Some readers of my recent post on collective responsibility and guilt raised the objection that the real problem is 1. Indifference (i.e. lack of active opposition), and, 2. Enjoyment by Russians of the war, and that these experiences were two other forms of collective feeling that we should condemn.
I agree that collective indifference is the bane of the age, but I don’t think it’s particularly symptomatic of this war, or of Russians’ responses to it. As for enjoyment, I see little of that – when it comes to typical everyday reactions where responses are unprompted and unmonitored. I focus here on the charge of ‘militaristic’ jingoism.
What I think is also symptomatic is that, like all wars since 1991 this one is hypermediated, hyperreal, with most people seeing what they want to see, refracted through the crooked prism of social media and the online more generally.* In short – yes there is mass indifference, but there is little enthusiasm. In my diverse sample, the people who really ‘get off’ on what’s happening are the same people we can find in all of our social media and extended circles of acquaintance – the bores and weirdos who are sadistic and frustrated contrarians.
I am not the only one reflecting on these topics. Here’s a well-followed Russian-speaking observer writing a few days ago
“I think that it is necessary to introduce the concept of “mass forms of passive resistance to the war in Russia”, which primarily include:
mass rejection of the use of privately introduced state symbols of support for the war (all these semi-swastikas), and even quite frequent destruction of this symbolism within reach;
refusing to recruit for the war, despite the generous conditions offered (it was just reported that in one large state-owned oil company, for an incoming order with very good financial conditions, including maintaining a job and salary, the answer was a complete ignore), which leads to the fact that Putin is afraid announce mass mobilization – and this directly affects the situation at the front, where the Russian army is experiencing a severe shortage of personnel and is actually deprived of the opportunity to attack;
not too noticeable, but powerful campaign – “conscripts should not go to the front” (with Narusova as a leader), which deprived the RF Armed Forces of the most massive and unrequited category of fighters;
the lack of personal motivated support for the war, including the refusal to incite hatred towards Ukraine and Ukrainians, the refusal to transfer funds to charitable foundations to support units of the RF Armed Forces and individual parts of the “corps” from ORDLO; the refusal of most of the cultural and intellectual elite to support the war, which led to the need for Prilepin and co-create huge lists of “silent” or opposed;
assistance to Ukrainians in the ability to use the territory of the Russian Federation as a transit for evacuation from the occupied territories. This phenomenon is certainly not so massive, but active and significant.
All this does not exclude the fact that approximately 15% of the population of the Russian Federation takes an active position in supporting the war and does the opposite. But if you read consistently what supporters of the war write on social networks, you can see how lonely and uncomfortable they feel in Russian society and how they often express threats against those who silently resist their activity.”
[Nikolai Mitrokhin, a few days ago on FB].
I think Mitrokhin paints a little too self-comforting a picture, but only a little.
He misses out on the biggest opposition of all to any enthusiasm for the war: rational fear of death. This blog has covered the low standards of living and precarity of life in Russia. However, that there are so few takers of the astronomical sums on offer to go and fight shows that most people are not that desperate and do have something to lose, and accurately assess their chances of returning unmaimed from the conflict. One of my interlocutors comments: ‘that’s not to say that they are not patriots, or would completely reject a real mobilization. It’s just that everything’s a little bit more nuanced than that.’ So ‘passive resistance’ is the wrong framing – it is too ‘Soviet’ a way of thinking about things, in the tradition of some forms of dissidence, or Tolstoian, even.
Another take that chimes with mine is from a Telegram channel that responds with incredulity at Russian liberals’ assessments of a high level of militarism in Russian society:
“Where does he see this intoxication with militarism? Does he see in his circle? It is unlikely, therefore, such generalizations are already inappropriate.
And then these representatives of the intelligentsia need to study Russian society at least a little. Well, what militarism? Even in the poorest regions, they cannot recruit contract soldiers even for huge, unprecedented salaries – 200-300 thousand rubles each. per month. This is 8-10 times more than the average commoner in such places receives. And for the death of a commoner, the authorities promise 7-12 million rubles each. Whereas the usual fee is 2-3 million rubles. ) and for a death at work they may not pay anything).
For the first time in the history of Russia, the authorities are showing unprecedented generosity for the proles. The maximum unemployment benefit is 13 thousand rubles, for children in poor families they pay 6-12 thousand. And here we have – 200-300 thousand at once.
But even with such money they cannot collect proles. The authorities are forced to travel around the zones, recruit penal battalions, and also – for money. In the Great Patriotic War, soldiers were recruited from the Gulag for free (more than 1.2 million people were recruited), they were given an amnesty solely for being wounded (or posthumously), and now they have made super comfortable conditions even for maniacs and murderers (amnesty after 6 months of the contract) – and they can’t get them to sign up.
Another sign is that not a single top patriot went to the front. Not a deputy, not an opinion leader, not a writer and a journalist. Nobody wants to repeat the fate of Arkady Gaidar – they want to fight from the couch and from Telegram. We see the complete absence of real patriotism even among seemingly “charged” patriots. Although the opportunities for them to participate are ample. Even the repairmen of military equipment in the rear do not want to go.
On the contrary, the conflict showed the complete absence of militarism in Russian society. And even – the lack of patriotism.
It cannot be compared with 2014, when tens of thousands of volunteers traveled free of charge to Donbas, there were millions of mass gatherings. The excitement was among the patriots, dozens of websites and community groups flourished.
And now, after all, even regular military personnel are shown in balaclavas or with censored faces when they are awarded. The state itself loudly says that it does not want militarization, patriotism and excitement. After all, pro-government resources directly write that there is no war, and you have to go to nature and eat barbecue – life goes on as before. It is the enemies who come up with stuff about the war and mobilization.”
From https://t.me/tolk_tolk [lightly edited for readability]
I’ll wrap up this post with a little comment on precisely those ‘Crimea’ patriots from 2014 with whom I talk in my research. I did a long interview and set of observations with one in late 2014 who wanted to go and volunteer to fight (and did ‘volunteer’ as a driver shipping aid there). While the usual windbags are prominent on social media, still complaining that Kyiv hasn’t fallen yet, he’s one who is very quiet now.
* that many people understand the war in a hyperreal way is not to say that certain events like Bucha, Mariupol and so on, are ‘debatable’. Jean Baudrillard’s original point was that the Gulf War WAS an atrocity of mass killing, but it was impossible to disentangle that from the distorted, stylized mediatization of it for people in the West (Saddam stroking a blond British child).