Author Archives: Jeremy Morris

About Jeremy Morris

I write about Russia as an academic. But don't let that put you off.

Guest post 2: “Pray to Any Gods You Wish—As Long As Gods Support the State”

http://infrastructur.es/en

Political theorist Rustem Vakhitov suggests looking at ethnic processes in the Russian Federation through the lens of his primordialist concept of “ethnic soslovie,” (etnososlovie) or “ethnic estate”, in the sense similar to the old English or French “estates of the realm.”1 In the Russian Empire, all non-Russians were legally grouped into a single and separate category (“inorodtsy”), and with the fall of the monarchy, it did not disappear—the classification just transformed into an array of unspoken, accidentally assembled and theoretically unexamined practices which still exist today. It is this very “estate”-based approach, according to Vakhitov, that helped the Bolsheviks restore Russia’s old imperial borders (without Poland and Finland), and it is what keeps the country from large-scale inter-ethnic conflicts today. Vakhitov consistently speaks from conservative and imperialist positions, but his constructions are useful, as they conceptualize the real tacit practices in use to this day. Vakhitov believes that this etnososlovie type of inter-ethnic relations fits the Russian land empire better than the Western idea of civic nationalism, which the proponents of liberal national policies tried to apply to the Russian context during the first post-Soviet decade. Vakhitov suggests considering the constituent regions of the Russian Federation as a special form of the etnososlovie and not as nations in the Western understanding of the term, and especially not as states (though that is exactly how they are named in their constitutions).

An etnososlovie, according to Vakhitov, is a deeply imperial phenomenon, which provides the relative stability of multi-ethnic Russian society on the one hand, and guarantees the preservation of languages and cultures of minorities on the other. However, it’s important to note that the latter are preserved in a deliberately subordinate and vulnerable position relative to the ethnic majority. An etnososlovie can basically be called a form of vassal relationship. One of the guiding political and economic principles here consists in that the regional ethnic elites receive political and economic privileges from the ruling group in Moscow in exchange for certain responsibilities, but national self-determination or self-governance are completely excluded from both the political narrative and the law. The constitutions adopted in the newly formed ethnic autonomies soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union guaranteed their right to leave the Russian Federation—the same right the Soviet republics had. With Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power, these clauses were abolished, while activists and politicians who had taken positions now branded as nationalist and separatist were subject to repression.

Incidentally, Vakhitov’s concept of “ethnic estates” cannot be applied to all of Russia’s ethnic groups. It is rather only suitable for the largest and most consolidated ones that live fairly compactly on a particular territory, such as Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens, and Yakuts, among others. In internal affairs, an etnososlovie has a certain autonomy, though it is most often purely symbolic: they are guaranteed certain unspoken quotas for government positions (but only in their own regions, and under the condition that they will support the policies dictated by Moscow) and support of institutions that provide for the continuation of the loyal intelligentsia, languages, and identities—granted, in a conservative, traditionalist, and folkloric sense. Religious policies follow in the same framework—nations have the right to follow any faith, so long as there are as few connections with congregations abroad as possible combined with conservative values and demonstrated loyalty.2 Religious diversity is very welcome. In Sakha-Yakutia, for example, local ethnologists and activists created and recently officially registered two new religions based on traditional Yakut animist beliefs. Now their followers can create official congregations and build places of worship. The region’s government has made it a law to use the new religious symbols and attributes during national holidays, although religion in Russia is supposedly formally separated from the state. This ambiguity can be seen in the status of Archy-Diete (“The House of Purification”) in Yakutsk: it is advertised as the main church of a new Yakut faith, although formally it is a state institution that is subordinate to the department of culture and spiritual development. Yes, you heard right: the bureaucracy is in charge of the spiritual development.

Infrastructures is a research-based photo project and photobook about the Russian and post-Soviet political economy, created in 2016-2019 by Sergey Novikov and Max Sher. Using documentary and staged photography, as well as writing, they look at and reflect on the political and cultural significance of both the physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pipelines, etc., and ‘infrastructure’ of thinking and discourse that historically underpin the functioning of the State and power.

1 Рустем Вахитов. Национальный вопрос в сословном обществе: этносословия современной России. Сборник статей. Москва, 2016.

2 The FSB occasionally and arbitrarily deports religious figures with foreign citizenship, and their specific confession or congregation is irrelevant. And incidentally, the consistent refusal by Jehovah’s Witnesses to demonstrate their loyalty as well as their American origin were likely the reasons for their legal ban in 2017 and subsequent repressions.

Guest post: The Bridge to Nowhere, or The Potlatch as a Form of Development

http://infrastructur.es/en

What if the potlatch becomes a form of infrastructure development? Imagine: overseas delegations travel in a caravan across the Russian Bridge to Russian Island to a meeting with the Russian leader—beautiful, right? In the name of this picturesque, albeit fleeting image, can they really not spend some two billion dollars of state money—not their own, after all? Jokes aside, but this, we are sure, was the key motivation when Russian officials chose the location for a rather lackluster international event: the APEC summit held in 2012 in Vladivostok. They could have chosen a more developed location in town, where there was at least some semblance of infrastructure, but they chose Russian Island: a former military garrison, connected with the city by ferry alone, where everything would need to be built from scratch.

Much was written about the millions plundered during summit preparations, but the fact remains: it became the most important milestone in the life of the city. Without it, Vladivostok would never have been able to repair or build even a hundredth of what was repaired and built, and all because the leader, in an effort to increase his own prestige, gave a great deal away to everyone: from high-ranking officials and regional elites to “ordinary people.” It does not matter that the Russian Bridge is ultimately a two-billion-dollar bridge to nowhere: it connects the city to an island with a population of five thousand people, and was needed only so that the leader and his foreign guests could travel to the summit location and back. It certainly wasn’t built for the sake of the university, which was relocated to the island after the summit. In this way, the bridge became a true symbol of the post-Soviet model of development, where mega-projects and anniversaries—from championships and Olympics to summits—are nearly the only way to somehow redistribute resources with tangible benefits for Russia’s outer regions.

Post-Soviet centralized systems are not equipped to provide the regions with the ability to do this themselves. They have not created the conditions or institutions for either self-governance or attracting investments. Therefore, if it is impossible to “develop” the regions in any other way, at least this method seems to work. However, this is not “development” per se, nor is it simply corruption. Here there are several political and economic motivations, all generally characteristic of post-Soviet capitalism, each of which contributes to each other, and among them—although we do not wish to justify the government’s position—is the public good: new bridges (aside from the unnecessary Russian Bridge in Vladivostok, several other truly necessary bridges were built), roads, a university, power plants, hospitals, a theater and so on truly do serve society. Of course, they cost several times more than they should have, but when we talk about potlatch events, when the reputation of the supreme leader is on the line, there is no sense in bargaining, just as in the case with those real potlatches. The cost estimates can therefore be inflated without end—and the bigger the expenses, the greater the prestige. This is why the “cleverest” regions are doing their utmost to come up with a reason to hold yet another federal “potlatch”—an anniversary or a championship—receiving funds from the capital to do so. In addition, there is an important point that does not allow the bureaucracy to relax and/or steal all the money dedicated to the project: they must show some real built results by a strictly defined date. When there are no deadlines, the embezzlement can go on indefinitely, as is the case with the Vostochny Cosmodrome. By the way, the five thousand residents of Russian Island are not terribly happy about the Russian Bridge: whereas the trip to central Vladivostok used to take 20 minutes by ferry, it now takes nearly an hour and a half, with the ferry shut down and plenty of traffic to contend with. That’s progress and new infrastructure for you! But who cares about these little things when the Russian Bridge can now be printed on new banknotes (with the Vostochny Cosmodrome on the other side)!

Infrastructures is a research-based photo project and photobook about the Russian and post-Soviet political economy, created in 2016-2019 by Sergey Novikov and Max Sher. Using documentary and staged photography, as well as writing, they look at and reflect on the political and cultural significance of both the physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pipelines, etc., and ‘infrastructure’ of thinking and discourse that historically underpin the functioning of the State and power.

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. 

Russian State Capitalism Part II – Matveev on dirigiste and neoliberal synergies

So, as I said in my last post, I’m writing a long piece for Sotsvlasti – a social science journal in Russia on state capitalism and neoliberalism. In this second post I’ll mainly focus on Ilya Matveev’s work on Russia as a state-capital-neoliberal hybrid, because Matveev’s position is my main departure point. Matveev uses the term ‘state capitalism’ to propose a kind of elective affinity between neoliberal economics and elements of dirigiste industrial policy that maintain the position of economic elites and provide political stability, but which are uncoordinated with the private sector. Notably while the primitive accumulation associated with the 1990s privatisation processes and subsequent political conflict gets a lot of attention in scholarship, the relative security of property rights for ‘winning’ elites, and the longer term development of ‘normal’ forms of market accumulation, are overlooked according to Matveev.  Matveev here cites Daniel Triesman’s work on the misperception about the ‘legitimacy’, durability, and sources of wealth for many current financial elites. Triesman elsewhere has useful paper on the 1990s privatisation ‘loans for shares’ affair and how this  reflected a delayed transformation of Soviet elites into one flavour of postcommunist asset oligarchs. I obviously don’t share Triesman’s implicit Pollyanna approach to Russian economic transformation (creating new owners at any cost is justifiable).  

Matveev focusses on the period 2004-8 as a turn to ‘dirigisme’. Yukos is merely the most visible example of the expansion of de facto state ownership in the economy, with swathes of banking, oil and gas, and some industrial monopolies directly or indirectly state owned. Despite, experiments in pronatal social benefits and elements of autarkic developmentalist policy since 2014 that run against market philosophy, Matveev argues that Russia maintains orthodox neoliberal policies such as a strong monetarist bias, fiscal consolidation, and marketized mechanisms of discipline and competition in the public sector. Matveev provides clues to my main argument: the need to make a distinction between clientelist and patrimonial negotiations of relative power and access to capital resources within the elite, and a broad and deep set of policies that affect the lives of the majority of Russians in the private and public sectors. Objections to Matveev’s argument are striking for their misrecognition of fundamental changes that align with core deregulatory and ‘responsibilizing’ principles in biopolitics.

Translating the substance of this transformation into the language of popular politics, localized versions of terms like ‘austerity’, ‘the 1%’, ‘one rule for the rich’, ‘work no longer has dignity’, ‘the callous state’, ‘we are a country of paupers’,  resonate for Russians, W. Europeans, and N. Americans alike. Indeed, for workers in state-influenced or owned firms in strategic industries, exploitative and intensified labour conditions are similar to experiences of corporate change elsewhere,. My long-term underemployed research participant, Igor, reflects on his experience as a seasonal [na vakhtu] construction contractor with Yamal LNG in the far North, where 80% of Russia’s gas reserves are found. Yamal LNG is joint owned by Novatek, a private inheritor-firm of a Soviet pipe constructor, in which the Russian state has a 9% interest, China’s main energy SOE and others.

Like everywhere now a cleverly [khitro] designed small base ‘white’ [taxed] salary with bonuses that are impossible to earn. Again, like everywhere, there is a ‘black’ [unregistered, illegal] component of pay that is also withheld at will, as a kind of weapon over you.  Terrible conditions, worse than a prison camp. I quit ahead of my term because I got neither the days off, nor the travelling expenses in the contract. As a result, they wrote a terrible recommendation letter – without which I will not get another contract. We are just another item of brittle or pliable ‘inventar’ [equipment] to be used until it breaks (instead of a 12-hour shift we regularly worked 16). To me it’s like Russia is a slave colony, we just don’t use that term anymore. We ‘manage’ our slavery ourselves, with some help from machines and technology. [interview in Kaluga Region, summer 2019]

For me what’s important here is the presence of lay political-economic analysis that experience generates. In terms of everyday political economy, does it really matter whether one works for an SOE or not? This ‘everyday political economy’ is a framing device that hopefully will work in a book-length treatment.

Matveev’s analysis, while underlining that a serious study of state capitalism has its place in any analysis of Russia, should remind us that salient features are present in large measure in ‘core’ democratic states. By the same token, strategic ownership by the state and elite corruption does not alter the fundamental division between capital concentration, cartels, financialization and the rise of a rentier-class on the one hand, and the erosion of labour’s position, the retreat of the social state, and economic neoliberalism for the majority on the other.

 ‘State capitalism’ may exacerbate distortions in capital allocation towards favoured producers in weapons, metals or energy, and lead to spill-over into high levels of elite corruption. However, in the ‘core’ states, capital interests also make ‘good’ use of the state to entrench and ‘enmoat’ themselves into cartels in what look like ‘new’ industries, but whose final services are eternal necessities – consumer durables, transport, and information/entertainment (Amazon, Uber, Google). Where ‘disruptors’ arise, they rely, not only on financialization, but crucially, on tax subsidies and legislative capture or lag – Tesla being a prime example.

Covid-19 made these processes impossible to ignore, as one of the most deregulated of ‘free market’ states – the United Kingdom – engaged in some of the most corrupt practices of state-capital connivance – handing out production and service healthcare contracts without tender to crony insiders who gouged both citizens and state organisations. At the micro scale, in supposedly solid democratic states, severe impositions on freedom of movement and assembly are imposed that focus on the individual and her economic positioning. The reader will already see where I am going with this argument: that the varieties of capitalism approach is less useful than the evaluation of the objective and subjective economic relations as dictated by a logic of ‘neoliberal’ subjectivation. Explaining how that logic operates in Russia is a large part of the rest of my article and I’ll return to it in the future.

State Capitalism Part I – Dorit Geva on Hungary’s Ordonationalism and the Parallels to Russia

Novatek Polska in Germany – a good example of a hybrid state corporation with transnational reach

A shortish first post on ‘state capitalism’ in Russia [actually there’s a previous post on this in relation to Covid and the state]. Defining state capitalism for me is important – as a precursor to more authoritatively talking about what I mean by the ‘incoherent state’ – an idea I’ve been playing with for a while now. Another reason for my interest in the term ‘state capitalism’ is that it is linked – for better or worse – with the meaning of neoliberalism in Russia.

I’m prompted to blog about it now because yesterday I read this great article by Dorit Geva on Orbán’s Hungary. I tweeted a few excerpts which provoke comparison to Russia. Here they are slightly edited: Geva argues that ‘ordonationalism’ entails: (1) a nationalist state invested in flexibilizing domestic labour; (2) state capture as means to control access to domestic accumulation; (3) a novel regime of social reproduction, linking financialization, flexibilization of labour, and a marked decline in social support. It’s interesting to reflect on the comparability with Russia where these destabilizing currents lead to the authoritarian state being forced to step in and find a (sticking-plaster) solution – this chimes with the various ‘manual control’ moments in Russian politics where elites are forced to ‘correct’ overzealous policy that threatens to completely impoverish citizens and provoke a coalescence of protestpension reform is one example of a “безальтернативно” policy that got watered down. Indeed the pension reform row-back was not some neat trick to show Putin masterfully ‘correct’ an unjust proposal, but an indication of the ‘living dead’ influence on economic policy in Russia. The so-called ‘Petersburg liberals’ still have political heft and they are still constructing policy from the same tired old flatpack Ikea version of the Washington Consensus, despite most of the rest of the developed world moving on more shabby-chic Keynesianism, post-Covid. Discussion here not specifically on pensions, but on the development of factionalism in the elite as reflected in such conflicts. Discussion here on the pension changes as neoliberal policy.

Bob Jessop’s strategic-relational approach gets a nod from Geva in her article, and this approach is quite important to me because I think it is underemphasised on work on Russia for various reasons. More on that another time.

[From a wiki:  “the state has differential effects on various political and economic strategies in a way that some are more privileged than others, but at the same time, it is the interaction among these strategies that result in such exercise of state power. This approach is called the “strategic-relational approach” and can be considered as a creative extension and development of Marx’s concept of capital not as a thing but as a social relation and Antonio Gramsci’s and Nicos Poulantzas’s concept of the state as a social relation, something more than narrow political society.”]

Funnily enough, an undergrad student (!) yesterday made a similar point to Geva’s but about Putinism. Geva writes that ‘Orban [is] contemporary manifestation of Bonapartism‘ emerging from a crisis of hegemony and class deadlock. Geva again: ‘Bonapartism for the neoliberal age; a political solution to the crisis of hegemony produced by neoliberalism, and whose strategy for accumulation of power is to take control of the state as primary arbiter over accumulation of capital’. According to this analysis, states struggle with hegemonic consent, thus turn to increasingly authoritarian policies to advance neoliberal projects that exacerbate their disruptive tendencies. Orban shows it’s possible to fortify hegemonic rule through advanced neoliberalisation. Geva cites Ian Bruff’s work on this point – a key reference for those interested in how authoritarianism is the present vector for sustaining neoliberal politics. I include a section on Bruff’s relevance to the Russian context in my article – I’ll expand on this in a future post.

Toplišek called the Hungarian path ‘counter-neoliberalisation’, incl. re-nationalization of key sectors, protectionism. However, ‘re-nationalization’ needs to be understood as form of financial nationalism which extends the logic of neoliberalism – not wholly a counterneoliberal’ move. Examples: Fidesz’s bank levy; national oligarchic dependents carving out sectors for exclusive rent collection; pension fund nationalisation – the volume of state-owned assets increased by two-and-a-half times between 2010 and 2015. Nonetheless, while there is no ‘political neoliberalism’, à la Stephanie Mudge, instead we get the central social policy plank of workfare, and individualised contractual relations, low corporate taxes and many other examples that reveal intensified neoliberal tendencies via ordonationalist policy. Geva concludes with a balancing statement: “Where Orban’s post-neoliberal prebendalism cannot fill a market niche, such as with the auto-manufacturing industry, he leaves those sectors to investment by global capital.” This is very close to my own work on transnational corporations’ place in the Russian economy. The case study of Special Economic Zones features in my work.

Some of this post relates to ideas from an article I’m writing for Sotsvlasti – a social science journal in Russia. I will expand on that in my next post, where I’ll also return to Ilya Matveev’s work on Russia as a state-capital-neoliberal hybrid. My ‘job’ right now it to try to put ethnographic skin on the political economy bones of that argument. I have some good interviews with people that went to work on contracts in the Far North for Novatek (which might serve as an example of a hybrid state-private corporation), but I need more time in the field to develop this material. I also have a lot of unused material on the SEZ in Kaluga – a ‘state within a state’ that echoes the political economic organisation of the former Soviet-era closed town I made a study of in my last book.

Russian Cultural Conservatism Critiqued: Translating the Tropes of ‘Gayropa’ and ‘Juvenile Justice’

My article on homophobia and juvenile justice finally came out in Europe-Asia Studies. You can get a pre-print copy here. I’ll do a quick summary and reflection in this post.

The article started as a series of dissatisfactions about the way ‘culture war’ and conservative turn were extended from application to the Russian elite and big politics to ordinary people. As if to say, that as the media propagate intolerance, people blindly and automatically follow. Now, sure, I’m not saying there isn’t a strong effect when the media consistently demonises a group – just look at the xenophobic British press. However, my argument is that there is never a neat translation into everyday life of a trope like gayropa. I started thinking about this in a post from 2019.

Another prompt for my article was Greg Yudin’s demolition of a notorious poll on attitudes to Stalin and the problematic preconceived ideas that shape much Russian polling. Greg was writing around the same time Levada’s latest poll on ‘attitudes to LGBT people’ came out. I commented then that more methodologically robust studies find that while Russia is ‘medium-high’ in terms of preference for ‘traditional’ values in comparison to other European countries, there are big long-term shifts towards ‘tolerance’ in general, and away from extreme attitudes towards LGBT people in particular.  

This week we see something similar with disproportionate attention and interpretation afforded to a Levada poll showing a fall in people answering ‘yes’ to the question: “do you consider Russia a European country” (from 52% in 2008 to 29% today). I pointed out that at the very least this is a very slippery question that tells us nothing about the substantive meaning of people’s answers – whether they say yes or no.

In my article I bring out the many conversations I have had with my long-term research participants about homosexuality, childrearing, corporal punishment and so on. Certainly there is some reflection of ‘official’ values in talk, but these are overshadowed by longer-term ‘structures of feeling’ – some of which do emphasise ‘traditional’ values. I also engage with Chantel Mouffe,  Michael Herzfeld’s work on ‘cultural intimacy’ and similar work by Alexander Kiossev. They critique an unsophisticated version of cultural hegemony. This allows a space for ‘everyday politics’ to emerge in talk, even in what might appear as unambiguously intolerant or conservative attitudes.

Some things I didn’t have space for in the article – how some perspectives on intolerance in places like Russia are a form of psychological projection; I highly recommend this piece by Katharina Wiedlack on the ‘Western gaze on Russian homophobia’. There’s a long discussion about cultural attitudes to childhood in the article; with the effect of Covid and various other things, I more and more tend to the conclusion that British people utterly despise children

In Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia, men are murdered for being gay, and official homophobia causes untold suffering and the perpetuation of intolerance. But as Wiedlack argues, there are ways of criticising and condemning prejudice and violence without perpetuating notions of western hegemony and counterproductive ‘leveraged pedagogy’ (Kulpa 2014) around sexuality and gender.

Russian activism through a micro-scale and social media lens

still from Vestnik Buri’s video on Sergei Guriev “An Apostle of the Free Market”

When I was writing recently here and here and here about Navalny, what was at the front of my mind, but mainly left unsaid in those pieces was the vibrant activism of the far less visible Left in Russia. So, to try to restore balance in this blog, I’ll say a little bit about my scholarly turn of attention to left-activism. After all, this blog is supposed to reflect my core research agenda – which is the micro-scale and the ‘everyday’ experience in society that is often overlooked in work on Russia, but which, I would argue is a good barometer of social change itself.  

The Belarus protests are a good example of how we can focus too much on the visible elite actions (and here Navalny is an ‘elite’, if I may) and not enough on the interplay between, dare I say it, structure and ‘ordinary’ agency. I was also interested in the Belarus case because of the possibility of coalitions between different parts of Belarus society. The jury appears to still be out, but Volodia Artiukh’s piece from late last summer shows some potential futures and pathways. I engaged with Artiukh and others because my hunch is that like in Russia small successes of ‘political’ unions can have an outsize indirect effect on worker-militancy more widely and on ‘traditional’ unions themselves (who start feeling they have to up game). But I don’t really know much about Belarus. Update here from an interview with activist group ZabastovkaBY from March 2021 that mentions the importance of informal associations of workers.

Late summer 2020 I also started writing about left activists and the Moscow food courier strike. My main argument was that there is clear evidence of ‘learning’ by activists in ‘political’ unions that this learning can be transferred to completely new terrain (the gig/service economy). Not a very original argument, but again, not something many scholars are working in Russia, so why not build a case study around it. One of the left activists I studied for the courier protests got arrested around the time of the recent Navalny protests. However, this was a clear political punishment not related to Navalny, but because of the union organiser’s solidarity action in support of Azat Miftakhov – an anarchist student stitched up because of his expressive eyebrows.  Subsequently, the union organiser made a very detailed and evocative youtube interview on his experience in a ‘spetspriemnik’ (holding jail for administrative prisoners).

The effective use of social media resources – both for organising, but also then reflecting on the experience of arrest and providing practical advice to future arrestees – reflects another aspect of my interest in this case.  In parallel to the attention Navalny gets as a smooth media operator (perhaps too smooth), anticapitalist Russian YouTube has undergone a real breakthrough (as far as anticapitalist media can be said to breakthrough at all!). That’s not really the main subject of my writing, but in passing I reflect on the advantages of a loose affiliational model of activism sustained by ‘transverse’ online communication. That is to say – one way of hanging on in the hostile (to leftists) environment of social media/journalistic circles is the proliferation of different leftist mini-media projects that might look like isolated corals in a sea of liberal smirk, but which actually exchange direct (and offline) communication, personnel, and experience, online. This is based on the ‘streamer’ model – on platforms like Twitch gamers build (million-strong) subscriber bases for their live streams of video games by engaging in small yet constant acts of solidarity, mutual aid, cooperation, collaboration, and promotion of like-minded others. I hope to come back to this topic again, but in the meantime, spare a thought for the many, many activists (of different stripes) who take great personal risks, but get little attention.

Navalny, rights discourses in, and on Russia, and the missing pro-social policy platform

Quick follow-up to this piece on Amnesty and Navalny that I wrote for the Moscow Times last week.

Some people wanted me to clarify this bit:

“the case brings into focus long-standing debates about the outsized role western NGOs play in how Russia is perceived, and whether the retreat of the U.S. as a global hegemon has the effect of rendering “liberal” ideas of human rights less credible. Yet the problems of unequal access to palpable measures of human flourishing with which these same NGOs grapple — be they free elections, the rule of law or decent working conditions — are more pressing than ever.”

others thought I was unfair on Navalny’s programme, or that I was vague:

“As narrow and short-sighted as the dissidents of the Soviet past. The competitive, transparent elections and a “fair” and functioning market economy that Navalny advocates are not the same thing as a truly “universalist” approach to human rights — the right to human flourishing and full and equal development of human potential.”

You can see I repeat the phrase – ‘human flourishing’. I chose this phrase because it’s a way of broadening the rights perspective – to social and cultural conceptions of rights. It’s also a topic I close my book with – a rhetorical question about what we mean when people say Russia lacks something we (in the imagined West) take for granted, or as an ideal good – be it political rights, personal autonomy, social safety nets, or economic freedom. In the book, one of my points is that measuring by comparative yardsticks to say that human development in Russia is ‘lower than it should be’, is important (for example we can argue that many people in Russia lack access to economic security, a clean environment, healthcare and other goods that ensure an adequate life expectancy at birth). However, this metric ignores wider and equally important ways of thinking about human potential via what I call ‘habitability’. In the book, I identify these in concepts like ‘meta-occupational communities’, mutual aid practices, but also communities of craft and labour. There is also what others would call ‘social capital’, but I call local ‘authority’, autonomism, and reciprocal dignity based in webs of social ties of ‘extent, commitment and deep content’.

Similarly, with ‘human rights’, do we focus on trying to establish international public law predicated on an idea of an international order where such rights can be protected, or do we widen the debate to talk about how to defend wider perspectives of ‘human potential’ based on maximising people’s ability to take autonomous action? Now Amnesty already does this by including campaigning on biopolitical rights like the right to abortion, children’s rights, and racial justice. But, there remains a big gap between awareness raising and action that translates into enforceable legal mechanisms. This relates to a debate about the limits of legal positivism that underpins the global human rights industry.

The weakness of this version of ‘universality’ is that it tends to disconnect ‘rights’ from the social context of actual historical development and in particular the role of social movements in altering what we consider ‘rights’, and in moving forward agendas to realise them. We focus on the ‘ends’ of the claims, and not enough on the ‘means’ – in particular the historical non-legal and pre-institutional forms of fights against injustice. Today, the human rights agenda as pursued by organisations like Amnesty, is despite its claim to universalism, mainly focused on ‘negative rights’: political and civil rights rather than ‘positive rights’, like economic and social rights. Amnesty, as an international NGO, is ironically highly state-centric and ‘realist’ (it is the Russian state hailed in the plea to free Navalny and has a ‘duty’ to comply). At the same time, as I hinted in the article, the legalist model also relies on a model of unequal inter-state relations where via realpolitik, offenders are forced to comply. These are not my ideas – but mainstream debates in the social constructivist approach to rights discourses and the turn towards social movements as engines of change, along with the need for institutional democratisation. (Side note) – my current research is interested in the transition from new social movements to ‘social non-movements’. But that’s a post for another day.

How does this relate to Navalny himself? Well, at the back of my mind were various misgivings about his chameleon populist appearance – that his social populism was merely that – convenient rhetoric. What does he himself think about Russians’ social rights? (we know what he thinks about cultural rights – that beyond the ethnic ‘russkie’ they should be limited). My hunch on social rights is that he remains an incorrigible (neo)liberal, which would be understandable given his biography. But is that fair? Well, after writing my piece, I thought I’d better actually review my prejudices! My conclusion is based on a trawl of high-visibility interviews – with Yuri Dud’ and Sergei Guriev, as well as his campaigning materials.

Firstly – his ‘social programme’. People talk about his shift to focus on inequality, but really, I’m quite shocked they are so easily satisfied by pretty sparse detail and empty rhetoric (in fact, as empty of the ‘social guarantees’ rhetoric of the state itself). While many laud his anti-corruption campaign, his message of ‘better social equality via higher living standards’ relies on a kind of magical thinking related almost exclusively to removing corrupt elites. This will supposedly allowing lowering taxes and raising the minimum wage to… a paltry 25000rb. Navalny was fast to attempt to co-opt the pension protests from 2018, but as critics point out, prior to that he was quite consistent on the need to raise the retirement age.

As we dig a bit we find some unguarded comments about Singapore as a model (!) and the merits of ‘complete deregulation’ – whatever that means. Again, if he wasn’t so prominent an opposition figure his naïve voluntarism married to his moist-eyed belief in markets might even be charming. He’s learned the word ‘deregulation’, but it doesn’t appear he’s thought of what the end point looks like for a country like Russia (that, by the way, isn’t a city-state in South Asia – followers of the Brexit debate on Britain’s future may be getting déjà vu here).

Should a future Russian leader revisit the corrupt and deeply flawed privatisation processes from the 90s? Largely, the answer is no. Yes, he talks about the fundamental problem the ‘loans-for-shares auctions’ of being that its injustice meant that the institution of private property does not exist (because the illegitimacy of the process meant that later state confiscation could always be justified). But, Navalny’s answer is mainly about windfall taxes on privatised companies ‘like in the UK’. So we get a good idea that his ideas about public goods are horribly atrophied. He’s a ‘realist’: you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube – which is fair enough on one level. However, again it’s kind of funny that the rhetoric of his support and his own message is ‘idealist’ (We can change Russia), yet the policy is somewhere economically to the right of Rishi Sunak (UK’s finance minister). It is telling that his talk about privatisation – probably the one issue that still encapsulates unfairness, corruption and inequality in Russia today– even shocks the orthodox economist Sergei Guriev. (Here’s an old evaluation by Guriev of Navalny’s economic policy positions).

De-monopolize the media in Russia? Firewalls of ownership. Impartial judges? Pay them a lot (and professionalise them). Taxes up, taxes down. Taxes to pay for this and that. ‘It’s easy in the world now’ – as if even the state of California hadn’t failed to address monopolies (this time Uber). As if off-shoring would stop after Putin. Everything is either a technical-legal solution or…. you guessed it: ‘taxes’ (sometimes up, sometimes down). ‘Vot etogo byt ne dolzno’, – ‘that shouldn’t happen’! I had to laugh when this was his response about quasi monopolies in new tech as if one could flick a regulatory switch. What to do with Oligarchs? ‘Get him to pay a tax, not confiscate or shoot him’.

Now this is mean of me. Who am I to criticise? Well on the one hand, yes it is unfair to carp like this. (Although I am by no means the first to view the programme as wafer thin). Navalny remains a ‘not-yet’ politician – untried, with limited resources to develop a detailed policy position. On the other, my point is not about politics or politicians in Russia, but instead about how skewed to the right the ‘Overton window’ is –especially when it comes to the idea of social and economic rights. Outsiders forget that, as Olga Shevchenko has investigated – especially among better off Russians there’s a brand of common sense in matters economic that align with ‘neoliberal rhetoric’, or at least right libertarianism and often extreme forms of social Darwinism. If you want another illustration of this with reference to Navalny, check out the rebuke to him from a patriotic right libertarian perspective from Yuri Dud’: “I get the feeling you don’t respect capitalism – all these demands that people make restitution payments for privatisation.”  Cue, Navalny spluttering that Russia has many good capitalists. The point is the Navalny is wholly unexceptional with regard to views among the tiny group of ‘winners’ in Russia. As I keep pointing out, that also means there is a reasonable objection to his politics from the left, and from the majority of Russians who have experienced economic stagnation for the last ten years.

How to publish academic articles and respond to peer review effectively (in the competitive market of Scopus and Web of Science journals)

This post is a condensed version of a workshop for ‘junior’ and PhD researchers. The main point of the exercise: peer review is increasingly a matter of pot luck but you can improve your chances. (That the infamous Reviewer 2 is an eternal meme actually shows that the randomness of review has always been true). In addition, junior researchers should be very instrumental and pragmatic in responding to peer review, and most importantly, they should do it in a timely, targeted and editor-friendly manner.

I don’t often write posts about the nuts and bolts of scholarship – I wrote one here a while back on monograph planning, and here on public/media communication of research.

This post supplements more ‘practically’ the key ideas from this really short and useful piece by the editor of American Anthropologist on the general pitfalls of article submissions: ‘make your work neat and professional’, ‘link data and claims’, ‘avoid the impression of gaps in your reading’, ‘self-consciously consider structure (for flow, balance, consistency, focus)’. These are points we could all do with reminding of when writing academic prose for journal pubs, I’m sure.

Mainly I focus on the craft of submission, and ‘socialisation’ of the paper submitter in the eco-system of journals.

Firstly I consider the process of choosing a journal – which, while straightforward for some, is not for others. As someone who uses ethnographic methods, focuses on Russia, but uses theory from political science and sociology more than from anthropology, where should I try to publish? So I get workshop participants to actually open up Scimago and try searches for relevant journals. You’d be amazed at how few people have ever done this (or indeed how few people know this website exists).  I ask participants to read editorial statements and look at the board. In other words, think about the audience straight away. Then they have to triangulate that with actually reading potentially out-of-the-comfort-zone papers from the journal they’ve selected. Again, very few people actually do this. The point of the exercise? Many journals have a focus/editorial policy that’s much narrower than people realise and it is a waste of time submitting to them. Example: I talk about a scholar submitting an article based on interview data alone to Social Science Research – which is a quant journal!

Then I focus on ‘getting into the hospital’ – also known as passing editorial triage. Many researchers still don’t realise that even ‘minor’ or highly specialist social science journals get 500 or more submissions a year and so ‘desk rejection’ is the easiest and necessary option for the editor in chief. (As a side note, it’s worth remembering that the quantification of research publication in places like the UK meant that in the 2000s there was massive inflation in submissions to journals that before had garnered less interest – at its peak in the mid 2010s the UK became a Soviet system of churning product. This affected all journals because editors had to filter submissions and competition for limited slots was fierce.

To get a better chance of passing triage, writers have to do one thing that in my experience is neglected even by excellent scholars – write a clear and meaningful abstract. Signs of neglect are clear – abstract either written before the article is and not updated (!), or a hurried afterthought, or, even worse, a rewritten summary of the first couple of  paragraphs of the article itself. Most of the time though, the abstract is too vague. I give the participants this example:

“The article describes the analysis of value basis of business ethics in various countries. The analysis is based on the questionnaire survey of respondents from xxx, as well as European countries. It was demonstrated that many traditional theories developed in this area need to be revised. A sharp contradiction between actual values of entrepreneurs and public expectations stated in sets of codes and concepts of social responsibility was revealed. It was concluded that the informal corrupt practices exist due to liability of entrepreneurs to comply with public attitudes without restructuring of their value system.

Keywords: business ethics, ethical regulation, values” [I tweaked this to make it anonymous – it’s a real abstract]

Then I contrast this with a much more focused and specific (orientating the reader) abstract:

In this short essay, we try to assess the utility of class analyses for understanding the contemporary XXX society. Erik Wright (2009) identifies three strands of class analysis: a stratification approach, a Weberian approach and a Marxist approach. We address the following questions: Which kind of class analysis is most present in XXX today? Which is most needed? The main conclusion is that due to this marginalisation of class discourse, as well as the power of national/ethnic discourse and transitional culture, those most economically vulnerable were deprived of the cultural and discursive resources to resist the most the extreme market-oriented policies. The conditions for structuration of class relations were created, while the class and inequality discourse was marginalised.

Keywords: class, class analysis, public class discourse, post-communist transformation, country X

Apart from clarity, what sticks out, is the obvious thesis statement in Abstract 2. It really does seem the case these days that scholars are ‘learning’ from their undergraduate students – they have developed an allergy to actually articulating a clear thesis. [full disclosure – I am guilty of all the crimes described in this post – do as I say, not as I do]. My advice: Writing an abstract is probably the most difficult and important part of disseminating research. It’s best to get someone to help, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort on it. This is not rocket science and publishers themselves offer some good advice:

Who are the intended readers? (think of real colleagues – are they in a particular discipline?). • What did you do? (no more than 50 words). • Why did you do it? (ditto 50). • What happened? (50). • What do the results mean in theory? (50). • … and in practice? (50). • What remains unresolved? (50). • … AND, What is the benefit to the reader? – avoid an over-emphasis on the research itself, you want to make the abstract interesting to a wider audience than immediate subject specialists– (adapted from leading publisher)

Then I move on to the period when your article is ‘in’ peer-review. The most important point is that this can take a very long time. I mean, you thought it took a long time to get Covid vaccines out? Try getting 7000 words of academic stuff published. Again, many junior colleagues don’t know this and their supervisors don’t tell them either. This ‘one neat trick’ (which doesn’t always work, admittedly) is to look at your bibliography before you submit to check there’s actually someone there who is a) human, b) alive, c) actively publishing now in your area, and probably most importantly, d) not too senior (because many senior profs don’t have time for peer review or may be ‘protective’ of a topic close to them). Why? Because guess who an editor will approach first to peer review you? That’s right – a combination of a+b+c+d. It might not work, but if you find you have no alive, relevant, active humans, not too close to super-star status or pensionable age in your bibliography then probably that means you should have cited some anyway. (Every single time I do peer review I find obvious omissions of leading scholars in my field – it’s also as if people don’t know how to do Google Scholar searches on their own topic). The ‘human’ comment refers to non-toxic researchers – there are fewer colleagues capable of peer-review than you think.

Finally I turn to dealing with peer review when you get it back. First I ask, why is it bad to sit on the peer-review comments and agonise about them? Because the longer you delay the more likely that the original peer reviewers will no longer be available to re-review your re-submission. Result – Kafka at the door of the Law – you get a whole new set of queries which may even ask you to undo things you were specifically asked to do by the first reviewers. Junior researchers often don’t believe this could possibly be true. But of course it is.

Next – and this is more relevant to social sciency stuff based on empirical evidence – a smart (or more likely lucky) editor will get two readers – one of whom may focus more on theory, and another who might focus more on your context and evidence. With this in mind, again, many problems can be solved by preempting this during writing (and re-writing) prior to submission. I’m not a massive theory bro, but even I can tell there’s something wrong with your paper if you’re offering a Bourdieusian approach and only cite the man himself and one article from 2004 in an obscure Ruritanian sociology book. It’s very common in early-career researchers to give too narrow a gloss on their theory. At least tell a story to the reader about why you are delimiting yourself.

The final point is maybe the most important – getting peer review can be overwhelming – because increasingly journals ask reviewers (rightly) to do a thorough job. I recently got a reviewer report back that was 4000 words long! To be honest, I gave up. I didn’t know where to begin. And the review was not negative – just too much to deal with.

What I do is give participants a more typical example – a couple of pages of real peer-review from an article I wrote long ago. I ask them to read it and think how they could respond, but limiting them to focusing on 2 of the main points the reviewer makes. Here’s an excerpt:

  •  First, it would be good to have a more detailed comparison of the levels of earnings the respondents received How much of a financial sacrifice are they making for the sake of autonomy? This isn’t clear, but is important to understand in terms of the author’s wider argument.
  • Likewise, the author’s argument would be strengthened by some reference to the size of the informal v. formal sectors of employment, so that readers have a sense of how widespread this phenomenon is likely to be.
  • The changes in styles of line management, which form a central prop of the argument, also need to be set in a wider context. I consider this to be an essential revision. Here the crucial missing reference is: XXX Some reference to this is essential to contextualize the author’s argument. The author might also want to refer to other responses to this process, such as XXX.
  • The author also fails to analyse the gender aspect of his/her findings. To what extent is this a particularly “masculine” response to subordination? Did the author look at women? Did their attitudes differ? Research suggests that men and women have responded differently to economic restructuring, so this aspect deserves a mention (see XXX).
  • The author also fails to mention whether the respondents have partners and/or dependent children. Given the expectations of the male breadwinner, this is potentially very significant. Are these men married? Can married men pursue this escape route without censure?
  • XXX. find the opposite tendency to that cited by the author:[…]. This contradictory finding again highlights the need for the author to situate his/her findings in the wider context of transformation of the economy. At present, the author does not do quite enough to address the problematic issue of the generalisability of his/her findings. Showing a wider appreciation of the development of capitalism in Russia would be a good way to do this.
  • Finally, with reference to the autonomy of Soviet workers, the author should consider citing the classic essay on the subject: XXX

This example is, I think, good peer review, but the point is that it shows that writers can also filter feedback and that (while fixing the simple things too) they should focus their re-write and response to peer review as much as possible. This example also shows how there is room to clarify – to say ‘I’m not talking about that’, ‘my focus is on Z and not Y’. At the end of the workshop we move on to looking at how to craft a covering letter, or ‘response to reviewers’ (journals vary in how they deal with this). This is also an opportunity to truck and barter with the editor herself. By showing what a good citizen you are in responding to the substantive points, you can ‘respectfully reject’ suggestions by reviewers in less important areas, or due to limits of space.

My final thoughts are that we as scholars are much more prone to the same mistakes our undergraduate students make as writers: sometimes article structure is too loose and shows a lack of evidence of editing/drafting by the author. Very often, key terms are not defined – for example ‘neoliberalism’, ‘social capital’. A lot of work by (not just) junior scholars is under-theorised and fetishizes methodology. Obviously, there’s a lot more to craft than I can present here. I find the work of Thomas Basbøll really useful in sensitising myself over and over to writing as craft. Remember, there are very few, if any ‘natural’ writers. Like in sport and music, ‘talent’ is a misrecognition of a person doing something over and over until they get better at it.

Navalny, political protest and opposition in Russia

(an uninformative blog title designed for bots).

Sign: ‘Going out onto the ice is dangerous’. In snow-footprints: ‘couldn’t give a f*ck’.

We know from media coverage of the Bolotnaia protests nearly ten years ago that media representations of protest in Russia are often far from the reality. Researchers have shown that painting those protests as a ‘middle-class’ revolt was wide of the mark – in reality a broad age-range and social mix of Muscovites came out  ‘For Fair Elections’. Kalk writes of the creation of the myth of a dignified ‘creative class’ by the Russian media. I have written at length on the flipside of this discourse (and here for a more general audience)– an inability to even consider the class agency of those who are not educated metropolitans.   Bikbov shows that people’s reasons for coming out on the streets are very difficult to measure and are sometimes not even articulable by participants themselves. Misha Gabowitsch is also skeptical: “Expressions such as ‘middle class’, ‘generation’ or ‘pensioner’ suggest actually existing collective actors, but they only appear when their supposed members understand themselves as such and when there are institutions that maintain such constructs. […] In today’s Russia this is seldom the case.”

Nonetheless ‘indignation’ and shame that then translate into a burning desire to express publicly one’s anger and frustration are powerful motivators. Being part of a bigger movement acting for themselves in a country where public acts are usually orchestrated by cynical political considerations should also be considered. The feeling of participating in something bigger than one’s self is like a little spark of electricity, according to many who do not see themselves as ‘activists’. But then what has this to do with Navalny? I think another mistake of analysis of protests – last Saturday included – is to focus too much on the man. As I said in yesterday’s post – it’s more useful to think of him as channelling currents and forces that exist independent of his particular political profile, campaign even. As Bikbov wrote of the 2011-12 protests – we shouldn’t discount the importance of ‘individual self-construction’ (bourgeois self-building) as a motivation. And this is not about ‘dignity’ in a social solidarity sense (as it may be in other contexts), but about the individual. In those sense it does have a classed element, but not a class-consciousness one.

To avoid this turning into a mega post again, I will just summarise some observations based on talking to a genuinely wide range of Russians.

Socio-economic profile of protesters – a red herring. Moscow is diverse, so are its protests, but Moscow is not Russia and of course is magnitudes ‘better off’ than anywhere else. Were there many ‘new’ protesters? – maybe. Is that significant – probably not really. In reality these are quite small numbers (c. 20-40,000 in Moscow, and perhaps 150,000 across the country in 101 different cities) and anyone with personal experience of activism will know that cause-fatigue and turnover is high. Some interesting interpretation on how numbers of arrests have a ceiling irrespective of protester numbers which indicates limited capacity even of expanded Rosgvardiia – Putin’s loyal paramilitary (although others say that RG was held back intentionally).

Violence – very little of it – but nonetheless people standing their ground when clearly provoked by police. Police and participants clearly ‘learned’ from Belarus and from their own prior experience/knowledge. Tempting to draw class conclusions too from this – that a largely middle-class crowd. But, another reason not to rely too much on media of any stripe, which will always highlight the newsworthy violence.

Navalny’s arrest as focal point of the ‘miting’ (demonstration). It’s remarkable and no doubt a credit to Navalny as a genuinely charismatic and sincere opponent of the elite that so many (but again relative numbers is everything) came out for HIM. Nonetheless he is not the head of a party, and not the head of a movement. He is, like Putin, a mediated political figure, not a ‘politician’, even in an age where all politicians seek to mediatise themselves to stand out. The personalisation of politics can be a mobiliser, but in the longer term makes it harder to translate into a movement – indeed, quite a few protesters talked about their motivations being ‘more than just about helping a person’. Note that Navalny ended his video on Putin by returning to his campaign for smart voting, but this is not a viable strategy long-term.  

Other channelling that Navalny’s cause serves: ‘overcoming one’s personal fears in the dark days of my country’. This echoes what I mentioned above about how there can be very idiosyncratic, yet shared reasons for protest that are not really about the man or his message, but wider and longer-term currents in Russian society. I also heard about some very spontaneous acts of defiance from passersby who attempted, as in Belarus, to verbally or physically challenge law enforcement nonviolently – the video of the police kicking a woman in her 50s who was peacefully interceding was clearly not an isolated incident. Indeed – more telling than the kicking was the bragging reaction of one of the policemen that provoked widespread condemnation and a panic reaction from bosses.  ‘возмущение’ – indignation – it certainly does have a place here.

On the more pessimistic side, I have to reiterate the message of an old post on opposition politics I wrote here. Grumbling, resentment, even hatred of the elite does not mean people will support or even acknowledge Navalny as a legitimate opposition figure. If anything, Navalny’s more recent ‘smart voting’, while effective (to a limited extent), just reflects what people were trying in a disorganised way to do before. Similarly, his more recent focus on economic inequality also is ‘behind the curve’ of the needs and values of the majority of ordinary people in my research, who started to turn away from United Russia ten years ago. They were already ‘smart voting’ in their own way before for ‘anyone but United Russia’.

For me personally, this is where he reveals his narrow (classed) cosmopolitan appeal that does not translate into leadership of a genuine opposition front. Because it’s not as accessible or interesting to the Western press, people tend to forget that the far right and the conservative left (as far as these ersatz labels make sense) both have populist messaging that does cut through into electoral success in Russia (as far as they can in such a skewed system, and acknowledging that they often not considered a real opposition). Again, we don’t hear so much about this because it’s not in Moscow and it doesn’t fit the narrative (coverage of Khabarovsk’s LDPR governor was an exception proving the rule). Indeed, the fact that only now the Communists and the LDPR (Zhirinovsky being the original populist politician and that party’s leader) are whining like little girls (sorry about that) about Navalny, is another measure of how late to the party he is.

So what has changed since I wrote in 2016 about ‘smart voting from below’? Well, in the mid 2010s Navalny was starting to cut through to ordinary people in terms of name recognition, especially with his ‘On vam ne Dimon’ video about Medvedev from 2017.  However there remain formidable structural barriers – he’s still perceived as ‘one of them’ – a metropolitan elite. He’s correspondingly vulnerable to being painted as a stooge of the West, as a foreign agent – as part of the ‘fifth column’. And this is why he clearly calculated he had to come home from Germany.

The problem that his supporters and pretty much all my liberal Russian friends don’t like to admit is that the regime is just as capable of learning from its mistakes and changing its tune as Navalny – its current campaign of intensifying disinformation: that Navalny is funded by foreign powers and is corrupting Russia’s youth, is largely successful. Just because the state controlled TV can no longer ignore him completely doesn’t mean a victory for him.  Thus, for every person who went out to support him on Saturday there is a spouse, or more likely an older relative, or a sibling (likely a state worker), who more or less buys the idea that Navalny is a front of some kind – a ‘feik’ or a ‘frik’ (fake or freak). Sure, the elite are corrupt as hell, but he’s just too slick – he must be a CIA product! One of the most intelligent and wise of my research interlocutors sincerely believes that the Moscow protests are a result of western embassies paying disaffected youth and criminals, and where they can’t pay them, getting them drunk. And this is a person who uses the internet – and while there’s no ‘great firewall’ as in China, targeted oppositional political ads are pretty much banned from mainstream social media in Russia. The whole ‘brainwashing youth’ slander has really cut through – just as much as we should acknowledge that Navalny’s anti-corruption message cut through.

Then there is general demobilization due to the deteriorating economic situation – which pre-dates, but which is exacerbated by Covid. Unlike in 2011-12, one interlocutor reflects that the ‘middle-class’ is подавлен – depressed. We shouldn’t discount the psychological effect of the economic burden on people – they aren’t jobless, but they are struggling with high levels of consumer debt and insecure conditions, and this is not a situation where ‘someone feels they owe something political to people, that they are able to participate in protest and maybe lose their job’. Add to this the more effective post-truth campaign by the authorities aimed at demobilization and you get a toxic mix that can be effective in putting people off coming out. As I said, yesterday – even critical ‘thinking’ people are willing to be satisfied by the word of Putin and then are liable to turn on those close to them who would like to protest – ‘what do you owe that guy [Navalny]? Think about your family. You think you can make a difference?’ On this basis can Navalny’s supporters hope for more than the making of a martyr (another important vector of myth-making in Russia)? A dissident in the noble (?) intellectual tradition of USSR? It strikes me that dissidence is not a position he’d be willing to occupy, nor one that is really tenable in today’s Russia. But I will end on a more optimistic note – Navalny is not the only brave activist, there are opposition politicians, labour activists, and ‘organic’ intellectuals all over Russia making small contributions to change every day. They aren’t the focus of media interest in Russia, but they are probably just as important in the long term as Alexei Navalny. Right now I’m writing about labour organising among food couriers, and will soon write a post about that topic.