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

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


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.



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.

lada_2170_priora imgp5191

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.


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.


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.


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’).


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).


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.



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.


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).


Working Class Life in Anytown Russia – An Interview

I’ve been meaning to come back to the topic of my book on Everyday Post-Socialist life in the small Russian town for a while. Having just done an interview for Sean’s Russia Blog gives me a good opportunity to do that.


The blog homepage is here. I was very busy with other things at the time of the interview so I don’t think I did a very good job of describing the breadth and depth of the stories in the book. So I’ll have another go here in brief.

Here are the questions Sean asked me, pretty much as they appear on the transcript. They’re in italics. My more considered answers follow and include some reflection on what I actually said in the blog interview.

Interview: Jeremy Morris

  1. Your book is about everyday life in small industrial town of Izluchino. Where is this town and what is it’s postsocialist dowry? Why is everyday life important to study in a place like Izluchino?

The town is just one example of the small industrial, working-class communities that exist today in Russia. It isn’t necessarily representative, because it is in Kaluga region. Kaluga has all kinds of relative advantages as a region which feed into local economic opportunities. On the other hand, it faces the same issues as most other places – rust belt deindustrialization, the still keenly felt withdrawal of enterprise support for local infrastructure and so on.

The dowry is a term I borrow from Kaika and Swyngedouw (2000) via Elena Trubina who speaks of the ‘worthless dowry’ of Soviet industrial modernity (Trubina 2013). The urban dowry is the imposing elements of  (often Soviet-) build environment that accompany technological networks. These are both the source of risk (accidents, pollution, unemployment) and the life-blood of industrial communities, even now. I critique the idea of industrial Russia as ‘worthless dowry’ as it reminds me of ‘modernization’ theories more generally, through which space, and ultimately people are reconstructed in a hierarchy of value. Workers in small towns at the bottom. But it is at the bottom that so many people live and call home. They don’t think about it in terms of ‘risk’ and danger. So a lot of the project is about giving voice to the normalization of the small town experience. Making it ‘anytown’.

  1. Reading the book, it’s clear that you developed close relations with your respondents. Who are these people? How did you meet them and how did your relations with them shape how you approached your understanding of postsocialist daily life?



What was surprising to me was that if you show you’re prepared to listen, people will take that as goodwill and talk to you. And I tried in the book to be faithful to my ‘informants’ or research participants. I met some of them through my summer connection to a small village nearby. But most of them I built relationships with long term by being in the town and sharing in their lives. This also shaped my approach – to try to bring out as much of what was normal and everyday – as what was ‘bad’ or difficult. So there’s a lot in the book about relations of support, reciprocity, the informal economy and ‘getting ahead’, as much as ‘getting by’. Although simplistic ideas about ‘social mobility’ and entrepreneurialism are dealt with critically.

  1. You write that your book is “not a description of deindustrialization or factory life, nor is it a story of dispossession, pauperization and trauma after the end of the Soviet Union.” Rather it’s about how people make their life habitable. Talk about the concept of habitability and its centrality to your understanding of daily life in Izluchino.

Having said that there’s a lot in the book about the ‘normal’ experience of everyday life, there’s also a lot of traumatic feeling expressed by young and especially older people – often in terms of the loss of a ‘social contract’ and social wages from the factory town. This was vividly expressed to me when I was interviewing a man in his 50s who had worked in the town his whole life and who felt, even now, completely betrayed by the processes of post-communist transition.

His and other stories were supported by changes in the built environment I personally witnessed, such as the decorative Soviet canteen signs being taken down to be sold as scrap and the local authority’s inability to fund the repair of the local Soviet-era theatre and formerly well-equipped secondary school. So ‘habitability’ emerged as one way of talking about both ‘normalisation’ of life, and about the ongoing sense of loss – people’s awareness of losing out, but their commitment to making the best of the present in the local here and now. In another context I wrote about people’s local patriotism in terms of ‘malaia rodina’ – little motherland. This was a term people used in the town too.



  1. The issue of time has a presence in the book and how people situation themselves in it and understand their lives through it. How does how Izluchino’s residents understand the past and present, their feeling of being “out of time,” and “inbetween” function?

This question was very much answered in terms of the sense of loss described in the previous section. What was surprising was that it also applied to younger people – some of the now in their thirties and forties and who were only kids or not even born in the USSR. This is still making me think a bit differently about the meaning of the word ‘nostalgia’.

  1. Your study is about personhood and working class identity. What does working class mean and how has life in post-Soviet Izluchino changed it?

This is really tricky and I don’t think I can do justice to it in a blog post. Personhood is a just a way of drawing attention to the socially-shared and experienced aspects of ‘identity’. I used it to avoid too much the language of the ‘self’, which is so associated with a middle-class, bourgeois sense of identity – acquisitive, individualistic, and interpreted in similarly negative ways by working-class people all over the world. Here Bev Skeggs’ work was really instructive.


  1. What about the gender dimensions of this working class identity? How has it shaped postsocialist masculinity and femininity, men and women?

One thing I am really happy about is how many women’s stories there are in the book. In fact you could say they dominate in the end, or at least resonate most. There is a lot from the perspective of the ‘old guard’ of women who quite often were the real ‘builders of communism’ in this town: the librarian, the forewoman of the main factory. They are left holding on to the remnants and trying to make it work – an impossible situation. Of course at the same time they are expected to hold the family together too. The classic ‘double-burden’ that many scholars of Soviet gender talk about. Then there are the younger women. There’s a chapter about three women in their early twenties making different choices – social mobility through migration, education, local compromise, and also the informal economy. One thing I would have liked to say more about is the mass of working women ‘at the bottom’ in shop work. There were only two times I had arguments with people concerning the material I collected for the book: a Russian colleague and a Western businessman both expressed disbelief when I told them how little women in shops were paid.


  1. What role does the informal economy play in Izluchino?

This is a topic I’ve really done to death elsewhere. But, as in the interview, I’d stress how ‘black work’, or ‘cash-in-hand’ day laboring and gypsy cab driving is both a trap and an ‘opportunity’, and experienced as such by people. It’s both freedom from a ‘day job’ in the factory, and also drudgery of another, even more exploitative, and self-exploitative kind. But still some (men) prefer the ‘freedom’ of the unregistered taxi work, than the factory (whether old-school Soviet type, or new, shiny Western type). What does that tell us about blue-collar work now in the 21st century?


  1. Talk about the generational experience of Izluchino’s residents. How do the experiences of elderly and younger people intersect and diverge?

This I think is answered already.

  1. The collapse of the Soviet system necessitated the transformation of the self to suit a capitalist economy and society. How do working class people of Izluchino address the challenge of becoming “flexible subjects” in an increasingly neoliberal atmosphere?

This is also partly covered by the ‘person’, v. ‘self’ discussion. Also in the bit on the informal economy. Some people buckle up and dive into the remaking of the self – though consumption and production (and retraining to work in new jobs and industries). They squeeze the sovok small town out of themselves, sometimes literally (the story about the merchandiser woman who tries to reinvent herself in Moscow). Others, like my favourite Nikita, do everything they can to avoid self-work, including living ‘underground’ in the informal economy, or staying in the terrible working conditions and pay of the local cement factory.


  1. Finally, most of our understanding of Russia life in general, and life under Putin specifically through the big city—Moscow especially. How does daily life in towns like Izluchino say about “Putinism”?

For this answer I refer to the piece I did for Current History: Putinism has little to say to working-class people and I resist the idea that they are somehow more vulnerable to populist rhetoric (although I’ve written about why they vote for the LDPR). What’s really depressing is how much punishment and lowering of living standards all Russians can put up with. One can’t help but look at Russian politics through the age-old prism of elites’ disregard for human life and human dignity. There is a cynicism at the top and a sense of disconnect from ordinary people that of course one finds everywhere in the world. Only in Russia it is pretty coarse.

But I don’t want to end on that note. Rather I’d like to give the word to one of my research participants:

I’m just a bloke…. Those who know how to work know many other things besides and so won’t lose out. They can do things with their own hands. They get a satisfaction from it – that they did it themselves. I suppose it’s a kind of inner happiness [dushevnyi pod’em]. You’ve just got to try to do it! Don’t be afraid, someone will see and try to help you if you are prepared to help yourself. […] This is where I’m comfortable, my habitat [sreda obitaniia], and I this is where I will stay.


Working-class voters in the 2016 Russian parliamentary election: ‘Better LDPR than the party of power’

160425143959_4_guys_976x549_afpria_nocredit_u4x1gWhat have Trump, Brexit and Russia’s 2016 elections got in common? While it’s debatable whether the referendum and presidential elections represent a revolt against the elites – by whom and for whose benefit, we should immediately ask –  the Russian elections surely are completely unrelated – after all, the ruling party increased its share of the vote?

5cpwbcg8uyzuUsually Russian elections are something I largely ignore. My research has been about the ‘everyday’ experience of ordinary Russians, and formal politics is a topic my working-class informants usually actively avoid, beyond their misinterpreting Navalnyi’s most successful slogan. They insist that the slogan applies to more than just United Russia: that all politicians and bureaucrats are ‘crooks and thieves’. The most political statement I can recall from my informants was in 2010: that Medvedev and the government would never have the interests of the people at heart and would only act for the benefit of city-folk. With such cynicism and distrust of politics as a main narrative, you can probably tell where I’m going with the bundling of Trump, Brexit and Russia.

However, it so happens that when I arrived in my new job here in Denmark, one of the first things I was asked to do was to give a public talk on the ‘meaning of the Russian elections’. Beyond a rather spiteful spat between Russian political scientists arguing about the absolute and percentage share of the vote for the ruling party, United Russia, and the disappointment about the opposition’s performance, surely the only possible take away would be the tightening of the ruling elite’s grip on the administrative delivery of votes for ER?

picture1I’m not qualified to really engage in analysis of voting patterns or the validity of the term electoral authoritarianism and so on, so for me the only result worth noting, apart from the fall in turnout, was that while all the parties’ vote share fell (apart from UR), LDPR’s rose – Zhirinovsky’s nationalist and populist party. While acknowledging LDPR’s links and usefulness to the Kremlin, let’s leave aside the issue of whether LDPR is a real political party and whether Zhirinovsky is a real – i.e. free – political actor. These issues are not relevant.

Leaving aside the rise in UR’s share – not a ‘real’ phenomenon but rather an artefact of ballot stuffing, administrative resources, and outright falsification, the only ‘real’ winner in improving showing was LDPR (their absolute number of votes of course, fell from 2012, but then so did everyone else’s). In fact, if we wanted to underline LDRP as a significant fixture of Russian electoral, not to mention political, life we could point to the consistency in percentage vote share in the elections since 2003: 11, 8, 11, 13, as well as the party’s back-from-the-dead resurrection after the 1990s. LDPR is the only party machine apart from the Communists to survive intact the whole of the post-Soviet period of electoral politics. Sergei Shpilkin’s assessment of fraud puts the real voting figures for LDPR at 17%, v. 18% for Communists and 40% for United Russia. Real turnout according to him was 37%.


As Alexei Makarkin rightly pointed out in 2007 – to its voters, Zhirinovsky’s disingenuous opposition positioning and his clear links to the Kremlin are irrelevant. LDPR remains attractive to conservative patriots who are pro Putin foreign policy, nostalgic for the USSR in some way, distrusting of the state in general and harbour anti-elite sentiment simultaneously. And my small ethnographic sample bears out the paradox of ‘outsider-loyalty’ identity among voters. If the political histories weren’t so different, it might be worth comparing LDPR voter identity to the Jacksonian world-view of middle- and lower-class Americans that it is argued swung Trump’s election.

images-1LDPR had the most expensive campaign spending 50% more than ER ($10m). Arguably, it also ran the best targeted media campaign of any parties in the election, with clear and simple media messages – particular those of interest to vulnerable citizens and which are sensitive areas for UR – inflation on food products, access to medicine, access to housing finance. These important and highly resonant issues were overshadowed by the attention given by the media to LDPR’s typically provocative and chauvinist foreign policy pronouncements such as ‘Return the borders of the USSR’, and ‘an end the humiliation of Russians’. These were but two of a number of catchy slogans broadcast on a loop, in the waiting area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport in August, for example. This exclusive focus on LDPR’s nationalist rhetoric is also present in Western analyses of the election, [with Andrew Monaghan describing the party as merely ‘nationalist’.] Only four of the 28 well-produced TV ads were on the subject of foreign policy and differed little from the government’s formal policy. What resonated with my informants were specific measures like caps on pay ratios between CEOs and workers, and policies to restrict debt collectors’ activities – loose credit policies were likened to drug pushing.  LDPR as a self-styled protest party is also evident in Sevastopol billboards responding to ER campaign. ‘Vote LDPR or carry on putting up with it.’


[This placard was actually from 2015]

Makarkin also finds what he calls a periphery of protest voters who might vote LDPR given lack of alternatives, given Zhirinovsky’s move to ‘mainstream’ great Russian chauvinism  which is anti-Soviet and anti-West, and not particularly ‘extreme’ against backdrop of Putin’s foreign policy. In his latest piece Makarkin seems to indicate LDRP’s continuing success as a kind of maturing and greater realism on part of lower-middle class and lower class electorate – ‘we’ll take our elite-led chauvinism with a pinch of oppositional salt – and after all, Zhirinovsky can be no worse than the corrupt URs. The Communists, Opposition and others who are always going to lose.’ People can choose unthinking or thinking loyalty to Putin; choose internal emigration; or choose LDPR – and strikingly Makarkin includes disaffected youth in this equation – something of the Bernie Sanders-Trump linking there. And what Makarkin describes was pretty much exactly what I encountered among my long-term informants: People switching from other parties, including UR to LDPR, but not only that of course – what I was able to examine was the more substantive reasoning behind their voting behaviour.

nggvrlk2e0fhThus, LDPR, Trump and to a lesser extent the Brexit campaign came together to prompt me to re-examine my long-term ethnographic research data in a more explicitly political way.  What emerges is the attraction, regardless of political system, of populist reactionary currents that cross left-right political classification and challenge traditional survey methods. Political ethnography – engaging with local contexts and individuals and communities – can help understand the ‘mature’ phase of electoral authoritarianism in Russia, by acknowledging the complexity of ordinary voters’ views, values and positions, regardless of who they vote for.

Fact is we don’t have much of a dataset of political ethnographies of populist voting, so I offer a proxy attempt at one here. The point of the piece is to illustrate the potential for political ethnography to enrich our comparative understanding of politics and society. So, even though Russian, British and US electoral politics are completely different, talking to voters ethnographically seems to uncover some commonalities. As Jan Kubik notes, a contribution of political ethnography may be to focus on processes of opinion formation – this takes place and changes over time. But talking to people about politics is harder than you might think. What follows is a small sample of my revisiting of informants before and after the election.

Non-voters. These are the biggest group – borne out by the district and national results – ‘We would vote LDPR, but we don’t vote. Why would we?’ Said by man in his 50s about whole family. This was the same person that in 2009 told me Medvedev would never care about ‘people like him’.  Zhirinovsky is not a serious politician, but at least he’s genuine ‘nastoyashii’. He has the right idea about recreating the borders of the USSR; Russians were the biggest victims of the end of the USSR.   The younger men in this family had similar views, but if anything were more xenophobic. Victimology, trauma, loss, anger. Dangerous emotions regardless of whether or not they are expressed at the ballot box. I write about trauma and loss at length in my book. ‘I don’t know a single person who voted. I wouldn’t even know where to go to vote.’

681b7301372fe9601b006be4b32012cb-i900x470x555Attitudes towards opposition – cynicism towards Navalnyi (I don’t vote for him, but….) – ‘how can he be walking around if he hasn’t done a deal?’ And can we answer that? ‘Opposition is divided and ordinary people can see that’ (cf. David White’s EEP piece 2015). ‘I don’t watch his stuff. It’s just for Muscovites’. This turned out to false. The informant, a 30-yr-old male with technical education working in Turbine factory and on above average wage later sent me a link to Navalnyi videos about Medvedev’s dacha – published on YouTube three days before the election. There’s an interesting argument that this intersects with about the broadening and flattening of internet audience in Russia that has political implications which I’ll come back to. ‘I never thought about voting for them’ – the dominant narrative about opposition. ‘Cultural’ distance in terms of class, metropolitan identity, etc, is a factor, surely.

My ‘thinking’ LDPR informants 1. ‘Protest vote with nowhere to go – desperation’: Q. Do you like Zhirinovsky? A. I don’t like ER. ‘Zhirik is a clown but I voted for him because we need to send a message and there is no way of doing that. UR has too much power. This is the last time UR will win big.

My ‘thinking’ LDPR informants 2. Tactical opposition vote’ ‘I think UR has too much power. I voted for the opposition. So that the UR has limits’ ‘uprava’ (?) – also connotations of justice and punishment. ‘I voted against UR, so that they get a normal competition.’ Did you vote for UR in the past? Doesn’t answer at first ‘A the moment, UR is like a monopolist. It passes its own laws, and puts them into practice itself and controls them’   So you think a counterbalance is needed? You said many people didn’t vote. Did people discuss this? ‘Yes. I did vote for UR before, but then I found out lots of interesting things. [referring to Navalnyi Medvedev dacha video] A lot of people said the same thing to me: why bother voting when UR will win just the same.

Regional and local concerns. Almost all the important posts are held by representatives of UR. Take the Regional Governors, and accordingly the regional administrations […] I discussed my choice with no one.’ So you’re unhappy with the regional regime [stroi]? How does that affect your thinking? ‘Almost all the higher-ups are corrupt and wallowing in bribes.’

Thinking KPRF (Communists) informant 1:   ‘Almost everyone was labouring under the illusion that Clinton would win. But during the last six months I have had the feeling that Trump would win…. What about our elections? Yes. I voted. I voted for the Communist Party. But not because I trust them. but rather to “squeeze” votes away from the UR. Unfortunately, after the elections this year, I am finally convinced that the opposition in our country DOES NOT EXIST. For whomever you vote the result will be UR… Everyone I talked about the elections to (more than a hundred people), did not vote for UR. Mostly – for the KPRF and the LDPR.’ Unlike LDPR informants, this informant struggled to find paying work putting her more in the camp of other informants who do not vote but used to vote LDPR. Also – women don’t vote so much for LDPR.

‘Thinking’ LDPR informants 3. Other opposition parties are too weak’ ‘Why not vote for other parties – Rodina, Yabloko, Spravedlivaia Rossiia?’ ‘I think the other parties are too weak. I might have voted for Communisits, but I don’t like Ziuganov so much’.

omon_1471979113434_1471979139 Socio-Economic context: Downward spiral of economy. Labour unrest – miners in Rostov (unpaid wages), farmers in Kuban, unemployment, underemployment. No safety valve is available. Massive income destruction: high inflation AND ruble devaluation means real incomes of ‘average’ industrial workers falls from $800 to $200. Best paid workers among my informants earn 40,000 roubles at VW. This is $600. They earned around 30,000 roubles in 2012 which was around $1000. Can import substitution soften this? – not really – inflation+quality and trust issues are key. Division in my informants between those voting at all = getting at least an average salary. And those not voting because completely disillusioned and ‘excluded’ = those suffering non-indexed wage cuts, stoppages and wage arrears.

Electoral Data for districts where informants live: they are typical – i.e. Communists do not do better than nationally, neither do LDPR (important because in some Regions they outperform). Focus on UR and LDPR. Three types of electoral district – metro, district urban – typically 10-30k inhabitants plus villages, rural UR got 40, 45, 50+ in these districts. In the oblast as a whole 45% LDPR got 15-20% across board; KPRF got 15%. Side note: Yabloko got 226 votes from the 44,000 electors in the district studied (turnout was less than 50%. PARNAS got 107. These parties did about twice as well in the metropolitan districts of Kaluga (2-3% of the vote)

‘I found out lots of interesting things.’ Internet penetration of opposition messages. Traditional view of TV and internet constituencies – separate ‘parties’ in Russia according to Muratov (Novaia gazeta editor). Cottiero et al. 2015 in Nationalities Papers confirm this is no longer the case – Internet a mirror of society. Is this ‘bad’? This comment from an informant was interesting : ‘I found out lots of interesting things.’ Which cemented his anti UR vote. What was he referring to? To Navalnyi, which he and others had previously denied was even on their radar. This was true in 2012 when I surveyed internet use by my informants. But striking, now, internet habits of my ‘conservative’ informants are more omnivorous. Here is an indication of the diversity of internet current affairs sources:

lxqpaw4ndy4 – latest post on corruption in leadership of Russian football association (Mutko) by Dmitri Ivanov. He is a ‘liberal’ middle-of the road vlogger. Some association with 2011-12 protests, white ribbon movement and ‘League of electors’ movement.

download-1 Navalnyi on Medvedev dacha

download Mount show with Daniel Kaigermazov– unlike others has an outlet on VK as well as YouTube – anti-American anti-Ukraine satire.

Some conclusions: Uses of micro/ethnographic qualitative portraits of voter choice that include exploration of political values and socio-economic context helps avoids issues that have dogged interpretations of poll mapping post-brexit/trump: ecological fallacies. As Economist James Kwak notes in criticising the rise of big data journalism: ‘Some of those [Trump] voters will be racists. Some will be poor people concerned about their economic future. Some will be poor racists concerned about their economic future’ clearly there is a real problem with group tendencies and sorting producing knowledge of questionable value. Trump voters had lower education – but that doesn’t map on to class or income neatly – plenty of insecure workers with degrees in the US as elsewhere, and in some parts of US there are high income areas with low education. Political anthropology can provide more than just snapshots of the landscapes of values that cut across so-called class-gender-ethnicity divisions, and that inform voting and political consciousness – a kind of political intersectionality.

So is this just a repackaged reading of ‘white working-class anger’ = racism & sexism? No, I really think this kind of recourse to a crude ‘identity politics’ is part of the problem, not the solution – witness the panning Paul Krugman got when he used this term recently. A better approach, one that still acknowledges identity but is more reveal the complexity of reality is that by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell  Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016) (she popularised the concept of emotional labour) – on a link between political voting and ‘deep story’ – internalised emotional value systems. Indeed this is how Hochschild explains the electoral success of the tea party with poorest US citizens. Unsurprisingly her book has been in demand recently.

The deep story for Hochschild is a story of resentment, exclusion and neglect. My voters ‘deep stories’ reveal long-term value systems (in the book, but less in the ‘electoral’ talk), some of which are inherited from Soviet mores, as well as the despair, anger and betrayal identified among protest and populist voters elsewhere. However, they also reveal mobile, shifting evaluations of electoral politics and politics in general – dare I say it, there is practical adaptation to electoral authoritarianism here that is sophisticated and nuanced; ‘sophisticated’ reasoning –I hesitate to use that word – surely all political reflection is sophisticated. But too often pollsters, journalists and even academics infer simplistic reasoning. Especially when it comes to less-educated or working-class persons.

Two social geographers Christian Parenti and Matthew Richmond wrote two of best pieces I’ve read on Trump victory and actually analysing voters’ concerns. First talks about voters taking Trump seriously but not literally, a point worth making in comparison to Zhirinovsky’s populism and about voters themselves.  Richmond rather hyperbolically calls Trump’s victory a ‘historic crisis in the epistemic basis on which we understand political change.‘ , but then goes on to make a more valid point about the dangers of social science in general inevitably reproducing the bias of the social group conducting it. ‘In simple terms, we must move closer to the social worlds that quantitative and theoretical political science purports, but largely fails, to represent.’ – he highlights as challenges to quantitative approaches, issues of unquantifiable uncertainty, demographic boundedness as a false premise, the persistence of two-dimensional left-right axis of political positioning. Richmond refers to Bourdieu’s example of the pollster’s non-response as the most interesting, most meaningful response (Distinction: 398).

Unsurprisingly, his piece calls for more involved qualitative work on how political opinions emerge and coalesce:  ‘How does their evolution into political subjects unfold, so that they move from the “don’t know” category into voting for Trump, or remain in the “don’t know” category despite being a target of his hate?’ Richmond ends up arguing for active listening, as opening up political space. It is not passive to listen. Richmond:  political subjectivity as a space of possibilities is important because it highlights the fact that the regularities we observe in the world, including in the political behaviour of different populations, have structural bases but are radically undetermined.’

All our ‘examples’ of populist success – even the meagre one of LDPR – indicate the dissatisfaction among voters with the status-quo. Of course, the electoral contexts are completely different. However, even in the authoritarian system of Russia where the ruling party is guaranteed a large majority – indeed constitutional majority, absolute support for the status quo fell significantly. Is this like the Jacksonian interpretation of Trump’s victory in US? In a way, yes. LDPR and to a degree the other ‘systemic opposition’ can access not people’s ideology, but a set of deeply held values that go back in time and are formative of aspects of the Russian state’s character itself: fear of enemies, the urge for social justice in a kind of ‘deserving estates’ form (many of my informants come from labour aristocracies fallen on hard times). There is also fear and awe of the state as a punitive mechanism in equal measure, and support from the individualist estates of Russian society – small business, skilled and technical workers. But again, like Jacksonian values there are contradictions indicative of the cultural-historical roots of such populism, with LDPR voters also responding to ideas about just claims of ‘equality of dignity and right’ based on self-reliance and in-group membership of a folk community  (Russel Mead 1999: 12-14).

Pessimism and punditry

It’s been a long while since I wrote for this blog – partly because I moved institution over the summer at quite short notice. My book also finally came out. I’ve hardly had time to open the hard copy sent to me by the publishers. I’d like to do a lot more micro blog entries about the contents, but for the time being I’ll recap on some of the other stuff I’ve managed to do between moving across the North Sea and adapting my teaching for the rather strict requirements of the Danish Higher Ed system.

One novelty for me over the summer was writing a piece for Current History – a non-academic piece limited to around 8 pages. It won’t be any surprise to other academics to say this was a great opportunity but was also daunting. Here’s the remit:

a piece aimed at general readers that might delve into themes you’ve focused on, such as the informal economy, working-class life in monotowns, and the effect of Western sanctions on Russian workers. Ideally it would also provide a brief sketch of the history of Russian labor relations and particularly the transformations seen since the end of the Soviet Union.


Uralvagonzavod in ‘tanktown’ – I talk about this in the piece


Arrgh – how to give that coherence in what is a short piece in comparison to full-length articles of 20 pages?

The full piece is here [Paywall!!]:

With the description:

Russia and Eurasia: October 2016

Working-Class Resilience in Russia

Description: “Workers form the exemplary class of economic, social, and psychological ‘losers’ of the postcommunist transition.” Second in a series on labor relations around the world.


Random pic of dubious relevance


As you can see from the mini-abstract – I went with a kind of popular class analysis – working-classes of emblematic of the social and economic costs of postcommunism, but also the loss of status and sense of psychological security that many people felt in the socialist period. This isn’t original – David Kideckel in particular does a really good job of bringing out the ‘losers’ argument in relation to Romanian miners in his work. Of course, on the resilience front there’s been lots written from different angles – from Sarah Ashwin on ‘patience’ and endurance of Russian workers, to this recent Reuters piece.

What was instructive for me in writing this piece based on the material for my book was how to write to a set of subheadings in a short piece. This is something I’ve recently encountered elsewhere – writing for the BBC (for an internal report). Just today, when struggling with a mass of data (28 focus groups), it was actually really helpful to be told by the subeditor: “the subtitle should tell your readers what you want to say!!!” Yes, we academics really are that buried in the detail that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

The Current History piece is split into such subtitles as follows:

[Preamble]: workers don’t look to the state to help them, even though the state has tried to co-opt them politically with things like the All-Russia People’s Front.  Workers have formidable potential structural bargaining power but are relatively poorly organised. The overall institutional wasteland that is the Russian state means that it lacks effective feedback mechanisms to understand how badly Russian workers have fared in the last 7 years.

Slow Bleeding is a 600-word section on the erosion of employment and pay over the last 25 years for blue-collar work. I talk about this a lot in the book. Also I talk about the effect of ruble devaluation on real incomes. People even in Russia don’t believe me when I tell them how much people live on. Sheesh!

Lost Guarantees is a shorter summary of how the loss of social benefits is still really keenly felt.

Monotown islands talks about the geographical isolation of industrial towns in Russia (the metaphor borrowed from Finn Sivert Nielsen). Again, I indicate the potential relevance here for politics as it is easy to ignore these places until the anger boils over, like with Pikalevo in 2011.


Kindalike an island I suppose


Production Cultures talks about how working class identities remain important, and these are local AND classed identities at the same time. What I like about this section is how I contextualise Russian labour migrations in the middle of the twentieth century as a still living part of a late industrial revolution – with identities still important now.

There are a couple of other sections, including on the significance of the informal economy and autonomy in work – two big topics in the book.

I round up with a very pessimistic section on the unlikeness of significant working-class protest in Russia – why? Because of the infinite capacity of Russians – not just workers – to put up with being punished by their state.

Here’s a snippet:

“On the face of it, Putin’s ‘system’ has effectively sidelined any potential militancy by workers. While the mechanisms each taken separately are relatively weak (anti-union laws, political-co-option), they pale into significance in comparison to the one big success and the one big truth of the Russian political-economy. And this relates to the whole population, but is most ‘expressed’ among workers. The ‘success’ is the careful management of the media and the general population’s exposure to news. Add in to the that the age-old accelerant of xenophobia and nationalist fervour. A dollop or two of war helps. All of my working-class informants whole-heartedly support all the current military adventures and shudder with disgust at the ‘fascistic’ machinations of the West and its puppet Ukraine. This type of effective populist distraction takes real effort, but is all the more effective in a state where most people get information from the television alone. Second is the one ‘big truth’ – which has already been presented: the bottomless resilience of particularly working-class Russians. They will take any punishment you care to throw at them, and the Russian elite, unfortunately, cynically, know this.”


Who got the co-opt job? ‘I think that in this context, you, as someone who has spent your working life in industry and knows how ordinary people live, would be the right person for this job and will be able to defend people’s interests.’ – Putin to the former foreman of the tank factory on appointing him as the Kremlin envoy for Urals.


Maybe my conclusion was rather too neat – and this was my major misgiving after writing my first real op-ed piece.

On the other hand, as an exercise in bringing together rather disparate aspects of current research I like it – particularly it forced me to read up more on the political moves to co-opt workers and that fitted nicely with a forthcoming piece my colleague Sarah Hinz of the University of Jena and I have on new workers’ movements and unions in the European Journal of Industrial Relations – will be out in a few months, if not before. Here’s the abstract:

 This article compares industrial relations in production sites in Slovakia and Russia owned by a single transnational automotive firm, Volkswagen. We analyse the empirical data using a working-class power approach. In Slovakia, associational and institutional power is well developed and influenced by the model of German work councils, but structural power is weakly exercised and unions rely on non-conflictual engagement with management. In Russia, structural working-class power remains strong, but the opportunities for transforming this into lasting associational, let alone institutional power, remain limited; thus new unions make use of unconventional methods of protest to promote worker interests.



Ukraine, Russia, solidarity, trauma, and keeping it in the family.

soslbjndyd8jDoes the West make sense without the East?

This subtitle paraphrases Marci Shore’s reflections on Tony Judt in the context of Maidan and could serve as a fitting summary to the way the Ukraine conflict is mainly framed in terms of its impact on West-Russia relations and the way Ukraine, or rather Ukrainians, and their agency, gets lost in the discussion.

Two weeks ago I took part in a round-table in Warsaw on the Ukraine conflict, and as I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t feel we did justice to cause of European solidarity with Ukraine. In fact, I was surprised how, in an audience of Poles and academics critical of Russia, my call for a solidary response was not received sympathetically.

So I want to lay out this position again, more clearly than is possible in a round-table.

Really my position started to emerge in my own research into the responses of ordinary Russians to their ‘hailing’ by the relentless ‘black PR’ of Russian state-controlled media, about which I wrote a little in my previous post. This research became an article about the ethnographer as diplomat – or otherwise. At the same time as writing on Russians, I have seen many, too many, talks by political scientists on Ukraine in the last two years. One stands out: a book launch by my colleagues Kasia Wolczuk and Rilke Dragneva in CREES where Sarah Whitmore was discussant.

Wolczuk summed up her presentation of the book content with the pithy phrase: ‘The EU doesn’t care enough about Ukraine… and Russia cares too much’, adding ‘It’s up to Ukraine to live up to its integration choice and confront the consequences’.

While I don’t disagree in principle with that statement, at the time and now I feel this ignores the agency of ordinary Ukrainians who have already made that choice. Not only that, but focusing on the failures of Ukrainian politics avoids us confronting our own failings – particularly, the failure of European solidarity in providing enough support to Ukraine – however that ‘support’ is defined (actually in the round-table there was mention of the need for a Marshall plan for Ukraine).

So that, in essence was how I framed my contribution to the round-table.

In particular, the question of the meaning of solidarity seemed particularly apt since previous speakers at the Warsaw event – particularly Rick Fawn from St Andrews, had stressed the idea of the ‘family’ of European nations, and of course the Poles had highlighted the idea of the return to Europe of former USSR satellite states.

So this idea of familial relations – what could be a better example of solidarity? – seems a fitting way of framing things. Kinship relations demand reciprocity and mutuality – as any anthropologist will tell you.

However, I am aware of the problems with the ‘kin’ analogy. I tried another kin metaphor – how, if a family member has a drug problem (endemic corruption and the oligarchic relations that perpetuate this), then what that person needs is a therapeutic treatment, not punishment. Of course here lies a trap – skeptics of Ukraine’s ability to reform will say that this metaphor is all too apt – the addict needs coercion, as well as encouragement, they would argue. In the end, Rick Fawn and others had a better metaphor for the need for solidarity – the family member who is the victim of domestic violence – the relative has a duty to support the victim.

But in my contribution to the round-table I only had the opportunity to say a fraction of this. I had more luck in presenting some facts that indicate that Ukraine has irreversibly changed, and that these facts alone mean that an urgent ‘meeting more than halfway’ is needed from the EU. I drew attention to the fundamental fact of Ukrainian decoupling from Russia – trade with Russia is now a fraction of the figure of trade with the EU (44%) and Ukraine has, with the connivance of the IMF, of all bodies, defaulted on the Russian loan of $3bn made under Yanukovych. Gas demand, believe it or not, is half what it was ten years ago. Yes, much of this is due to the incredible economic crisis that continues, and the loss of the industrial east – all the more reason why even more help is needed now.

A simple act of solidarity that is of relevance here would the long awaited visa-free regime with the EU – this would allow remittances in hard currency to flow into Ukraine from the EU via migrant workers – hardly the argument hard pressed EU citizens want to hear, but a practical, realistic help. In fact, this would be the best ‘medicine’ for Russia too, the best way of showing true European values. There are many migrant workers from Ukraine among my informants in Russia. Visa-free travel to the EU would see decoupling increase.

But the fact is that almost no one focusses on the human cost among the most vulnerable in either Russia or Ukraine. The average pension in Ukraine is about $53 and 17% of GDP spent on pensions – the highest figure in Europe. Before the devaluation of the rouble, in Russia average pensions were around 10 times that figure. (Now they are around $240, not enough to live on). Inflation is 20% in Ukraine. It was nearly 50% last year. There will probably only be a 12% increase in indexation of benefits this year. Another practical extension of solidarity might be, not military aid of lethal weapons as many have argued, but medical, material and psychological support to the thousands of ex-service personnel now struggling with PTSD leading to alcoholism, homelessness and other ‘side-effects’ of war.

So I come back to solidarity again and the problem of ‘conditionality’: unless you fulfil ‘x’, we cannot provide ‘y’. Conditionality just doesn’t work in crisis situations like this. Just like the Greek crisis, Europe is at least as morally responsible for the situation in Ukraine now as much as any other party. Therefore Ukraine will continue to serve as a barometer for the health of a wider European project.

Back to Russia – back to the past

But what of Russia? Partly my interest in Ukraine stems from the highly poisonous effect of the conflict on ordinary Russians. And this was evident in the fieldwork encounters I began to relate in my previous post.

Really, the long piece I’ve written for the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology is about Russians and their inability to deal with Ukrainian conflict (and that inability as reflecting a wider and deeper impasse: the psycho-social effect of 25-years of not being able to deal adequately with the past) – its psycho-traumatic effects, and, among other things, its effect on the relations in fieldwork.

But let’s start with the more tangible results any political economist can see. First there is the massive demand destruction, and no end in sight of sharp income falls for most Russian citizens – note again, the pension figures mentioned above and compare the ‘before’ devaluation and ‘after’. Oil price slide aside, Ukraine is the marker, if not the overriding cause, of ordinary Russians going back to the 1990s in terms of economic insecurity – with a fall of 10% in average incomes in 2015, a figure not seen since 1990.

And in a sense the idea of the Ukraine conflict symbolizing a barrier to Russia moving to the future and repeating the past is something we see in all sorts of contexts – a retreat to ‘kitchen relations’, both in terms of not having any money to do anything else and in terms of a fear to speak too openly of one’s misgivings; a return to the garden plot; the way public life is now a party loyalty test, of any position of power, in any context.

If anything the Ukraine crisis is revealing of the Russian people as a clinical psychological case of trauma that is unresponsive to treatment. Alexei Yurchak’s most famous finding is 1991 as a ‘break in consciousness’ on the part of Russians, but really he’s just talking about the intelligentsia, and then only the progressive intelligentsia. There remains a large swathe of people, and many of them highly educated, who have not been able to collectively overcome their sense of trauma about the past.

Elena Bogdanova, in an unpublished work, puts it in this way – as a ‘bottling up’ of the past – and the Ukraine conflict sees this made evident in various psycho-social dysfunctional effects – the pathological need to believe in state propaganda, the dehumanisation of Ukrainians, the aggressive xenophobia, or, at best, the neurasthenic reaction – evident in the ‘Moscow bombing’ comment in my previous post – ‘irritability’ and lassitude are key affective states I talk about in my paper – certainly I also felt them (here I am indebted to Navaro-Yashin’s work). At the same time, there is a revealing of cognitive dissonance between the strident response of patriotic enthusiasm and the realisation that this state is untenable in the long term. And can have unpredictable consequences of disaster for Russians.

I was in Russia when the Malaysian ‘Boeing’ was shot down – and a cardinal change in perspective occurred. Russians didn’t so much say it. In fact the more strident the response: ‘Putin will show you lot’, the more I detected a fundamental disquiet. Everyone understood the long-term, devastating consequences of the ‘Boeing’ (note the metonymy as an indicator of trauma!) Even the term ‘zato Krym nash’ (but we’ve got Crimea!) is used ironically now even by those most patriotically inclined.

But the last words go to those remnants of the independent Russian media. They talk of the social catastrophe the conflict in Ukraine has accelerated in Russia: the ‘loss of public understanding of the reality of its own existence, economically, socially, culturally and politically; this far reaching process has been the cause of the moral degradation of society’ (Kobrin 2015).

Russia-Ukraine conflict and fieldwork relations

I am going to make a couple of posts that touch on the Ukraine conflict. This is prompted by three things. First, I was invited to contribute to a panel some time ago at the 2015 ASA. I spoke there on ‘diplomatic relations’ as a metaphor for field relations with Russians after the Ukraine conflict. Second, I then developed that talk into a paper for Cambridge Journal of Anthropology which should come out this year – and some bits didn’t make into the final cut – so I’ll use them here. Finally, this month I was invited to an event at the University of Warsaw International Relations Institute to take part in a round table on the Ukraine conflict with other academics and the Ukraine Ambassador. This was my first foray into the territory of IR and I can’t say it was successful. My attempt to focus on the missing agency of Ukrainians and my perception of the lack of European solidarity for their situation didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing. I will write more about that in the next blog post.


Moscow scene I passed daily in 2014 – was always empty!

Researchers as Insider/Outsiders

Here I want to highlight some of the reflections on fieldwork relations that in part will appear in the CJA piece. Following up on a chapter in my book, I wanted to look at how the ethnographer and informants alike are unwilling ‘diplomatic’ representatives of their origin countries. I talk about political neutrality in field relations, indirect communication, and affective states that both facilitate and threaten ‘everyday diplomacy’.  In their examination of the researcher’s positionality in fieldwork in both Turkey and Azerbaijan, Ergun and Erdemir (2010) discuss how foreignness and cultural familiarity interact with research contexts. They summarize well some of the problems with insider status that are particularly relevant to the Russian context: an ‘insider, for example, may be perceived as being untrustworthy because of his or her knowledge of and connections to the community under study’.

Ironically, it was my outsider status – as non-Russian – which allowed a degree of greater access in my fieldwork (as well causing distrust and disbelief by others). Did the lime kiln technicians my monotown genuinely believe that our conversations might get back to the director? Russian reality suggests that their fears are reasonable. While cross-cultural issues constitute the ‘elephant in the room’ for foreign area studies researchers working on Russia, outsider status can help not only to mitigate, but also to reverse the researcher–researched relationship, particularly when it is understood in terms of cultural exchange (see Charlie Walker on this – 2011). This is no less true as Russia moves further away from its closed past (if anything since the Ukraine conflict, a sense of cultural difference has been emphasized by the state itself and people are more inquisitive than ever about ‘representatives of Europe’). By the same token, my foreignness, allowed me to witness both first hand and in stories, significant illegality – particularly in the informal economy, but also in terms of stealing from work, and so on. What possible risk would there be from a foreigner – the status of whom in Russia is always viewed as contingent, powerless and temporary? At the same time, what Ergun and Erdemir call ‘cultural proximity’, evidenced by linguistic competency and lived experience, can allow a researcher to cross over temporarily into partial ‘insider’ status which can build rapport, trustworthiness and openness.



My ‘lime kiln technicians’. Eventually they talked to me!


In the book I go on to talk about the challenge of justifying ethnography to a Polsci/Area Studies ‘audience’ in the academy – particularly departmental colleagues, grant agencies and REF committees. In fact, I just got back my own internal REF evaluation – done anonymously at College level. It draws attention to the small ‘data sample’ of my ethnography to justify not awarding a higher number of ‘stars’. For those unfamiliar with the REF there is some commentary here. In the ‘Diplomacy’ paper for ASA, I talk at length about two ‘groups’ of people in my research – ‘national patriots’ who drew attention to the Ukraine conflict in our talk, and others who more subtly reflected politicisation by referring to my ‘Europeanness’. Here’s a shortened version of some of the reflections in the original paper. (The Europe stuff got cut for the CJA version)

The national patriot informants

From some informants their response to the researcher after the Ukraine conflict was predictable based on their previous clearly expressed patriotic and anti-West views: Sasha is a long-standing key informant who has always enjoyed making combative and provocative statements about the decadent and treacherous West. For as long as I have been visiting Russia, informants like Sasha have readily made reference to geopolitical issues, British and US foreign policy, and in linking the researcher and origin country, history, and politics in the widest sense. Partly reflecting popular history broadcasting and publishing in Russia in the Soviet Union (think of the series Seventeen Moments of Spring), informants have commented, seriously and jokingly about issues such as WWII: ‘where was the second front when we needed it?’ The ambiguous role of Britain as an ally to the USSR – as reflected in popular Russian history –  is attached in conversation to the person of the researcher, albeit temporarily. More recently, in the late 1990s, British nationals in Russia were likely to encounter personal antagonism during the NATO bombing of Serbia. I recall not being able to avoid adopting a ‘public’ position in conversation with a group of informants then. In a discussion characterised by anger on the part of my interlocutors at NATO actions, I stated that ‘generally’ I was against the air campaign, without ruling out a view that military intervention of another form against Milosevic might be acceptable to me.

In current fieldwork, Sasha is representative of the politicised, national-patriot encountered.  A former factory forklift driver and now eking out a living in the informal economy, Sasha, in one conversation in 2014 he expressed himself thus: ‘wait until winter. Over there in your Europe you’ll be cold and hungry enough when we cut your gas off. You’ll be begging us for breadcrumbs’. Sasha and his circle reflect some of the most disenfranchised Russians who readily latch on to official narratives about Russia’s renewal of greatness and the enemy of the West. They are partly the target group for state-controlled televisual framings of the conflict as a proxy for geopolitical victimisation of Russia and her refusal to be ‘bullied’. Putin here is presented as a rational, calculating and honest, if cunning, resistor of Western neo-imperialism. At the same time, when discussing aspects of domestic politics, they are extremely critical of the Russian government and Putin too.

This ‘group’ of informants if I can generalise, are well known for their perpetual ‘political testing’ of foreigners. In the best traditions of official state diplomacy, one possible response from the researcher is polite silence or ambiguous deflections (Blackman 2001). But how realistic is long term ‘field neutrality’ in such circumstances – when the researcher is from a country with a long history of political enmity or mistrust? As during the 1990s NATO intervention in Serbia, the current Ukraine conflict means researchers in Russia are unwillingly interpellated as national representatives – everyday diplomats, if you will.


my 2014 visit as to a Russian org collecting supplied for refugees from Ukraine conflict. ‘Diplomacy’ needed here as they would only allow entry after quizzing me.

My response to Sasha’s initially aggressive ‘testing’ or posturing on the Ukraine-Russia-sanctions issue was deflective – to avoid a response – silent even. However, as with the Serbian context, this was untenable – a semi-public-facing response had to emerge. This involved politely insisting that things were going to be fine in the UK and that we had our own gas supplies, and so on. Sasha quickly became much more like his usual self and ‘normal’ conversation continued without reference – at least for a while – to the conflict. Nonetheless the conflict had led to a re-interpretation of the researcher and researched as national representatives. Willingly or unwillingly, we had come to embody public diplomacy. Public diplomacy (of which ‘soft power’ is a recent scholarly sub-category) are about building credibility abroad through the display and demonstration of particularistic values and policies (Melissen 2005: 3).  It is also about ‘openness and cooperation’. On the one hand, these diplomatic roles are similar to those normally adopted by the ethnographer: credibility is built with informants, rapport established with a means to an end, but tempered by ethical values that are supposed to be transparent and demonstrable to informants. The paradox of diplomacy therefore extends to ethnography – it is simultaneously means and ends directed activity. Hence the long-standing comparisons of ethnography with espionage and liminality. For ethnographers, like it or not, as for official representatives of a state who reside as aliens in another jurisdiction, ‘trust’ is a necessary by product of activity that has ‘transactional objectives’ (Rose and Wadham-Smith 2004: 34-35). Taking into account the intrusion of geopolitics into field relations, the diplomatic comparison appears equally apt.

Nevertheless, the metaphor breaks down, and in some respects necessarily so. Unlike the diplomat the informant and researcher alike can pursue various tactics not available to the official state representative. Firstly, and importantly, continual deflection through disavowal of the national representing role – ‘I am not a representative of my state’. But this, as indicated above, is not tenable over time as the usual response is: ‘yes, but what do you think about this conflict?’ More powerfully than disavowal is ‘silence’ and continuing ‘civility’ – two modes of indirect communication, both ‘diplomatic’, but equally available to researcher and researched as tools to resist interpellation by politics and open up avenues for alternative interpretation of cultural and national difference in the field. To a degree these responses by the researcher to Sasha’s kind of aggressive discourse are already suggested: what could one say in response? More or less my reaction was civility and silence over time when the topic came up in similar circumstances. For informants, this was also, increasingly, a micro-political response encountered. Silence and civility against the backdrop of international conflict involving people’s respective states is both self-censorship, but also pregnant with affective meaning: the beginning of the mutual acknowledgement of trauma of some kind. ‘Performing the script’ of national representative breaks down in the face of the inadequacy of politics to express the intimacy of field relations and vice versa. A quieter politics inevitably ensues (cf. Askins 2014 on the script performance of refugees, affect and friendship). Silence speaks to acknowledgement of the other in a way that open discussion and argument would not. While new meanings of globalised ‘intimacy’ are currently being calibrated in anthropology, which the accent put on the problem of differentiating ‘authentic’ from purely performative (Sehlikoglu and Zengin 2015: 23), the “‘deep’ knowledge of the field is also a realm of the intimate” (24). transnational intimacies are highly shaped by and embedded in specific social relations of inequality, based on perceived gender, ethnic, racial, national (23).  As Pain and Staeheli suggest, the ‘stretching of intimate spaces’ – of private conversation – to accommodate geopolitical meaning should not verify the political as primary, but acknowledge the geopolitical itself as always already intimate and the multi-scalar (Pain and Staeheli 2014: 345).


‘Let’s not talk about Ukraine’ – silence is better

‘European’ and ‘Boeing’ metonymy: ‘we are the victims’

Sasha’s use of the word ‘your Europe’ (alternatively given as your ‘West’, when in more combative mood) gives an indication of another group of interactions with informants. The Ukraine Maidan movement is of course associated with the desire for some Ukrainians to join the EU. A number of informants, while avoiding mention of the conflict itself, framed certain seemingly innocuous discussions in terms of the adjective ‘European’: Thus, a certain approach to child rearing, or choice of food, cooking or something else illustrated a ‘European mentality’. In the last couple of decades the adjective European has not been marked in this way in everyday discourse – if anything it is associated with ‘quality’ – the ‘Euro apartment’, ‘Euro food quality’. In this second subset of encounters it is possible to characterise this cultural distancing by informants as a proxy for discussing, or not discussing, the international conflict. Often these same informants had previously been some of the most reflexive about cultural difference and often more critical of their own culture and politics.

A corollary of the ‘European’ approach was when informants with ambiguous or critical viewpoints avoided expressing their disapproval of the Russian government – a very understandable approach – but instead talked about impending ‘punishment’ or catastrophe befalling their country as a result of the ‘Boeing’ (the type of airliner shot down over Ukraine) – note also the metonymic distancing in the use of this word. One woman, Marina, who had relatives in Moscow said: ‘I just hope it is quick. I wake up in the night thinking about a nuclear attack on Moscow. Hopefully they [the relatives] are close to the centre that they will all be killed outright.’ Another said, ‘I suppose we won’t see you again. We will be completely isolated now and they won’t let you come here.’ The ‘they’ were the all-powerful UK government, not the Russians. Externalising feelings of fear and stress to an outside punisher was a common reaction and in some ways inflects the ‘victimhood’ discourses adopted at a state level (Russia as the victim of NATO expansion and Atlanticist encirclement). In a politically highly charged environment, a focus on the reaction of the other, rather than the actions of one’s state was also understandable.

In a follow-up post I will write more about the Ukraine conflict and its effect on my field work, but more importantly, how I see its effects at work on ordinary Russian people.

Informal Economy – imbricated practices and state distrust

This post is made up of some of the text I used in a talk at King’s College this week. The title is rather tentative – the state element is dealt with more in the long version.

The written version of the talk – about 4000 words, can be found on my profile here. I am in the process of writing this up as some kind of engagement with the Total Social Organisation of Labour approach and potentially, the Varieties of Capitalism literature. I am not sure yet how to develop it. Some of the most interesting questions from the audience of the talk came from political scientists. They wanted to talk more about the ‘parasitic’ versus ‘symbiotic’ aspects of informal economy, and of course, they were more interested in the state-citizen relationship.


I’ve been interested in the concept and reality of the term ‘informal economy’ (IE) since doing long-term fieldwork among working-class Russians in a small industrial town and witnessing the infinitely resourceful way they made ends meet, engaged in cash-in hand one day in informal employment, back in ‘official’ factory work in the moribund workshops making plastic pipes and steel structures for the gas industry the next.  Then on their days off they’ll be again working cash-in-hand as tradesmen in domestic homes or even industry again – the shortage of skilled workers and the underdevelopment of trades making such an arrangement necessary. On the weekend they might be using their flatbed truck to transport construction materials to a building site somewhere and in return they might get a delivery of manure for their smallholding through a third party who owns a farm, or maybe an exchange of labour for food, or perhaps no payment at all, just a promise of a returned favour somewhere down the line (Morris 2014). Of course, even ‘relaxing’ and leisure might also entail an element of informality – fishing, hunting, gathering the forest fruits – all of which, while marginal, reduce the family’s reliance on the formal economy – not only the food shop, but also the furniture shop, the repair garage, and so forth (Morris 2012b). The meaning of gleaning, does not just relate to food – a key understanding of the term among workers relates to the age-old practice of ‘obtaining’ scrap materials, or not so scrap materials from work, or making use of other resources like transport vehicles and fuel for one’s own private, or even, mutual and reciprocal use.

As you can see, because of the varieties of making-do and cash-generative or frugal self-provisioning that I’ve witnessed, I fall into the camp that sees IE as wide-ranging. One of the most recent definitions of IE by Routh (2011) is narrower:

‘informal economic activities signify activities and entrepreneurships that are not registered in accordance with the prescribed laws, are not in compliance with labour legislations, escapes monitoring by the state officials, lacks appropriate conditions at work, and mostly temporary and casual in nature.’ This is fine by me apart from the final two aspects – temporary and casual. I adopt the widest definition possible, which is just that it signifies commodified and non-commodified work activities that escape accurate or complete quantification by the state.  It includes legal and illegal activities – often it lies in a grey area between.  A good example from my fieldwork is what I call an ‘underground workshop’ making double glazing units. This work took place in a sublet part of a factory. The business itself at the sales end was registered and may have paid some sales tax, but the actual production end was entirely unregistered and the workers informally employed. In addition subsistence and provisioning activities, should, I think, remain part of what we think of as informality in Russia, given the ongoing marginality and precariousness of many people’s economic livelihoods.


In these three pictures I present a few examples of informal employment – which is a category itself representing diversity – we have a general workman paid cash for one-off specialist jobs – repair of a gas-powered heating station. Below we have the example mentioned – a more long-term example of a worker making plastic windows;  he did this job for three years – which might make us pause to think about the automatic assumption about informal work as precarious or exploitative.



Finally, we have a car mechanic working as a favour. The ‘workshop’ is actually a fully functioning factory where the owner of the car works. This last one is a good example of what makes IE so important and yet so difficult to measure or explain: it is not commodified (the ‘favour’ of welding the car may never be ‘called in’), it hardly ‘parasitic’ on the formal economy – the welding is not exactly exploitative of the factory in which is it taking place – after hours and with the permission of the foreman. These are just a tiny number of examples from my own fieldwork.

New Picture

Some activities while open to interpretation as due to economic necessity (DIY) are valued and performed as much for the inherent and intangible value: for their own sake, than for any economic benefit. This leads us to another problem – can an activity really be considered part of the informal economy if it is not perceived as ‘economic’ or in ‘cash’ equivalent terms? – I.e. we return to a staple Marxian problem – the question of the relationship between use- and exchange-value.  In one of my pieces I approached this by using the work of philosopher Alastair MacIntyre to talk about things like domestic decorative DIY (which also had economic value) as an internal good – a practice done for its own sake. MacIntyre talks of virtue ethics and the neo-Aristotelian inheritance of the holism of the activities of the household in the search for the good life. Similarly, Harding and Jenkins working in the UK context in the 1980s sought to challenge what they called the myth of the hidden economy, arguing for the need to take seriously actors’ perceptions and accounts of what they themselves are doing – as in substantivist economic anthropology (Sahlins 1974) – and to offer an alternative framework to the dualist or ‘separate’ economic model. They explored the meaning of household activities like social solidarity work as part of informality, and yet having an economic value – however difficult to define – ironing a garment for sick neighbour for example. In other words, for Harding and Jenkins, even in the West, the formal is not the actual – it is simply one element of the social construction of organisational life, the term formal economy is part of the reification of the formal nature of bureaucratic, metrics society.

And that leads us to the question – what does the weakness of that formal aspect mean for post-socialist societies? Is it to do with the importance of networking in the socialist shortage economy and that inheritance? The increased importance of social trust networks when the state has never been on your side – a micro version of Alena Ledeneva’s ‘Sistema’ argument? Or is it more to do with economic precarity in general – the need for portfolio household incomes? The latter is the vision of the ‘domestications’ of neoliberalism argument among prominent human geographers. Allied to that is the feminist geographies and heterodox economies position – sometimes in totality called ‘the human economy’ – that would see care and domestic work valued properly as well as mutual aid and self-provisioning. Finally there is the semi-culturalist and ritualist explanations from anthropology – that include explaining potato planting among the Russian middle class as a psychological insurance strategy more than an economic one.

But here I’m getting ahead of myself; we need to go back to the beginning of the term IE to set out how it developed in context. This will help assess its ongoing applicability to the post-socialist case. The anthropologist Keith Hart popularised the term ‘informal sector’ in the 1970s, but used it in a very particular context – self-employment in post-colonial Africa among the urban poor.  Thus it was a development term to talk about the economic lives of people for whom tax demands, salary slips, health insurance and mortgages were abstractions. Subsequently the World Bank and the ILO (International Labour Office) focussed on this mainly third world context in terms of IE as representing both avoidance of government regulations and taxes, and potential routes out of poverty. The World Bank website currently summarises thus: ‘a cushion for workers who cannot find a job in the formal sector. But, on the other hand, it entails a loss in budget revenues by reducing taxes and social security contributions paid and therefore the availability of funds to improve infrastructure and other public goods and services. It invariably leads to a high tax burden on registered labor. A high level of informality also can undermine the rule of law and governance. The fact that a large share of the population is openly ignoring laws, regulations and taxes can weaken the respect citizens have for the state.’ Overall then for the WB the negatives outweigh the positives and it sees formalization rather than toleration, as the answer.

But for me and many others – this position is a bit ‘chicken and egg’ implying an ideal vision of the state that the informal then proceeds to undermine. In the post-socialist context often we find informality is the response to state failures at all levels.