From authoritarian neoliberalism via the control society to surveillance capitalism? (Part V in a series)

taped off play area in Moscow in spring 2020

This is the penultimate in a series of posts on ‘everyday’ political economy. The long read is now published here.

I ended the last post by talking about a long-term and ongoing phenomenon – the way SEZ’s offer a devils bargain to Russians and how they burn through labour. Another finding from my work that is as true today as 10 years ago is that many workers who ‘fail’ in the SEZs, more often end up in the ranks of lumpen, surplus populations undertaking everyday ‘microproletarian economies’ (Gago 2017:19). In this sense, the most marginal part of the Russian population takes on the task of maintaining the dynamism of what Verónica Gago has called  ‘neoliberalism from below’. There may be a space within this dynamic to resist exploitation and dispossession but this itself becomes a ‘foundation for an intensification of that exploitation and dispossession’ (Gago 2017: 11).

Ovsyannikova (2016) criticizes Matveev for using the term neoliberalism to Russia in part because she believes the social state trumps any deregulatory momentum. She cites labour protections and (from the perspective of 2016) lack of pension reform as examples. However, empirical evidence shows that employment protection in Russia is ‘poorly observed’ (Gimpelson et al. 2010) to put it mildly. Pension reform did go head, despite enormous opposition and prior commitments to indexation were diluted to the point that in the future it is likely the universal element will be replaced by means-testing. Ovsyannikova argues that ‘monetisation of welfare benefits’ was overdue because of underfunding and piecemeal in execution.  However she ignores how monetisation closely matches patterns of welfare residualization elsewhere which are key to the austerity politics of the World Bank and other international institutions (see Wengle and Rasell 2008: 749).[1] Monetisation also contains within itself the key logic of ‘choosing’ deserving groups and making them ‘responsible’ citizens (Kourachanis 2020).

As Simon Shields (2019: 657) notes in the Polish case, family-focussed welfare reform can act as a form of ‘neoliberal social innovation’ by appropriating the micro-scale of social reproduction as a further space of responsibilization (of benefits linked to parenthood, upbringing, domestic work) and privatization (of former entitlements such as pre-school childcare). In addition, the diffusion through welfare states of conditionality is a key plank in neoliberal reform because it realises a critique of social rights on both a discursive and structural level (Pieterse 2003, in Bindman 2017). Eleanor Bindman also reminds us of the genealogy of responsibilization in social policy stretching back to Soviet ideas around welfare provision.[2] Julie Hemment (2009) points out that in the Russian case rhetorical concessions to a social state are not matched by policy – if anything, they serve as a cover for accelerating change. Even a generous interpretation of the remnants of the social state reveals extreme conditionality, narrow and patchy coverage, and tokenistic, piecemeal provision in cases of extreme social distress.[3]

The retreat of the social state is nothing new and not peculiar to post-socialist states. However, as the thesis of authoritarian neoliberalism proposes, during periods of crisis contingent necessity results in incoherence or heterogeneity of the state bureaucratic function. This merely underlines its punitive or delegative relations to the individual. The state’s response to Covid-19 in Russia and its similarities and differences to core states are instructive. First, a knee-jerk authoritarian lock-down followed by a hurry to delegate responsibility back to the individual and downplay both the social costs and state responsibility. Russia, like other neoliberal developed economies, offered very limited income support for livelihoods, especially among the self-employed and poor. This affected not only lumpenized informal workers like taxi-drivers and construction workers, but also the burgeoning ‘freelancer’-precariat white-collar workers – an important category in Russia, as elsewhere where there is high ‘human capital’[4] but structural barriers to SMEs beyond micro-entrepreneurialism. As Andrey Shevchuk (2020) points out – labour processes that are negotiated via digital platforms in the ‘gig’ economy emphasise tight algorithmic control and a loss of autonomy because the platforms actually disguise incorporation of workers into ‘shadow’ corporations. This also divides up labour into small parcels which has a wider influence via spillover into other domains of work. For the purposes of our argument, work for ‘shadow corporations’ intensifies both punitive monitoring and self-exploitation at the point of production.

Covid-19 only accelerates this aspect of neoliberal authoritarianism; digital transformation enables a ‘control society’, long predicted by Gilles Deleuze (1990). Alone among European nations, in early 2020, Moscow’s government pioneered a technological system of surveillance quarantine (Orlova and Morris 2021) [pdf in Russian. I will blog this Russian article later].  While ultimately unsuccessful, and quickly giving way to broader (neoliberal) pressures to re-open the economy regardless of public health risks, the Moscow experiment illustrated the tendency of control to shift from a focus on the disciplined, directly observed body, to a new order of domination. Personal data processing as a semi-autonomous system entails both the deactivation of agency and its reactivation through incorporation of the person in their own data flows (where choices about what images we view online and what products we buy are then fed back to us to reinforce existing behaviour).

Of course digital governance apriori assumes a set of political values to be ‘inputted’ into any algorithm which can then make judgements of value as to the conduct and movement of real individuals, just as the data attached to persons themselves can become another ‘fictitious commodity’ to further marketize social domains that previously resisted incorporation (Haggart 2018). The term ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff 2015) is often focussed on individual privacy rights, and monopoly capitalism in general, rather than the implications of data commodification for individual behaviours observable via the everyday political economy, hence my preference for the broader term authoritarian neoliberalism.

The nascent Russian control society (which will possibly develop along the lines of the Chinese ‘social credit’ system) illustrates the potential further reinforcement of self-monitoring and inscription in one’s micro-social actions of neoliberal logics. Moscow serves as a suitable test bed for the further expansion of such technologically integrated systems of governmentality in the ‘democratic’ countries – for example Face Pay is being enthusiastically rolled out in the metro. Micropayment systems via phone are almost more obligatory among the immigrant and marginal populations than among the Moscow middle-class. I could entertain with a long anecdote of how a few days ago I tried in vain to pay in cash for a 3-hour taxi ride (five thousand rubles, or around £50). The Kyrgyz driver really didn’t want the cash because it was so much easier to facilitate remittances and ‘store’ of value electronically for him within his ethnic community… in the end I had to give the cash to an aquaintance who then transferred money to my Rakhimon. But, let’s end it there for now.

Next week I will post the conclusion to this series.


[1] It should be acknowledged that there is more diversity in the World Bank’s thinking nowadays.

[2] See also Bockman and Eyal 2002 for a discussion of East Europe as its own ‘author’ of neoliberal policies.

[3] For example, the one-time payments for families in 2020 and 2021 during the Covid pandemic, and the varying levels of prenatal payments have not addressed Russians’ unwillingness to plug the demographic gap – itself a symptom of precarization. An example of the perniciousness of the logic of means-testing is the evidence that a third of Russians do not know they are entitled to benefit payments of some kind. https://www.gazeta.ru/social/2021/02/18/13483658.shtml

[4] Noting that the very concept is an elision of ‘labour processes’ and relations in service to neoliberal ideology (Mirowski 2019: 14). Freelancers as a proportion of working-age population in Russia is high by European standards at 14% compared to 4% in the UK.  https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4730809.

Russian State Capitalism Part IV: Special Economic Zones in Russia (Kaluga Region)

unnamed greenfield site in Kaluga region from the InvestKaluga.com site

This is the fourth in a series of posts on ‘everyday’ political economy. The long read is now published here.

Special Economic Zones have interested me for a long time because so many of my research participants moved directly from ‘dying Soviet’ factories to shiny new Japanese, Korean, and European intensive productionscapes in the 2000s and 2010s. I write a little bit about this in my book, [opens as a Pdf] but its only recently that I’ve tried to triangulate my ideas with the literature on SEZs.

SEZs (and the related geographical-juridical space of ‘Industrial Parks’) — were created supposedly to kick start diversification and higher-tech production — in reality they serve primarily as accelerated laboratories in deregulation, offering lower corporate taxes, more liberal juridical regulations, ease of transnational movement of goods, and lean ‘sweated’ labour regimes (on the latter see [Morris and Hinz 2017]) [opens as a Pdf]

Taking Kaluga region as an example, SEZs’ success has been in socializing blue-collar locals in accepting downgraded labour terms and conditions and training white-collar workers in more effective coercive surveillance-managerialist methods. In terms of transnational state-capital collaboration to increase productivity, global connectivity (notably with the Silk Road rail system), and in providing a relatively low-tech domestic manufacturing base, SEZs are an outstanding success.

My main argument is that these effects are not contained by the zonal boundary — they ‘scale’ via further expansion of ‘lean’ enterprises beyond the zone as transnational corporate infrastructure and human capital investment has an effect on the whole region. Indeed, the ‘zone’ is not a spatially contained territory, but an elastic administrative state of exception that has expanded throughout the region to encompass many clusters containing dozens of diverse foreign and domestic firms in urban, brownfield and greenfield sites. In terms of ‘register’ too, the SEZs exercise a strong discursive effect, making new working relations ‘common sense’ beyond the zones themselves, affecting local politicians, employers and workers in other enterprises. Overall the ‘register’ effect multiplier is more important than any administrative-legal deregulation, or should be seen as part of neoliberal scaling itself. Patrick Neveling, writing on India, analyses examples of similar zones a bit differently, as “exemplary for the structured contingencies in global capitalism as these neoliberal regimes were established long before neoliberalism became the defining ideology in global policymaking under the Washington Consensus.” In the Russian case, SEZs are a very recent phenomenon, and their success in register’ and ‘scaling’ is somewhat in contrast to what we think of as typically more dirigiste movements. I guess my point here is that a strong (neo)liberal strain remains, regardless of what happens ‘at the top’ of Russian economic policy. This story also should make us hesitate about too quickly assuming further ‘decoupling’ of Russia from the global economy.

My prior research has documented the ‘burn through’ of the local labour force by the new SEZ companies, [opens as Pdf] and the devil’s bargain facing blue-collar Russians in particular. In the face of societal opposition, libertarian market ideologues need to ‘naturalize’ what is in fact a carefully constructed view of human economies in a set of epistemological precepts that serve politics [Mirowksi 2019]. SEZs in the European Russian context beyond big cities, are important in drawing in new labour to discipline and socialize it. As I was doing my long-term fieldwork in 2010 a remarkable divide opened up before my eyes between those young men who ’embraced’ the SEZ work and went on to get mortgages and foreign cars, and those who ‘rejected’ it for the precarious informal economy [Pdf] and decaying paternalism of the old factories. However, it’s not so simple. Over the longer term, expectations of a social contract, enterprise paternalism don’t completely disappear. Similarly, it’s ironic that the ‘entrepreneurial’ possibilities of the informal economy (as an electrician, welder, builder, trader, etc) actual serve as a limiter to the diffusion I describe of ‘neoliberal governmentality’. I wrote about that indirectly in this summer’s posts about ‘homo sovieticus’ values. Maybe Hillel Ticktin had a point after all, when he proposed that the reality of the pace of work being dictated by the shopfloor itself was an enduring and profound characteristic of the USSR and an impediment to the transition to fully commodified labour. The ‘escape’ to the informal economy often looks like a way to try to retain that ‘autonomy’ in some form.

‘I’m looking for an unobjectionable face to vote for’: on Russian voters going, or not going to the polls in 2021

One of many examples of invisible electioneering in a local newspaper. The candidate gets many stories printed about her in 2021 in her ‘official capacity’ as the Children’s Ombudsman of the Region, even visiting factories and parks with no real connection to her job.

A belated reflection on the Duma elections of 2021. I’d hoped to get this out before the vote itself….

How useful is political polling in Russia? Can we really talk about political preferences in a system where massive manipulation is an open secret to everyone? What does it mean to measure voters’ ‘interests’ in such a system? This looks even more of an issue after the failure of smart voting.

There are other problems too. As Greg Yudin, the public sociologist has repeatedly pointed out, the three dominant pollsters in Russia repeatedly conduct surveys with questions worded in such a way to reproduce their own political biases and those of their funders.

But what if the problem with measuring public opinion were far worse than methodological? What if polling completely fails at really capturing the worldviews of Russians, who are, in social or economic terms, quite distant from the institutions that collect opinions? What if a more important question relating to the current election was about why people don’t vote, despite a lot of pressure in the Russian case. Or if they do vote, but don’t really identify with their political party of choice, what would that tell us? And if they voted against all (by spoiling their ballot paper), or against the ruling party of United Russia, what could that tell us about Putin’s legitimacy and the prospects for change in Russia?

As a sometimes political ethnographer my job is to try to get beyond superficial measurements of party preferences and get inside people’s understanding of the political – if they have one. Many political phenomena lend themselves poorly to quantitative, or polling analysis, and Russia – where opposition and dissent has been expelled from the public sphere, is a case in point. Like the ‘shy’ Conservative voter, those voting for the ruling party in Russia or against it might have many reasons for concealing their preferences, even to friends and relatives. Similarly, polling even when longitudinal, still struggles with the gradations and contingency of opinion – how it is a process, and not a fixed end point. Talking to people at length and taking their worldviews seriously is an important supplement to polling. Before and after the previous parliamentary election in 2016, I asked my long-term research participants about how they’d vote. Remember this is when United Russia got a stonking constitutional majority and everyone knew this would happen before the fact.

The little commented elephant in the room in 2016 was collapsing turnout, officially less than 50% and a record low. Official turnout this time was 51%. Probably it was substantially less than that, even in places where politics was still viewed as partially competitive such as Moscow – perhaps 38%. Certainly, most of my long-term participants had long given up voting even then. Now, voting is largely confined to two groups – pensioners in Moscow supporting the status quo that has insulated them from the economic weakness of the Russian economy since 2014, and those in state service who are effectively forced to vote.  Beyond Moscow there is a sea of indifference. Only that’s not quite true – there is resentment, disappointment, tristesse. Tristesse is a term – listlessness and cynicism as symptoms of a loss of political faith – that some sociologists view as a harbinger of internal collapse of authoritarian regimes. But let’s not be so naïve, the parallels with the late Soviet period are limited.

There is a core vote of loyalty, and it’s genuine. There are enough people – the minority of 20% – who materially have done well, whether by moving up the ranks of state service, or in business. In fact the only public political talk among people that I hear is quite divided. On the one hand heartfelt praise of Putin – ‘he’s done so much for the country. He’s doing his best!’ is the ambivalent summary of one neighbour. I point out that her relative’s business was forced into bankruptcy – doesn’t she link that with the economy? ‘Oh, no, it’s because of the enemies that Russia has – because they envy Putin.’ Being surrounded by enemies, real and imagined, internal and external requires visible and symbolic acts of loyalty, and voting is one of the only ones possible. And it’s not only pensioners – there are many others whose material circumstances demand that to avoid cognitive dissonance they make sure their consumption of news and current affairs is suitably hygienic – ‘no, no, don’t talk to me about that thief and fascist Navalny!’ As if the very name could summon an army of LGBT Ukrainians to the Spassky Gates. They voted for UR with gusto. On the other hand, there are small business owners, crushed by Covid and the general economic malaise who blame Putin directly. For me, open and public condemnation of the government in the last couple of years is still surprising and noteworthy.

In 2016 in the sleepy deindustrializing corner of Kaluga region where most of my research takes place I discovered a political conspiracy. ‘Smart voting’ avante la lettre. Of course this ‘discovery’ merely revealed my blindspot – in reality Russia’s turn to authoritarianism has not spelled the death of politics. Just because popular representation does not exist, doesn’t mean even the most marginalised snatch hold of the political wherever they can find it. Mostly it reveals itself in ecological and municipal activism. But to my surprise in 2016, I only had to ask and the most apolitical of people would suddenly reveal that they’d weighed up with their trusted circle – usually in a smart-phone messaging app – the pros and cons, and they were going to vote KPRF. To stop UR. These were mainly young people – but from all walks of life. Older people and some of the more stark losers of the postcommunist transformation were always sympathetic to the carnivalesque national populism of LDPR, but again, for the first time in 2016 they were making a rational choice for Zhirinovsky’s party, for his more populist social policies, and to stop the constitutional majority forming for UR.

So what has changed since 2016? In some respects, Navalny’s smart voting tactics are late to the party (pun intended). Those groups he needs for a broad anti-Putin coalition – the kind of disaffected younger people at the heart of my research, are now largely demobilized. It’s true as this report shows, that smart voting could (without the fix we observed) have a measurable effect in large cities. And, as Felix Light observes, the communists were making something of a comeback – but the real noteworthy shift was already taking place five years ago online, with dissenting political personalities cutting through on Instagram clips shared in the safety of Whatsapp and Viber. This re-activated interest. Vlogs and blogs from people like KPRF’s Nikolai Bondarenko – regardless of his political affiliation – convinced people that political voice was still meaningful. Navalny in this world was almost nowhere in sight. Bondarenko has one and a half million subscribers in YouTube, but his Instagram videos were already going viral – under the radar of most Moscow observers – years ago. However, in the best traditions of Muscovites noticing transformations in the wider Russia after they’ve already happened, this brief moment of political activation is on the wane now. For the most part, people are realists – ‘we’re stuck with this system till the end’, a young security guard and former ER, turned 2016-KPRF voter told me. ‘Why should I waste my time voting, now?’

As I found in 2016, the main response is ‘we would vote KPRF, or LDPR if it made a difference, but it doesn’t. We’re not stupid, why would we vote?’ Others go further in their perfectly rational reasoning about voting or not voting: ‘I would vote against all on principle. We have an artificial system and it’s not right, but why vote if the result is a foregone conclusion’. This was from a formerly loyal UR voter and even today a big Putin fan. Another pensioner, also a big fan of Putin, says she’ll not vote UR anymore. She pauses, looks a little sheepish and then breaks into a broad grin and whispers: ‘L-D-P-R!’ More pensioners: this time a couple who worked at the local factory. ‘We don’t know who to vote for. Putin is smart and knows how to talk, but other parties have more interesting policies. The Duma should be diverse. You need real discussion and debate. Maybe KPRF is the answer, but I’ve never voted for them before and they say some bad things about them on the TV.’

We focus so much on the national press and TV, but the local newspapers are still important outside Moscow and St Petersburg. This summer I noticed that in every single issue of the local paper there was some random story about the Kaluga Children’s Ombudsman visiting this or that place – often with no real connection to youth matters, and with a prominent photo of her at the head of the article. It took me a while to work out that this was the UR single-mandate candidate for this part of Kaluga Region – of course the newspaper mentioned her candidacy or even the elections. On the Ombudsman’s VK pages some noted with cynicism: ‘it’s a month to the elections, people, make the most of this chance to get your local playground fixed, or your school roof replaced!’ However, this invisible campaigning tactic is likely to be more successful than not. One of my professedly apolitical research participants is a municipal office worker. She tells me: ‘I didn’t ever vote before. I always reasoned: it doesn’t matter how you vote.’ I point out that she’ll be effectively forced to vote because of her job. But she objects: ‘well you can always spoil your ballot. I even know people who photoshopped their ballot when the boss asked people to prove they’d voted… I’d vote for a face that isn’t objectionable to me though – I’d just go purely on appearance now, as there’s no other way to judge.’ 

Russian State Capitalism Part III: How can Russia be neoliberal and dirigiste at the same time?

coexistence of the old, not so old, and the new in downtown Moscow

This is the third in a series of posts on ‘everyday’ political economy. The long read is now published here.

In a post back in May, I outlined the usefulness of Ilya Matveev’s work on state capitalism. To recap: Matveev sees 2004-8 as the pendulum in Russia swinging back to incomplete state domination of the Russian economy. Despite this, Russia maintains strong orthodox neoliberal policies. In the previous post my departure from Matveev was to start thinking about how neoliberalism as a form of governmentalizing ideology, is imposed on ordinary Russians, even in ‘state’ companies. I ended that post by pointing out that neoliberal subjectiviation is not lessened as a result of the Covid pandemic….

Neoliberalism refers to a way of thinking about organising social relations. It emphasizes ‘market competition [as] the basis of economic coordination, social distribution, and personal motivation’ (Sparke 2013: 454-5). Economic neoliberalism is a form of market rationality. Colin Hay (2004) provides a seven-point definition:

  1. the desirability of free capital mobility
  2. the ‘market’ as an efficient mechanism for allocation
  3. limited role for the state
  4. supply-side economics
  5. labour-market flexibility
  6. conditionality of welfare based on incentivizing market participation
  7. private finance seen as more allocatively efficient in provision of public goods

Governmentality is key to the maintenance of these relations as it links social life to the logic of what Foucault called the ‘enterprise society’. Governmentality is a process whereby subjectivity becomes increasingly dominated by discourses of self-regulation – inducing people to ‘work upon themselves’ to become ever more flexible to the demands of post-Fordism. This is not a simple top-down process of domination, however. Social control is produced though the active participation of individuals and groups in the regimentation of their own discipline. We have already seen how Matveev argues that the neoliberalism in Russia entails state involvement in supporting highly exploitative relations between individuals, firms and sectors. Stephen Collier (2011) adds to the perspective by returning to Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics to argue that rather than a focus on freeing markets per se, neoliberalism is about rethinking government according to an over-determined form of economistic reasoning.

The social state remains, but its governance ‘styles’ are influenced by ‘khoziaistvo’ – the legacy of Soviet integration of politics and economy based on a narrow, managerial conception of need fulfilment. For Collier, the present moment sees governmentality as a ‘formal rationality’ that privileges market thinking. He adopts the term ‘assemblage’ to trace the genealogy of Russian reform in the 1990s back to core neoliberal thinkers from the US. Moreover, the idea of biopolitics from which governmentality emerges has deep roots in Soviet planning – in ‘incentivisation’ at different scales of labour and production (Bockman and Eyal 2002).[1] Collier elsewhere (2012: 190) proposes synergy between activist states and marketized relations, underlining how neoliberalism as distinct from classical liberalism imagines a key role for governments ‘in creating the conditions for diffusion of markets and market-like mechanisms’ and may contain highly illiberal measures.

Peck and Theodore (2007) trace the debates on ‘global neoliberalism’ via diffusion through institutions, financial markets and foreign competition in the early twenty-first century. This approach anticipated a profound erosion of the nation state as adequate coordinator of the economic sphere. It focussed on the strategic interaction of mechanisms of routinized regulation at trans- and sub-national levels of analysis: ‘corporate governance, education and training, labor-market regulation’ (Peck and Theodore 2007: 744). Firm level and sector scales replace an overly broad-brush macroeconomic institutional framing but are themselves prone to functionalism. In the final analysis, the ‘varieties of capitalism’ approach, in seeking to acknowledge real geographical differences, supposes an unrealistic coherence that closer analysis does not justify. For example it is problematic to clump together as ‘coordinated’, models those market economies often synonymous with northern-European ordo-liberal types. Indeed, since the turn of the century, this criticism has been justified, as ‘coordinated’ models moved sharply towards their Anglo-Saxon ‘liberal’ brethren – especially in the spheres of labour market liberalization, and its corollary – welfare state residualization and retrenchment, two areas of interest in the Russian case (Oorschot and Gugushvili 2019). Variegated neoliberal convergence has in part replaced the ‘varieties’ approach. 

Peck and Theodore (2007: 755) anticipate a tide rising over all developed economies as relative institutional weaknesses fail to moderate or mitigate waves of neoliberal reforms when coordinated states face the entry of multilateral institutions who brought with them modes of rationalization and audit, self-monitoring and surveillance. These techniques are as important as any legislative or coherent ideological diktat. They then diffuse into new territories (such as state bureaucracies) via true ideologies such as New Public Management (NPM) (see Romanov 2008 for a summary of its implementation in Russia [pdf opens automatically]).

Today, international institutions themselves, ironically, cannot find a reverse gear when they need to because of their immanent neoliberal logic. For example the IMF stresses the need for slower adjustment and more progressive taxation in Russia because of Covid-19, but immediately reverts to ‘neoliberal type’ to suggest VAT rises and reduced payroll taxes as well as the need to ‘reduce the footprint of the state’ (IMF 2021). Peck and Theodore (2007) are a scholarly bellwether of the need for more thorough acknowledgement of the multi-scalar and multi-register insinuation of neoliberal governmentality and rationality into the political-economic fabric of societies.

I move on in the next post to Special Economic Zones in Russia as showing us evidence of just how pervasive neoliberal governmentality is in Russia, despite the relatively small penetration of transnational companies there.


[1] While Rupprecht (2020) agrees that Russian neoliberal thought has indigenous roots, he disagrees that the 1990s saw its implementation in any meaningful degree there.

Russian vaccine hesitancy and the paradox of state-society relations

Vaccine poster in a Moscow citizen service centre – ‘The Risk of Infection Remains: make an informed decision and get vaccinated’

Russia will likely maintain its statistically dubious plateau of around 800 deaths a day for some time. This will mean that Russia will become the world ‘leader’ in deaths per million people (around six). The other leaders are Mexico and South Africa with similar figures. The USA is rapidly increasing from over three deaths per million at the moment. Most large European countries have fewer than two deaths per million at the moment. Germany and Denmark have 0.2 deaths/million. It might even be much worse – Demographer Rakshasaid at the beginning of August that perhaps 2400 people a day were dying of Covid in Russia.

I’ve been meaning to come back to the topic of Covid for some time. I wrote two posts on it early on in 2020. One asking whether social solidarity and state mobilization would help ameliorate the pandemic in Russia.  And another in May 2020 about the need to avoid over-simplifying public attitudes and ‘lay normativity’. I didn’t mention vaccine hesitancy there, but it’s clearly the major issue now in terms of public health in Russia. [See also this great BBC article for an anthropological take on distrust]

Here’s my quick take based on two months of being around people – both vaccinated and unvaccinated – in Moscow and Kaluga region.

  1. Russians are no different from anyone else: hesitancy ‘decays’ once people encounter others (usually family, friends and colleagues) who don’t turn zombie/alien/corpses/infertile after getting a jab. However, because of lower generalized social trust in Russia, this decay might be slower than elsewhere.
  2. Unlike elsewhere, there is an occupational and employment vaccine ‘divide’ in Russia – many people in jobs that don’t force them to get a jab continue to resist – a lot of the time as much due to ‘principle’ than fear (more on that below). These are homemakers (women score higher on hesitancy), pensioners, people working in the informal economy, but also workers in smaller companies – many of which are afraid of using duress on employees.
  3. Getting a high threshold of vaccinated people will be hard because of both 1 and 2. That, and the dominance of Delta variant in Russia and the coming ‘fourth wave’, means the demographic hit will continue: more than half a million people will have died of Covid by the end of 2021 in Russia. Many others will have died because of a lack of access to medical care for other conditions (I personally know of two people in this category in 2021 already). As Nick Trickett points out, demographic effects have economic and social implications.

While I telegraphed in earlier posts that the main thing in Russia was the (in)coherence of the state’s response to Covid, what I failed to account for was the very thing I’m working on in a side project: the complex nature of trust and distrust among Russians towards the state. Now, as I said, hesitancy is decaying strongly everywhere, and Russia is like in France in that respect – high initial hesitancy now falling. However, when people tell me they won’t get jabbed, they all say different things, but digging down and pressing them, they all express a desire to make their own choices, avoid being forced into doing something that might be risky/unnecessary/a hassle.

I quote (nenormativnaia leksika!):

‘The Russian state gives me nothing. If it suddenly wants me to do something: fuck them on principle!’

‘The state cannot organise an adequate response to basic things like potholes and recycling. Suddenly in a short time they made a safe vaccine? There must be something dodgy about the jab.’

‘I don’t want any shit in my arm that comes from god-knows-where – some shithole [mukhosransk] beyond the Urals and tested in a hurry on monkeys.’

‘You know, when I try to get something simple done like a passport renew it’s such a pain in the arse. Just the thought of interacting with a vaccine centre reminds me of all the crap one has to go through with our state. I don’t want to do it. Why should I have to! I don’t want to have anything to do with them if I can help it’

‘The boss wants us all to get it, but he’s afraid of us quiting. I’m not going to do it. We all got sick last winter and have anti-bodies. Why the hell should I do something that’s unnecessary like that?’

I know I am like a stuck record on this, but vaccine hesitancy at least partly reflects one of my core themes – the paradox of Russians’ view of the state: on the one hand, many want a socially interventionist state that protects them from harm (and protects them from the more coercive parts of the state itself!). On the other, they know its limitations, and moreover, they know too well the potential dangers of interacting with what is a fickle and rather callous bureaucratic machine (perhaps no more so than many Western states, if we’re honest).

To wrap up, here’s an interesting study that among other things compares hesitancy between the USA and Russia. Some things of note: hesitancy was higher in Russia (to January 2021) than the USA, and higher than in some other middle-income countries. Russian women especially were hesitant in comparison with US women (so were Russian men, but the baseline hesitancy for women was worse). Educated Russians were just as hesitant as others, whereas in the US there’s a pronounced difference depending on education.

Perhaps even more interestingly, when we get to survey data explaining the hesitancy, it’s noticeable that there is a lack of data in the data about ‘why’ people are hesitant. In contrast to the USA, where side effects are feared, Russians fail to give an unequivocal ‘why’ response. As readers will know, I would argue this is an artefact of the methodological shortcomings of surveys themselves. But it’s also about how rejection (not hesitancy) of the vaccine reflects complex feelings and rationalisations that are hard to articulate and which have multiple causes.  Even for the US, rejection in 50% of cases is due to ‘other issues’. On the other hand, for Russians, “family and friends” are key positive motivators for moving from rejection to acceptance.

What’s not captured in this survey data is the problem of hesitancy among health workers being transmitted to lay persons – a clear problem in Russia. High uptake requires the continual maintenance of ‘social proof’ of vaccine safety and efficacy. At the moment, some health workers as well as the ordinary ‘rejecters’ make the achievement of a high threshold of take-up a far from foregone conclusion.  

In Russia it’s hard to tell who is ‘paternalistic’, who is entrepreneurial, who is ‘cunning’ and who is ‘lazy’

Il faut cultiver notre jardin: a group of high-schoolers take part in a municipal gardening project sponsored by a local firm. Kaluga Region, August 2021.

This is the fourth and final post on the legacy of Homo Soveticus. The first one started here. Thanks to Viacheslav Morozov, we enjoyed a really good round table at ICCEES. I am working on getting a copy of the recorded discussion. Ronald Grigor Suny gave a wonderful account of his first visit to the USSR in the 60s and his surprise on discovering a very conservative nation. Gulnaz Sharafutdinova reminded us that Levada’s work emerged from a strongly functionalist approach to the identity of individuals – as a product of a social system and today, the remnants of the Soviet social system. Gulnaz asked the panel how we could develop alternative approaches to studying contemporary identity that are less reductive. She also reminded us that, unfortunately, the Levada portrait is still dominant in social science in Russia, one need only look at the way Lev Gudkov writes.

Greg Yudin gave an impressive historical contextualization of homo soveticus and nicely complemented Gulnaz’s presentation. He gave an account of the simplistic and binary thinking behind the idea of deficient Soviet subjects. This is due to the way Levada took the USA to be an idealized ‘normal’ country. Russian sociology for Greg is still Parsonian (and Weberian – something I touch on below). In Russia opinion polling is sociology – there are no other tools deemed acceptable. Liberal Russians whether in power or opposition share a suspicion of ‘masses’ and their political subjectivity. How to put H-S to rest? We need to supplant the dominant perspective that situates Russia within a particular pathological place in the hierarchy of globality (here my notes are a little vague, so apologies to Greg). How do ideas travel to Russia? Only by tracing intellectual inheritances like Levada’s Parsonian personality sociology can we deconstruct them. In a follow up comment, Greg mentioned the hidden cleavage in Levada’s thinking  which masks how the homo soveticus concept initially proposes loyalty to Party, which is quite different to its contemporary ‘authoritarian’ iteration that proposes loyalty to a charismatic leader.

Viacheslav Morozov in a response to ‘what to do’, underlined that we should pay attention to the ‘remainder’ within the Russian experience of modernity and postmodernity that cannot be explained under the global enlightenment narrative. This is ‘History 2’, where as the dominant narrative is ‘History 1’ – the history of capitalism. Questions from the audience came from Peter Rutland, who drew our attention to the importance of Ingelhart’s ‘survival mode’ and argued that we should not discount out of hand the idea of deference to authority as a shared trait or learned response. (This approach is based on the World Values Survey and finds that while Russia is relatively secular rather than conservative, it is also relatively strongly orientated towards ‘survival’ rather than ‘self-expression’). Markku Kivinen reiterated the need to uncover the causes of the H-S trope in the first place and account for its dominance. Paul Robinson argued that social systems do have a measurable psychological impact and that this can then have an effect on shared attitudes. Given the immense changes, what then are these impacts if not those described by homo soveticus. If there is path dependency, what is it? He wrote up his thoughts for this piece for RT.

A final vignette from Kaluga region in the summer of 2021

“The mowers are lazy, they won’t come. They are waiting for the rain to ease off after the weekend. I offered them an extra 5000, over and above the 12,000 I pay for the cutting of the whole plot. How lazy can you get? These people don’t want to help themselves and that’s why Russians will always live badly”, says Yuri, the owner of a large (half-hectare) village plot and the second largest house in the place, a ‘cottage’ of 180m2. Yuri is an unregistered entrepreneur and runs a successful restaurant consultancy business in Moscow. He’s taken Covid to heart and has worked from the village remotely since mid 2020. His work is difficult – he needs to herd a group of CAD designers whom he pays ‘piece rates’. He is a manager now and does no design-work himself. Instead he spends his time learning astrology and planning his next trip to Italy where he has a stake in a vineyard. He likes his grass cut regularly as the plot is close to the forest and gets a lot of horseflies. However, he has to reckon with a shortage of mowers, given that there are few ‘indentured’ Central Asian workers in the village now because of Covid and the sorry state of the Russian economy.

Andrei and Evgeny Bitov are a retired father and son ‘gardening’ team. Evgeny works shifts at the cable turning factory for a pittance, but the shift pattern gives him enough time to cut grass with his father and double their yearly household income. The work can be intense – from late May to late August the country-cottage owners phone them and book slots at short notice. Many do not appreciate that a large plot needs three cuts at least a year, otherwise thick weeks like burdock will appear. They estimate jobs by the area (by ‘sotka’ – a hundredth of a hectare – the average plot here is 20-30 hundredths). But they charge by the ‘actual’ petrol consumption.  If the grass is higher than 20cm and wet you can’t use a petrol strimmer effectively (‘trimmer’ in Russian) as the consumption is high, the strain on the motor damaging, and the work miserable. They are frustrated by the shiftiness of the ‘wealthy’ plot owners who want to pay upfront at a ‘fixed’ cost, and don’t understand the contingencies involved. “If you want a Tadzhik to do it, hire one, don’t ask us. That’s the problem with these bloody Muscovites. They’ll ask you to price a job and then pay a n_____ to do it for half the price. You can’t trust them they are ‘khitrye’ – sly. They would rather give a job to an immigrant who’ll do it badly, than pay a Russian to do it properly.”

Later, Yuri the consultant tells me how he doesn’t pay tax and also structures his financing to avoid any risk of legal recourse from his customers if they are dissatisfied (shell company). He has a friend in the tax inspectorate who has advised him on how to structure transactions to avoid scrutiny. Yuri is ‘on holiday’ until October. He had a nice contract from a chain of restaurants in early 2021 and has “enough money to take a break”. It’s important to him not to have too much turnover running through his personal bank account. “You have to pace yourself in this game, otherwise you burn out”, and in any case it’s best not to look too eagerly for clients – they should come to you by word of mouth.

The Bitovs take cash only. Why register (as an ‘IP’ – individual tradesperson) when the state gives us nothing in return? Though Evgeny is thinking of setting up a bespoke furniture workshop and use card-based micro-payments to build up some capital, he’s going to ‘lie low’ until things are more ‘stable’. He will earn enough this mowing season (perhaps 150k after costs) to tide him over until next year. He’s thinking of quitting at the factory to upgrade his turning skills in anticipation of the furniture business. the problem is that he has another business that requires his attention – early in the morning his whole extended family collect chanterelles which they sell for around 750rb a kilo to a middle-man. Over the last year on this other income, Evgeny has purchased a new Renault Duster car.

Who is ‘paternalistic’ minded here (bearing in mind that everyone needs a little protection?) Who is incapable of entrepreneurialism? Who is ‘cunning’ and who is ‘lazy’?

[these portraits are composites of various people and activities I encounter – the usual ethical precautions apply]

Footnote on class: I’m forever encountering criticism that classes in Russia cannot exist without class consciousness, or that the material basis of class differentiation are not pronounced enough, or numerous other arguments. My response is pretty simple. Even if we put aside Marxian approaches, it seems evident to me that we do see an inheritance of a class division in Russia from the Soviet period in a Weberian sense – which has an implicit element of ‘consciousness’ in it: people have a sense of shared specific causal components that dictate life chances; these components correlate strongly with economic interests; these components operate in a society dominated by labour and commodity markets.

In that Weberian sense, Russia’s classes today look a lot like the German society he studied at the end of the C19/beginning C20. Indeed, the skewed weighting in the unevenly yet rapidly modernizing German society between what Weber saw as four classes: the petite bourgeoisie, technical lower-middle class, small working-class, and privileged class is somewhat echoed in Russia today: with its relatively smaller (declining) working-class and p-b (declining?). That Weber’s approach combines class and estate, or ‘Stand/Stände’ is also fortuitous. Essentially one can view Simon Kordonsky’s current work on a state-centric hierarchy of estates in Russia as a reworking of Weber. While Kordonsky makes a few notes on the shared sense of entitlement of the Russia ruling class and their attempts to seal themselves off (signified by regalia, blue sirens, reserved ‘fast-track’ routes though public spaces), in my view we can go further and, unpack from the term ‘bydlo’, shared disgust, bewilderment, and even a little fear among a variety of Russian people that would then mark them out as some kind of ‘middle-class’ even if they themselves do not use this term, and even if they themselves belong to different ‘estates’.

Indeed, the term ‘bydlo’ too is merely a holding term. I don’t actually hear people use this word much. What I do hear is metropolitans talk about Russians who live in small towns and villages in a way that marks them as different and lacking the ‘social esteem’ they denote for themselves. The point is that ‘class’ has a perfectly valid sociological application in today’s Russian society. It’s to do with demonization, incredulity, disgust, projection of blame on the one hand, and in contrast, symbolic co-recognition of worth and worthlessness. There is an incomplete transition to Bourdiesian middle-class ‘dispositions’ which make their incompleteness visible because they try too hard in places: (pour the wine into the carafe, don’t leave it on the table… no we don’t buy Russian wine….we don’t drink out of stakany), and of course the lived experience of material privilege.

As Crompton has argued, if either structure or agency, ‘economic’ or ‘cultural’ explanations of class difference become dominant in analysis this is not necessarily a failure of analysis, just that a society’s circumstances may make one of these approaches more appropriate at a given time. In Russia we could argue, the ‘cultural’ trope of deviant and dangerous lumpen men is still very strong (see Charlie Walker’s work, or in Central Europe that of Alison Stenning), but the economic stratification will, in due course be a better seam to explore.

Marx uses the term “praxis” to refer to the free, universal, creative and self-creative activity through which man creates and changes his historical world and himself. As I said earlier. class hatred and authoritarian thinking is arguably more characteristic of the winners of postsocialism. Why might that be? Could it be that so many of the winners cannot cognitively admit that their position is due to luck, networks of ‘blat’, and the impoverishment of the majority? In their largely while-collar world of managing people they also express a will to self-creative activity, but again, I would ask – who out of these two groups expresses more libidinal frustration at the difficulty of remaking the world? Perhaps regardless of privilege this is why Russians are such crazily obsessive gardeners.

Homo (post) Soveticus Part III: Vernacular knowledge and responding to three accusations against the Russian majority

local organising against a landfill in Kaluga Region. August 2021

I wrote about class projection of civilisational incompetence and Levada’s sociological framing of homo (post) soveticus in the previous posts. I then discussed how useful Aronoff and Kubik’s interventions were on these points – particularly their idea of ‘vernacular knowledge’. As I said before, I owe Sam Greene a big debt here, because it was his article that really started my interest in this topic.

As I indicated in the previous posts (one and two), the ideas of homo post-soveticus remain strong as a projection onto others, particularly in a classed sense. But by uncovering the lifeworld practices that contribute to the accusation of being a kind of present-day sovok we can better understand that those accusers often resemble quite strongly those accused. Like Aronoff and Kubik, we can unpack the ‘real’ complexity of these purported behaviours as I encounter them in the field.

Accusation 1: Laziness/expectation of paternalism.

Laziness is a frequent accusation directed towards others from among the more well-to-do in my research. It is often linked to the idea that the poor want ‘something for nothing’, and harbour unrealistic expectations of paternalistic policies from the state. Close observation easily dispenses with the former slander. Low-income Russians are not lazy. What is true is that long/inhuman shift patterns in low-paid work make it often impossible to do much else other than ‘recharge’ (this need for dead time is a very old finding in sociology – we could call it part of the ‘texture of hardship’).

Unemployment (and underemployment) is rarely a ‘choice’, but where it is, it is one based on ‘vernacular’ knowledge that a full-time minimum wage job is worse than informal work in terms of ensuring social reproduction. A common complaint is the Norman Tebbit type: ‘I have to commute to Kaluga/Moscow (insert sacrifice of breadwinner), why can’t they get on their bikes and look for work??’ I wrote about this in my book and the conclusion I came to still stands: there is a perfectly valid set of rational calculations of risk and reward going on. These reasonings are more important than a ‘backward’ maladaptation to localized poverty. (“они как-то отстали от времени”)

The whole concept of what we mean by paternalism is problematic. However, it is true to say that the ‘winners’ in today’s Russia tend towards expressions of what Olga Shevchenko calls: “aggressive emphasis on personal autonomy and self-sufficiency, the “cult of the winner” at all costs, a moral legitimation of inequality, and an aggressive pursuit of self-interest” (59: 2015). Consequently they react very negatively to complaints by ‘losers’ (pensioners, low-paid) about the lack of ‘social guarantees’. These tend to be about (lack of) free higher education, availability of kindergarten places, wages, conditions, lack of adequate local labour markets (decent, dignified jobs), high property prices, corruption, and injustice and inequality more generally – particularly growing inequality since 2014. I often here things along the line of “Crimea is ours, but it belongs more to ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ than to me”. Is this unhealthy paternalistic thinking?

Accusation 2: Dissimulation/craftiness/unreliability/avarice (Levada’s chelovek lukavyi)

As we saw in previous posts, a secondary, but important accusation is moral disfunction: ‘You have to watch them. Russians don’t know how to work. They will cheat you. They complain about being poor but then come drunk and late for work. They want money for nothing. They’ll cheat their employer for a tank of diesel fuel but complain about not being trusted/paid enough.” Many of these alleged pathologies are observations about repeated or patterned real behaviours encountered by employers/those using services. However, of course they are the minority. Indeed, a small minority. Some of these we can interpret in terms of Scott’s “metis”– a ‘weapon of the weak’ (Sharafutdinova also makes this point): cunning or practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment. Or, compare the similar De Certeau’s “ripping-off” [la perruque]: steal what you can opportunistically from any situated involvement with a system. Certainly, the latter does have something in common with the personal use of ‘company time’ and resources in the later Soviet period, but as a ‘tactic’ it’s hardly amenable to extension to an overarching disposition.

If we are going to resort to thinking in terms of work-relations/practices from the Soviet period as inflecting today’s, then equally we should acknowledge avral (intense, time-limited efforts of work), unpaid overtime (with a ‘contractual’ emphasis on completing work regardless of time involved), and, indeed, ‘doing things for free’, because of a quite developed sense of social and network altruism (cf. Sharafutdinova’s critique of H-S which also makes this point by reference to the work of N. Kozlova – for an explanation see here).

And despite the problematic assertation that Russia is a low-trust (to strangers) society, one can frequently observe social imperatives of ‘duty’ having some effect in the real world (towards the old, toward neighbours). As for avarice, I tend to interpret this accusation in the context of an increasingly unequal society where the visibility of that inequality is ever growing. Thus, it does happen that a person engaged for some service or physical task may later interpret that they have ‘undercharged’ for a service. But equally, given how many services – physical or otherwise – exist in the grey economy, quibbling over money is just as likely a product of the highly informalised way transactions and economic activity pan out.

Accusation 3: Political passivity/tendency to value authoritarianism

This is a tougher nut to crack. Certainly there’s some evidence that the better educated ‘liberal’ metropolitans were more in evidence at the watershed protests in 2011-12, and then again in 2019, and 2021. However, at best this is really just an artefact of how we frame protest and opposition in Russia as social scientists. Regina Smyth, Andrei Semenov and I are editing a book on Russian activism that, in the spirit of Sam Greene’s interventions, traces the seeds, roots and shoots of political citizenship that frequently escape notice in Russia. To draw on my own immediate field materials, political conformism in its various guises is, ironically, not strongly correlated with class/material privilege. I wrote in this blog some years ago about how the ‘provincial’ precariat were practicing tactical ‘smart’ voting long before Naval’ny mainstreamed it.

If we turn to the idea of transmission of authoritarian values via elite messaging/indoctrination and so on, then I have uncomfortable news for you. Values that one might describe as vernacularly fascistic, whether directly supportive of the status quo or some future ‘strong man’, are, if anything more articulated, if not more widespread among my educated and ‘civilized’ (as they like to remind me) research participants. I don’t think I need to say much more about this. British readers will be reminded of the response of many ‘left-liberal’ people to the extremely mild social-democratic agenda presented to the electorate in 2019 in the UK…

Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that the Russian middle-classes (and of course metropolitan pensioners, some of whom have some material insulation from the worst privations) watch so much state television, regardless of what they may tell you about their subscription to Dozhd…

The ‘Krym nash’ [Crimea is ours!] half-life effect I find a good indicator. There are plenty of materially comfortable people for whom the annexation of Crimea is personally meaningful – one telling me recently that without the annexation he did not feel complete as a Russian person. For them, Crimea has a long half-life and even now is not decaying. By contrast, while lower income people indeed rejoiced at the foreign policy victory and took pride in the annexation, nowadays they are very ambivalent, if not hostile to the Crimea project because they, rightly or wrongly, link it to falling incomes. These people will spoil their ballot in September if compelled to vote. That too is a politically meaningful action, no less important (and no less risky) than coming out in a cold January in support of Naval’ny is for a Muscovite. I align here with Karine Clement’s argument that instead of taking at face value arguments about Russians’ ‘authoritarian personality’, a closer inspection of critical talk reflects nuanced sociological interpretations of disempowerment of the majority, and a relatively accurate assessment of actually-existing social stratification, as well as the pluralistic sources of power in Russia (security services, presidential administration, personal friends of Putin, Putin himself, technocratic figures such as Moscow Mayor and PM). A key point Clement and I agree on is the underlying demand: ‘we want a more socially interventionist state’. Again, I would strongly resist interpreting this as authoritarian.

I’ll do a final post tomorrow on this topic.

Russians’ (supposed) ‘polycentric relativism’: Levada’s legacy and the sociology of Homo Soveticus (Part II)

Is byldo the bridge from sovok?

My own initiation into the meaning of Homo Soveticus was via literary sources – from A. Zinoviev’s Yawning Heights and other works. Zinoviev, for example, talks about how living in an ideological society does not allow one to become a ‘genuine man’, but instead “learn to cleverly grab all that one can, to be evasive and shrewd in order not to get hurt” (1983) – a kind of social maladaption is described.

But the canonical Homo Soveticus surely emerges from Yuri Levada’s longitudinal studies – mainly survey data on attitudes and social behaviours. With my students each year we read the English translation of a 2000 article Homo Post-Soveticus, Working out of a functionalist tradition of studying human socialization, Levada is obsessed with (mal)adaptation to Soviet rule. For example: like Zinoviev, he believes that inevitably, in a society characterized by informal and incomplete ‘deals’ with Soviet state, individuals are subject to ‘moral corruption’, ‘acceptance of sham’… ‘bribery and doublethink’. Loyalty only emerges through fear of punishment.  At the same time, these forms of adaptation mean that Soviet man is ill prepared for the collapse of the Soviet system.

The ‘comfort’ for those who lived under the protective social paternalist ‘roof’ of the Soviet system is removed in 1991. Some – particularly the educated, adapt to the new reality, but most resent ‘being forced to hustle’ [приходится вертеться]. This peculiar phrase is given a lot of attention. One might note that it’s the sociologist’s imposed criteria – not an ‘emic’ term’ (as far as I can tell). It seems to express the new reality. Now everyone has to take individual responsibility for one’s social and economic position in society. However, Levada extends this finding into a quite partial portrait where implied laziness, timidity, anti-entreneurialism, generalized dissatisfaction tending to nihilism reign supreme. I recall one student remarking – “if one looks at the raw survey data, it looks quite different from the general story Levada tells”. And to be fair he does mention “upward adaptation” for those finding new opportunities, but one would struggle to find an adequate reflection in his commentary of the fact that 89% of his respondents “find new opportunities” because of the enterprise society that emerged after perestroika.

Levada segues from generalized dissatisfaction to the easy manipulation by elites of homo post-soveticus via populism and the selection of external enemies. Enter Putin, and the stage is set for a mature phase of ‘polycentric relativism’ where one can justify ignoring any social or juridical prohibitions based on contingencies. But by falling into the little deceptions that ‘everyone commits’ – whether lying or ignoring traffic laws, one is deceiving oneself. Deceptive double-think, moral and social degradation are the current result as the Russian cycle (in its market-capital iteration) repeats itself. Overall though, it’s striking that Levada’s project as a whole sees ‘adaptability-as-expediency’ приспособленчество – as a vice, but ‘adaptability’ that of becoming “неприспособляемых”, as a rational, cognitive choice and step, to make the best of opportunity as a virtue [thanks to Denys Gorbach on clarifying this]. At no point does he reflect on this irony.

Revisiting Levada – two critiques from Greene and Sharafutdinova, and the need to study vernacular knowledge

In my classes, after Levada, we turn to two contemporary critics of his homo post-soveticus: Gulnaz Sharafutdinova (2019) and Samuel Greene (2019). Greene contextualises Levada in a broad intervention about the need to pay closer attention to “common-sense, locally grounded, defensive, and slowly changing guideposts for navigating uncertainty” among Russian citizens. His text connects to Aronoff and Kubik’s critique of the term homo soveticus, and Greene reanalyses Levada’s material to note the development (or maintainance?) of strong prohibitions against breaches of interpersonal trust in contrast to breaches of impersonal, generalized trust. In conclusion – strategic, non-atomised/anomie social action is possible in Russia, but is local. Citizenship exists, but we need to be sensitive social scientists in uncovering it.

Sharafutdinova, in a blog post based on a substantive article underlines the outdated functionalism of Levada’s portrait, with its roots in what is now personality psychology (for an important inside critique of personality psychologies methodological and theoretical approaches see here).

“Instead of promoting human agency and revealing political potential at the individual level, the Levada Center’s analysis blames (if indirectly) the Russian people for the reemergence of authoritarianism. It thereby provides a blueprint for domestic “othering”: Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses in the way they apply the construct Homo sovieticus. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible.” 

I think Sharafutdinova’s summary of Levada’s project is probably the most comprehensive and critically informed in English. It’s worth reproducing part of her article:

Levada’s “research project [was] entitled “the Soviet simple person” to study the ideal-typical features of the personality type developed during the Soviet Union that he thought might become a hindrance in the post-Soviet democratization process. Levada’s aim was to develop a list of mutually interdependent characteristics that linked the social system and the symbolic sphere: the commonly-shared thinking patterns, dispositions, attitudes, and values of Soviet people. The project was based on a massive representative survey of Soviet citizens across the USSR, with the sample of 2700 respondents, and its findings were summarized in Sovetskii prostoi chelovek (A Simple Soviet Man, Moscow 1993), which elaborated the key personality traits that could be viewed as specific to the Soviet system. The survey questions were very wide-ranging and explored, among other things, people’s salient identities (who do you feel yourself to proudly be?), attitudes towards the state, a sense of obligation to and expectations from the state, moral predispositions (should a person be responsible for. . .?), images of the nation, views of important historical events and prominent historical personalities, the balance of preferences on risk and stability, levels of tolerance, views of social stratification, professional and educational aspirations, a sense of social and political efficacy, and views about the Soviet collapse. The findings were both provocative and in line with the criticisms originating among educated groups in the society. Based on these surveys, sociologists from the Levada group suggested that the Soviet man was (a) simple and simplified (in a sense of being obedient to authorities, modest and satisfied with what he/she has, living as “everyone does,” not trying to stick out, not trying to be different from others), (b) isolated, (c) lacking choice, (d) mobilized, (e) hostage to the group, and (f) hierarchical. Furthermore, the fundamental features of homo sovieticus included a sense of exceptionalism, state paternalist orientations, and imperial character.”…” The analytical lens used to explore the massive empirical data collected through surveys—sometimes involving 200–300 questions—was itself colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer. This lens was maintained throughout the continuation of the Soviet man project in the 1990s and the 2000s, thereby constantly shaping data interpretation and highlighting Soviet legacy issues at the expense of situational factors.”

Back to Aronoff and Kubik. Towards the end of their book the authors make a lengthy critique of the charge of ‘civilizational incompetence’ against homo post-soveticus, as outlined in Polish sociologist Piotr Stompka’s work (1993). This is worth summarizing. Incompetence in Stompka’s view comes down to a number characteristics or tendencies: overly personalized trust leading to allergy to social engagement; past-orientation/nostalgia; fatalism due to learned helplessness in the face of punitive state; negative freedom (freedom from) leading to atomization, permissiveness, impotence; instrumentality of double-standards; susceptibility to mythical thinking.

Aronnoff and Kubik comment: “Sztompka’s black and white logic is criticized for neatly allocating civilizational incompetence to one group or category of people, while there are others who are blessed with the required competence that allows them to become, rather effortlessly, the citizens of a democratic state equipped with a market economy. Buchowski offers an intriguing correction when he suggests that the “socialist” habitus diagnosed by Sztompka is not a dysfunctional relic reproduced by inertia, but rather a useful adaptive strategy to the shock caused by yet another “modernizing” project that shares with state socialism certain “logical and structural similarities,” at least in the experience of some actors.”

While this might sound like a partial justification of the adaptive spirit of homo sovieticus, later on Aronoff and Kubik provide a host of contradictory data, showing how in each of Stompka’s examples – for example, ‘past orientation’, it is easy to provide counter evidence, or, more likely, contradictory co-existence of tendencies, behaviours, beliefs. They conclude thus:

“People who experience an externally engineered social change are neither necessarily defensive nor incompetent; they often plot offensive actions. Such plotting usually occurs from within culturally constructed social worlds that are often local or regional. In order to explain and understand people’s actions, their conception of the world, and their life strategy, including economic choices and political sympathies, researchers need to study vernacular knowledge. They need to reconstruct locally developed cultural scenarios.”

In the next post I’ll try to triangulate all of the above in relation to my own research findings.

Laying Homo Sovieticus to rest, Part I: who are you calling bydlo?

Representatives of Moscow intelligentsia get uncomfortably up-close with bydlo in their natural environment.

Later this week I’m taking part in a discussion with Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, King’s College London, Ronald Grigor Suny, University of Michigan, Greg Yudin, Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics

And Viacheslav Morozov, University of Tartu (he’s also the organiser) with the title: Laying Homo Sovieticus to rest. What follows are the terms of that roundtable, and my modest contribution.

Abstract

In the spring of 2019, Russian Internet exploded with a debate on the perceived prevalence of totalitarian attitudes among the Russian masses. The controversy was sparked by the Levada Centre data on the approval of Stalin, but involved other issues including the concept of Homo Sovieticus. The theoretical paradigm that explains the failure of the “transition to democracy” by referring to the alleged resilience of the Soviet totalitarian personality underlies a large number of academic studies and popular accounts of Russian politics, many of which (e.g. Masha Gessen’s recent book ‘The Future Is History’) have a tangible impact on the public attitudes and policy-making in the West. Participants of this roundtable will explore the reasons for the revived appeal of this concept, its theoretical assumptions, empirical foundations and political consequences, and argue that it is time to lay the notion of Homo Sovieticus to rest. The arguments include: (1) that the concept of Homo Sovieticus builds on the idealized, abstract image of a “liberal self” and market democracy; (2) that, empirically, the concept promotes the study of the Soviet Union, contemporary Russia and other East European societies as deviant and pathological, instead of looking at the actually existing mechanisms of social and cultural reproduction; (3) that, politically, by presenting the common person as an inner barbarian, the concept works to legitimize the exclusion of the masses from politics and ultimately leads to the endorsement of “the strong hand,” whose mission is to discipline and civilize the unruly native population.

Preamble

Those that follow this blog or my other writing will recognize that I frequently make reference to emerging class relations in Russia. Unlike researchers like Simon Kordonsky, I don’t make a distinction between a service class and others, but instead I focus more on the gap between a small and emerging middle class – in terms of income and assets – and the majority – broadly a dispossessed group living precariously. While I’m not always successful, it’s this material basis of differentiation that I find most useful in understanding differences in attitudes, differences in the way people go about building and maintaining their lifeworlds, intentionally or unintentionally. And in this sense, though I am occasionally accused on romanticizing the lives of the people among whom I do research, my main aim is not to say that these dispossessed Russians are somehow different, but more to draw attention to how their situation is simply a more extreme condition that many in the global north and the global inbetween (those countries caught in the middle-income trap) find themselves.

Bydlo as the Sovok of our times

How does this relate to Homo (post) Soveticus? My first point is a long-standing observation. This is how the idea of a deficient person specific to Russia is transformed from sovok (the often derogatory term for person with a Soviet outlook) to ‘Cattle’: lit. bydlo. Like sovok this term bydlo gains wide currency (indeed its use goes back to serfdom. Ushakov’s definition is, “used to denote stupid, weak-willed people, submissive to violence.”).

By its nature (denoting the crowd, mindless, content with chewing on the cud, requiring little to no stimulus) this term is laden with class distinction. There is us – we might be politically liberal, we might be politically conservative, but we are the thinking reeds (to use the metaphor from Pascal beloved of Russian intellectuals) and then there are the cattle. My mention of the Pascal metaphor is to underline that while few people nowadays would call themselves ‘intelligentsia’ the mental division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is, ironically more tangible within Russia itself than the current elite-projected division of Russians=god-bearing people v. decadent westerners, about which I wrote here. It’s interesting to me that people don’t make more of this irony. My views on this grew out of similar observations, in the West, popularized by Owen Jones’ book Chavs: the demonization of the working-class, and the work of Don Kalb and Brian Fabo on Central Europe. Fabo shows how in Slovakia a similar discursive exclusion to that of Russia is visible:

“The underprivileged […] are usually portrayed as myopic actors, incapable of recognizing their true interests, keen on pursuing narrow personal gain at the expense of the whole society. This approach offers no ground on which it is acceptable for the poor even to voice their grievances”

Winiecki on Poland:

“they haven’t learned how to work and after the dissolution of these deficient creations they have no place now from where they can steal…. The problem of Poland is the Poles themselves who wait for a manna

from heaven and think that they deserve everything without work and commitment. It is the passive part of society that is at fault”

The last quote, from a prominent liberal economist, comes from a book by Aronoff and Kubik (2013: 242-3). Based on such pathologisations, they define Homo sovieticus: people who were socialized under state socialism who cannot “properly” function in a new system built around the precepts of capitalism. They dismiss this characterisation of sections of postcommunist societies as ‘civilisationally incompetent’ (P. Sztompka’s term) and I agree with them. However, it’s interesting that we can identify more specific characteristics from these critical accounts. Namely: immaturity/infantility. In turn, this manifests itself in economic and social incompetence. In particular there is a strong and highly unsociological attribution of ethical or moral shortcomings which are immutable (because of socialisation, what?). Avarice, selfishness, petty stupidity, social and political atomisation, or, as is frequently heard in Russian context: ‘social nihilism’.

If we come back to ‘bydlo’ for a moment, we can note that despite ideas in the West about Russian media as carefully state-curated to serve the narrow aims of the elite, there is a recurring trope of the stupid mass that is raised again and again by so-called liberal-oppositional figures. Indeed the term itself is associated with a particular use of it by the prominent writer/publicist Yu. Latynina. She is a frequent contributor to Echo of Moscow radio station (owned by Gazprom, don’t forget). Common tropes she and others recycle are the dangers of the populus/demos (толпа, народ). For example in a long monologue from the station she provides a reading of the contemporary relevance of the Shakespeare play Coriolanus. We can detect the inheritance of H-S in her use of ‘bydlo’ – the Russian voters expect paternalism, they are ‘khalyavshiki’ who do not pay taxes, I.e. they are socially and politically infantile. Similarly, Latynina’s use of the word (which is often accompanied by the term ‘lumpen’) emphasises moral shortcomings I’ve already mentioned: sloth and avarice – habitual disinclination to work leading to a miserly desire for gain without effort: e.g. among those willing to attend pro-Putin rallies for 500 roubles. At the same time, these people are contrasted to the ‘working Muscovite’ who even if unsuccessful, is hard-working and earns their crust. Then she makes a transition to those that participated in anti-Putin rallies in 2011: “они что-то из себя представляли” – lit. ‘made something of themselves’.  They are self-made, like those millionaire acquaintances Latynina takes the time to tell us about, who would not be seen dead in the company of pro-regime bydlo. Ironically for someone condemning avarice, material wealth is something of an obsession of hers.

It’s unfair to focus on a freak like Latynina, I know.1 To you and me her views might seem unhinged, projection, but I assure you I meet carbon-copies of her rantings all too frequently in my research when I talk to people who ‘fit the profile’, so-to-speak. However, for balance, allow me a short note about celeb poet/writer D. Bykov. Bykov is a more acceptable2 face of anti-regime intellectualism – Bykov’s most famous pronouncement about the 2011-12 protests were that those participating wanted to show each other that they were not bydlo and that to consider one’s fellow citizens bydlo is dangerous. In a follow up ‘Treatise’ entitled “Народническое” (Populism) Bykov goes into detail about the term ‘bydlo’. The bydlo is not the ‘people’, i.e. the narod.3 The narod is active, creative, productive. However he warns, increasingly the cattle call themselves ‘the simple folk’, but are passive, prone to rumour, basely cunning and immune to notions of what is noble in life. Behind Bykov’s characteristically shock and awe use of the Russian language is a similar rather hackneyed notion of social hierarchy, containing both politically conservative fantasies of the peasant/craftman populus-plēbēs and Soviet tropes of moral worth through labour. Bykov represents a kind of Arendtian liberalism: where the focus is on liberty through the active vita. As many have pointed out this account of the person-in-society remains stunted sociologically because its logic derives from Greek models of the individual inscribed within the private household and is structurally naive. Indeed, some argue that this Arendtian approach is actually closer to forms of conservatism than liberalism.4

Why rake over the ravings of a peculiar journalist and writer – surely this is setting up a straw man or other logical fallacy? Two reasons: Latyninism exists on the airwaves for a reason – it reflects a broad logic of classist disgust I encounter all the time in my research (I’ll come back to this later). Secondly, as I have started to argue, there is overlap/affinity with H-S. I’m not saying that one is the direct inheritor of the other, because of course the circumstances that generated the idea of H-S were different. Nonetheless, liberal-intellectual disappointment with the ‘common man’ and the perception of his moral failings, political shortsightedness, and immersion in his own petty cares and worries to the detriment of the greater good are obvious carry-overs. But as usual I’ve got ahead of myself. Let’s roll back to H-S in its true sociological element – Yuri Levada and co. More to follow in the next post.

(Posting on state capitalism will resume later this summer/early autumn).

  1. I don’t really think it’s unfair – she has an outsized influence on metropolitan liberal opinion, takes the Kremlin’s shilling, yet does not live in Russia (yes, I know that’s complicated). See the various wiki-parody sites devoting pages to Ms L. E.g. on Lurkmore.
  2. That Dmitry Lvovich is the ‘acceptable’ face of morally upright intellectual opposition is itself a grimly funny indictment of liberal double standards.
  3. Interestingly, ‘narod’, is such a problematic term as in any iteration it too appears as an example of lazy, essentialising thinking. I was rightly called out for it the other day on Twitter, although in my defence I was quoting a conversation.
  4. Greg Yudin wrote about conservatism masking as liberalism among Russian intellectuals here: https://lefteast.org/scratch-a-russian-liberal-and-youll-find-an-educated-conservative-an-interview-with-sociologist-greg-yudin/

Guest Post 3: The Past is Beautiful; the Present is Horrible—Cancel the Future

http://infrastructur.es/en

Out of nowhere, Russia’s president gave an award to a decorated Soviet general who died in 1942, symbolically endowing himself with Stalin’s bygone powers. A villager extorts money out of a bureaucrat by accusing them of treason, pretending to be a SMERSH (Soviet WWII counterintelligence) agent involved in a secret operation to restore the Soviet Union. A historical re-enactor goes from fighting in Transnistria, bedecked in a Tsarist Russia uniform and carrying an 1891 vintage rifle, to stirring up war in Donbas, introducing martial law in the first city captured on the grounds of an order given by the Supreme Soviet in 1941. These tragicomic stories from today’s Russia, all of which could just as easily serve as the basis for a novel, shed light on the unprocessed traumas left over from past historical cataclysms. The constant rewriting and falsification of history in the name of political expediency, the absence of a tradition of open historical debate, inaccessible archives, and a fear of airing dirty laundry or admitting to mistakes and crimes leads to a situation where history is swept away in scattered fragments to the distant corners of the collective unconscious, until its return in the form of vengeful, revanchist fantasies and myths. It cannot become anything resembling historical fact. Novels about time travelers—more often than not, military commandos—are printed in colossal quantities,1 whose heroes wind up in the past, armed with contemporary technology, and try to intervene in the course of history, be it by averting the fall of the USSR, the Horde Raids, and the Bolshevik Revolution; helping Tsars and Soviet leaders rule the world, or warning about the forks ahead in the road to progress. If Soviet science fiction, like the whole Soviet political project, were nevertheless targeted toward the future and partially constructed it—even in the era of decay, then today—and this is the principal distinction of the post-Soviet era—almost all “speculative” energy is devoted to the “time traveler” subgenre of alternative history. As it turns out, the ruling party was the main futurologist for Soviet people, who wrote the images of the future, however quackish they might have been, right into their planning documents. When it left the stage, it took the futurology with it. Instead of it, a fear appeared at all levels of society. The desire to stop time, replay history, and return to 1991, 1945, or 1814 are often and justifiably ascribed to Putin and his hawkish cronies as the ideological and psychological basis for their foreign policy. Political theorist and former Kremlin political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky compares the ruling group with the Soviet joke about the resistance fighter who continues to derail enemy trains, even though the war has long since ended. Essayist Alexander Baunov doesn’t see so much a trauma from the fall of the USSR or nostalgia for it as much as the fear of the elites in the face of the future, or rather before its Western version in which they already have no role: “The future is accompanied by a new inequality: some are able to get their bearings, while others aren’t. When the economy, technology, politics, and culture begin to overtake social structures, the revolutionaries come, and in response to the public’s fears, they promise to put the brakes on the rogue future on behalf of the people, and bring everyone back into a comfortable state of justice and equality”.2  

This is a guest post from Infrastructures. Infrastructures is a research-based photo project and photobook about the Russian and post-Soviet political economy, created in 2016-2019 by Sergey Novikov and Max Sher. Using documentary and staged photography, as well as writing, they look at and reflect on the political and cultural significance of both the physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pipelines, etc., and ‘infrastructure’ of thinking and discourse that historically underpin the functioning of the State and power.

1 On a website dedicated to the genre, there is a list of 2,585 such titles: http://samlib.ru/s/smit_i_s/ppaau1.shtml (in Russian)

2 Александр Баунов. Страна-диссидент. Что не так с глобальным бунтом России. Carnegie.ru. 20.06.17