Author Archives: Jeremy Morris

About Jeremy Morris

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

A Day of Knowledge – Topic-based teaching of Russian Current Affairs

Day of Knowledge

Day of Knowledge in a Russian School – 1 September.

I’m about to dive back into a semester of very intensive teaching. It’s Russia’s ‘Day of Knowledge’, so I thought I’d share a ‘mini’ course I’m going to be teaching.

In Danish it’s called Aktuelt Emne, which means ‘Current Topic’. This is a ‘mini’ course because its only worth 5 ECTS (which equates to 500 pages of compulsory reading and 26 hours of class time). It can run for a whole semester (13 weeks), but for various reasons I’m going to deliver it in 8 sessions, each of which covers a ‘sub-topic’.

The main questions that arise around this kind of teaching are: How specific the topic? How in-depth do we want to go, given the course is ‘only’ 5 credits and the students have a lot of other demands on them? What ‘level’ to pitch this at, given that the students have had little exposure to contemporary issues before and the fact that non-Russianists can take this course? How to balance the ‘Area studies’ approach with the need to expose students to concepts like ‘biopolitics’, ‘governmentality’ and ‘homo sacer’. These terms are likely to be meaningless to most students, even though the students have a general ‘humanities’ primer course beforehand.

Anyway, this year I’m trying to relate the course to the article I’m writing on ‘Gayropa’ and homophobia as an example of the ‘conservative turn’ in Russia. In the article I’m contrarian, arguing that homophobia has more significant  ‘roots’ in cultural history – for want of a better formulation – and aspects of Soviet-era enculturation and socialisation – a shorthand for which is the word ‘vospitanie‘. Visible deviants are ‘lacking’ in moral vospitanie. I conclude by saying these issues, along with an argument related to that of Daria Ukhova: mean that ‘conservatism’ is a defensive mechanism against the multiple failures of the state. These are more salient issues than state-directed propaganda against ‘Gayropa’. I’ll blog aspects of that article soon – the draft is here.

Anyway, many of the sources I use in the article serve as readings on the course. I kinda artificially break up the course into ‘topics’, but in reality these overlap quite a lot.

Some of this is ‘experimental’ – I’m not sure how well some of the readings will go down. Whether they are cohesive enough to serve the learning aims. Whether the ‘summary tasks’ help prepare the students enough for further study and writing.

Russian Cultural Politics Today.

  1. (4 September) 8-11am Russian cultural politics today : Introduction
  2.  (18 September) 8-11am Russia’s conservative turn and soft power
  3.  (25 September) 8-11am Russia’s biopolitics – gender retraditionalizations
  4.  (2 October) 8-11am Russia’s biopolitics – state, the family and the child
  5.  (23 October) 8-11am Russia’s biopolitics – LGBT and youth – unruly others
  6.  (6 November) 8-11am Race, ethnicity and religion as sites of cultural politics
  7.  (20 November) 8-11am The liberal alternative – Russia’s opposition as a cultural sphere
  8.  (4 December) 8am-12pm Grounding the study of Russian cultural politics, and alternative perspectives.

Introduction to the course aims

This 5 ECTS Credit course aims to investigate the so-called ‘conservative turn’ in Russian cultural politics since around 2010. Scholars Andrey Makarychev and Alexandra Yatsyk (we read them in Week 2) argue that the current regime has taken an increasingly conservative turn since the protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012 for two reasons. First to solidify and legitimize a political system with one dominating leader supported by the elites, arguing that this form of ‘sovereign’ or ‘managed’ democracy is part of Russian identity, secondly to paint a picture of the western world as degenerate, rejecting its Judeo-Christian heritage, in contrast to Russia, which becomes a defender of European civilisation.

Yatsyk and Makarychev highlight three main components of this “new” conservative discourse in Russia: Russia is one of the few real sovereign nations in the world, a goal of reconstructing a unified Russian nation, in part used as an explanation for annexing Crimea, and finally the idea of ‘normality’ regarding family life, sexuality etc, rejecting the more liberal West as depraved and trying, through international organisations  to infiltrate and dismantle traditional Russian, Orthodox, values. Two examples of how this conservative turn goes beyond Russian political discourse and is reflected in concrete legislation are article 6.13, known as the gay propaganda ban law, passed in June 2013, as well as the law changing domestic violence that does not result in severe bodily harm from a criminal offence to an administrative offence, passed in 2017.

These are the kind of issues we will be examining in this course. The guiding questions that will be reflected in the assignment are as follows: What is the conservative turn in Russia? What has caused it? How has it affected political discourse around the family, gender roles, the upbringing of children? What kind of groups are identified as threats to this normative order? How does the government use this discourse to justify its foreign policy? How are race and religion relevant to conservatism and national identity? How ‘liberal’, is the liberal opposition to the government? How has the conservative turn been expressed in relations with neighbours of Russia?


Weekly assignments and readings:

Week One. Introduction:

Compulsory Reading:

Robinson, N. (2014) The Political Origins of Russia’s ‘Culture Wars’, Department of Politics and Public Administration University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland https://ulir.ul.ie/handle/10344/3796

Trudolyubov, M. (2014) ‘Russia’s Culture Wars’, The New York Times, 7 Feb 2014, pp. 14–16.

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/opinion/trudolyubov-russias-culture-wars.html

Summary task:

Andrey Makarychev & Sergei Medvedev (2015) Biopolitics and Power in Putin’s Russia, Problems of Post-Communism, 62:1, 45-54, DOI: 10.1080/10758216.2015.1002340

Task: the above text has a lot of newspaper and media sources, including in Russian. Select one and summarise it in 200-300 words. Explore at least one Russian media source and make some notes on it. Find out whether the issue has developed since 2015.

[48 pages]

Further Reading:

Andrei Melville (2017) A Neoconservative Consensus in Russia?, Russian Politics & Law, 55:4-5, 315-335, DOI: 10.1080/10611940.2017.1533271

Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (2003) ‘FOUCAULT TODAY’, IN PAUL RABINOW AND NIKOLAS ROSE (EDS) THE ESSENTIAL FOUCAULT: SELECTIONS FROM THE ESSENTIAL WORKS OF FOUCAULT, 1954-1984 NEW YORK: NEW PRESS (pp. vii – xxxv)

Thomas Lemke (2001) ‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality, Economy and Society, 30:2, 190-207 (particularly see pp.202- for a summary of key terms)

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).


Week Two: Russia’s conservative turn and soft power

Compulsory Reading:

Makarychev, Andrey, Yatsyk, Alexandra: “A New Russian Conservatism: Domestic Roots and Repercussions for Europe” in Notes International CIDOB, No. 93, 2014. https://www.cidob.org/en/publications/publication_series/notes_internacionals/n1_93/a_new_russian_conservatism_domestic_roots_and_repercussions_for_europe

Riabov, O. and Riabova, T. (2014) ‘The decline of Gayropa? How Russia intends to save the world’, 5 February 2014 Eurozine https://www.eurozine.com/the-decline-of-gayropa

Summary task:

Sergunin, Alexander, and Leonid Karabeshkin. “Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy.” Politics 35, no. 3-4 (2015): 347-363.

Task: Make a one-page summary of the text’s main points in your own words. Bring to class. This is an essential skill to develop to support essay writing and working towards a successful bachelor project. Then write a paragraph from the perspective of a critical reader who wants to argue that the claims of Russian soft power strength in general are exaggerated (you might need to skim Keating and Splidsboel to get some ideas for this, but most of all use your common sense!).

[34 pages]

Further Reading:

Bassin, M., and G. Pozo, eds. 2017. The politics of Eurasianism: Identity, popular culture and

Russia’s foreign policy. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Keating, V. C., & Kaczmarska, K. (2017). Conservative Soft Power: Liberal soft power bias and the ‘hidden’ attraction of Russia. Journal of International Relations and Development. DOI: 10.1057/s41268-017-0100-6 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314286278_Conservative_Soft_Power_Liberal_soft_power_bias_and_the_’hidden’_attraction_of_Russia

https://soundcloud.com/user-688693296/warpod-1-vincent-keating-russian-soft-power

Kosachev, Konstantin, (2012) The Specifics of Russian Soft Power. Russia in Global Affairs, 3, 2012. https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/The-Specifics-of-Russian-Soft-Power-15683

Viatcheslav Morozov (2013) Subaltern Empire?: Toward a Postcolonial Approach to Russian Foreign Policy, Problems of Post-Communism, 60:6, 16-28: https://doi.org/10.2753/PPC1075-8216600602

Morozova, N. 2009. Geopolitics, eurasianism and Russian foreign policy under Putin. Geopolitics 14 (4):667–86.

Neumann, I. B. 1995. Russia and the idea of Europe: A study of identity and international relations. London: Routledge.

Polyakova, A. 2014. Putin and Europe’s Far Right World Affairs, Vol. 177, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2014), pp. 36-40

Prozorov, Sergei (2004) : Russian conservatism in the Putin presidency: The dispersion of a hegemonic discourse, DIIS Working Paper, No. 2004:20, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), Copenhagen This Version is available at:http://hdl.handle.net/10419/84604

Prozorov, S. 2007. The narratives of exclusion and self-exclusion in the Russian conflict discourse on EU-Russian relations. Political Geography 26 (3):309–29.

Snegovaya, M. 2017. Conservative Turn in Eastern Europe: Political Conservatism in Russia. Desenvolvimento em Debate v.5, n.1, p.95-113, 2017. https://www.academia.edu/35571272/Conservative_Turn_in_Eastern_Europe_Political_Conservatism_in_Russia

Flemming Splidsboel Hansen Russian influence operations Trying to get what you want DIIS POLICY BRIEF 30. OKTOBER 2018 https://www.diis.dk/publikationer/russian-influence-operations

Tsygankov, A. (2007). ‘Finding a civilisational idea: ‘West’, ‘Eurasia’, ‘Euro-East’ in Russia’s foreign policy’, Geopolitics, 12 (3):375–99.

Tsygankov, A. (2016) Russia’s foreign policy: Continuity and change in national identity 4th ed. (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield).


Week Three: Russian biopolitics – gender retraditionalization

Compulsory Reading:

Muravyeva, M. (2014) ‘Traditional Values and Modern Families: Legal Understanding of Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Russia’, Journal of Social Policy Research, 12(4), pp. 625-638. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282856363_Traditional_Values_and_Modern_Families_Legal_Understanding_of_Tradition_and_Modernity_in_Contemporary_Russia

Muravyeva, M. (2018) Austerity, Gender inequality and Feminism after the crisis: “Should women have more rights?” Traditional Values and Austerity in Russia. ROSA-LUXEMBURG-STIFTUNG [read sections 1 and 3.]

https://www.rosalux.eu/publications/should-women-have-more-rights-traditional-values-and-austerity-in-russia/

Temkina, A., Zdravomyslova, E. (2014) ‘Gender’s crooked path: Feminism confronts Russian patriarchy’, Current Sociology, 62(2), pp. 253-270.

Summary Task:

Muravyeva, M. (2018) Austerity, Gender inequality and Feminism after the crisis: “Should women have more rights?” Traditional Values and Austerity in Russia. ROSA-LUXEMBURG-STIFTUNG [read section 4]. Put yourself in the place of a Women’s Rights NGO in Russia. How would you implement the proposals? Summarise in 200-300 words.

[54 pages]

Further Reading:

Åberg, P. 2015. Civil society and biopolitics in contemporary Russia: The case of Russian “Daddy-Schools”, Foucault Studies, 20, 76-95

Johnson, J. E. (2007) ‘Domestic violence politics in post-Soviet states’, Social Politics, 14(3), pp. 380-405.

Johnson, J. E., Saarinen, A. (2013) ‘Twenty-first-century feminisms under repression: Gender regime change and the women’s crisis center movement in Russia’, Signs: Journal of women in Culture and Society, 38(3), pp. 543-567.

Oleg Riabov & Tatiana Riabova (2014) The Remasculinization of Russia?, Problems of Post-Communism, 61:2, 23-35, DOI: 10.2753/PPC1075-8216610202

Salmenniemi, S., Adamson, M. (2015) ‘New heroines of labour: domesticating post-feminism and neoliberal capitalism in Russia’, Sociology, 49(1), pp. 88-105.

Zdravomyslova, E. (2010). Working mothers and nannies: Commercialization of childcare and modifications in the gender contract (a sociological essay).Anthropology of East Europe Review, 28 , 200–225


Week Four: Family, welfare and child policies

Compulsory Reading:

Sherstneva, N. (2014) ‘Why are children’s rights so dangerous? Interpreting Juvenile Justice in the light of conservative mobilization in contemporary Russia’ in N. Novikova, and M. Muravyeva (eds). Women’s History in Russia: (Re)Establishing the Field Cambridge Scholars Publisher, pp.193-215. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/asb/detail.action?docID=1859167

Höjdestrand, T. (2016). Social Welfare or Moral Warfare? Popular Resistance against Children’s Rights and Juvenile Justice in Contemporary Russia. International Journal of Children’s Rights, 24(4), 826-850. https://doi.org/10.1163/15718182-02404007

https://brill.com/view/journals/chil/24/4/article-p826_7.xml

Sirotin, V. (2009) Children and adolescents in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List.  Special Issue No. 45. November 2009. Available at: http://stephenshenfield.net/archives/research-jrl/97-jrl-special-issue-no-45-november-2009#2

Summary task:

Elena Mizulina et al., comp., Kontseptsiia gosudarstvennoi semeinoi politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii na period do 2025 goda (The Concept of state family policy in the Russian Federation for the period until 2025) (Moscow, 2013),

https://zharov.info/guestbook/koncepciya-semejnoj-politiki-imeni-mizulinoj

Alternative version: https://rg.ru/2014/08/29/semya-site-dok.html

Summarise the state’s main aims in the concept of state family policy in more than one, but less than two pages.

[80 pages]

Further Reading:

Borozdina, E. et al. (2014) Using maternity capital: Citizen distrust of Russian family policy. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 23(1), pp.60-75.

Kingsbury, M., (2019) Let’s have more Russian babies. How anti-immigrant sentiment shapes family leave policy in Russia, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.postcomstud.2019.07.004.

Fabian, K., Bekiesza-Korolczuk, E. (Eds.) (2017) Rebellious Parents: Parental Movements in Central-Eastern Europe and Russia, Indiana University Press.

 Johnson, J. E. , et al. (2016), Street-level Practice of Russia’s Social Policymaking in Saint Petersburg: Federalism, Informal Politics, and Domestic Violence Jnl Soc. Pol. 45, 2, 287–304. doi:10.1017/S0047279415000689

Kainu, M., Kulmala, M., Nikula, J. and Kivinen, M. (2016), ‘The Russian Welfare State System: With Special Reference to Regional Inequality’, in C. Aspalter, ed.,, Welfare State Systems. Burlington: Ashgate.

Rivkin-Fish, M. (2010) Pronatalism, Gender Politics, and the Renewal of Family Support in Russia: Toward a Feminist Anthropology of “Maternity Capital” Slavic Review, Vol. 69, No. 3 (FALL 2010), pp. 701-724.

Slonimczyk, F., Yurko, A. (2014) ‘Assessing the impact of the maternity capital policy in Russia’, Labour Economics, 30, pp. 265-281.

Stella, F. and Nartova, N. (2015) Sexual citizenship, nationalism and biopolitics in Putin’s Russia. In: Stella, F., Taylor, Y., Reynolds, T. and Rogers, A. (eds.) Sexuality, Citizenship and Belonging: Trans-National and Intersectional Perspectives. Series: Advances in critical diversities (1). Routledge: London, pp. 24-42. ISBN 9781138805040

Websources:

  1. Shmidt, “Kak zashchishchat’ detei,” Polit.Ru, October 26, 2012,

http://www.polit.ru/article/2012/10/26/children

http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/2774805.html

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%AE%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%8F_%D1%8E%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%86%D0%B8%D1%8F_%D0%B2_%D0%A0%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D0%B8


Week 5: Russia’s biopolitics – LGBT and youth: unruly others

Compulsory Reading:

Erpyleva, S. (2018). Freedom’s children in protest movements: Private and public in the socialization of young Russian and Ukrainian activists. Current Sociology, 66(1), 20-37.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392116668223

Wilkinson, C. (2014) Putting “Traditional Values” Into Practice: The Rise and

Contestation of Anti-Homopropaganda Laws in Russia, Journal of Human Rights, 13:3, 363-379, DOI: 10.1080/14754835.2014.919218

Summary task:

Levada (2019) ‘Otnoshenie k LGBT-liudiam’, Levada Centre 23.05.2019 https://www.levada.ru/2019/05/23/otnoshenie-k-lgbt-lyudyam

Levada (2013) ‘Novyi opros ob LGBT’, Levada Centre 3.07.2013 https://www.levada.ru/2013/07/03/novyj-opros-ob-lgbt

Wiedlack, K. (2018) ‘Quantum Leap 2.0 or the Western gaze on Russian homophobia’, Adeptus, 2018(11). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326304340_Quantum_Leap_20_or_the_Western_gaze_on_Russian_homophobia

Write an outline for an LGBT student organisation (300 words) arguing that fighting homophobia in Russia needs to take account of the issues Wiedlack raises. Use some statistics from the Levada surveys. Is homophobia getting better or worse? What aspects of homosexuality do Russians find most problematic? How do they compare to Danes?

[55 pages]

Further Reading:

Kondakov, A. (2015) ‘Heteronormativity of the Russian Legal Discourse: The Silencing, Lack, and Absence of Homosexual Subjects in Law and Policies’, Sortuz: Oñati Journal of Emergent Socio-Legal Studies, 4(2), pp. 4-23. http://opo.iisj.net/index.php/sortuz/article/viewFile/603/581

Kondakov, A. (2017) Prestupleniia na pochve nenavisti protiv LGBT v Rossii: otchet (St Petersburg: Centre of Independent Sociological Research: Renome).

Kon, I. S. (2003) ‘O normalizatsii gomoseksuaľnosti’, Seksologiia i Seksopatologiia, 2003(2), 2–12. http://www.pseudology.org/kon/Articles/NormaGomosexuality.htm accessed 8 June 2019.

Kulpa, R. (2014) Western “leveraged pedagogy” of Central and Eastern Europe: Discourses of homophobia, tolerance, and nationhood. Gender, Place & Culture, 21(4), 431–448.

Kulpa, R. & Mizielińska, J. (2012) ‘“Guest editors” introduction: Central and Eastern European sexualities “in transition”’, Lambda Nordica: Journal of LGBTQ Studies, 2012(4), 19–29.

Krupets Y., Morris J., Nartova NadyaOmelchenko Elena, Sabirova G. Imagining young adults’ citizenship in Russia: from fatalism to affective ideas of belonging, Journal of Youth Studies. 2017. Vol. 20. No. 2. P. 252-267.

Mole, R. (2011) ‘Nationality and sexuality: homophobic discourse and the “national threat” in contemporary Latvia’, Nations and Nationalism, 17(3): 540–560.

Omelchenko, Elena, and Guzel Sabirova. “Youth cultures in contemporary Russia: memory, politics, solidarities.” Eastern European Youth Cultures in a global context. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016. 253-270.

Patin, K. (2016) ‘The Origin of Russian Gay Myths: Four Myths that Fuel Hatred for Gays in Russia’, 29 March 2016 https://codastory.com/lgbt-crisis/russian-myths/ accessed 8 June 2019.

Pomeranzev, P. (2016) ‘Europe, Putin and “Gayropa” Bait:  The Kremlin’s messaging on gay rights issues has little to do with beliefs’, 18 January 2016. https://codastory.com/lgbt-crisis/putin-wants-to-confuse-you/ accessed 8 June 2019.

Sirotin, V. (2009) Children and adolescents in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List.  Special Issue No. 45. November 2009. Available at: http://stephenshenfield.net/archives/research-jrl/97-jrl-special-issue-no-45-november-2009#2.


Week 6:  Race, ethnicity and religion as sites of cultural politics

Anderson, J. (2013) ‘Rock, art, and Sex: The “Culture Wars” Come to Russia”’, Journal of Church and State, 55(2) 307-334. https://academic.oup.com/jcs/article/55/2/307/807019

Laruelle, M. (2010) ‘The Ideological Shift on the Russian Radical Right: From Demonizing the West to Fear of Migrants’, Problems of Post-Communism 57(6): 19–31.

Summary task:

Zhuravlev, D. (2017) Orthodox Identity as Traditionalism: Construction of Political Meaning in the Current Public Discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Politics & Law, 55:4-5, 354-375, DOI: 10.1080/10611940.2017.1533274

As previously, make a summary in one or two pages of this article based on the assumption that you will later write an essay referring to it. The purpose of the notes is to record now the main content you will need in an essay: You need to summarise the main argument, but also find useful quotes to use in your essay.

[60 pages]

Further Reading:

Agadjanian, Alexander: “Revising Pandora’s Gifts: Religious and National Identity in the Post-Soviet Societal Fabric” in Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 53, no. 3, 2001

Aitamurto, K. 2016 Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism: Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie. Routledge. DOI https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315599304

Arnold, R. & Lawrence P. Markowitz (2018) The evolution of violence within far-right mobilization: evidence from Russia, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:9, 1558-1573.

Bahry, D. (2016) Opposition to Immigration, Economic Insecurity and Individual Values: Evidence from Russia, Europe-Asia Studies, 68:5, 893-916, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2016.1178710

Damm, Emily Belle, and Skye Cooley. “Resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church: Narrative of Analysis of the Russian National Myth.” Social Science Quarterly 98, no. 3 (2017): 942-957.

Hutchings, Stephen, and Vera Tolz. 2015. Nation, Ethnicity and Race on Russian Television: Mediating Post-Soviet Difference. London: Routledge.

Kizenko, N. (2013) ‘Feminized patriarchy? Orthodoxy and gender in post-Soviet Russia’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(3), pp. 595-621.

Dzidziguri, Shalva. “The Power and limits of the Russian Orthodox Church”. Forbes Opinion. December 14, 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/12/14/the-power-and-limits-of-the-russian-orthodox-church/2/#362fd0bc6c5d

Petro, Nicolai N. “Russia’s orthodox soft power.” Carnegie Council (2015).

Laruelle, M. In the Name of the Nation: Nationalism and Politics in Contemporary Russia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Laruelle, M. (2014) ‘Beyond Anti-Westernism: The Kremlin’s Narrative about Russia’s European Identity and Mission’, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo 326,

http://www.ponarseurasia.org/.

Lomagin, Nikita. “Interest groups in Russian foreign policy: The invisible hand of the Russian Orthodox Church.” International Politics 49, no. 4 (2012): 498-516.

Teper, Y. (2016) Official Russian identity discourse in light of the annexation of Crimea: national or imperial?, Post-Soviet Affairs, 32:4, 378-396, DOI: 10.1080/1060586X.2015.1076959

Tipaldou, S. and K.Uba (2014) The Russian Radical Right Movement and Immigration Policy: Do They Just Make Noise or Have an Impact as Well?, Europe-Asia Studies, 66:7, 1080-1101, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2014.927647.

Tolz, Vera, and Sue-Ann Harding. 2015. “From ‘Compatriots’ to ‘Aliens’: The Changing Coverage of Migration on Russian Television.” Russian Review 74: 452–477.

Umland, A. (2017). Post-Soviet Neo-Eurasianism, the Putin System, and the Contemporary European Extreme Right. Perspectives on Politics,15(2), 465-476. doi:10.1017/S1537592717000135


Week 7: The liberal alternative? – Russia’s opposition as a cultural sphere

Laruelle, M. (2014) ‘Alexei Navalny and Challenges in Reconciling “Nationalism” and “Liberalism” ’, Post-Soviet Affairs 30(4): 276–97.

“Scratch a Russian liberal and you’ll find an educated conservative”: an interview with sociologist Greg Yudin http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/scratch-a-russian-liberal-and-youll-find-an-educated-conservative-an-interview-with-sociologist-greg-yudin/#.WNPNJyj31Jw.twitter

Ilya Matveev, 2014 The “Two Russias” Culture War: Constructions of the “People” during the 2011-2013 Protests, South Atlantic Quarterly 113(1):186-195 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274055930_The_Two_Russias_Culture_War_Constructions_of_the_People_during_the_2011-2013_Protests

Summary Task:

https://srbpodcast.org/2019/03/08/transcript-russian-nationalism/

Listen to the podcast and make notes. Try to cross-reference your notes with material from Laruelle that you have read in her articles.

[43 pages + 1 hour listening]

Further Reading:

Morozov, V. (2017) ‘Mif o reaktsionnosti rossiiskogo massovogo soznaniia i problema intellektual’nogo liderstva’ [The myth about reactionary Russian mass consciousness and the problem of intellectual leadership], Blog Post/Policy Memo. PONARS Eurasia. New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia. 28 April 2017. http://www.ponarseurasia.org/ru/article_20170428_Morozov accessed 8 June 2019.

Hale, H. E. (2011) The Myth of Mass Russian Support for Autocracy: The Public Opinion Foundations of a Hybrid Regime, Europe-Asia Studies, 63:8, 1357-1375, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2011.601106

Hopf, T. (2013) ‘Common-Sense Constructivism and Hegemony in World Politics’, International Organization 67(2): 317–54.

Morozov, V. (2015) Russian’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World (Basingstoke, Palgrave). [chapter 5 on populism is useful]

Pavlova, E. (2014) ‘Fight Against Corruption in Russian and European Discourse: “Irreconcilable Differences”?’ EU-Russia Papers 14, http://ceurus.ut.ee/home/eu-russia-forum/.


Week Eight: Grounding the study of Russian political culture and alternative perspectives

4 hours booked for final session.

Compulsory Reading:

Morozov, V.  Chapter 5 The People Are Speechless: Russia, the West and the Voice of the Subaltern, in Russia’s Postcolonial Identity A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World. Palgrave. pp.135-165. [pdf on Blackboard – Copydan]

Karine Clément & Anna Zhelnina, 2019 Beyond Loyalty and Dissent: Pragmatic Everyday Politics in Contemporary Russia International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, pp. 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-019-9319-0

Summary task:

Work on a one-page plan of a possible assignment topic based on one of the week topics. Try to go beyond just a topic to create an ‘argument’ within a title for the essay. E.g. “Russian soft power appears successful based on projecting an image of conservatism to those abroad, however, based on the evidence from its foreign policy actions in Georgia, the Baltics and Ukraine, in reality it has few supporters outside Russia”. Decide on 4-6 academic sources that you would need to re-read and use for the evidence in your essay. Write a few sentences summarising each article and indicating how they are relevant to your argument.

[52 pages]

Further Reading:

Karine Clément (2018): Social mobilizations and the question of social justice in contemporary Russia, Globalizations, DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2018.1479014

Samuel A. Greene, 2019, Homo Post-Sovieticus: Reconstructing Citizenship in Russia, social research Vol. 86 : No. 1 : Spring 2019 181-202.

Morozov, V. (2015) Russian’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World (Basingstoke, Palgrave).

Joanna Szostek (2017) Defence and Promotion of Desired State Identity in Russia’s Strategic Narrative, Geopolitics, 22:3, 571-593, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2016.1214910

 

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Moscow protests, the stifling Sobyanin embrace, and a tale of two societies.

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DIY social protest in my locality against the costs of living. ‘Leeches on the body of the town’.

I’m still mentally digesting the extreme push-back I’ve encountered in the field this summer against the Moscow protests.

In the meantime here’s a holding thought based on a viral video of a woman interviewed a couple of days ago. Asked about the protests she responded along the lines of : ‘I’m for stability.’ She’s asked to clarify: ‘Is this a good form of stability?’ She answers ‘Yes’. Then some kind of extreme anger clicked in and with a smirk she said ‘If the liberals come out on the street again I’ll fuck them over with chains.’

What’s interesting to me is that this extreme hostility to the protesters is closely echoed in my small sample of Muscovites, but not among my provincial or ‘working-class’ people. So my main conclusion is that people who are hanging on to their tenuous middle-class life-styles feel threatened by change more than the ‘have nots’.

There’s also a generational aspect to this that I’d like to explore more (particularly as I’ve been inspired by Mikhail Anipkin on this topic). I have to say I was shocked talking to a couple of Moscow pensioners well known to me. One of them used to be very ‘anti-Soviet’. They were very hostile to the protests and in particular vilified the ‘young idiots’ taking part. I shouldn’t have been shocked of course.  For one, both these people exclusively get their news from state-controlled TV and radio. But more importantly, these are people who are most comprehensively ‘cushioned’ by the state and Moscow government, and perhaps naturally fear change. Their pensions and Moscow city benefits mean their ‘real’ disposable incomes are in fact higher than most working people in the rest of Russia. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Moscow pensioners are comfortably off, or undeserving of social support.

Without sifting in detail through our conversations their responses contained the usual tropes showing the effectiveness of mainstream media’s aims of inculcating cynicism and passivity: ‘Don’t rock the boat, you might fall out…. Anything to avoid a war….. Stability is worth any price… How is it different from the ‘yellow vests’?…. Protests achieve nothing…. There’s corruption everywhere…. Putin has done so much for the people…..’ Certainly part of what’s at work is ‘naive monarchism‘, but rightly that definition has been criticised and can only very sketchily describe those that see Putin as doing his best to act as arbiter. Perhaps generational cohort analysis alongside looking at incomes and privileges would be useful – certainly some scholars are working on more nuanced evaluations of support/critique of the status quo.

Of more interest to me and my research agenda was the much more muted and indeed nuanced response of those people outside the warm yet sickly Sobyanin embrace. Mainly the response was indifference, with a few people supporting the protests on the grounds that at least ‘young people’ were trying to stick up for themselves (yes, I know that the ‘youth’ focus is a mischaracterisation).

Continuing immiseration and the bifurcation of society

Locals quickly tired of a conversation about Moscow protest so lacking relevance to their own lives. The overwhelming impression was of accelerating immiseration. For the second time I was shocked. This time by the fact that two of my long-standing friends had completely given up on formal employment and dived head-first into a subsistence, black economy existence.  While I’ve written at length about this before, it was striking how they described the deterioration in living standards over the last year and their complete lack of hope.

I also interacted with people trying to make their way in factory work and who were a little more hopeful. Nonetheless it was striking how even reasonably successful blue-collar workers with or without family rely on short and long-term credit for unavoidable living costs (like automobiles, housing costs).

A big complaint was the high bank rates on loans, something articulated just the other day in an embarrassing public question to the Vice President of Sberbank at a youth forum: ‘why is the rate in Russia for Sberbank on average 13% when in the same bank branch in Czechia it is 6%?’  Overindebtedness is a massive issue moving forwards that is going to bite the state in the backside soon. Debt jubilee and bailouts coming this way? Meanwhile, with real incomes continuing to fall, ordinary people struggle to avoid falling further into debt, struggle with bills and petty fines. The ‘them and us’ bifurcation of society into the precarious many, versus the ‘I’m alright, jack’ few, is accelerating as illustrated by two encounters a few hours apart in my humdrum Russia summer:

A friend, ‘Ilya’, arrives in his beat-up car at the village and borrows a few hundred roubles for petrol (he’s on empty as he has no money as he’s unemployed). We investigate how to fix the leaking roof of his village house.  It would be great if his disabled pensioner mother was able to come out and stay in her favourite place. The only option is to completely strip the roof and relay it, something he can’t afford to do. Thanks to the stupid dachniki (summerhouse dwellers) who feed stray dogs, their population is expanding and they have invaded Ilya’s little garden veranda. He has no lumber to board up the entrance, and in any case Ilya’s old powertools are broken and the extension cord he stole from his last job is on the blink. I borrow a battery-powered powertool from another neighbour and give him a surplus old wooden door from my shed to make the veranda inaccessible to the dogs.  This tiny hut stands on a vegetable plot that could be used to help ease the family budget. However, because Ilya can’t even afford fuel, it’s likely he’ll abandon the plot or sell it at a knock-down price to someone like me from Moscow (the land is desirable as it’s in a national park and has retrospective planning permission due to the shack on it).

A few hours later I have dinner with one of my Moscow acquaintances who, between ranting against the protesters as ‘paid-up liberasts by Western governments’ and faithfully regurgitating a media-driven narrative of the dangers of a ‘Russian Maidan’, discusses their latest European trip and how tired they are of the poor quality service and food in Italian hotels. Conversation moves on to the summer employment of their Central Asian housekeeper who is turning out to be a bad investment,  and who will be sent packing at the end of the season. All the food we eat at this dinner is bought from good Moscow supermarkets. These dacha visitors do not buy anything from local shops here in the provinces.  Another guest is surprised by the absence of the cleaning lady that the hosts used to pay to come by taxi from the local town to dust and do dishes. Talk moves on to the latest expensive purchases.

I have no more words at the moment.

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A newspaper report on the reality of the high tax burden for Russians which quickly disappeared from any online versions.  While criticised for inaccuracies, it more or less shows that direct and indirect taxes in Russia equate to the so-called ‘high’ tax societies of northern Europe.

A tax-paying non-democracy? Or, ‘don’t touch people who live by their own resources’

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Russian tax authorities boast of record collections in the last couple of years. In 2017 collections were 20% higher than in 2016. At the same time the number of taxes is expanding, with new ecology, waste and telecoms taxes, to name a few, as well as the consolidation of ‘duty’ payments into federally enforced taxes . There are signs the Tax Service is growing in confidence, recently proposing to expand its juridical scope to regain control of criminal cases against business.

Are these signs of more effective state, and thus the potential for its bureaucracies to serve more than a few citizens? Or are they examples of the centre’s fiscal cul-de-sac, as it seeks a human replacement for falling natural resource revenues (encapsulated in the recent idea of ‘people as the new oil’). In this post I will review the significant recent changes in taxes that affect individuals (businesses are important but will be dealt with another time). A shorter version of the post appeared in Ridl.io, along with a Russian translation.

First, we need a little history. Russia’s flat-tax is famous as one of the first, boldest reforms of this type in the world with a big cut in income tax from a higher rate of 30% to 13% in 2001. However, Putin’s first years were characterized by even more radical neoliberal taxation reform across the board that built on the IMF programme of 1998 in response to Russian debt default.  The flat tax was part of a package that included lowering corporation and other taxes, and increasing tax collection via VAT. These changes arguably helped small and medium businesses and gave a kick-start to both the legitimacy and bureaucratic logic of the Tax Service going into the 2000s. Employees and entrepreneurs alike were eased into the new economic system, all thanks to the flat tax and low profit taxes. Why was this important?  For ‘cultural’ as much as institution-building reasons. Income taxes in the late Soviet period had generally been very low. Taxes were less ‘visible’ as deductions in socialist societies, and the link between them and the provision of services was equally opaque (Alm et al 2006). People more often linked ‘social security’ to the visible and significant paternalistic obligation of their employer, not the state. Thus ‘tax morality’ was an issue in the 1990s, and arguably remain so today. (aside: it still surprises me that scholars don’t make more of the fact that for nearly 80% of the population, incomes declined year-on-year for nearly ten years, so the fact that tax ‘morale’ was low is hardly surprising – see Alm et al. 2006).

The fundamental idea of a flat tax generally is to expand the tax base – reports vary, but perhaps a majority of people who should have paid income taxes in the 1990s did not. This continues to be important in Russia because of the large size of the informal economy and the fact that it dominates in how people calculate their real incomes (perhaps the majority of people have a ‘white’ income – which is subject to income tax, and an informal extra income source, which is not taxed directly). Tax revenue has been always rising, but from a tiny base in 2000 and is thus not a very meaningful measurement considering GDP has grown much faster. Indeed, as a share of GDP, Ukraine better qualified now as a ‘tax-paying state’ than Russia.

Like other flat taxes, the Russian one has no allowances (which are typically set at a level around the minimum wage, as it is in the UK, for example the low). Therefore, even the very working-poor pay it. In addition, there is a ‘hidden’ regressive element in the form of the employer’s obligatory deductions for social insurance and pension contributions. The more you earn (starting from an income of around 14,000 Euro a year), the less as a percentage of income the employer contributes. Taking into account the employer and employee deductions, average income-related taxation is more like 33%. (Only medical insurance contributions are not regressive – hat-tip: Ilya Matveev).

Lack of allowances and the relatively large burden of pension and social insurance deductions are major disincentives to register self-employment income because it is so variable.  Moreover, there is little or no evidence that the tax reforms really improved revenue collection, productivity, economic activity and trust in the general fiscal system (Kryvoruchko 2015; Appel and Orenstein 2013). More likely, the rapid improvement in the Russian economy after 1999 was the cause of higher revenues – incomes increased, not compliance (Ivanova 2005 et al [opens as pdf]). The fact that this story is rarely heard is a measure of the dominance of orthodox supply-side economics to this day. In fact, the IMF often criticised the introduction of flat taxes, citing the already weak fiscal position of former communist countries (Domonkos 2015).

Fast-forward to the late 2010s, and against the backdrop of inadequate natural resource revenues the Russian state has returned to the thorny issue of taxes in earnest. However record income tax receipts are only a small part of the story. In Russia personal income taxes have only ever been a small share of all tax-like revenues (Gaddy and Gale 2005), as in Soviet times. Direct personal taxes as a share of all taxes and as a share of GDP are around half of that found in other highly-educated, and industrialised market economies.  Despite this, there is little sign of any political will for a return to progressive taxation, even though it might raise significantly more tax from the 11 million ‘better paid’ Russians. More important is the repeated failure to tax the self-employed and the 2019 changes to taxation of land and property.

Let’s take the self-employed first – remembering that even for people with jobs, ‘side-work’ is an important category for making ends meet. Until the Ukraine/sanctions crisis in 2014, personal income derived from the informal economy was effectively ignored by both politicians and the bureaucracy. It is true that the most visible self-employed were ‘tax registered’, perhaps best symbolised by quasi-private transit operatives (marshrutki drivers operating as lone, or ‘small traders’ in tax terms). However, the vast majority of ‘tradespersons’ and individual service providers – from electricians to home-visit beauticians, operated in a black hole – their complete bureaucratic invisibility was part of a permissive deal with society. This ‘compensated’ for extremely low disposable incomes from formal work, at the same time as allowing ordinary people something of niche in an entrepreneurial climate increasingly dominated by large firms with ‘connections’ to those in power. However, that niche is rapidly disappearing due to the expansion of state-connected large firms.

After 2014 the government put more energy into pursuing the self-employed, to bring them into the formal purview of the state, including taxation, licensing, national insurance, pension payments, etc. The latest version of this is the ‘tax on professional incomes’ starting January 2019. However, each initiative has failed, but for multiple reasons. Firstly, much existing tax law is poorly written, especially concerning definitions of legal persons. Not only that, but the Labour Code too is lacking a clear definition of the self-employed.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the vast majority of ‘self-employed’ are actual ‘side-employed’, not reliant only on a ‘trade’ income. Consequently, they are extremely resistant to the formalisation of what they see as a ‘top-up’ income. In other words, informal work is ingrained as a kind of socio-economic right. This is a legacy of more than the 1990s’ economic disruption, but goes back to way incomes in the USSR were made of multiple components beyond the ‘wage packet’. (Actually there’s a more complex story here too about ‘cultural’ resistance to the term ‘self-employed’ (samozaniatyi) – the historical association with murky ‘trade’ is one reason (to be in trade is to be an exploiter of disorder). Also there’s something about the term ‘entrepreneur’ (the other legal term) and ‘self-employment’ that is devaluing and degrading to people who consider themselves versatile ‘masters’ of trades and ‘authoritative’ individuals in their meta-occupational communities – a term I find useful to talk about mutual-acknowledgement networks of skilled workers).

Thirdly, when the economy not growing and people are economically hurting, they rely even more on the informal ‘cushion’ of side-incomes. Fourthly, the state doesn’t really have as much of an incentive as it appears to squeeze for income tax, as it is regional budgets that depend on direct taxation revenue, not the federal centre (which only takes a cut of 15% of income tax collected).

Finally, and this is important because it contradicts the narrative of the ‘effective taxation state’, the Russia really lacks the political conditions to correct this situation. A fundamental tension in any society is the balance between taxes on incomes versus immovable and trackable assets. And the degree of success in taxing incomes is always a question of consent. In anything, ‘consent’ to the state taking a slice of one’s hard-earned crust is falling, against the backdrop of real declines over the last decade in incomes.

This brings us to the current phase. Alongside ‘regressive’ increases in VAT and ‘sin taxes’, as well as rise in taxes on fuel, the state has learnt that a source of ‘wealth’ that is more difficult to hide than income is immovable property. The real story of changes in the taxation landscape is the big switch to property and land tax, and the lack of awareness of the majority of people about this, as well as the potential ‘compounding’ effect over time of increases in these rates.

Since 2017 the government has undertaken fundamental reform in tax liability of property. One aspect is the shift to assessing immovable property on cadastral value. Cadastral assessment takes into account the real value of land, and so will mainly affect older properties in desirable areas.  Thus, an owner of a three-room Brezhnev era flat of 60 square metres close to a metro station in Moscow will have seen their taxes increase by a factor of six.

There has already been a clear impact, with revenues from this tax rising from 22bn rubles in 2013 to 144bn in 2017, a seven-fold increase. Phased in over five years, at the end of that period the Property Tax will have risen by 20%. This might not seem much given the low starting base of 0.1%, but for houses as opposed to apartments, the starting point of the tax is 0.3%. Strikingly, even structures like garages will be liable for Property Tax.

And this is in addition to Land Tax – in 2019 significant changes were made to this tax as well (local authorities keep this tax). With some exceptions, land with houses on it will attract a tax of 1.5%. This is doubly significant given that previously people only paid a symbolic amount of tax on their ‘country cottage’. Given how many people of different classes and incomes own ‘second’ properties in addition to an apartment, these tax changes are likely to prove onerous and perceived as unjust (pensioners and other groups are exempt from some of them). Property taxes are also likely to accelerate concentrations of wealth even more, and it’s easy to imagine Russia becoming a country of renters, rather than owner-occupiers in less than a generation.

People are now finding out the hard way that immovable property above an arbitrary norm the ‘izlishka’, dictated by the state can be subject to rapid increases in tax over a short period. The izlishka is calculated for all kinds of property and is quite miserly – if you own more than 10 square meters of a room you pay tax on the rest of that room, for example. It is quite common for flats to be divided into ownership by room, even by members of the same family. Thus, even a very modest flat of 42 square meters in a provincial city worth 1.3m roubles will attract a tax of 700 roubles. Not a lot, but given that all taxes fall due at the same time in November, it will be felt as one more example of the squeeze, alongside the near tripling of taxes on waste collection.

These increases have been in the offing since 2011. Back then, the average Land Tax paid was tiny – around 800 roubles a year. State income grew rapidly from such taxes despite the low base – nearly doubling from 2008-2012. Some regions did not apply all these land taxes but the significant change in 2018 is the harmonisation of all regions in the obligatory extraction of these taxes.

Ironically, recently Putin charged the government to investigate the problems of the growth in the ‘population’s tax burden’, asking Medvedev to investigate ‘what is happening in real life, and not just on paper’. What does this reveal? In reality the simultaneous ratcheting up of all kinds of taxes and quasi-taxes – excise duty, land taxes, personal taxes, transport-related taxes and indirect taxes make for a likely future confrontation of elite versus ‘populist’/social-justice political entrepreneurs – as yet unidentified. In the meantime we will observe an intensification of the struggle to formalise incomes, and the equal resistance to do so among self-employed in particular.

Even in  highly developed market economies with long-standing social solidarity and high personal taxes like Denmark see much political debate of the burden of direct taxation, the ‘value for money’ of the enormous tax revenues their systems provide. These are the fundamental tensions inherent in any tax-paying democracy where resource and indirect revenues are less important.  The scholar Simon Kordonsky deserves the final word. Writing about the role of the shadow economy in Russia, his response to the wave of measures to formalize the economy is this: ‘don’t touch people who live by their own resources‘ [za svoi schet]. What he means is that the majority only ‘survive’ today to the degree they can escape the ‘field of view’ of the state. He also gives the example of the rational response to a new tax on heavy goods vehicles’ use of highways: people simply shift to smaller trucks. Taxes are just a form of moving national income from one place to another, or in progressive scenarios, redistributing. But how is it even possible to build a tax-paying non-democracy, when the logic of redistribution functions mainly in terms of a vertical – upwards from the most active, but most powerless, to unproductive elites?

Public intellectuals in a bathhouse full of spiders

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An urban banya or bathhouse

We’re all public intellectuals now. I don’t mean the traditional idea of a public intellectual – like Bertrand Russell. Or Isaiah Berlin, whose death was reported on the front page of the New York Times. On the contrary, it’s a good thing that because of the democratisation of the ‘public sphere’, those who previously would have remained unchallenged having built ‘an entire career … on the trick of contrariness’, can instantly be called out.

Nor do I mean the idea of academics as necessarily critical (which is more than the ‘illiberal practicality’ of ‘impactful’ research), politically engaged in the ‘real world’ in an organic way (in a labour movement or immigrant rights organisation), as argued by Michael Burawoy.

What I’m talking about is the taped-down ‘transmit’ button of social media. [The irony of writing this in a blog post is not lost on me]. The problem is that while social media has enabled us all at the same time to broadcast, few are listening. Or rather, they are ‘hearing’ what they want, often from those least knowledgeable. Perhaps all this proves is the critique of Habermas’ public sphere – that such a ‘bourgeois’ idea of communication always excludes, and cements existing power-imbalances.

And these musings arise from three typical experiences of ‘doing academic social media’ in the last weeks.  Number One requires little explanation to those acquainted with Twitter. Since the Trump election meddling theories began, a number of ‘Russia experts’ have garnered huge Twitter followings and a lucrative career in op-eds. They have three things in common: simple ‘enemy’ message: ‘Trump is Russia’s weapon’, few Russian language skills, and, (this was what came up this week) no record of every having visited Russia. According to Sean Guillory’s definition, these pundits often qualify as Russophobes.

Hau about open access?

Number Two started with the resurgence of #hautalk. The return of a publically criticised academic to editing an important open access venture in anthropology provoked rage among understandably indignant precarious scholars on the same Twitter platform. The latest Hau episode reveals a ‘wood for the trees’ issue – alternatively known as ‘more heat than light’. While scholars highlighted how their precarious positions had enabled their alleged mistreatment by an editor, there is less attention to bigger structural inequalities. (For a more positive recent story about open access and ‘flipped’ peer review but with similar reservations about power imbalances in academia see this blog post – hint: it’s all about more transparency and accountability).

The fact that this individual had been ‘caught out’ merely underlines the inherent and toxic hierarchical power of academia. The case only came to light because the editor himself is clearly a marginal, perhaps desperate figure. He’s never held tenure (despite being middle-career). He’s not Anglo-Saxon. He’s clearly had to make his way as a journeyman researcher, serving at the favour of powerful intellectual patrons. What’s also missing from this story is the wholesale delegation of grunt journal work from the ‘Board’ to this individual. Now some senior figures involved are allegedly covering their tracks by deleting social media posts or retreating into privileged silence (with the exception of David Graeber, who supported the whistleblowers from the outset).

None of this excuses the allegations made. (See how even microscopically public-facing intellectuals are forced to caveat?) However, the free-riding on this project by senior scholars is another example of the pernicious free labour – ‘trickle up’ that we all provide to the more powerful. We often bemoan the assumption that we must perform free labour, like peer-review, but also we miss out that the main beneficiaries are not just publishers and universities, but our senior colleagues (often indirectly, like courtesy citation of a big name).  Also, as pointed out, the Hau project tended to reproduce academic hierarchies as much as existing journals.

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some stats about Hau authors, from footnotesblog.com contributor Jules Weiss

The diminishing returns of Twitter dialogue

I found a reinforcement of the Hau  experience (more heat than light) closer to home (Russian studies). This week a thoughtful tweet was made about the racial profiling of Central Asians by the Russian police.  Thoughtful, because the author and others were reflecting on the selective solidarity and wilful blindness towards racism by the privileged, particularly academics. So far so good. However, anyone coming to this tweet-conversation might be forgiven for thinking that police stop Central Asians because Russians are ‘merely’ racist. They would not learn that this is due to a structural racism built into immigration laws that enables the extortion of money from Central Asians that serves as part of the scaffold of the corrupt law-enforcement system. I’m not convinced that the causes of this form of racial profiling makes the Russian police more racist in practice than their counterparts in the US or UK for that matter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learnt a huge amount from interacting on social media with academics and ‘public intellectuals’ since 2014, when I started using Twitter. However, I too am increasingly setting social media to ‘broadcast’ rather than receive.  Is this a metaphor for our times? Certainly, a fellow blogger thinks so: ‘the relentless jeering, preening and snark is evidence of the platform’s humanity.’

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A common experience for Russian studies twitterers

Counter publics and proletarian public spheres?

When I was writing about how ordinary Russians use social media a few years ago, I engaged not only with Habermas, but also Negt and Kluge (on the proletarian public sphere) and Nancy Fraser’s counterpublics “where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs”. At some point I’d like to return to the PPS works, for the obvious parallels with the democratising and oppositional potential of social media. Negt and Kluge argue that the latter could potentially oppose the organized interests of the bourgeois public sphere through its organization of human needs and interests. On the other hand talk about the PPS is not million miles away from the banya full of spiders that is Twitter and other social media, in that they are evidence of “the “excluded”, vague, unarticulated impulses of resistance or resentment. The proletarian public sphere carries the subjective feelings, the egocentric malaise with the common public narrative, interests that are not socially valorized.” To my knowledge, Negt and Kluge’s ideas have not been applied to internet as a public sphere, (they wrote on public television and radio). Mark Poster’s piece still seems to be the main way-marker here.

So, what positives can we take forward? Well, strange as it may sound, I’m increasingly turning from Twitter to YouTube as a creaky, yet good-enough model for public intellectuals. And ironically, Russia leads the way here precisely due to academics’ exclusion. Deprived of airtime on traditional media, political oppositionists have long worked hard on building audiences in alternative media spaces. I’m still blown away by the slick, controlled operation that is Navalnyi. YouTube is a medium made for this. However, academics are catching up and using it for a unique ‘long-form’ dialogue. Because of the low ‘cost’ (I mean time and effort as much as financial) YouTube is ideally suitable for a real dialogue between people with an enthusiasm for and in-depth knowledge of a topic. Two almost random examples. The genuine public intellectual and recently sacked from MGIMO Valerii Solovei talks to Boris Kagarlitskii about the disintegration of the ‘ruling party’ system in the Russian regions and the bigger question of social or political ‘revolution’  in Russia. A little stilted, a little forced, but nonetheless some kind of dialogue between a ‘socialist’ and a ‘liberal’. Solovei already had a huge media following of course, so now he’s persona non grata it’s disappointing that he does not link back to the original version of the talk, hosted by Kagarlitskii. We still have academic hierarchies reproducing themselves. A less visible and possibly more rewarding example:  Alexander Dmitriev and Viacheslav Morozov in an accessible version of the their work on Russia as part of Europe, indigenous knowledge, postsocialist trauma and the ‘spritual bonds’ of Putin’s Russia. While this video was produced by Gleb Pavlovskii’s Gefter project, there’s nothing to stop scholars from more DIY collective approaches. Indeed, by involving students and colleagues they might get more traction than the under-appreciated Gefter videos.  I come back to the spiders in the bathhouse analogy (which is apt if we think of social media as an external punishment of confinement and the nearness of others). If spiders are inevitable company, any old bathhouse will do. They’re there in the corners, for eternity, but it’s who is sitting on the plank with us that matters.

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The reopening of my local public bathhouse

 

Conference Groundhog Day – Russian self-stigmatisation and more public opinion problems

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‘Hey that coffee is for the whole conference panel!’

This post is ‘inspired’ by the Groundhog Day I experience when visiting international conferences. On the one hand we have intellectuals focusing on elite discourses and the exaggeration of their effects – a depressing fact that tends to trammel the terms of the debate (and the views of anyone listening) on what is happening in Russia. Carine Clement put this well when she similarly lamented:  “a conference where a small group of intellectuals [discuss] the “people” without ever mentioning any empirical arguments other than the speeches of leaders and/or intellectual elites.”

On the other hand we have the problem of ‘self-orientalisation’ (the very topic of my own paper at the conference) writ large in the presentations of respected Russian contributors. Recently, my own experience of the uncanny was a panel which looked like one of the outstanding events of the conference, devoted to language, society and state discourses. This is something of a churlish post and therefore I’m not going to name the conference or presenters. Of course it would be easy to work it out.  Call me a ‘sub-blogger’ if you like, but my motives are partly ethical. I went to this panel because I respect the work of both the scholars concerned and the main discussant. Their work elsewhere is really good (perhaps there’s a lesson here about presenting only your best stuff to international colleagues).

One participant presented a polished paper investigating whether the ‘rally round the flag’ effect in Russia was sustainable. The presenter argued that it was possible to ‘move’ opinion  by presenting information on how sanctions negatively or positively affected the economy and asking people about ‘preferences’ between Great Power status and economic well-being (can you see the parallels with Brexit yet?).

I understand that experimental survey design is really exciting to political scientists (yes, you can read sarcasm). However, the methodological assumptions of the entire thing are a bit obscure, like when somebody combines steak with ice cream on the basis that steaks are good, ice creams are good, let’s eat them together. For a start the ‘rally round the flag’ and preferences things seem so crude and, well, artificially distant from how (most) human beings really think. (This is what relates this post to the idea of nuance and context being lost when we talk about measuring public opinion on artificially ‘curated’ topics – the point of my last post). For example, sensible (real, non-neoclassical) people might understand the Keynesian nature of the military industrial complex and that it is not necessarily a trade-off between it and the rest of the economy. I.e. butter might be dependent on guns. In addition, this might be true not just in the underdeveloped rest but also in the ‘cradle of civilisation’, see Cypher, 2015: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01603477.2015.1076704

The paper argues that Russians increasingly favour ‘butter’ over ‘guns’ under economic distress. And here is the novelty of the study –  it tries to causally grasp this question. But there is a reason that others do not attempt this kind of tweezing of causality, because circumstantial evidence cannot really be translated into anything meaningful other than a lot of variables. This leads to bigger standard deviation, smaller significance level, small explanatory power. Not only that, but what are the confounders? Everything I guess is a ‘lurking variable’ here. What if any observed changes in the experimental group were not due to the intervention but were merely a Hawthorne bias? I think this is really an underappreciated issue in survey-based research generally in Russia – even that which is supposedly ‘anonymous’. What the Hawthorne effect means, is that people modify their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed – and not just in terms of the immediate context of the poll. There’s an even more mundane objection: that people’s ‘immediate’ response to a bad or good news story tells us little or nothing about their deeper or more enduring political ‘preferences’, if they have them at all.

We also are presented with a black box of the execution of the study – nothing on completion rates of the survey (similar criticisms of the big opinion pollers I discussed in the previous post). After the attrition rate are the groups still representative? Was a little bit of imputation involved maybe? If so, did it remain under 10%? In what sense was the study ‘representative of the Russian population’ when it was performed in white-collar offices in Moscow? The answers are not marginal to the research question. How did the study avoid the cart and horse problem of questionnaire design? ‘Could it be that the methodological standards are much lower in Polsci than in sociology, let alone epidemiology or medicine?’ mused my colleague (whom I thank for his help in thinking through these issues).

For a long time when I first got exposed to quantitative papers in social science, I felt some awe in front of these wizards of the regression. Especially when I was usually next up to present my extreme qual musings on what Russians ‘really thought’ based on ‘conversations’ (participant observation) with around 50 research participants. ‘Your ‘n’ was what? 52?…. ok….’ Or this priceless comments from a dear colleague with significant interdisciplinary experience and sensitivity: ‘So your research is like a form of journalism, right?’

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Steak AND ice-cream in one paper? Just tell me your attrition rate, ffs!

 

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The following paper on the panel was on propaganda and resorted to a framing now subject to increasing critique – including in this blog. The ‘Soviet person’ was deprived of a ‘restraining notion of culture’ and therefore has (what, still?) not learned the ‘lessons of modernity’. This provides fertile ground for the ‘mythological propaganda language’ of journalists like Dmitry Kiselyov who successfully propagate a kind of T.I.N.A perspective: ‘Progress’ in the form of western-style modernisation is to be feared in all its guises. Society suffers from a kind of ‘moral degradation’. I think, though I’m not sure, that at one point the speaker mentioned the ‘catacomb’ existence of contemporary Russia.

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The discussant (the person supposed to read and respond to the written versions of the papers and tie them together) was critical, drawing attention to the problem of studying public opinion in Russia in the same way it is studied in more pluralist societies. Talking to him afterwards, I mentioned how the whole idea of ‘political preferences’ was so difficult to impute to research participants in these kind of studies. That’s not to say they are unthinkingly loyal or ‘know the script’, on the contrary, it is because they themselves know that ‘preferences’ are less meaningful, so their ‘answers’, are not necessarily very meaningful either.

Similarly, in response to the second paper, the discussant pointed out that it might be more useful to look at the experience of ‘liberal’ journalism compromising with its own principles in the 1990s as the root for a decay in public discourse (it’s only partly relevant here, but it’s worth reading Sean Guillory’s piece on the 1996 re-election of Yeltsin in these terms). The Russian intelligentsia would be as much to blame for the failure to develop a ‘critical’ perspective more generally of how all discourses are political, including their own. He also made some excellent points about the ritualization of media discourse and consumption having more of a religious quality than necessarily indicating the malleability of opinion.

All of which reminded me of a number of things. Firstly, having seen the kind of performance provided by the second speaker I have to admit I was reminded of the idea of the ‘self-hating Jew’. Okay, bear with me, I know this is a much critiqued idea and that it’s not comparable to the situation of Russian intellectuals towards Russianness. However, these kind of approaches do qualify as a form of ‘extreme vilification’ of not only one’s own state and society, but attributing a kind of sustained moral failing to the nation. Is this not also an internalised form (self-stigmatizing) of some Western essentializing ideas about Russia and Russians?

The talk reminds me of the debate on ‘Soviet man’ as a ‘methodologically contestable’ category – that ignores diversity and compresses time. (Sergei Abashin here also makes some great points about areas where it might be worth researching what makes a person ‘Soviet’ – hinting at an approach on embodied experience and the everyday – his words remind me of Mauss on body techniques). Oleg Kharkhordin’s work also came to mind on how ‘Russia lacks a public language’. It’s not that Kharkhordin is wrong, or that our second speaker doesn’t have a point. It’s that so often these perspectives fall into an idealisation of non-Russian models. In turn this has the effect, intentional or not of a totalizing rejection of indigenous possibilities. For example, Kharkhordin proposes adopting parliamentary procedure to promote civil society – as if ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ were ever practically applied outside a few narrow examples of associational life in the ‘West’. In turn, this reminds me of the way Putnam-inspired approaches fetishize a version of civil society (not even one that really approximates to the ‘real’ US) that sets up a hierarchy of societies – with Russia obviously being ‘backward’.

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In my own contribution to the conference I examined the so-called conservative turn in attitudes and critiqued the idea that the transmission from elite or political entrepreneurs to ordinary people is quite so direct or simple. Using Michael Herzfeld’s idea of ‘cultural intimacy’  (an aspect of ‘social poetics of the nation state’) I try to show that any ‘self-orientalizing’ by ordinary people (‘we’re Orthodox and we’re proud to be intolerant’) serves locally salient political and social purposes that are at variance with the conservative rhetoric from on high. But that paper is a work in progress and a topic for another blog post.

Russian ‘notorious’ homophobia? The perils of measuring intolerance (and making cross-cultural comparisons)

LGBT right activists protest Russia

Activists in Berlin protest LGBT rights violations in Russia, including egregious abuse of Cyrillic and a large dose of Orientalism to boot.

I’m reading a lot at the moment about ‘culture war’, the conservative turn’ and things like historical homophobia in Russia. This is to prepare a paper and, hopefully, publication on this topic for a special issue in Europe-Asia Studies that a colleague proposed. So immediately I thought, well, what about looking at this from the ground up? Instead of taking it as read that where conservative entrepreneurs like Yelena Mizulina lead (‘prohibition is freedom’), ordinary people ‘follow’, my hunch was that actual penetration into society of ‘Gayropa’ tropes is weak. That’s not to say there is some fertile ground, and of course a long history of different types of intolerance, some of which are ingrained.

And so I was lucky enough to be able to do some focused interviews with some of the long-term contacts I have and surprisingly was able to get quite a (small) cross-section of people talking about this in my fieldwork last year. My rather banal conclusion is that while homophobia (like antisemitism) is sometimes talked about as if it were a national pastime (hey don’t troll me; more than one Russian friend has made this ‘joke’), Russia is not the ‘intolerant’, socially conservative place it is so often presented to be, when observers assume an active response to elite-led rhetoric about the malign influence of a degenerate western ideology of permissiveness. Take up and ordinary use of ‘Gayropa’ is the exception, not the rule around ‘everyday homophobia’. Although, having said that more than of my close friends in the field is a very big consumer of the Juvenile Justice narrative and there certainly is a susceptibility to the paedophilia-homosexuality linkage slur (Tova Höjdestrand has done good work on this and ‘grass-roots conservatism’ in general). This was brought home to me because when I moved from the UK to Denmark, it became a hot topic – Scandinavia being the blank canvas of permissiveness onto which some people project their fantasies (no I’m not going to talk about the story about the brothel for animals in Denmark – get your own browsing history tagged).

Danish Porn and Art Warning Sign

One of a collection in the series ‘You know you’re in ultra-laid back Denmark when…’ Porn (including some hardcore and violent films!) ‘might not’ be suitable for children?

Anyway, I will get back to those topics in a later post, perhaps when my article it better developed. In this post I want to focus in on the recent polling on homophobia (an ‘emblematic’ topic for measuring intolerance of others), in the light of the equally topical debate on the perils of opinion polling, and the homo soveticus debate. These three issues are now linked in my mind. What follows is my rather rough working draft of my deep suspicion of public opinion polling as evidenced by that done in Russia on homophobia (okay, I only looked at Levada).

Let’s take the recent Levada poll on ‘Attitudes towards LGBT people’. Radio Echo Moskvy presents these as: ‘More than half of Russians are negative towards sexual minorities’. This is accurate. However, without longitudinal context (conspicuously absent in coverage of the poll), things look different. While the headline ‘disapproval’ of homosexuality (56%) is presented with no time series to compare it to, other longitudinal data shows an ebb and flow from 51% approval in 2005, to a low of 39% in 2013, and back to 47% in 2019. Similarly, instead of ‘disapproval’, one could highlight the volatility of the ‘strong approval’ rating of equal rights: from 17% in 2005, down to 7% in 2013 and now 20%. In any case, psychology of survey data shows that people are more likely to respond with a ‘strong’ answer to items they interpret as politically topical and are presented with (compare the critique of ‘push polling’) – Brexit and migration is a good example of this.

Looking at the question of survey data and public opinion more generally, a major problem of interpretive comparability over time (among many others) is the tweaking of question wording that inevitably happens and the difficulty in formulating open questions. Levada recently came in for criticism on this very issue with their controversial survey on Stalin and Stalinism.  Here too, on homosexuality, the same problem is evident; it is very difficult to compare longitudinally a much more interesting question about ‘nature versus nurture’ in the creation of sexuality. In the 2019 poll, the question is, ‘Do you think sexual orientation can be changed under the influence of external circumstances or is it an innate characteristic?’ Leaving aside the clumsy and potentially confusing wording of this question that many respondents might struggle to understand, this question is quite different from the one in 2013: ‘Do you think sexual orientation can change under the influence of propaganda?’ Interestingly, Russians gave a resounding ‘no’ to this answer in 2013. In the 2019 version 46% agreed that sexual identity is malleable, while 27% thought sexuality was innate. I would argue that both question forms are methodologically ‘leading’ and that pollsters could have chosen a more neutral or open form of questioning.

There appears to be more interpretive value in more modest aggregate longitudinal comparisons. On ‘family values’ and the civilizational differences between Russians and ‘Europeans’ this has been attempted through integrating survey data going back to 1989. These show a relatively rapid movement from harsh intolerance of homosexuality towards a slightly less intolerant mindset by 2011. For example, Fabrykant and Magun (2011) present data showing a sharp fall in people wanting to exterminate homosexuals (from 31% to 5%) while ‘toleration’ nearly doubles to around 25% of respondents. The authors are optimistic about changes to normative values given that even the highly stigmatised meaning of homosexuality shows moderation over time. On the other hand, their comparative results show that in 2013, 70% of respondents still gave answers indicating they thought homosexuality was pathological in some way. (Big thanks to Marharyta Fabrykant for making me aware of these materials – you can check out her work here).

More recently, the same authors have pointed out that Russia is among on the ‘medium-high’ end of tradition-normative values in comparison to other European countries (Fabrykant and Magun 2018: 82) [opens as a PDF]. They base this evaluation on the work of Viktoriia Sakevich (2014) who analysed Pew Research Center data on ‘moral’ values.  When these findings are broken down by category, Russia differs little from Western European countries on issues such as extra-marital and premarital sex, divorce, abortion, contraception. In some cases Russia is more ‘liberal’ than both Anglo-Saxon and some Southern or Eastern European countries. Homosexuality is the outlier, with Russia more similar to Asian and African countries.

However, we should again exercise caution, because so much depends on how questions are phrased. If we return to the important question of nature-nurture and homosexuality, Russians do not look so much like outliers. A recent UK poll, for example, records 34% of respondents as believing that gays are not born, but made, with much internal variation in the sample (YouGov 2017 – Opens as a PDF). As recently as 1998 a majority (62%) of British people thought homosexuality was always, mostly, or sometimes ‘wrong’ (Clements and Field 2014). One could even take a contrarian view and argue that based on attitudes towards adoption of children by homosexuals, British and Russian people are pretty similar when it comes to the question of equal rights: British people are strongly against gay men adopting (actually, like Russians they are very inconsistent and answer differently depending on how the question is asked!). Edwin Bacon makes a similar argument, highlighting similar levels of nationalism in Russia and some Western countries today, and reminding us that attitudes towards homosexuality only changed (but did they?) in recent living memory in the West, and that on some measures, Russia is arguably more socially ‘liberal’ (immigration). Finally, as I write this, open hatred of gay people is in the news in the UK with two violent attacks in public given widespread coverage (in Southampton and in ‘tolerant’ London) this week and the ongoing standoff over the teaching’ of LGBT issues in Birmingham.

 

 

 

Infrapolitics, Russian style

making life habitable

The art of making life habitable is only possible through mutuality and reciprocity

 

In my third post on the topic ‘people as the new oil’ (the two previous posts are here, and here), I make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics and Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadism to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the ‘extractive turn’ – the idea now widely discussed, even among elites, that Russians are ‘sponges’ in two senses – to be wrung dry to fill the hole in the country’s finances, and are uniquely capable of absorbing such punishment. After all they are incapable of organising real opposition to hold their leaders to account, and in any case – they can retreat into some kind of dystopian subsistence existence, supplementing poverty wages with their little garden plots, with a ‘grift’ here and there, and a tiny state pension if they can live that long.

Just yesterday, Vladislav Inozemtsev published a long discussion of the completely alien concept, in his view, of the responsive, social security state in Russia. In it he makes very detailed comparisons of how, even in the US, combating poverty is a huge budgetary priority for the government. One point though, stick out for me,  that Russian politics lacks entirely the relationship of obligation to an electorate. As I have written previously, we need to go further and highlight the increasingly open contempt by politicians and elites for ‘ordinary people’. There is an increasing rhetoric of the unworthy poor in Russia. People who can barely feed and clothe themselves are personal failures.

Perhaps it would be inevitable that after the trauma of the collapse of the USSR, a decade of extreme economic and political dislocation, a kind of Social Darwinism would emerge among the winners of post-socialist transformation to help them psychologically cope with their good fortune. They are ‘better people’ because they adapted, and thus those that failed to ‘adapt’, deserve to die off, as a dead end species of post-Homo Soveticus. Perhaps I push this idea too far, but it doesn’t seem too out of place in the light of a ‘serious’ sociological conversation about how ‘Soviet people lacked all moral compass‘.  Homo Soveticus casts the USSR as creating an impoverished moral personhood, cowed by the punitive Stalinist state, distrusting of all but those in one’s inner circle: ‘servile double-thinkers

Thank goodness for people like Greg Yudin (responding here to the questionable methods used to prove that Russians pine for Stalin), and Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, who thoroughly demolishes the rhetoric of Russians as trapped in a totalitarian mindset. The self-justification of the  economic fortunes of the winners of transition are linked to their political ideology – the poor are not only guilty of being poor, they’re also to blame for the failure of democratisation in Russia! As Sharafutdinova continues: ‘Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible.’

There is of course reason to agree with one aspect of the ‘Homo Soveticus’ idea – that a violent coercive system has an effect on society (and individuals) long after that system (Stalinism) is consigned to history. Yes, there are aspects of today’s Russia that indicate political and social disconnection, that people expect little but more corruption from the powers-that-be, that they understand the massive brutalising potential of the state (this May Day’s beating of protesters by police emboldened by the new privilege not to have to wear identification is a case in point). But for me it’s the opposite conclusion – not that the Soviet legacy (and authoritarian redux) means that people distrustful or passive, or fearful, but that they respond in an everyday, ordinary rational way to the uncaring, crony-capitalised venal elites. One of the main ideas I put forward throughout my own research is that in the face of an state abdicating social welfare, people more than ‘make do’ by falling back on tried and tested resources, like the garden plot, like close-knit networks of mutual aid. More than that, they will, given time, more than adapt to dysfunctional systems, but start to inhabit the nooks and crannies – making a virtue even, of that dysfunction – hence my long-standing interest in the ‘shadow’ or informal economy. If ‘just coping’ or ‘getting by’ is hiding in a burrow, then more than coping is building a house – inhabiting a space, no matter how inhospitable.

Even the most marginalised and ‘weak’ people are not as passive as they seem. Over the last three decades people have got used to the informal, networked way Russia is governed – capitalism without capitalists, rule without law, power without responsibility. Samuel Greene argues that where people are forced to adapt to the informalized political and economic social relations, they then actually resist the very institution building and formal bureaucratic ways of ‘normal’ functioning states. This paradox can be expressed simply – Russians want more and less state at the same time and this is due to both socialist-era legacies of paternalism and the traumatic post-socialist transition.

It is ironic that privileged observers view ordinary Russians as ‘sponges’, or ‘bydlo’ while daily enjoying the services of informal workers.  Whether it’s nannies or house cleaners, plumbers fixing heating systems, or economic migrants building homes, modest yet cumulatively powerful economic agency is exercised by the vulnerable in escaping the clutches of the extractive state. The informal economy is of course no less exploitative or supportive of inequality, but it indicates the fundamental weakness of the state.

In thinking about the ‘minor warfare’ people wage against the quantifying state, Deleuze called this ‘nomadism’, and it could well describe the mobile tactics and ‘lines of flight’ many ordinary Russians take. Stuck between penury and the extractive state, the only option for many is movement – making use of those ‘weak ties’ to work a hack here and there – siphoning off company fuel for private use, filching some stationary from work, or that oldest forms of nomadism – the informal taxi-driving that supports a million families. Even with increasingly technological ‘fixes’ to stop the informational holes into which millions of people disappear to reappear in informal economic spaces, niches and hacks will arise. For example, while the Russian state cannot yet link up the database of insured drivers to its impressive network of road cameras, at some point this technological issue will be solved. However, there is already a nomadic hack available to every driver, from covering one’s numberplate with transparent shoe polish which ensures a thick layer of dust will immediately adhere (along with numerous other ingenious tricks), to simply using the inefficiencies of the Russian postal system to challenge the legality of the fine. Not to mention a very Russian phenomenon where it’s not uncommon for officials that are tasked with reinforcing the state control to simultaneously advise ordinary people on how to avoid state penalties, out of compassion and solidarity.

A second perspective is to adapt James Scott’s idea of the infrapolitical: ‘the … substratum of those more visible forms of action that attract most scholarly attention’. Scott argues that as “long as we confine our conception of the political to activity that is openly declared, we are driven to conclude that subordinate groups essentially lack a political life” (1990, 199). Many aspects of people’s non-registration of economic activities qualify as the not-quite political. Scott challenges scholarship on dissent to reassess the definition of interventions in the public sphere (we might add, to reassess the idea of the public sphere itself). His contributions include a critique of hegemony and therefore false consciousness, as well as the “safety valve” theory—the notion, for instance, that the patriotic politics around Crimea serve as a distraction from quotidian woes.

Infrapolitics are nurtured by ‘hidden transcripts’. The more the ‘public transcript’ is seen as hypocritical the more it is likely to generate a rich and ‘hidden’ alternative. For example, cynical talk about the importance of the development of human capital and productivity while at the same time hearing that ‘state owes you nothing’, intensifies the creation of counter discourses. Indignities lead to ‘rehearsals’ of injustice and in turn reinforce ‘nomadic’ actions. An enormous wave of memes criticising the pension reforms, sometimes humorously, but often pointedly, are shared through the safety of encrypted messaging services. Two different viral examples illustrate the pointed politicising of the private virtual spaces of dissent. The first is a vlog poem, written and performed by a Urals nurse. Railing against her tiny salary and her inability to adequately feed and nurture her child she asks: ‘Why do you dislike the people so much, they who feed your righteous arses.’ The second is also a video, by a regional Communist deputy, but disseminated anonymously via Whatsapp and other encrypted messaging services. A parody of the presidential New Year’s message he addresses the viewer ‘friends, we have had a difficult year, like many before it. And the problem here is of course not the Western sanctions… not the ‘lazy people’… but the shameless and deceitful authorities’. One possible state response is to try to shut down the most reliable motor of the infrapolitical – the internet. But as with other authoritarian technological fixes, there will always be hacks, and it’s not even clear if firewalling is possible.

The point is not that there is some inflection point where rage converts to rebellion, merely that hidden transcripts reinforce the logic of nomadic, state-distancing moments, like refusing to register as self-employed, like evading a traffic fine, or just having the courage to openly discuss politics for the first time with acquaintances.  Each element gives the other traction. Even though nomadism and infrapolitics work insidiously, they have political significance because they continuously prod at the limits of the publically sayable. While the idea of the state as abstract, distant, and an uncaring entity is ingrained, so is the tactic of nomadism. Recently Vladislav Surkov turned the phrase ‘deep state’ into ‘deep people’ in his eulogy on the greatness of Russia’s system. He might be right about the primacy of the Russian people, but he seems to have forgotten the very Russian saying, ‘still waters run deep’ [в тихом омуте черти водятся].

[a shorter version of this post previously appeared at Ridl.io under the heading ‘People as the New Oil?’  in English https://www.ridl.io/en/people-as-the-new-oil/ and in Russian ]