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On the meaning of decolonising Russian Studies

Can you spot the barriers to decolonising in the picture at my workplace?

In the previous post I responded to an article that accused ‘Russian cultural studies’ in the West of inculcating ‘imperial’ values in students. As a follow up, the Moscow Times asked me to comment for a piece. They asked: are you in favour of an art for art’s sake approach to studying Russian culture? Should Russian culture be ‘decolonised’ and have any efforts to do this backfired? In your opinion, what is in the immediate future for Russia studies? And how should Russia experts respond to criticism from scholars of Ukraine? Here’s my detailed response. You can read the interview here (when it appears).

Art for Art’s Sake

As discussed in my previous post, these questions largely show widespread misunderstanding of what humanities and social science education in universities is for. While students who enter universities might conceivably choose a subject like Russian Studies because of their romantic ideas about its exoticism, they are quickly disabused of this motivation in pretty much any state university programme on either side of the Atlantic. And actually, I think the idea that students nowadays choose subjects based on such notions as ‘art for art’s sake’ is rather condescending. Most students on my courses acknowledge that Russia is an important part of the world, and a constituent of Europe, or European culture, and think that they should know more about it, quite often because of the inadequate caricature of ‘The East’ they perceive in journalistic and public culture in general. To come back to the first question: 99% of  university courses abandoned the naïve idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ long ago. The purpose of Area Studies, of which Russian Studies is an small component, is to inculcate (or rather promote and encourage) two things: expert and usable knowledge, wielded by critical thinkers.

It is true that the study of Russian literature was once (long before my time) similar to the study of other literatures: taught from the perspective of a ‘canon’ of universally great writers studied for their intrinsic insights into Western-centric concepts of moral complexity (the F R Leavis tradition), or, in the already anachronistic contrarianism of Harold Bloom, writing in the 90s, for “aesthetic pleasure and self-insight”. It is ironic that these kind of charges should be put to a curriculum of Russian literature in 2023. It says far, far more about those imagining this non-existent Bloomian classroom, than those who teach and study. Bloom was reacting in the early 1990s to the dominant approach, ‘social reading’, that had been operative since the early 1970s and before: that a value of studying literature was to better understand history, society, and the big structures shaping change. If Bloom fought a rear-guard action for essentialism and elitism, the vast majority of literature students had, for generations already, been made painfully aware that the ‘canon’ was itself an artificial construction after the fact. When I studied literature at university from 1992, my teachers were already ‘decolonising’ the curriculum, by reading and analysing ‘neglected’ works alongside, or more often, in favour of, ‘the classics’. I spent more time reading Mary Wollstonecraft than Byron or Shelley, Fanon than Conrad, and South Asian writers than Kipling. Indeed, it was already indispensable to do such parallel reading. When I started teaching Russian literature in 2000 I continued the work of my teachers, selecting works for study which told us something important about Soviet and Russian history, politics and society. And that included works written in the twentieth century which revealed the horrors of the Civil War, Stalinism, collectivisation (and Holodomor), WWII and the Holocaust, and the collapse of the USSR. In educational contexts where it was possible, students read these works in the original Russian language.

Should Russian culture be ‘decolonised’?

Decolonising, along with post-coloniality, and anti-imperialism are all tricky concepts that are quite difficult to use without further definitions. In particular the first term has been strongly associated with recognising the deep structures and currents of racism and their roots in Euro-American culture and society. I work in a global studies department and our courses on Eastern Europe are merely a part of many programmes. Some of our more advanced programmes ‘provincialise’ Europe by studying it and the ideas associated with it alongside, and from the perspective of, scholars from South Asia, East Asia, and South America. Russia is a ‘special’ case because it is a Eurasian country and can be viewed as a ‘subaltern’ empire – as Viatcheslav Morozov has memorably written. What he means by this is that historically Russians strove to be treated ‘equally’ with other Europeans, but were invariably relegated in a process of ‘orientalisation’ – seen as exotic, backward, and a threat to the more advanced and enlightened Western civilization. Ukraine sat both within this paradigm – orientalized as part of East Slavic ‘non-really European Europe’, and within the Russian imperial hierarchy. A curriculum proposing deep knowledge about the USSR period and after would have to address both Russian and Ukrainian (and others’) postcolonial identities. Specifically the process of ‘decolonising’ would recognize that the Russian and Soviet empires generated of cultural knowledge about Ukraine privileging the ideas and narratives of the centre (Russian-centric, or perhaps in the USSR more complicatedly, Moscow-centric) over those of Ukrainians themselves. Decolonial study of Ukraine would also show how that Russo-centric cultural knowledge was applied to subjugate, mute, and disempower Ukrainian aims to attain statehood and develop a national identity. However, this would be need to be done in parallel with recognizing those same decolonising processed as applied to ‘Russia’ (which has never been a ‘nation state’ and is a product of complex processes of internal colonization and imperial expansion), and ‘Russians’, whose own search for a national identity has been stymied by the imperial overlay for centuries.

However, we should not be coy: what most people mean when they say we must ‘decolonise’ Russian Studies is that a hygiene test should be carried out on all writers and thinkers and that those failing this test, from Dostoevsky to Brodsky, should be inscribed in a black book, accessibly only with a key from the head librarian. A keynote to a recent academic conference I attended in 2022 was by a Ukrainian sociologist. His proposal was clear: all study of Russian culture should be stopped immediately. Russian authors and books (all of them) should be removed from European seats of learning until the war ends, reparations are paid, and Ukrainian studies given an equal ‘footing’ with the study (whatever that looks like) of Russia. The academic audience was very receptive to this proposal.

The immediate future for Russia studies? And how should Russia experts respond to criticism from scholars of Ukraine?

Hopefully it is clear from what I’ve already written that literary, culture, and indeed Russian studies also, has been ‘critical’ (of colonialism, imperialism, racism, dictatorship, and totalitarianism) for generations, and in some ways at the forefront of decolonizing and anti-imperial thinking – particularly where is it part of a curriculum (as in my institution) aimed at provincializing Europe. But let me be more specific, the best response to criticism from scholars of Ukraine is to take action. I take decisions I make about course curriculum very seriously: in my previous position (2005-2016) we collectively taught a course on the ‘cultural politics’ of the former Soviet space. The course was initially conceived by scholars of Georgian, Armenian, and Polish-Ukrainian heritage. In its many iterations, ‘Russia’ as an object and subject of study in the course was positioned appropriately: as merely one perspective. A whole semester was given over to non-Russian and non-Ukrainian topics and another semester saw Russia, Ukraine and the Soviet experience share roughly equal billings. No one would say there was ever an ‘ideal’ balance, nor that such a balance was possible or even desirable (because in some years we were fortunate to have more ‘indigenous’ scholars contribute). Today I teach a descendent of this course and because I know little about the Caucasus and I have much fewer contact hours, I have adapted this course and now it has roughly equal coverage of Russia and Ukraine since the perestroika period of the USSR. In my view the ‘global’ study of Russia, and any other state, is the way to go forward – contextualising it at every turn. The vast majority of sources on Ukraine in my course are from contemporary Ukrainian scholars. In conclusion, as long as ‘area studies’ exist (they tend to be reinvented every thirty years) there is unlikely to be any other sustainable model (outside tiny ivy-league colleges) for teaching Russia and Russian, and that is true also of Ukraine and Ukrainian.

Another day, another calumny against Russian Studies

Seems like you can write any old crap even for EU-funded media now and make defamatory accusations without any repercussions: This latest of many such articles contains baseless and frankly ridiculous statements about ‘Western’ scholars who work on Russian culture. We are all ‘useful idiots’ now.…/russian-cultural-offensive…/

Two sections are most relevant:


“Western universities and research centres focusing on Russian cultural studies often end up in a way glorifying the Russian empire both in its Czarist, Bolshevik, and current forms instead of uncovering and condemning the track record of dictatorship, mass repressions, mass murders, deportations, and genocide.”

No evidence is presented to support this statement.

Secondly, in a section attacking Jan Rachinsky of Memorial, the authors write:

“Thus, a weaponised Russian/Soviet culture is being promoted in the West with the help of gullible education and research centres, eulogising Russian culture and raising whole new generations of scholars with an imperial paradigm and mindset.”

The only evidence offered to support this second statement is a link to a Swedish university film club (in Uppsala). This statement neglects to mention that the club makes clear it seeks to contextualize Soviet film in terms of the ‘tragedy’ and ‘pain’ of the Stalinist and post-Stalin epochs.…/master-programme…/ires-film-club-/

The two opinion writers have no claim to expertise on the topic of Russian Studies. One has a Law degree from Cambridge and works for USAID, the other is also a lawyer working for a think tank that has no expertise in this area.

I wouldn’t usually pay much attention to this, but the article is published by a relatively ‘mainstream’ EU-affiliated outfit. Many people will see this article. Yes, I know it is an Op-Ed, but even the shonkiest outlet would exercise more editorial control than is in evidence here.

Of course, the chief irony is that Dostoevsky is increasingly taught as a quintessentially European (showing the influence of French and English literature), as much as a ‘Russian’ writer. In the neoliberal university you are MORE likely to encounter him in an English literature department, where he would be presented as a globally-significant author who anticipated some twentieth-century developments in literature. Much, if not most of the Russian context, along with the politics, would be absent completely. The course you study him on might use – *horror-of-horrors* – the politically-incorrect term “The Great European Novel”. (Long ago, I once taught Dostoevsky and Tolstoy along with Stendhal and Flaubert in a course bearing this name).

By contrast it is precisely in a Russian culture or lit course that his views would come in for dissection, contextualization, and implicit or explicit condemnation (as a thinker who became arch-conservative, betraying the progressive ideals of his youth). Should his political views of Pan-Slavism be highlighted? Yes they should. Any Russian Studies course that is not a pure ‘lit-crit’ one, would probably spend some time talking about his political views and how he, as a public figure, represents more than one current in 19-century Russian thought. And how influenced that thought is by European traditions, while not losing sight of its indigenous development.

In a lit-crit course ‘Dosti’, as he’s known by teachers (or it just me?), might be read alongside Tolstoy, who also comes in for a bashing now, despite writing from a (albeit limited) perspective of the colonized well ahead of his time. The New Yorker published a piece with a spectacularly bad-faith interpretation of Tolstoy’s anti-oppression, Christian pacifist and anarchist philosophy. If we transplanted what the New Yorker author wrote to English lit, it would come out equally anachronistically and bizarrely wrong as something like: ‘Shakespeare in Othello ignores the resonance of #MeToo in his depiction of Desdemona’s murder. Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the vegetable metaphors in Othello does disservice to the idea of guerilla gardening for progressive causes.’

I don’t bother keeping track of these ridiculous self-promoting pieces attacking authors dead for a hundred and fifty years or more, but sure as eggs is eggs there will be more of them.

Zizek discovers Russian Cosmism, forgets what he wrote about Stalinism five minutes ago

The Dreamer from Kaluga by Anestazy

I see Zizek discovered Cosmism and decided to use it as a master narrative for Russia at war. While I’ve got time for some of Zizek’s writing – not least on Lenin, this is at the level of an undergrad drinking-while-reading.

On the one hand Cosmism is a welcome change from the usual, and very lazy analysis that sees Russia as some kind of Thanatos culture (obsessed with death). However, Zizek seems to confuse Cosmism with celebration of death and Thanatos. He completely misses the point. Cosmism is so indelibly linked to the Soviet project of overcoming death for all humankind. I mean, even Star Trek is a warmed over version of ‘dialectical monism’ (things become ‘one’ via change). Keti Chukhrov did a good write up of this in her book. She has a lovely passage on Ilyenkov’s Soviet ‘eternal return’:

if mind is ever the attribute of matter, and matter cannot do without thinking, any form
of matter will develop into mind, and since the mind is only the human
mind, humankind will always be able to be reborn in other galaxies.

Transhumanism and all those related esoteric Russian avenues of thought are about as far as one could get from relevance to the war. Which is presumably why Zizek the jackdaw thinker pounced on them like shiny baubles. Truly beyond parody.

Thing is, Zizek is just a lazy f*cker. He did a slightly more serviceable job in Meduza just a few days ago. In that piece he makes a good point that directly challenges my thesis about ‘defensive consolidation’ that is hard to counter: “Don’t be fooled by pragmatic arguments about the lack of power of ideology. Most people are cynics who don’t take it seriously. But it still works.” In one line we perhaps have Zizek’s main lasting contribution to marxian psychoanalysis. When we say we’re not ideological, we prove the point that there is ideology. When we say ‘There’s No Alternative’ to the cartel politics we have in the US or UK: that’s ideology. When Russians say ‘My country right or wrong. I’m not for war’, that’s an insidious reconstituted form of regime ideology.

The problem with this? There is no ideology behind Putinism, neither Cosmological, nor Thanatos. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Zizek wouldn’t be Zizek without a defence of the ‘what if’ federal USSR survived. Ok, this is a short piece, but it still comes out like a very childlike crayon version of some actually quite reasonable alternative history. I guess here I am also disturbed by his typical lack of knowledge about the Bloc he grew up in. In garbled fashion he says that the Soviet multicultural federative union was salvageable/a template for a peaceful post-USSR. One *might* agree with ginormous caveats, but here Zizek has to couch it in terms of ‘pluralism’, precisely the opposite of any conceivable Soviet ontology. This is a red rag to me: read just any discussion of monism and communism in anthropology, I beg you! Dumont, Lambek, Descola, Graeber – all authors I read thanks to my colleague A. K. Clearly Zizek is not a wide reader, I mean, we even have evidence he never really read Ranciere (see the Counterpunch take-down).

Something you always suspected: your favourite lefty uncle is really just the worst liberal simp: “The ideal Russia in my view is the eastern version of the European Union. I think the EU is a pretty efficient system of institutions.” Wow! Screw that sidewise with a big Frontex boat. Phillip Cunliffe and Christopher Bickerton have just written two useful articles in the NLR on the EU as a dysfunctional set of institutions which block real politics: The EU’s power strengthens in proportion to the decay of democracy within member countries, and political legitimacy within it comes from elite supranationalism, rather than democratic representation. The EU is neither ‘federal’, nor ‘democratic’ in any meaningful way, its institutions serve a minority of the Bloc and have been unable to deal with expansion, neighbour-relations, internal imbalances, democratization and any of the challenges of C21 you might mention. And the barriers to changing this are formidable. The irony is that one could envisage a post-USSR democratic socialist federation as a better model than the EU. Bickerton in particular highlights how EU decision-making is usurped by national interests (European Council) in a way that makes the USSR look like a paragon of post-national governance. Zizek provides just one more example of Westerncentric (EU bloc as the only imaginable sovereignty pool).

Okay, on Lenin Zizek is ‘not even wrong’ – Lenin the thinker is of course anti-imperialist, but you can’t defend Lenin just by blaming Stalin as the original Leninist. Once more, this is sub-undergraduate Russian history. Next up, a good bit: who doesn’t like someone taking Chomsky’s bullshit down a peg or too, or ridiculing the disgustingly hypocritical reaction of parts of the German left? I mean, we all do that for breakfast every day.

The useful part of the article is on the coalesce of authoritarian countries and post-fascism. However, of course this ain’t original. Is an anti-liberal alliance possible between Taliban, China and Russia? What about global capitalism? Seems a bit… lacking in materialist analysis. Has he read Klein and Pettis on China? Why would China align with anyone when they can’t even raise internal consumption enough to dream of non-dependence on US demand. The hackneyed ‘BRICS’ is another giveaway. I’m sorry, you what? BRICS is so 2008, you know.

As someone who owns many Zizek books and who paid for hardback copies, I just can’t stand it when he memoryholes his own work: now he calls for war communism without communism – just cowardly! In ‘In Defence of Lost Causes‘ Zizek wrote: ‘between the Stalinist gulag and the Nazi annihilation camp was also, at that historical moment, the difference between civilization and barbarism’. Zizek literally wrote perhaps one of the best non-academic defences of Stalinism as a way of rehabilitating communism. He seems to have forgotten this.

Then there’s some very obvious if simplistic stuff about identity politics in the US being a distraction from the politics of solidarity and opposing fascism. Finally we get one decent point: “Russia is now a very traumatized, divided country. The official discourse is becoming more radical…most people are just scared. Russia cannot be rejected as a country. The Putin-supporting crowd is not even applauding itself.”

Basically Zizek presents a set of arguments indistinguishable from any of my blogs from the last year. He adds: “fascism is a way of avoiding internal contradictions by proclaiming a false sense of solidarity.” “Russia is the most divided society, and if you play the card of national unity correctly, this can be partially disguised. So the term can be applied to Russia, but it is very limited in time.” Like me, Zizek would disagree with the ‘harder’ Russian fascism diagnosers like Greg Yudin.

“The tragedy of Russia is that in the 1990s the West tried to forcefully impose a neoliberal model on it. The direct result is Putin and the war.” writes Zizek at the end. Once again, a bit of a caricature. I wouldn’t be annoyed, but it does disservice to the ‘trauma’ argument with which I agree and which is at the heart of most of what I’m writing at the moment. Again, Zizek clearly didn’t read ANY scholarship on domesticating neoliberalism, or even any serious work on neoliberalism published after 2000. There are reams on this that avoid this ‘victim’ narrative Zizek repeats. Neoliberalism was as much a Russian elite project as anything and even emerges earlier indigenously within Soviet planning.

Surely it’s possible to write a ‘Zizekian’ materialist analysis of the war, and one which takes account of psychoanalysis (ressentiment) and actual history (geopolitical tragedy, actually-existing socialism) without Zizek. It must be tried. And preferably without hiding behind the opaque shadow of a Lacan or Badiou.

Nikolai Fyodorovich rolling his eyes at Zizek’s latest. Borovsk, Kaluga Region.

A third of Russians feel they bear moral responsibility for aggression against Ukraine (Wtf!)

An interview between Der Spiegel and Lev Gudkov of Levada made for a surprising read. It was framed as another piece on the amoralism and pro-war sentiment of Russians, but the actual survey results contained a bombshell: a third of Russians apparently feel moral responsibility for the death and destruction dealt Ukraine.

However, one wouldn’t realize that from the spin: One of the most circulated tweets read “‘It is disappointing’: Lev Gudkov, head of Levada Centre, on Russian society’s enduring pro-war consensus, the ritualisation of the war, & many Russians’ lack of compassion for Ukrainian victims. Stark results, bracing analysis, depressing read.’

For me, on the contrary the piece’s astounding findings were a very ‘encouraging’ read. Apparently, a third of respondents who sat down with Levada’s field researchers answered ‘yes’ to the question: ‘What do you think, do people like you bear moral responsibility for the death of civilians and destruction in Ukraine?’

Immediately, anyone with knowledge of doing fieldwork whether as a sociologist or pollster would have been gobsmacked. Not by the result (unbelievable as it is) but by the reported methodology. Yes, you read that right: Levada researchers conducted interviews in people’s homes to get this data. Where people sat down with them and not only admitted their country was morally culpable, but also committed serious criminal offences in stating something that could ‘bring the Russian Armed Forces into Disrepute’. It’s hard to believe.

Lev Gudkov – to those who know his history – is not to be trusted as a neutral and objective party especially concerning interpretations. The rest of the interview is a rehash of what he always does and says – make accusations about Russians as dupes and willing accomplices. More on that later. However, he’s got a point. The other ‘data’ still show strong support for the “actions of the Russian armed forces” (almost identical figures for months on end – another hint why survey data is a problem). Younger people are already disengaging from the war completely. TV viewers (as if this is meaningful sociological distinction to make) are much more likely to support the war.

I could write a long blogpost about methodology and so on but maybe I don’t have to? When even survey data does such a great job of showing how contradictory ‘opinion’ is, it does the job for me. We should pay less attention to survey data. Or at least we should be more honest that it’s what we call a ‘construction’ – telling us as much about the framing and political biases of the people administering it, than ‘reality’. I’ve written about this too many times on this blog before, here, and here (one of many posts on Levada) and here.

As I said on Twitter, I feel chagrin that I’m forced to defend findings like this when they kind of prove my long-held view that Levada and polling in Russia should never be taken seriously as a mirror of public opinion, when it shows public opinion doesn’t really exist (Bourdieu’s trademark here).

Of course, this being Twitter, I couldn’t leave it there. Twitter is dominated by nodding donkeys so one has to provoke. I continued my thread about the astonishing question and asked: where’s the Yougov polling on whether British people feel moral responsibility for the deaths of 70,000 civilians in Afghanistan? (sidenote – yeah I know that’s a questionable stat, especially regarding Nato-related, but hey. It would have been better to use the well-documented 7300 Iraqi civilians killed – mainly – by US forces between May 2003 and 2005 – that’s more than 10 a day).

Afghan villagers sit near the bodies of children who were reported to have been killed during a NATO airstrike in Kunar province on April 7, 2013. 

This isn’t about Whataboutery. It’s about sociological thinking. The fact that a third of Russians admit moral responsibility in a state where such sentiments are both criminalized and socially undesirable, is pretty remarkable. Which probably means the poll is flawed, unfortunately. As one observer said: a classic quant question that says nothing. Because the answer ‘no’ itself can mean many things: ‘It’s right that we are bombing’, ‘I didn’t take the decision and cannot do anything’, ‘I feel a member of the in-group and would feel ashamed to answer differently’, ‘there is no destruction so I’ve nothing to feel ashamed about’.

Shall we return to Gudkov? Though the interview is published in English but likely was carried out in Russian, we can still dig into to things that give away Gudkov’s ongoing bias: e.g. he always emphasizes that Russians are not really internet literate and are TV focused, which is a ‘partial’ fact, to say the least. Little things, like Gudkov harping on about how little curiosity or ability to distinguish between sources Russians have, give away the projection – a highly ideological one. “Russians are a dumb bunch of cattle, willingly going into the grinder and lapping up the Soloviev.” Gudkov is just the respectable academic version of Yulia Latynina, in many ways.

Nothing could be further from the truth than Gudkov’s outdated, Soviet-era liberal-intelligentsia view. But even while admitting some opposition, Gudkov goes for the most polemical position possible. One that’s frankly fantastical and fantasist… “No [the war is not questioned], the attacks on Ukraine and the massacres play no role. The Russians have little compassion for the Ukrainians. Almost no one here talks about the fact that people are being killed in Ukraine”… which is kinda not supported by his own evidence. Once more a dead giveaway: “Russian society is amoral.” Absurd statement no sociologist would ever make. But if you know history of Soviet sociology you’ll realize Gudkov made his career on this frankly bizarre statement which was repeatedly disproven by scholars.

Gudkov goes on to make more bizarre polemical statements in the Spiegel interview. He will continue to say there’s massive support for war of conquest… right up to the point where he will flip 180 degrees… This ain’t sociology folks. Parsonian functionalism died for a reason…but lives on in Gudkov: “if I feed my dog later than usual, he doesn’t bark at me, he barks at the corner where the food usually is. It’s the same with these women. In principle, they are opposed to the war, but they can’t say so.” I’m not saying there’s nothing useful or analytically astute in the interview. There is. The point is really that Gudkov lacks any capacity to confront or interpret the massively controversial findings on moral responsibility his own data provides.

And a little aside on the ‘meta’. You find scholars/journalists alike taking Levada at face-value because our ideas of ‘public opinion’ are so impoverished. That this is privileged as knowledge over real sociology is of course a symptom of our times. Academics don’t want to look behind the curtain or criticism because they rely on the polling ecosystem for their research and ‘access’ to the field. Journalists don’t want to criticism because they are also embedded in relationships with Levada – as responses to the article and discussion around it show. Without labouring the point, it’s only people like me, with more rounded, and dare I say it, diverse, sources who are completely disconnected from the polling ecosystem who can afford to be critical. Nonetheless others questioning this production of knowledge are Sam Greene, K. Clement…to name a few writing in English.

Having said that, I can speak from a position of authority about the pitfalls of polling because, alongside doing actual sociology, I worked as a pollster, and for pollsters, and know many survey fieldworkers. See this recent post on the topic. Tldr: polling is a dark art. Back to the actual poll. Some other people commenting on it wondered: who on earth would let pollsters into their apartments for an hour interview about the war? Is this a pool of village idiots and town crazies the Levada Center curates? The mind boggles at the mechanisms to access this ‘pool’ of respondents (once again, if it is a pool and not really random – which I suspect – then that’s a big problem). Another astute observer noted: if this is ‘in person’ interviews at home, who gave access? Certainly not more middle-class people who all live in gated communities. Think about it for a moment: imagine your own milieu: who would open their door, in the middle of the day, to a pollster asking you about a war of conquest that it’s even illegal to name as such, in a society where talking about such a conflict is to put it mildly, controversial? It’s all very very fishy and none of the different explanations are good. Once more giving the word to others is instructive: ‘In a house-to-house survey you most likely have dodgy people (neither working at home, nor leaving the house for leisure) who are simultaneously willing to open the door to a stranger [a big no-no in Russia].’

Look what’s buried at the end of the interview: “The response rate hasn’t changed that much in recent months: It is between 24 and 26 percent. For comparison: In Germany, it is only slightly higher at 28 to 33 percent.” What an endorsement of method! Anyway, here’s a related write up by me for Post-Soviet Affairs of the challenges to gathering data about the war is here and has links to other scholars writing about polling.

Here’s the original data from Levada, which is of course missing many important details of how it was produced and curated: The very long and convoluted Tweet thread is here: My initial tweet (‘it’s encouraging that some Russians feel the reality of war’) got 64k impressions. The tweet by another Russian observer but which reinforced the negative framing of the Der Spiegel piece got 277k. Another day, another Twitter. All ‘Russian expert’ accounts tweeting the article repeated the Spiegel headline uncritically: ‘Russians have little compassion’. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s tweet of the article got… 20k views. Thank heavens for small mercies.

Russian Futures: North Korea-lite? Or the colonies’ revenge on the metropole?

This is a slightly longer version of a piece for Open Democracy.

Understandably, right now, with Russia’s annexation of the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine, all the focus is on the implications for the war, for Western support, and for escalation from the Russian side. As an anthropologist working on Russian politics and society, my own interest is in how the administration and governance in places like the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic reflects a possible future for the whole of Russia. We could call it ‘North Korea-lite’. But like all diet drinks, the satisfaction of the original is just not there.

First, some quick caveats: Russia is not, nor it is likely to become, a full-fat dictatorship. Right now, there’s a lot of debate about how constrained Putin is in his actions – both relating to the conduct of the war, and to the ‘home front’. There’s also, understandably, anger among Ukrainian supporters who rightly ask: ‘why is there no uprising against mobilization?’

The fact is, people who are surprised by Russians’ inability or unwillingness to resist, do not have a realistic picture of the effectiveness of Putin’s punitive state. It is not ‘fair’ to compare Russia with Belarus, or Iran, or pre-2014 Ukraine. The apparatus to monitor, interdict, disrupt, intimidate, punish, incarcerate, dissuade, distract, and mislead has been built to perfection in Russia since 2011 and was effective even before then. I will concede critics of Russians one point: it is true that many people are ‘bought off’. Even now, middle-class Russians in metropolises enjoy a nice quality of life if they are strictly apolitical.

So, to come back to Putin himself, while there’s some value in armchair psychology about his (incompetent and escalatory) impact on the war, the ‘dictator-or-not’ debate misses the point. By now, the Russian securitized state is a machine that largely runs on automatic in Russia itself. Yes, the leader can issue commands, and some of them matter a lot, but most of them have so many layers of execution to work through that inevitably they get distorted – witness the immediate backtracking around drafting soldiers. Some regions undermined the military enlisters, rebuking them strongly. Other regions claimed they’d already drafted enough. Putin himself yesterday had to make all kinds of qualifications to the previous statements made including a ridiculous and embarrassing statement about how even highly qualified medics might well have to serve as front-line infantry soldiers.

As I’ve frequently written, researchers should be doing much more to tease out the hard-to-detect and reach sources of resistance and sabotage against the war. Broadly this is called ‘infrapolitics’ and is a topic in a forthcoming co-edited book with Indiana University Press.

Once again, an automatic machine can have many inputters of commands, and its functioning can be compromised by too much input, even if broadly the commands work to the same purpose and share the same code. That Russia will not look like North Korea, or even China, is a function of the high degree of competition and conflict between regime factions, the emergence of new security players (like Prigozhin – the head of the private security firm Wagner – though this is exaggerated in my opinion), and the lack of clear ‘territorial’ division agreements in the economy where there is high-level corruption. These destabilizing elements were always present in Russia; the war accelerates them and exacerbates them. We can add to the mix failing social guarantees – previously a key source of regime legitimacy and ‘fair bargain’ for Russians’ agreement to be apolitical.

So why and how might Russia nonetheless come to resemble a state like North Korea? The answer I think, is in the even more extreme model of coercion and personalized rule that the East Ukraine territories represent. Even if they are completely incorporated as ‘normal’ Russian territories today, they offer a template of a militarized ‘barracks’ governance that Putin surely feels comfortable with, even nostalgic for.

These territories differed from Russia in that the still-meaningful rule of law in Russia does not apply there. Even now, people in Russia can resist the state – even the draft – using legal means as well as social pressure. A well-executed social media campaign can get a drafted person undrafted. Many people who resist might not ultimately be successful, but resist they can. In these territories, and in the imminent Russian future, states of emergency and allowing military concerns to overrule due process and the trappings of a legal order would be a logical conclusion to Putin’s slippery slope towards a barracks state. Only, unlike in Karl Marx’s formulation, this won’t be ‘barracks communism’ – where all aspects of life are bureaucratically regimented – but barracks state capitalism (I don’t think my main theses of this article need much updating). Elites will continue to taste the fruits of corrupt rent-seeking and enjoy an opulent lifestyle; subjects (no longer citizens) will be divided into quasi-feudal estates: state security personnel will get more rations and nicer bunks than the rest. This is Simon Kordonsky’s thesis about social castes in Russia, updated for wartime.

Already in February Russia took giant steps towards emulating the situation in the occupied territories, implementing strict censorship punishable by long jail time. Since then even non war-related opponents are remanded in custody indefinitely without a trial date, and without proper access to lawyers. I have highlighted the plight of Kirill Ukraintsev the labour activist – his case is detailed in the forthcoming book. He’s been in a holding prison for five months, accused of organizing an unsanctioned protest, a charge punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment.


The invasion also saw the Russian state make a large part of government and budgetary business officially secret. Other important elements are public intimidation of ordinary people (the police state becomes normalized and highly visible, and includes torture); militarization of society; disagreements between elites are solved via extra-judicial, even violent means. As a result, a process of rent-seeking assets ‘trickling up’ to the most powerful and connected is accelerated. Ordinary people are more immiserated and impoverished relying on literal handouts from their feudal lords.

Not all these elements are fully in place nor are they likely to be given Russia’s vast territory and wealth, but given Putin’s isolation, and his background, it’s not hard to believe he looks at these territories and sees a ‘simpler life’ where he believes his inputs to the system are less likely to be frustrated. He has for twenty years been used to thinking of himself as the ultimate arbiter of personalized deals dividing resources and their allocation in Russia. However, the same period showed how often his commands resulted in inefficiency, more corruption and what I’ve called an ‘incoherent’ state. It’s a measure of his continuing hubris that Putin might believe that making the whole of Russia into a ‘People’s Republic’ like in Donbas would see him retain control as the ‘warlord’ king. More likely it would just accelerate the disintegration of the Russian state into the misery that is life for many residents of the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine.

On Russian war enthusiasm, indifference, militaristic sentiment, and more

Saddam and Stuart Lockwood in 1990. Source:

Some readers of my recent post on collective responsibility and guilt raised the objection that the real problem is 1. Indifference (i.e. lack of active opposition), and, 2. Enjoyment by Russians of the war, and that these experiences were two other forms of collective feeling that we should condemn.

I agree that collective indifference is the bane of the age, but I don’t think it’s particularly symptomatic of this war, or of Russians’ responses to it. As for enjoyment, I see little of that – when it comes to typical everyday reactions where responses are unprompted and unmonitored.  I focus here on the charge of ‘militaristic’ jingoism.

What I think is also symptomatic is that, like all wars since 1991 this one is hypermediated, hyperreal, with most people seeing what they want to see, refracted through the crooked prism of social media and the online more generally.* In short – yes there is mass indifference, but there is little enthusiasm. In my diverse sample, the people who really ‘get off’ on what’s happening are the same people we can find in all of our social media and extended circles of acquaintance – the bores and weirdos who are sadistic and frustrated contrarians.

I am not the only one reflecting on these topics. Here’s a well-followed Russian-speaking observer writing a few days ago

“I think that it is necessary to introduce the concept of “mass forms of passive resistance to the war in Russia”, which primarily include:

mass rejection of the use of privately introduced state symbols of support for the war (all these semi-swastikas), and even quite frequent destruction of this symbolism within reach;

refusing to recruit for the war, despite the generous conditions offered (it was just reported that in one large state-owned oil company, for an incoming order with very good financial conditions, including maintaining a job and salary, the answer was a complete ignore), which leads to the fact that Putin is afraid announce mass mobilization – and this directly affects the situation at the front, where the Russian army is experiencing a severe shortage of personnel and is actually deprived of the opportunity to attack;

not too noticeable, but powerful campaign – “conscripts should not go to the front” (with Narusova as a leader), which deprived the RF Armed Forces of the most massive and unrequited category of fighters;

the lack of personal motivated support for the war, including the refusal to incite hatred towards Ukraine and Ukrainians, the refusal to transfer funds to charitable foundations to support units of the RF Armed Forces and individual parts of the “corps” from ORDLO; the refusal of most of the cultural and intellectual elite to support the war, which led to the need for Prilepin and co-create huge lists of “silent” or opposed;

assistance to Ukrainians in the ability to use the territory of the Russian Federation as a transit for evacuation from the occupied territories. This phenomenon is certainly not so massive, but active and significant.

All this does not exclude the fact that approximately 15% of the population of the Russian Federation takes an active position in supporting the war and does the opposite. But if you read consistently what supporters of the war write on social networks, you can see how lonely and uncomfortable they feel in Russian society and how they often express threats against those who silently resist their activity.”

[Nikolai Mitrokhin, a few days ago on FB].

I think Mitrokhin paints a little too self-comforting a picture, but only a little.

He misses out on the biggest opposition of all to any enthusiasm for the war: rational fear of death. This blog has covered the low standards of living and precarity of life in Russia. However, that there are so few takers of the astronomical sums on offer to go and fight shows that most people are not that desperate and do have something to lose, and accurately assess their chances of returning unmaimed from the conflict. One of my interlocutors comments: ‘that’s not to say that they are not patriots, or would completely reject a real mobilization. It’s just that everything’s a little bit more nuanced than that.’ So ‘passive resistance’ is the wrong framing – it is too ‘Soviet’ a way of thinking about things, in the tradition of some forms of dissidence, or Tolstoian, even.  

Another take that chimes with mine is from a Telegram channel that responds with incredulity at Russian liberals’ assessments of a high level of militarism in Russian society:

“Where does he see this intoxication with militarism? Does he see in his circle? It is unlikely, therefore, such generalizations are already inappropriate.

And then these representatives of the intelligentsia need to study Russian society at least a little. Well, what militarism? Even in the poorest regions, they cannot recruit contract soldiers even for huge, unprecedented salaries – 200-300 thousand rubles each. per month. This is 8-10 times more than the average commoner in such places receives. And for the death of a commoner, the authorities promise 7-12 million rubles each. Whereas the usual fee is 2-3 million rubles. ) and for a death at work they may not pay anything).

For the first time in the history of Russia, the authorities are showing unprecedented generosity for the proles. The maximum unemployment benefit is 13 thousand rubles, for children in poor families they pay 6-12 thousand. And here we have – 200-300 thousand at once.

But even with such money they cannot collect proles. The authorities are forced to travel around the zones, recruit penal battalions, and also – for money. In the Great Patriotic War, soldiers were recruited from the Gulag for free (more than 1.2 million people were recruited), they were given an amnesty solely for being wounded (or posthumously), and now they have made super comfortable conditions even for maniacs and murderers (amnesty after 6 months of the contract) – and they can’t get them to sign up.

Another sign is that not a single top patriot went to the front. Not a deputy, not an opinion leader, not a writer and a journalist. Nobody wants to repeat the fate of Arkady Gaidar – they want to fight from the couch and from Telegram. We see the complete absence of real patriotism even among seemingly “charged” patriots. Although the opportunities for them to participate are ample. Even the repairmen of military equipment in the rear do not want to go.

On the contrary, the conflict showed the complete absence of militarism in Russian society. And even – the lack of patriotism.

It cannot be compared with 2014, when tens of thousands of volunteers traveled free of charge to Donbas, there were millions of mass gatherings. The excitement was among the patriots, dozens of websites and community groups flourished.

And now, after all, even regular military personnel are shown in balaclavas or with censored faces when they are awarded. The state itself loudly says that it does not want militarization, patriotism and excitement. After all, pro-government resources directly write that there is no war, and you have to go to nature and eat barbecue – life goes on as before. It is the enemies who come up with stuff about the war and mobilization.”

From [lightly edited for readability]

I’ll wrap up this post with a little comment on precisely those ‘Crimea’ patriots from 2014 with whom I talk in my research. I did a long interview and set of observations with one in late 2014 who wanted to go and volunteer to fight (and did ‘volunteer’ as a driver shipping aid there). While the usual windbags are prominent on social media, still complaining that Kyiv hasn’t fallen yet, he’s one who is very quiet now.

* that many people understand the war in a hyperreal way is not to say that certain events like Bucha, Mariupol and so on, are ‘debatable’. Jean Baudrillard’s original point was that the Gulf War WAS an atrocity of mass killing, but it was impossible to disentangle that from the distorted, stylized mediatization of it for people in the West (Saddam stroking a blond British child).

The Hegemony of the Mop

A write up of an important topic I’ve touched on many times in my blog

The Russian Reader

Almost a fifth of households in Moscow and St. Petersburg, even those with average incomes, regularly resort to the services of female domestic workers. Most often they need help around the house, as well as looking after the elderly and children. In most cases, Russians from the region where the employers reside are hired to do this work. A study by researchers at HSE and RANEPA shows that hired female household labor, which is considered a non-essential form of employment, is a vital part of urban economies.

Photo: Yevgeny Pavlenko/Kommersant

Almost one fifth of households in Moscow and St. Petersburg, having mainly an average income, employ female labor. This is the conclusion reached by Yulia Florinskaya, Nikita Mkrtchyan and Marina Kartseva (researchers at the Higher School of Economics and RANEPA) in the article “Women as hired workers in the households of Moscow and St. Petersburg,” published in the scholarly…

View original post 1,126 more words

Shame and demoralization. A letter about collateral damage in Russia

Dear Jeremy, I’m in a train now, went to the town of O to see my kin, now heading back home to Msk. So my mobile connection is from good to bad to none.

According to the official data, published by VCIOM, 68% of Russians support the war, which the Russian forces lead now against Ukraine. And this is of course disastrously too much, when speaking of an offensive, unjust war against the closest neighbor country with the Russian as the second most common language and Ukrainians as the second largest nationality in Russia itself.

However, on the other hand, this official 68% means that 1/3 of the Russians either against or do not support this war. And we are speaking of the country with state-controlled major mass media, the highly effective law-enforcement corps and the legislation which directly and specifically prohibits any public protest activities. In such a country 32% of population either are against or do not support the war its government is leading.

More than 3000 people all over Russia are detained, often brutally, and arrested at anti-war rallies. They risk facing administrative and criminal charges. The first anti-war protest meetings took place on the first day of the invasion. And they still go on.

Many Russians now are disoriented and completely devastated. Many Russians fear persecution for things they were doing even two weeks, a month or a year ago, like criticizing the official politics on Facebook or donating to independent media, things which were perfectly lawful and legitimate then and are now prohibited by the new especially tailored and urgently adopted law about “fakes”.

Many Russians now are fleeing their country or attempting to do so. And this time this is not oligarchs and even not successful entrepreneurs. This is middle-class, educated, European Russians, journalists and media professionals, writers, musicians, artists, cosmopolite hipsters of the 2010s who now got older, but not richer, university professors and even students, no one of whom have secured jobs or contracts abroad, or big money. They flee knowing that they will burn their savings, they decided to flee and leave everything behind too fast, packed their suitcases in one day, to have ready well thought through plans what they will do next.

Many of them don’t even have the Schengen visas. That is why they pay enormous, incredible money for flight tickets to Istanbul, Turkey. And the resemblance with the evacuation from Crimea to Constantinople in 1920 is striking and tragic.

And almost none of them have a European vaccination certificate, although they are fully vaccinated with the Russian Sputnik.

They not only flee because of fear, but also because of shame and desire not to be part of the aggressor country.

The dramatic situation of the Russian migrants is incomparable to the one of the Ukrainian refugees. And the Russians perfectly understand that, and that is another reason they feel ashamed and demoralized as if they don’t have right to suffer. Because this is the Ukrainians who are the true victims here. And understanding that, the Russians, those Russians who had never cast a single vote for Putin and the ruling parties, who are against this war and all this time wrote and spoke and rallied against the Kremlin domestic and foreign politics, these very Russians feel as if they are hypocrites and impostors.

And what the Russians also perfectly understand is that the Ukrainians are not the victims. They are already victorious. They have won this war that very day of February 24, when Putin gave his order to begin the operation.

The last time before that when the enemy forces attacked Ukraine, was in June 1941. And this another resemblance is so unbelievable and still so obvious that it hurts like hell.

McFaul is a fool. He learned nothing from his time in Russia. Mean and pathetic simply because he isn’t the first one to claim that, he is just a copycat. And addressing all “Россияне” and saying “you need to stop this war” means he doesn’t understand a shit what is going on now here.

And another important point should be that this is the civil war
Because of three reasons:

  1. Ukrainians speak Russian, and many families on both countries are Russian-Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Russian (but that does not imply that many Russians wanted Ukraine to be a part of Russia);
  2. The Russian society is divided as never before;
  3. Anti-war Russians feel that their own government makes them enemies of the state, pushes them out of the legal sphere, their opinion is illegal and no longer represented (alternative media closed), the very opinion violates the (newly and urgently adopted) law, and any alternative political activity qualifies as treason (according to legislation, factcheck of the wording needed).

And considering all that, the decision of Visa and MasterCard to cut Russia off their services is stabbing those anti-war and liberal Russians in the back.

Those Russians who already fled are left without money abroad with only cash in their pockets deprived of any chance to receive money transfers home or send money to their relatives and those who chose to stay or couldn’t leave everything and run.

Those Russians who are still there, at home, trying to pull themselves together and continue to work, neither can apply for visa to foreign consulates, nor book an accommodation abroad.

The biggest global booking companies AirBnB and, very popular among the Russian travelers, also ceased their service in Russia, which just complete the picture.

And these particular sanctions, imposed by commercial companies rather than governments or international organisations, mostly hurt “ordinary Russians”, not oligarchs, but middle-class citizens, and either deprive some of them of the income from renting out their homes and flats, or trap them within a country to which they no longer feel they belong.

What should we call this? Collateral damage? Or friendly fire?

Russians belonging to the current wave of political emigration occurring today exactly 100 years after the Philosopher’s Courts and the evacuation of Crimea are not looking for pity or preferential treatment. But to discriminate against them and allow Russophobia to flourish would not only be a gross mistake, but also simply and blatantly unfair.

Vadim Marinin, university lecturer living in Moscow.

Russian State Capitalism Part IV: Special Economic Zones in Russia (Kaluga Region)

unnamed greenfield site in Russia

This is the fourth in a series of posts on ‘everyday’ political economy. The long read is now published here.

Special Economic Zones have interested me for a long time because so many of my research participants moved directly from ‘dying Soviet’ factories to shiny new Japanese, Korean, and European intensive productionscapes in the 2000s and 2010s. I write a little bit about this in my book, [opens as a Pdf] but its only recently that I’ve tried to triangulate my ideas with the literature on SEZs.

SEZs (and the related geographical-juridical space of ‘Industrial Parks’) — were created supposedly to kick start diversification and higher-tech production — in reality they serve primarily as accelerated laboratories in deregulation, offering lower corporate taxes, more liberal juridical regulations, ease of transnational movement of goods, and lean ‘sweated’ labour regimes (on the latter see [Morris and Hinz 2017]) [opens as a Pdf]

Taking Kaluga region as an example, SEZs’ success has been in socializing blue-collar locals in accepting downgraded labour terms and conditions and training white-collar workers in more effective coercive surveillance-managerialist methods. In terms of transnational state-capital collaboration to increase productivity, global connectivity (notably with the Silk Road rail system), and in providing a relatively low-tech domestic manufacturing base, SEZs are an outstanding success. For a site selling the benefits of SEZs in Russia see this link.

My main argument is that these effects are not contained by the zonal boundary — they ‘scale’ via further expansion of ‘lean’ enterprises beyond the zone as transnational corporate infrastructure and human capital investment has an effect on the whole region. Indeed, the ‘zone’ is not a spatially contained territory, but an elastic administrative state of exception that has expanded throughout the region to encompass many clusters containing dozens of diverse foreign and domestic firms in urban, brownfield and greenfield sites. In terms of ‘register’ too, the SEZs exercise a strong discursive effect, making new working relations ‘common sense’ beyond the zones themselves, affecting local politicians, employers and workers in other enterprises. Overall the ‘register’ effect multiplier is more important than any administrative-legal deregulation, or should be seen as part of neoliberal scaling itself. Patrick Neveling, writing on India, analyses examples of similar zones a bit differently, as “exemplary for the structured contingencies in global capitalism as these neoliberal regimes were established long before neoliberalism became the defining ideology in global policymaking under the Washington Consensus.” In the Russian case, SEZs are a very recent phenomenon, and their success in register’ and ‘scaling’ is somewhat in contrast to what we think of as typically more dirigiste movements. I guess my point here is that a strong (neo)liberal strain remains, regardless of what happens ‘at the top’ of Russian economic policy. This story also should make us hesitate about too quickly assuming further ‘decoupling’ of Russia from the global economy.

My prior research has documented the ‘burn through’ of the local labour force by the new SEZ companies, [opens as Pdf] and the devil’s bargain facing blue-collar Russians in particular. In the face of societal opposition, libertarian market ideologues need to ‘naturalize’ what is in fact a carefully constructed view of human economies in a set of epistemological precepts that serve politics [Mirowksi 2019]. SEZs in the European Russian context beyond big cities, are important in drawing in new labour to discipline and socialize it. As I was doing my long-term fieldwork in 2010 a remarkable divide opened up before my eyes between those young men who ’embraced’ the SEZ work and went on to get mortgages and foreign cars, and those who ‘rejected’ it for the precarious informal economy [Pdf] and decaying paternalism of the old factories. However, it’s not so simple. Over the longer term, expectations of a social contract, enterprise paternalism don’t completely disappear. Similarly, it’s ironic that the ‘entrepreneurial’ possibilities of the informal economy (as an electrician, welder, builder, trader, etc) actual serve as a limiter to the diffusion I describe of ‘neoliberal governmentality’. I wrote about that indirectly in this summer’s posts about ‘homo sovieticus’ values. Maybe Hillel Ticktin had a point after all, when he proposed that the reality of the pace of work being dictated by the shopfloor itself was an enduring and profound characteristic of the USSR and an impediment to the transition to fully commodified labour. The ‘escape’ to the informal economy often looks like a way to try to retain that ‘autonomy’ in some form.

Guest Post 3: The Past is Beautiful; the Present is Horrible—Cancel the Future

Out of nowhere, Russia’s president gave an award to a decorated Soviet general who died in 1942, symbolically endowing himself with Stalin’s bygone powers. A villager extorts money out of a bureaucrat by accusing them of treason, pretending to be a SMERSH (Soviet WWII counterintelligence) agent involved in a secret operation to restore the Soviet Union. A historical re-enactor goes from fighting in Transnistria, bedecked in a Tsarist Russia uniform and carrying an 1891 vintage rifle, to stirring up war in Donbas, introducing martial law in the first city captured on the grounds of an order given by the Supreme Soviet in 1941. These tragicomic stories from today’s Russia, all of which could just as easily serve as the basis for a novel, shed light on the unprocessed traumas left over from past historical cataclysms. The constant rewriting and falsification of history in the name of political expediency, the absence of a tradition of open historical debate, inaccessible archives, and a fear of airing dirty laundry or admitting to mistakes and crimes leads to a situation where history is swept away in scattered fragments to the distant corners of the collective unconscious, until its return in the form of vengeful, revanchist fantasies and myths. It cannot become anything resembling historical fact. Novels about time travelers—more often than not, military commandos—are printed in colossal quantities,1 whose heroes wind up in the past, armed with contemporary technology, and try to intervene in the course of history, be it by averting the fall of the USSR, the Horde Raids, and the Bolshevik Revolution; helping Tsars and Soviet leaders rule the world, or warning about the forks ahead in the road to progress. If Soviet science fiction, like the whole Soviet political project, were nevertheless targeted toward the future and partially constructed it—even in the era of decay, then today—and this is the principal distinction of the post-Soviet era—almost all “speculative” energy is devoted to the “time traveler” subgenre of alternative history. As it turns out, the ruling party was the main futurologist for Soviet people, who wrote the images of the future, however quackish they might have been, right into their planning documents. When it left the stage, it took the futurology with it. Instead of it, a fear appeared at all levels of society. The desire to stop time, replay history, and return to 1991, 1945, or 1814 are often and justifiably ascribed to Putin and his hawkish cronies as the ideological and psychological basis for their foreign policy. Political theorist and former Kremlin political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky compares the ruling group with the Soviet joke about the resistance fighter who continues to derail enemy trains, even though the war has long since ended. Essayist Alexander Baunov doesn’t see so much a trauma from the fall of the USSR or nostalgia for it as much as the fear of the elites in the face of the future, or rather before its Western version in which they already have no role: “The future is accompanied by a new inequality: some are able to get their bearings, while others aren’t. When the economy, technology, politics, and culture begin to overtake social structures, the revolutionaries come, and in response to the public’s fears, they promise to put the brakes on the rogue future on behalf of the people, and bring everyone back into a comfortable state of justice and equality”.2  

This is a guest post from Infrastructures. Infrastructures is a research-based photo project and photobook about the Russian and post-Soviet political economy, created in 2016-2019 by Sergey Novikov and Max Sher. Using documentary and staged photography, as well as writing, they look at and reflect on the political and cultural significance of both the physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pipelines, etc., and ‘infrastructure’ of thinking and discourse that historically underpin the functioning of the State and power.

1 On a website dedicated to the genre, there is a list of 2,585 such titles: (in Russian)

2 Александр Баунов. Страна-диссидент. Что не так с глобальным бунтом России. 20.06.17