Third Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate.
March 4-6, 2022 During these two days, the situation is as follows – when an endless stream began of all companies leaving us, then even my very, very anti-Putin acquaintances became perplexed and angry. Not towards Putin, which is already customary, but to the West. Annoyance at the very least, because it already seems to them that this whole “cancellation” campaign was carefully prepared, since everything happens so quickly. The thought involuntarily creeps in that perhaps “Putin knew something” by starting this war. The shock of the Great Business Exodus from Russia arises among supporters of a market economy and those who do not support Putin. They ask themselves the question, “how does it feel to cut business ties?” Perhaps if only Apple had left, many would be upset and angry at Putin. But when all companies leave the country in an endless series, the effect is the opposite – from indifference to the desire to survive on their own.
It turns out that in the current situation, the total withdrawal of foreign business from Russia and catastrophic sanctions have played into the hands of strengthening the regime, around which those who have never supported the Russian bureaucracy are beginning to gather. Now it is the chinovniki who will help us survive, since the government of the country is in their hands. The old vulgar slogan of the pro-government “patriots” – “Russia is concentrating” is starting to work, but it works against what the West is trying to achieve – against the escalation of discontent, but in favour of internal mobilization of survival. Orientation towards the coming economic and social problems distracts people from the terrible pictures of the war, everyone thinks about how to stock up food, medicine, how to buy a dacha for a garden, etc. It is difficult to say what is happening in the administrative and business elites, among whom there were many “enlightened Europeans”, but it seems that they still feel like they are in the same submarine, locked from the inside and under torpedo attack from the outside. A noticeable part of the intellectuals and people of art have left, but it is difficult to say how this emigration is assessed by public opinion.
There are more and more statements in Russia from different sides that “in this situation you cannot take a neutral position – this is how you help the enemy.” This enemy could be Putin or the “Ukronazis” – substitute the right one. Probably something similar has happened to intellectuals everywhere: civic passion has become the main feature of discourse, which is understandable against the backdrop of active hostilities in peaceful cities in the center (or in the East? or already on the outskirts) of Europe. It is impossible to be indifferent, but it is proposed to seek understanding – an analytical understanding of what is happening. An analytical understanding of what is happening does not mean support, although the anti-war agenda is win-win. Probably, reflection and understanding is required where and when Europe (the West) lost Russia and how it happened. It would be foolish to believe that everything is the result of the KGB Lieutenant Colonel Putin, who became the Sauron of the cold Siberian Mordor. Of course, this also applies to Russia and its population, where the trauma of the imperial collapse of the early 1990s and deindustrialization could not fully drag on even with the help of the external gloss of the consumer society that engulfed the country’s major cities. The older generation and “poor Russians” – the heroes of the studies of the Russian sociologist Simon Kordonsky – did not forgive the fact that the former Soviet workers and engineers lost their class outlines – they ceased to be workers or employees and became small traders and otkhodniks. They are more comfortable and comfortable in the new world of the post-Soviet market in the end, but the trauma of losing turned out to be inescapable. They wanted not only to be a foreman at a car repair shop, but to be a part of something big – a mythologically creative Soviet project that came to its spiritual and economic collapse in the 1980s, but still possessed positive energy, including for some Western intellectuals.
Now many of the older Russian generation are “losers” from the reforms of the 1990s and not understood by the new Russian intelligentsia, which at first mocked their low taste (as P. Bourdieu would say) in the field of culture – from the vulgar humor of the popular mass satirist Petrosyan to the stupid tik tok videos, and now considers these people a mindless crowd. But there has never been an attempt to bridge the gap and find something in common. Western researchers were also very weakly involved in understanding what is happening in Russia “on the ground”, talking a lot about post-Soviet geopolitics, doing research on opposition rallies on Bolotnaya Square, the Russian LGBT+ community, or exoticizing “poor life in a poor country”. All this sold well in the Western academy and the media, but said little about who these people were – who the post-Soviet worker and lower middle class are, who lives in small towns, how they build their life trajectories. Only 2-3 books have been published. And now, probably, such studies will be very difficult because of the double steel curtain – from Russia and from the West.
Second Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate.
Suddenly, after the zoomers in Russia began to recall the fashion and lifestyle of the Russian nineties (the famous song of the popular singer Monetochka “In the nineties they killed people, And everyone ran completely naked, There was no electricity anywhere, Only fights for jeans with Coca-Cola .. “), they were joined by a generation of those who were teenagers and young people in the difficult Russian 1990s. Neighborly work chats immediately went into threads about how they would buy everything at the clothing markets, how Moscow Mayor Sobyanin would again start building retail stalls (points) in Moscow, how modern shopping centers would be given over to compartments for small entrepreneurs, how everyone would start using pirated software and watch pirated movies with bad translations. How everyone gets poorer and goes to dig forgotten vegetable gardens for potatoes.
My friend today was glad that he bought a walk-behind tractor for cultivating the land in OBI at the old “pre-war” prices, using credit money from a card. Grassroots connections have already begun on the topic of delivering spare parts from China for expensive cars or household appliances and everything that is needed in modern society. Everyone understands that the time has come. Will the criminalization and disintegration of the country become a consequence of this, as it almost happened in the 90s? It’s hard to predict.
But now (despite all the problems of corruption and incompetence) the Russian state bureaucracy is well built (even better than ten years ago), there are digital means of control over taxes and citizens, and these tools are being developed. In addition, smuggling existed before – my father on the outskirts of the Central Russian regional center for a long time in 2018-19 bought Marlboro cigarettes with the inscription “only for duty free”. Where are they from? There are several places in Moscow (large or local markets) where they sell inexpensive and very high-quality cheese from Iran or Serbia. It is almost of Swiss quality, but costs 3-4 times cheaper … There is also a huge segment of regional medium and small businesses that, after some difficulties (of course, many will go bankrupt) will be able to work and produce degraded copies of goods from IKEA (from wood for sure) or beer no worse than Carlsberg. Yes, these entrepreneurs will use foreign machines – but most often they were bought second hand in Europe for next to nothing and restored by craftsmen from the same Russian cities.
Yes, the middle class is shocked by the departure of everyone from the country. But the Russian middle class grew in the 90s. It started in poverty and destitution, he then had black nails from picking potatoes with his hands. And he begins to remember those habits – installing pirated software, visiting the abandoned village of his great-grandfather to plant potatoes and plow the land. Plus everyone already has experience of living in the market and plus there is a huge infrastructure. Now the general consumer exodus of Western companies, the rupture of cultural, social, and scientific ties is beginning to work for the Putin regime, and not in the short term, but for a long time. Everyone knows, everyone says – “these will be difficult years, but.” Those who leave, they leave. The rest will stay and live, and they are unlikely to fall in love with Western brands as passionately as they are now. Yes, Russia is becoming a practically unfree state with total censorship, which affects the educated middle class and the cultural elite very strongly. But the “deep people” have always been drinking in the kitchens. And they will complain about the government by planting potatoes or drinking pickles with vodka. Cucumber, vodka, boiled potatoes, ‘Discount price’ stores with pirated fake cheap copies of Western brands will grow ever more frequent. Chinese household appliances and cars – too. Yes, people will become much poorer and go through a period of scarcity. My neighbors and acquaintances have already stocked up on food and essentials, and the shelves are still full, although prices have gone up a lot. The excitement is palpable. Will it be worse? Yes. It will probably be a tough summer and fall. But it will be the spring of planting the crop, the summer of taking care of it and the autumn of harvesting.
One thing is not clear – an endless rehearsal of public refusals of everyone from Russia, is it supposed to achieve? That Russian tanks will stop, mothers will call their sons and say that they did not bring a new collection to Uniqlo. Most of the wives and mothers of soldiers and officers already led a modest life – like in many armies of the world, the Russian army consists of a “deep”, very poor people, for whom the army is a means of social mobility. In addition, the West has already done a deal with the Russian oligarchs [giving them six months to put their affairs in alternative offshore instruments], but punishes the people. Did Navalny call for this in his heated speeches? Why does Western civilization give Russia to China and Iran… World, give me an answer. It doesn’t give an answer.
Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate. Guest Post.
A few weeks have passed since February 24th and the start of a large-scale war in Europe, and living and staying in the country, you begin to feel the outside world again. The first weeks are a keen understanding that everything has changed so dramatically and radically that both for oneself and for the country, for decades, the time has come “before” and “after”. And this “after” will be bad, but no one understands how bad it is – since it is just beginning. Next, I offer my very chaotic notes that I made in correspondence with friends or on the basis of some feverish observations of my condition, news and situation. There is no system here, no analytics here, only impressions. If something seems to be analytics, then all the same, these are impressions.
February 25-27 “Birth of the Winter World” Researchers working with the geography and temporality of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall have used a variety of concepts to designate this space at a certain point in historical time. In different periods – this was called the countries of transition (“transit”), and what is happening in them is “transformation” – “transitivity” and “transformation” described the laminar stage of the reassembly of the collapsed socialist bloc, but not only it. Throughout the 1990s. Germany has been sewing itself into a single economic, political and cultural space, and it seems only in recent years that these seams have become less noticeable. The former Yugoslavia has always been not quite part of the socialist bloc, retaining much political independence from Moscow and the Warsaw bloc, but also not fully become a Western social democracy, playing its own version of frontier socialism. Its decay was long, bloody, and everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when peace was established there. The conflicts in Tajikistan and the Chechen war were no less difficult, but distant for many Eurocentric researchers. They were going at the moment of reformation, that very “transit” and “transformation” that turned the former space of socialism into a boundless “field of experiments” in the economy, business, crime, mass culture, methods of government and in everyday life. It seems that all this continued until the early 2000s or began to end after the financial crisis of 1998, which for the main territory of this field, Russia, became a tough test, but rejuvenated its economy. Other countries of former socialism also found their way in the new state – from the chosen path of the Scandinavian democracies, as happened in Estonia, to the maximum autarky of the North Korean type, as happened in Turkmenistan. The rest were somewhere between these two extreme points, but not on a straight line, since all acquired their own unique features of political, social, economic life. It seems that since the beginning of the 2000s, the words “transit” and “transformation” have become less and less common in official documents and scientific articles on the space of former socialism. Now they began to talk more and more about the “post-Soviet space”, stating the self-sufficient influence of the historical legacy of the Soviet infrastructure, traces of institutions and thinking in the structure of most countries that were part of the orbit of socialism. Also, the concept of “countries of Central and Eastern Europe” was often used, which only remotely correlated with the intricate history of this space, more than once divided between different empires and more than once united, and then again which became a place of national and state building. True, in this case, the countries of the former USSR, which included states in the Asian part of the world of socialism and the Caucasus, fell out of the conversation. Yes, indeed – all this is complicated and ambiguous for any observer …
And now we see that since the Maidan of 2014, the concept of “post-Soviet” has become more and more archaic, becoming an analytical anachronism. Firstly, it was this second Maidan (“revolution of dignity”) that drew a new ideological divide between the (post)Soviet and something else – the new ideologies of national identity that began to prevail in Ukraine. This is no longer “post-Soviet” and not “transit”, it is something that, on the one hand, has become “anti-Soviet” in relation to the legacy of that period, and on the other hand, “out-of-Soviet” – outside the logic of the legacy of socialism. Of course, in this regard, Turkmenistan and other countries have chosen completely different paths. It can be said that the reality of the territories of the former socialist countries has ceased to be described by something general, by some kind of unified logic. In this regard, the departure from the “post-Soviet” as a general way of describing the life of this world is becoming increasingly relevant.
Those who started hostilities on the morning of February 24 are redefining not only the historical position of the countries of the former socialist world, but, it seems, the world as a whole. We are probably in the stage of accelerated crystallization of a new bipolar (it is not clear how many repulsive poles it will have) world, where Russia and territories close to it remain on one side of this world, and the countries of the West, Central and Eastern Europe go to the other. When these lines are written (February 26, 2022), a large-scale military operation is underway on the territory of Ukraine, a kind of cosplay of the entry of American troops into Iraq in 2003, and on the other hand, Russia and Belarus are disconnected from the Western world. The sanctions war can be viewed as a phased civilizational split – the restriction of the issuance of visas, the rupture of diplomatic relations, economic, financial, cultural relations and ties. It seems that we are talking about a new Great Wall, which will be even stricter and tougher than the Iron Curtain of the Cold War – which began to actively rust already in the mid-1970s and finally collapsed along with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Now the “post-Soviet” is over. It is necessary to look for new definitions and new concepts. Probably, one should not focus on returning to the old patterns of opposition of the generalized “democratic world” to some new empires, which Russia and China can become. Probably it is necessary to understand, realize and describe how this new reality will look like and how it can be characterized by researchers – anthropologists, sociologists, historians, political theorists. Maybe this is already a “post-global world” or just a “(post) world”, or we are entering a situation of new Dark Ages, as novelists working in the fantasy genre would pathetically describe it. Winter is coming. And it would be naive to believe. that this Great Winter and this Winter world will remain only in “terrible” Russia. By disconnecting from a huge part of its East, Europe is disconnecting important parts of its history, its past and present, and possibly its future… Something is coming…
Guest post by Dr Charlie Walker of Southampton University
Many thousands of Russians have protested against the war in Ukraine, and have been imprisoned for doing so. However, the available public opinion data suggest that we should not expect hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets anytime soon. This is not only because of the obvious dangers of social protest in an increasingly authoritarian state, but because a large proportion of the broad mass of the Russian population either supports the war or, at least, does not object to or condemn it. Given that Russian media has acted as a propaganda tool for Putin’s regime for more than twenty years now, and that there is very little independent media, we should not be surprised that many will be following the disinformation directed from the Kremlin, especially those who watch television, which Russians have long referred to as the ‘zombie box’.
A campaign to break through the wall of disinformation that surrounds many ordinary Russians, the CallRussia initiative, was recently launched in the UK, and involves Russian speakers randomly telephoning Russian citizens, working on the assumption that many are simply starved of alternative viewpoints to those pushed by the Kremlin. However, if we look at Russian social media such as VKontakte.ru it becomes clear that providing alternative forms of information about the war is unlikely to break down the wall of disinformation, not least because ordinary Russians themselves (sometimes bots and trolls, but often real) are busily engaged in reinforcing it.
Responses to war-related posts on social media replicate what social psychologists refer to as mechanisms of moral disengagement. As McAlister et al. (2006) argue, in order for a country to go to war, it must create conditions that enable both soldiers and publics to suspend the moral evaluations and self-sanctions they would ordinarily undergo in the face of inhumane conduct. The psychosocial manoeuvres that enable moral disengagement take a number of different forms, all of which are amply demonstrated in responses to the present conflict amongst Russian social media users…
Thinking about why did we end up here, in the situation where Russian troops bombard Ukrainian cities and towns and significant part of the population in Russia either support and justify this or deny the fact that it is war following official state version of calling ‘military operation’ I couldn’t stop coming back to the concept of utopia. It seems to me that is a particular type of utopian thinking, born after the fall of the Soviet Union and installed as a mainstream discourse a decade or so ago, which can explain why for so many people in Russia it is difficult to look at the events in Ukraine in any other way than the official propaganda suggests.
What is utopia? It is a belief in a perfect society. Why is it important in politics? Because, as Laclau and Mouffe, for instance, suggest, without utopia, strictly speaking, there is no politics and no society: society as a project which links communication, institutions and practices into a common discourse.
What is particular in this period of history is that Russia seems to have fallen for a particular type of utopian thinking which I can call here ‘conservative utopia’. What is classic utopia? This is important to note to see the difference.
The French, American and October Revolution of 1917, are the typical examples of classic utopias. The perfect society they are looking at is in the future and the transition to this perfect society is seen through a radical, if not complete, break with the past. «Весть мир насилья мы разрушим до основанья, а затем, мы наш мы новый мир построим, кто был никем тот станет всем».
What is conservative utopia based upon? The perfect society here is in the past. In Russia this utopia started to grow straight after the fall of the Soviet Union. ‘The Russia We Lost’ by Stanislav Govorukhin, released in 1992 is a clear example. We, the society, need to move to re-build something which we already had but which we somehow lost. But this gaze in the past has a very interesting nuance. Mikhail Elizarov pointed it our in his ‘Librarian’. The past which is in the centre of Soviet nostalgia is not about the grief for country which was, it is a grief for the country we could have had. This utopia is a subjunctive utopia.
Why this particular nuance is interesting. Because this subjunctive mood is inherent in all conservative utopias in Russia of the last few decades. From monarchists a-la Nikita Mikhalkov, through Stalinists of USSR 2.0 project to neo-imperialism of expanding Russia recently articulated by Surkov. The perfect Russia is the Russia which we could have had if there would be no perestroika, no greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the fall of the USSR, no Washington obkom, no gay-ropa around the corner etc. This subjunctive mood sets a clear discursive grammar which is then followed by the participants of political communication.
Let me introduce few key elements of this grammar.
Boris Uspensky writes about how different perception of historical type organises discourse around it. According to him, the mode when the present is seen as the beginning of the future, which is what classic utopias are about, constitutes what he calls ‘historical’ or ‘scientific’ time. The mode where the present is seen as first and foremost the consequence of the past is ‘cosmological’ or ‘religious’ time. Interesting here is when this time is projected to the future it is not projected historically or scientifically, not rationally, but as Uspensky puts it – ‘symbolically’ where the image of the past is transferred to represent the future passing by the present. One can clearly see the subjunctive move here.
Then, how do these modes of thinking claim their discursive validity? In theoretical tradition of Moscow-Tartu semiotic school, where Uspensky comes from symbol is isomorphic, i.e. it is not transparent, its logic is not open. It holds because of discursive authority of the speaking subject. In direct contrast with the scientific mode which holds because of its argument, logic which is open, tendentially non-hierarchical discussion.
Now think how the Russian oppositional discourse is constructed: argument, transparency, discussion. Look what is the role of the present: the present is the beginning of the future. Russian invasion in Ukraine is looked through its consequences.
How the official governmental discourse is built. The present is not important. The future, which is a subjunctive imprint of the past which has not been, but which needs to be realised, is. What makes these claims valid? The authority of the speaking subject. This is where the laws criminalising ‘insulting the feelings of …’ become normal. That is why, in its extreme, public debate is reduced in extorted apologies from your critics.
And this is where the tacit consent, or the absence of vocal criticism and active stand against what Russia is doing in Ukraine can be found. For those who operate in ‘cosmological’ or ‘religious’ discourse (the exact names are not that important here, what is important is claims of validity and particular role of the present) what is going on right now, the present, is numb, it is unimportant, while the subjunctive future and the past, especially the past, however illusionary and constructed it is, is what they fix their picture of the world around. Therefore anything, which hits their present, and even more – anything which may hit their future, the one that may be derived from the present, the rational one – is a foreign language. What is not foreign – who won WWII? Was Soviet Union the best country in the world? Was Russia a civilising power in 19th century? Was it a saviour in Donbass after 2014?
In the light of these observations, it might be wrong to expect that sanctions, economic hardship, lower life standards are going to play significant role in shifting the attitudes. Or, in fact, any rational and causal argument. What would, however, is the loss of the discursive authority of those who hold symbols of subjunctive utopia together. And to shake this authority is a more difficult task. Especially, since the supreme guarantor of Russian conservative utopia seems well aware of the danger to lose it.
Ivan Gololobov is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.
Yesterday we did a recorded talk with colleagues at Indiana University about what’s happening and likely to happen in Russia [will add a link when I have it]. We focused on these topics: ‘rally round the flag’ effect, pocketbook issues [‘bread and butter’, we say in UK English], and protest mobilization.
My interests are in the immediate responses to war among Russian people who mainly consume state-controlled media.
I characterized the response so far as
different coping mechanisms with cognitive dissonance – mainly wishful or magical thinking,
defensive consolidation. I will focus on the last one, which derives from the first two as both cognitive labour and practical action.
I will first mention ‘denial’. Someone reminded me of Stanley Cohen’s work on States of Denial, and I do think it’s relevant:
“denial is that peculiar mental state in which a fact or idea is simultaneously known and not-known. Known enough to know that further knowledge will be too difficult, and so must be avoided. He applies this to the micro problems of daily life (abusive relationships, alcoholism and addictions, etc.) and the macro problems of societies and large-scale atrocities, though the latter appropriately takes up the bulk of his focus and the book. It’s impossible to avoid, though, seeing the ways in which even the macro discussions apply to the micro.”
He explores the denial paradox at some length: in small doses denial allows us to have enough optimism to function in our daily lives. In large doses or about destructive enough problems, at any scale, denial kills. How to have enough denial to be in mental health while not so much denial as to contribute to mass atrocities and suffering is a conundrum he finds essentially unanswerable, suggesting that the answer is being aware of this dilemma.
If many Russians are still grappling with the idea of invasion, mass Ukrainian casualties, mass Russian military casualties, for those with more awareness or more instinctive grasp of the murderous capacities of their own state, the response is defensive consolidation. I’m sure there’s a better term, but that’s what I had in the moment. Maybe ‘involutionary consolidation?’ might be better – calling back to work by Michael Burawoy on Russia in the 90s.
I don’t call this ‘rally round the flag’ because it is not usually connected to expressions of patriotism, or nationalism, or enthusiasm for the campaign or for the Russian government. And partly the government are to blame, as they insist on a highly restrained media coverage and insist on calling it a ‘military operation’. Whether this will change when Russia goes to a war footing without a ‘war’, remains to be seen. And that’s my main point – ‘what war?’ people are still telling me.
The phrase ‘truth is on our side’ is used by a few in a kind of magical reactive desperation and is not said with any sense that the speaker believes in the ‘truth’ of a botched military campaign that even now could fail.
People say things like ‘we made our choice, we will accept the consequences. If people want to leave, let them. Maybe after all there will be opportunities for people like in the end of the 90s? Things couldn’t get any worse really, to be honest. The main thing is to hunker down until the spring. We’ll wait and see. Time will tell.’
Beyond the clichés, there are also powerful feelings of resentment that serve as a kind of social – not political – glue. I posted a long twitter thread of quotes from one person I know well yesterday and it got a lot of people responding that it reminded them of US responses to MAGA populism. Many were disturbed by it. [I’ll append it to the end of this post]
I think these are misreadings. What is dangerous about the current situation is that any actions from the West can be easily leveraged by Putin to stoke well-founded resentment based on a deep seated feeling of exclusion. Exclusion from the ‘fruits’ of change since 1991 in Russia. Exclusion from politics domestically (in that sense I do make a concession to populist readings). Exclusion in geopolitical terms (however understood, and however distorted). Note that I resist the interpretation that every Russian is a neo-imperial chauvinist.
The speaker talks semi-ironically about the myth of two Russias – the intelligentsia/elite and the ‘deep people’. But the understanding of ‘social racism’ is clearly expressed, and a long standing topic of this blog. You don’t have to call it by these words. There is also recognition that the Ukrainian national project since 2014 actually bore fruit. There is the savvy perception that any opposition mobilization in Russia has been very class based and ‘political’ in a way that excludes coalescence (a term I was much criticised for contemplating in the past).
Then there is the turn to ‘we will suffer and endure’, a cliché of woe-litany that many anthropologists have talked about. It isn’t necessarily reflective of reality, but it is an important performative, and socially-sticky trope. The point is that significant socio-economic suffering might well transform such discourse into a narrative that ‘consolidates’ the status quo – politically. So that’s why I used the term defensive consolidation. And I don’t think this is necessarily anything to do with propaganda, or even historical contexts. It’s just as valid an interpretation of ‘everyday politics’ as the one I have been making for a while on this blog about people’s views of Russia as an ‘incoherent state’ that cannot meet many of their material, cultural, social or libidinal needs. In fact, it correlates with that view. You will also detect a fateful resignation – even embracing of crisis, of the status of pariah, which, I’m afraid to say, comes through strongly among many people I talk to, even people who have more to lose than my informant. Some of this can be attributed to the genuine stagnation of Russian society since, at least 2011. It turns on its head the cliché about Russians’ conservative aversion to crisis.
It is ironic that just as we get cut off from reliable sources of information about what Russian people think, I more than ever encounter disbelief, and indeed outright hostility to what I write. All I can say is that if you know my work, you know I’ve got contacts (now 23 years plus) with people that trust me and are pretty open about what they say to me. Of course, there is ‘cautiousness’ now. Some of my people work for the state. But they’re no fools. We have ways to communicate. And people WANT to talk more than ever before with people ‘over there’.
I think the fact that middle-class people will be more hurt is significant. But from what we know at the moment all Russians will be enormously impacted by sanctions. The point is that this collective punishment both binds Russians in defensive consolidation. And reifies myths of ‘narod’ [note the scare quotes] v rest, Russian v. the West. So far I would not say this means ‘loyalty’ over ‘voice’ or ‘exit’, it means attending to one’s most pressing local concerns. There are both centrifugal and centripetal pressures. Which has more energy?
Today I had time and the wherewithal to ring around Russian friends and tell them to prepare for the worst. I told one person to buy up his medicine for a chronic illness. His response: ‘it’s all ok’. For my best friend it means going to his garage and cleaning a carburettor for his motorcycle. ‘In the summer I’ll give you a ride’, he ends.
A response from # workingclass Russia: “Europe does not want to have anything in common in Russia except money. Never did. That’s why it can only ‘speak to us’ with the language of sanctions. They won’t hurt Putin and his cronies. What’s the point?
“Social racism – is the biggest problem in Russia (its intelligentsia) and in European society. Europe was ready to speak only with the intelligentsia, which showed and could simulate Europeanized public opinion. It was such a showcase.
“At the same time, the “deep Russian” is generally unknown to Europe – it was only visible in the fights of football fans. And Europe refused to look for words and understanding of ALL of Russia, and not just Lev Ponamorev, Parkhomenko or Albats.
“At the same time, Europe cynically accepted money from the oligarchs and Britain in the first place. The oligarchs fueled the economy of Europe by stealing money from the “deep people”. In fact, it was a double consensus of exploitation – first Russian oligarchs,
“and then through them European businesses, etc. Silent consensus. And so the leader found the ressentiment of the “deep people” in relation to everything European. And secondly, exactly the same “social racism” was inside Russia – the middle class, intellectuals elites
“as in the days of serfdom, they despise and do not want to deal with the “deep the people.” Not Navalny, no one was looking for a language and ways of speaking with this huge Russia. Everyone considered them obviously cattle and lost beggars. “Another Nation”
“In this sense, it was more convenient in Moscow to have real “strangers” with a foreign language and customs in hard city work in housing and communal services and at a construction site than an unstable drinking peasant from the Vladimir outback.
“The main difference between the protests and the unity in Ukraine (during Maidan 2014) was that the elites and intellectuals found an ideology, language and ways of communication with their “deep people” – a real national unity.
“And in Russia – the war has led to the fact that the split has become deep and finalsome are waiting for the victories of Russian weapons, others are buying up foreign currency and looking for Schengen visas. And even the anti-war movement has not found real mass support
“the anti-war movement lacks mass support so far, since it is made according to the patterns of dissident intellectual actions – there is nothing for the people. There is no understanding of it, no intelligentsia, as it turned out, knows the country in which they live.
“Everyone was thinking about how to “be European” in a wild country…. I talked with my parents – “we’ll live on buckwheat, we don’t need a foreign food” (they really are on dacha food, and things are at a minimum – dad wore my leftover military camouflage )
“everyone is watching and discussing the news, the men are looking at the sky – they are looking for strategic fighters and bombers – they seem to have flown by. The lower class of the older generation in the regions easily enters a state of military mobilization
“…and apparently their children from the same class will also enter this state of expectation – there is an external enemy, we have a war, we are waiting for the nukes (waiting!) – we are ready to endure to the last. These are general sentiments.
“But many ordinary people have relatives and friends abroad. They are personally writing that a wave of hatred has begun at the everyday level (Putin did not invent it), at the level of everyday communication with children, and so on.
“This is not the intelligentsia – but workers, small entrepreneurs, who live there. And personal letters – to relatives and friends to my mother. Everyone immediately tells about it and says – “Europeans have always secretly hated us, and now it manifested itself right away..
“I agreed today to go plant vegis in spring to help my father with the dacha. I had never participated since the 90s – he did it himself. Here’s your f**king anthropology for you. But you knew that already.” /ends
This is a slightly edited version of a thread I made on Twitter 27 Feb 2022. I have obscured identities.
“Don’t want to do a long thread but I said I’d update with the ‘everyman’ view from the ‘averagely informed’ Russian [some people didn’t like this wording, but I leave it here]. So far, it can be summarised as everything we see in Western media about conflict in Ukraine is transformed into a kind of Alice thru the Looking Glass world for some of these people.
That means, for example, the difficulty in even starting a conversation with my acquaintance who I text a couple of times a month. I gingerly tested the waters with her. She’s c.35 years old, and her sister has a kid who’s 18. I text: ‘everything ok? I hope you’re keeping Dima away from the enlistment office’. Her answer ‘What?’
I paused and thought long and hard before continuing and choosing my words carefully: ‘There are a lot of conscripts in Ukraine, it seems.’ She: ‘Yes, I heard that. Poor Ukrainian mothers.’ I.e. she interpreted it ‘through the looking glass’ – subsequently it was obvious she thought I was talking about ‘poor Ukrainian conscripts’ being forced to fight. Later she talked about avoiding television news and only vaguely knew there was a ‘special operation’ in Donbas.
Older bloke: ‘mood is good. A quick jaunt to Kiev and back in time for tea. Without too many casualties. Symmetrical sanctions – you’ve got more to lose. Jobs a good-un’. President looking firm, saying the right thing.’
I have always held complex views about rally-round the flag effects (it’s decay was faster than people think after 2014, it’s ‘drowned out’ by material concerns), but this man is a ‘putin-sceptic’, so his positive comments about Putin alarm me.
Woman in 50s: ‘Russia has never invaded anyone; we don’t have taking territory in our military doctrine. Did you see ‘wag the dog’? You could learn a lot about what’s happening in the US with Biden’s unpopularity’. Again, you can see a kind of ‘trickle down’ of media talking points here in a garbled way.
Texts in the night: He: ‘Why are you awake?’ Me: ‘I can’t sleep – watching the war.’
I respond: ‘Kyiv being hit by rockets’. No answer for last 2 days to that message.
My ‘conscious’ friend, as he calls himself, in his 30s: “we’ll this is f**ed up. What does the overseas say? Putinists don’t care -they’ll burn the world to get their way… everyone thinks we are driving the Nazis out of Ukraine! Even a friend here showed his colours! He seemed ok before.’
My friend continues [who incidentally is unemployed mechanic without higher ed]: ‘It’s not TV, it’s inertial thinking and low capacity for critical reasoning. And absence of alt sources of info. If the economy wasn’t so bad people would have a chance to ‘look up”
And then he ends: ‘What is the opinion of people outside of Russia? On what is happening now? Surely there is no one who thinks that Russia is doing a good deed? See you in ten years, if God wills it. It’s tragicomic [И смех и грех]’
One reader objected to my categorization of some of these people as ‘averagely informed’, or ‘unemployed without higher education’. The point is that while Russian media messaging and broader discourses do shape opinion, they don’t dictate it. Similarly, an abiding theme of my writing is that especially when it comes to xenophobia and bigotry, we should avoid facile assumptions about correlations with class.
I hope the book gets translated into English soon, but in the meantime I made a summary of some of its points and how they intersect with my scholarly interests. There will be a lot of egregious plugging of my work in this post! There is also a Russian language summary here of Lebskii’s book (he spells it Lebskiy in translit). Here is a collection of his writing on other topics.
This is a book about the role and identity of the working class in Russia since the Russian Revolution with a focus on the post-1965 period. It’s mainly based on archival documents as well as Soviet and Russian newspaper sources. Ten chapters take us on a detailed tour of the social functions of the Soviet enterprise up to 1965 and the Kosygin reforms after that. Key topics are the problem of how to stimulate economic productivity, the intensification of paternalism, the growth of the expectation of a mass consumption society only partly fulfilled by enterprise resources, the conflicts between ministries, the collapse of the USSR, workers in post-Soviet Russian.
Lebskii’s own intervention is this: rather than a history of the Soviet working-class as a whole, he proposes an institutional and structural focus on the period 1965-95 where the tendencies of mature socialism were intensified: industrial paternalism, with its contradictory role in the subsequent history of the USSR. The main question posed by the book then becomes: Why did the massive Soviet working class at the beginning of the 1990s not defend the principles of Soviet society? Lebskii argues that the working-class had gained enough to want to defend paternalism, but not enough to be prepared to defend a state and polity it did not identify with socialism or collectivism once a series of political entrepreneurs came along to offer alternatives. The working class emerges as both radical and conservative: attempting to cling to decaying paternalism, and alternating between extremes of potent activism and passivity.
Soviet collectivism was no fiction, it had a palpable reality in the weak economic stratification within the enterprise and the genuine power of an ideology of social flattening and the shared goal of the ‘plan’. This is a topic my own work echoes in part when I interviewed and observed workers in an industrial setting in the 2000s and 2010s (obligatory link to my book here – it’s near the top of the linked page). For Lebskii, class was more an economic than a political reality in terms of how it ‘created’ working-class persons. Lebskii uses the work of E. P. Thompson, but in my view rather superficially, to argue for a ‘social community’ approach where class comes into being as a result of social conflict and interactions. For me there’s not enough granularity to make this claim based on the evidence available to Lebskii. I actually agree with his argument though, based on my own ethnographic evidence where I use the term ‘metaoccupational community’, even to describe a deindustrializing set of towns and factories in the Russian rustbelt today.
What was new to me, as a non-historian, was Lebskii’s observation that as early as the 1920s factories begin the shift towards paternalism by providing social support and housing. Lebskii then narrates the massive forced labour migrations under Stalin and the retention of peasant characteristics by the new working class, as well as the attempts to more firmly attach workers to enterprises via the provision of privileges – in particular accelerated access to housing. By overfulfilling the plan, factory bosses could significantly reward workers with material benefits as well as giving the enterprise autonomy via discretion on use of retained funds. This is a novel finding, argues Lebskii, when considering the existing picture of Stalinist production command. By the time of Khrushchev, this dynamic’s growth is visible in the disparity between housing built by enterprises for their workers and the lag in municipal housing. This factor also strongly ties workers to their enterprises, ensuring the retention of skilled and technical workers. By 1949 in fact the pattern is set – the expansion of ‘social-ministerial/departmental facilities’ (‘departments’ understood in the sense of Soviet industrial silos), dominating the urban and industrial development of the USSR and largely out of the control of the government itself. Lebskii provides new archival evidence of the massive social spending by factories on housing and other facilities.
Kosygin under Khrushchev attempts to reinvigorate industry and growth by decentralising planning and break the centralized ministries’ bureaucratic power. This is a primary reason for the removal of Khrushchev in 1964. Lebskii puts this into a longer-term context of an increasing concern with efficiency, profits, and incentivization. Again, Lebskii makes use of new archival sources to underline the earlier turn towards reform than previously appreciated. His conclusion here is that the reforms, intended to halt the hoarding of resources by enterprises by effectively taxing them on ‘profit’, in reality led to a blurring of the unified institution of state property by treating the enterprise as a unit of accounting in this way.
To improve the USSR’s woeful industrial productivity the late 60s saw successful experiments in applied material incentives, a rejection of Taylorism, and a reduction in workforce – not expanded elsewhere because unemployment would have been politically unfeasible. Again, as is fitting for the theme of the book (paternalism), the point here is the growth in discretionary sources of material reward – a money fund, a social-cultural fund, and a productivity development fund. During periods of reform (65-70 and 87-90), enterprises get a large amount of funds to disburse with discretion, and even in other periods the percentage of surplus available is not less than 40%. This meant a substantial growth in the power of the factory administration over time. By 1969, 7% of wages were from discretionary bonuses in contrast to 2.5% in 1950. Overall though, productivity did not rise, as this system encouraged factories to focus on high-price industrial goods which allowed overfulfillment of the plan according to imputed output value, rather than overall output and at the expense of the consumption goods sector.
Lebskii also describes the explosion in spending by enterprises on social-cultural facilities under late socialism. For example, the Kirov factory in 1985 had at its disposal children’s summer camps capable of housing thousands of children. Similarly, the role of the enterprise in housing is dealt with in detail with many examples. Lebskii also deals with a corollary of paternalism – workers are individualised as they engaged in individual bargaining with the enterprise for resources – something my informants recall in a bitter-sweet way in my research – one of my main interlocutors describes how the factory boss could veto personal relationships and dealt out the best housing to high productivity workers even in the late 1980s.
Again, because of my relative ignorance of Russian labour history, Lebskii’s description of widespread strike action even in the 1930s was news to me. Under high Stalinism, workers were still able to ‘vote with their feet’ because of the shortages in labour. Active protest was unnecessary because of the structural power workers wielded – again a point my work on labour protest deals with in the present. After Stalin, infighting for resources between ministries intensified. Economic-costs accounting was only ever half-hearted due to the weakness of the centre. Attempts to make enterprises self-financing and self-managing had deleterious effects on the overall state budget. Eventually the producers win out over the centre, resulting in the inflation of the late 1980s and the breakdown of the entire system.
Lebskii then focusses on the attempts from 1987 to transform the Plan into state orders and allow the enterprise leeway to dispose of its hoarded materials and capital. Similarly, the experiments with pseudo-workplace democracy are described. Lebskii highlights the continuing sense of a ‘labour collective’ over other forms of identity (such as national separatism), and workers’ attachment to the enterprise during crisis. The nascent workers movement is manipulated by political entrepreneurs, chief of whom was Yeltsin.
As the post-Soviet period begins, genuine unions form to oppose the defacto privatisation and seizure of state property by the nomenklatura. There are attempts to re-collectivise the means of production. The first stage of privatisation between 1992-4 is described in detail from a workers’ perspective. What looks like a promising ‘popular’ privatisation where the entire collective received 51% control (the other options being the state selling 40% of shares, or worker buy-outs) is used by the management to gain control in the face of a general hegemonic perspective on the inevitability of capitalist transition and republican populism. This underlines once more the legacy effect of paternalistic relations of ‘trust’ towards management, a state of affairs that continues into the 1990s as Russian workers confront social breakdown and unemployment.
In a precursor to his conclusion, Lebskii rehearses a relatively familiar argument that the Soviet leadership mistakenly believed they could build a socialist society from a low material and cultural base. The leadership lacked the theoretical understanding that the USSR was a transitionary state between capitalism and socialism but lacked the material base to achieve this. Even in the 1950s, mechanised labour was less than 50% and labour hoarding one result. The late USSR also suffered from the same slowdown of growth as the capitalist states after 1960. Despite the enormous social achievements of the period, the contradiction that doomed the USSR was the leadership attempt to make a consumer society without the tools to do so.
What’s novel here is Lebskii’s recognition of working-class agency: the USSR saw a growing working class accept a developmental-modernisation compact with an oppressive state, but not at any cost. The factory become the main organising space of the worker’s life. This had the effect of the worker seeing himself not as part of a working class but as a participant in a small corporation. This is where Lebskii and me part ways, as I see this as too historically-determinist, relying on a false continuity stretching back to ‘corporative’ ideas about Russian peasant life that are out of date. It’s hard to argue with Lebskii when he says the rise in paternalism had such strong legacy effects that its infrastructure had an ameliorating effect in transition – allowing millions to survive the catastrophe of the 1990s – this is essentially the thesis of the first part of my book. What’s missing for me is a conversation with the emerging scholarship on Soviet socialism like that in Keti Chukhrov’s work. Chukhrov liberates Soviet subjecthood from the limiting interpretations of it as alienation, atomization and libidinal desire based on lack. Lebskii’s is a condensed history of worker-enterprise relations, but it clears some ground for further thinking about roads not taken and the enormous political potential of Russia’s working class both past and present.
A draft of the UN’s global cities prosperity ranking 2022 saw Moscow take first place for ‘liveability’. Cue crowing from RT, who were the only outlet to run the story today. Coverage highlights Moscow’s scores for quality of life and wellbeing, but what does liveability really mean? This was, ironically, one of the concluding points of my book [pdf opens automatically]: that for their inhabitants, many small deindustrializing towns in Russia are highly ‘habitable’, in comparison to the big cities in Russia. [Links to the rest of the book here]
When indices are published about any ‘quality’ of life measure, I’m always sceptical. The question of course is always – liveable for whom? Moscow is even more diverse than ever, and surely that’s a good thing, right? But what if we substitute more ‘unequal’ for ‘diverse’? Far too often the commentary to these reports is made either by ‘expats’ – who have a very skewed view, obviously, or by the urban middle Russian class who have benefitted most from Mayor Sobyanin’s transformations (themselves mainly a supercharged version of the previous governance – see my series of posts on governance from earlier this year).
Let’s have a quick look at the UN report [annoyingly only opens as a pdf]. It has six criteria: Productivity (and I recommend this recent book on that subject by Michael Haynes), Infrastructure, Quality of Life, and Equity, Environment, and Governance. The premise of the index itself is a little misleading, as it only includes 29 cities in the first place, and there is no clear rationale for selection. We get Delhi, but not Karachi. There’s New York, but no Los Angeles. The exercise seems unintentionally set up to flatter metropolises with lots of mass transit urban mobility, well-paid jobs, housing growth, educational attainment, public space. Note that Quality of Life is a measure independent of Social Inclusion and Equity – the latter only includes income equality as a minor measure with ‘women in local government’ getting as much weight. The index draws on existing UN Sustainable Development Goal indicators (I teach a course on this topic) and adds a few more relating to ‘tech’, airports, road congestion (still a notorious problem in Moscow), science and education, culture and recreation, and e-governance.
Unsurprisingly, Moscow does really well on infrastructure and e-governance. For a non-Asian city, its mass transit really is awe-inspiring as are its joined up ‘state-services’ online portal. Overall, it is third placed, behind Singapore and Toronto. RT got their headline because Moscow scored highest for Quality of Life, but low for Environmental Sustainability, and was middling for Equity. (As an aside it was interesting that London scored spectacularly low for Equity, much lower than Moscow or any Global North city). I don’t have time to go more into the details, but here’s my quick take that reiterates some of the themes of this blog over the last few years.
If you have a professional managerial-level job (we can argue about what that means), Moscow has a much higher quality of life than in other European or NA cities. It’s partly because of the capital premium on such salaries that Moscow attracts. But it’s also because service industry jobs are so badly paid by comparison – the people who dry clean your clothes (delivered back to your flat vacuum-wrapped), chauffeur you to work (my friend in a mid-level managerial job for a state corp has his own 24/7 driver), tutor your children in the evening (an acquaintance who owns a not particularly successful medium-sized business employs a cleaner, live-in nanny, cook and three tutors), deliver your groceries, clean your yard and stairway. Then we come to the backbone of Moscow’s growth – housing (and the infrastructure that follows) – dominated by central Asian migrants trapped in a cycle of exploitation and grey-zone legal status, as eloquently explored in the new book by Rustamjon Urinboyev.
A much more revealing measure would be to compare the cost of a typical basket of goods for the urban poor and urban rich. In Moscow the contrast is staggering. Again, if you’re in the system and have city residency, you gain benefits not only denied to semi-legal migrant construction workers (who can’t even see a doctor), but denied also to the rest of Russia: subsidized transport and other essential services I wrote about in this post. Discounting components like mass transit, greenspaces and e-governance, this is a story about inequality. A couple of ironies I take away are that the people who live well in Moscow make little use of mass transit, e-governance, or green and public spaces, but their service class does. The wealthy consume a lot, sit in cars in traffic, and leave for the country at the weekend (or even fly abroad). In those senses they don’t differ from those that ‘live well’ elsewhere. I will always be an adoptive Muscovite at heart, although nowadays I spend much more time outside the ring road. Like all other cities I’ve lived in, I have a love-hate relationship with it.
A much more interesting discussion last week about relative social exclusion and poverty caught my eye because this debate is too often dominated by discussion of money incomes, and not enough space is made for subjective (or what academics call consensual measures of poverty) assessment by a society of ‘enforced lack of necessities’. Like in the rest of Europe, the author of the piece sees social exclusion in the ability to consume things necessary for a ‘normal life’ – high speed internet, access to a computer or smart phone, holidays away from home, extra-curricular activities for school children, savings, access to affordable credit (these are examples the article gives). On these and other measures, 30-40% of Russians are living in poverty. It might be much lower in Moscow, but it’s still significant.
This post focusses on the effect at home of a bigger military conflict between Russian and Ukraine. It can be summarised as ‘more of the same, except worse’. My two main points are this: Russians have been desensitised to conflict. Unfortunately, open warfare would not fundamentally change anything. Secondly, the many voices that condemn Russians for the absence of widespread anti-war protest show their ignorance – not only about the reality of life in Russia, but how their own societies would perform in analogous circumstances. In the final part I will come back to the question of effects on the Russian regime.
I make no predictions in the post. Full disclaimer: I was dismissive of the possibility of a Crimea annexation and Donbas conflict in 2014. I was wrong then. Now, I still want to believe that the Russian security elite is fundamentally calculatedly and collectively timorous – despite all the noisy bluster. Here’s a sober, sceptical take I liked, if not feeling qualified to endorse it.
Firstly, the much debated military confrontation itself. I’ve little to add here. The millions of words written about the forms an invasion, punitive expedition or intervention would take are enough already. I limit myself to some obvious points. 1. Ukraine east of the Dnipro is full of people – airstrikes and missile attacks short of invasion, even against known Ukrainian military positions, would still cause mass civilian casualties. The Donbas conflict in 2014-15 saw disproportionate civilian casualties from indirect artillery/rocket fire hitting built-up areas. This is horrific, terrifying, and almost as bad as the Chechen conflicts. 2. Full invasion/intervention: combined arms advances of this sort require expert and practised command and control even the ‘forever-war’ UK-US axis struggles with today. Look at the amount of confusion, chaos and friendly-fire deaths as a proportion of casualties in the Iraq wars. I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the Russian armed forces, but their officer class is still underpaid, undertrained and overall of poor quality (which is why I agree with Farkas at the end of this). Protective equipment used by average squaddies is not great. Russia’s record in dealing with quality opposition in urban warfare is woeful. Draw your own conclusions.
Back to Russia itself: we should connect the crackdown on all opposition in the last years to the securitization and partial gendarmization of the Russian state that would ensure continuity in the event of a widespread armed conflict and a Western response. This might seem obvious to close observers, but I write this in response to two misconceptions: that the widespread fear and lack of appetite for war among Russians could somehow translate into real protest and opposition (it couldn’t). Second, that Russians are willing accomplices (they’re not). I reject any strong comparisons to fascism and to the debate on collective guilt of Germans after WWII. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
What would happen in Russia? Initial but very limited panic expressed in stocking up on food, currency and supplies. Even without war, there have been completely random salt and sugar panics in the last fifteen years spread by word of mouth when people fear sudden hikes in prices during the ‘closing’ season in late summer when the (mainly) poor maniacally stock vegetable and fruit preserves for the winter. Inexplicably, sometimes there’s a matchbox panic. Local shops used to make a killing – here’s an example from 2006. Call it a reflex of collective memory. It would pass very quickly – as others have pointed out, Ukraine has no military capacity to strike back beyond the conflict zone. Russians have panic-fatigue after years of sanctions, counter-sanctions and currency devaluation. There won’t be any ‘return to the land’ – the panic-planting of potatoes in kitchen gardens that historically was a barometer of social strife. Counter-sanctions have been very effective in developing domestic agriculture. Can the rouble fall any lower? Yes it can. Does it matter much now after a decade of stagnant or falling incomes? Maybe not.
In actual fact, there’s evidence that war ‘panic’ has already passed in Russia. Parts of the housing market have seized up completely since 2021 in anticipation of further currency devaluation. As has the used car market – now a store of ‘real’ value.
While the focus has been on arrests of political opposition, the politics of fear in Russia, as Guzel Yusupova calls it, goes much further, with public space in cities noticeably securitized since at least 2018. Things are better in the sticks where I live, but people still know not to draw too much attention to themselves if they have any reason to watch out for the police. And let’s face it, no one in their right mind wants to interact with the Russian police. However, I don’t want to overemphasise fear. It’s more discomfort, politically cognitive load and dissonance that incrementally increases year after year. It’s not a full-on police state, it’s not a dictatorship and it’s still not a fully-blown authoritarian state, but a Ukraine escalation would be an admission of the failure of the Putin project to sustain itself without resorting to an anachronistic Russian version of the última dictadura cívico militar. To be clear I’m not saying Russia would have a ‘dirty war’ on such a scale, but history can always rhyme: a declaration of emergency enables further and wider repression of any hint of opposition, further sidelining of even potential institutions, the removal from politics and the state of inconvenient fellow travellers that the paranoid elite would like to replace with clients. Under cover of emergency, widespread unpopular economic measures like wage freezes could be undertaken, as in Argentina. For a take on the wider polycrisis of Ukraine-Russia as a political economy story, Nick Trickett wrote this recently: “Arguing about Russia’s preponderance of military power is of the utmost humanitarian importance, but it misses the plain fact that the regime badly blundered if it thinks it can swallow a whale.”
What would Russians think about the war? Well, like now, many people would be wholly ignorant, beyond knowing the basic media talking points from eight years of conflict (Ukrainian government is bad, etc). One thing that annoys me is the continuing assumption that, because Russians historically have consumed information via TV, they still do so, and that current affairs are particularly salient. Would we say this about our own societies? Both these ideas are out of date by at least 10 years. What we do know is that Russians do not, on the whole, think Ukrainians are an inferior people to be subjugated. They don’t think they are ‘nazis’, and, well, they don’t think much about them at all, to be honest. I doubt a much bigger war would change that. Yes, a small minority are performatively outraged by ‘colour revolutions’ and the ‘CIA plot that was Maidan’, but these are a particular subsection of a subsection of middle-aged men who have too much time on their hands. I don’t deny there was a rally-round-the-flag effect in 2014-15 with the annexation of Crimea, but that was a long time ago now, and, as I commented recently, most Russians have conflicted feelings now about Crimean incorporation. A false flag operation to justify further intervention would not have even a fraction of the effect of the propaganda from eight years ago, such as the false story of Ukrainians crucifying children which is still visible on Channel One’s site, or the reports of a ‘genocide’ of thousands of Donbas residents, published by the Russian government newspaper. Of course that doesn’t mean the awesome arsenal that is mainstream Russian TV media won’t be enrolled in a military-jingoistic propaganda campaign. Parts of it have been almost continually at it since 2014.
Denis Volkov of Levada writes in Ridl of an apparent consensus in Russia about fear of war, blame of the West, and expectation of escalation. However, his conclusion that Russian public opinion is ‘homogeneous’ suffers from the typical salience problems of polling and focus groups (when moderators say: ‘X is in the news, what do you think?’). Others have recently pointed out that Russians, when not prompted to talk about geopolitics, are much more likely to talk about domestic issues. To be fair to Volkov, he admits this – people have fatigue about Ukraine, confrontation and are not genuinely interested. Volkov says because they’re not fully engaged they therefore accept the narrative of NATO encirclement. I would disagree here. In reality one encounters a lot more diversity in opinion about Russia’s neighbour as one gets further in time away from 2014. This, in case I need to spell it out, is a good thing. At ‘worst’ one could say there is ‘resignation’ in Russia that war is possible but this resignation is a product of the complete political powerlessness of the majority.
Nicos Poulantzas wrote about the rise of authoritarian statism in the Western democracies in the 1970s. While direct comparisons to Russia today are as open to criticism as my Argentinian junta ones, I want you to indulge me a moment longer. Poulantzas’ point was that crisis tends towards forms of state authoritarianism that do not need open repression, but act via the state apparatus in an insidious, creeping way. There is a retreat of the rule of law because of bureaucratic power (or juridical preemptive policing ‘with the law and against the law’), but this is not fascism, there is no ‘break’ and Poulantzas writes in opposition to Foucauldian version of power effects. Further, these forms of authoritarian statism see the executive as much as hostage (to conflicting interests among the elite) as arbiter.
While writing mainly about the French Fifth Republic, Poulantzas has some sobering observations about executives that attempt a monopolistic ‘super apparatus’ with Bonapartist pretensions. Homogenization of the state tends to backfire, as do shifts towards plebiscitary manipulation; contradictions between economic interests are exacerbated, indeed, some negative economic processes of consolidation may accelerate; the ‘masses’ are not integrated (partly because politics is replaced by a single party centre*), and pernicious networks like security interests are ‘crystalized’ in a permanent structure in parallel to the official state. Poulantzas, though he died in 1979, was remarkably prescient about the direction of western democracies. My point is that we should be on the one hand more sensitive to Russian foreign policy as a symptom of domestic crisis in Russia, and on the other that Russia is not an ‘exceptional’ (i.e. fascist) state and is subject to the same cyclical tendency to towards crisis in the power bloc.
Bob Jessop has a critical update to Poulantzas and Stuart Hall here that underlies much of my own thinking about how under Putin Russia developed a form of authoritarian neoliberal statism. You can read my open access piece on that topic here. Unlike my argument that Russia is a kind of vanguard neoliberal state Jessop prefers tracing historical neoliberal regime shifts rather than ‘varieties’ or global neoliberal logics. My final point here is that Ukraine has the potential to accelerate conjunctural tendencies in the Russian state at home, as much as influence Ukrainian and European geopolitics.
*hello there, British politics and welcome to the cartel party era!