Do Russians willingly follow political entrepreneurs’ cues of intolerance, or is their vernacular ‘conservativism’ more complex? (Reprise of “Gayropa” theme)

This is a holding post – I’m coming back to State Capitalism shortly. However, I just gave a talk at George Washington on my Gayropa article. Previous post on that topic here. Here’s a verbatim version of that talk.

This paper emerged out of my frustration. Reading the literature on ‘culture wars’ in Russia, especially after Crimea and the big upswing in popularity for president Putin himself, one could be forgiven for thinking that ordinary Russians are an amorphous reactionary mass, willingly following political entrepreneurs’ cues of intolerance. Indeed in places this literature reflects the febrile atmosphere of Crimean annexation and I think, an unhealthy reliance on the narrow and problematic public opinion carried out within Russia (see my post on Greg Yudin’s critique of opinion polling). While there’s certainly measurable effects of state propaganda on Russians’ views of Europe and the United States, and on their views about cultural permissiveness that the media seeks to link up with enemies of Russian values and identity, my research argues that vernacular social conservatism in Russia re-appropriates official discourses to better express frustrations and disappointments with Russians’ own state and political-economic compact. Thus, my research is ‘activist’ in that it stems from what I perceive to be shortcomings in scholarship, but it is inductive in that it starts with experience/observable events, and pools a set of observations and existing data about the social world.

So, this paper fits into a bigger project – one I call ‘peopling political economy’ and which draws on the insights of feminist social reproduction theory, and the turn towards ethnographic investigations on how ordinary people respond to the monumental social and economic changes in Russia over the last thirty years or more. But before I go on, I should quickly say a word or two about the source material. I’ve been visiting a deindustrialising district of Kaluga region for over twenty years, and serendipitously I was able to undertake intensive and serious ethnographic fieldwork from 2009 to 2010, with repeat visits ever since. This is in some respects both a typical and not so typical place. It bears all the hallmarks of the current legacies of Soviet industrial and urban planning – small, vulnerable monotowns attached to branches of the military industrial complex, now experiencing more than a generation of out migration and disintegration. Having said that, Kaluga region is, while very average on most measures, something of a goldilocks zone – close to Moscow and since 2007 many transnational corporations have started manufacturing there – From South Korea’s Lotte Choco Pies and Samsung consumer electronics, to Volkswagen and Skoda’s autoassembly. A part of my work in my book from 2016 was tracing the movement of blue-collar workers from ‘traditional’ low-tech and low-intensity productionscapes in the local towns, to the greenfield sites populated by strange and forbidding Korean, German and Slovak managers.

But let’s return to the main topic – what I try to do in the paper is say, well yes, inevitably there is an effect of a values agenda in stressing Russian difference, and Euro-American decadence. The rationale of the identitarian turn is well described by Samuel Greene, and the Elliot School’s own Marlene Laruelle. The work of political entrepreneurs like Elena Mizulina – the author of the so called ‘anti-gay propaganda law’ – has real effects, not least on the victim groups identified. However, homophobia we could say is a very low hanging fruit for conservatives. While measures of social attitudes are more or less liberal when it comes to abortion, divorce and so on – in fact more liberal than in the United States, homosexuality has long been a taboo, provoking dismay, if not disgust in the majority of Russian men. Dan Healy’s recent work excavates the history of homophobia in Soviet and Russian society.

But as studies of Brexit, Trump and populist ethnonationalism elsewhere have shown, ‘politics’ does not just stop with a certain elective affinity between existing attitudes and conservative entrepreneurs like Mizulina. So for example, when it comes to how the anti-Juvenille Justice debate is reflected in everyday talk, the objections are made as much to the arbitrary power of the Russian state and the absence of real training, nurturing and educational opportunities, as reference to the imposition of western permissive values.

So this paper is partly about returning agency to ordinary Russians, whom are too often (implicitly) seen as passive recipients of the state’s official discourses. Everyday talk about homosexuality, family and gender norms are infused by Russians’ interpretation of the political context of their own society, particularly the capacities of the punitive state, and the incapacities of the withdrawn social state. The result is what I term the ‘incoherent state’, one whose conservative messages are drowned out by its limited capacities in the social and economic sphere. Similarly, the social legacy of communism and the shared trauma of postcommunist transition are important and formative. Objections to ‘permissiveness’ anchor to a search for putatively lost moral values and normative socialisation – symbolised by the concept of moral vospitanie (upbringing).

On to the materials and specifically gayropa and same sex relationships. Certainly we have, as I’ve said, fear of contagion, disgust, disbelief, and, indeed, strands of ‘gayropa’ – the idea that one can propagandise homosexual ‘lifestyles’ and corrupt youth. My representative interlocutor, Ilya – a blue-collar worker in his 30s, reveals a variety of positions in his talk. Some of them are consonant with gayropa

  • “Oh, immediately, ‘tratratra’ [imitates sound of machine gun firing]. But in the West it’s all normal, right? They go on parades, smile? […] They are everywhere. So many have appeared; there didn’t used to be them.”
  • “In Russia it’s a man and a woman, they live together. But if it’s man and man then it’s complete trash [polnyi shvakh]”
  • “I do believe that this fucking mess came from the West, from English-language countries. […] Before that there were pidory only in prison, or they put them in the loony-bin. […] Well actually there was this [attempt to have public gay parades] before, in the 80s or something in Russia, and in those days, you know, they didn’t say anything, but now they understand that this fucking mess is growing. They tried it in Moscow but the police broke it up immediately and Volodya Putin said, ‘It’s a Russian country, we have boys marrying girls, giving birth to kiddies and we can’t have all this shit.’”

However, probing further, even in this forthright, if not unusual, homophobic positioning, Ilya makes some distinctions that are interesting, and tensions arise – the term ‘vospitanie’, or upbringing is linked to the failure of parents and the state to protect young people from predatory adults, who are not necessarily identified with ‘gays’ (golubye) but with the experience of powerlessness associated with the penal system and the army with their systemised hazing and rape. Further, even for Ilya, same sex relationships, are grudgingly, acknowledged as real, universal in time and space – somewhat undermining his earlier comments. While Ilya is typical, there were a number of similar interlocutors (lacking higher education) who were open to the idea of sexuality as varying by nature, as much as nurture. Perhaps most tellingly is that any talk of permissiveness and gayropa quickly veers off to much more pressing concerns about poverty, jobs, social mobility and the catastrophic state of social support.

In the written paper I have a relatively involved discussion of ‘vospitanie’ –  or moral upbringing. I written about this elsewhere too – in a piece on youth citizenship in Russia with colleagues from Higher school of economics. Certainly there is a residue of nostalgia for the lost state as provider for vospitanie, both materially and ideologically. However, here I follow the work of Daria Ukhova who links the conservative turn in Russia to generalised social distress. This is an important point of distinction between Russia and the West, where largely the indigenous distress argument has been strongly criticised – that is to say, the strongest supporters of populist-conservative politics in the UK and USA were not the most distressed. So to be clear, I am not making a ‘hillybilly elegy’ play, but perhaps my argument does have something in common with Arlie Russell Hochschild’s ‘deep story’ of Tea Party supporters. Except that, while Putin regains the respect and loyalty of some of my interlocutors, we can hardly say they have hope or even trust in him, and the Russian state as I have said, is increasingly something to be both despaired and afraid of.

Following Ukhova, it is worth breaking down ‘social distress’ into subcategories. These are:

1. The socio-economic dislocation and sense of injustice, increasingly for more than just working-class men.

2.  A Janus-faced political expression that has on one side a desire for punitively enforced order where there is perceived moral and social ‘disorder’. On the other, a fear of arbitrary ‘justice’ dealt by the state and practical knowledge of its great capacity for indiscriminate collective punishment.

3. an elective affinity between state-led conservative narratives of ‘protection’ from the West, and lay values around a loss of guiding moral vospitanie in social order more generally. 

This results in confused expressions of both loyalty and dissent. Daria Ukhova found that ‘traditional family values’ serve as a resource for ordinary Russians to help to come to terms with economic inequalities, and that this displaces the language of class politics. I find that increasingly this resource is reserved only for a small minority, as the ability of social reproduction in the traditional family narrows further and pleas for social support fall on deaf ears.

A second part of the written paper is devoted to ordinary reflections on the anti-Juvenile Justice movement, a topic that the Swedish scholar Tova Höjdestrand has written on extensively. While some people I talked with had – again – internalised aspects of the argument that child rights were an alien western imposition on Russia, over time, the majority of the talk boiled down to the how the corrupt and punitive nature of the Russian state meant that juvenile justice would result in injustices due to bureaucratic overreach. At most there is an associating of European childrearing with permissiveness, but this is then immediately redirected back into concern with incoherent social policy in practice – the fear of state agents as bad actors, and ironically, the risk to human rights of state agencies’ failure to follow due process and a presumption of innocence.

  • “You know everyone’s disappointed with decisions [appointing a new Children’s Ombudsman] like that by Putin, like with the pension fund thing. Children’s rights begin at home! It was all so much easier when the system was that the grandmother could live with you and look after the children while you worked.” 
  • “Yes, while on the one hand they say that this J-J comes from the West…On the other hand Navalnyi is right that maybe Putin is just representing somebody’s interest–I mean Navalnyi has shown and now everyone can see how he’s protecting particular interests – oligarchs.”
  • “J-J is not subordinate to anyone. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s that there are petty provocateurs. People in hospitals or education who will use the opportunity of JJ to improve their own situation.”

What’s perhaps most interesting about these quotes is the vernacular awareness of how Russia really works, the cronyism, and the abuse of authority for one’s own interest. Again, there is much talk of vospitanie in the conversations, where the state is understood as incoherent, or at best inadequate in producing a opportunities and models for model upbringing.

In the written paper I use the work of Raymond Williams, British anthropologist Michael Herzfeld, and the Balkan historian Alexander Kiossev to try to do justice to the idea that cultural hegemony is just as complex a process, and has just as much vernacular reprocessing, as in any other complex society. Without going into detail, the idea is that there is a very unstable frontier between What Chantel Mouffe calls the effects of hegemonic institutions and ‘sedimented practices’. In terms of my wider research project, I’m interested in how at the micro-level of interaction between street-level bureaucrats and Russian citizens, politics and policies are negotiated – this is one of the potential meanings of incoherence that I’m pursuing. To give a couple of quick examples, I’ve looked at the implementation of the extractive turn in detail – the way all kinds of agencies have been enlisted in the last few years to squeeze as many fines, penalties and punitive fees as possible. This is sometimes called ‘people as the new oil’. What I’m interested in is how difficult it has been to really raise state capacity in these areas because of the connivance between the final link in the bureaucratic chain and ordinary people – it could even be called a form of social solidarity. Similarly, I have continued my work on the informal economy to explore how the more the state pushes and tries to widen the net of taxation, the more society ‘pulls’ its activities into the grey and black economies. When we look at it we really do have to conclude that Russian state authority is ‘strong’ but brittle, but I’d like to leave you with a different metaphor – at the end point state capacity is “plasticine” – when it comes up against resistance it, not only people, bend. And fundamentally this is to do with a wide-ranging vernacular of the loss of social contract and consequently a lack of political legitimacy when it comes to governing socio-economic life at least. 

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