Defensive Consolidation in Russia – not ‘Rally around the Flag’

Yesterday we did a recorded talk with colleagues at Indiana University about what’s happening and likely to happen in Russia [will add a link when I have it]. We focused on these topics: ‘rally round the flag’ effect, pocketbook issues [‘bread and butter’, we say in UK English], and protest mobilization.

My interests are in the immediate responses to war among Russian people who mainly consume state-controlled media.

I characterized the response so far as

  1. ‘disbelief/denial’,
  2. different coping mechanisms with cognitive dissonance – mainly wishful or magical thinking,
  3. defensive consolidation. I will focus on the last one, which derives from the first two as both cognitive labour and practical action.

I will first mention ‘denial’. Someone reminded me of Stanley Cohen’s work on States of Denial, and I do think it’s relevant:

denial is that peculiar mental state in which a fact or idea is simultaneously known and not-known. Known enough to know that further knowledge will be too difficult, and so must be avoided. He applies this to the micro problems of daily life (abusive relationships, alcoholism and addictions, etc.) and the macro problems of societies and large-scale atrocities, though the latter appropriately takes up the bulk of his focus and the book. It’s impossible to avoid, though, seeing the ways in which even the macro discussions apply to the micro.”

He explores the denial paradox at some length: in small doses denial allows us to have enough optimism to function in our daily lives. In large doses or about destructive enough problems, at any scale, denial kills. How to have enough denial to be in mental health while not so much denial as to contribute to mass atrocities and suffering is a conundrum he finds essentially unanswerable, suggesting that the answer is being aware of this dilemma.

If many Russians are still grappling with the idea of invasion, mass Ukrainian casualties, mass Russian military casualties, for those with more awareness or more instinctive grasp of the murderous capacities of their own state, the response is defensive consolidation. I’m sure there’s a better term, but that’s what I had in the moment. Maybe ‘involutionary consolidation?’ might be better – calling back to work by Michael Burawoy on Russia in the 90s.

I don’t call this ‘rally round the flag’ because it is not usually connected to expressions of patriotism, or nationalism, or enthusiasm for the campaign or for the Russian government. And partly the government are to blame, as they insist on a highly restrained media coverage and insist on calling it a ‘military operation’. Whether this will change when Russia goes to a war footing without a ‘war’, remains to be seen. And that’s my main point – ‘what war?’ people are still telling me.

The phrase ‘truth is on our side’ is used by a few in a kind of magical reactive desperation and is not said with any sense that the speaker believes in the ‘truth’ of a botched military campaign that even now could fail.

People say things like ‘we made our choice, we will accept the consequences. If people want to leave, let them. Maybe after all there will be opportunities for people like in the end of the 90s? Things couldn’t get any worse really, to be honest. The main thing is to hunker down until the spring. We’ll wait and see. Time will tell.’

Beyond the clichés, there are also powerful feelings of resentment that serve as a kind of social – not political – glue. I posted a long twitter thread of quotes from one person I know well yesterday and it got a lot of people responding that it reminded them of US responses to MAGA populism. Many were disturbed by it. [I’ll append it to the end of this post]

I think these are misreadings. What is dangerous about the current situation is that any actions from the West can be easily leveraged by Putin to stoke well-founded resentment based on a deep seated feeling of exclusion. Exclusion from the ‘fruits’ of change since 1991 in Russia. Exclusion from politics domestically (in that sense I do make a concession to populist readings). Exclusion in geopolitical terms (however understood, and however distorted). Note that I resist the interpretation that every Russian is a neo-imperial chauvinist.

The speaker talks semi-ironically about the myth of two Russias – the intelligentsia/elite and the ‘deep people’. But the understanding of ‘social racism’ is clearly expressed, and a long standing topic of this blog. You don’t have to call it by these words. There is also recognition that the Ukrainian national project since 2014 actually bore fruit. There is the savvy perception that any opposition mobilization in Russia has been very class based and ‘political’ in a way that excludes coalescence (a term I was much criticised for contemplating in the past).

Then there is the turn to ‘we will suffer and endure’, a cliché of woe-litany that many anthropologists have talked about. It isn’t necessarily reflective of reality, but it is an important performative, and socially-sticky trope. The point is that significant socio-economic suffering might well transform such discourse into a narrative that ‘consolidates’ the status quo – politically. So that’s why I used the term defensive consolidation. And I don’t think this is necessarily anything to do with propaganda, or even historical contexts. It’s just as valid an interpretation of ‘everyday politics’ as the one I have been making for a while on this blog about people’s views of Russia as an ‘incoherent state’ that cannot meet many of their material, cultural, social or libidinal needs. In fact, it correlates with that view. You will also detect a fateful resignation – even embracing of crisis, of the status of pariah, which, I’m afraid to say, comes through strongly among many people I talk to, even people who have more to lose than my informant. Some of this can be attributed to the genuine stagnation of Russian society since, at least 2011. It turns on its head the cliché about Russians’ conservative aversion to crisis.

It is ironic that just as we get cut off from reliable sources of information about what Russian people think, I more than ever encounter disbelief, and indeed outright hostility to what I write. All I can say is that if you know my work, you know I’ve got contacts (now 23 years plus) with people that trust me and are pretty open about what they say to me. Of course, there is ‘cautiousness’ now. Some of my people work for the state. But they’re no fools. We have ways to communicate. And people WANT to talk more than ever before with people ‘over there’.

András Tóth-Czifra responded to my thread and said this: Zubarevich said yesterday that the sanctions will likely hit the middle class harder. Do you think that considering these sentiments it’ll limit the extent to which the vocal anti-war constituency can grow?

I think the fact that middle-class people will be more hurt is significant. But from what we know at the moment all Russians will be enormously impacted by sanctions. The point is that this collective punishment both binds Russians in defensive consolidation. And reifies myths of ‘narod’ [note the scare quotes] v rest, Russian v. the West. So far I would not say this means ‘loyalty’ over ‘voice’ or ‘exit’, it means attending to one’s most pressing local concerns. There are both centrifugal and centripetal pressures. Which has more energy?

Today I had time and the wherewithal to ring around Russian friends and tell them to prepare for the worst. I told one person to buy up his medicine for a chronic illness. His response: ‘it’s all ok’. For my best friend it means going to his garage and cleaning a carburettor for his motorcycle. ‘In the summer I’ll give you a ride’, he ends.

  1. A response from # workingclass Russia: “Europe does not want to have anything in common in Russia except money. Never did. That’s why it can only ‘speak to us’ with the language of sanctions. They won’t hurt Putin and his cronies. What’s the point?
  • “Social racism – is the biggest problem in Russia (its intelligentsia) and in European society. Europe was ready to speak only with the intelligentsia, which showed and could simulate Europeanized public opinion. It was such a showcase.
  • “At the same time, the “deep Russian” is generally unknown to Europe – it was only visible in the fights of football fans. And Europe refused to look for words and understanding of ALL of Russia, and not just Lev Ponamorev, Parkhomenko or Albats.
  • “At the same time, Europe cynically accepted money from the oligarchs and Britain in the first place. The oligarchs fueled the economy of Europe by stealing money from the “deep people”. In fact, it was a double consensus of exploitation – first Russian oligarchs,
  • “and then through them European businesses, etc. Silent consensus. And so the leader found the ressentiment of the “deep people” in relation to everything European. And secondly, exactly the same “social racism” was inside Russia – the middle class, intellectuals elites
  • “as in the days of serfdom, they despise and do not want to deal with the “deep the people.” Not Navalny, no one was looking for a language and ways of speaking with this huge Russia. Everyone considered them obviously cattle and lost beggars. “Another Nation”
  • “In this sense, it was more convenient in Moscow to have real “strangers” with a foreign language and customs in hard city work in housing and communal services and at a construction site than an unstable drinking peasant from the Vladimir outback.
  • “The main difference between the protests and the unity in Ukraine (during Maidan 2014) was that the elites and intellectuals found an ideology, language and ways of communication with their “deep people” – a real national unity.
  • “And in Russia – the war has led to the fact that the split has become deep and finalsome are waiting for the victories of Russian weapons, others are buying up foreign currency and looking for Schengen visas. And even the anti-war movement has not found real mass support
  • “the anti-war movement lacks mass support so far, since it is made according to the patterns of dissident intellectual actions – there is nothing for the people. There is no understanding of it, no intelligentsia, as it turned out, knows the country in which they live.
  • “Everyone was thinking about how to “be European” in a wild country…. I talked with my parents – “we’ll live on buckwheat, we don’t need a foreign food” (they really are on dacha food, and things are at a minimum – dad wore my leftover military camouflage )
  • “everyone is watching and discussing the news, the men are looking at the sky – they are looking for strategic fighters and bombers – they seem to have flown by. The lower class of the older generation in the regions easily enters a state of military mobilization
  • “…and apparently their children from the same class will also enter this state of expectation – there is an external enemy, we have a war, we are waiting for the nukes (waiting!) – we are ready to endure to the last. These are general sentiments.
  • “But many ordinary people have relatives and friends abroad. They are personally writing that a wave of hatred has begun at the everyday level (Putin did not invent it), at the level of everyday communication with children, and so on.
  • “This is not the intelligentsia – but workers, small entrepreneurs, who live there. And personal letters – to relatives and friends to my mother. Everyone immediately tells about it and says – “Europeans have always secretly hated us, and now it manifested itself right away..
  • “I agreed today to go plant vegis in spring to help my father with the dacha. I had never participated since the 90s – he did it himself. Here’s your f**king anthropology for you. But you knew that already.” /ends

• • •

6 thoughts on “Defensive Consolidation in Russia – not ‘Rally around the Flag’

  1. alex pravda

    Much appreciate these thoughtful reflections at a time of zero-sum reflexes in policy as well,sadly, as in scholarly communities. Alex Pravda St Antony’s College Oxford


  2. Michele Rivkin-Fish

    Immensely grateful to you for this blog post– so helpful for understanding what is going on behind the headlines and pundit-talk!

    Liked by 1 person

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