A tax-paying non-democracy? Or, ‘don’t touch people who live by their own resources’

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Russian tax authorities boast of record collections in the last couple of years. In 2017 collections were 20% higher than in 2016. At the same time the number of taxes is expanding, with new ecology, waste and telecoms taxes, to name a few, as well as the consolidation of ‘duty’ payments into federally enforced taxes . There are signs the Tax Service is growing in confidence, recently proposing to expand its juridical scope to regain control of criminal cases against business.

Are these signs of more effective state, and thus the potential for its bureaucracies to serve more than a few citizens? Or are they examples of the centre’s fiscal cul-de-sac, as it seeks a human replacement for falling natural resource revenues (encapsulated in the recent idea of ‘people as the new oil’). In this post I will review the significant recent changes in taxes that affect individuals (businesses are important but will be dealt with another time). A shorter version of the post appeared in Ridl.io, along with a Russian translation.

First, we need a little history. Russia’s flat-tax is famous as one of the first, boldest reforms of this type in the world with a big cut in income tax from a higher rate of 30% to 13% in 2001. However, Putin’s first years were characterized by even more radical neoliberal taxation reform across the board that built on the IMF programme of 1998 in response to Russian debt default.  The flat tax was part of a package that included lowering corporation and other taxes, and increasing tax collection via VAT. These changes arguably helped small and medium businesses and gave a kick-start to both the legitimacy and bureaucratic logic of the Tax Service going into the 2000s. Employees and entrepreneurs alike were eased into the new economic system, all thanks to the flat tax and low profit taxes. Why was this important?  For ‘cultural’ as much as institution-building reasons. Income taxes in the late Soviet period had generally been very low. Taxes were less ‘visible’ as deductions in socialist societies, and the link between them and the provision of services was equally opaque (Alm et al 2006). People more often linked ‘social security’ to the visible and significant paternalistic obligation of their employer, not the state. Thus ‘tax morality’ was an issue in the 1990s, and arguably remain so today. (aside: it still surprises me that scholars don’t make more of the fact that for nearly 80% of the population, incomes declined year-on-year for nearly ten years, so the fact that tax ‘morale’ was low is hardly surprising – see Alm et al. 2006).

The fundamental idea of a flat tax generally is to expand the tax base – reports vary, but perhaps a majority of people who should have paid income taxes in the 1990s did not. This continues to be important in Russia because of the large size of the informal economy and the fact that it dominates in how people calculate their real incomes (perhaps the majority of people have a ‘white’ income – which is subject to income tax, and an informal extra income source, which is not taxed directly). Tax revenue has been always rising, but from a tiny base in 2000 and is thus not a very meaningful measurement considering GDP has grown much faster. Indeed, as a share of GDP, Ukraine better qualified now as a ‘tax-paying state’ than Russia.

Like other flat taxes, the Russian one has no allowances (which are typically set at a level around the minimum wage, as it is in the UK, for example the low). Therefore, even the very working-poor pay it. In addition, there is a ‘hidden’ regressive element in the form of the employer’s obligatory deductions for social insurance and pension contributions. The more you earn (starting from an income of around 14,000 Euro a year), the less as a percentage of income the employer contributes. Taking into account the employer and employee deductions, average income-related taxation is more like 33%. (Only medical insurance contributions are not regressive – hat-tip: Ilya Matveev).

Lack of allowances and the relatively large burden of pension and social insurance deductions are major disincentives to register self-employment income because it is so variable.  Moreover, there is little or no evidence that the tax reforms really improved revenue collection, productivity, economic activity and trust in the general fiscal system (Kryvoruchko 2015; Appel and Orenstein 2013). More likely, the rapid improvement in the Russian economy after 1999 was the cause of higher revenues – incomes increased, not compliance (Ivanova 2005 et al [opens as pdf]). The fact that this story is rarely heard is a measure of the dominance of orthodox supply-side economics to this day. In fact, the IMF often criticised the introduction of flat taxes, citing the already weak fiscal position of former communist countries (Domonkos 2015).

Fast-forward to the late 2010s, and against the backdrop of inadequate natural resource revenues the Russian state has returned to the thorny issue of taxes in earnest. However record income tax receipts are only a small part of the story. In Russia personal income taxes have only ever been a small share of all tax-like revenues (Gaddy and Gale 2005), as in Soviet times. Direct personal taxes as a share of all taxes and as a share of GDP are around half of that found in other highly-educated, and industrialised market economies.  Despite this, there is little sign of any political will for a return to progressive taxation, even though it might raise significantly more tax from the 11 million ‘better paid’ Russians. More important is the repeated failure to tax the self-employed and the 2019 changes to taxation of land and property.

Let’s take the self-employed first – remembering that even for people with jobs, ‘side-work’ is an important category for making ends meet. Until the Ukraine/sanctions crisis in 2014, personal income derived from the informal economy was effectively ignored by both politicians and the bureaucracy. It is true that the most visible self-employed were ‘tax registered’, perhaps best symbolised by quasi-private transit operatives (marshrutki drivers operating as lone, or ‘small traders’ in tax terms). However, the vast majority of ‘tradespersons’ and individual service providers – from electricians to home-visit beauticians, operated in a black hole – their complete bureaucratic invisibility was part of a permissive deal with society. This ‘compensated’ for extremely low disposable incomes from formal work, at the same time as allowing ordinary people something of niche in an entrepreneurial climate increasingly dominated by large firms with ‘connections’ to those in power. However, that niche is rapidly disappearing due to the expansion of state-connected large firms.

After 2014 the government put more energy into pursuing the self-employed, to bring them into the formal purview of the state, including taxation, licensing, national insurance, pension payments, etc. The latest version of this is the ‘tax on professional incomes’ starting January 2019. However, each initiative has failed, but for multiple reasons. Firstly, much existing tax law is poorly written, especially concerning definitions of legal persons. Not only that, but the Labour Code too is lacking a clear definition of the self-employed.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the vast majority of ‘self-employed’ are actual ‘side-employed’, not reliant only on a ‘trade’ income. Consequently, they are extremely resistant to the formalisation of what they see as a ‘top-up’ income. In other words, informal work is ingrained as a kind of socio-economic right. This is a legacy of more than the 1990s’ economic disruption, but goes back to way incomes in the USSR were made of multiple components beyond the ‘wage packet’. (Actually there’s a more complex story here too about ‘cultural’ resistance to the term ‘self-employed’ (samozaniatyi) – the historical association with murky ‘trade’ is one reason (to be in trade is to be an exploiter of disorder). Also there’s something about the term ‘entrepreneur’ (the other legal term) and ‘self-employment’ that is devaluing and degrading to people who consider themselves versatile ‘masters’ of trades and ‘authoritative’ individuals in their meta-occupational communities – a term I find useful to talk about mutual-acknowledgement networks of skilled workers).

Thirdly, when the economy not growing and people are economically hurting, they rely even more on the informal ‘cushion’ of side-incomes. Fourthly, the state doesn’t really have as much of an incentive as it appears to squeeze for income tax, as it is regional budgets that depend on direct taxation revenue, not the federal centre (which only takes a cut of 15% of income tax collected).

Finally, and this is important because it contradicts the narrative of the ‘effective taxation state’, the Russia really lacks the political conditions to correct this situation. A fundamental tension in any society is the balance between taxes on incomes versus immovable and trackable assets. And the degree of success in taxing incomes is always a question of consent. In anything, ‘consent’ to the state taking a slice of one’s hard-earned crust is falling, against the backdrop of real declines over the last decade in incomes.

This brings us to the current phase. Alongside ‘regressive’ increases in VAT and ‘sin taxes’, as well as rise in taxes on fuel, the state has learnt that a source of ‘wealth’ that is more difficult to hide than income is immovable property. The real story of changes in the taxation landscape is the big switch to property and land tax, and the lack of awareness of the majority of people about this, as well as the potential ‘compounding’ effect over time of increases in these rates.

Since 2017 the government has undertaken fundamental reform in tax liability of property. One aspect is the shift to assessing immovable property on cadastral value. Cadastral assessment takes into account the real value of land, and so will mainly affect older properties in desirable areas.  Thus, an owner of a three-room Brezhnev era flat of 60 square metres close to a metro station in Moscow will have seen their taxes increase by a factor of six.

There has already been a clear impact, with revenues from this tax rising from 22bn rubles in 2013 to 144bn in 2017, a seven-fold increase. Phased in over five years, at the end of that period the Property Tax will have risen by 20%. This might not seem much given the low starting base of 0.1%, but for houses as opposed to apartments, the starting point of the tax is 0.3%. Strikingly, even structures like garages will be liable for Property Tax.

And this is in addition to Land Tax – in 2019 significant changes were made to this tax as well (local authorities keep this tax). With some exceptions, land with houses on it will attract a tax of 1.5%. This is doubly significant given that previously people only paid a symbolic amount of tax on their ‘country cottage’. Given how many people of different classes and incomes own ‘second’ properties in addition to an apartment, these tax changes are likely to prove onerous and perceived as unjust (pensioners and other groups are exempt from some of them). Property taxes are also likely to accelerate concentrations of wealth even more, and it’s easy to imagine Russia becoming a country of renters, rather than owner-occupiers in less than a generation.

People are now finding out the hard way that immovable property above an arbitrary norm the ‘izlishka’, dictated by the state can be subject to rapid increases in tax over a short period. The izlishka is calculated for all kinds of property and is quite miserly – if you own more than 10 square meters of a room you pay tax on the rest of that room, for example. It is quite common for flats to be divided into ownership by room, even by members of the same family. Thus, even a very modest flat of 42 square meters in a provincial city worth 1.3m roubles will attract a tax of 700 roubles. Not a lot, but given that all taxes fall due at the same time in November, it will be felt as one more example of the squeeze, alongside the near tripling of taxes on waste collection.

These increases have been in the offing since 2011. Back then, the average Land Tax paid was tiny – around 800 roubles a year. State income grew rapidly from such taxes despite the low base – nearly doubling from 2008-2012. Some regions did not apply all these land taxes but the significant change in 2018 is the harmonisation of all regions in the obligatory extraction of these taxes.

Ironically, recently Putin charged the government to investigate the problems of the growth in the ‘population’s tax burden’, asking Medvedev to investigate ‘what is happening in real life, and not just on paper’. What does this reveal? In reality the simultaneous ratcheting up of all kinds of taxes and quasi-taxes – excise duty, land taxes, personal taxes, transport-related taxes and indirect taxes make for a likely future confrontation of elite versus ‘populist’/social-justice political entrepreneurs – as yet unidentified. In the meantime we will observe an intensification of the struggle to formalise incomes, and the equal resistance to do so among self-employed in particular.

Even in  highly developed market economies with long-standing social solidarity and high personal taxes like Denmark see much political debate of the burden of direct taxation, the ‘value for money’ of the enormous tax revenues their systems provide. These are the fundamental tensions inherent in any tax-paying democracy where resource and indirect revenues are less important.  The scholar Simon Kordonsky deserves the final word. Writing about the role of the shadow economy in Russia, his response to the wave of measures to formalize the economy is this: ‘don’t touch people who live by their own resources‘ [za svoi schet]. What he means is that the majority only ‘survive’ today to the degree they can escape the ‘field of view’ of the state. He also gives the example of the rational response to a new tax on heavy goods vehicles’ use of highways: people simply shift to smaller trucks. Taxes are just a form of moving national income from one place to another, or in progressive scenarios, redistributing. But how is it even possible to build a tax-paying non-democracy, when the logic of redistribution functions mainly in terms of a vertical – upwards from the most active, but most powerless, to unproductive elites?

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Public intellectuals in a bathhouse full of spiders

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An urban banya or bathhouse

We’re all public intellectuals now. I don’t mean the traditional idea of a public intellectual – like Bertrand Russell. Or Isaiah Berlin, whose death was reported on the front page of the New York Times. On the contrary, it’s a good thing that because of the democratisation of the ‘public sphere’, those who previously would have remained unchallenged having built ‘an entire career … on the trick of contrariness’, can instantly be called out.

Nor do I mean the idea of academics as necessarily critical (which is more than the ‘illiberal practicality’ of ‘impactful’ research), politically engaged in the ‘real world’ in an organic way (in a labour movement or immigrant rights organisation), as argued by Michael Burawoy.

What I’m talking about is the taped-down ‘transmit’ button of social media. [The irony of writing this in a blog post is not lost on me]. The problem is that while social media has enabled us all at the same time to broadcast, few are listening. Or rather, they are ‘hearing’ what they want, often from those least knowledgeable. Perhaps all this proves is the critique of Habermas’ public sphere – that such a ‘bourgeois’ idea of communication always excludes, and cements existing power-imbalances.

And these musings arise from three typical experiences of ‘doing academic social media’ in the last weeks.  Number One requires little explanation to those acquainted with Twitter. Since the Trump election meddling theories began, a number of ‘Russia experts’ have garnered huge Twitter followings and a lucrative career in op-eds. They have three things in common: simple ‘enemy’ message: ‘Trump is Russia’s weapon’, few Russian language skills, and, (this was what came up this week) no record of every having visited Russia. According to Sean Guillory’s definition, these pundits often qualify as Russophobes.

Hau about open access?

Number Two started with the resurgence of #hautalk. The return of a publically criticised academic to editing an important open access venture in anthropology provoked rage among understandably indignant precarious scholars on the same Twitter platform. The latest Hau episode reveals a ‘wood for the trees’ issue – alternatively known as ‘more heat than light’. While scholars highlighted how their precarious positions had enabled their alleged mistreatment by an editor, there is less attention to bigger structural inequalities. (For a more positive recent story about open access and ‘flipped’ peer review but with similar reservations about power imbalances in academia see this blog post – hint: it’s all about more transparency and accountability).

The fact that this individual had been ‘caught out’ merely underlines the inherent and toxic hierarchical power of academia. The case only came to light because the editor himself is clearly a marginal, perhaps desperate figure. He’s never held tenure (despite being middle-career). He’s not Anglo-Saxon. He’s clearly had to make his way as a journeyman researcher, serving at the favour of powerful intellectual patrons. What’s also missing from this story is the wholesale delegation of grunt journal work from the ‘Board’ to this individual. Now some senior figures involved are allegedly covering their tracks by deleting social media posts or retreating into privileged silence (with the exception of David Graeber, who supported the whistleblowers from the outset).

None of this excuses the allegations made. (See how even microscopically public-facing intellectuals are forced to caveat?) However, the free-riding on this project by senior scholars is another example of the pernicious free labour – ‘trickle up’ that we all provide to the more powerful. We often bemoan the assumption that we must perform free labour, like peer-review, but also we miss out that the main beneficiaries are not just publishers and universities, but our senior colleagues (often indirectly, like courtesy citation of a big name).  Also, as pointed out, the Hau project tended to reproduce academic hierarchies as much as existing journals.

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some stats about Hau authors, from footnotesblog.com contributor Jules Weiss

The diminishing returns of Twitter dialogue

I found a reinforcement of the Hau  experience (more heat than light) closer to home (Russian studies). This week a thoughtful tweet was made about the racial profiling of Central Asians by the Russian police.  Thoughtful, because the author and others were reflecting on the selective solidarity and wilful blindness towards racism by the privileged, particularly academics. So far so good. However, anyone coming to this tweet-conversation might be forgiven for thinking that police stop Central Asians because Russians are ‘merely’ racist. They would not learn that this is due to a structural racism built into immigration laws that enables the extortion of money from Central Asians that serves as part of the scaffold of the corrupt law-enforcement system. I’m not convinced that the causes of this form of racial profiling makes the Russian police more racist in practice than their counterparts in the US or UK for that matter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learnt a huge amount from interacting on social media with academics and ‘public intellectuals’ since 2014, when I started using Twitter. However, I too am increasingly setting social media to ‘broadcast’ rather than receive.  Is this a metaphor for our times? Certainly, a fellow blogger thinks so: ‘the relentless jeering, preening and snark is evidence of the platform’s humanity.’

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A common experience for Russian studies twitterers

Counter publics and proletarian public spheres?

When I was writing about how ordinary Russians use social media a few years ago, I engaged not only with Habermas, but also Negt and Kluge (on the proletarian public sphere) and Nancy Fraser’s counterpublics “where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs”. At some point I’d like to return to the PPS works, for the obvious parallels with the democratising and oppositional potential of social media. Negt and Kluge argue that the latter could potentially oppose the organized interests of the bourgeois public sphere through its organization of human needs and interests. On the other hand talk about the PPS is not million miles away from the banya full of spiders that is Twitter and other social media, in that they are evidence of “the “excluded”, vague, unarticulated impulses of resistance or resentment. The proletarian public sphere carries the subjective feelings, the egocentric malaise with the common public narrative, interests that are not socially valorized.” To my knowledge, Negt and Kluge’s ideas have not been applied to internet as a public sphere, (they wrote on public television and radio). Mark Poster’s piece still seems to be the main way-marker here.

So, what positives can we take forward? Well, strange as it may sound, I’m increasingly turning from Twitter to YouTube as a creaky, yet good-enough model for public intellectuals. And ironically, Russia leads the way here precisely due to academics’ exclusion. Deprived of airtime on traditional media, political oppositionists have long worked hard on building audiences in alternative media spaces. I’m still blown away by the slick, controlled operation that is Navalnyi. YouTube is a medium made for this. However, academics are catching up and using it for a unique ‘long-form’ dialogue. Because of the low ‘cost’ (I mean time and effort as much as financial) YouTube is ideally suitable for a real dialogue between people with an enthusiasm for and in-depth knowledge of a topic. Two almost random examples. The genuine public intellectual and recently sacked from MGIMO Valerii Solovei talks to Boris Kagarlitskii about the disintegration of the ‘ruling party’ system in the Russian regions and the bigger question of social or political ‘revolution’  in Russia. A little stilted, a little forced, but nonetheless some kind of dialogue between a ‘socialist’ and a ‘liberal’. Solovei already had a huge media following of course, so now he’s persona non grata it’s disappointing that he does not link back to the original version of the talk, hosted by Kagarlitskii. We still have academic hierarchies reproducing themselves. A less visible and possibly more rewarding example:  Alexander Dmitriev and Viacheslav Morozov in an accessible version of the their work on Russia as part of Europe, indigenous knowledge, postsocialist trauma and the ‘spritual bonds’ of Putin’s Russia. While this video was produced by Gleb Pavlovskii’s Gefter project, there’s nothing to stop scholars from more DIY collective approaches. Indeed, by involving students and colleagues they might get more traction than the under-appreciated Gefter videos.  I come back to the spiders in the bathhouse analogy (which is apt if we think of social media as an external punishment of confinement and the nearness of others). If spiders are inevitable company, any old bathhouse will do. They’re there in the corners, for eternity, but it’s who is sitting on the plank with us that matters.

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The reopening of my local public bathhouse

 

Conference Groundhog Day – Russian self-stigmatisation and more public opinion problems

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‘Hey that coffee is for the whole conference panel!’

This post is ‘inspired’ by the Groundhog Day I experience when visiting international conferences. On the one hand we have intellectuals focusing on elite discourses and the exaggeration of their effects – a depressing fact that tends to trammel the terms of the debate (and the views of anyone listening) on what is happening in Russia. Carine Clement put this well when she similarly lamented:  “a conference where a small group of intellectuals [discuss] the “people” without ever mentioning any empirical arguments other than the speeches of leaders and/or intellectual elites.”

On the other hand we have the problem of ‘self-orientalisation’ (the very topic of my own paper at the conference) writ large in the presentations of respected Russian contributors. Recently, my own experience of the uncanny was a panel which looked like one of the outstanding events of the conference, devoted to language, society and state discourses. This is something of a churlish post and therefore I’m not going to name the conference or presenters. Of course it would be easy to work it out.  Call me a ‘sub-blogger’ if you like, but my motives are partly ethical. I went to this panel because I respect the work of both the scholars concerned and the main discussant. Their work elsewhere is really good (perhaps there’s a lesson here about presenting only your best stuff to international colleagues).

One participant presented a polished paper investigating whether the ‘rally round the flag’ effect in Russia was sustainable. The presenter argued that it was possible to ‘move’ opinion  by presenting information on how sanctions negatively or positively affected the economy and asking people about ‘preferences’ between Great Power status and economic well-being (can you see the parallels with Brexit yet?).

I understand that experimental survey design is really exciting to political scientists (yes, you can read sarcasm). However, the methodological assumptions of the entire thing are a bit obscure, like when somebody combines steak with ice cream on the basis that steaks are good, ice creams are good, let’s eat them together. For a start the ‘rally round the flag’ and preferences things seem so crude and, well, artificially distant from how (most) human beings really think. (This is what relates this post to the idea of nuance and context being lost when we talk about measuring public opinion on artificially ‘curated’ topics – the point of my last post). For example, sensible (real, non-neoclassical) people might understand the Keynesian nature of the military industrial complex and that it is not necessarily a trade-off between it and the rest of the economy. I.e. butter might be dependent on guns. In addition, this might be true not just in the underdeveloped rest but also in the ‘cradle of civilisation’, see Cypher, 2015: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01603477.2015.1076704

The paper argues that Russians increasingly favour ‘butter’ over ‘guns’ under economic distress. And here is the novelty of the study –  it tries to causally grasp this question. But there is a reason that others do not attempt this kind of tweezing of causality, because circumstantial evidence cannot really be translated into anything meaningful other than a lot of variables. This leads to bigger standard deviation, smaller significance level, small explanatory power. Not only that, but what are the confounders? Everything I guess is a ‘lurking variable’ here. What if any observed changes in the experimental group were not due to the intervention but were merely a Hawthorne bias? I think this is really an underappreciated issue in survey-based research generally in Russia – even that which is supposedly ‘anonymous’. What the Hawthorne effect means, is that people modify their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed – and not just in terms of the immediate context of the poll. There’s an even more mundane objection: that people’s ‘immediate’ response to a bad or good news story tells us little or nothing about their deeper or more enduring political ‘preferences’, if they have them at all.

We also are presented with a black box of the execution of the study – nothing on completion rates of the survey (similar criticisms of the big opinion pollers I discussed in the previous post). After the attrition rate are the groups still representative? Was a little bit of imputation involved maybe? If so, did it remain under 10%? In what sense was the study ‘representative of the Russian population’ when it was performed in white-collar offices in Moscow? The answers are not marginal to the research question. How did the study avoid the cart and horse problem of questionnaire design? ‘Could it be that the methodological standards are much lower in Polsci than in sociology, let alone epidemiology or medicine?’ mused my colleague (whom I thank for his help in thinking through these issues).

For a long time when I first got exposed to quantitative papers in social science, I felt some awe in front of these wizards of the regression. Especially when I was usually next up to present my extreme qual musings on what Russians ‘really thought’ based on ‘conversations’ (participant observation) with around 50 research participants. ‘Your ‘n’ was what? 52?…. ok….’ Or this priceless comments from a dear colleague with significant interdisciplinary experience and sensitivity: ‘So your research is like a form of journalism, right?’

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Steak AND ice-cream in one paper? Just tell me your attrition rate, ffs!

 

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The following paper on the panel was on propaganda and resorted to a framing now subject to increasing critique – including in this blog. The ‘Soviet person’ was deprived of a ‘restraining notion of culture’ and therefore has (what, still?) not learned the ‘lessons of modernity’. This provides fertile ground for the ‘mythological propaganda language’ of journalists like Dmitry Kiselyov who successfully propagate a kind of T.I.N.A perspective: ‘Progress’ in the form of western-style modernisation is to be feared in all its guises. Society suffers from a kind of ‘moral degradation’. I think, though I’m not sure, that at one point the speaker mentioned the ‘catacomb’ existence of contemporary Russia.

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The discussant (the person supposed to read and respond to the written versions of the papers and tie them together) was critical, drawing attention to the problem of studying public opinion in Russia in the same way it is studied in more pluralist societies. Talking to him afterwards, I mentioned how the whole idea of ‘political preferences’ was so difficult to impute to research participants in these kind of studies. That’s not to say they are unthinkingly loyal or ‘know the script’, on the contrary, it is because they themselves know that ‘preferences’ are less meaningful, so their ‘answers’, are not necessarily very meaningful either.

Similarly, in response to the second paper, the discussant pointed out that it might be more useful to look at the experience of ‘liberal’ journalism compromising with its own principles in the 1990s as the root for a decay in public discourse (it’s only partly relevant here, but it’s worth reading Sean Guillory’s piece on the 1996 re-election of Yeltsin in these terms). The Russian intelligentsia would be as much to blame for the failure to develop a ‘critical’ perspective more generally of how all discourses are political, including their own. He also made some excellent points about the ritualization of media discourse and consumption having more of a religious quality than necessarily indicating the malleability of opinion.

All of which reminded me of a number of things. Firstly, having seen the kind of performance provided by the second speaker I have to admit I was reminded of the idea of the ‘self-hating Jew’. Okay, bear with me, I know this is a much critiqued idea and that it’s not comparable to the situation of Russian intellectuals towards Russianness. However, these kind of approaches do qualify as a form of ‘extreme vilification’ of not only one’s own state and society, but attributing a kind of sustained moral failing to the nation. Is this not also an internalised form (self-stigmatizing) of some Western essentializing ideas about Russia and Russians?

The talk reminds me of the debate on ‘Soviet man’ as a ‘methodologically contestable’ category – that ignores diversity and compresses time. (Sergei Abashin here also makes some great points about areas where it might be worth researching what makes a person ‘Soviet’ – hinting at an approach on embodied experience and the everyday – his words remind me of Mauss on body techniques). Oleg Kharkhordin’s work also came to mind on how ‘Russia lacks a public language’. It’s not that Kharkhordin is wrong, or that our second speaker doesn’t have a point. It’s that so often these perspectives fall into an idealisation of non-Russian models. In turn this has the effect, intentional or not of a totalizing rejection of indigenous possibilities. For example, Kharkhordin proposes adopting parliamentary procedure to promote civil society – as if ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ were ever practically applied outside a few narrow examples of associational life in the ‘West’. In turn, this reminds me of the way Putnam-inspired approaches fetishize a version of civil society (not even one that really approximates to the ‘real’ US) that sets up a hierarchy of societies – with Russia obviously being ‘backward’.

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In my own contribution to the conference I examined the so-called conservative turn in attitudes and critiqued the idea that the transmission from elite or political entrepreneurs to ordinary people is quite so direct or simple. Using Michael Herzfeld’s idea of ‘cultural intimacy’  (an aspect of ‘social poetics of the nation state’) I try to show that any ‘self-orientalizing’ by ordinary people (‘we’re Orthodox and we’re proud to be intolerant’) serves locally salient political and social purposes that are at variance with the conservative rhetoric from on high. But that paper is a work in progress and a topic for another blog post.

Russian ‘notorious’ homophobia? The perils of measuring intolerance (and making cross-cultural comparisons)

LGBT right activists protest Russia

Activists in Berlin protest LGBT rights violations in Russia, including egregious abuse of Cyrillic and a large dose of Orientalism to boot.

I’m reading a lot at the moment about ‘culture war’, the conservative turn’ and things like historical homophobia in Russia. This is to prepare a paper and, hopefully, publication on this topic for a special issue in Europe-Asia Studies that a colleague proposed. So immediately I thought, well, what about looking at this from the ground up? Instead of taking it as read that where conservative entrepreneurs like Yelena Mizulina lead (‘prohibition is freedom’), ordinary people ‘follow’, my hunch was that actual penetration into society of ‘Gayropa’ tropes is weak. That’s not to say there is some fertile ground, and of course a long history of different types of intolerance, some of which are ingrained.

And so I was lucky enough to be able to do some focused interviews with some of the long-term contacts I have and surprisingly was able to get quite a (small) cross-section of people talking about this in my fieldwork last year. My rather banal conclusion is that while homophobia (like antisemitism) is sometimes talked about as if it were a national pastime (hey don’t troll me; more than one Russian friend has made this ‘joke’), Russia is not the ‘intolerant’, socially conservative place it is so often presented to be, when observers assume an active response to elite-led rhetoric about the malign influence of a degenerate western ideology of permissiveness. Take up and ordinary use of ‘Gayropa’ is the exception, not the rule around ‘everyday homophobia’. Although, having said that more than of my close friends in the field is a very big consumer of the Juvenile Justice narrative and there certainly is a susceptibility to the paedophilia-homosexuality linkage slur (Tova Höjdestrand has done good work on this and ‘grass-roots conservatism’ in general). This was brought home to me because when I moved from the UK to Denmark, it became a hot topic – Scandinavia being the blank canvas of permissiveness onto which some people project their fantasies (no I’m not going to talk about the story about the brothel for animals in Denmark – get your own browsing history tagged).

Danish Porn and Art Warning Sign

One of a collection in the series ‘You know you’re in ultra-laid back Denmark when…’ Porn (including some hardcore and violent films!) ‘might not’ be suitable for children?

Anyway, I will get back to those topics in a later post, perhaps when my article it better developed. In this post I want to focus in on the recent polling on homophobia (an ‘emblematic’ topic for measuring intolerance of others), in the light of the equally topical debate on the perils of opinion polling, and the homo soveticus debate. These three issues are now linked in my mind. What follows is my rather rough working draft of my deep suspicion of public opinion polling as evidenced by that done in Russia on homophobia (okay, I only looked at Levada).

Let’s take the recent Levada poll on ‘Attitudes towards LGBT people’. Radio Echo Moskvy presents these as: ‘More than half of Russians are negative towards sexual minorities’. This is accurate. However, without longitudinal context (conspicuously absent in coverage of the poll), things look different. While the headline ‘disapproval’ of homosexuality (56%) is presented with no time series to compare it to, other longitudinal data shows an ebb and flow from 51% approval in 2005, to a low of 39% in 2013, and back to 47% in 2019. Similarly, instead of ‘disapproval’, one could highlight the volatility of the ‘strong approval’ rating of equal rights: from 17% in 2005, down to 7% in 2013 and now 20%. In any case, psychology of survey data shows that people are more likely to respond with a ‘strong’ answer to items they interpret as politically topical and are presented with (compare the critique of ‘push polling’) – Brexit and migration is a good example of this.

Looking at the question of survey data and public opinion more generally, a major problem of interpretive comparability over time (among many others) is the tweaking of question wording that inevitably happens and the difficulty in formulating open questions. Levada recently came in for criticism on this very issue with their controversial survey on Stalin and Stalinism.  Here too, on homosexuality, the same problem is evident; it is very difficult to compare longitudinally a much more interesting question about ‘nature versus nurture’ in the creation of sexuality. In the 2019 poll, the question is, ‘Do you think sexual orientation can be changed under the influence of external circumstances or is it an innate characteristic?’ Leaving aside the clumsy and potentially confusing wording of this question that many respondents might struggle to understand, this question is quite different from the one in 2013: ‘Do you think sexual orientation can change under the influence of propaganda?’ Interestingly, Russians gave a resounding ‘no’ to this answer in 2013. In the 2019 version 46% agreed that sexual identity is malleable, while 27% thought sexuality was innate. I would argue that both question forms are methodologically ‘leading’ and that pollsters could have chosen a more neutral or open form of questioning.

There appears to be more interpretive value in more modest aggregate longitudinal comparisons. On ‘family values’ and the civilizational differences between Russians and ‘Europeans’ this has been attempted through integrating survey data going back to 1989. These show a relatively rapid movement from harsh intolerance of homosexuality towards a slightly less intolerant mindset by 2011. For example, Fabrykant and Magun (2011) present data showing a sharp fall in people wanting to exterminate homosexuals (from 31% to 5%) while ‘toleration’ nearly doubles to around 25% of respondents. The authors are optimistic about changes to normative values given that even the highly stigmatised meaning of homosexuality shows moderation over time. On the other hand, their comparative results show that in 2013, 70% of respondents still gave answers indicating they thought homosexuality was pathological in some way. (Big thanks to Marharyta Fabrykant for making me aware of these materials – you can check out her work here).

More recently, the same authors have pointed out that Russia is among on the ‘medium-high’ end of tradition-normative values in comparison to other European countries (Fabrykant and Magun 2018: 82) [opens as a PDF]. They base this evaluation on the work of Viktoriia Sakevich (2014) who analysed Pew Research Center data on ‘moral’ values.  When these findings are broken down by category, Russia differs little from Western European countries on issues such as extra-marital and premarital sex, divorce, abortion, contraception. In some cases Russia is more ‘liberal’ than both Anglo-Saxon and some Southern or Eastern European countries. Homosexuality is the outlier, with Russia more similar to Asian and African countries.

However, we should again exercise caution, because so much depends on how questions are phrased. If we return to the important question of nature-nurture and homosexuality, Russians do not look so much like outliers. A recent UK poll, for example, records 34% of respondents as believing that gays are not born, but made, with much internal variation in the sample (YouGov 2017 – Opens as a PDF). As recently as 1998 a majority (62%) of British people thought homosexuality was always, mostly, or sometimes ‘wrong’ (Clements and Field 2014). One could even take a contrarian view and argue that based on attitudes towards adoption of children by homosexuals, British and Russian people are pretty similar when it comes to the question of equal rights: British people are strongly against gay men adopting (actually, like Russians they are very inconsistent and answer differently depending on how the question is asked!). Edwin Bacon makes a similar argument, highlighting similar levels of nationalism in Russia and some Western countries today, and reminding us that attitudes towards homosexuality only changed (but did they?) in recent living memory in the West, and that on some measures, Russia is arguably more socially ‘liberal’ (immigration). Finally, as I write this, open hatred of gay people is in the news in the UK with two violent attacks in public given widespread coverage (in Southampton and in ‘tolerant’ London) this week and the ongoing standoff over the teaching’ of LGBT issues in Birmingham.

 

 

 

Infrapolitics, Russian style

making life habitable

The art of making life habitable is only possible through mutuality and reciprocity

 

In my third post on the topic ‘people as the new oil’ (the two previous posts are here, and here), I make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics and Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadism to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the ‘extractive turn’ – the idea now widely discussed, even among elites, that Russians are ‘sponges’ in two senses – to be wrung dry to fill the hole in the country’s finances, and are uniquely capable of absorbing such punishment. After all they are incapable of organising real opposition to hold their leaders to account, and in any case – they can retreat into some kind of dystopian subsistence existence, supplementing poverty wages with their little garden plots, with a ‘grift’ here and there, and a tiny state pension if they can live that long.

Just yesterday, Vladislav Inozemtsev published a long discussion of the completely alien concept, in his view, of the responsive, social security state in Russia. In it he makes very detailed comparisons of how, even in the US, combating poverty is a huge budgetary priority for the government. One point though, stick out for me,  that Russian politics lacks entirely the relationship of obligation to an electorate. As I have written previously, we need to go further and highlight the increasingly open contempt by politicians and elites for ‘ordinary people’. There is an increasing rhetoric of the unworthy poor in Russia. People who can barely feed and clothe themselves are personal failures.

Perhaps it would be inevitable that after the trauma of the collapse of the USSR, a decade of extreme economic and political dislocation, a kind of Social Darwinism would emerge among the winners of post-socialist transformation to help them psychologically cope with their good fortune. They are ‘better people’ because they adapted, and thus those that failed to ‘adapt’, deserve to die off, as a dead end species of post-Homo Soveticus. Perhaps I push this idea too far, but it doesn’t seem too out of place in the light of a ‘serious’ sociological conversation about how ‘Soviet people lacked all moral compass‘.  Homo Soveticus casts the USSR as creating an impoverished moral personhood, cowed by the punitive Stalinist state, distrusting of all but those in one’s inner circle: ‘servile double-thinkers

Thank goodness for people like Greg Yudin (responding here to the questionable methods used to prove that Russians pine for Stalin), and Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, who thoroughly demolishes the rhetoric of Russians as trapped in a totalitarian mindset. The self-justification of the  economic fortunes of the winners of transition are linked to their political ideology – the poor are not only guilty of being poor, they’re also to blame for the failure of democratisation in Russia! As Sharafutdinova continues: ‘Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible.’

There is of course reason to agree with one aspect of the ‘Homo Soveticus’ idea – that a violent coercive system has an effect on society (and individuals) long after that system (Stalinism) is consigned to history. Yes, there are aspects of today’s Russia that indicate political and social disconnection, that people expect little but more corruption from the powers-that-be, that they understand the massive brutalising potential of the state (this May Day’s beating of protesters by police emboldened by the new privilege not to have to wear identification is a case in point). But for me it’s the opposite conclusion – not that the Soviet legacy (and authoritarian redux) means that people distrustful or passive, or fearful, but that they respond in an everyday, ordinary rational way to the uncaring, crony-capitalised venal elites. One of the main ideas I put forward throughout my own research is that in the face of an state abdicating social welfare, people more than ‘make do’ by falling back on tried and tested resources, like the garden plot, like close-knit networks of mutual aid. More than that, they will, given time, more than adapt to dysfunctional systems, but start to inhabit the nooks and crannies – making a virtue even, of that dysfunction – hence my long-standing interest in the ‘shadow’ or informal economy. If ‘just coping’ or ‘getting by’ is hiding in a burrow, then more than coping is building a house – inhabiting a space, no matter how inhospitable.

Even the most marginalised and ‘weak’ people are not as passive as they seem. Over the last three decades people have got used to the informal, networked way Russia is governed – capitalism without capitalists, rule without law, power without responsibility. Samuel Greene argues that where people are forced to adapt to the informalized political and economic social relations, they then actually resist the very institution building and formal bureaucratic ways of ‘normal’ functioning states. This paradox can be expressed simply – Russians want more and less state at the same time and this is due to both socialist-era legacies of paternalism and the traumatic post-socialist transition.

It is ironic that privileged observers view ordinary Russians as ‘sponges’, or ‘bydlo’ while daily enjoying the services of informal workers.  Whether it’s nannies or house cleaners, plumbers fixing heating systems, or economic migrants building homes, modest yet cumulatively powerful economic agency is exercised by the vulnerable in escaping the clutches of the extractive state. The informal economy is of course no less exploitative or supportive of inequality, but it indicates the fundamental weakness of the state.

In thinking about the ‘minor warfare’ people wage against the quantifying state, Deleuze called this ‘nomadism’, and it could well describe the mobile tactics and ‘lines of flight’ many ordinary Russians take. Stuck between penury and the extractive state, the only option for many is movement – making use of those ‘weak ties’ to work a hack here and there – siphoning off company fuel for private use, filching some stationary from work, or that oldest forms of nomadism – the informal taxi-driving that supports a million families. Even with increasingly technological ‘fixes’ to stop the informational holes into which millions of people disappear to reappear in informal economic spaces, niches and hacks will arise. For example, while the Russian state cannot yet link up the database of insured drivers to its impressive network of road cameras, at some point this technological issue will be solved. However, there is already a nomadic hack available to every driver, from covering one’s numberplate with transparent shoe polish which ensures a thick layer of dust will immediately adhere (along with numerous other ingenious tricks), to simply using the inefficiencies of the Russian postal system to challenge the legality of the fine. Not to mention a very Russian phenomenon where it’s not uncommon for officials that are tasked with reinforcing the state control to simultaneously advise ordinary people on how to avoid state penalties, out of compassion and solidarity.

A second perspective is to adapt James Scott’s idea of the infrapolitical: ‘the … substratum of those more visible forms of action that attract most scholarly attention’. Scott argues that as “long as we confine our conception of the political to activity that is openly declared, we are driven to conclude that subordinate groups essentially lack a political life” (1990, 199). Many aspects of people’s non-registration of economic activities qualify as the not-quite political. Scott challenges scholarship on dissent to reassess the definition of interventions in the public sphere (we might add, to reassess the idea of the public sphere itself). His contributions include a critique of hegemony and therefore false consciousness, as well as the “safety valve” theory—the notion, for instance, that the patriotic politics around Crimea serve as a distraction from quotidian woes.

Infrapolitics are nurtured by ‘hidden transcripts’. The more the ‘public transcript’ is seen as hypocritical the more it is likely to generate a rich and ‘hidden’ alternative. For example, cynical talk about the importance of the development of human capital and productivity while at the same time hearing that ‘state owes you nothing’, intensifies the creation of counter discourses. Indignities lead to ‘rehearsals’ of injustice and in turn reinforce ‘nomadic’ actions. An enormous wave of memes criticising the pension reforms, sometimes humorously, but often pointedly, are shared through the safety of encrypted messaging services. Two different viral examples illustrate the pointed politicising of the private virtual spaces of dissent. The first is a vlog poem, written and performed by a Urals nurse. Railing against her tiny salary and her inability to adequately feed and nurture her child she asks: ‘Why do you dislike the people so much, they who feed your righteous arses.’ The second is also a video, by a regional Communist deputy, but disseminated anonymously via Whatsapp and other encrypted messaging services. A parody of the presidential New Year’s message he addresses the viewer ‘friends, we have had a difficult year, like many before it. And the problem here is of course not the Western sanctions… not the ‘lazy people’… but the shameless and deceitful authorities’. One possible state response is to try to shut down the most reliable motor of the infrapolitical – the internet. But as with other authoritarian technological fixes, there will always be hacks, and it’s not even clear if firewalling is possible.

The point is not that there is some inflection point where rage converts to rebellion, merely that hidden transcripts reinforce the logic of nomadic, state-distancing moments, like refusing to register as self-employed, like evading a traffic fine, or just having the courage to openly discuss politics for the first time with acquaintances.  Each element gives the other traction. Even though nomadism and infrapolitics work insidiously, they have political significance because they continuously prod at the limits of the publically sayable. While the idea of the state as abstract, distant, and an uncaring entity is ingrained, so is the tactic of nomadism. Recently Vladislav Surkov turned the phrase ‘deep state’ into ‘deep people’ in his eulogy on the greatness of Russia’s system. He might be right about the primacy of the Russian people, but he seems to have forgotten the very Russian saying, ‘still waters run deep’ [в тихом омуте черти водятся].

[a shorter version of this post previously appeared at Ridl.io under the heading ‘People as the New Oil?’  in English https://www.ridl.io/en/people-as-the-new-oil/ and in Russian ]

Challenging the view that Russians are ‘passive’.

uncollected rubbish

uncollected rubbish from a designated municipal site.

 

In a previous post I talked about the phrase: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ as representing a new extractive shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensively from ordinary people. In this post I want to talk about liberal pundits’ interpretation of this turn of events. A much truncated version of what I wrote below was part of a short piece for Ridl.io

But before that just a quick recap on the reality of ‘making ends meet’ for many Russians that I talked about previously. Ordinary people are suffering from a decade-long decline in their living standards putting them in a position of extreme want. Published average incomes may look survivable, but the reality is that, like in other unequal countries, such statistics are misleading not least because of the distorting effect of a small number of very high incomes. In 2018 average gross wages were 40000 rubles a month or $560. Whether this figure is fiddled or not, in any case it ignores the large effect of lower informal (undeclared) incomes, and the imbalance between big city state company employment and the rest.  Independent polling indicates that the ‘real’ average pay was less than 20000 rubles ($305). $300 is not even a subsistence wage. Even adding to it a lower secondary wage, a family is left virtually nothing for clothing, medicines, travel or spending on children. When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. The open acknowledgement of the extreme poverty in which many Russians life can be seen in political events like the strange passing of a law allowing Russians to collect fallen trees, ‘for their own needs’.

Influential independent political observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw pessimistic conclusions about the ‘extractive turn’. Mostly they view their fellow citizens as passive and lacking any agency, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level and is seriously disruptive to the state. Solovei paints a vivid picture of Russians as passive sponges to be wrung dry in any way possible by an emboldened state – where can people hide from taxes on fuel and cigarettes? (I guess you can anticipate my answer to him – in both cases it’s in the interstices of the informal economy). To be fair to him, he at least strikes a warning note: history shows that eventually people get fed up and social strife is the result. However, his remedy is predictably unimaginative, a bourgeois democratic revolution (without any messy involvement of ordinary people) such as what ‘could have been’ in 2011-12. But how realistic is political change without the engagement of people beyond metropolises? And how would a bourgeois democracy he envisage address the enormous structural inequalities and imbalances Russia faces? Doesn’t this approach just reproduce a ‘two Russias’ perspective so criticized by other observers such as Ilya Matveev? We can see traces of this stigmatizing perspective everywhere: the assumption that a ‘lack of culture’ or an ‘authoritarian personality’ prevents the ‘other’ Russians from seeing the light. On the latter, Carine Clement has recently taken this idea to task. In particular, she rejects the ‘mythical apoliticism of Russians’ and asks the question – if Russians’ ‘authoritarian’ thinking includes a strong element of critique of the existing social order, then to what degree is it really authoritarian?

Inozemstev’s approach is more interesting. He starts with the notion of popular disenchantment and elite indifference, but then links this to a more general pessimism.  Noting that the ‘new oil’ trope indicates people have awareness of how costly the elites are to them he despairs that ‘the authorities realise quite how broken the Russian population’s willingness to resist really is, from mass protests to even small-scale acts of dissent.’ Does this view make the mistake that only ‘open’ protest is a mark of resistance? Elsewhere Inozemstev actually hints at what is in plain sight: the informal economy as a bulwark against complete penury for many. He notes that even the Russian government openly acknowledges that 38 million people’s work and income is opaque at best to the state. I agree with him that most Russians want to hold down a legitimate employment in the formal economy. However, given such pessimism, even this is increasingly questioned by some of the already most vulnerable. The qualifying period for an old age pension will soon increase from 6 to 15 years, the social rights that accrue to a formally employed person are losing their value due to the erosion of the health system in general.  All in all Inozemstev proposes some incremental reforms that can be characterised as too little too late (tax free allowances on low incomes, assistance schemes like food stamps), which are regressive (increasing VAT) or even defeatist (corruption should be limited to the resource sector). Overall it looks like a kind a pale Fabianism with little scope for taking root.

In his latest piece Inozemstev is closer to some of the points I make in my previous post – detailing what the increasing in indirect taxation will mean to ordinary people – a real rise of around 10% in petrol costs and the real fall in incomes since 2008. Interestingly, given the ongoing ‘rubbish disposal’ protests, he points to the very large increase in household bills for waste disposal. This increase – a doubling has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people and they are up in arms about it – especially in places like the town I study which has been repeatedly the victim of fly-tipping of Moscow rubbish and which recently saw its head of the council’s environmental services jailed for taking bribes to allow such tipping.

Ekaterina Shulman uses the questionable assumptions and methodology of the World Values Survey data to address the topic of ‘turning the screws’ on ordinary people. She first argues that a shift in Russian values from ‘superatomisation’ characteristic of the 1990s to ‘conservative’ is somewhat positive as it facilitates collective action and sociality. A notable effect is the strengthening of weak ties and broadening of the scale of interpersonal trust especially among the young and dynamic. On the other hand, she sees in Russia the continuing legacy of totalitarianism: ‘secular, atomised society’ that produces the lonely distrustful individual with atrophied social skills.  Homo soveticus is very much still with us in her view. Consequently, she greets the shift in public opinion from ‘political security’ to ‘social security’ with some surprise (in reality this aspect of public opinion has always been there).

The beef I have with approaches like these is that the ordinary Russians who daily make decisions about how to live are presented as an undifferentiated mass – suffering from ‘learned helplessness’ (a phrase used by Ekaterina Shulman but also by Carine Clement) or as an unruly source of social unrest – the word ‘revolt’ (bunt) is reserved for them. At worst this ‘by-the-numbers’ approach gives the impression that ‘we’, the addressed middle-class audience of these pundits, should fear the ‘other’ Russia.  Solutions presented ring hollow – they are either a form of gradualism or legalism (vote, even if the field is rigged; use your right to agitate against a bad candidate; if only we just adhered to the Constitution; wait for those nostalgic old people to die). In my final post on this topic, I’ll make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the extractive turn.

 

Why do 66% of Russians regret the collapse of the USSR?

2018-05-11 18.52.56

I was asked today to answer this question by a journalist, so I thought I’d share my responses. Thanks to Jesper Hasseriis Gormsen for asking it. And check out his [Danish language] podcasts on Russia http://intetnytfravestfronten.dk/

This is a really tricky question, but what I want to stress is two things – like many other polls, the answer might not be telling us what we think it is. The answer might be to a different buried question in the mind of the answerer. That question (among others) might really be ‘why do so many people live so badly now, when in the USSR they did not (or at least everyone was in the same boat, more or less)?’  Thus eliciting the answer: ‘Yes, I do regret the collapse of the USSR.’

Note (and I guess it needs saying), that this is not my opinion of what the USSR was like (as if there can be a single ‘reality’ of lived experience of an incredibly diverse state that existed for 70 years), just an interpretation that might well be ‘real’ to the person who is asked the question.

The second thing is that poll answers are overly and frustratingly simplistic answers that actually express (or, as I have just said, obscure) very complex feelings and values of the people they are asked of. It is amazing that when I talk to political scientists, they often don’t really believe this in their heart of hearts. Take for instance Brexit or Trump. These ‘answers’ are not merely, or even mainly, about ‘immigration’ or ‘racism’.

Thirdly, the devil is in the detail of the question. It’s well known that survey questions can be phrased and ‘hacked’ to significantly change the result – and pollsters know this (or should do). I don’t think that’s the case here. However, Levada, by using the term ‘collapse’ [raspad] does set out a particular ‘framing’ inadvertently, of the ‘ending’ of the state called the USSR in 1991. One that sets up in the mind of the person answering it, even if they are too young to experience it themselves, the trauma of postcommunist transition. Here we might add – why wouldn’t someone sensitive to the past, or lacking clear ideological support for ‘actually-existing capitalism’ answer: ‘Yes, I do “regret” the passing of the USSR, the state I was born in, or that my suffering parents were born in and worked hard all their lives for.’

Let’s turn the phrasing around. If Levada asked: ‘Do you regret the founding of the Russian Federation in 1991?’ I’m pretty sure the majority would say ‘no’ and so the poll would in a way be reversed.

Here’s the poll in question.

https://www.levada.ru/2018/12/19/nostalgiya-po-sssr-2/

Note the fluctuation since 1999 of around 20 % of the ‘regret’ vote (however, most ‘regrets’ are in a band between 53% and 65% since 2005). (Don’t look at the graph, look at the table). This fluctuation could be to do with people with direct experience of the USSR (positive or negative) dying along with people with no personal experience thinking in more rosy terms about the period – hence a kind of up and down wave effect.  But, you would also expect nostalgia to rise according to periods of crisis. When people feel their lives are not going to plan they might well look back to a ‘simpler’, more ‘stable’ time with nostalgia.  That’s plausible for the figures in 1999, 2000, and 2001 when people took a massive cut in living standards due to the Defolt. However, that is not borne out by the data here when taken in terms of trends over time since then. So perhaps there is not clear answer as to ‘why’ the numbers fluctuate. Here we could have an aside about polling most often telling us ‘nothing’ directly related to the question.

Now to the question of the meaning of nostalgia.

In her wide-ranging book The Future of Nostalgia, the wonderful Svetlana Boym identifies two distinct types of nostalgia: ‘restorative’ nostalgia and ‘reflective’ nostalgia.  Restorative nostalgia, “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.”  Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, “dwells in algia(aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”

Boym was first and foremost a Russian cultural scientist with a deep commitment to the personal insights lived experience provides for research. We can ‘read through’ her descriptions to suppose that both forms could be operative for nostalgia towards the Soviet Union. And as their psychology origins suggest, nostalgias can be personal quirks, irrationally warm ‘affective’ feelings, passing infatuations, or indeed pathologies bordering on madness. I suggest that all these are operative in different people at different times in the last three decades.

Lastly, we can break down nostalgia into a scale of more ‘rational’ interpretations by people. I rank these not in order of importance, but in terms of macro-to-micro social scale. All, some or one may be simultaneously operative in a person’s mind when they answer the pollster’s phone call – in fact none of them might be operative and the person getting the call might just want to get the pollster off the line!

  1. Nostalgia for Great Power status (empire and the respect for the geopolitical might of the USSR). See Mazur below (and Kustarev) on the ‘myth of achievement’ and the ‘myth of power’.
  2. Political order (totalitarian as a system that ensures a lack of political and civil strife, that obviates the need for the citizen to perform any political roll – relief at this and thankfulness – particularly effective in those that see the 1990s as ‘chaos’). See for example, ‘We grew up in a normal time’ – the title of a chapter in a book by Don Raleigh on Soviet baby boomers.
  3. Social order (“to each according to his needs”) – the Soviet social contract (which Linda Cook shows was failing in large part by the 1980s). Related to this, as in the West, a period of sustained social mobility. See, for example, Liudmila Mazur’s ‘Golden age mythology and the nostalgia of catastrophes in post-Soviet Russia’, although her polling data paints a more complicated picture of the ‘myth of prosperity’.
  4. An emphasis on the sincerity in personal relations, the intensity of personal trust and reciprocity given the ‘heartless system’ of the USSR – note how this is contradictory to point 3, yet perfectly possible to hold this belief at the same time as number 3. People are like that.
  5. Nostalgia for the time of one’s youth (probably universal – hey, I think the early 1980s in the UK were great, but ask a miner or other person from the North that). Nostalgia for personal and more widespread idealism (the BAM-romanticism factor) that accompanied this. See Mazur on the ‘myth of achievement’.
  6. Recognition of Labour(due recognition given to labour as the primary factor of production). Not that I am not saying that work was more ‘dignified’ or better paid than in the West during the Fordist period after WWII. Merely, and this is what most of my research interrogates, many working-class people feel nostalgia for what they perceive as a better time before the present. They highlight particularly, relative lower inequality (everyone was paid badly!), relative degrees of social compensation for labour (the social wage and labour paternalism included subsidised childcare, faster routes to social housing for workers, subsidised food), the team-level autonomy of work given the dysfunctional industrial system – bottle-necks, old equipment, distant management, shortages – all these led to a large degree of control over work, as enterprises looked to individuals and teams to find quick and dirty hacks to solve these otherwise intractable structural problems with the Soviet economy. Another way of looking at this is to say that workers had little or no political or associational power in the USSR, but they did have structural (work-place bargaining, or ‘contingent’ power).

Also operative are the answers that regret ‘loss of homeland’, ‘destruction of kinship and other ties’ – these are offered as options in the more detailed poll question. However, I think my 6 are more heuristically persuasive than the dry promptings of Levada, including the most important one: ‘the destruction of a united economic system’, although my points 2, 3, and 6 could be version of that.

Note that nowhere do I find it persuasive that there is nostalgia for the overly abstract notion of ‘communism’ as a system or the ‘communists’ as a ruling party… I intended to reference this piece on the mythology of the Soviet Past by Kustarev, but didn’t have time in the end. I highly recommend it. Александр Кустарев, Мифология советского прошлого «Неприкосновенный запас» 2013, №3(89)