Category Archives: Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian activism through a micro-scale and social media lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some people wanted me to clarify this bit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putin and property – a ‘boss’ but not an owner

After Repin. ‘They weren’t expecting him’.

I was reluctant to write about Navalny’s return to Russia. Partly because so much attention devoted to this figure in the ‘West’ does neither him, nor the breadth of political opposition in Russia any real favours – witness some of the naval-gazing attempts to tie Russian protests to BLM and other issues in the US that really have little to do with the Russian context and even less to do with Navalny’s case. Anyway, what did catch my attention was Putin’s unprecedented response (in that normally he pretends that N. does not exist) after the YouTube expose of what is alleged is Putin’s Black Sea palace. Second, I thought it worth underlining a point I’ve made before in this blog – that Navalny still fails to cut through as a national political figure, even though his videos and campaigning have fundamentally changed the political atmosphere. Also, unlike even at the time of the Moscow mayoral election in 2013 (which he should have rightfully won), pretty much all my research participants (in deindustrializing Kaluga region) are now aware of him.

So the post is in two parts –today, on the fickle meaning of ‘private property’ in Russia and later I will talk about some ‘on-the-ground’ responses to Navalny’s arrest and the 23rd January protests.

So, Oliver Carroll tweeted the strange phrase from the short interview Putin gave rebutting the allegations: ‘“Nothing described as my property belongs to or ever belonged to me or my close relatives. Ever” [ничего из того, что там указано в качестве моей собственности, ни мне, ни моим близким родственникам не принадлежит и никогда не принадлежало.]

Carroll commented: ‘A strange turn of phrase that doesn’t deny existence of palace resort or the fact that it was being guarded by the presidential security service.’ Then Timothy Frye responded that ‘Property rights are often seen as three separate rights: rights to use, to obtain income from, and to transfer an asset. Better to ask did you use the property or allow others use it than did you own it on paper.’ Frye has a book on property rights in Russia that I’m looking forward to reading. From a quick browse Frye asks the chicken and egg question about property rights – do people in developed economies abide by contracts because of social trust, social networks or effective courts? Interestingly he’s implying that our understanding of ‘good institutions’ in ‘the West’ is too simplistic and that social norms play more of a role than we would be comfortable admitting. Frye goes on to talk about the importance of informal institutions in Russia that provide their own ‘rules of the game’ in terms of widely understood sanctions for actions like reneging on informal agreements. In some business contexts, the rule of law can sometimes be a worthwhile recourse – legal dualism results. Later in the book I can see Frye has collected interesting survey data on the prevalent feelings of illegitimacy surrounding privatisation even 25 years on – particularly linked to perceptions about benefits to private individuals and the loss of public goods. “In a word, everyone hates privatization”, but not private property, write Frye.

My own research has not really looked much at property rights – only obliquely do I talk about corporate raiding (reiderstvo) and how its violence in Russia affects ordinary people. What was clear is that uncertainty and disputes of ownership of plant and land continues to create high levels of palpable risk even for ordinary people as it can result in catastrophic ‘externalities’ like pollution, violent crime, and the disruption of utility supply (p. 236 in the Conclusion linked above). It also results in a particular Russian anomaly – property that doesn’t belong to anyone. Famously the lack of ownership of graveyards has been widely discussed, but less well studied is the problem of roads and utility networks that jurisdictions fight over in order NOT to take responsibility for them. This was a running theme in my research on Izluchino in my book and many informal solutions of ‘devolved’ governance were found that would confound any traditional perspective on property relations.

In response to Carroll’s comment on Putin’s language – his disavowal of ownership of the palace – I was reminded of the literature on ‘private property’ in the USSR and in particular a discussion in a forthcoming book by Xenia Cherkaev that contains long discussion of ongoing significance of Soviet ‘property’. Usufruct looms large – ‘use’ stressed over ‘possession’ (vladenie) in the Soviet system where ‘private’ property was taboo, but still a reality, and thus had to be fudged in various ways. Putin is probably telling the truth that there isn’t a deed of property with his name on it. But that’s of course disingenuous because Navalyni makes the point about endless intermediaries himself (and points out that they are quite revealing of the relative narrowness of Putin’s trust circle).  By relying on old acquaintances from St Petersburg, if anything Putin is shown in quite a sorry light – he doesn’t have very extensive social capital – revealing his rather parvenu origins and unimpressive career prior to the later 1990s!). But I guess the point here is, how much ‘capital’ does Navalny really have – in Russia? Maybe by his public act of self-sacrifice this will be his moment to become at least a powerful political symbol – if not political leader. Or will this gamble mean that he’ll eternally be known domestically as an ‘avantiurist’ or traitorous dupe. That’s for a later post.

Now, Cherkaev’s book is not in print yet and I don’t want to steal its thunder. However, some of the book’s arguments are visible in two articles – unpaywalled here  and here.

Cherkaev writes: “Coming from the study of Soviet civil law (see Cherkaev 2018 [Russian text]), I am especially interested in nonprivate ownership, in what happens to the idealized triad of full and complete ownership rights—usus (to manage), fructus (to benefit from), abusus (to dispose of)—when property is collectively held.” In the 2018 Russian article, Cherkaev discusses ‘dignity’ as personal property in the USSR. In the book, Cherkaev builds on the distinctions between personal and private to show how the former served as a substitute for the impossibility of the latter in the realm of ownership. The Soviet solution of “Personal property” posed no threat to the Soviet monopoly on property “because it was essentially usufruct: the right to use and benefit from a share of socialist property, without alienating it from the commons”. This led me to reflect further on another discussion – linked to ownership, that Cherkaev makes – that of ‘хозяйство’ – (khoziaistvo)  – which can translate economy, household, property, house, establishment.  Traditionally, ‘the economy’ in Russian is essentially ‘narodnoe khoziaistvo’ and more recently ‘natsionalnaia ekonomika’.

Cherkaev draws on Stephen Collier who notes that khoziaistvo actually refers to any nexus of production, so is not just ‘the economic’ – “as a noun, [it] can refer to a farm, a household, or virtually any nexus of production and need fulfilment—that is, to almost any unit of substantive economy. But khoziaistvo can not imply the formal meaning of ‘economic’” (Collier, 2011. Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Page 81). This led me to reflect about Putin as the ultimate ‘khoziain’ – an owner-in-charge contrasted to owner-as-possessor – and that this also captures his managerialism, as opposed to entrepreneurialism as leader. Russia’s economy is also easily seen as a khoziaistvo rather than a legal-contractual system of possessions exchanged. Khoziaistvo as dominion shows both the strengths and weaknesses of Russia’s ‘sistema’ (informal governance system) as it relates to the economic. From this meaning of khoziaistvo, Cherkaev marks Russia’s relationship to property as different to that of the ‘market economy’ . ‘Ekonomika’ is a formal space of circulation with equal and self-interested actors. But Putin as ‘khoziain’, shows the ‘substantive’ — in anthropological terms — meaning of his clientelist regime. We normally think ‘substantivism‘ as a ‘positive’ thing (after Polanyi), but why not avoid psychologising Putin as ‘avaricious’ (which may be true) and instead see him as product of a ‘self-provisioning’ system where actors are embedded (actually trapped) in a personalistic webs of mutual aid.

This is what Navalny’s vid shows very clearly – remarkably even – the same young-old faces at St Pete City Hall who start off writing bribe amounts in the 10s of thousands of dollars sheepishly on bits of paper and then – almost by accident – end up running a petro-economy where the opportunities for graft are endless. Ironically Putin is entirely unremarkable and his ‘khoziaistvo’ also. What’s clear is that his version of ‘gosudarstvennost’ (stateness – building a strong state) is subordinate to his ‘feeding’ system (the devolved form of governance allowing levying tribute and keeping part of it inherited from the Mongols). In some respects he’s never evolved from Soviet manager mindset – his idea of ‘initiative’ is personalised negotiation and accumulation – not according to market utility maximisation or even profit motive, but as a defensive and even ‘ethical’ protection of the team (this self-justification of course is part of Alena Ledeneva’s explanation of how ‘connections’ known as ‘blat’ in Russia work – by misrecognition as part of one’s ethical self that helps others out – Cherkaev also discusses this at length).

Of course in 90s/2000s this ‘mindset’ (that trust is personalised, limited in scope, conditional, and that there is no alternative to embedding oneself in a chain of mutual ‘aid’) spirals out of control and creates obscene wealth and inequality. Nonetheless the tacit (or not so tacit) acknowledgement of Putin as ‘khoziain’ of Russia Inc. means even Navalny’s latest will not cut through quite as well as we might think. No one likes obscene wealth in Russia, but most people have lowered their expectations after 30 years of no one wealthy really getting their just deserts (Khodorkovsky excepted – in that most people do think he got what was coming to him). Envy-culture (hatred of real entrepreneurs) is real. But again, this plays to Putin – as he’s not an ‘oligarch’, but khoziain. Despite Navalny’s revelations, Putin is still implicitly compared (by ‘ordinary Russians’) to another ‘khoziain’ who famously lived frugally – Stalin. He too secured resources through formal and informal means, determined entitlements according to a different kind of ‘economy’. Now I don’t agree with these people, but you have to admit Putin is successful (for now) in projecting himself as the arbiter of national khoziaistvo. In part because most people’s individual wealth is derived from personalised networks of trust no less than Putin’s own.

Final points – the irony of the Kremlin today saying they cannot name the true owners of the palace as they are entrepreneurs and therefore their transactions in the sphere of private property are to be respected.

People are much more critical of the authorities than ever before. People are cynical. People – thanks to Navalny – cannot ignore the vast scale of corruption in their own country, BUT! They were really uncomfortable with the ultimate upping of the anti by Navalnyi – maybe it was true – that the corruption extended to Putin himself? However, Putin’s response reassured them. If he was denying it then it required less cognitive dissonance to believe stories about Navalny being a stooge of the West and the whole story as some kind of slander on Russia. From there it’s not so hard to believe the current propaganda – that ‘foreign elements’ are paying protesters, etc, etc, to explain the Saturday protests in support of Navalny. Interestingly here, the message coincides with another one – of protecting youth from bad influences – which also gets a very sympathetic hearing among a majority of Russians.

Next post will offer some wide-ranging reflections on Navalny by my research interlocutors – young, old, rich and poor. Has his time passed – ironically at the time of the greatest international attention to him? Does he have a message beyond anti-corruption that is wide enough to cut though? Is his ‘reach’ to ordinary Russians over-rated to the Twitterati? Can there really be an opposition leader in Russia while Putin is in charge – or is that to miss the point – that Navalny’s strength is to serve as a hybrid figure who can channel various political imaginations that have been repressed for so long?

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.