Monthly Archives: January 2017

Working Class Life in Anytown Russia – An Interview

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

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

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

Interview: Jeremy Morris

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This I think is answered already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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