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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3 thoughts on “Working Class Life in Anytown Russia – An Interview

  1. Lyttenburgh

    Mr. Morris, I’ve finally listened to your interview with Sean Guillory and read your transcript of it (just to be on the safe side).

    You don’t know me, of course, seeing as you are the recent addition to our “commentariat” on J.T.’s most excellent blog. So, allow me to introduce myself. I’m Russian, born and raised, who lives in Russia still – constantly commuting between Moscow and the oblast on weekly basis. I grew up as a child during the Rough 90s in Yekaterinburg and then, due to a number of circumstances, my family relocated to southern Moscow oblast. I’m member of Russian/Soviet intelligentsia in 3rd generation, coming from the worker-peasant (and soldier) stock.

    I’m also absolutely horrible person, whose views you’d, most likely, find totally abhorrent.

    I’m representative of the significant number of Russians if not of the vast majority of them when it comes to the worldview and the perception of norms.

    I’m not a nice person. See – you’ve been warned.

    I think your work to describe what you call a “working class in post-socialism Russia” is a rare example of Russia research done right. As I told elsewhere, the current “Russia watching” resembles the fable about 7 blind bats and an elephant. Again, as I told elsewhere, most of the Westerners now resemble the 7th bat which missed the elephant completely and proclaimed that it does not exist. As for the other bats/experts, they don’t see Russia for what it is, seeing instead a reflection of themselves or their biases, so it’s really a story about them but not about a foreign country. Naturally, that liberal, urbanite and cosmopolitan “elite” of the Western chattering stratas will seek for “insight” into Russia likeminded urbanite, cosmopolitan kreakls, hipsters, members of intelligentsia and so-called “Russian liberals”. Any contact with the “aborigines” of the “lower class” is anathema to them, that ought to be avoided by all means necessary. After all – that’s what they do in their respective native countries, scoffing at the masses of Deplorables and denying them any political will… at their own risk. The root cause of their subconscious Russophobia lies in yet unannounced realization, that in Russia said “Deplorables”, those whom bright Elves of the so-called Russian Opposition label as “vatniki”, “sovoks”, “biomass” and “bydlo” did constitute 90+% of the population – and that these people DO vote.

    As for your interview and, to an extent to the book, I have several objections and comments. First of all, you and your interviewer start up wrong, without defining what do you undersand by the “working class” to begin with. Judging by your words alone I can only presume (probably, wrong) that you understand the working class as the proletariat in the Marxist meaning of the word – i.e. people selling their labour for money (salary) and who does not own the means of production. Thus you include in your tale cashiers in the local chain stores, factory workers, gypsy cab drivers – and a librarian. In the West (the US in particular) there is a fine distinction between the “blue-” and “white-collar” jobs, which replaces the Marxist definition of classes. So, a librarian might be seen as a “white-collar” profession, a member of “working intelligentsia”, if you like, a breed apart from the “commoners”.

    Nuance and correct definition if everything. Those you think that all people are “on the same wavelength” when talking about such topics take the humanity for the hivemind sharing *their* worldview. The Semantic Warfare is happening every moment with all of us participating in it, because our mind is the battlefield. We, humans, think in words. Change, mutate the meaning of the word and you can effectively change and mutate humans thought process. Just think about how many buzzwords and clichés you take for granted, thinking, erroneously, that you know their definition or that there is no big deal in using them in such a context. The best example here – “Russian Propaganda”. Everyone uses it in the West. Nary anyone can find right words to describe it. But everyone knows that it must be a Real and Present Danger.

    So, a talk about what you define as “working-class” Russians should be a must, if we are to understand about whom you are talking here. Take my family for example. 90s were a disaster. A sad reality, now, thankfully, belonging to the old TV serials and anekdotes, paints a picture of academicians working as janitors for pittance during the “Democratic 90s” under Yeltsin the Drunk. One of my grandfathers was the school’s principal and member of the city’s educational board. In 90s he, a retiree pensioner, had to work as storage manager. My uncle was a scientist in our local institute of microbiology. Again, 90s being 90s he had to work lots of odd jobs – even as fish-seller at a market at one time. Then since early 2000s he worked as pests “exterminator” in one of Moscow’s firms, rose through ranks and came to the helm of the company. As a third example I’d mention a family acquaintance, who came from the real “academia” sub-strata of intelligentsia, who then emigrated to Israel in early 90s. Here he was promptly told that his specialty is needed to no one, his Russian wife, who came with him, promptly divorced him, and the fellow had to travel back to Russia where he for a time being worked as a tiler rubbing shoulders with gastarbeiters from Moldova and Ukraine.

    These stories also tell a sojourn to (and, rarely, back from) the working class of the people, who were not “born” into it. The 90s in Russia were the time of, mainly, social downward mobility for the vast majority of the people. I don’t know, whether you paid any attention to this nuance in your book. I also don’t know whether you devoted any attention to the “working pensioners” phenomenon in Russia. In the West the ageism is a norm, and nearly palatable hatred to the elderly can be felt in their (and Russia’s so-called liberals’) sermons about “backwards Russia” with wishing the soon death to them.

    Mr. Morris, you wrote:

    “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.”

    Its a rare thing these days when the people realize their own shortcomings and class biases, so for this attempt to realize them you should be appreciated and thanked. But the fact remains – you, your interviewers and the vast majority of your readership remain the aforementioned middle-class, bourgeois, acquisitive, individualistic “white-collar” or student strata of people, who, seemingly, see themselves as the pinnacle of the development of the (Human, not just Western) Civilization. For them to learn about other people not sharing their views (like yours truly here) and who resist the “conversion” to the one and true Faith (and Liberalism in the West by now acquired all characteristics of religion, of the totalitarian sect variety) is a reason to be, first, triggered, and then do their utmost to annihilate the Other. Said Other is a Threat by the virtue of existing and providing an alternative, so the option of “just letting it live without poking and prodding” is not an option. As I told in the beginning – interactions with Others are actually not about finding the truth and understanding the object of your inquiry, but all about Yourself. Mainly – fellating your Ego. Modern fairy tales about the First Contact, be it with the Rubber Faced Aliens from some sci-fi series or the “deep and thoughtful” ™ with octopoids using unique language are a pack of lies, as is evident to anyone who bothered to see how humans fail to understand each other.

    I’m fearing, Mr. Morris, that you still did not overcame your own class biases while trying to finally “grok” Russia, by contacting working-class people here, nearly universally ignored by the Westerners. You draw attention as to something groundbreaking “progressive” to the fact that there are a lot of working women in Russia. This clearly shows more where you’ve came from rather any “new discovery”. What is “progressive” for you is a norm from me and for the most of Russians – a legacy of Bolsheviks policy, much hated by the West and so-called Russian liberals. I grew up with women being doctors and nurses, state officials, teachers and principals, cashiers, trolley/bus/tram drivers, journalists, librarians, factory workers, janitors, small-business owners etc, etc. In the Army my first commanding officer was major Elena Alexandrovna K. – and indomitable woman who could at ease execute both the precision F-strike and cluster-F bombing of the people (even her higher ups – but out of their hearing) who pissed her off. Her second in command comrade senior praporsh’ik Nadezhda Pavlovna S., a mother of 2, who during my time took a re-app course together with other kontraktniks of our unit which include a month long survival course and “living in the wild”. She survived it and re-apped. A praporshik from another unit who also participated in said course had a heart attack during a long march that took place during that month. I think he survived, but was promptly discharged due to the health issues.

    What “women question” you, Westerners, are talking about here, is beyond me. I simply don’t understand.

    What I do understand is that, as I said, you, Mr. Morris, still don’t accept Russians for who we are, due to the values dissonance and class differences. You said the following:

    “What’s really depressing is how much punishment and lowering of living standards all Russians can put up with.”

    Well, what more evidence do anyone needs here, to see that you, personally, subscribe wholeheartedly to the aforementioned “middle-class, bourgeois, acquisitive, individualistic” identity, which most of Russians to this day find distasteful if not completely alien and repugnant? Have it eve crossed your mind that thanks to this “depressing” trait Pavlov’s house in Stalingrad fought off Nazis longer than Adorable, Free and Democratic France have resisted Hitler? That, despite all the forecasts back from 2014. the “Downfall of the Regime” (c) of Putin is not in the sight, that Russians did not rose against the Tyranny, to have real Western jamon in exchange of Crimea and sovereignty as a country?

    Basically, you are admitting that you find Russians wrong, totally incorrect, i.e. alien to your own “middle-class, bourgeois, acquisitive, individualistic” identity. Then, maybe, this is not about Russia – it is about class? Then this is not, really, a particular Russophobia, which to some extend color every attempt to analyze Russia by any Westerner, but rather a much more broader and universal narodophobia? Really, how is jeering and belittling of any given “redneck” or “Deplorable” is any different from the livid hatred and/or dismissal of the typical Putin’s voter, this vatnik and morlok, who dares to exercise one’s will to ruin the would be Utopia of the liberal Elves and Eloi?

    Mr. Morrison, your research is important, but it doesn’t go far enough. I’d previously discussed this phenomenon of Westerners seemingly “sympathetic” to Russia ultimately failing to go far enough in their analysis and to accept both the People and Country for what they are. I will end with this quote from the classic, which, I think, describes perfectly any given “sympathetic” Western Russia watcher, who, nevertheless, shies away from one final step:

    Prince Andrew was somewhat refreshed by having ridden off the dusty highroad along which the troops were moving. But not far from Bald Hills he again came out on the road and overtook his regiment at its halting place by the dam of a small pond. It was past one o’clock. The sun, a red ball through the dust, burned and scorched his back intolerably through his black coat. The dust always hung motionless above the buzz of talk that came from the resting troops. There was no wind. As he crossed the dam Prince Andrew smelled the ooze and freshness of the pond. He longed to get into that water, however dirty it might be, and he glanced round at the pool from whence came sounds of shrieks and laughter. The small, muddy, green pond had risen visibly more than a foot, flooding the dam, because it was full of the naked white bodies of soldiers with brick-red hands, necks, and faces, who were splashing about in it. All this naked white human flesh, laughing and shrieking, floundered about in that dirty pool like carp stuffed into a watering can, and the suggestion of merriment in that floundering mass rendered it specially pathetic.

    […]

    “Flesh, bodies, cannon fodder!” he thought, and he looked at his own naked body and shuddered, not from cold but from a sense of disgust and horror he did not himself understand, aroused by the sight of that immense number of bodies splashing about in the dirty pond.
    – L. Tolstoy, “War and Peace”, volume 3, Book 10, Chapter V.

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    1. Jeremy Morris Post author

      Thanks for your very thoughtful feedback! There’s little chance I can do justice to your comments here. I would recommend you get hold of the book – you can email me if you want some advice on that. I think in the book I do try to present people in their own words and with their own perspective on their ‘class positioning’, but of course I bring my own baggage.

      As for definining ‘working class’, your critique is justified – we do need to define it. In the book I use a working-definition of blue-collar workers, but I also look at people who move to white-collar work.

      On my finding things depressing – that was merely referring to the way Russian elites cynically take the view that ordinary people can put up with a lowering of their living standards. I don’t think believing that everyone should have a decent standard of living and that the state should be involved as a guarantor is a particularly Russia-specific or even middle-class position.

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      1. Lyttenburgh

        Thank you for your reply, Mr. Morris. It’s a rare occasion when the author did stoop so low as to actually engage with the hoi polloi of the mere anonymous member of the commentariat like myself. I will probably find a way to acquire your book and read it if I have time – just to be absolutely sure that my conclusions were right or wrong.

        You write the following in your short response:

        “…that was merely referring to the way Russian elites cynically take the view that ordinary people can put up with a lowering of their living standards.”

        Yes, we do. Are you really surprised? Or do you really think that Russia is truly unique in that way? For that matter, have you noticed what is taking place in the Ukraine lately? For that matter – I don’t see any mobs of protesters in the Democratic West, demanding the abolition of the Surveillance State in their countries. Why should Russia alone conform to your views of what constitute the “right” course for the citizens in their defense of the rights?

        No, of course not the idea of having a “decent” (understood thought the world differently) standard of living is something that doesn’t paint you right away as a member of the petite bourgeoisie. But, again, what is a “norm” varies greatly. For someone a slight fall in income and losing an opportunity to taka vacation at the favorite resort in now unfriendly/unsafe country is the reason to demand the immediate action against the government. Liberal worldview which positions individual’s needs and desires claims that this is totally legit and scoffs at such things the Greater Good and patriotism. The Liberal sees no ideological reason to sacrifice anything for the country and other people living in it.

        Are you bemoaning this fact? That Russians are not revolting and don’t want to topple Putin? Or are you bemoaning the fact that bourgeoisie moral and “values” failed to take deep roots in Russian psyche?

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