Spooks and the haunting of Russian Area Studies

A spooky Russian house, which, like Area Studies, is both haunted and possibly in need of kapremont.

Just a quick follow up to my last post on Russian punditry, which got quite a lot of private responses of support. I hadn’t considered adding the ‘spooks’ (not-so-secret security agencies) angle; my piece was mainly about the domination of public and social media attention by a narrow and not always best informed commentariat sitting uncomfortably between academia, journalism and think tanks.  

However, after I wrote the post, a few people mentioned the security services angle. What does this mean? Well, in a sense it’s the second elephant in the room of Russia punditry. If the first elephant is the clear leveraging of latent public sympathy abroad for the Russian regime by our friends at the English-language offices of RT, then the other elephant is the continuing relevance of academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.

If you underestimate the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia – from both elephants, then you are guilty of the ‘fallacy of insufficient cynicism’, as Bruce Cumings wrote in 1997 about Russian and Asian Area Studies’ partial capture by security service interests.  Cumings’ illuminating piece is still relevant today. I’ll come back to his proposal for Area Studies later.

What is clear from the reaction to my original post is that many people don’t really get how ‘ideological’ commentary is that comes from both ‘foreigners’ and ‘natives’ alike. Many also don’t want to talk about how the filtering mechanism of funders, results in funnelling out diversity. Perhaps that should be ‘Diversity’ with a capital ‘D’ (in terms of viewpoints, background, gender and race).

Cumings mentions Richard Pipes at one point. Pipes is an example of a type of Eastern European anticommunist intellectual recruited to enthusiastically tell the US government what it wanted to hear about Russia at a particular point in time. A leading critique of détente, his hawkish views came from his flawed reading of Russian history (a kind of historico-genetic autocracy thesis that even at the time was seen as simplistic). The result: advising politicians and the public that the USSR was bent on world domination and a real military and economic threat to US hegemony. Both these hyperbolic assertions were empirically falsifiable at the time by any curious undergraduate student with a good grounding in Russian Studies; the point is that effectively countering such an approach was not possible – not because of group think, but because of the structural conditions of academia-as-adjunct-of-security-state. Cumings:

“foundations (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford) worked with the state and the center to fund projects and, in some cases, to launder CIA funding; that the same scholars who undertook this activity often were themselves subjects of FBI investigations; that some of these scholars, in turn, were responsible for denouncing other scholars to the FBI; and, finally, that these academics were major figures in the postwar development of Russian area studies in the nation as a whole.”

People like Pipes acted to shape Area Studies as a Cold War industry dependent on the security services for social science research, an issue not just in Russian Studies (96% of all social science funding in the US came from the military in 1952).

Today, my previous post reflects concerns about the way Twitter acts as an amplifier of sometimes narrowly-informed and narrowly-thinking people in think tanks and policy who are less dependent now on the academic setting. Just as on one side some of the loudest voices come from journalists and grifters making money from laundering Russia’s geopolitical reputation, we should be aware of the continuing influence of security services’ patronage on Russian punditry at ‘home’.  The funniest line in Cumings’ piece is this:

“It has been estimated that while about 60 percent of the academics working for the CIA know that is what they are doing, the others do not.”

What he means by this is precisely the laundering of influence and policy-papers through academic and para-academic writing for the think tanks and foundations that have only increased in visibility in the era of social media.

What’s different today? In some respects nothing. If someone in a Western think tank is very hawkish or very dovish, ask yourself why? If they make grand knowledge claims, also be suspicious. Are they grifting for themselves or for a blob-faction?  One thing that has changed is that academia itself has become too neoliberal for most dedicated spooks to survive there. While there were a few in the Cold War institutes I taught in back in the day, even then they were leaving to go freelance because the requirements to publish or perish in the ivory tower are not so conducive to spook work. [allow me one little shout out to the prof I met a few years ago with so many passports and travel money, despite not publishing or getting grants! He’s not on Twitter! But he’s the exception and not the rule in terms of successful academic career and spookdom.] I digress, but the point is that a list of Russia experts that weighs heavily to the think tank side should give pause for thought.

Which brings me back to Cumings. While the Cold War birthed Area Studies (and hijacked anthropologists), Cumings in 1997 proposed rethinking the boundaries of area and discipline to reengage American minds with the task of understanding the world beyond the US. He was alarmed by the prospect of the rational choice paradigm taking over social science. Was he was right?

“it is a simpler matter of the researcher staring at the game-theoretic mathematical formulas that appear on the computer screen, thus to determine how the real world works. If the theory does not explain political, social, or economic phenomena, it is the real world’s fault.”

He had a two-pronged response to this challenge. The first was based on ‘boundary displacements’:

  • (1) move away from fixed regional identities (that is, the area committees), given that globalization has made the ‘areas’ more porous, less bounded
  • (2) utilize area expertise to understand pressing issues in the world that transcend particular countries, which is the real promise of area studies in the post-1989 era
  • (3) reintroduce area knowledge to social science disciplines that increasingly seem to believe that they can get along without it
  • (4) integrate the United States into “area studies” by recognizing it as an “area” that needs to be studied comparatively

Then, following Immanuel Wallerstein’s similar intervention, Cumings had more concrete suggestions; they are just as provocatively relevant today as 25 years ago:

  • All academics should reside in two departments
  • Thematic, yet heterodox, research themes that are not US-centric, but neither driven by supposed specificities of ‘Russia’ or ‘China’
  • Embrace post-positivism
  • Fold all the social sciences into ‘political economy’ (and preferably get rid of economics to the Business School)
  • Let funding flow from corporate identity of the university (serving society as the institution imagines it)

For that to be possible, especially in area studies, Cumings had one final prerequisite:  “Abolish the CIA, and get the intelligence and military agencies out of free academic inquiry”.

The Russia Pundit Problem

This post was provoked by the rash of new and reheated Russia takes getting a lot of visibility on Twitter recently because of the escalation threat in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. I also got a little ‘triggered’ by Kevin Rothrock’s* ‘head-to-head’ voting competition between Russia experts – also on Twitter. In fact, the whole ‘expert’ thing is weird in the first place. What does it actually mean? There are millions of Russia experts. In Russia, they’re called Russians… We’ve basically just accepted that expert is someone who mediates second-hand sources to buttress their own opinion and usually reinforce preconceived opinions that serve the powerful.

So what’s my beef? It’s twofold: there’s the usual problem of social media grifters. Since Trump and Russiagate they are like mushrooms in an endless late Russian summer – they just keep coming. What’s a grifter? A self-appointed expert who is a fraud; we could even call them ‘hack frauds’ as many are adjacent to a media outlet or think-tank that churns policy and opinion pieces.

The second problem is that Russia coverage on Twitter is dominated by Washington DC policy types who may not be frauds* (although some of them are), but who often have a very narrow, and second-hand, knowledge of Russia the country, and Russia the diverse population, as opposed to Russia the foreign policy problem. I’ve written about ‘imperial’ hierarchies of knowledge production before here. Another issue was the extreme Anglo/US-centric focus of Rothrock’s list. (The finalists of his list were defence and crime/security/military scholars; you couldn’t get a more depressing picture of how Russia is framed).

You can see where I’m going here – I’m making a claim for ‘in-country’ knowledge, and depth and breadth of engagement. For some reason, some people don’t even understand this argument.

In case you think I’m talking exclusively about non-Russians, I’m not. These issues pertain just as much to ‘natives’. There are plenty of Russian Russia experts who have long had a comfortable DC or US media gig and who have a weak direct grasp on events. Just as much as others, they are vulnerable to bad takes due to the secondary, or belated sources of their analysis.

Another hobbyhorse of mine is the extreme self-selection and self-reproduction of this group: in the main they are privileged Russian liberals who are often the last people to ask about the diversity of Russia itself. Think for a moment about who can and who can’t up-sticks and move to the US, regardless of the level of repression in Russia. Think also for a moment about the clustering of political viewpoints that this results in (something I implied in my piece about Navalny-love in 2021)

But that’s not the end of it, the same DC types and ‘expat’ Russians often read the same set of narrow sources and have the same contacts. So not only does their shared relative wealth and class position lead to blobism, but also their lack of interest in exploring other sources or coverage adds to that as well.

Some of these people have spent the majority of their adult life outside Russia, or only visiting Moscow/St Pete. There’s two ‘syndromes’ we could coin: the ‘Marriott-International Russia expert’ (folks who get uncomfortable leaving their hotel in Moscow – yes, I know them); and the ‘not-outside-the-ring road’ native Russian experts who disdain and are often even fearful and incredulous of non-Metropolitan Russia (yes I know them too).

Aside: who do you think is most incredulous about my research and work? Yes, that’s right, it’s privileged Russians. And by incredulous, I mean, they regularly say things like ‘how can you spend so much time outside Moscow?’ ‘What food do you eat?’ ‘How can you talk to ordinary people?’

As this post is already a rant I want to shift the focus. A third thing that prompted me to write this post was that a few people got in touch to say how recent events not only pertaining to Russia express something alarming about how editors and publishers value expertise. They also said things like: ‘I’d love to call out so-and-so, but I need a job in the US’, or ‘Yes we know so-and-so is a fraud, but as part of the community ourselves we can’t say so’. The incestuousness of ‘Russian expertise’ is another problem that as often prevents open debate as stimulates it.

Here’s some of what they said to me and allowed me to report anonymously:

  • The shift of so many Russian journalists abroad has actually weakened ‘mainstream’ coverage in English as these experts are unable to adequately filter their own sources back in Russia and they themselves rely on Telegram channels, many of which are not at all reliable. Ex-Lenta editors have been in Riga for 8 years, remember.
  • ‘The worst of Polsci is on Twitter’. There are too many ‘Putin is THE problem’ people there, banging the same drum, year after year. Polsci is partly responsible for the perception that Putin controls the discourse. So stop talking about him, if you don’t like it! People should stop writing books about Putin, but they won’t because they make money. [caveat – there are great polsci people on Twitter like Sam Greene, for example. No, he didn’t contribute to this rant]
  • Detachment from country and embeddedness leads to extremes and tired replication of Cold War Kremlinological approaches. ‘Russia is about to have a revolution because my taxi-driver said so’, or ‘Putin is a puppet-master’ are both outcomes.
  • Presentism (obsession with the news) and the need to be shown to be relevant leads experts to echo conspirological tropes on the one hand, and facile historical analogies on the other (‘Kazakhstan intervention as another 1956’).
  • Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good). Particularly with regard to the Blob (DC Foreign policy community). There are great people even at the Atlantic Council, but, to use the example of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the best people have been crowded out in that space by less informed and highly ideological voices.
  • The obvious paucity of regional coverage in Russia (and on Kazakhstan) as a result of the loss of Area Studies expertise and programmes.

Why does this matter? Because increasingly ‘experts’, particularly on Twitter, drive media coverage. If they are narrowly wonkish, and narrowly blobby (the DC academic and think-tank community) this only hurts societies’ understanding of Russia. The real tragedy of the ‘Russia discourse’ online is that so many got caught up in the idea that ‘understanding’ a country involves just understanding foreign policy and kremlinology and that ‘understanding’ anything else is seen as secondary.

*I want to be clear that these criticisms are not directed at Rothrock himself.

*on fraud – eventually we are all frauds in some aspect of our professional life: we are always going to be guilty of talking about something publicly about which we do not know enough. In the post above I’m using the term fraud about a Dunning-Kruger level of commentary.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 4: ‘Affording’ suffering under sanitary authoritarianism

Final blog summarising a Russian-language book chapter about Moscow as a not-so-smart city during Covid. You can read the first blog post here. Here is the book and pre-print chapter. We turn the final part of our chapter to the neologism ‘affordances’, as invented by James Gibson in the 1970s to described the possibilities that emerge from the contact of an organism with its environment – both positive and negative.

Donald Norman (1988) adapts the term to concentrate on “affordances as perceivable action possibilities – i.e., only actions which users consider possible. So, designers must create objects’ affordances to conform to users’ needs based on these users’ physical and perceptual capabilities, goals and past experiences.” An example of ‘negative affordances’ from technological ‘improvement’ are things like reading on a screen rather than paper (eyes get tired, making notes is more difficult). There’s a rich literature on negative affordances in higher education which we seem to have completely ignored in the now compulsory delivery of so much ‘content’ via learning portals.

Studies of the internet in everyday life have attempted to contextualise unforeseen positive and negative affordances by doing ethnographic work on how technology is really incorporated into the lives of people. I wrote about this long ago, predicting that social media use in Russia would develop differently to that in the ‘West’. There’s also an interesting phenomenological literature on affordances and technology – on how perception of virtual environments affects interpretation of utility and disutility (e.g. Facebook algos and the way I perceive it responding to my inputs in a feedback loop; the emotional relationship I develop with software and hardware).

In our work on Moscow Social Monitoring app, Galina Orlova and I observe how the responses of the people self-isolating to the app are often emotional, physical and therefore reflect the production of phenomenological affordance – or rather negative affordance. People go to sleep cradling their phones with the SM app, open in dread anticipation of being woken by its sadistic logic of enforced selfie roll-call. Further, as the users discover bug after bug, they perceive the app as a demonic, retarded, or sadistic being – an easier response than an interpretive rational one. Can it be that sadism is programmable into a push-notification system, some ask? Some users go further, pondering the effectiveness of the system in implementing the kind of sleep deprivation torture used during the Stalinist Terror, a system that was more routinely effective and efficient than physical beatings or threats in extracting confessions. Others reflect on how even ineffective digital governance both lines the pockets of those developing the app and gives City Hall a mine of biometrics on its subjects. A keyword here to describe the app, in opposition to ‘health’, is ‘vred’ – ‘harm, injury, detriment, damage’. Thus our chapter suggests the need to view the app as creating an affordance of suffering and disorientation. But perhaps they are essential to the logic of a future effective control society in the service of a sanitary authoritarianism.

The SM app was updated nine times in the summer of 2020 and many bugs were removed. However the main issues remained – frequency of push notifications, battery use, stability. Furthermore a key design flaw – the absence of confirmation of successful receipt of a selfie sent to a server (delivery confirmation) also remained. Again, one could ask the question – did this enforced helplessness of the app on the dividual, not enhance the effectiveness of control? Users continued to be fined for not responding to notifications which they never received; a record of notification was still not incorporated into the app’s functions. At the same time the City Hall technical lab (Department of IT) responsible declined to comment, even after a month of the app’s use. As an aside, the DIT could serve as an emblem of how Moscow City Hall operates as a mill in churning public money into rents. As an anonymous observer notes: “DIT: A bureaucratic filter for controlled siphoning off of budget money. Idiotic purchases of equipment, bureaucratic delays, systematic reworking of all and sundry for the sake of the ‘process’ itself. The Department has very few specialists, all projects are outsourced, facilitating further fraud.”

Characteristic was the eventual knee-jerk reaction of DIT: “There was no record of a single fine being imposed in error”. In July 2020, The State Duma essentially supported City Hall by declining the opportunity to implement an amnesty for the fines. Mayor Sobyanin continues his line about the technology “saving the lives of tens of thousands of Muscovites”. Only the Human Rights Council continued to raise the issue of “repressiveness”.

A less extreme emotional response to the app was one of ‘irritation’. We analyse the mild forms of ‘insurgent citizenship’ available to users as they en masse give the apps a zero rating on phone appstores and write detailed letters of complaint that, like so many app ratings, appear to disappear into the ether. Perhaps ‘irritation’ is a particularly metropolitan keyword for states of discomfort and dissatisfaction that serve as points of entry to the ‘political’ in the lives of pampered Muscovites. Certainly we can observe the genre of service quality assessment as part of consumer culture. What is important is avenues of activating ‘pretenziia’ – claim-making processes that are different from ‘complaints to the authorities’. Nonetheless there is also the activation of moral values of civic worth here too: human rights and freedoms, respect for people, and so on. We also observe a strong element of the emotional response to injustice: those fined by the app are indignant that they have to prove their innocence. There is no habeas corpus on offer here in an incorporeal dividual world. Evaluations of the circumstances of self-isolation range from ‘totalitarianism’, to ‘electronic concentration camps’. A civic, or pre-civic position is actualized through interaction with the unjust app: “is this what we pay taxes for?” “I will not vote for the current authorities!”

In the SM case, we also trace legalistic routes to get fines cancelled, including using the smart city’s other sources of data to justify the wrongly-fined person’s case: requests for access to entry-way camera data, for example. The emergence of a claim to a kind of digital citizenship is visible. While the class-action lawsuit against the fines doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere, there are cases of people avoiding SM by making use of data protection regulations. The Facebook group in ‘defence’ of SM victims has morphed into a social justice message about the miserly support for people from the Russian state during the pandemic. SM continues to be a requirement for those infected in Moscow and the ‘service’ is now outsourced, raising further ‘digital rights’ concerns. In late 2020 many fines were overturned by Moscow courts.

We end our chapter by reflecting on the smart city’s choice of technological control over society, in place of alternatives such as a collective solidarity approach or a state of emergency (the latter rejected because of the miserliness of the federal government). Our chapter ends in early 2021, with the routinization of remote working (for the middle classes), QR codes for entry to night clubs and the like – and now in late 2021 we are confronted with déjà vu. We focus on the positives – the response of Muscovites and their development of a more conscious critical and multifaceted strategy of co-existence with digital governance and also the transition to hybrid forms of action, civicness and solidarity.  

If you’re interested in the chapter and the wide range of other material in the book on Russia, smart cities and urbanism, please consider buying a copy via the link at the top of the post.

If you want to read a piece about what internet and social media use looked like ten years ago in Russia, here’s the first piece I wrote on VKontakte and tech in 2010-11.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 3: Surveillant Assemblage

In our third blog post of our book chapter, on which these posts are based, we turn the next part of our chapter where we discuss theories of surveillant assemblage.

Haggerty and Ericson proposed a theory of surveillant assemblage in 2000 in the British Journal of Sociology. This develops Deleuze’s control society ideas: human bodies are abstracted “from their territorial settings, … separating them into a series of discrete flows. These flows are then reassembled in different locations as discrete and virtual ‘data doubles’. The surveillant assemblage transforms the purposes of surveillance and the hierarchies of surveillance, as well as the institution of privacy.” Like Deleuze, emphasis is on the seamlessness, continuity, and ability of the system to ‘modulate’ itself. However, the Moscow case gives cause to inject a note of reality – in our chapter we write about ‘a collapse of upravliamosti [manageability]. The Moscow QR assemblage demonstrated the relative powerlessness of the digital overseer precisely because it was itself a hybrid assemblage of ‘technocratic phantasms of City Hall, infectious viruses, disobedient bodies, dependent taxi-drivers, at-risk-of-infection police-officers,  masks and gloves, different kinds of smartphones, unstable apps, electronic passes and their print-outs, crashing platforms, and financial penalties.’ In reality we observe interruption, discontinuity, and detuning as the attributes of technosocial control.

In a much more recent Deleuzian approach, Mark Andrejevic proposes three defining characteristics of automated surveillance: operationalism, environmentality and framelessness. In each case Andrejevic highlights how these supplement Deleuze’s insights because they illustrate how the control society reveals the post-representational character of surveillance. The capacity for the semi-autonomous system of control to pre-empt or predict is key to this movement. But, this is only possible by virtue of comprehensive monitoring in a multi-scalar way – i.e. of populations and individuals in a defined shared environment. The Moscow case is interesting as it stretches this task to the most ambitious frame, possibly even exceeding that attemped in China – for Moscow has arguably freer mobility. Operationalism refers to the capacity of the system to respond to inputs; environmentality – to the way the system is able to adjust the context of action; framelessness – to the limitless potential for the system to granulate data collection. Andrejevich rightly notes the antipathy towards (or perhaps better, the absence of) the political, and the de-subjectivation of the person or human in the logic of his elaboration of control society. Operation replaces deliberative action in a way that inevitably results in perilous technoutopian thinking. Green (2019), like Andrejevic, sees the problem of the control society in the unstated assumptions about the conflict in deliberation about the embedded values in technology. In what is now a staple critique, all operationalisations of control efface what are at root political decisions about the value of outcomes and the relative value of citizens – whether prioritizing car flow over public transport, or marking ethnic minorities as a higher risk for criminality. 

However, again, we return to the reality of Moscow – where in the QR saga the checking of codes, like the enforcement of masks, develops into a simulacrum – it masks reality. A great example being police-officers using broken scanners to pretend to scan QRs, or tapping random numbers into a device whose interface is broken. In the last part of our chapter, we analyse the Social Monitoring app in Moscow introduced at the end of April 2020. Both infected and close-contacts were required to observe ‘self-isolation at home’ and to install a mobile app after having been photographed. Notoriously, the app started sending out push-notifications to the isolating, demanding uploaded selfies at all hours of the day and night, seemingly at random. The selfies were supposedly uploaded to a server of City Hall. Failing to provide a selfie, or leaving one’s apartment resulted in an automated fine  of 4000 rb. Those isolating reported push notifications a minute apart and cumulative fines for infractions sometimes reached 80,000rb. In our chapter we summarise the IT specialists’ assessment of the security and coding flaws in the SM app – how it was cannibalized from a completely different monitoring system, to its coding and resource bloat, to its insecure transmission and storage of personal data (via Estonia to private German servers)

In May, Evgeny Danchenkov, of ‘Glavkontrol’ reported that 216 million roubles of fines had been imposed. Every third app user received a fine, although City Hall claimed that only one in nine did. The vast majority of fines were not due to real infractions: geolocation was inaccurately recorded, face recognition didn’t always work – all things one would have predicted. Internet defence communities were formed to fight the ‘SM terror’ and a class action lawsuit prepared, while the authorities talked of the need for ‘social responsibility’. Ekaterina Shulman predicted an integration of sanitary surveillance and the security services and the emergence of Rospotrebnadzor (Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights)* as an independent political security structure within the Russian state. That looks less realistic now, although certainly it enjoyed exercising power over areas of life not previously its purview. Agamben’s updated argument about a permanent state of exception is worth consideration (the ‘worst possible scenario’ dictates a regime of political rationality regardless of reality). This may help when we analyse how agencies like Rospotrebnadzor are unwilling to give up powers granted once there is no public health logic in their enforcement of the ‘obligation of health’ as a condition of mobility – like their monopoly on third country entry points to Russian airports, for example. Many will have heard of Europeans being turned away at the border with Russia (the point of entry being an international airport) because they flew via Amsterdam instead of Paris. Even now in late 2021, airlines are at a loss at the complexity of the rules on testing, isolation and third-country entry, to the degree that in my last trip to Russia, I was handed a phone by check-in staff in Copenhagen to ‘negotiate’ my entry to Russia with border control at Sheremetyevo. My pretty straight-forward itinerary, visa- and vaccine-status was ‘illegible’ to Finnair staff.

A further post will follow on our chapter. In the meantime, consider purchasing the Russian-language book linked to at the top of the post and supporting our co-authors’ and editors’ work. There are many other interesting chapters in the work.

*Note: Rospotrebnadzor is currently claiming the right to define the level of antibodies in the blood that ensure protection from Covid with a view to extending its remit in the issue of Covid passports to those with high antibody counts. Rospotrebnadzor is not part of the Ministry of Health but reports direct to the Russian Government and employs over 100,000 people. Since 2014 the agency has regained significant powers to collect informal economic rents.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 2: Social monitoring and prostheses of control

In the second part of our book chapter, on which these posts are based, we turn to a description of the steps the Moscow government made at the beginning of the pandemic. The Russian pandemic ‘began’ in Moscow. Perhaps out of admission of the Russian state’s low capacity, perhaps out of cynicism, the federal centre ‘delegated’ to the regions responsibility for measures against Covid. Certainly part of the logic was to preserve the austerity politics the centre has pursued for some time; from the perspective of today, Russian fiscal expansion to cope with Covid has been among the smallest proportions of GDP in the developed world.  For example, one of the early ‘responses’ was a capped 8% loan to a limited groups of SMEs – hardly comparable to the significant support in some other complex and service-orientated economies. Now problems are emerging with a promised 3% loan cap for small businesses. The GDP deficit never even reached 5% during the pandemic and is now back in surplus (compare this to the immediate fiscal response in Anglo-Saxon countries that was nearly 10% of GDP). The refusal to make use of fiscal ‘space’ by the government in 2020-21 is not only criminal, but economically illiterate. Poverty rates have risen by around 10%. For the first time I’ve encountered beggars in even the smallest towns.

The implementation of QR codes made Moscow’s response in 2020 famous, but the first use of these was actually in Kazan. From 15 April 2020, QR codes in Moscow were required for internal movement. In reality though, the limits on mobility without the use of codes was hazy – taking out rubbish, walking pets 100m from residence all allowed Muscovites to test the practical limits. Of note is the enrolment as ‘police’ of Moscow’s taxi drivers – now required to check QR codes of their passengers, as were turnstile controllers employed by Moscow Transit Authority. By the end of April, a ‘social monitoring’ app was imposed on the infected to enforce ‘home quarantine’.  The ‘mask-glove regime’ was introduced in May 2020 and is absurdly still in force as of November 2021, although since summer 2021 I have rarely seen anyone in transit wearing gloves. Interestingly, the full regime seems to be only enforced in one of the higher-end shopping chains.

In the chapter version of our research, we reflect on the Moscow authorities’ attempt to emulate China’s fangkong system of public health surveillance. We also contrast the Russian ‘Social Monitoring’ system with Singapore’s horizontal TraceTogether system, and Seoul’s use of mobile and banking app data to track individuals. Arguably, Moscow’s system was most similar to China’s Alipay Health Code, although the latter was both more sophisticated and less transparent in operation. The Moscow Social Monitoring app was plagued by bugs and ‘dirty’ code, seemingly slapped together in just a few weeks and was a far cry from the initial promises by City Hall that a system like Seoul’s personal data aggregation was planned.

What can we learn from re-reading Deleuze’s 1990 ‘Control Society’ essay? This is a post-institutional look at control. Deleuze pessimistically sees Foucault’s governmentalizing (the ‘sovereign’ person learns to love the policing of herself) as transient. Using the metaphor of a corporation, Deleuze foresees control as continual adjustment via the codifed ‘dividualization’ of information about people (did he read Marilyn Strathern on the quiet?). Deleuze anticipates how technology can create a kind of double of an individual based on her data trail – and that this trail can enable control mechanisms via real-time exploitation of data – what Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘universal modulation’. Presciently, Deleuze also sees this logic as destroying the rationale for traditional state institutions (why do we need a hospital or public health system based on evaluation of evidence and research, when an algorithm can be pre-programmed to optimise health outcomes on the basis of a simple risk calculation? Do you take a particular diabetes or asthma drug, asks the algo? Then your mobility card is automatically blocked when R-reproduction reaches a certain point). Judgement is suspended on the basis of simple big-data calculations of relative risk.

But what does the imperfect implementation of this logic look like in the case of Moscow in 2020? On 15th April, QR codes for essential journeys were supposed to be available for download from the City Hall website, but immediately the site was shown to crash repeatedly under the demand. The embedding of QR codes into the existing digital infrastructure of ride-hailing apps also failed ‘due to the providers not yet having found a way of doing this’. What we observe is an interesting example of improvisation based on using old tech for new purposes – a 2015 app from the Transit Authority was repurposed for use in hand-held tablets by law-enforcement personnel. Enormous queues at Metro stations formed, giving a fundamental insight into technology-led surveillance policy, one that is not so different from elsewhere: almost no ‘real-world’ contingencies were really considered. For example, what was the lone Rosguard officer supposed to do with someone whose code didn’t work? It became clear that only the first link in the chain was considered. The sight of law enforcement telephoning for advice and their superiors having no response was repeated over and over.

In late April 2020 the QR was finally linked to individualized travel cards (noting that these are a small minority of cards in use – the majority being anonymous cards that you can load with credit). Despite this advance, police did not change their protocol – they still required a barcode or QR and did not have the capacity to read the travel card’s Covid validity. The much admired private sector was no better. The Yandex taxi app is a sophisticated piece of flexible software allowing you to tell the aggregator whether your driver is wearing a seatbelt, has good taste in music, etc, and allows you to leave a tip or not. In our chapter, we discuss the potential for this IT giant to have assisted City Hall’s control society. It did aggregate its own data about Covid risk using geolocation data and published it publicly. But this was not integrated into the City’s response and clearly City Hall feared the dilution of central control.  In the next part of our chapter and in the next blog post tomorrow, we discuss the relevance of theories of ‘surveillant assemblage’.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 1

As I promised, here is the first of four posts that summarise in English the Russian-language chapter Galina Orlova and I wrote for this book. A draft of the chapter in Russian can be downloaded here. This post also picks up the story after the series of posts I wrote last year about Covid in Moscow and Russia.

Сети города: Люди. Технологии. Власти: Под редакцией Екатерины Лапиной-Кратасюк, Оксаны Запорожец, Андрея Возьянова

…In spring 2020 Moscow implemented a ‘regime of heightened readiness’ – a heterogeneous approach to the pandemic which combined partial quarantine (karantin) with self-isolation regimes and targeted state financial support that conformed largely to a neoliberal logic of delegated responsibility.  We also pay attention to the technocratic ‘fix’ attempted which was highly ambitious and at first disastrous.

One aspect worth highlighting is that electronic ‘nadzor’ – ‘surveillance’ was built into the Moscow-city government’s response from the start. Over 65-year-olds’ transport cards were blocked and individual housing blocks were assigned set times for exercise.

At the same time we trace the evolution of Moscow’s Smart City 2030 plan. This plan was fundamentally affected by Covid and the previous version removed from еру web in May 2020 (prompting various characteristic of Covid conspiracy theories). In our book chapter we discuss the glaring disparity between the smart city goals about ‘quality of life’ and the Covid reality, which was about enrolling new agents (human and otherwise) of police control via the smart city. Similarly, the low quality of so-called ‘algorithmic’ solutions was laid bare for all to see. Our chapter is called the ‘not-so-smart city’ in English, which loses the pun of the Russian title – (bez)umnyi gorod: the ‘(de)mented city’. Crazy/mad/demented as a noun is derived from the root word ‘mind’, or ‘clever’.

So how did the Mayoralty change their plan for smartification? If anything they doubled down with the help of the decree signed by the president in June 2020: Moscow becomes an experimental juridical regime where aggregated use of personal data is no longer constrained by law. More prosaic is the full commitment to fully digitize city-citizen services. Of note are experiments with automating 5G cleaning vehicles and – now the stuff of internet memes – ‘smart’ face-recognition door locks to communal entry-ways. Even without drunk old men headbutting HAL-like video-locks that refuse them access to their own homes, the naïve technoutopianism is evident in proposals like those to replace wheelchairs with smart exoskeletons (yes this is a real proposal) in a country whose hostility to the disabled is literally built into urban design.

Now, that’s not to say that Moscow isn’t already a leader in smart-city affordances for its exclusive citizenry. There are well developed projects for a single electronic system for doctor’s appointments, school timetabling and public Wi-Fi coverage that put many European and N. American cities to shame. Smart City 2030 is only one of three stages, two of which are already complete. For this stage, the blockchain, AI, and the internet of things are highlighted areas. The Muscovite (Social Services) Card has been around a while (2001). This is a combined bank, travel, cultural services, and medical services plastic contactless chip card. In a city that continues to provide very generous social benefits to large numbers of residents this card is highly valuable. This is evidenced by the city government wanting to making it a criminal offence for a person other than the owner to make use of the card. The card – characteristically – is also vulnerable to hacking, and contains sensitive personal data beyond that which is necessary for its use. In 2018 there were 5 million cards in use.

Annalisa Cocchia has made a systematic literature review of the differences in understanding the use of the words: ‘digital’ and ‘smart’ cities. She finds the latter to focus on a move away from technological determinism and towards decentralization. In practice we can’t really talk about even an ‘actually-existing’ smart city. There are plenty of examples of reality falling far short of rhetoric, from Songdo in Korea, to Toronto in Canada. Nonetheless, Moscow really is a leader – top in the world for carsharing apps, top-10 for internet speed, a UN-recognised leader in electronic services, and top for video surveillance for a city outside China. Characteristic of Moscow is the retention of techno-deterministic aspects and a centralizing logic and this is in contrast to the original ‘electronic Moscow’ plans from the early 2000s. There’s definite echoes detectable in the plan of Soviet ‘atomic powered communist’ technoutopianism (see Josephson 1996). 2030 is envisioned as a ‘city governed by data’, where aggregated biometric data is fed to AI, even via clothing to monitor the habits of its owner that can then be used by insurance companies. Automation of decision makers will obviate the need for citizen involvement. The thing is, there are always real choices to make in which systems to expand: free Wi-Fi, or face-recognition? Access, or Control. Covid accelerates the choice for the latter. Free Wi-Fi hotspots appeared in Moscow in 2012. I well remember getting high-speed free Wi-Fi for a while even in my apartment there! There is free Wi-Fi of varying quality in the Metro and buses. There are over 150,000 security cameras and 175,000 devices feed data to a ‘unified centre’).

In 2020 the Tholons city-rating of ‘smartness’ saw Moscow make massive gains against other world cities. Moscow scored very high, but only thanks to a change in weighting that emphasised digitization over liveability and intellectual development. In our book chapter we ask the question – is Moscow anticipating an ‘anti-humanist’ trend away from smartness as emphasising human development and towards control? Find out in the next post.

Russia’s Covid civil disobedience

‘How many have to die before you get vaccinated? Vaccinate!’. Central Moscow mid-2021.

Last week, András Tóth-Czifra wrote a nice post summarising the weaknesses of Russia’s emerging digital authoritarianism. I have a lot more to say on that topic next week at a roundtable on a book that is coming out – Networks of the City: People, Technology and Power. [upcoming blogposts will summarise]

In the meantime, András inspired me to revisit the political angle of Covid in Russia. His post looks at the small scale protests against QR codes and the potential for further ‘contagion’, populist moves like those of Bondarenko in Saratov last week, the large trade in fake certificates, etc. I want to come at this with a different take – on what all this tells us about ‘politics from below’ – a recurring theme in these blog posts.

It starts with a provocation. Why aren’t the usual suspects (the cold-warriors 2.0 and democracy bros) celebrating the mass civil disobedience going on in Russia? I mean, sure it’s prolonging mass suffering and death, but it’s not as if they care about that kind of thing. ‘No, no. Not that kind of civil disobedience! Give us more kids on snowy Moscow streets getting beaten in the head. Not your nurses, conniving with people to pour vaccines down the drain.’

Kimberley Brownlee, a legal philosopher, wrote a book in 2012 called Conscience and Conviction, making a case for civil disobedience. However, she takes the perspective of people living in pluralistic democratic states. There are two elements she emphasises – non-evasion and dialogue. A person who has a conscientious moral conviction has to be willing to articulate it to others openly and accept the costs of it. Disobedience needs to be visible in the public sphere to qualify for Brownlee and cannot be ‘evasive’. This is partly based on Rawlsian civility (non-violence, acceptance of consequences, publicity). ‘Conscientious conviction’ is contrasted with conscience as a moral and possibly private quality. Brownlee attempts to recover civil disobedience from stand liberal views that see its costs as not worth bearing and that there is not a moral right to public and ‘communicative’ civil disobedience – witness the current broad rejection of climate protestors in the UK. Their disruption of transport is viewed through a liberal prism as unacceptable and their arrest on criminal charges and lengthy jail sentences justified. Brownlee’s view is that civil disobedience is more conscientious than personal disobedience. She bases this argument on a conception of ‘moral rights’ to engage in constrained communicative breaches of law in defence of causes.

Now this argument might fly in 2012 when her book was published, but even in ‘democratic’ countries we have witnessed the criminalisation of protests and formerly civilly-disobedient actions – notoriously in the UK’s case the proposal to criminalise protests that are a ‘nuisance’. Brownlee says that civil disobedience is about preparing to risk punishment.  Because that in itself is part of the communicative process: that one has moral convictions and commitments. This runs into even more problems in a punitive authoritarian state that uses harsh punishment against even wholly peaceful protest, and even short of that – expressions of dissent, such as the poor souls punished for making posts online in Russia.

***

As Galina Orlova and I argue in our book chapter (I will blog about this in English next week), Russia is rapidly developing a model ‘European’ version of digital authoritarianism and people are resisting it any way they can.  The QR battle is unfolding right before us and may follow the less visible battle – now lost by the government – for vaccination. People will go to extraordinary lengths to resist? So is this not disobedience? Yes, it is. Is it not conscientious? Not in Brownlee’s terms, because it is semi-hidden. But it’s not ‘passive’, and it’s not completely individualized. András is one of few who notes the ‘ideological’ objection to vaccination and QR codes, and shows that people can think of the Covid measures in a wider political context. Even a lot of Russian analysis in Russia cannot grasp this, in a now classic denial of complexity and of the possibility of ‘révoltes logiques’ in ordinary people’s reflection (Jacques Rancière’s term). This article, for example  https://holod.media/2021/11/25/immune-response/ talks about an ‘disproportionate’ enraged protest response and spends a long time linking the Covid protestors with homophobia and the so-called ‘family rights’ movement (about which I’ve written at length here), only at the very end covering the ‘civil society’ angle. (The organisers of the Immune Response protests, call themselves civil society activists). For my part I’d emphasise the not disproportionate rage, but the calculating connective capacities and reflective–affective discontent in Russia that acts as a motor for activating the ‘political’.

Again, I use Rancière’s term: the political is a ‘deviation from the normal order of things’ as a precondition for the appearance of a (political) subject. Unlike András though, I would emphasise the social indignity aspect of the political here, rather than just the civil liberty objections of Russians. Surprisingly, I find support in some unusual places, Ekaterina Shulman’s coverage of Covid has been very good – having herself fallen foul of targeted repression via ‘digital authoritarianism’ last year. Shulman talks about Covid-measures ‘fatigue’, but also disgust and an alarming fall in trust in the president since 2018. She uses other affective terms like ‘alienation’ from the authorities not seen since 1990. She cites the latest ‘Russians’ Fears’ poll, that shows that 58% people are afraid of the ‘lawlessness’ of the state. (The polls also show high levels of fear of ‘a return to repression’ but a more mixed picture for the question: ‘tightening of the political regime’). Finally, she also notes the ‘quiet sabotage’ of the vaccine/QR measures by their ‘enforcers’. But sabotage implies complicity and conspiracy. I wrote about vaccine hesitancy in an earlier post, and there gave the floor to my research participants. With the QR code fiasco unfolding, the Russian state decides once again that it is the ‘sole European’ (Pushkin’s famous phrase) in a country where the people need a firm hand and an internal passport. Do we want to hear what the subaltern has to say? I again let my research participants speak for themselves.

“It’s not resistance to the vaccine. My wife was informed with no warning that from 15th November she couldn’t go to work until she got jabbed. But now she has to sit at home until vaccine becomes available in Gosuslugi [unified citizen portal]. As you know in early 2021, we were ill and have antibodies – we paid to get tested. There’s no sense in getting a vaccine. Why such a pressure [nazhim] from every side… And then there’s statistics about how even with the vaccine things didn’t turn out well when people got the disease later. Sure, it’s not a large risk but even in our circle of acquaintances it’s enough to see the problems of after-effects. This is based on our personal experience. Another not insignificant fact is the split in opinion among medical professionals. And there are people there who are not necessarily anti-vax, but are loyal to the idea of personal choice and freedom and so that’s why we travelled to X and we asked the doctor ‘do the vaccine, but don’t do it and pour it down the drain’. And the sum is not fixed – you give them what you want. The Doctors’ support it and not because of money.

We’re not Moscow or even Kaluga, QR doesn’t scare us. Apart from masks in the shops you don’t need anything. We need to look at the root of this, at the general tendency, where it’s going. This is about the digitization of the population and that’s always about control. And control of movement which takes us back to the USSR. A huge degree of distrust towards the authorities is what we’ve got. The more the media ramp up the necessity to ‘protect’ by getting vaccinated the more people are suspicious and know that that is not true because it’s the people who actually got ill who have the antibodies, not the vaccinated in many cases. This is really the meaning of protest – it’s a rational response. If you want to get vaxed no one’s stopping you. The President on TV said that it’s ‘by choice’, but that’s just not true. There’s no ‘by choice’ now. This is what makes us indignant [vozmushaet].

We have to recognise reality – in my age group – (30-40) fifty percent got the vaccine and 50% bought certificates, paying from 3-7 thousand roubles for them. Another interesting fact – while I was at the hospital in X in the queue for the vaccine –  that I didn’t take. And the people I talked to in the queue who were genuinely intending to get the vaccine, and I mean they’d come there with that intention, they are very clear that they ‘consciously’ [soznatelno] don’t want Sputnik V and instead do CoviVac, but when they get to the hospital there’s a shortage of the latter and lots of Sputnik V. And there were a lot of Muscovites there in this small provincial hospital for some reason and they all were waiting for CoviVac and we knew that the doctors were throwing away a lot of the Sputnik because there’s simply no demand for it.

But there’s a different problem. Lots of people get sick with Covid and then do a PCR and get a negative result. A friend of my mother (65) did three tests when she got sick and only the third was positive. And this was when she got to hospital after spending some time with symptoms at home. And she couldn’t get the right treatment because of the initial two negative tests. And then I’ve got a comrade in Moscow who’s been sick for three weeks already and got a negative result. What to do in this situation is really unclear.

And then there’s something else I really want to say: there’s a huge quantity of disinformation, as ‘information’ and as ‘disinformation’. TV, internet, all these scientific experts, but one set say one things and the others another. We don’t know who to pay attention to, where the truth is. And even the same people contradicting themselves. There’s no authoritativeness, or authoritative person whom one could believe. A load of doctors lie with statistics… and the pieces of the puzzle just don’t fit together. But every family has been touched by Covid by now in one way or another. And so there’s a negative pattern – someone’s relative died, someone got seriously ill, or had a reaction to the vaccine. And this is two years now that it’s, well, really screwed up.”

Russian public memory of Gulag and Terror will never be adequate. But that’s not forgetting

The entrance to Levashovo memorial site to a mass grave. Source: https://pilgrim-spb.livejournal.com/7887.html

People are mourning the imminent closure of the Russian NGO Memorial today and so am I. Yes it is a symbolic blow to a symbolic human rights organization. Yes, it does important work on Terror and Gulag victims and perpetrators as well as other work. It is best known for collecting copies of state documents about the Gulag that were first publically available in the early 1990s. However, it’s work was only every a drop in the ocean and could never substitute for a truth and reconciliation commission from the top, or even lustration, as was carried out in some other former communist countries.

For years, Memorial has been losing ground to other groups, including the Church. On the topic of the Terror, Putin even seems out of step with public opinion in his comments by calling it a ‘tragic period’. For most Russians today the operative word would be ignorance. Cultural practices of memory ‘are inadequate to these losses’, as Alexander Etkind writes [opens as pdf]. But are they anywhere? Indeed, in his next sentence Etkind remarks that in contrast to an ‘amnesia’ thesis, Russians remember Soviet terror all too well. One of the reasons being the enormous and expanding arbitrary punitive power of the state today. Something I wrote about in relation to cultural politics recently.

What has happened is that the Russian Foreign Agents Law has enabled the prosecution of any organisation that takes grants from abroad on paper-work reporting technicalities – a bit like if you’re late with your tax return, but with rather more serious results. Once on the statute book these laws take on a life of their own in a country where there are political entrepreneurs at all levels aiming to show ‘loyalty’, find enemies of the regime and root out foreign influence. They might not even be ‘political’ in reality – instead getting a Foreign Agent punished could get you a nice promotion or a posting in Moscow. And here is also part of the truth of the Stalinist Terror – some of it was about social mobility and the rise of a security ‘middle-class’.

But it’s exaggerating to argue, as Tanya Lokshina does today in the Moscow Times, that Memorial is the country’s moral conscience and the backbone of the human rights community. That might have been true in the past, but this view does not do justice to the many lawyers and activists who are not affiliated with any human rights org, but who defend individuals and organisations, sometimes at significant personal risk. These are often professional (and paid) services but they’re still human rights work (For example the Military Bar Association). And then there’s the new ‘political’ society actors that Regina Smyth and I are writing about along with Russian authors (book comes out next year). These actors make claims about entitlements and worthiness to the Russian state and engage in dialogue and pressure, as much as they articulate a ‘rights’ dialogue. This relates to a scholarly take on activism and contention that is suspicious of the ‘civil’ in ‘civil society’, especially outside of Europe and the US. It’s partly inspired by approaches like that of Partha Chatterjee on ‘popular politics’  in the most of the non-Euro-American world.

Similarly, Lokshina’s view perpetuates a dangerous misinterpretation about Russia – that there is an intellectual class in opposition to authoritarianism. This is obviously false on two counts. As I frequently remark in this blog, there’s nothing particularly progressive about Russian self-appointed ‘intellectuals’ or ‘intelligenty’, just as there’s nothing particularly progressive or liberal about the metropolitan bourgeoisie in Russia. By the same token, much ‘activism’, ‘resistance’, and indeed, thinking about a different future for Russia (even if only a little-bit-different) comes to me from ordinary people and organic intellectuals.

When it comes to the Terror, there is shameful ignorance, for sure. ‘They didn’t kill people that didn’t deserve it.’ Is something I hear all the time.  But when it comes to the Gulag, I don’t think this is something that’s in danger of being forgotten, nor of being instrumentalized by the Russian state. There’s so many millions of living Russians whose ancestors were arrested that it’s still a ‘living’ traumatic memory and an important part of oral history. There’s an excellent book edited by Khanenko-Friesen and Grinchenko on how oral history in Russia has made important contributions to the ‘pluralisation’ of society – providing different accounts of traumatic experience, including of the Gulag. In my experience, oral history is in no danger of failing to pass on the horror and injustice of Gulag victims. But with pluralization comes fracturing of meaning. Many times it remains personal, or is politicized in unpredictable ways. It’s perhaps naïve to think there could ever be a socially-shared meaning of these events and comparisons to Germany ignore how shallow the public discourse there remains, perhaps precisely because it is an ‘officially sanctioned’ form of remembering and ascribing blame and victimhood.

Maybe Putin is aligned with public opinion after all. Most people I talk to agree with his comments, perhaps more sincerely than they were intended. Remembering ‘does not mean settling scores. We cannot push society to a dangerous line of confrontation yet again. Now, it is important for all of us to build on the values of trust and stability.’ Legal recognition and symbolic compensation to the victims of political repression remains, if not more substantial recompense. A good primer on the issue of public memory is here, by Elisabeth Anstett and there are other important scholarly and documentary works by the SciencesPo Paris Mass Violence and Resistance Research Network.

EDIT: A Facebook commenter makes a valuable counter argument: “Memorial is an important piece of civic infrastructure, and one that has been much more welcoming to all sorts of political opinions and trends (inc on the left) than hardcore liberals. I am also not a fan of the moral conscience language, personally, but I worry that we miss Memorial’s contribution, too, here.

They have also collected info on what happened to the Left Opposition (https://socialist.memo.ru/) and as Ilya Budraitsksis mentioned, they were one of the only orgs to really try and investigate what happened in Oct 93 (and have held exhibitions on the topic which are fantastic). They host events where democratic left folk appear AFAIR, and obvs on human rights issues collaborated with people like Stanislav Markelov, too. That’s very brief and someone more knowledgable could jump in to give a fuller picture I’m sure, but I guess I have always appreciated that lack of dogmatism. I also think they have been incubators, in effect, of so many important initiatives – though your point in the article on those actors that don’t fit into this paradigm is well taken.

How to start a gender transition in Russia

This is a short post ‘answering’ my own question on Twitter: What is life really like in Russia for transgender people seeking to transition when they interact with the very ‘medical gaze’ of the state?

A medical commission certificate allowing an individual to proceed with ‘changing their sex’ [sic].

I didn’t get any answer on Twitter so I found out for myself (as far as possible). This is pertinent to my research for three reasons – one, I struggle to explain to my students the nuances of the gender-sexuality reality in Russia. Two, I have a research participant in Russia who wishes to transition. Three, I am writing a follow-up to a piece published this year on ‘everyday homophobia’ [opens as PDF – publisher version here]. That piece got some negative and positive feedback for obvious reasons. See two recent posts I made on this site about homophobia here and here from 2021. The original one from 2019 is here. My follow-up article will touch on the case of my research participant (though in a heavily anonymized and obscured way for ethical reasons).

A key reference point is the ICD standards, published by the WHO. The International Classification of Disease 11th edition is the latest health standard in effect from January 2021 (though unevenly adopted). This ‘update’ in defining disease is important because the 10th edition is 28 years old (though it was revised up to 2016). For a good sociology of science article on how the ICD works in relations to defining sexual health and disease (whose definition is wider than lay people normally use), see this article by Steven Epstein.

Why is this important? Because in the 10th edition of ICD, the diagnosis of ‘transexualism’ (including severe ‘gender identity disorder’ and ‘gender dysphoria’) was defined as a psychological disorder. In the 11th edition transgender identity is described in a separate section and not defined in psychiatric terms, although ‘gender incongruence’ is still a ‘diagnosis’ that a practitioner can make, albeit only in combination with another disorder. In Russia at present even the 10th edition is not consistently applied.

A resource in Russian is this article from Tinkoff journal that talks about the accepted terminology of ‘transition’, versus ‘sex change’. “Переход” not “смена пола”, and associated discussion. This article is useful because it outlines the various things one could do in Russia to transition, pointing out that not all are necessary for varieties of переход. 1. Psychiatric consultation, 2. Medical commission examination (пройти – to undergo) 3. Hormone therapy, 4. Storage of reproductive tissues, 5. Surgery, 6. Change of documents. The standard pathway in Russia at present is to get a medical professional to diagnose ‘transexualism’ under the 10th edition standard. This gives the person a ‘spravka’ – that all-important official document of Russian bureaucracy.

Now ‘spravka’ deserves to be left in Russian because while ‘official’ in some senses, these documents also contain within them the sense of an ex-officio judgement on a case where potentially more than one outcome is possible. In today’s Russia they are often equal to a clarification in a point of dispute/incoherence in a citizen’s encounter with some machinery of state. This summer I sought and obtained a spravka from my village administration head to clarify a legal question. My neighbour also applied (‘supplicated’ would be a better word). He did not get his spravka. No one can clearly define in terms of laws and regulations why. It’s a matter of ‘injustice’ for him. On the unclear boundaries between moral entitlements and legal rights in Russia, see Elena Bogdanova’s new book on complaints [academics among you – tune in our discussion of this book 2 December], or a book I just finished by Mark B Smith on Soviet housing.

It’s possible that the state clinic psychiatrist will not issue a spravka (for multiple reasons including ignorance (those living with lesser known/accepted chronic and psychiatric disorders outside Russia will find little difference here between their own experience and that in Russia), The article gives the following commentary:

“Previously, when more scientific medical ideas about transgenderness трансгендерность had not yet been formulated, a person was often refused help due to the fact that the patient did not outwardly resemble the person of the gender in which he positioned himself. It would be funny if it were not sad, because it is precisely because of this discrepancy that people with gender dysphoria suffer.”

So the recommended pathway is to pay for a private consultation. The cost of this is likely to be only a little more expensive than the state ‘spravka’ – between 25-75 Euros. This spravka in theory gives a person access to hormone treatment and/or the possibility of surgery

A next step is satisfying a medical commission: this is necessary to get a SECOND spravka – in order to get one’s legal documents amended. Interestingly, this second spravka can allow the legal ‘change of pol [sex]’ without undergoing actual medical/hormone intervention. [interestingly, in the article there’s some use of language that indicates ‘pol’ is not only used to mean biological sex, perhaps indicating the incomplete adoption of ‘gender’ as a word. Elsewhere the authors use the term ‘gender-marker’ in place of ‘pol’]. This second spravka is needed in order to approach ZAGS – the civil registration service that can then amend a birth certificate. You need four signatures on the second spravka (see the image above).

The short version: the coverage is patchy in Russia and typically, blurs the boundaries between state and private sector: medical commissions may operate within private clinics. Commissions with sexologists don’t exist in some regions and even then are mainly in large towns.  As a private service, the commission may charge a very large fee – up to 600 Euro.

Moving on, we get to one of the most painful experiences of any Russian citizen – renewal of official documents. An interesting point here is that you can simply ditch your patronymic name – which of course inevitably marks gender. I’ve noticed that recently online forms have started to move away from obligatory use of patronymics, even for Russians. Another point is that you might need the services of lawyer to persuade ZAGS to allow you to change your name to a gender neutral one.

Meduza also have a useful article in Russian on this topic, including a description of the term ‘TERF’. There is a Moscow-based legal support project on VKontakte and Facebook in support of transgender people that seems active as of November 2021. They also carried out research on transgender people in Russia in 2016 and 2017. [opens as a pdf]. A more detailed link to case studies of transgender Russians who successfully and unsuccessfully ‘passed through’ medcommissions and so on is here.

Russia as vanguard: authoritarian governance in symbiosis with rent-seeking (final part VI in the series)

A lonesome food courier in demand during Moscow’s autumn 2021 lockdown

In the previous post I started to discuss the Russian experience of Covid and how it shows authoritarian governance as contributing to the accelerating implementation of surveillance practices.

What we often miss in this equation is a mutual benefit for states and corporations, including state-owned enterprises .  Using the control society, further pressures are brought to conform or internalize behaviours, practices and mindsets that entrench neoliberal thinking and allow the biopolitical to undermine any alternative ‘mechanisms of accounting’ (Hardt and Negri 2004: 148). Local researchers like David Hurma are right at the heart of Russian research that opens up this contradiction – we are supposed to internalize discipline, but this goes hand in hand with increased surveillance of work processes. This conjunction of state and capital power can be observed everywhere, but I want to end with two further brief examples of Russia as ‘vanguard’.

Russia offers a good example of the broad and deep roll-out of the surveillance state due to its particularly fruitful experience since the 2000s of aligned state and capital interests in extracting economic rents from populations. In just the most obvious example, the peppering of public (and increasingly private) highways with revenue-generating traffic enforcement cameras should be seen for what it is: an authoritarian technical solution to overcome limits on rent-seeking elsewhere. The plethora of these cameras puts every other developed country’s efforts to shame.[1] Truly, in linking the control society to rent-seeking it is as pure a public-private partnership you can wish for. A part of the proceeds goes to regional budgets, but the ‘take’ from private companies supporting the cameras’ operation is 15-times greater than their real cost.[2]

And of course, in case there’s any doubt, petty corruption by police does not end because of the camerification of roads, it just metastatizes into preying on goods vehicles and taxi-drivers instead of ‘ordinary’ motorists who are caught by the cameras alone (like me – I pay around 3-4 fines a year for road infractions that are almost impossible to avoid). I personally saw three bribes extorted from such drivers in just a dozen trips last month.

To move to a different scale – that of the individual, a similar process can be observed in the microproletarianization of workers such as food couriers and taxi-drivers. They, as elsewhere, are subject to algorithmic control for maximum extraction of surplus value within shadow corporations – see Andrey Shevchuk’s work on this concept [opens as pdf]. This happens of their own ‘volition’, via internalization of the demands of maximal self-exploitation and the delegation of all externalities to the individual and wider society (health costs, accidents, insurance, pollution) by the platforms themselves. However, here again we observe the imbrication of state (which owns bonds in such companies, allows them to operate as quasi-monopolies, and sustains anti-labour legal environments) and financial and political elites who own such companies. The scaling effect of microproletarianization of swathes of economic activity in Russia via concentration of market share is unprecedented outside of China.[3]

“I use Face Pay. Travel became more convenient and simpler”

In conclusion, we should view Russia as just another ’‘normal’ country, just not in the optimistic sense Daniel Treisman and Andrei Shleifer (2005) predicted: a middle-income country facing typical developmental challenges. Instead, I would contend that Russia is ‘normal’ in a ways that reflect its peripheral-as-vanguard authoritarian neoliberalism. Its characteristics are the dominant politics of “austerity” (the phobia of fiscal expansion, a continuously residualizing social state) accompanied by the other disciplining factor of real incomes falling over protracted time periods;  limited social mobility and the privatizing of educational opportunity leading to a small plutocratic class or caste; the expansion of indebtedness and precarity in the population; social reproduction as largely responsibilized and privatized; the expansion of the horizons of the rentier alliance between state and capital interests and a modest cementing of multinational corporations’ clout and the intensification of their role in the economy (a process actually accelerated by sanctions; see Gurkov and Saidov 2017). All watched over by the nascent digital control society.

Doug Rogers in his book The Depths of Oil (2016) cautions against ‘uniting things under the theoretical sign of the “neoliberal”’, but at the same time agrees with the need for a more serious ethnographic examination of how flexible labour regimes, SOEs and the neo-authoritarian state are linked. As I argue here these linkages intensify the politics of resignation on the part of ordinary people, at the same time as they are further incorporated into neoliberal (self)governmentality. The only limits on incorporation are certain incoherences of the state-capital accommodation-assemblage. As Rogers (2016) noted in his study of the oil and gas industry in the Urals, capitalist ‘incorporation’ via privatisation after communism does not necessarily mean coherence or coordination in governance and corporate identity. In addition, the term ‘incoherence’ is distinct from ‘hybrid assemblages’ (Ong 2006) or ‘parasitical co-presences’ (Peck 2004). ‘Deregulatory’ governance (in the sense that it lacks finality or fixity) inevitably and often unintentionally opens up holes in the fabric of economic and social relations.

Emergent practices both reinforce but also undermine economistic and bureaucratic rationality (Molyarenko 2016, Morris 2019) in what Ananya Roy (2009: 80) calls ‘law as social process’. Conjuncturally, Russia is notable for the continuing expansion of the informal economy in tension with state and capital surveillance – even though, as I have argued before, informality entails in part internalisation of neoliberal governmentality (Morris 2019). As a space for autonomism, non-market orientated exchange and labour its potential is limited. Nonetheless for imagining non-capitalist alternatives, its sheer size means informality is important. Informality in Russia should be seen as offering similar counter-hegemonic potential as that of models that derive from ‘deregulated’ and informal systems from below in other global contexts – such as horizontalism (Sitrin 2012), baroque economics (Gago 2017), and ‘insurgent’ citizenship practices. These are beyond the scope of my essay, but deserve equal attention in any approach that proposes an everyday political economy with a view to uncovering space for the emergence of ‘commons’ beyond state and market (Caffentzis and Federici 2014, Fournier 2013).


[1] The world speed camera database records 15,000 control devices in Russia – likely an undercount – the GIBDD counts nearly 19,000 devices in 2020. This is 9000 more than the next highest European state and four times the number in the USA and 20 times the number in Canada.   https://www.scdb.info/en/stats/

[2] http://lse-ikb.com/activities/blog/201-kuda-idut-shtrafy-gibdd. See  also https://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/60334c9f9a79475eb6162883?from=from_main_9.

The road tax system known as Platon has some similar characteristics https://www.forbes.ru/kompanii/344145-platon-mne-drug-no-istina-dorozhe-kuda-uhodyat-vznosy

[3] For example, the most popular search engine in Russia also owns the main social network, the most popular email service, and controls both the main ride-hailing app and an increasing share of the food courier business.