Monthly Archives: February 2019

Challenging the view that Russians are ‘passive’.

uncollected rubbish

uncollected rubbish from a designated municipal site.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

2018-05-11 18.52.56

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the poll in question.

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

Now to the question of the meaning of nostalgia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

People as the New Oil. Or, ‘как жить дальше’ in Russia? Part I

Savelii Kramarov - 'I have more than thirty half-litres of vodka left to live on'

Savelii Kramarov in a satirical sketch on the cost of living in 1971. It has become a viral meme in the last year.

Phrases on the variation: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ represent a new extractive and punitive turn in domestic politics, a shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensive ways focused on the daily doings of ordinary Russians. The interpretation goes like this: consistent oil prices over $70 – not seen since 2014 – are needed to maintain Russia’s state budget. After four years of expensive foreign policy adventures and a longer term lack of progress in creating a diversified economy at home, the government has resorted to ‘farming’ the ordinary population in earnest. This is the corollary of the ‘intense struggle access to budget money’ among the elite since 2016 that [paywall] Svetlana Barsukova details. Since most Russians have seen stagnating income levels for the last decade, and witness a noticeable deterioration in state-provision in general (in health and education and importantly the entitlements connected to them – these were the top ‘concerns’ of Russians in 2018), they can’t help but feel acute injustice at the sudden zeal for extracting fines and increasing taxes on unavoidable expenses like transport and utilities, even non-existent land holdings.

While the increase in pension age gets a lot of attention, it is worth mentioning what are more pressing issues, like the price of petrol and the raise in VAT from 18 to 20 percent, and not least inflation on staples, which is likely understated by a factor of three in official statistics. Indirect taxes hit the poorest most, and VAT is levied on utility bills, which already take up around half the income of a person on the ‘minimal income’ ($170) and are now adjusted more frequently for inflation. A second issue is largely untaxed income from self-employment which cuts across classes, from nannies and tutors to taxi drivers and  tradesmen. The government declaring ‘war on the nannies’ was a recent headline. However, most people see these incomes as topping up their meagre primary incomes and interpret the state’s renewed interest in personal taxation as profoundly unjust. Third is the more general ratcheting up of the punitive tax potential of fines on motorists, late payers of utilities, and other minor law breakers. Russian roads are densely covered by enforcement cameras in comparison to most European countries.  Moscow Region alone quadrupled its count in 2018 with 1300 cameras garnering $150m in fines (this is as many active cameras as in the whole of the UK).  400 more are on the way in Moscow in 2019. But the most telling indicator for me was a national park suddenly deciding in 2017 levy a ‘user fee’ of 400 rubles a year from hikers, anglers and even villagers whose abodes happen to lie within the park, the only interest shown in the park by the ministry of natural resources since 1995. It is as if suddenly a player in the ministry decided that previous milking of the parks (through lumber harvesting and guided tours) was now insufficient.

Therefore it is of no surprise to me that a recent Levada poll showed that while Russians’ pessimism is not as bad as it was even as recently as 2013, 46% of Russians cannot plan for even the immediate future. This was published at the same time as another poll that saw presidential ratings fall back to below 2014 levels. Furthermore, the unpopularity of the government and the Prime Minister is as high as it has ever been in the post-2000 world (a record high for the Prime Minister). Perhaps more importantly, for the first time since 2013 more surveyed people respond that the country is ‘moving in the wrong direction’ than the right one (45% versus 42%).


Making impossible ends meet

Bear with me here but it’s really unavoidable that we dig down into the reality of existence for the majority of Russians – poorly paid and already highly taxed before these changes. Indeed, it’s bordering on the irresponsible that the ‘human face’ of working poverty is largely absent from much discussion (which I’ll discuss in the follow-up post). To do this, let’s look at a portrait based on a real research participant I have worked with for the last ten years.

‘Dima’ worked as a loader in a brick factory in his small industrial town for the last ten years, but there his wage was static and never rose above 18,000 rubles a month. His wife works in a food shop part time and takes home 8000 rb. They have a pre-school-age child. The household income was recently therefore less than $400 a month (26,000 rb). Dima thought he’d got lucky, in 2018 he got a job at the Samsung washing machine assembly, on the road between Moscow and Kaluga. This gave him 24,000 rb a month, a 30% pay increase. However, he needed to use a car to commute to work, the costs swallowing a lot of the wage increase. With petrol going up, now he’s earning less than he used to. Before the new tax increases come into effect these were the outgoings of the family: 7000 on utilities, and 15,000 on food, which is skimping on all but the essentials. The family relies on relatives who work a garden plot for fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as jars of preserves in the winter. 5000 a month goes on petrol, just to get to work and back (there are better paid jobs, but they’re further afield). That’s already 27,000 gone, not accounting for clothes, medicine, other motoring costs, or anything for the child. What’s left is 5000 rb – or $75.


When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. In the bitter current debate on how to quantify poverty, a frequently cited level is an income of least 8 dollars a day to maintain survival, and at least 15 dollars for any kind of dignified existence (especially in a ‘middle’ income country). It’s interesting to note that these two figures map closely the lower and upper range of blue collar wages a man like Dima can expect to earn. These kind of figures are criticised for not taking into account local prices (purchasing power), but as you can see, while wages are very low, living costs are relatively high and even bear comparison with many EU countries.

Just to take the example of the occasional treat of eating fast food, an example that resonates because of the supposed utility of the BigMac Index, for Dima to treat his child to a Happy Meal once a month will cost him more in dollar terms than either the UK or US! Indeed it will cost him 5% of his disposable income for the whole month. [And I can’t resist the personal aside here: my own family of four cooks its own meals and drinks little alcohol. When in Russia we make local-style meals. But our outgoings on food are significantly higher in Russia than in W. Europe]. A more ‘traditional’ measure of one’s finances could be in vodka ‘halflitres’.  Dima can afford 18 bottles of vodka with his 5000 rubles. In the classic routine of Savelii Kramarov from 1971, he complains of only having 30 bottles a month left over after all his expenses! Our real Russia example shows how even with two earners and only one child, no kind of dignified existence is possible. And that is before the significant increases expected in 2019. I often put it like this, Russia is a ‘middle income country without middle-incomes’. And of course Dima is substantially better off than pensioners or the many in much lower-paid work.

In the next post I will try to unpack some of the conclusions observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw about what I will call the ‘extractive turn’. Overall they reveal a deep pessimism about alternative futures. Most of all though they continue to view their own countrymen as passive and lacking any agency (beyond a destructive ‘buntovat’ mentality), despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level.