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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.

source: https://t.me/courier_fight

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: https://worldhistoryproject.org/1990/8/23/saddam-hussein-appears-on-iraqi-state-television-with-western-hostages

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 https://t.me/tolk_tolk [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

kinopoisk.ru

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 Booking.com, 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

http://infrastructur.es/en

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: http://samlib.ru/s/smit_i_s/ppaau1.shtml (in Russian)

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

Guest post 2: “Pray to Any Gods You Wish—As Long As Gods Support the State”

http://infrastructur.es/en

Political theorist Rustem Vakhitov suggests looking at ethnic processes in the Russian Federation through the lens of his primordialist concept of “ethnic soslovie,” (etnososlovie) or “ethnic estate”, in the sense similar to the old English or French “estates of the realm.”1 In the Russian Empire, all non-Russians were legally grouped into a single and separate category (“inorodtsy”), and with the fall of the monarchy, it did not disappear—the classification just transformed into an array of unspoken, accidentally assembled and theoretically unexamined practices which still exist today. It is this very “estate”-based approach, according to Vakhitov, that helped the Bolsheviks restore Russia’s old imperial borders (without Poland and Finland), and it is what keeps the country from large-scale inter-ethnic conflicts today. Vakhitov consistently speaks from conservative and imperialist positions, but his constructions are useful, as they conceptualize the real tacit practices in use to this day. Vakhitov believes that this etnososlovie type of inter-ethnic relations fits the Russian land empire better than the Western idea of civic nationalism, which the proponents of liberal national policies tried to apply to the Russian context during the first post-Soviet decade. Vakhitov suggests considering the constituent regions of the Russian Federation as a special form of the etnososlovie and not as nations in the Western understanding of the term, and especially not as states (though that is exactly how they are named in their constitutions).

An etnososlovie, according to Vakhitov, is a deeply imperial phenomenon, which provides the relative stability of multi-ethnic Russian society on the one hand, and guarantees the preservation of languages and cultures of minorities on the other. However, it’s important to note that the latter are preserved in a deliberately subordinate and vulnerable position relative to the ethnic majority. An etnososlovie can basically be called a form of vassal relationship. One of the guiding political and economic principles here consists in that the regional ethnic elites receive political and economic privileges from the ruling group in Moscow in exchange for certain responsibilities, but national self-determination or self-governance are completely excluded from both the political narrative and the law. The constitutions adopted in the newly formed ethnic autonomies soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union guaranteed their right to leave the Russian Federation—the same right the Soviet republics had. With Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power, these clauses were abolished, while activists and politicians who had taken positions now branded as nationalist and separatist were subject to repression.

Incidentally, Vakhitov’s concept of “ethnic estates” cannot be applied to all of Russia’s ethnic groups. It is rather only suitable for the largest and most consolidated ones that live fairly compactly on a particular territory, such as Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens, and Yakuts, among others. In internal affairs, an etnososlovie has a certain autonomy, though it is most often purely symbolic: they are guaranteed certain unspoken quotas for government positions (but only in their own regions, and under the condition that they will support the policies dictated by Moscow) and support of institutions that provide for the continuation of the loyal intelligentsia, languages, and identities—granted, in a conservative, traditionalist, and folkloric sense. Religious policies follow in the same framework—nations have the right to follow any faith, so long as there are as few connections with congregations abroad as possible combined with conservative values and demonstrated loyalty.2 Religious diversity is very welcome. In Sakha-Yakutia, for example, local ethnologists and activists created and recently officially registered two new religions based on traditional Yakut animist beliefs. Now their followers can create official congregations and build places of worship. The region’s government has made it a law to use the new religious symbols and attributes during national holidays, although religion in Russia is supposedly formally separated from the state. This ambiguity can be seen in the status of Archy-Diete (“The House of Purification”) in Yakutsk: it is advertised as the main church of a new Yakut faith, although formally it is a state institution that is subordinate to the department of culture and spiritual development. Yes, you heard right: the bureaucracy is in charge of the spiritual development.

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 Рустем Вахитов. Национальный вопрос в сословном обществе: этносословия современной России. Сборник статей. Москва, 2016.

2 The FSB occasionally and arbitrarily deports religious figures with foreign citizenship, and their specific confession or congregation is irrelevant. And incidentally, the consistent refusal by Jehovah’s Witnesses to demonstrate their loyalty as well as their American origin were likely the reasons for their legal ban in 2017 and subsequent repressions.

Guest post: The Bridge to Nowhere, or The Potlatch as a Form of Development

http://infrastructur.es/en

What if the potlatch becomes a form of infrastructure development? Imagine: overseas delegations travel in a caravan across the Russian Bridge to Russian Island to a meeting with the Russian leader—beautiful, right? In the name of this picturesque, albeit fleeting image, can they really not spend some two billion dollars of state money—not their own, after all? Jokes aside, but this, we are sure, was the key motivation when Russian officials chose the location for a rather lackluster international event: the APEC summit held in 2012 in Vladivostok. They could have chosen a more developed location in town, where there was at least some semblance of infrastructure, but they chose Russian Island: a former military garrison, connected with the city by ferry alone, where everything would need to be built from scratch.

Much was written about the millions plundered during summit preparations, but the fact remains: it became the most important milestone in the life of the city. Without it, Vladivostok would never have been able to repair or build even a hundredth of what was repaired and built, and all because the leader, in an effort to increase his own prestige, gave a great deal away to everyone: from high-ranking officials and regional elites to “ordinary people.” It does not matter that the Russian Bridge is ultimately a two-billion-dollar bridge to nowhere: it connects the city to an island with a population of five thousand people, and was needed only so that the leader and his foreign guests could travel to the summit location and back. It certainly wasn’t built for the sake of the university, which was relocated to the island after the summit. In this way, the bridge became a true symbol of the post-Soviet model of development, where mega-projects and anniversaries—from championships and Olympics to summits—are nearly the only way to somehow redistribute resources with tangible benefits for Russia’s outer regions.

Post-Soviet centralized systems are not equipped to provide the regions with the ability to do this themselves. They have not created the conditions or institutions for either self-governance or attracting investments. Therefore, if it is impossible to “develop” the regions in any other way, at least this method seems to work. However, this is not “development” per se, nor is it simply corruption. Here there are several political and economic motivations, all generally characteristic of post-Soviet capitalism, each of which contributes to each other, and among them—although we do not wish to justify the government’s position—is the public good: new bridges (aside from the unnecessary Russian Bridge in Vladivostok, several other truly necessary bridges were built), roads, a university, power plants, hospitals, a theater and so on truly do serve society. Of course, they cost several times more than they should have, but when we talk about potlatch events, when the reputation of the supreme leader is on the line, there is no sense in bargaining, just as in the case with those real potlatches. The cost estimates can therefore be inflated without end—and the bigger the expenses, the greater the prestige. This is why the “cleverest” regions are doing their utmost to come up with a reason to hold yet another federal “potlatch”—an anniversary or a championship—receiving funds from the capital to do so. In addition, there is an important point that does not allow the bureaucracy to relax and/or steal all the money dedicated to the project: they must show some real built results by a strictly defined date. When there are no deadlines, the embezzlement can go on indefinitely, as is the case with the Vostochny Cosmodrome. By the way, the five thousand residents of Russian Island are not terribly happy about the Russian Bridge: whereas the trip to central Vladivostok used to take 20 minutes by ferry, it now takes nearly an hour and a half, with the ferry shut down and plenty of traffic to contend with. That’s progress and new infrastructure for you! But who cares about these little things when the Russian Bridge can now be printed on new banknotes (with the Vostochny Cosmodrome on the other side)!

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.

How to publish academic articles and respond to peer review effectively (in the competitive market of Scopus and Web of Science journals)

This post is a condensed version of a workshop for ‘junior’ and PhD researchers. The main point of the exercise: peer review is increasingly a matter of pot luck but you can improve your chances. (That the infamous Reviewer 2 is an eternal meme actually shows that the randomness of review has always been true). In addition, junior researchers should be very instrumental and pragmatic in responding to peer review, and most importantly, they should do it in a timely, targeted and editor-friendly manner.

I don’t often write posts about the nuts and bolts of scholarship – I wrote one here a while back on monograph planning, and here on public/media communication of research.

This post supplements more ‘practically’ the key ideas from this really short and useful piece by the editor of American Anthropologist on the general pitfalls of article submissions: ‘make your work neat and professional’, ‘link data and claims’, ‘avoid the impression of gaps in your reading’, ‘self-consciously consider structure (for flow, balance, consistency, focus)’. These are points we could all do with reminding of when writing academic prose for journal pubs, I’m sure.

Mainly I focus on the craft of submission, and ‘socialisation’ of the paper submitter in the eco-system of journals.

Firstly I consider the process of choosing a journal – which, while straightforward for some, is not for others. As someone who uses ethnographic methods, focuses on Russia, but uses theory from political science and sociology more than from anthropology, where should I try to publish? So I get workshop participants to actually open up Scimago and try searches for relevant journals. You’d be amazed at how few people have ever done this (or indeed how few people know this website exists).  I ask participants to read editorial statements and look at the board. In other words, think about the audience straight away. Then they have to triangulate that with actually reading potentially out-of-the-comfort-zone papers from the journal they’ve selected. Again, very few people actually do this. The point of the exercise? Many journals have a focus/editorial policy that’s much narrower than people realise and it is a waste of time submitting to them. Example: I talk about a scholar submitting an article based on interview data alone to Social Science Research – which is a quant journal!

Then I focus on ‘getting into the hospital’ – also known as passing editorial triage. Many researchers still don’t realise that even ‘minor’ or highly specialist social science journals get 500 or more submissions a year and so ‘desk rejection’ is the easiest and necessary option for the editor in chief. (As a side note, it’s worth remembering that the quantification of research publication in places like the UK meant that in the 2000s there was massive inflation in submissions to journals that before had garnered less interest – at its peak in the mid 2010s the UK became a Soviet system of churning product. This affected all journals because editors had to filter submissions and competition for limited slots was fierce.

To get a better chance of passing triage, writers have to do one thing that in my experience is neglected even by excellent scholars – write a clear and meaningful abstract. Signs of neglect are clear – abstract either written before the article is and not updated (!), or a hurried afterthought, or, even worse, a rewritten summary of the first couple of  paragraphs of the article itself. Most of the time though, the abstract is too vague. I give the participants this example:

“The article describes the analysis of value basis of business ethics in various countries. The analysis is based on the questionnaire survey of respondents from xxx, as well as European countries. It was demonstrated that many traditional theories developed in this area need to be revised. A sharp contradiction between actual values of entrepreneurs and public expectations stated in sets of codes and concepts of social responsibility was revealed. It was concluded that the informal corrupt practices exist due to liability of entrepreneurs to comply with public attitudes without restructuring of their value system.

Keywords: business ethics, ethical regulation, values” [I tweaked this to make it anonymous – it’s a real abstract]

Then I contrast this with a much more focused and specific (orientating the reader) abstract:

In this short essay, we try to assess the utility of class analyses for understanding the contemporary XXX society. Erik Wright (2009) identifies three strands of class analysis: a stratification approach, a Weberian approach and a Marxist approach. We address the following questions: Which kind of class analysis is most present in XXX today? Which is most needed? The main conclusion is that due to this marginalisation of class discourse, as well as the power of national/ethnic discourse and transitional culture, those most economically vulnerable were deprived of the cultural and discursive resources to resist the most the extreme market-oriented policies. The conditions for structuration of class relations were created, while the class and inequality discourse was marginalised.

Keywords: class, class analysis, public class discourse, post-communist transformation, country X

Apart from clarity, what sticks out, is the obvious thesis statement in Abstract 2. It really does seem the case these days that scholars are ‘learning’ from their undergraduate students – they have developed an allergy to actually articulating a clear thesis. [full disclosure – I am guilty of all the crimes described in this post – do as I say, not as I do]. My advice: Writing an abstract is probably the most difficult and important part of disseminating research. It’s best to get someone to help, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort on it. This is not rocket science and publishers themselves offer some good advice:

Who are the intended readers? (think of real colleagues – are they in a particular discipline?). • What did you do? (no more than 50 words). • Why did you do it? (ditto 50). • What happened? (50). • What do the results mean in theory? (50). • … and in practice? (50). • What remains unresolved? (50). • … AND, What is the benefit to the reader? – avoid an over-emphasis on the research itself, you want to make the abstract interesting to a wider audience than immediate subject specialists– (adapted from leading publisher)

Then I move on to the period when your article is ‘in’ peer-review. The most important point is that this can take a very long time. I mean, you thought it took a long time to get Covid vaccines out? Try getting 7000 words of academic stuff published. Again, many junior colleagues don’t know this and their supervisors don’t tell them either. This ‘one neat trick’ (which doesn’t always work, admittedly) is to look at your bibliography before you submit to check there’s actually someone there who is a) human, b) alive, c) actively publishing now in your area, and probably most importantly, d) not too senior (because many senior profs don’t have time for peer review or may be ‘protective’ of a topic close to them). Why? Because guess who an editor will approach first to peer review you? That’s right – a combination of a+b+c+d. It might not work, but if you find you have no alive, relevant, active humans, not too close to super-star status or pensionable age in your bibliography then probably that means you should have cited some anyway. (Every single time I do peer review I find obvious omissions of leading scholars in my field – it’s also as if people don’t know how to do Google Scholar searches on their own topic). The ‘human’ comment refers to non-toxic researchers – there are fewer colleagues capable of peer-review than you think.

Finally I turn to dealing with peer review when you get it back. First I ask, why is it bad to sit on the peer-review comments and agonise about them? Because the longer you delay the more likely that the original peer reviewers will no longer be available to re-review your re-submission. Result – Kafka at the door of the Law – you get a whole new set of queries which may even ask you to undo things you were specifically asked to do by the first reviewers. Junior researchers often don’t believe this could possibly be true. But of course it is.

Next – and this is more relevant to social sciency stuff based on empirical evidence – a smart (or more likely lucky) editor will get two readers – one of whom may focus more on theory, and another who might focus more on your context and evidence. With this in mind, again, many problems can be solved by preempting this during writing (and re-writing) prior to submission. I’m not a massive theory bro, but even I can tell there’s something wrong with your paper if you’re offering a Bourdieusian approach and only cite the man himself and one article from 2004 in an obscure Ruritanian sociology book. It’s very common in early-career researchers to give too narrow a gloss on their theory. At least tell a story to the reader about why you are delimiting yourself.

The final point is maybe the most important – getting peer review can be overwhelming – because increasingly journals ask reviewers (rightly) to do a thorough job. I recently got a reviewer report back that was 4000 words long! To be honest, I gave up. I didn’t know where to begin. And the review was not negative – just too much to deal with.

What I do is give participants a more typical example – a couple of pages of real peer-review from an article I wrote long ago. I ask them to read it and think how they could respond, but limiting them to focusing on 2 of the main points the reviewer makes. Here’s an excerpt:

  •  First, it would be good to have a more detailed comparison of the levels of earnings the respondents received How much of a financial sacrifice are they making for the sake of autonomy? This isn’t clear, but is important to understand in terms of the author’s wider argument.
  • Likewise, the author’s argument would be strengthened by some reference to the size of the informal v. formal sectors of employment, so that readers have a sense of how widespread this phenomenon is likely to be.
  • The changes in styles of line management, which form a central prop of the argument, also need to be set in a wider context. I consider this to be an essential revision. Here the crucial missing reference is: XXX Some reference to this is essential to contextualize the author’s argument. The author might also want to refer to other responses to this process, such as XXX.
  • The author also fails to analyse the gender aspect of his/her findings. To what extent is this a particularly “masculine” response to subordination? Did the author look at women? Did their attitudes differ? Research suggests that men and women have responded differently to economic restructuring, so this aspect deserves a mention (see XXX).
  • The author also fails to mention whether the respondents have partners and/or dependent children. Given the expectations of the male breadwinner, this is potentially very significant. Are these men married? Can married men pursue this escape route without censure?
  • XXX. find the opposite tendency to that cited by the author:[…]. This contradictory finding again highlights the need for the author to situate his/her findings in the wider context of transformation of the economy. At present, the author does not do quite enough to address the problematic issue of the generalisability of his/her findings. Showing a wider appreciation of the development of capitalism in Russia would be a good way to do this.
  • Finally, with reference to the autonomy of Soviet workers, the author should consider citing the classic essay on the subject: XXX

This example is, I think, good peer review, but the point is that it shows that writers can also filter feedback and that (while fixing the simple things too) they should focus their re-write and response to peer review as much as possible. This example also shows how there is room to clarify – to say ‘I’m not talking about that’, ‘my focus is on Z and not Y’. At the end of the workshop we move on to looking at how to craft a covering letter, or ‘response to reviewers’ (journals vary in how they deal with this). This is also an opportunity to truck and barter with the editor herself. By showing what a good citizen you are in responding to the substantive points, you can ‘respectfully reject’ suggestions by reviewers in less important areas, or due to limits of space.

My final thoughts are that we as scholars are much more prone to the same mistakes our undergraduate students make as writers: sometimes article structure is too loose and shows a lack of evidence of editing/drafting by the author. Very often, key terms are not defined – for example ‘neoliberalism’, ‘social capital’. A lot of work by (not just) junior scholars is under-theorised and fetishizes methodology. Obviously, there’s a lot more to craft than I can present here. I find the work of Thomas Basbøll really useful in sensitising myself over and over to writing as craft. Remember, there are very few, if any ‘natural’ writers. Like in sport and music, ‘talent’ is a misrecognition of a person doing something over and over until they get better at it.

Navalny, political protest and opposition in Russia

(an uninformative blog title designed for bots).

Sign: ‘Going out onto the ice is dangerous’. In snow-footprints: ‘couldn’t give a f*ck’.

We know from media coverage of the Bolotnaia protests nearly ten years ago that media representations of protest in Russia are often far from the reality. Researchers have shown that painting those protests as a ‘middle-class’ revolt was wide of the mark – in reality a broad age-range and social mix of Muscovites came out  ‘For Fair Elections’. Kalk writes of the creation of the myth of a dignified ‘creative class’ by the Russian media. I have written at length on the flipside of this discourse (and here for a more general audience)– an inability to even consider the class agency of those who are not educated metropolitans.   Bikbov shows that people’s reasons for coming out on the streets are very difficult to measure and are sometimes not even articulable by participants themselves. Misha Gabowitsch is also skeptical: “Expressions such as ‘middle class’, ‘generation’ or ‘pensioner’ suggest actually existing collective actors, but they only appear when their supposed members understand themselves as such and when there are institutions that maintain such constructs. […] In today’s Russia this is seldom the case.”

Nonetheless ‘indignation’ and shame that then translate into a burning desire to express publicly one’s anger and frustration are powerful motivators. Being part of a bigger movement acting for themselves in a country where public acts are usually orchestrated by cynical political considerations should also be considered. The feeling of participating in something bigger than one’s self is like a little spark of electricity, according to many who do not see themselves as ‘activists’. But then what has this to do with Navalny? I think another mistake of analysis of protests – last Saturday included – is to focus too much on the man. As I said in yesterday’s post – it’s more useful to think of him as channelling currents and forces that exist independent of his particular political profile, campaign even. As Bikbov wrote of the 2011-12 protests – we shouldn’t discount the importance of ‘individual self-construction’ (bourgeois self-building) as a motivation. And this is not about ‘dignity’ in a social solidarity sense (as it may be in other contexts), but about the individual. In those sense it does have a classed element, but not a class-consciousness one.

To avoid this turning into a mega post again, I will just summarise some observations based on talking to a genuinely wide range of Russians.

Socio-economic profile of protesters – a red herring. Moscow is diverse, so are its protests, but Moscow is not Russia and of course is magnitudes ‘better off’ than anywhere else. Were there many ‘new’ protesters? – maybe. Is that significant – probably not really. In reality these are quite small numbers (c. 20-40,000 in Moscow, and perhaps 150,000 across the country in 101 different cities) and anyone with personal experience of activism will know that cause-fatigue and turnover is high. Some interesting interpretation on how numbers of arrests have a ceiling irrespective of protester numbers which indicates limited capacity even of expanded Rosgvardiia – Putin’s loyal paramilitary (although others say that RG was held back intentionally).

Violence – very little of it – but nonetheless people standing their ground when clearly provoked by police. Police and participants clearly ‘learned’ from Belarus and from their own prior experience/knowledge. Tempting to draw class conclusions too from this – that a largely middle-class crowd. But, another reason not to rely too much on media of any stripe, which will always highlight the newsworthy violence.

Navalny’s arrest as focal point of the ‘miting’ (demonstration). It’s remarkable and no doubt a credit to Navalny as a genuinely charismatic and sincere opponent of the elite that so many (but again relative numbers is everything) came out for HIM. Nonetheless he is not the head of a party, and not the head of a movement. He is, like Putin, a mediated political figure, not a ‘politician’, even in an age where all politicians seek to mediatise themselves to stand out. The personalisation of politics can be a mobiliser, but in the longer term makes it harder to translate into a movement – indeed, quite a few protesters talked about their motivations being ‘more than just about helping a person’. Note that Navalny ended his video on Putin by returning to his campaign for smart voting, but this is not a viable strategy long-term.  

Other channelling that Navalny’s cause serves: ‘overcoming one’s personal fears in the dark days of my country’. This echoes what I mentioned above about how there can be very idiosyncratic, yet shared reasons for protest that are not really about the man or his message, but wider and longer-term currents in Russian society. I also heard about some very spontaneous acts of defiance from passersby who attempted, as in Belarus, to verbally or physically challenge law enforcement nonviolently – the video of the police kicking a woman in her 50s who was peacefully interceding was clearly not an isolated incident. Indeed – more telling than the kicking was the bragging reaction of one of the policemen that provoked widespread condemnation and a panic reaction from bosses.  ‘возмущение’ – indignation – it certainly does have a place here.

On the more pessimistic side, I have to reiterate the message of an old post on opposition politics I wrote here. Grumbling, resentment, even hatred of the elite does not mean people will support or even acknowledge Navalny as a legitimate opposition figure. If anything, Navalny’s more recent ‘smart voting’, while effective (to a limited extent), just reflects what people were trying in a disorganised way to do before. Similarly, his more recent focus on economic inequality also is ‘behind the curve’ of the needs and values of the majority of ordinary people in my research, who started to turn away from United Russia ten years ago. They were already ‘smart voting’ in their own way before for ‘anyone but United Russia’.

For me personally, this is where he reveals his narrow (classed) cosmopolitan appeal that does not translate into leadership of a genuine opposition front. Because it’s not as accessible or interesting to the Western press, people tend to forget that the far right and the conservative left (as far as these ersatz labels make sense) both have populist messaging that does cut through into electoral success in Russia (as far as they can in such a skewed system, and acknowledging that they often not considered a real opposition). Again, we don’t hear so much about this because it’s not in Moscow and it doesn’t fit the narrative (coverage of Khabarovsk’s LDPR governor was an exception proving the rule). Indeed, the fact that only now the Communists and the LDPR (Zhirinovsky being the original populist politician and that party’s leader) are whining like little girls (sorry about that) about Navalny, is another measure of how late to the party he is.

So what has changed since I wrote in 2016 about ‘smart voting from below’? Well, in the mid 2010s Navalny was starting to cut through to ordinary people in terms of name recognition, especially with his ‘On vam ne Dimon’ video about Medvedev from 2017.  However there remain formidable structural barriers – he’s still perceived as ‘one of them’ – a metropolitan elite. He’s correspondingly vulnerable to being painted as a stooge of the West, as a foreign agent – as part of the ‘fifth column’. And this is why he clearly calculated he had to come home from Germany.

The problem that his supporters and pretty much all my liberal Russian friends don’t like to admit is that the regime is just as capable of learning from its mistakes and changing its tune as Navalny – its current campaign of intensifying disinformation: that Navalny is funded by foreign powers and is corrupting Russia’s youth, is largely successful. Just because the state controlled TV can no longer ignore him completely doesn’t mean a victory for him.  Thus, for every person who went out to support him on Saturday there is a spouse, or more likely an older relative, or a sibling (likely a state worker), who more or less buys the idea that Navalny is a front of some kind – a ‘feik’ or a ‘frik’ (fake or freak). Sure, the elite are corrupt as hell, but he’s just too slick – he must be a CIA product! One of the most intelligent and wise of my research interlocutors sincerely believes that the Moscow protests are a result of western embassies paying disaffected youth and criminals, and where they can’t pay them, getting them drunk. And this is a person who uses the internet – and while there’s no ‘great firewall’ as in China, targeted oppositional political ads are pretty much banned from mainstream social media in Russia. The whole ‘brainwashing youth’ slander has really cut through – just as much as we should acknowledge that Navalny’s anti-corruption message cut through.

Then there is general demobilization due to the deteriorating economic situation – which pre-dates, but which is exacerbated by Covid. Unlike in 2011-12, one interlocutor reflects that the ‘middle-class’ is подавлен – depressed. We shouldn’t discount the psychological effect of the economic burden on people – they aren’t jobless, but they are struggling with high levels of consumer debt and insecure conditions, and this is not a situation where ‘someone feels they owe something political to people, that they are able to participate in protest and maybe lose their job’. Add to this the more effective post-truth campaign by the authorities aimed at demobilization and you get a toxic mix that can be effective in putting people off coming out. As I said, yesterday – even critical ‘thinking’ people are willing to be satisfied by the word of Putin and then are liable to turn on those close to them who would like to protest – ‘what do you owe that guy [Navalny]? Think about your family. You think you can make a difference?’ On this basis can Navalny’s supporters hope for more than the making of a martyr (another important vector of myth-making in Russia)? A dissident in the noble (?) intellectual tradition of USSR? It strikes me that dissidence is not a position he’d be willing to occupy, nor one that is really tenable in today’s Russia. But I will end on a more optimistic note – Navalny is not the only brave activist, there are opposition politicians, labour activists, and ‘organic’ intellectuals all over Russia making small contributions to change every day. They aren’t the focus of media interest in Russia, but they are probably just as important in the long term as Alexei Navalny. Right now I’m writing about labour organising among food couriers, and will soon write a post about that topic.