At the end of January 2022 I made some educated guesses at the effect of a war on Russian society but I didn’t really believe it would happen. Now I take stock briefly.
Because I get so many abusive messages every time I post on this topic I have to make a disclaimer: I work on Russian society, not Ukraine. I have many Ukrainian colleagues and friends and my sympathies and support are with them. However it’s not my job to write about places and people I have an incomplete professional knowledge of.
‘More of the same, yet worse’ – this prediction so far is right. Russians are starting to – very slowly – wake up to the very significant reduction in living standards the war brings. However, like many other issues, we can observe delays and still partially effective efforts of the Russian government to lie to people about the causes. Some people are still ready to believe that inflation and shortages of some goods are due to Covid or other factors.
What I underestimated was the effect of nearly a decade of stagnant or falling living standards. People were already in a state of extreme pessimism and resignation. ‘Boiling the frog’ metaphor doesn’t even come close. This is a frog in a pan where the water long since evaporated. The frog is now a desiccated husk.
This weekend is the spring clean for those who own a garden plot. There was no enthusiasm for this task that many thought they’d left behind, but now planting vegetables is confirmation of a return to the worst of the 1990s
‘Mass civilian causalities and Russian confusion and chaos’. Again, while I’m no expert, this was proved terribly prescient. I didn’t write ‘so badly disciplined they would resort to looting and war crimes’ but the implication is there.
‘lack of appetite for war’. This is now controversial because every day someone points to polling and says: ‘the Russians enjoy this war and love Putin’. I’m not going to repeat my and other people’s criticism of polling. I stand even more strongly by my prediction. There’s a visible group of the usual idiots you can see in any country that because of their personal inadequacies just love to parade their skin deep patriotism. There’s good evidence that the majority of Russians
despise feel either disdain or indifference towards the Z-people [thanks to Anton Shirikov for prompting me to rethink the wording here]. My research participants are mainly ‘blokey’ working-class guys. They have no time for this b-s. They’re more interested in whether their factory will still be working in June. In short, people are fearful for their material wellbeing and, yes, often callously indifferent to Ukraine. No one even mentions Putin any more, apart from the odd old person who leads a sheltered TV-centric life. For me his lack of visible leadership (since February) in explaining and arguing for the war speaks volumes as to the diminution of his status in actual fact among Russians.
‘Initial limited panic’ at shortages (real or imagined). Here too I think I got it right. Although I did not get right the massive sanctions. I underestimated coordination from the West. Can Russian agriculture feed Russians now? Maybe. There are issues with things like animal vaccines and seeds (remember that most commercial seed produces crops whose seed cannot then be re-sown). Nonetheless, with Chinese help, most Russians will only have to suffer high inflation on food staples.
Continuation of the ‘politics of fear’. Again, I underestimated how fast Putin would clamp down and allow the narrative of internal enemies and traitors to justify all kinds of score-settling. I also did not foresee significant emigration by the upper-middle class. Fascism lite? Bonapartism? Others (Greg Yudin here) are very quick to go down those roads. I think for the time being I’ll stick with my version of authoritarian statism inspired by reading Nicos Poulantzas. “the ‘masses’ are not integrated (partly because politics is replaced by a single party centre), and pernicious networks like security interests are ‘crystalized’ in a permanent structure in parallel to the official state”.
After the invasion happened I wrote a follow up post about defensive consolidation. This is a way for people to deal with cognitive dissonance around the Russian aggression. Defensive consolidation involves magical thinking and denial (China will help; the war crimes are staged). It involves a cleaving to authority (not necessarily the government, but your boss, your factory, your town leader), not out of loyalty or enthusiasm, but as a kind of relationship like that of an abused victim to abuser. The more Russians cleave to authority the more they are effectively ‘admitting’ to themselves how bad things really are. So my friend says ‘Russian troops are not aggressors’ and then says ‘we should delete this chat and move to Signal (an encrypted message service). She later talks about how many nightmares she has and cannot watch the news because they are so ‘rabid’ there. This is an example of ‘knowing and not knowing’. The finale is ‘I have to support my country in my own way now that everyone hates us’.
Recently, Sam Greene wrote that he thinks there is now a real rally around the flag. A top-down process using propaganda and repression. Sustaining such negative emotions is hard work and will not last, he predicts. Yesterday Ben Noble did a great thread on the same topic. A general increase in support for state institutions shows that a rally is not about particular actors and what is important is ‘social-desirability bias‘ strengthened by the costs of going against the war (prison, fines, or worse).
What’s next. Escalation with the West? A WWI scenario in Donbas? No one knows. Unrest and coups are unlikely but of course possible, especially if sanctions really do work or Russian forces keep taking very big losses. Can Russian people find a way to relate to their own state other than like a helpless abuse victim? Can they recognize their country’s guilt without resorting to excuses and whataboutery?