Russia’s victoryless day

Antiwar sticker, Moscow

I was fortunate to be asked to write a piece for openDemocracy about Russia, one year after the invasion of Ukraine.

In the piece I talk about four ‘misconceptions’ about Russian society. I won’t repeat the full piece here. And really they’re not quite misconceptions, more assumptions that get wide coverage online and in the media. The first is passive and active war approval. I’ve written about this often.

Second, I question the simplistic views about mobilization as a ‘success’ and about how people relate to it. I presented on this topic at a conference in Glasgow last month. That paper will serve as material for two book chapters I’m working on now.

Third, I saw some pieces about how there’s a new economic compact between Putin and the people. And even a long post about how the government has bought off Russians. I disagree. Anyone reading this blog will remember I frequently write about the parlous economic situation. War hasn’t changed that. We’re fortunate that Nick B-T is posting again. My piece relied on some of his recent political economy writings.

Fourth, general war salience is low. This is hard to write about. People cannot imagine the way others’ filter information and media – that’s why ‘connective ethnography’ is a thing – actually observing how people use the internet! War is both normalized out of mind, at the same time it is ever present. If I want to say anything in this piece is that dissociation is a ‘normal’ part of normalizing war. Once again, its an unpalatable message, but it’s important to be honest about it. And really, dissociation is something we all do, all the time – when we walk past homeless people, when we watch the news.

Having said that, when forced to confront the bigger picture, some people continue to consolidate ‘defensively’ around feelings (not really coherent ideas) that justify or explain the invasion and which allow them to continue their lives in as mundane a way as possible – that it’s the West who is the aggressor, or that Ukrainians are dupes of their ‘fascist regime’. Some of these feelings are based on internally-coherent reasoning, others are not. Once again, my main point is that defensiveness is ‘sticky’. Just like everyone is liable to prejudice, most people are subject to irrational defensiveness of their homeland, their world-views, their way of life. This is not the same thing as ‘imperialmindedness’, although it correlate or cohabite with it. I discuss this briefly in the piece, and at at length in the book.

[Hi publishers out there, it would be great to hear from you!]


Before the war started, I spent time trying to answer the question of how war would change Russia. My hunch was ‘the same, but worse’. As a researcher I continually ask that question, both of myself and my many interlocutors (obligatory doffing of cap to the work of Public Sociology Lab who do similar, but distinct forms of fieldwork). I am a researcher with long-term contacts from all walks of life who can get credible responses and avoid many, if not all biases those studying Russia are unavoidably subject to.*

My job as an ethnographer is to observe, record, and interpret, hopefully seeing through people’s guile and denial. This applies to perspectives in the West too, where often we have as many biases as those in Russia. I don’t pretend to complete objectivity, but I do have confidence in my sources and in the parlance of social science, their ‘reliability’ and ‘validity’. So much of what we see about the war is filtered heavily. What we see among ‘Russia watchers’ is almost always ‘secondary’ data, manipulated, whether consciously or unconsciously – this is true of surveys, focus groups, and social media research. 

*Unusually, oD allowed me to include a word on methodology in the piece. The more I write about Russians in wartime (and my view is not exactly controversial among scholars), the more pushback I get – often on methods. I keep coming back to this very old but gold piece on the reliability, validity and credibility of ethnographic research – what it does and does not do. It’s hard to have a conversation with other approaches when so often ethnographers are dismissed as using ‘journalistic’ methods. When it comes to validity of research in wartime, there’s a decent argument to say embedded ethnography has more going for it than any other way of getting to people’s feelings and opinions.

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