation through informalisation of employment here.

Automobile masculinities and neoliberal production regimes among Russian blue-collar men.

Automobile masculinities and neoliberal production regimes among Russian blue-collar men.

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This post is a bit of a ‘cut and shut’ – British slang for two written off cars that have been welded together, cleaned up and sold to an unsuspecting client.

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I had written a little about the meaning of ‘car culture’ in my book – how there seemed to be two groups of men in my Russian town – those who had a more ‘rebellious’ and fun-loving attitude towards car ownership – and frequently bought ‘bangers’ to tinker with. And those that aspired to pricer foreign and quasi-foreign (the new range of Ladas) cars. The latter group also associated their car ownership with ‘making the grade’ in new, non-Russian factories. A classic class-consumption-neoliberalism paper was emerging.

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On the left the new Lada Priora – a ‘quasi-foreign’ car. On the right, a traditional Lada, lovingly and ironically referred to by its owner as a ‘Qashqai’ (heavily advertised on Russian TV as a middle-class car signifying social mobility)

Then in 2015 two opportunities arose – to publish with Charlie Walker on Global Masculinities, and the write a second paper on Automobilities for A Workshop in Regensburg on the Postsocialist street. However, some of the material for that workshop wasn’t so useful for Charlie’s book chapter and so I cut it.

The book chapter is more about subaltern masculinities and the possibility of agency – dramatized by choices and talk about car ownership. It, perhaps not so successfully, makes use of Lazzarato’s ideas on machinic enslavement.

The paper – the short version follows – is more about challenging the western-centric ideas about automobility that emerge from Urry’s work. The main point is that car use can be influenced by consumption and status norms in the West, yet have other meanings locally, many of which revolve around sociality.

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The local shop. ‘avtolavka’. ‘Mam! Avtolavka priexala!!!’ The highlight of a village kid’s day.

Paper summary:

 Working-class men have found themselves in an unparalleled position of subalterneity in such societies (Kideckel 2002). They are faced with an ‘illusory corporatism’ (Ost 2000): state, and employer relations are exclusory and seek to impose a strong form of neoliberal labour disciplining and dispossession. Elites and the emergent middle classes alike see workers as little more than politically quiescent, mechanical-turk operators of moribund Soviet plant in dying factories of industrial hinterlands far from Moscow. …they should be grateful to be given the privilege to unthinking remake the self into a pliant, self-sacrificing, and interchangeable cog in the newly emergent transnational operations of manufacturers of global capital.

Introduction

Car ownership and the DIY skills in repairing mechanically simple old Russian cars speak to issues around the display of working-class masculinities In addition, the paper explores automobility as emblematic of uneasy social mobility and fraught engagement with new neoliberal regimes of work on the self and flexibility. Choices about what kind of car to own, whether to use credit, to buy Russia-built or ‘foreign’, whether to learn from others how to maintain it or pay a stranger – all these forks in the path of becoming automobile are statements of what kind of man a person wants to be. They are similarly subject to interpretation by others in a working-class setting. Conversations and conflicts about cars come to dramatize aspects of literal and social class mobility, immobility. Cars as markers of masculinity intersect with both aspirational fantasies (that largely remain inaccessible) and stubborn retrenchments of more traditional identities.  These ‘debates’ bespeak an uneasy relationship with the ‘desired’ car as status symbol and object of labour in the ‘Western’ factories which employ the subjects of this research.

Glocalizing automobile working-class masculinities

Private car ownership and use as representing differentiated performances of masculinity has long been a staple of youth studies. However, the majority of research has focussed on the automotive articulations of gender in terms of subcultures; cars express a form of refracted hegemonic masculinity – particularly among the dominated fraction of working-class male youth in the West (e.g. Bengry-Howell and Griffin 2007; Lumsden 2010). Often examining street racing, cruising, and car-modification – (e.g. lowering/low-riders), research on automobility comes to be associated with delinquency and deviance, which is less representative of a non-Western experience.

locally contrastive meanings – collective affordances extending to the realms of shared car ownership and homosocial tinkering in garages (Kononenko 2011). Similarly, a classed perspective finds car ownership less to do with conspicuous consumption, but as a store of value (ibid), and, in the creation of ‘carholds’, automobility, and mobility itself, as a household, rather than individual achievement (Broz and Habeck 2015).

Western-centric assumptions at the heart of Urry’s seminal scholarly treatment to show how post-socialist automobility intersects with masculinity and neoliberalism in ways that contrast with Sheller’s and Urry’s original definitions (Sheller and Urry 2000).

Automobility in Russia has, since the end of communism and the explosion in private ownership, expanded in many ways as Urry predicted – as a ‘self-organizing autopoietic, non-linear system’ which ‘generates the preconditions for its own self-expansion’ (Urry 2004: 27). In the recent post-socialist era Russians, as in the West, have come to experience the automobile as the quintessentially manufactured object and status consumption object; (Urry 2004: 25-26). However, Urry’s third, fourth and fifth systemic components are arguably incomplete in much of the non-Global North. These comprise: a)  automobility as one of the most important examples of the technical-social nexus of modernity; b) the predominant form of quasi-private mobility with other forms of movement subordinated; c) dominant in symbolic articulations of the cultural meaning of the good life and well-being (ibid). For the majority of post-socialist citizens, time-space has not yet been remade according to the logic of automobility. Access to a car, use of urban space, the symbolic meanings of mobility, remain inflected by socialist-era forms of modernity. Consequently, while the – predominantly male – driver may well appear as a techno-social-cultural assemblage (ibid; Thrift 1996), that assemblage is ‘put together’ out of the particular collision of mobility, masculinity, and neoliberal categories pertaining to the post-socialist world.

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Just three examples of post-socialist mobility will suffice to illustrate this: the either/or of mass transit and walking remain dominant in many citizens’ everyday mobilities; ‘commuting’ by car is a minority sport. Many drivers (and particularly among working-class men) interpret ownership as a practical as much as symbolic achievement and their ownership as an economic hedge against the backdrop of a generation-long experience of socio-economic dislocation – i.e. a literal store of value and as a practical resource for income generation – as described below.  The ‘good life’ and symbolic status, while important, are secondary or encompass modalities of enjoyment and leisure that are in contrast to those in the West (see, for example, Broz and Haback 2015, on the meaning of ‘day tripping’).

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As the same time as the affordances of the automobile may differ outside the Global North, the negative side of the car may not correspond. A sense of risk and uncertainty may increase with ownership. Automobility in Russia is particularly associated with the risks of accident and death, criminality, and corruption (respectively because of the infamously poor road maintenance and climatic factors, and an abysmal culture of driving where one can still illegally buy a licence without any training; the sense of the ‘wild’ open road populated by bandits and thugs, corruption whereby the highway police are viewed as worse than thieves). Few car journeys are seen as having the ‘seamless’ potential of point-to-point travel as in the Global North (Urry 2004: 29). If just one category – mobility – is capable of such a contrasting inflection, then what of its intersection with similarly different meanings of masculinity and the (newly emerging) neoliberal subject? Automobility may represent a kind of masculine ‘freedom’, as Urry argues (2004: 28), but it is one tempered by understandings of risk, economic uncertainty, the valuing of practical skills, and as the main ethnographic section that follows relates – a particular kind of homosociality.

Car ownership, use and care as the nexus of the neoliberal hailing of Russian subaltern masculinity

The freedom, not of the road, but of the garage: spaces of masculine working-class sociality

Most blue-collar workers can realistically aim for ownership of a basic Soviet-era AvtoVAZ Lada model (a low-tech vehicle based on the 1960s Fiat 124 and produced in large numbers until the early 2010s), or buy a ‘western-style’ car on rather crippling credit terms. Technical skills in DIY maintenance have long been desiderata for long-term ownership for three reasons: a) very poor road maintenance and severe climatic conditions; b) poor automobile network infrastructure generally – a preponderance of low grade roads and poor distribution of vehicle maintenance businesses; c) the simple construction of most Russian cars. ‘Tinkering’ in garage blocks with acquaintances also has a long history and is a significant part of working-class homosociality – among young and old alike (Morris 2016).

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Like the use of ‘sheds’ in Anglophone culture – the garage is a masculine reserve devoted to practical activity, often for its own sake; the car may never get completely ‘fixed’, but a lot of talk and drinking ensure that homosocial ties are cemented and broadened. Recently there has been a movement to give shed culture more of a communitarian ethic which is somewhat in contrast to its culturally-specific association with Anglophone individualistic masculinity (Cavanagh et al. 2014). In contrast, Russian garage use is predicated not on the lone tinkerer, but only men coming together to reinforce bonds of competent masculinity – the garage can be cosy space of consociality, whether used as a bar or mechanic’s shop.

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Discussion

Two visions of vehicular performative masculinity emerge within the social group, the first of which, represented by Petr is broadly understood as accepting of the neoliberal challenge of working on themselves to become flexible subjects of Russia’s harsh neocapitalist order (cf. Kideckel 2008; Morris 2012). His story represents the transition from work in a Soviet-type labour habitus to ‘making the grade’ in TNC production regimes. Petr’s ‘new’ working-class masculinity is entrepreneurial, striving, and progressive. Aspiring to ownership of a Western car goes hand in hand (and is the reward for) becoming a flexible neoliberal subject, taking on consumer credit, yet also delaying gratification. These dispositions are symbolised by the purchase of a ‘new’ or, more likely ‘nearly new’ foreign car, often on credit.  Yet such cars are associated too with risk, fear and uncertainty; less used for leisure they are objects of reverence and nurture in a guarded garage block, where men pay ritual homage in cleaning and maintaining them. As Nikita notes: the car drives the man, whereas it should be the other way around.

The second group examined here are those who choose to remain in lower-paid traditional industrial employment or even semi-legal informal work, represented by ‘Nikita’. They are wary of the new neoliberal order, seeing it as restrictive of autonomy and an unequal compact. To them the ‘contract’ offered by new work and new cars is ‘unmasculine’ – automobility is about the use of cars in the ‘now’ for pleasure regardless of the ‘risk’ of damage. The ‘risk’ to them is ownership on credit of a ‘delicate’ foreign car. Thus they interpret the care for cars by the first group as unbecoming. They compare this kind of car ownership to new production regimes: involving loss of autonomy and control over life (the car controls the owner). They emphasise a more traditional performative masculinity linked to ‘banger’ car culture that revolves around self-reliance, DIY skills and the car as source of eternally tinkering homosociality. For those that ‘give in’ to calculated self-moulding according to neocapital’s requirements, the social affordances: the garage, the key spaces and making of automobile masculinity, are lost.

Thus each group’s competing versions of masculinity are linked with either adapting masculine personhood to neoliberalism or not. A particularly classed performance of gender comes to dramatize the response of persons to changes in production regimes and the advent of the neoliberal order more generally.  The significance of this case study lies in the need to acknowledge localized yet globally-inflected subaltern masculinities and how they intersect with similarly non-Global North working-class responses to both neoliberalism and automobile versions of global modernity.

Conclusion

The social self-organisation of working-class men through the shared experience of automobility and the continuing class salience of the compressed social space of the small industrial town sees subaltern masculinity reconstituted as a meta-occupational community of confrères. Just as they are hailed by the neoliberal reconception of the labouring subject, the spaces of masculine automobility also produce alternative responses.  The Russian case shows the need to acknowledge both the constrictions of working-class masculinity after the socialist project – it’s doubly subaltern positioning, but also the anchoring and solidaristic communities of the former second world that remain; automobile working-class masculinity is a site for the production of ‘small agency’ in the face of the onslaught of the neoliberal processes of self-making. Here, retreating into garage spaces, men articulate and perform practices of homosociality and car-dom that articulate, if not enact alternative forms of personhood to those offered by the TNC.

Russian men’s automobility – and ‘garage culture’ is an ideal site to witness how hegemonic masculinity is renegotiated, refracted in a particular way both in relation to and in contrast to the West. Many Russian men are subject to symbolic violence and unable to ‘propertize’ working-class masculine identity (cf. Griffin 2011: 255, and Skeggs 2004). But this study would also suggest that Skegg’s search for autonomist working-class values is not in vain (2011); automobile worker-masculinity is a project of personhood inexorably bound to, yet revealing the limits of projects of neoliberal globalization (Connell and Wood 2005).