Author Archives: Jeremy Morris

About Jeremy Morris

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

Shall we drink? Vodka, rational utility maximisers and the 1990s Russian mortality crisis

Covid has prompted a revisiting of the debate on the human (mortality/morbidity) costs of the 1990s in Russia. Scott Gehlbach reflects in a blog on how Covid pushed down hospital admissions in the US. From there he recalls the argument that economic collapse increases mortality – the most significant natural experiment being the transition in ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe. Gehlbach rejects this argument – perhaps the strongest proponent of which is Stuckler et al. in a 2009 Lancet article:

Clearly, rapid mass privatisation was not the only determinant of the mortality changes in countries in central and eastern Europe and those in the former Soviet Union; however, these results provide a major explanation of the ultimate determinants of cross-national differences, both within the former Soviet Union, and between countries formerly in the Soviet Union and other central and eastern European countries. Our findings also accord with a substantial body of research on mortality in the post-communist period, which has provided evidence for the effects of several factors, including acute psychosocial stress, reduced access to and decreasing quality of medical care (much provided at workplaces), impoverishment, rapid pace of transition, increased unemployment, rising social inequalities, social disorganisation, heightened corruption, and the erosion of social capital. Although a direct cause and effect relation cannot be ascertained and a detailed discussion of their roles is beyond the scope of this Article, all these findings can be linked, in some way, to mass privatisation programmes.

Gehlbach objects to these conclusions, saying that, roughly: long-term negative trends mean that any correlation with mass privatisation is weak, that mass privatization did not increase unemployment, and that in reality the mortality spike was due to the greater availability of alcohol and its reduction in price after 1991. I tweeted my misgivings about Gehlbach’s keenness to deflect from the impact of economic dispossession on the Russian population last week. I got some interesting replies.

Erica Richardson (who commented at the time of publication on the Lancet article) wrote to me: “It’s both [privatization, unemployment and vodka prices] – the proximal and distal causes are synergistic. It’s not just the price of course, this is just one indicator, alcohol policy is much broader than this – but don’t underestimate how harmful heavy drinking is for population health.” Of course she’s right. She links to a very comprehensive social harm study of alcohol in Russia from 2019 by the WHO. Alcohol policy is shown to have a very strong impact on mortality in Russia since 1990. Taxation and reducing availability were most important.

In an indication of how rashly tweeting one’s immediate reaction can nonetheless bring unforeseen rewards, I then received a link to an article by Michael Haynes from 2013 called “Social Inequality and the Continuing Russian Mortality Crisis”. Haynes argues that social epidemiologists can make a strong link between inequality and death in Russia, but that these should be traced back to significant problems before the transition in the 1990s. Material and psychological stresses result in ‘causation flows’, as do health behaviours – but all of them have social roots in advanced societies. To cut a long story short we should be asking why there is a prior problem in drinking that shows up so strongly in a social pattern. I can’t do full justice to Haynes’ argument, but he makes interesting points about pre-existing social divisions in Soviet society – that there was considerable inequality there and that transition intensified divisions. Further, restructuring ‘disrupted the social base of the economy’. What I like here is that Haynes challenges both the idea that the ‘USSR was unhealthily collectivist’ leading to psycho-social stress in adaptation, and he rejects the idea that Soviet society was full of atomized individuals. There were sources of social resilience and solidarity but these were quickly undercut in the early 1990s so that extremely negative socio-psychological effects (not of ‘culture’, but of transition) reinforced themselves overtime.  

In my own work, I’ve explored ‘socially harmful’ (itself a relative concept) drinking at length. Certainly, I situate propensities among men to engage in harmful drinking in the diminution of men’s social role, which became more and more accented – particularly for working-class men – as the 1990s went on. Nonetheless I find social scientists explanation of drinking as ‘escape response’ a bit too close to the rational choice theory of Gehlbach, where lower vodka prices supposedly maximized the utility for self-destruction. I use a more anthropological lens, and consider how drinking mediates social trauma, articulates social suffering and, ironically, becomes incorporated into a meaning of self (which is both defiant and morally recuperating).

This is how I ended the chapter on traumatic dispossession in my 2016 book: “Nearly 30 years ago Mary Douglas noted the inherent normative bias in attempting to label alcohol use as ‘problem drinking’ in other cultures. At the same time, drinking … continues to be culturally marked ‘as a rite of corporate identification’ (ibid: 6), with drinking, work, blue-collar identity, and sociality at the nexus of working-class masculinity. Others have noted the social pressure among working-class men towards drinking as an expression of ‘thriftlessness’ and a display of the ‘equality of interests’ among the marginalized (Mars 1987: 100). Chrzan notes that drinking sees linear time give way to ‘anti-time’—a focus on the event, the moment, ‘authenticity’ of self and social life (2013: 96). While this is perhaps a rather rosy view of hard drinking bouts in the Russian context, it does point to drinking as some form of dealing with contingency nonetheless. Bouts of hard drinking are not so much a badge of honour, as in some working-class communities (Mars 1987), but something almost tangible to hold onto given labour’s subaltern positioning. Drinking is not so much ‘compensation’, as conventionality; Lyova’s everyday way of enduring the present, his way of saying ‘it’s enough’. As inseparable from a sense of class, gender and sociality, drinking is also part of propertizing the self; it belongs to Lyova as part of his habitus, and forms part of his making of the traumatic present habitable.”

Covid field tales – Part Five: The Political Economy of Reopening and Mapping Disorientation

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Interfaces of Moscow reopening. Part 1. https://www.sobyanin.ru/otmena-samoizolyatsii-i-propuskov

This is the fifth and final post of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. Each post is about different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These are based on one long text that appeared in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid dispatches – they are open access –  so please check it out.

The last post discussed care and disposal and sanitary propaganda in the city.

When Le Village magazine asked sergeant Kurakin, who was checking QR codes at the metro, why people disobeyed quarantine – the answer was ‘to work’. Closure and opening of quarantine both draw a labor division. Mobilized doctors, taxi drivers, grocery and utility workers, couriers, bus drivers – these high-risk occupations deemed essential, were never locked down. ‘Partisan’ hairdressers worked clandestinely. Switching to ‘distance working’, people were faced with the hardships of endless digital labor and its invasion of privacy, small and medium business – with the need to pay salaries in the absence of revenue and state support.

Moscow closed more comprehensively than other Russian cities. Reopening, formally based on the topological ‘safety’ ranking of occupations, was multi-step. 12 May – the same time as mandating obligatory masks in shops – construction sites and industry restarted. May 26 government service centres (by appointment) and car-sharing services (partially) returned. Other services were divided into three stages in June, visualized in infographics: first hairdressers and cemeteries, then café verandas and dental clinics, and finally, kindergartens, fitness clubs and restaurants. The city reopening was asynchronous and incomplete, in turn affecting the political and economic in complex and unpredictable ways.

The Moscow government justified priority reopening of industry as ‘least dangerous’ because of the absence of direct contact between producers and consumers. However, no one hid that the resumption of construction work – masked, with a reduction in shift and brigade work – was due to the shared economic interest of lobbying developers and City Hall, and the problems of labour migrants. According to mobile operator data, up to 2.5 million people from Russian regions left Moscow during quarantine. But citizens from the CIS countries, mainly engaged in construction, were locked up in the capital without a livelihood. Moscow officials saw criminal risk in migrants without work, reifying care about them as an interface of profit and biopolitical inequalities.

If the resumption of construction strengthened socio-economic marginalizations existing before quarantine, the partial opening of car sharing produced new inequalities. At the end of May, the renewed service only allowed five-day-plus leases, unaffordable to most. As for mandatory disinfection of the cabin before returning the car, this was another materialization of sharing as a “new dangerous”.

Mapping disorientation

Several years ago, ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’ published an imaginary Palestine map. The occupied territories were represented as the sea; the Authority-controlled ones – as islands of an archipelago. Numerous maps of the pandemic, regularly described in military metaphors, depict the Covid-19 occupation in a different way – not framed through absent space but as more or less filling it, and pushing out of frame alternatives of resistance, coping and co-existence. From maps of pandemic Moscow we can see how the concentration of the virus shifts from the prosperous centre and South-West, where the epidemic began, to the northern, eastern and south-eastern suburbs where those who served the metropolis during self-isolation live (Panin 2020). But we learn nothing from them about changes in the life of the city or its inhabitants.

To think of a large city in quarantine as archipelago is to problematize the qualitative changes in urban life during self-isolation, mapping the diffusion of sociality and following heterogeneities of (non)actualized presence. The implosion of urban imagination, the narrowing of vision and atrophied habitus – all of what creates so much discomfort and inconvenience for city-dwellers – can open new analytical perspectives in how to deal with impoverished forms of dwelling and not be afraid of attending to its fragmentation.

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Fig. 8. My own lockdown archipelago. 1. Island of habitation. My home, where you can find Care in the postbox and meet disinfectors. The playground taped off. Footpaths along which friends walk their puppy. I wave to them from my balcony. Rubbish containers next to the dovecote “Love and doves” that emptied during quarantine. 2. Wine Island, where the store consultant week to week talks about wine from more and more distance. 3. The Island of a closed house museum of Pushkin’s uncle and food, delivered from May with no charge by taxi firm. 4. Island with more cheap food, water and hardcore disinfection. Here I bought my second pack of masks (the first were from the internet at a crazy price). Here my friends live. All springtime we would have drinks and read poetry on Fridays in Whatsapp.5. The far post-office island, 600 meters from home. I went there a couple of times at the end of self-isolation. 6. The far bank island at a distance of 1km from home. 7. The phantom island of work. Humanities campus of “Vyshka”, where I have not been since the middle of March, working at a distance.  Colleagues in fb don’t believe in its existence. I see the building every day from my window and do not believe either. 8. Billboards from our photos. 9. The island-building of ailments, visible from my window, where all April ambulances – the dominant vehicle in the empty city – came time after time. 10. Moscow City, a group of skyscrapers on the horizon, visible with unprecedented sharpness. Usually – and now once again – they are smoggy. Image by Galina Orlova.

Covid field tales – Part Four: ‘Care’ and Disposal, Billboard Afterlifes

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“A special attitude at a special moment”. Pandemic enters the postbox. Image by Galina Orlova.

This is the fourth of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. Each post is about different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These are based on one long text that appeared in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid dispatches – they are open access –  so please check it out.

The last post discussed disinfection and the not-so-smart city.

‘Care’ and Disposal    

A booklet from Ritual, the Moscow funeral service and operator of Moscow cemeteries, dropped into our postboxes on the eve of self-isolation for 65+ (26 March – it lasted until 9 June). The use by a commercial firm of the state services’ design suggests a newly cozy relationship between the traditionally shady funeral business and Russian stateness. Last summer, this convergence took the form of a corruption scandal, linked to the high-profile case of journalist Ivan Golunov, framed for his investigation of murky dealings between Moscow undertakers and state security organs. This spring Ritual prepared inhabitants for death and loss, warned against contacts with “black agents”, informed about prices and social subsidies. What was also on offer was something that in the extreme circumstances of pandemic ordinary people expected but did not receive from the state – care. Care, which remains for Russians one of the most important regimes of affective expectations in political communication with authorities, masks hierarchies and injustice – of deservingness of ‘weak’ objects, of paternal relations (Bogdanova 2005). Elena Bogdanova writing on the Soviet period but extrapolating historically to the present, draws attention to – in the absence of a clear recourse to legal means – the practice of complaints and appeals to ‘care’ and references to promises by the state.

Care certificates from Ritual guarantee the owners, if they died within a year of purchase, burial at the operator’s expense. This offer had the side effect of interpellating tenants as potential victims of the virus.

Yandex informed Muscovites about the preparedness of Ritual, that “will come in handy”, for the pandemic: protective equipment and coffins in ready supply. The Ministry of Health published temporary recommendations – later rescinded – including a prescription to bury infected bodies in sealed coffins. WHO and Russian virologists confirmed that the virus is not transmitted from the dead to the living. Funeral services are not under the authority of the Health Ministry. Nonetheless, the protocol was entrenched: coronavirus victims are sealed in bags, and not released to relatives. Ritual posted a “viralInstagram burial video: a hazmatsuited funeral team, disinfectant poured into the grave, a clutch of relatives frozen in the distance, the pit fill with fir branches as a natural disinfectant and only completed. The union of ritual workers has spoken out against the use of garbage bags as destructive to the social order and turns funerals from care into disposal.

Billboard afterlifes

Refusing large-scale support for population and business, the authorities compiled lists for selective state aid. The presidential one featured a child allowance. Moscow – supported the newly unemployed. The government made two lists – for 642 system-critical firms (including bookmakers!) along with a dozen industries extremely vulnerable to the effects of the epidemic. The Chair of the Chamber of Commerce proposed including outdoor ads, which would lose up to 70% of revenue in deserted cities, in the second list. Simultaneously, he emphasised the critical role of billboards in informing people about virus protection, the WWII anniversary, and the upcoming plebiscite. Was this transition from the affected to having critical significance a transition from commercial advertising to propaganda? Did this discursive merging tell us more about saving the industry at the expense of state orders? Even in the small section of my self-isolation route, billboard changes perform the symbolic dynamics of quarantine.

At the end of March, the dismantling of outdoor ads from the frozen centre of Moscow gave way to mobilization. From billboards, placed every 15-20 meters, well-known Moscow doctors urged Muscovites to stay home, wear masks and not touch their faces. After April, this template was adapted to enhance affective solidarity and the formation of quarantine communities. Doctors are no longer given voice, they are thanked. And young people are hailed as volunteers. Closer to the Garden Ring sanitary enlightenment is interspersed with posters for Victory Day. In early summer, commercial advertising has returned as a (post)quarantine hybrid – McDonald’s with both hands voting for hand washing. The epidemiological safety and the upcoming voting in this austere carnival of signs do not leave room for Bigmacs yet.

Final post follows.

 

Lockdown propaganda comes into being. 03-06.2020. Images by Galina Orlova.

 

Covid field tales – Part Three: Disinfection and the Smart City

Disinfection

This is the third of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. Each post is about different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These are based on one long text that appeared in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid despatches – they are open access –  so please check it out. Space in those dispatches is very limited, so here on the blog I will take a little bit more of a circuitous route.

The last post discussed the political economy of lockdown, how City Hall dealt with it and in particular what this reveals about ‘State Capitalism’.

Operation ‘Disinfection’

After the virus transformed the city into a host of hostile surfaces, the Sanitary Service enlightened Muscovites that the infection “can stay in the air for 3 hours, on copper – for 4 hours, up to 24 hours on pulp and paper surfaces (documents, envelopes, folders), for 3-4 days on plastic and metal.” The developing corona-market offers a “cold fog” method of disinfection from 8 roubles per m2. An invitation to the wake of a neighbour dead from Covid, now includes: “Everything is disinfected.”

Public spaces – sidewalks, underpasses, entry-ways – are treated at city expense. The deputy mayor first earmarked 3,500 units of tractor-street sprayers, deploys 4,500. The air hangs with a bleach smell from the long-forgotten Soviet sanitary aromascape while the yellow sanitisers in the metro whiff of the society of consumption and bananas. Muscovites happily use them and discuss whether the big disinfection is comparable to urban beautification programs famous for exorbitant expenses and corruption. And if there isn’t much point in treating open surfaces, as epidemiologists say, should this be recognized as an urban antiviral ritual?

Our entrance-way, which according sanitary doctors remains the most “forgotten place in terms of anti-epidemic measures”, is disinfected twice daily. Bumping into disinfectors in chemical protection suits with spray guns and getting coated by a dose, you realise the danger, and no longer go out without a mask. Someone repeatedly adds in pencil: “unsatisfactory” to the assessment in the disinfection schedule posted by the elevator. The repairman – tired, in a cotton mask slipping down – is also unhappy: the chemicals have damaged electrical contacts, and now the elevator serves only four floors out of twelve. This metonymizes the city in quarantine as an assemblage of relative safety, partial functionality, attempts to reprogram and restore lost connectivity.

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“Unsatisfactory”. Not in focus. Image by Galina Orlova

Not such a smart lockdown  

Maintaining Moscow’s reputation as a ‘smart city’, City Hall placed its bets on the rapid development of digital control over self-isolation. From April any non-hospitalized infected were obliged to stay at home and install a special mobile app – Social monitoring, developed by the city IT Department. From April 15, Muscovites needed sixteen-digit QR codes to make daily work trips, single emergency trips, and twice-weekly trips for personal and private needs. Police, taxi-drivers and transit workers mobilized to check codes using the Transit Department’s Moscow Assistant app. Regimented timetables of walks were dictated via infographics interfaces. Drones and quadcopters for tracking social distancing in re-opened restaurants were Moscow’s moment to jump the shark.

Jung Won Sonn and colleagues, analyzing the effective use of technology to reduce the risks of a pandemic in South Korea with smart city technologies, conclude that Covid-19 is the first epidemic in history for which humanity living in cities has come up with a ready-made response system.  Aggregating mobile operator data, geolocations of bank transactions and transport cards allows the precise contact tracing, avoiding major quarantine. The researchers regret that countries with developed digital infrastructure – with the exception of South Korea and Taiwan – have not made use of this advantage. (Sonn et al. 2020).

Russia, where during crisis the development of a new platform and apps was preferred, entailing large upfront costs, is a special case. While Yandex – Russia’s Google and the co-owner of popular taxi, delivery and mapping apps, – published a “self-isolation index” using its own digital infrastructure and aggregating big data, City Hall chose to develop apps from scratch. Work requiring months was implemented in weeks with many bugs and inefficient decisions. Lacking auto-verification, QR codes turned Moscow assistants into nurses for an infirm technology. Massive queues formed at metro entrances as policemen were forced to manually input codes to their devices. Technical faults were accompanied by social de(trans)formations, compensatory improvisations, and abuses. When Moscow Assistant could not cope with the flood of requests, QR encounters simulated governing. The cancelling of drivers’ codes without explanation led to the use of “service position” and informal connections to obtain permissions. Ordinary Muscovites with Covid-19 paid for geolocation failures, non-stop selfie requirements, multiple disconnections of the Social Monitoring, developed from fragments of code written in ten days for a pilot project to monitor the transport of domestic waste. Heavy fines, the denial of technical errors by City Hall forced the victims of smart lockdown to unite in the FB-community Fined for getting sick and to complain about the app in court and to Google Play.

Techno-political failures of Moscow lockdown are full of heterogeneities. Repressive Social monitoring is the first manifestation of a biosecurity regime replacing biopolitics. While biopolitics featured authorities’ concern with the life of population, biosecurity is built on the responsibility – including legal – of citizens for their health (Agamben 2020). For Muscovites, fined for getting sick, buggy mobile apps became the real punishment. The incoherence of urban mobility monitoring destroyed the technological continuity of the society of control (Deleuze 1992). To check a QR-code through Moscow Assistant, you need a policeman or a taxi driver in person with a mobile citizen. Taxi drivers tell of the discomfort that arose performing these police duties. The mayor’s office sees voluntary assistance and civic duty in them, but just in case, offers numerous sanctions for those who refuse to help. In a country where civil society is supposedly weak, the prosthetics of digital technologies during lockdown risk not so much strengthening the police state but accelerating the emergence of a “police society”.

In our next post we will move on to ‘Care and Disposal’ and the ‘afterlife’ of the consumption city.

Covid field tales – Part Two: Unmasking State Capitalism or Capitalist Realism?

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A pharmacy in Omsk with the sign ‘We have no masks or antiseptic gel in stock’.

This is the second of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. There will be 3-4 texts  on different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These will be based on one long text that will appear shortly in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid despatches – they are open access –  so please check it out. Space in those dispatches is very limited, so here on the blog I will take a little bit more of a circuitous route.

The last post chronicled the rise of Moscow as the focal point of the disease and its spread in Russia, not we move on to how City Hall has dealt with lock down and in particular what this reveals about ‘State Capitalism’.

To avoid an official ‘state of emergency’ which would have meant taking on a massive financial burden, City Hall adopted various heuristics to manage quarantine. From March 5, the Moscow had a high-alert mode, from the 26th – self-isolation for those 65+, from the 30thself-isolation for all. The delegation of responsibility for their own health and well-being to citizens, after recent restrictions on freedoms, looked neoliberal. At the same time, the scope of quarantine education addressed to ignorant citizens and belief in its effectiveness, suggested the return of Soviet sanitary propaganda (Shok, Beliakova, 2020). In conditions of lockdown uncertainty, the boundaries of self-isolation were delineated by rituals of taking out garbage, buying food and medicine, dog walking. From April 1, fines of 4,000-5,000 rubles were imposed for each violation. On April 15, quarantine met the control society with digital codes for trips around the city. Since May 12, wearing masks and gloves became mandatory in stores.

When the president empowered regions as responsible for fighting the disease, and the prime minister asked the Moscow mayor “organizationally and methodically” to help colleagues “on the ground”, Sobyanin became the face of the ”virus federalism” and the capital’s protocol “counteracting the spread of coronavirus infection” became a model to follow.

Unmasking state capitalism or capitalist realism?

While the self-isolation regime is gone, the ”glove-mask system” remains. Entering public transport or shops without PPE is prohibited – although it looks like the mask requirement will soon be dropped.  Disposable masks – medical blue, three-layered – are found far beyond pharmacies: at newspaper stands, at the ice cream kiosks, in cheap and expensive grocery chains. At the reopened farmfoods store, half-empty due to supply disruptions, masks are at a discount. In May, they cost from 29 to 70 rubles, in March-April – up to an exorbitant 150 and you could buy them only on the Internet from resellers, thirty-times more expensive than in 2019. Prices began to rise in February. At the peak, the government tried to mandate them, but immediately abandoned this measure. The rhythm of the pandemic in Moscow was not only the appearance or absence of masks, but their price in(de)flation.

In the Russia that imported the bulk of masks from China before Covid-19 there were three domestic manufacturers. City Hall not only took ownership of the largest factory but removed its facilities from the city of Vladimir to the capital, turning the pandemic into a “Moscow state business”. Two thirds of masks from the Moscow government (about 4 million items a week) were sold at cost to hospitals and communal services, 500,000 – for a “standardised price” of 30 rubles in the metro. The rest were put into a city administration reserve.

Compared to the free distribution of mask not only in the Paris metro, but on buses in Russia’s Far East, Moscow’s choices provoked discussion of the political economy of PPE. Vladimirites were disgusted by the capital’s betrayal leaving them not only without protection, but one profitable business less. Their objections to internal colonialism were tempered with racist suggestions that the masks from Moscow – now produced by “immigrants from disadvantaged countries of the near abroad” – were now “less hygienic”. Muscovites discussed the superprofit extracted by City Hall, and supposed that “since they bought the plant, the mask-regime will never end.” Stuck between epidemiological citizenship and city-state paternalism, they claimed that the government had no moral right to demand wearing masks without free distribution. Citizens made a hopeless diagnosis – “it’s all capitalism and they don’t give a shit” – and continued to buy masks.

The nature of state-capital conjunctions in the Russian capital has long been a bone of contention. The question of who can sell masks and gloves and who profits from their production is at the heart of thinking about the paradox of Russia’s political economy Ilya Matveev calls ‘dirigisme and neoliberalism at the same time’ to financially benefit insiders. Matveev has been criticised for this argument – with the riposte mainly about the piecemeal nature of actual liberalising reform since 2000. However in many ways that critique (from 2016) was misplaced, and I think the virus response illustrates Matveev’s view well – state capture by interests does not exclude the market ‘for thee, but not for me’. 

Appropriating profitable PPE businesses, strategically significant in an epidemic, City Hall enters the order of state capitalism. Obliging citizens to wear masks and offering them at commercial prices, they interpret civic responsibility in a neoliberal mode as a personal transaction according to the logic of capitalist realism that anathemizes any alternative to marketised relations (Fisher 2009).

Nonetheless the virus’ acceleration of neoliberalism does not completely destroy the legacy of the Soviet social state, instead weakening and transforming it beyond recognition. By sending masks to hospitals at cost price, Moscow combines the logic of minimal profitability and sluggish paternalism. Opting to create a reserve fund instead of free distribution of masks, it reproduces a pattern of deformed care without expenditure, developed by the federal government via the Russian Reserve Fund. State capital accumulation has a perverse obsession with curtailing the circulation – of money, of civic potential, – we call this the political economy of “the untouchable reserve”.

Emergency Reserve

‘Emergency reserve’. The untouchable reserve relates more to a strategic reserve of collected stock for emergency use.

In the next post we will discuss ‘disinfection’ and the ‘smart city’.

Covid field tales – Part One: Moscow ends lockdown, and fragrant flashbacks

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 (Post)lockdown cityscape. Image by Galina Orlova

This is the first of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. There will be 3-4 texts  on different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These will be based on one long text that will appear shortly in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid despatches – they are openaccess –  so please check it out. Space in those despatches is very limited, so here on the blog I will take a little bit more of a circuitous route.

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On June 8, Moscow’s Mayor announced the early cancellation of self-isolation. It had featured digital passes and “Moscow walks” by strict schedule according to address. Transport cards for the risk group 65+ were unblocked. Traffic jams, urban noise, and children’s voices returned. Taxi drivers no longer asked for QR codes from passengers. Hairdressers re-opened, benches and playgrounds were freed from striped tape, a visible materialization of the lockdown city-scape.

Online, people have responded to the “fall of self-isolation” sarcastically, with an untranslatable pun on the words ‘get well’ (after the coronavirus) and ‘amend’ (the Russian Constitution): (“Strana poshla na popravki”). Public health concerns have been replaced by a grim focus on the political regime’s diseased mutation. The fact is, Moscow’s hybrid practices of biopolitical care – the domestication of “the great imprisonment”, with biosecurity testing, buggy digital technologies augmented by direct police control, and interventions into urban rationalities in the spirit of Soviet nonconformist art – were abruptly and prematurely curtailed by the Leader’s whim for his plebecite.  Epidemiologists and political experts agree that the end of self-isolation in Moscow was due to Vladimir Putin’s desire to push ahead a national vote on July 1. Nonetheless, this ‘successful’ roadtesting of biosecurity control tells us a lot about the tendencies of late Putinism moving forward; after all, it was called an ‘experimental regime’.

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 ‘ Walking regime for our building’. Instructions for an experiment in governing everyday routines from Moscow City Hall. Image by Galina Orlova

The capital of the epidemic

Many have paid attention to the urbanness of patterns of infection in different places.  In a metropolis where around 10% of the population lives, by the end of self-isolation, 40% of Russians who had been infected were in Moscow. Whereas people arriving in the capital from at-risk countries faced 14-day quarantine, in the Russian regions those who arrived from Moscow were put in isolation. An open secret of the spread of the disease has been the exodus of Muscovites to dachas in all directions from Moscow out to a distance of 200km. Right now this is still a hot topic. Every few days on my Facebook feed I see pictures of get-togethers of many people at their country cottages. Sure most are outside, but they are not social distancing. In addition, to get there, you have to travel for perhaps hours in enclosed transport. Amazingly I see desperate acquaintances hire taxis for 4-hours journeys. Also, many old people are shipped out for the summer to these places, so they are relatively full of higher-risk groups. I think it is worth talking about the false sense of security the ‘country cottage’ summer life presents to people. My main group of research participants are people living in a small, relatively isolated town 200km from Moscow. They complained a lot in June of the Muscovite invasion to the cottages. The influx to them is noticeable because the ‘tourists’ travel by car to the supermarkets in the small town. To underline the potential of tourism in Russia and the still underdeveloped infrastructure, I have received fantastical offers of money from enterprising individuals to rent to them my empty little shack there: in face for twice the rentable value of my house in England (that’s taking into account the devalued ruble). Many of the vacant plots that had gone unsold for years were snapped up – even though they lack planning permission. The local chalet owner has upped his prices by 300%. Some data here on the early peak in demand for summer houses. More here about the wider implications on the housing market but focussing on St Petersburg area.

The next post will be about the hybrid ‘Soviet Sanitary’ and ‘neoliberal’ responses by the city authorities. Does every country have a memory-triggering ‘sanitary aromascape’? Personally I get fragrant flashbacks more for cleaning products than for biscuits (or should that be cakes?). Later I will post about the ‘not-so smart’ city that Moscow is, and the politics of reopening.

Covid and ‘lay normativity’

medrabotnik slays the covid beast

spotted on a Moscow wall – the medrabotnik slays the covid beast

A major problem in my writing about Russia is trying to communicate the idea of ordinary Russian people as politically sophisticated. Related to that is the attempt to show that most people are more sensitively reflexive to the meaning of language than we give credit for. If given the chance, people show an understanding of the framing of the political – albeit this is almost always dependent on their preconceptions and more or less consistent ideas about the world.

I’ve tried to do that in writing about the Ukraine conflict, and more recently in writing (an unpublished article) about homophobia. The point is not to romanticise what the sociologist Andrew Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’. When I talk to people about Ukraine and about homophobia they more often than not take up the framings presented to them by the media, and in turn the Russian political elite. However, they very quickly move beyond these impoverished framings, and often end up endorsing far more ‘contingent’ (it depends) and often sociological perspectives (that things have complex causes and that judgement might be reserved).

This post is prompted by what Covid shows about the mismatch between what elites expect of most people – based on those elites’ internalisation of narrow and stunted ideas about rational actions of others. This happens because they themselves are (often) utility maximisers, instrumentalist in their dealings with most others, focused on gain and loss materially in their choices, lacking empathy or a wider ‘sociological imagination’ about the places they live. I know people will object to this, but I like to call this ‘living neoliberalism’.

Covid illustrates how elites and particularly their courtier journalists are usually behind the curve and not ahead of it. Thus with typical hubris, we see it too right now in the UK with the ‘lag’ in the response of journalists – cocooned in their WhatApp bubbles. The majority of people self-isolated here before the government advised them too and despite the media/govt attempts to frame the social response to the virus as ‘keep calm and carry on’, otherwise known as ‘let the old and weak die to save our inequitable way of life’.

Now my thinking is focused on the UK because that’s where I’m currently stuck. But this all reminded me of how much I was struck with Andrew Sayer’s work when I first encountered it and how much – in one way or another – it has stuck with me. Sayer is interested in rescuing Bourdieu – allowing for the ‘habitus’ to generate action – particularly for the most insulted an injured in society. Sayer draws attention to how sociology seems to ‘deny the life of the mind in working class’ people. He tries to strike a balance between resistance and compliance by using the term ‘longing’. In doing this he starts developing the idea of lay normativity as a set of discriminative values people have about flourishing and suffering – in a ‘practically-adequate way’. From there he talks about ‘ethical dispositions’ and their potential for activation. I would say we see this quite significantly with a disease mainly affecting the weak and vulnerable – that pretty quickly the balanced favoured a general recognition that one’s own needs were outweighed by the needs of others – however grudgingly and difficult this was to bear (and only made possible thanks to belated financial concessions by a callous government).

What I like about the potential of ‘lay normativity’ is that it both allows for a rationality that escapes rational interest calculations of ‘homo economicus’, AND allows for the kind of ‘moral economy’ approach now current in anthropology that sees people as more than individuals – caught up, for better or worse in chains of sociality as ethical beings. For Sayer this is a double-layered form of interpreting the world – both ‘sociological’ – looking for structural causes, but tempered by normative ethical reasonings that cannot be reduced to habitual action or internalisation of discourses. It’s focused on emancipatory potential within ourselves for sure, but what else should sociology be ‘for’? Sayer comes back at the end of his book to the question of ‘whose normativity’, acknowledging that ethics can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. His attempt around this is to focus on the issues of suffering and flourishing – and that the Foucauldian ‘everything is dangerous’ response to the social is a misguided evasion of the inevitable need for the normative.  He also builds on Nancy Fraser’s perspective that equality means not just redistribution but also recognition as social participants. A lot of the pot banging going on at the moment (the local public vocal displays of support for healthcare workers) reflects a wish for lay normativity to be heard – it’s not just performative virtue.

Anyway, to bring this back to Russia, I just want to share a few of the ways I’ve been influenced by these ideas in my writing. I’m writing about suffering and recognition at the moment for my future book, but now I’ll look back to ways I’ve developed these ideas:

Most recently on homophobia [draft article] I found it useful to problematize a view that homophobia is weaponized in a ‘culture war’ against the West by drawing on how fear of difference reveals more about social trauma, the distrust and loss of the social state and attitudes about ‘moral education’, as it does about the successful inculcation of the idea of the ‘decadent west’.

When I wrote about the meaning of working-class craft in Russia I was very influenced by the idea of recognition and practices involving shared values which escape, more or less, the circuits of commodification, consumption and value  as wage-labour. Here I also used Sayer to prompt me to explore Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘virtue ethics’ – I still think anthropology is really missing a connection to this.

Around the same time I wrote about ‘lay reasoning’ in relation to memory of the socialist past – to show that people had significant mnemonic resources that were not constrained to ‘public memory’ of socialism (good or bad), nor were they nostalgic in the restorative or reflective senses popularised via Boym. They were however, morally normative in that they often activated political thoughts about social justice.

Finally in my book from 2016 I revisited some of the memory materials to explore how those activated reasonings about loss and trauma from the transition period play out – in practical but ethically based actions to further the ideas of autonomy and recognition – if only in the socially local.

Academics and public communication. A May Day demonstration

330px-RIAN_archive_697507_May_1st_demonstration_in_Moscow

Following on from my post where I thought aloud about monograph planning, I thought I’d write a little about communicating research to a public, or ‘lay’ audience. I personally find this difficult and frustrating at the best of times.

A case in point: I was asked a series of questions about Russian working class, etc., for a Russian newspaper interview to be published for May Day (the full text is at the end of this blogpost). The process of answering highlighted a lot of questions about the what, how and why of ‘public engagement’ or ‘dissemination’ of research and complex academic ideas, data and so on. For simplicity I’ll call this mode ‘engagement‘.

  1. In engagement, do you follow the lead of the interlocutor, or do you do what seasoned politicians and media-trained practitioners do – have a single simple point that you support with evidence and hammer home? I.e. how do you manage framing, which, if you have any experience in this kind of thing is often the most uncomfortable part of the exchange?
  2. To what degree do you compromise on conveying both complexity and ambiguity? Think about it, in a media or face-to-face conversation, without preparation, how would you feel about explaining the meaning of ‘habitus’ and its place within your research or within social sciences more generally?
  3. What about the problem that what you say will be interpreted as not ‘objectively scientific’? How do you balance that common (and mistaken) lay expectation – that academics are scientistic operators, with the necessity to explain clearly that science is unavoidably ideological and that this is even a ‘good thing’ to be upfront about?
  4. How do you talk about data, without dumbing down? How do you talk about uncertainty? How do you communicate the difference between inductive and deductive approaches? How, for ethnographers, do you give voice and not perform symbolic violence on your research interlocutors in what is normally a very short exchange?

These are just a few issues that come to mind. I certainly had cause to reflect on them before, during and after the interview in question.

If you have time to read the interview, here’s some of the thinking that went into my choices of what to say:

  1. (reactive-proactive?) I trust the interviewer to lead me. But at points I depart from her ‘script’ of questions. I don’t try to be a one-trick pony, as one sees in the media every day. I’m not good at that. I want to perform some complexity – intentionally. I want to shift the frame a little, both stylistically, but also politically. I combatively at times draw attention to the problem of media framing.
  2. (complexity/ambiguity) I try to summarize aspects of my work; I even draw attention to ‘technical’ terms while trying to introduce the idea of ambiguity by using (overusing) inverted commas, almost as a form of metadiscourse. I think you inevitably take risks in simplifying historical, political, social context. This is what I’m usually criticized for. Can you see the Bourdieu and Foucault there? I don’t see the value in calling out their names, but maybe I should?
  3. (so-called objectivity) I think I take risks with that in this piece in that I openly take a Marxian position and call back to it throughout. However, I shy away from pushing to obvious conclusions concerning Russia, and avoid some political issues. There remains the problem (?) of my own constriction within a ‘realist’ social science frame.
  4. (granularity, voice, methodological foregrounding) As an ethnographer, I struggle with this. The interview is barely 1600 words. How do I give voice, detail, without coming across as an ‘anecdator’? This for me is really the main thing – and what remains unsuccessful in this exchange – the absence of voice on the part of the people I do research on.

Am I successful? You can be the judge of that. Things that bug me: The difficulty of speaking ‘quietly’ while maintaining ‘authority’? Not possible. This requires magical academic charisma and cultural capital accumulated over time. This links to the next issue: I don’t feel confident in leading with my ‘unique contribution to science’. I talk around my own concepts, but they take a back seat. Is this good or bad? Style – I was told that this interview is ‘accessible’, but I’m unhappy that it’s still asking too much of the audience, just in terms of departing stylistically from everyday language. Again this is a question about frame and expectations of discourse.

My colleague who read this interview made an interesting set of comments (critiques, really) – ‘Why do we generalise so much with journalists? These are very good phrases, and very correct, but they don’t really reflect how you work, and what all this means to you. There is not a single detail, but zooming in is the most beautiful thing in the ethnographic game. The operation of the zoom lens should not affect the complexity or simplicity of the message. Regardless of the increasing requirements for more instrumental handling of material.

Here’s the interview, shortly to be published in «Реальное время». https://realnoevremya.ru/ I will post a better link at a later stage.

Here’s the link: https://realnoevremya.ru/articles/173460-dzheremi-morris-ob-izmenenii-balansa-mezhdu-kapitalom-i-trudom

Почему Россия, ее общественный строй и в частности жизнь рабочего класса представляют ваш научный интерес?

Что привело меня к изучению российских трудящихся, так это понимание того, сколь сильно ими пренебрегают. Да, в 1990-х годах проводились масштабные исследования забастовок шахтеров, едва не пошатнувших правление Ельцина. Однако уже в конце десятилетия утвердилась точка зрения на замирание  сопротивления как главное правило  трудовой жизни в России, где одним из результатов посткоммунистического транзита стало появление пассивного, безропотного и забитого (рабочего) класса. Все как-то быстро решили, что рабочие как класс сломлены и маргинализированы. Я же хотел показать и доказать, что это – грубая ошибка. Рабочие, каким бы содержанием мы не наполняли эту социальную категорию, важны в любой экономике – даже в той, что пытается перейти в постиндустриальную эпоху. Вирус Covid, если, конечно, он что-то нам показывает, показывает, насколько мы зависимы от тех, кто работает с материей и производит реальные вещи.

Вторая причина, по которой я взялся изучать собственно рабочий класс, заключалась в его статусе жертвы. Наряду с женщинами «синие воротнички» –  рабочие – стали главными неудачниками постсоветского транзита, проигравшими на переходе от коммунизма к капитализму. Но опять же, не собираясь довольствоваться этим ярлыком, я хотел говорить с так называемыми «обычными людьми» и, тем самым, вернуть им голос – показать, что они были и остаются гибкими, находчивыми и рефлексивными и в первое постсоветское десятилетие, и в современных обстоятельствах.

Это отсутствие голоса не в последнюю очередь связано со стремлением средств массовой информации и академического дискурса игнорировать трудящихся современной России или демонизировать их. Посмотрите, как либералы обвиняют «простых людей» в проблемах и бедах страны. Посмотрите, на каком языке они говорят об этих «простых людях». Здесь и сейчас важно задуматься о классовом расизме, существующем и воспроизводящемся повсеместно – не только в России. Конечно, у этой разновидности расизма есть и оборотная сторона – то, как некоторые политики используют рабочих и  манипулируют ими ради политического капитала. Перейти от обсуждения классового неравенства к классовому расизму означает признать, что на основе классовых предубеждений представители одной социальной группы определяет другую группу как антропологически отличную, низшую и вызывающую отвращение. Когда одни люди в России называют других «быдлом», в основе чаще всего лежит классовый расизм.

Что произошло с рабочим классом во время перехода от советского к постсоветскому периоду в России? Как изменился статус рабочих, условия их жизни и деятельности?

Я буду говорить о социальном контракте. В период  позднего социализма он играл важную роль, хоть и не мог обеспечить настоящего процветания. Скажем,  социальный контракт давал значительные льготы работникам в таких ключевых секторах, как «оборонка». Несмотря на то, что зарплата оставалась стабильно  низкой, работники этой и других отраслей имели доступ к патерналистской форме так называемой «социальной зарплаты» – детским садам, профилакториям, столовым и, до некоторой степени условно, к жилью. Меня интересуют рациональные основания в оценке обычными людьми социализма как периода, который был не хуже, а в некоторых отношениях лучше современности. При этом я имею в виду не ностальгические чувства, но сложные  и разнообразные политики оценки относительной ценности эпохи и общественного устройства. Субъективное чувство собственного достоинства и то, как человека воспринимает остальная часть общества, я рассматриваю как часть этого процесса.

Несмотря на многие негативные стороны жизни в СССР, можно утверждать, что там и тогда рабочие обладали большей структурной властью, чем сегодня. Скажем, если рабочему не нравились условия труда, он мог поменять место работы. Он мог не бояться потерять работу в случае снижения результативности. В конце концов, он мог искать защиту у бригады и трудового коллектива от произвола начальства. В каком-то смысле эхо былой структурной власти эпохи позднего социализма – вот то, что сейчас меня занимает. Когда я говорю о структурной власти, то имею в виду ресурс, которым располагают работники, занимая то или иное место в системе экономики. О том, что квалифицированные российские рабочие все еще обладают структурной властью и при том большей структурной властью, чем на Западе, свидетельствует высокая текучесть кадров. Если вы не боитесь менять работу, значит, рассчитываете, что найдется другая.

Другие формы власти рабочего класса, согласно социологу Эрику Олину Райту, представляют собой власть объединений, действующих в политической сфере, или коллективные организации рабочих. Эта власть существует в таких хорошо распознаваемых формах, как профсоюзы и партии, но она же может включать разнообразные рабочие советы или формы ведомственного представительства. Несколько упрощая, скажу, что даже в условиях нынешней атомизации российского общества будет полезно изучить способность отдельных лиц и организаций отстаивать классовые интересы, пусть и не вполне отчетливые.

Что представляет собой российский рабочий класс в наши дни? Кто становится рабочим? Каков их финансовый уровень? Какова их жизненная философия? Как изменилась корпоративная культура на предприятиях? Как изменились семейные отношения рабочих, какова роль женщины в семье рабочих?  Каково отношение широкого общества к рабочим?

Здесь я хочу отойти от традиционного понимания рабочего класса, в самом деле несколько устаревшего. Есть веские причины для того, чтобы расширить само понятие, охватывая и включая в число рабочих всех тех, кто полагается на заработную плату и не имеет других активов, кроме собственной рабочей силы. Конечно, у этого пост-марксистского подхода есть свои слабые места, но он позволяет обратить внимание на значимые тенденции, наблюдаемые сегодня и в России, и на Западе. Разрушение среднего класса в Европе и США означает, что опыт многих так называемых «белых воротничков» становится все более похож на эксплуатацию рабочих, описанную классиками. На это также указывают интенсификация работы, повышение контроля и ужесточение трудовой дисциплины.

Что касается опыта российских рабочих, то мое исследование о монопрофильных городах показывает, насколько изменилась корпоративная культура – возросли и требования работников к работодателю, и степень их эксплуатации корпорацией. Как это ни парадоксально, даже в этих процессах можно усмотреть связь с советским наследием.  Хорошие трудовые отношения в России по-прежнему характеризуются честной формой патернализма, когда работники знают, что им не только платят достаточно, но и удовлетворяют их более субъективные потребности (иногда в весьма прозаических вещах – таких, как уровень обслуживания и стоимость комплексного обеда в заводской столовой).

Что касается и другой части вашего вопроса, то хороший работодатель должен признать, что запрос на гендерное равенство никуда не исчезнет. Хорошо, когда женщины осваивают рабочие роли, прежде им ограниченно доступные. А вот представления о том, что российские рабочие как-то консервативны и видят в роли кормильцев исключительно мужчин, очень и очень устарели. Упорствуя в воспроизводстве стереотипов о консерватизме или даже авторитаризме рабочих,  воспетом социологами, часть российского общества и средства массовой информации  политически запаздывают и культурно отстают. Я вижу в этом проблему.

Насколько социалистическое прошлое сегодня влияет на Россию?

Полагаю, я уже ответил. Но подытожу. Я думаю, что социалистическое прошлое все меньше и меньше влияет на Россию. Но это влияние все еще можно разглядеть в отдельных нюансах и деталях, обнаруживаемых во всех закоулках общества. В случае рабочих это выражается в озабоченности условиями труда и цеховыми отношениями, в интересе к социальной заработной платой, в заботе о достоинстве человека труда. Но, сказанное не означает, что мизерная зарплата не остается главной проблемой рабочего человека эпохи постсоциализма. В этом отношении сегодняшняя Россия мало чем отличается от СССР. Рабочим не платят столько, сколько они «стоят».

По вашим наблюдениям, какие общественные проблемы выявил коронавирус, время карантина в России?

Вирус лишний раз заставляет признать, что работники недооценены и многие получают мизерное жалованье. Он обнажает разрыв между теми, кто может позволить себе сидеть дома, и работниками основных производств, которые сейчас находятся на переднем крае и подвергаются риску – врачами, таксистами,  продавцами супермаркетов, пищевиками и т.д. Это представители едва ли не  самых низко оплачиваемых профессий в современной России. Тем же, кто временно потерял возможность зарабатывать, вирус показывает, каким образом современный капитализм создает массу исключительно уязвимых людей – работников, которые, несмотря на свой усердный труд, не имеют ни активов, ни сбережений, на которые можно было бы рассчитывать в период кризиса. Наконец, вирус обещает, что самые уязвимые слои трудящихся могут надолго лишиться работы. Это означает, что баланс между капиталом и трудом должен измениться в самом ближайшем будущем. В противном случае «глобальный Север», частью которого является сегодня Россия, вскоре станет похож на «глобальный Юг».

Как вы оцениваете реакцию россиян на условия кризиса и карантина? Какие практики из социалистического прошлого срабатывают сегодня (гражданская оборона, методы самоорганизации, инициативы, а также заготовки, заговоры, слухи и прочее)?

Не так давно в своем блоге, который веду на странице postsocialism.org, я опубликовал пост, где сравниваю Россию с Великобританией. Темами для размышлений исследователя-блогера стали культурная память о гражданской обороне, существующая в России и сильно недооцениваемая ее обитателями, и настрой россиян, куда более коллективный, чем у многих на Западе. Я не исключаю, что в России люди лучше подготовлены к рациональному пониманию необходимость карантина, поддержке уязвимых слоев населения и преодолению собственных эгоистичных побуждений. Вот вам пример из британской жизни. Сегодня я был в супермаркете. Мало кто из посетителей был в масках и перчатках или же соблюдал социальную дистанцию. Особо упорствовали в карантинном безрассудстве пенсионеры. Когда же сотрудники супермаркета указали им на это, они дали понять, что не понимают последствий своих действий или не желают о них задумываться.

Как вы оцениваете реакцию российских властей на коронавирус? На ваш взгляд, инструменты капитализма или социализма показывают себя лучше всего в таких условиях?

Что до реакции российской власти, то, на мой взгляд, она не лучше и не хуже, чем ответ на пандемию правительств США или Великобритании. В странах, где хорошо финансируют здравоохранение, надежны процедуры тестирования и отлажена работа государственной машины, показатели смертности и госпитализации значительно ниже. Великобритания – очень плохой пример с циничным правительством, которое уже 10 лет не только плохо финансирует здравоохранение, но и активно подрывает его, чтобы обманом обеспечить поддержку его приватизации. Теперь мы пожинаем плоды. Из-за того, что у нас есть несамостоятельные средства массовой информации, тесно связанные с правительством и обслуживающие его, боюсь, люди так и не поймут, кто виноват во многих смертях от вируса в Англии, которых можно было бы избежать. Таким образом, вопрос не столько в социализме или капитализме, сколько в потенциале и компетенции конкретного государства. Но, и капитализм, конечно, остается частью проблемы. Об этом позволяет судить пример США с его гипер-маркетизированной системой здравоохранения и гигантским неравенством в отношении здоровья. Эта страна располагает самыми передовыми медицинскими учреждениями и технологиями в мире, и, тем не менее, она, вероятно, будет иметь наибольшее число смертей на душу населения. Экономические системы, которые ставят прибыль превыше человека, ответят на ваш вопрос лучше, чем я.

 

 

Corona in a comparative perspective – will it help ‘restore justice’ in Russia, or show the weaknesses of its incoherent state?

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Civil defence placard in a public building.

Okay, so I had the choice when Covid really started kicking off, of being in Russia, Denmark or the UK. I already had a ticket to the UK, so I went there. But it got me thinking a little about comparisons through the lens of the everyday – yeah, you knew it would!

Apologies if, at some point in the future you’re reading this and thinking it’s in bad taste as survivors huddle round a fire in a post-apocalyptic landscape and someone decides to hand crank up the intertubes. Also apologies for the lumpier than usual writing.

So, what’s clear so far is that Britain is a mess in terms of state capacity for dealing with a major crisis, but also a mess in that there is no herd immunity to panic. Bear with me. I’m not of course talking about bio-immunity. I’m talking about the mythic ‘Blitz’ spirit. First of all, the stoic Blitz spirit myth is unhelpful for many reasons: the UK had an Empire, had the US to its flank, had years to prepare for war etc. Mainly though, it’s unhelpful because there wasn’t so much real social solidarity and grass-roots organisation in WWII. What the UK did have was massive and effective state machinery. That machine, well-oiled and relatively successful in socialising (bridling?) capitalism to non-market ends, was the most effective mobiliser and allocator of scarce resources in modern history.

Now, mobilisation and organisation that’s blind to other interests is usually used to describe the USSR war effort. However, what’s more important here is the long-term effect of the trauma of WWII for Russians, and equally, the continuation of ‘wartime’ elements of lived experience after 1945 in Russia.  So one thing that connects this crisis with my research interests is a ‘cosmology of provisioning’. This is the idea that memories abide of ways of being resourceful and resilient in the face of want – witness the culture of pickling and jamming in Eastern Europe generally (there’s even a verbal construction in Russian to describe the physical process of conserving produce at home: «закрывать или закатывать банки» – link from ‘Kapusta TV’!). But it also relates to practical skills of daily living that clearly many have lost – witness the anecdote from the US of a run on pancake mix while eggs and flour were untouched. I’ve seen panic buying in Russia before (the salt and sugar panics from around 15 years ago). So while Russia is certainly prone to conspiracy theories and the virus of rumour, there are socio-cultural elements of making-do and putting-up-with-little that might put them in better stead.

Another topic is what I call the culture of medicalisation in Russia. It’s an irony that the cultural hypochondria, or obsession with avoiding ailments and pursuit of self-treatment (for ailments that British people just put up with) could actually be a helpful thing in Russia. For various reasons, people are much more aware of disease in Russia as an enemy of bodily well-being in a way that seems obsessive to a British person (but not other Europeans or Americans perhaps). Comparing how many people consider having a thermometer essential equipment for their home ‘aptechka’ (note the origin of the Russian word for ‘medicine cabinet’) could be an interesting indicator.

The link here is the Soviet heritage of the scientific approach to disease and the underlying assumption that many barriers to modernisation were rooted in the genetic weakness of the population. Indeed the extreme ‘sensitivity’ in Russia towards ‘infection’ could be a good thing with a potentially higher ‘lay’ understanding of the need for hygiene and quarantine.  Of course, at the same time there is a very healthy (in both senses) folk medicine tradition that shows no signs of abating. The scientism, in a positive sense, behind even everyday practices is a long-standing referent, as Galina Orlova has noted [same article in Russian]. And in general we could point to a more ‘holistic’ understanding of disease causes and treatment in Russian historically.

And that’s not to mention the remnants of civic defence culture that remain – visible in every village administration or public building in the form of posters. Really the question here is, are the well funded and equipped security services able to ‘think’ in terms of civil defence, or are they too preoccupied with a mindset of punishing wrong-doers? Ironically there’s more signs in the UK that the extremely depleted thin blue line can do little more than stigmatise and bully those breaking quarantine, rather than switch to civil defence.  As Vanessa Pupavac notes in response to the UK police ‘shaming’, lessons from studying authoritarian regimes are that ‘overly-heavy handed interpretation of measures in a situation encourages more flouting of measures and the corrosion of adherence, esp. over time, than if reasonable compliance was fostered allowing citizens to make sensible judgement calls.’

Key here is self-organisation and grass roots initiatives. I’m really impressed with what’s happening both in the UK and Russia, with immediate organisation through social media of support and protection for the most vulnerable. Social media is a boon here, but of course many older people don’t have smart phones or internet. In both countries I see examples of self-organised local pooling of human resources to find the vulnerable people and offer support. Here in the UK in my household we phone an elderly widower every day and bring him groceries – observing a safe distance. I know of similar, well organised things in Russia – micro acts of care or ‘quiet activism’, see in particular the work of Kye Askins and  Laura Pottinger.

Both UK and Russian healthcare systems have been decimated by a fetish of ‘leanness’ and cut-to-the-bone medical capacity. Unlike Germany, which looks like being the most successful European society in dealing with the immediate crisis. Similarly, the fiscal policy response in UK and Russia is belated and inadequate, though in Russia especially it looks like a massive policy failure so far. It’s been extremely stingy and tardy: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/03/26/bankrolling-russia-s-relief-program and also accompanied with what can only described as sneaky measures (tax on ‘high’ levels of savings described as a ‘restoration of justice’ by Putin) to claw back more money the state doesn’t know what to do with. https://mbk-news.appspot.com/byvaet/vosstanovlenie-spravedlivosti/. The point is that the authorities once again have sent an incoherent message and accompanied it with contradictory measures.

Literally the first discussion of measures I saw on Russian TV, albeit a week ago, was a talking head on RBK predicting that it would be a terrible mistake to raid the massive currency reserves or undertake fiscal measures (because of the effect on the rouble and the depletion of firepower to protect it). The new tax on savings (see MBK link above), while affecting only a few people, has panicked people with much smaller deposits. This morning I got a message from a very calm and collected friend (see end of the post), who had withdrawn all his savings from Sberbank and gone to hole up in his village house. Now RBK is hinting at bank problems. Others I spoke to were disgusted, but not surprised, that the government has no plan to support incomes for those furloughed, unlike in many other European countries.

While there will be profiteering by sociopaths, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/world/europe/uk-coronavirus-tests-profiteering.html [paywall] the virus provides an important opportunity to ‘illustrates the centrality of care to social life and the limits of contemporary capitalism’s capacity to enable it’, regardless of what society one lives in. There are signs that society is not completely atomised with half a million people volunteering in serve to the caring state in the UK https://www.goodsamapp.org/NHS. In Moscow vulnerable people can phone to get medicines delivered, but of course, that’s Moscow, not the rest of Russia. It’s unlikely that bodies like the All-Russia People’s Front can really compare in capacity, and capacity to inspire mobilization, with the NHS (the link shows how many cases  they’ve helped among senior citizens and people with reduced mobility during the coronavirus pandemic – it’s tiny). There’s more encouraging news in this article about St Petersburg.

I think the final words should go to Russians themselves. Here are two reactions from today:

“You know, I’m not a fan of the authorities. No. But I wouldn’t just say that they are in a panic or are late. Rather, they are frozen in the headlights in the face of this non-trivial task that is not embedded in their algorithm programs. In Putin’s speech there’s not a single military metaphor, there’s a domestic tone and there’s a general lack of mobilization – just holidays, financial holidays and a few new taxes. Perhaps the refusal to mobilize and use military metaphors, so routine for our country, is a transition to a state of emergency?…” [Muscovite women in 40s]

“So far, it’s only the beginning, all the most interesting will be from Monday. Sentiment in society is not great. The worst thing is that it’s not very clear, is it all for real or is it a bluff. Small and medium-sized businesses will definitely be killed … A doctor I know said that it will be like in Italy, but in 2-3 weeks. Bu the main thing is there’s no leadership, no support – neither in terms of money or getting the healthservice ready. My father is in hospital now with underlying conditions and the doctors have no masks.

… People will continue to take money from accounts, banks can collapse. Gref this morning sent letters to everyone but it’s too late to say ‘chill’…. I advised everyone to take all my money from even Sberbank. There are rumours that cash circulation will be limted, that they will forbid withdrawals from ATMs.  Also that currency exchanges will be closed.” [Man in Kaluga region in 40s]

Addendum:

I’ve just been sent this report from PONARS [pdf opens in a new window] on the way the virus is being tackled in different post-Soviet states. It nicely underlines my idea about an incoherent state response on the part of Russia.

‘Declasse’ foreignness? Roundtable reflections on Russian fieldwork. Part 3

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I’d like to be more than a ‘visitor’ to my fieldsite.

Here’s the last part of my personal reflections on the questions put to the roundtable on fieldwork at IGITI.

— «Нероссийские» и «российские» работы о России, основанные на полевой работе: в чем их сильные и слабые стороны, ограничения? Чему можно учиться у других исследователей?

[- “Non-Russian” and “Russian” works on Russia based on field work: what are their strengths and weaknesses, limitations? What can you learn from other researchers?]

This is a question where really I don’t feel qualified to make a clear judgement as my knowledge is lacking. Certainly the ‘best’ of both worlds for me reflects my disciplinary background – where there is deep ethnographic diving AND good contextual and cultural knowledge. What’s interesting is that sometimes both these are lacking in BOTH ‘natives’ and ‘foreign’ researchers. Again I’d like to return to the value of ‘observation’ as much as ‘interview-transcribe-interpret-report’. As Whyte and Whyte in 1984 wrote: ‘Observation guides us to some of the important questions we want to ask the respondent, and interviewing helps us to interpret the significance of what we are observing.’ While the interview remains at the heart of ethnographic research we should remember that it’s an artificial environment.

I’ll highlight quickly some of the advantages and disadvantages of foreigner research as I see them:

Laura Adams noted that the mascot status of foreigners can aid access but can impede honesty and lead to conflict. https://sci-hub.se/10.1177/089124199129023479

Foreignness draws attention to the ‘value’ of subjects (hey we are worth studying and we’ll tell you about ourselves) but can conversely lead to conflict and break down in trust – as one anthropologist recently told me, ‘The locals couldn’t believe that a US professor would be interested. Throughout the research I felt I was not trusted enough’. The same researcher also commented on work done with indigenous people – how this provoked conflict with ‘Russians’ who felt neglected by the angle of the researcher that was addressed to ‘indigenous’ non-Russian ethnics.

From my own perspective I’d like to highlight the advantages of being an outsider in aiding the shedding of ‘class’ baggage. It’s sometimes easier for a foreigner to adopt a declasse position, for want of a better word, in entering the field. Whereas I think for some Russian researchers, because of their own privileged class positioning that might be more challenging and require rather unnatural poses that would then backfire. As one of our participants said at the roundtable – she found herself having to ‘choose her vocabulary from an unfamiliar set of expressions’. Now for me, this immediately evokes an idea that what we are talking about is class, though I know that some of my Muscovite hosts would resist this reading.

However, I’m also willing to accept that my idea about foreigners being able to shed their class positioning (in the eyes of the beholders) is perhaps wishful thinking on my part and only based on my own experience. When I presented this idea, one very experienced researcher who is himself from a working-class background had a different interpretation. He said that the foreigner entering the field would be interpreted according to a set of ‘weirdo’ categories that pre-exist among the working-class people at the factory I was studying. Thus I, as researcher would be ascribed one of a set of existing ‘oddball’ categories and accepted as such. Class would have less to do with it. Or, in his opinion, class is relegated, but it’s significance not avoided.

I don’t really have a neat tying up of this discussion, beyond what I’ve already said, in that I think perhaps one of the ‘problems’ in ‘native fieldwork’ is an allergic reaction to ‘class’ as a frame of reference in thinking about fieldwork and the types of fieldwork places. This was only underlined by some of the reactions I got from the roundtable and the subsequent Labour Studies school I attended.

In place of a conclusion I can refer Russian speakers to the [paywalled] interview I conducted for the online Republic media outlet. It was a bit of a rushed affair and some of my answers are rather ill-considered or undeveloped. The translation too is a little rough and ready. The reactions in the comments speak for themselves about general attitudes towards class, Marxian-influenced research agendas, and also the foreign researcher. E.g. ‘Republic, зачем опять левацкое дерьмо?’ and ‘Стандартный для западного обществоведения, в массе – розового или красного, ритуальный язык.’