Category Archives: Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping disorientation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Care’ and Disposal    

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

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

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

Billboard afterlifes

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

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

Final post follows.

 

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

 

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

Disinfection

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

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

Operation ‘Disinfection’

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

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

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

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

Not such a smart lockdown  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unmasking state capitalism or capitalist realism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergency Reserve

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

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

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

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 (Post)lockdown cityscape. Image by Galina Orlova

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

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

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

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

The capital of the epidemic

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

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

Covid and ‘lay normativity’

medrabotnik slays the covid beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Civil defence placard in a public building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum:

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

Serving not the prince, but the people. Roundtable reflections on Russian fieldwork Part 2.

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Photo by Lina Yatsen on Unsplash.

The previous post began my reflections about this rountable I attended last week at IGITI in Moscow. Круглый стол «Полевые исследования России: своя/другая страна»

Now I continue some relatively rough-and-ready thoughts.

— Как воспринимается исследователь и исследование в поле, как происходит вход в поле (и выход из него)? Какие возникают трудности и как они решаются?

[- How is the researcher and research perceived in the field, how does the entry into the field (and exit from it) take place? What difficulties arise and how are they solved?]

For me this question revolves around building trust and overcoming two problems – particularly important for foreigners. These are typified by two reactions foreigners get when they initiate contact with field interlocutors. 1. ‘Why would you study us? There must be an ulterior motive’. And, 2. ‘Ohh, foreigner, I’m wary of saying anything that might be construed as politically critical of my own country’.

Solutions. 1. Long term rapport building, holding oneself back from ‘mining’ for specific, quick and dirty insights at the expense of really inhabiting the world. Developing a public language of research ‘worth’ – ‘This is important to the wider community/world because by talking to you we can better understand X’. But, at the same time, paradoxically, it might be apposite to not hold oneself back and to sometimes ‘display’ and ‘perform’ one’s ideological basis for doing the research – especially if you think it’s neglected, etc. The paradox is that the two approaches are somewhat opposed, but then they ‘aim at’ the same thing – persuading one’s interlocutors of the worth of their input.

Solutions 2. For me the only solution to this is like the purloined letter holder in Poe – have the letter (the political context) on full display but to ignore it. Eventually (and it took 8 years for me) some interlocutors start to point to the letter you are holding – they start to get surprised themselves that you’re not mentioning it. Perhaps the elephant in the room is a better metaphor. But I like the idea that the political implications of your research being understated, ‘hidden’ in plain sight even, but the point being that you don’t mention them, merely let the interlocutors initiate any political talk.
— Как на выбор темы и на фокус исследования влияет собственный бэкграунд, характеристики и опыт исследователя?

[- How do the background, characteristics and experience of the researcher affect the choice of the topic and the focus of the study ?]

Rather than focus on the problems of bias, and of reading too much of the Russian context through the concerns of the origin country of the researcher, here I think I’d make a pretty obvious comment that hunches and life experience are actually a great way to build up a scholarly justification for the relevance of studying something. I use this example a lot but I have a lot of time for scholars like Simon Charlesworth who come to research through their own experience of, for example dispossession and despair, but also anger and thirst for sharing this neglected life experience with others. However, of course this does depend on being well versed enough in two levels of scholarship – the general field studies that relate to your object of interest and at least a few conceptualisations that pre-exist. We had this argument in the roundtable itself between people taking extreme positions that one should know ‘everything’ about the topic in advance that exists in scholarship and journalism, and the other, that one should go into the field ‘cold’. I don’t agree with either…
— Какие теоретические рамки и концепты используются в исследованиях? Требует ли местная реальность местных концептуальных подходов или для её осмысления достаточно общепринятых зарубежных подходов?

[- What theoretical framework and concepts are used in research? Does the local reality require local conceptual approaches or is it enough to use generally accepted foreign approaches to understand it?]

Again this question highlights for me some of the dirty secrets of ethnography and anthropology more widely – the re-packaging of ‘emic’ concepts in a way to make them sexy and accessible in the global core. Inevitable perhaps, but at risk of doing symbolic violence at the very least, and at worst, downright misleading to a scholars’ audience. In particular, I think something of relevance to a Russian audience is the overtheoreticisation of empirical research as a problem. There’s a very big ‘philosophical’ baggage in Russian-focussed anthropology that I think is easy to overlook.

So while some scholars feel they need to ‘justify’ their research based on very complex thinking from philosophy, often ‘classical’ texts, equally there’s something of a neglect of some of the ‘obvious’ but important social theorists who surely have much to say today – Foucault and Bourdieu. Perhaps we are living through a time where fashion is changing, but not for the better. I mention these two, not because I think they are the ‘most’ relevant to someone doing social research in Russia (though they probably are!), but because time and again I feel resistance among some people to engaging with these thinkers over less obvious (and perhaps sexier or exotic choice).

Perhaps this is one point where an outsider perspective is useful, and of course I would say that the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition in thinking might be useful to this. This is why I like what’s going on in critical geography at the moment – which of course is largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. It’s not a de-theoreticizing movement, but a grounding, critical perspective that takes ‘big theory’ hats – like geopolitics, and turns them inside out. By doing that it sees if they still ‘fit’ the head when emptied of the normative and hegemonic. So from geopolitics such scholars move to ‘anti-geopolitics’ in order to look at grassroots practices – ‘in the streets, in homes, in jungles,’ ‘off the page’, as Koopman calls it (2011).

https://sci-hub.se/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.01.007

She gives a nice example of an analysis of blogs out of Baghdad as an example of this – (Gregory 2004). But basically the idea is to problematize how ‘elites write space’ and to ‘see’ how geopolitics is peopled and how people have agency. The point of bringing up this example is that it is theoretically, or rather conceptually rich, without being obfuscatorily obsessed with theory. At the same time, these scholars emphasise how science cannot and should not be divorced from ideals of solidarity and collaborative theorising with the oppressed. Serving not the ‘prince’, but the people. This is of course not a new argument, but I think it again underlines how ‘extractive’ sociologists and anthropologists are in reality and how they are often in denial about this.

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”.