Category Archives: Russia

What do we mean when we talk about studying ‘the everyday’ in Russia?

Market scene in Russia

contested use of public-space, forms of consumption, strengthening weak-ties – a lot happens in ‘everyday life’.

I have an admission to make. Even though my book was called Everyday Postsocialism, while I was writing it I did not reflect much on the term ‘everyday’.

Part of this is perhaps forgivable. The logic of the book was pretty clear – to understand today’s Russia we should for a moment look away from the ‘big politics’ that dominate research agendas and the media, and turn instead to how ordinary people go about their lives. Fundamentally, my project was, and continues to be: how do we avoid making Russians into passive victims of change?  At the same time, their responses should not be reduced to defensive strategies of survival. That’s why I entitled my first article on the topic ‘beyond coping’ [authors version here].

A useful guiding idea came from Michael Burawoy’s complaint here [pdf opens automatically]:  “Whereas in their earlier writings they focused on the ingenuity of the subaltern classes in coping with socialism, the way workers and peasants challenged and transformed state socialism in the microprocesses of everyday life, Szelenyi and Stark now turn to the elites engineering embryonic capitalisms. Their analyses exclude subordinate classes, which in effect become the bewildered—silent and silenced—spectators of transformations that engulf them”. This was part of a review on Making Capitalism without Capitalists.

Recently, I was forced to confront the ‘everyday life’ usage a bit more explicitly because I decided to focus in some teaching on ‘everyday life’ with a group of undergraduates preparing for fieldwork and language study in Russia. Preparing for this made the genealogy of my own thinking about the everyday clearer.

Of course, when it comes to informing undergraduates, I thought that it was important to start with a reading of the term byt – a term in Russian for ‘everyday existence’ that has a long and troublesome genealogy. The word helps explain the longstanding Russian intellectual interest in contrasting ‘everyday life’ (as frustratingly meaningless or mundane routines) with more ‘essential’ modes of being and action

Svetlana Boym traced the binary opposition of byt and podvig (‘feat’) in the nineteenth century. This includes the binaries action/sacred/spiritual as opposed to private life/practical achievement. Thus byt as a negative, maps on to (self-orientalising) notions of Russia’s civilizational ‘difference’ (think of the opposition of ‘spirituality’ to Western individualism/rationality). This was easily adapted to the USSR context – ‘feats of labour’, ideologization of everyday life to be always about something ‘bigger’, mobilisation and militarisation of social action, ‘struggle’, ‘storming’, the ideological disapproval of privacy, ‘bourgeois’ personal interest, etc.

As a key reading I asked to students to read in parallel Catriona Kelly’s ‘Byt: identity and everyday life’  in National Identity in Russian Culture, and Olga Shevchenko’s ‘Building Autonomy in Everyday Life’ in her Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow. I will come back to these texts in a further post. But for now I want to return to my own pathway towards seeing the everyday as worthy of research.

It starts with my literary studies on a writer, Evgeny Popov, using ‘naturalistic’ depiction of everyday life in the late Soviet Union to work against the grain of ideologically correct meanings of art and literature. At times his focus on the mundane and humdrum, as well as ‘lay existentialism’, for want of a better phrase, borders on the absurd. In some ways there is a debt to Chekhov, and I found both Cathy Popkin’s book, The Pragmatics of Insignificance and Stephen Hutchings’ Russian Modernism: The Transfiguration of the Everyday, really useful in understanding this. Key characteristics in Popov are inconsequential detail (‘incidentality’), natural, earthy speech (a taboo in Soviet literary fiction), the ‘grimy’ and gritty underside of urban life, something like raznochintsy of the late Soviet period (people of indeterminate social standing who struggle to articulate themselves).

It’s perhaps no surprise that my subsequent ethnographic work owes a debt to the dialogue between Chekhov and Popov. A snippet from my book on Popov proves surprisingly predictive of the tension in my ethnographic materials: Chekhov switches attention from ‘the major to the minor in order to bring out the hidden significance of the trivial incident; its rhetoric is still part and parcel of a modernist search for meaning, opting for the possible revelation of truth within the ‘prosaic’. In Popov, the revelatory mode is entirely absent. […] the shift itself from significant to insignificant fails to yield up a narrative perspective that would illuminate the prosaic.’

It’s kind of funny reading that now. The ‘failure to yield a perspective’ chimes with some critical responses I got to my first ethnographic book published 12 years after my literary PhD. Certain ‘big picture’ expectations of ethnographic studies of contemporary Russia proved a problem for the publisher I wanted to go with for Everyday Postsocialism. One MS reader really, really didn’t like my approach, writing rather brutally:

 ‘The author avers, almost proudly, a lack of a scientific approach for this work, by rejecting the need to work from an hypothesis. That’s ok. Interpretation is still de rigeur in many anthropological circles and his commitment to recounting lived experience in holistic manner is quite reasonable. However, despite this claim, the ms makes frequent and broad theoretical generalizations…. there are no data here.’  

The Reader expanded, saying that fundamentally my framing of everyday life in the Russian town as ‘habitability’ added little or nothing new to the literature – essentially it was a mundane observation that was self-evident – people make do in their difficult circumstance. However, I would argue that that was precisely the aim of the book – to bring out and give voice to ordinariness – even the mundaneness but also deeper meaning of quite extreme things like alcoholism, family conflicts, the black economy, and fragile infrastructure (blackouts/heating failures). I hope to come back to other postsocialist treatments of ‘the everyday’ soon and talk about how they uneasily sit with the literature on ‘resistance’ – something Olga Shevchenko writes about.

I chose ‘habitability’ as my master concept precisely because it was the one term that was ‘emic’ – i.e. that ordinary Russian people continuously used themselves via comments like feeling secure and safe in their ‘среда обитания’ or saying ‘нам хватает’. In the book I talked about it as “a hotchpotch of practices made ‘on the fly’, but which are informed by long-standing class-based values and allegiances”.  Stressing mundane practices as making life more than bearable was part of a “propertizing of marginal spaces in a way that allows the maintenance and expansion of the horizontal social network”; Habitability was also connected to “expectation of minimal social insurance indirectly though social wages and its post-socialist echo.” My first MS reader really didn’t like all the heavy lifting this term was doing. We could have a long conversation here about the communication difficulties between anthropologists and sociologists! Certainly I was guilty of overuse and under-explanation of various theories.

However, I think ‘habitability’ does work in bringing out what I mean when I use the term ‘everyday’ too. It links the economic to the moral to the social to the ordinary logics of how people go about their everyday business. It also then helps reveal aspects of political culture and how they might change over time. We’re back to the question of passivity. Everyday life in my fieldwork was partly about a kind of ‘always on’, networked class-based sociality – it was a lot of partially unprompted ‘dropping in’ on others and also calling up, and ‘nudge’ social media use.  This in turn was strongly linked to developing opportunities in the informal economy to reduce reliance on waged work. The nature of both waged work and the forced informal scrabbling for a dime was linked to ideas about dignity, injustice, state-society relations, governance, taxation, corruption, and so on in melting pot of ordinary thinking through of the nature of Russia’s political economy. And everyday practices were both a response to that, but also examples of agency.

The most enlightening new thing I read in preparing for teaching ‘the everyday’ was by David Ransel. He suggests that to avoid a narrowly reactive ‘tactics of resistance’ approach (something criticised by Olga Shevchenko in the same volume), it might be more useful to think, via the work on Yuri Lotman, of the everyday as not only practices but of the building of a local language to describe reality – a kind of domestication and re-shaping of hegemonic meanings. Ransel ends that section with a useful piece of advice: “everyday life studies must be more than good local history. They have to show how local action modifies our understanding of macrohistorical processes”.

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

Inked2019-08-03 14.38.50_LI

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.

ECV_tNKXkAELQrx

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.

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 ]

Challenging the view that Russians are ‘passive’.

uncollected rubbish

uncollected rubbish from a designated municipal site.

 

In a previous post I talked about the phrase: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ as representing a new extractive shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensively from ordinary people. In this post I want to talk about liberal pundits’ interpretation of this turn of events. A much truncated version of what I wrote below was part of a short piece for Ridl.io

But before that just a quick recap on the reality of ‘making ends meet’ for many Russians that I talked about previously. Ordinary people are suffering from a decade-long decline in their living standards putting them in a position of extreme want. Published average incomes may look survivable, but the reality is that, like in other unequal countries, such statistics are misleading not least because of the distorting effect of a small number of very high incomes. In 2018 average gross wages were 40000 rubles a month or $560. Whether this figure is fiddled or not, in any case it ignores the large effect of lower informal (undeclared) incomes, and the imbalance between big city state company employment and the rest.  Independent polling indicates that the ‘real’ average pay was less than 20000 rubles ($305). $300 is not even a subsistence wage. Even adding to it a lower secondary wage, a family is left virtually nothing for clothing, medicines, travel or spending on children. When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. The open acknowledgement of the extreme poverty in which many Russians life can be seen in political events like the strange passing of a law allowing Russians to collect fallen trees, ‘for their own needs’.

Influential independent political observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw pessimistic conclusions about the ‘extractive turn’. Mostly they view their fellow citizens as passive and lacking any agency, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level and is seriously disruptive to the state. Solovei paints a vivid picture of Russians as passive sponges to be wrung dry in any way possible by an emboldened state – where can people hide from taxes on fuel and cigarettes? (I guess you can anticipate my answer to him – in both cases it’s in the interstices of the informal economy). To be fair to him, he at least strikes a warning note: history shows that eventually people get fed up and social strife is the result. However, his remedy is predictably unimaginative, a bourgeois democratic revolution (without any messy involvement of ordinary people) such as what ‘could have been’ in 2011-12. But how realistic is political change without the engagement of people beyond metropolises? And how would a bourgeois democracy he envisage address the enormous structural inequalities and imbalances Russia faces? Doesn’t this approach just reproduce a ‘two Russias’ perspective so criticized by other observers such as Ilya Matveev? We can see traces of this stigmatizing perspective everywhere: the assumption that a ‘lack of culture’ or an ‘authoritarian personality’ prevents the ‘other’ Russians from seeing the light. On the latter, Carine Clement has recently taken this idea to task. In particular, she rejects the ‘mythical apoliticism of Russians’ and asks the question – if Russians’ ‘authoritarian’ thinking includes a strong element of critique of the existing social order, then to what degree is it really authoritarian?

Inozemstev’s approach is more interesting. He starts with the notion of popular disenchantment and elite indifference, but then links this to a more general pessimism.  Noting that the ‘new oil’ trope indicates people have awareness of how costly the elites are to them he despairs that ‘the authorities realise quite how broken the Russian population’s willingness to resist really is, from mass protests to even small-scale acts of dissent.’ Does this view make the mistake that only ‘open’ protest is a mark of resistance? Elsewhere Inozemstev actually hints at what is in plain sight: the informal economy as a bulwark against complete penury for many. He notes that even the Russian government openly acknowledges that 38 million people’s work and income is opaque at best to the state. I agree with him that most Russians want to hold down a legitimate employment in the formal economy. However, given such pessimism, even this is increasingly questioned by some of the already most vulnerable. The qualifying period for an old age pension will soon increase from 6 to 15 years, the social rights that accrue to a formally employed person are losing their value due to the erosion of the health system in general.  All in all Inozemstev proposes some incremental reforms that can be characterised as too little too late (tax free allowances on low incomes, assistance schemes like food stamps), which are regressive (increasing VAT) or even defeatist (corruption should be limited to the resource sector). Overall it looks like a kind a pale Fabianism with little scope for taking root.

In his latest piece Inozemstev is closer to some of the points I make in my previous post – detailing what the increasing in indirect taxation will mean to ordinary people – a real rise of around 10% in petrol costs and the real fall in incomes since 2008. Interestingly, given the ongoing ‘rubbish disposal’ protests, he points to the very large increase in household bills for waste disposal. This increase – a doubling has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people and they are up in arms about it – especially in places like the town I study which has been repeatedly the victim of fly-tipping of Moscow rubbish and which recently saw its head of the council’s environmental services jailed for taking bribes to allow such tipping.

Ekaterina Shulman uses the questionable assumptions and methodology of the World Values Survey data to address the topic of ‘turning the screws’ on ordinary people. She first argues that a shift in Russian values from ‘superatomisation’ characteristic of the 1990s to ‘conservative’ is somewhat positive as it facilitates collective action and sociality. A notable effect is the strengthening of weak ties and broadening of the scale of interpersonal trust especially among the young and dynamic. On the other hand, she sees in Russia the continuing legacy of totalitarianism: ‘secular, atomised society’ that produces the lonely distrustful individual with atrophied social skills.  Homo soveticus is very much still with us in her view. Consequently, she greets the shift in public opinion from ‘political security’ to ‘social security’ with some surprise (in reality this aspect of public opinion has always been there).

The beef I have with approaches like these is that the ordinary Russians who daily make decisions about how to live are presented as an undifferentiated mass – suffering from ‘learned helplessness’ (a phrase used by Ekaterina Shulman but also by Carine Clement) or as an unruly source of social unrest – the word ‘revolt’ (bunt) is reserved for them. At worst this ‘by-the-numbers’ approach gives the impression that ‘we’, the addressed middle-class audience of these pundits, should fear the ‘other’ Russia.  Solutions presented ring hollow – they are either a form of gradualism or legalism (vote, even if the field is rigged; use your right to agitate against a bad candidate; if only we just adhered to the Constitution; wait for those nostalgic old people to die). In my final post on this topic, I’ll make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the extractive turn.

 

Why do 66% of Russians regret the collapse of the USSR?

2018-05-11 18.52.56

I was asked today to answer this question by a journalist, so I thought I’d share my responses. Thanks to Jesper Hasseriis Gormsen for asking it. And check out his [Danish language] podcasts on Russia http://intetnytfravestfronten.dk/

This is a really tricky question, but what I want to stress is two things – like many other polls, the answer might not be telling us what we think it is. The answer might be to a different buried question in the mind of the answerer. That question (among others) might really be ‘why do so many people live so badly now, when in the USSR they did not (or at least everyone was in the same boat, more or less)?’  Thus eliciting the answer: ‘Yes, I do regret the collapse of the USSR.’

Note (and I guess it needs saying), that this is not my opinion of what the USSR was like (as if there can be a single ‘reality’ of lived experience of an incredibly diverse state that existed for 70 years), just an interpretation that might well be ‘real’ to the person who is asked the question.

The second thing is that poll answers are overly and frustratingly simplistic answers that actually express (or, as I have just said, obscure) very complex feelings and values of the people they are asked of. It is amazing that when I talk to political scientists, they often don’t really believe this in their heart of hearts. Take for instance Brexit or Trump. These ‘answers’ are not merely, or even mainly, about ‘immigration’ or ‘racism’.

Thirdly, the devil is in the detail of the question. It’s well known that survey questions can be phrased and ‘hacked’ to significantly change the result – and pollsters know this (or should do). I don’t think that’s the case here. However, Levada, by using the term ‘collapse’ [raspad] does set out a particular ‘framing’ inadvertently, of the ‘ending’ of the state called the USSR in 1991. One that sets up in the mind of the person answering it, even if they are too young to experience it themselves, the trauma of postcommunist transition. Here we might add – why wouldn’t someone sensitive to the past, or lacking clear ideological support for ‘actually-existing capitalism’ answer: ‘Yes, I do “regret” the passing of the USSR, the state I was born in, or that my suffering parents were born in and worked hard all their lives for.’

Let’s turn the phrasing around. If Levada asked: ‘Do you regret the founding of the Russian Federation in 1991?’ I’m pretty sure the majority would say ‘no’ and so the poll would in a way be reversed.

Here’s the poll in question.

https://www.levada.ru/2018/12/19/nostalgiya-po-sssr-2/

Note the fluctuation since 1999 of around 20 % of the ‘regret’ vote (however, most ‘regrets’ are in a band between 53% and 65% since 2005). (Don’t look at the graph, look at the table). This fluctuation could be to do with people with direct experience of the USSR (positive or negative) dying along with people with no personal experience thinking in more rosy terms about the period – hence a kind of up and down wave effect.  But, you would also expect nostalgia to rise according to periods of crisis. When people feel their lives are not going to plan they might well look back to a ‘simpler’, more ‘stable’ time with nostalgia.  That’s plausible for the figures in 1999, 2000, and 2001 when people took a massive cut in living standards due to the Defolt. However, that is not borne out by the data here when taken in terms of trends over time since then. So perhaps there is not clear answer as to ‘why’ the numbers fluctuate. Here we could have an aside about polling most often telling us ‘nothing’ directly related to the question.

Now to the question of the meaning of nostalgia.

In her wide-ranging book The Future of Nostalgia, the wonderful Svetlana Boym identifies two distinct types of nostalgia: ‘restorative’ nostalgia and ‘reflective’ nostalgia.  Restorative nostalgia, “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.”  Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, “dwells in algia(aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”

Boym was first and foremost a Russian cultural scientist with a deep commitment to the personal insights lived experience provides for research. We can ‘read through’ her descriptions to suppose that both forms could be operative for nostalgia towards the Soviet Union. And as their psychology origins suggest, nostalgias can be personal quirks, irrationally warm ‘affective’ feelings, passing infatuations, or indeed pathologies bordering on madness. I suggest that all these are operative in different people at different times in the last three decades.

Lastly, we can break down nostalgia into a scale of more ‘rational’ interpretations by people. I rank these not in order of importance, but in terms of macro-to-micro social scale. All, some or one may be simultaneously operative in a person’s mind when they answer the pollster’s phone call – in fact none of them might be operative and the person getting the call might just want to get the pollster off the line!

  1. Nostalgia for Great Power status (empire and the respect for the geopolitical might of the USSR). See Mazur below (and Kustarev) on the ‘myth of achievement’ and the ‘myth of power’.
  2. Political order (totalitarian as a system that ensures a lack of political and civil strife, that obviates the need for the citizen to perform any political roll – relief at this and thankfulness – particularly effective in those that see the 1990s as ‘chaos’). See for example, ‘We grew up in a normal time’ – the title of a chapter in a book by Don Raleigh on Soviet baby boomers.
  3. Social order (“to each according to his needs”) – the Soviet social contract (which Linda Cook shows was failing in large part by the 1980s). Related to this, as in the West, a period of sustained social mobility. See, for example, Liudmila Mazur’s ‘Golden age mythology and the nostalgia of catastrophes in post-Soviet Russia’, although her polling data paints a more complicated picture of the ‘myth of prosperity’.
  4. An emphasis on the sincerity in personal relations, the intensity of personal trust and reciprocity given the ‘heartless system’ of the USSR – note how this is contradictory to point 3, yet perfectly possible to hold this belief at the same time as number 3. People are like that.
  5. Nostalgia for the time of one’s youth (probably universal – hey, I think the early 1980s in the UK were great, but ask a miner or other person from the North that). Nostalgia for personal and more widespread idealism (the BAM-romanticism factor) that accompanied this. See Mazur on the ‘myth of achievement’.
  6. Recognition of Labour(due recognition given to labour as the primary factor of production). Not that I am not saying that work was more ‘dignified’ or better paid than in the West during the Fordist period after WWII. Merely, and this is what most of my research interrogates, many working-class people feel nostalgia for what they perceive as a better time before the present. They highlight particularly, relative lower inequality (everyone was paid badly!), relative degrees of social compensation for labour (the social wage and labour paternalism included subsidised childcare, faster routes to social housing for workers, subsidised food), the team-level autonomy of work given the dysfunctional industrial system – bottle-necks, old equipment, distant management, shortages – all these led to a large degree of control over work, as enterprises looked to individuals and teams to find quick and dirty hacks to solve these otherwise intractable structural problems with the Soviet economy. Another way of looking at this is to say that workers had little or no political or associational power in the USSR, but they did have structural (work-place bargaining, or ‘contingent’ power).

Also operative are the answers that regret ‘loss of homeland’, ‘destruction of kinship and other ties’ – these are offered as options in the more detailed poll question. However, I think my 6 are more heuristically persuasive than the dry promptings of Levada, including the most important one: ‘the destruction of a united economic system’, although my points 2, 3, and 6 could be version of that.

Note that nowhere do I find it persuasive that there is nostalgia for the overly abstract notion of ‘communism’ as a system or the ‘communists’ as a ruling party… I intended to reference this piece on the mythology of the Soviet Past by Kustarev, but didn’t have time in the end. I highly recommend it. Александр Кустарев, Мифология советского прошлого «Неприкосновенный запас» 2013, №3(89)

People as the New Oil. Or, ‘как жить дальше’ in Russia? Part I

Savelii Kramarov - 'I have more than thirty half-litres of vodka left to live on'

Savelii Kramarov in a satirical sketch on the cost of living in 1971. It has become a viral meme in the last year.

Phrases on the variation: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ represent a new extractive and punitive turn in domestic politics, a shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensive ways focused on the daily doings of ordinary Russians. The interpretation goes like this: consistent oil prices over $70 – not seen since 2014 – are needed to maintain Russia’s state budget. After four years of expensive foreign policy adventures and a longer term lack of progress in creating a diversified economy at home, the government has resorted to ‘farming’ the ordinary population in earnest. This is the corollary of the ‘intense struggle access to budget money’ among the elite since 2016 that [paywall] Svetlana Barsukova details. Since most Russians have seen stagnating income levels for the last decade, and witness a noticeable deterioration in state-provision in general (in health and education and importantly the entitlements connected to them – these were the top ‘concerns’ of Russians in 2018), they can’t help but feel acute injustice at the sudden zeal for extracting fines and increasing taxes on unavoidable expenses like transport and utilities, even non-existent land holdings.

While the increase in pension age gets a lot of attention, it is worth mentioning what are more pressing issues, like the price of petrol and the raise in VAT from 18 to 20 percent, and not least inflation on staples, which is likely understated by a factor of three in official statistics. Indirect taxes hit the poorest most, and VAT is levied on utility bills, which already take up around half the income of a person on the ‘minimal income’ ($170) and are now adjusted more frequently for inflation. A second issue is largely untaxed income from self-employment which cuts across classes, from nannies and tutors to taxi drivers and  tradesmen. The government declaring ‘war on the nannies’ was a recent headline. However, most people see these incomes as topping up their meagre primary incomes and interpret the state’s renewed interest in personal taxation as profoundly unjust. Third is the more general ratcheting up of the punitive tax potential of fines on motorists, late payers of utilities, and other minor law breakers. Russian roads are densely covered by enforcement cameras in comparison to most European countries.  Moscow Region alone quadrupled its count in 2018 with 1300 cameras garnering $150m in fines (this is as many active cameras as in the whole of the UK).  400 more are on the way in Moscow in 2019. But the most telling indicator for me was a national park suddenly deciding in 2017 levy a ‘user fee’ of 400 rubles a year from hikers, anglers and even villagers whose abodes happen to lie within the park, the only interest shown in the park by the ministry of natural resources since 1995. It is as if suddenly a player in the ministry decided that previous milking of the parks (through lumber harvesting and guided tours) was now insufficient.

Therefore it is of no surprise to me that a recent Levada poll showed that while Russians’ pessimism is not as bad as it was even as recently as 2013, 46% of Russians cannot plan for even the immediate future. This was published at the same time as another poll that saw presidential ratings fall back to below 2014 levels. Furthermore, the unpopularity of the government and the Prime Minister is as high as it has ever been in the post-2000 world (a record high for the Prime Minister). Perhaps more importantly, for the first time since 2013 more surveyed people respond that the country is ‘moving in the wrong direction’ than the right one (45% versus 42%).

 

Making impossible ends meet

Bear with me here but it’s really unavoidable that we dig down into the reality of existence for the majority of Russians – poorly paid and already highly taxed before these changes. Indeed, it’s bordering on the irresponsible that the ‘human face’ of working poverty is largely absent from much discussion (which I’ll discuss in the follow-up post). To do this, let’s look at a portrait based on a real research participant I have worked with for the last ten years.

‘Dima’ worked as a loader in a brick factory in his small industrial town for the last ten years, but there his wage was static and never rose above 18,000 rubles a month. His wife works in a food shop part time and takes home 8000 rb. They have a pre-school-age child. The household income was recently therefore less than $400 a month (26,000 rb). Dima thought he’d got lucky, in 2018 he got a job at the Samsung washing machine assembly, on the road between Moscow and Kaluga. This gave him 24,000 rb a month, a 30% pay increase. However, he needed to use a car to commute to work, the costs swallowing a lot of the wage increase. With petrol going up, now he’s earning less than he used to. Before the new tax increases come into effect these were the outgoings of the family: 7000 on utilities, and 15,000 on food, which is skimping on all but the essentials. The family relies on relatives who work a garden plot for fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as jars of preserves in the winter. 5000 a month goes on petrol, just to get to work and back (there are better paid jobs, but they’re further afield). That’s already 27,000 gone, not accounting for clothes, medicine, other motoring costs, or anything for the child. What’s left is 5000 rb – or $75.

download

When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. In the bitter current debate on how to quantify poverty, a frequently cited level is an income of least 8 dollars a day to maintain survival, and at least 15 dollars for any kind of dignified existence (especially in a ‘middle’ income country). It’s interesting to note that these two figures map closely the lower and upper range of blue collar wages a man like Dima can expect to earn. These kind of figures are criticised for not taking into account local prices (purchasing power), but as you can see, while wages are very low, living costs are relatively high and even bear comparison with many EU countries.

Just to take the example of the occasional treat of eating fast food, an example that resonates because of the supposed utility of the BigMac Index, for Dima to treat his child to a Happy Meal once a month will cost him more in dollar terms than either the UK or US! Indeed it will cost him 5% of his disposable income for the whole month. [And I can’t resist the personal aside here: my own family of four cooks its own meals and drinks little alcohol. When in Russia we make local-style meals. But our outgoings on food are significantly higher in Russia than in W. Europe]. A more ‘traditional’ measure of one’s finances could be in vodka ‘halflitres’.  Dima can afford 18 bottles of vodka with his 5000 rubles. In the classic routine of Savelii Kramarov from 1971, he complains of only having 30 bottles a month left over after all his expenses! Our real Russia example shows how even with two earners and only one child, no kind of dignified existence is possible. And that is before the significant increases expected in 2019. I often put it like this, Russia is a ‘middle income country without middle-incomes’. And of course Dima is substantially better off than pensioners or the many in much lower-paid work.

In the next post I will try to unpack some of the conclusions observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw about what I will call the ‘extractive turn’. Overall they reveal a deep pessimism about alternative futures. Most of all though they continue to view their own countrymen as passive and lacking any agency (beyond a destructive ‘buntovat’ mentality), despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level.