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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.  

A Day of Knowledge – Topic-based teaching of Russian Current Affairs

Day of Knowledge

Day of Knowledge in a Russian School – 1 September.

I’m about to dive back into a semester of very intensive teaching. It’s Russia’s ‘Day of Knowledge’, so I thought I’d share a ‘mini’ course I’m going to be teaching.

In Danish it’s called Aktuelt Emne, which means ‘Current Topic’. This is a ‘mini’ course because its only worth 5 ECTS (which equates to 500 pages of compulsory reading and 26 hours of class time). It can run for a whole semester (13 weeks), but for various reasons I’m going to deliver it in 8 sessions, each of which covers a ‘sub-topic’.

The main questions that arise around this kind of teaching are: How specific the topic? How in-depth do we want to go, given the course is ‘only’ 5 credits and the students have a lot of other demands on them? What ‘level’ to pitch this at, given that the students have had little exposure to contemporary issues before and the fact that non-Russianists can take this course? How to balance the ‘Area studies’ approach with the need to expose students to concepts like ‘biopolitics’, ‘governmentality’ and ‘homo sacer’. These terms are likely to be meaningless to most students, even though the students have a general ‘humanities’ primer course beforehand.

Anyway, this year I’m trying to relate the course to the article I’m writing on ‘Gayropa’ and homophobia as an example of the ‘conservative turn’ in Russia. In the article I’m contrarian, arguing that homophobia has more significant  ‘roots’ in cultural history – for want of a better formulation – and aspects of Soviet-era enculturation and socialisation – a shorthand for which is the word ‘vospitanie‘. Visible deviants are ‘lacking’ in moral vospitanie. I conclude by saying these issues, along with an argument related to that of Daria Ukhova: mean that ‘conservatism’ is a defensive mechanism against the multiple failures of the state. These are more salient issues than state-directed propaganda against ‘Gayropa’. I’ll blog aspects of that article soon – the draft is here.

Anyway, many of the sources I use in the article serve as readings on the course. I kinda artificially break up the course into ‘topics’, but in reality these overlap quite a lot.

Some of this is ‘experimental’ – I’m not sure how well some of the readings will go down. Whether they are cohesive enough to serve the learning aims. Whether the ‘summary tasks’ help prepare the students enough for further study and writing.

Russian Cultural Politics Today.

  1. (4 September) 8-11am Russian cultural politics today : Introduction
  2.  (18 September) 8-11am Russia’s conservative turn and soft power
  3.  (25 September) 8-11am Russia’s biopolitics – gender retraditionalizations
  4.  (2 October) 8-11am Russia’s biopolitics – state, the family and the child
  5.  (23 October) 8-11am Russia’s biopolitics – LGBT and youth – unruly others
  6.  (6 November) 8-11am Race, ethnicity and religion as sites of cultural politics
  7.  (20 November) 8-11am The liberal alternative – Russia’s opposition as a cultural sphere
  8.  (4 December) 8am-12pm Grounding the study of Russian cultural politics, and alternative perspectives.

Introduction to the course aims

This 5 ECTS Credit course aims to investigate the so-called ‘conservative turn’ in Russian cultural politics since around 2010. Scholars Andrey Makarychev and Alexandra Yatsyk (we read them in Week 2) argue that the current regime has taken an increasingly conservative turn since the protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012 for two reasons. First to solidify and legitimize a political system with one dominating leader supported by the elites, arguing that this form of ‘sovereign’ or ‘managed’ democracy is part of Russian identity, secondly to paint a picture of the western world as degenerate, rejecting its Judeo-Christian heritage, in contrast to Russia, which becomes a defender of European civilisation.

Yatsyk and Makarychev highlight three main components of this “new” conservative discourse in Russia: Russia is one of the few real sovereign nations in the world, a goal of reconstructing a unified Russian nation, in part used as an explanation for annexing Crimea, and finally the idea of ‘normality’ regarding family life, sexuality etc, rejecting the more liberal West as depraved and trying, through international organisations  to infiltrate and dismantle traditional Russian, Orthodox, values. Two examples of how this conservative turn goes beyond Russian political discourse and is reflected in concrete legislation are article 6.13, known as the gay propaganda ban law, passed in June 2013, as well as the law changing domestic violence that does not result in severe bodily harm from a criminal offence to an administrative offence, passed in 2017.

These are the kind of issues we will be examining in this course. The guiding questions that will be reflected in the assignment are as follows: What is the conservative turn in Russia? What has caused it? How has it affected political discourse around the family, gender roles, the upbringing of children? What kind of groups are identified as threats to this normative order? How does the government use this discourse to justify its foreign policy? How are race and religion relevant to conservatism and national identity? How ‘liberal’, is the liberal opposition to the government? How has the conservative turn been expressed in relations with neighbours of Russia?


Weekly assignments and readings:

Week One. Introduction:

Compulsory Reading:

Robinson, N. (2014) The Political Origins of Russia’s ‘Culture Wars’, Department of Politics and Public Administration University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland https://ulir.ul.ie/handle/10344/3796

Trudolyubov, M. (2014) ‘Russia’s Culture Wars’, The New York Times, 7 Feb 2014, pp. 14–16.

https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/opinion/trudolyubov-russias-culture-wars.html

Summary task:

Andrey Makarychev & Sergei Medvedev (2015) Biopolitics and Power in Putin’s Russia, Problems of Post-Communism, 62:1, 45-54, DOI: 10.1080/10758216.2015.1002340

Task: the above text has a lot of newspaper and media sources, including in Russian. Select one and summarise it in 200-300 words. Explore at least one Russian media source and make some notes on it. Find out whether the issue has developed since 2015.

[48 pages]

Further Reading:

Andrei Melville (2017) A Neoconservative Consensus in Russia?, Russian Politics & Law, 55:4-5, 315-335, DOI: 10.1080/10611940.2017.1533271

Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (2003) ‘FOUCAULT TODAY’, IN PAUL RABINOW AND NIKOLAS ROSE (EDS) THE ESSENTIAL FOUCAULT: SELECTIONS FROM THE ESSENTIAL WORKS OF FOUCAULT, 1954-1984 NEW YORK: NEW PRESS (pp. vii – xxxv)

Thomas Lemke (2001) ‘The birth of bio-politics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality, Economy and Society, 30:2, 190-207 (particularly see pp.202- for a summary of key terms)

Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).


Week Two: Russia’s conservative turn and soft power

Compulsory Reading:

Makarychev, Andrey, Yatsyk, Alexandra: “A New Russian Conservatism: Domestic Roots and Repercussions for Europe” in Notes International CIDOB, No. 93, 2014. https://www.cidob.org/en/publications/publication_series/notes_internacionals/n1_93/a_new_russian_conservatism_domestic_roots_and_repercussions_for_europe

Riabov, O. and Riabova, T. (2014) ‘The decline of Gayropa? How Russia intends to save the world’, 5 February 2014 Eurozine https://www.eurozine.com/the-decline-of-gayropa

Summary task:

Sergunin, Alexander, and Leonid Karabeshkin. “Understanding Russia’s Soft Power Strategy.” Politics 35, no. 3-4 (2015): 347-363.

Task: Make a one-page summary of the text’s main points in your own words. Bring to class. This is an essential skill to develop to support essay writing and working towards a successful bachelor project. Then write a paragraph from the perspective of a critical reader who wants to argue that the claims of Russian soft power strength in general are exaggerated (you might need to skim Keating and Splidsboel to get some ideas for this, but most of all use your common sense!).

[34 pages]

Further Reading:

Bassin, M., and G. Pozo, eds. 2017. The politics of Eurasianism: Identity, popular culture and

Russia’s foreign policy. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Keating, V. C., & Kaczmarska, K. (2017). Conservative Soft Power: Liberal soft power bias and the ‘hidden’ attraction of Russia. Journal of International Relations and Development. DOI: 10.1057/s41268-017-0100-6 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314286278_Conservative_Soft_Power_Liberal_soft_power_bias_and_the_’hidden’_attraction_of_Russia

https://soundcloud.com/user-688693296/warpod-1-vincent-keating-russian-soft-power

Kosachev, Konstantin, (2012) The Specifics of Russian Soft Power. Russia in Global Affairs, 3, 2012. https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/The-Specifics-of-Russian-Soft-Power-15683

Viatcheslav Morozov (2013) Subaltern Empire?: Toward a Postcolonial Approach to Russian Foreign Policy, Problems of Post-Communism, 60:6, 16-28: https://doi.org/10.2753/PPC1075-8216600602

Morozova, N. 2009. Geopolitics, eurasianism and Russian foreign policy under Putin. Geopolitics 14 (4):667–86.

Neumann, I. B. 1995. Russia and the idea of Europe: A study of identity and international relations. London: Routledge.

Polyakova, A. 2014. Putin and Europe’s Far Right World Affairs, Vol. 177, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2014), pp. 36-40

Prozorov, Sergei (2004) : Russian conservatism in the Putin presidency: The dispersion of a hegemonic discourse, DIIS Working Paper, No. 2004:20, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), Copenhagen This Version is available at:http://hdl.handle.net/10419/84604

Prozorov, S. 2007. The narratives of exclusion and self-exclusion in the Russian conflict discourse on EU-Russian relations. Political Geography 26 (3):309–29.

Snegovaya, M. 2017. Conservative Turn in Eastern Europe: Political Conservatism in Russia. Desenvolvimento em Debate v.5, n.1, p.95-113, 2017. https://www.academia.edu/35571272/Conservative_Turn_in_Eastern_Europe_Political_Conservatism_in_Russia

Flemming Splidsboel Hansen Russian influence operations Trying to get what you want DIIS POLICY BRIEF 30. OKTOBER 2018 https://www.diis.dk/publikationer/russian-influence-operations

Tsygankov, A. (2007). ‘Finding a civilisational idea: ‘West’, ‘Eurasia’, ‘Euro-East’ in Russia’s foreign policy’, Geopolitics, 12 (3):375–99.

Tsygankov, A. (2016) Russia’s foreign policy: Continuity and change in national identity 4th ed. (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield).


Week Three: Russian biopolitics – gender retraditionalization

Compulsory Reading:

Muravyeva, M. (2014) ‘Traditional Values and Modern Families: Legal Understanding of Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Russia’, Journal of Social Policy Research, 12(4), pp. 625-638. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282856363_Traditional_Values_and_Modern_Families_Legal_Understanding_of_Tradition_and_Modernity_in_Contemporary_Russia

Muravyeva, M. (2018) Austerity, Gender inequality and Feminism after the crisis: “Should women have more rights?” Traditional Values and Austerity in Russia. ROSA-LUXEMBURG-STIFTUNG [read sections 1 and 3.]

https://www.rosalux.eu/publications/should-women-have-more-rights-traditional-values-and-austerity-in-russia/

Temkina, A., Zdravomyslova, E. (2014) ‘Gender’s crooked path: Feminism confronts Russian patriarchy’, Current Sociology, 62(2), pp. 253-270.

Summary Task:

Muravyeva, M. (2018) Austerity, Gender inequality and Feminism after the crisis: “Should women have more rights?” Traditional Values and Austerity in Russia. ROSA-LUXEMBURG-STIFTUNG [read section 4]. Put yourself in the place of a Women’s Rights NGO in Russia. How would you implement the proposals? Summarise in 200-300 words.

[54 pages]

Further Reading:

Åberg, P. 2015. Civil society and biopolitics in contemporary Russia: The case of Russian “Daddy-Schools”, Foucault Studies, 20, 76-95

Johnson, J. E. (2007) ‘Domestic violence politics in post-Soviet states’, Social Politics, 14(3), pp. 380-405.

Johnson, J. E., Saarinen, A. (2013) ‘Twenty-first-century feminisms under repression: Gender regime change and the women’s crisis center movement in Russia’, Signs: Journal of women in Culture and Society, 38(3), pp. 543-567.

Oleg Riabov & Tatiana Riabova (2014) The Remasculinization of Russia?, Problems of Post-Communism, 61:2, 23-35, DOI: 10.2753/PPC1075-8216610202

Salmenniemi, S., Adamson, M. (2015) ‘New heroines of labour: domesticating post-feminism and neoliberal capitalism in Russia’, Sociology, 49(1), pp. 88-105.

Zdravomyslova, E. (2010). Working mothers and nannies: Commercialization of childcare and modifications in the gender contract (a sociological essay).Anthropology of East Europe Review, 28 , 200–225


Week Four: Family, welfare and child policies

Compulsory Reading:

Sherstneva, N. (2014) ‘Why are children’s rights so dangerous? Interpreting Juvenile Justice in the light of conservative mobilization in contemporary Russia’ in N. Novikova, and M. Muravyeva (eds). Women’s History in Russia: (Re)Establishing the Field Cambridge Scholars Publisher, pp.193-215. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/asb/detail.action?docID=1859167

Höjdestrand, T. (2016). Social Welfare or Moral Warfare? Popular Resistance against Children’s Rights and Juvenile Justice in Contemporary Russia. International Journal of Children’s Rights, 24(4), 826-850. https://doi.org/10.1163/15718182-02404007

https://brill.com/view/journals/chil/24/4/article-p826_7.xml

Sirotin, V. (2009) Children and adolescents in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List.  Special Issue No. 45. November 2009. Available at: http://stephenshenfield.net/archives/research-jrl/97-jrl-special-issue-no-45-november-2009#2

Summary task:

Elena Mizulina et al., comp., Kontseptsiia gosudarstvennoi semeinoi politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii na period do 2025 goda (The Concept of state family policy in the Russian Federation for the period until 2025) (Moscow, 2013),

https://zharov.info/guestbook/koncepciya-semejnoj-politiki-imeni-mizulinoj

Alternative version: https://rg.ru/2014/08/29/semya-site-dok.html

Summarise the state’s main aims in the concept of state family policy in more than one, but less than two pages.

[80 pages]

Further Reading:

Borozdina, E. et al. (2014) Using maternity capital: Citizen distrust of Russian family policy. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 23(1), pp.60-75.

Kingsbury, M., (2019) Let’s have more Russian babies. How anti-immigrant sentiment shapes family leave policy in Russia, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.postcomstud.2019.07.004.

Fabian, K., Bekiesza-Korolczuk, E. (Eds.) (2017) Rebellious Parents: Parental Movements in Central-Eastern Europe and Russia, Indiana University Press.

 Johnson, J. E. , et al. (2016), Street-level Practice of Russia’s Social Policymaking in Saint Petersburg: Federalism, Informal Politics, and Domestic Violence Jnl Soc. Pol. 45, 2, 287–304. doi:10.1017/S0047279415000689

Kainu, M., Kulmala, M., Nikula, J. and Kivinen, M. (2016), ‘The Russian Welfare State System: With Special Reference to Regional Inequality’, in C. Aspalter, ed.,, Welfare State Systems. Burlington: Ashgate.

Rivkin-Fish, M. (2010) Pronatalism, Gender Politics, and the Renewal of Family Support in Russia: Toward a Feminist Anthropology of “Maternity Capital” Slavic Review, Vol. 69, No. 3 (FALL 2010), pp. 701-724.

Slonimczyk, F., Yurko, A. (2014) ‘Assessing the impact of the maternity capital policy in Russia’, Labour Economics, 30, pp. 265-281.

Stella, F. and Nartova, N. (2015) Sexual citizenship, nationalism and biopolitics in Putin’s Russia. In: Stella, F., Taylor, Y., Reynolds, T. and Rogers, A. (eds.) Sexuality, Citizenship and Belonging: Trans-National and Intersectional Perspectives. Series: Advances in critical diversities (1). Routledge: London, pp. 24-42. ISBN 9781138805040

Websources:

  1. Shmidt, “Kak zashchishchat’ detei,” Polit.Ru, October 26, 2012,

http://www.polit.ru/article/2012/10/26/children

http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/2774805.html

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%AE%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%8F_%D1%8E%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B8%D1%86%D0%B8%D1%8F_%D0%B2_%D0%A0%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D0%B8


Week 5: Russia’s biopolitics – LGBT and youth: unruly others

Compulsory Reading:

Erpyleva, S. (2018). Freedom’s children in protest movements: Private and public in the socialization of young Russian and Ukrainian activists. Current Sociology, 66(1), 20-37.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392116668223

Wilkinson, C. (2014) Putting “Traditional Values” Into Practice: The Rise and

Contestation of Anti-Homopropaganda Laws in Russia, Journal of Human Rights, 13:3, 363-379, DOI: 10.1080/14754835.2014.919218

Summary task:

Levada (2019) ‘Otnoshenie k LGBT-liudiam’, Levada Centre 23.05.2019 https://www.levada.ru/2019/05/23/otnoshenie-k-lgbt-lyudyam

Levada (2013) ‘Novyi opros ob LGBT’, Levada Centre 3.07.2013 https://www.levada.ru/2013/07/03/novyj-opros-ob-lgbt

Wiedlack, K. (2018) ‘Quantum Leap 2.0 or the Western gaze on Russian homophobia’, Adeptus, 2018(11). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326304340_Quantum_Leap_20_or_the_Western_gaze_on_Russian_homophobia

Write an outline for an LGBT student organisation (300 words) arguing that fighting homophobia in Russia needs to take account of the issues Wiedlack raises. Use some statistics from the Levada surveys. Is homophobia getting better or worse? What aspects of homosexuality do Russians find most problematic? How do they compare to Danes?

[55 pages]

Further Reading:

Kondakov, A. (2015) ‘Heteronormativity of the Russian Legal Discourse: The Silencing, Lack, and Absence of Homosexual Subjects in Law and Policies’, Sortuz: Oñati Journal of Emergent Socio-Legal Studies, 4(2), pp. 4-23. http://opo.iisj.net/index.php/sortuz/article/viewFile/603/581

Kondakov, A. (2017) Prestupleniia na pochve nenavisti protiv LGBT v Rossii: otchet (St Petersburg: Centre of Independent Sociological Research: Renome).

Kon, I. S. (2003) ‘O normalizatsii gomoseksuaľnosti’, Seksologiia i Seksopatologiia, 2003(2), 2–12. http://www.pseudology.org/kon/Articles/NormaGomosexuality.htm accessed 8 June 2019.

Kulpa, R. (2014) Western “leveraged pedagogy” of Central and Eastern Europe: Discourses of homophobia, tolerance, and nationhood. Gender, Place & Culture, 21(4), 431–448.

Kulpa, R. & Mizielińska, J. (2012) ‘“Guest editors” introduction: Central and Eastern European sexualities “in transition”’, Lambda Nordica: Journal of LGBTQ Studies, 2012(4), 19–29.

Krupets Y., Morris J., Nartova NadyaOmelchenko Elena, Sabirova G. Imagining young adults’ citizenship in Russia: from fatalism to affective ideas of belonging, Journal of Youth Studies. 2017. Vol. 20. No. 2. P. 252-267.

Mole, R. (2011) ‘Nationality and sexuality: homophobic discourse and the “national threat” in contemporary Latvia’, Nations and Nationalism, 17(3): 540–560.

Omelchenko, Elena, and Guzel Sabirova. “Youth cultures in contemporary Russia: memory, politics, solidarities.” Eastern European Youth Cultures in a global context. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016. 253-270.

Patin, K. (2016) ‘The Origin of Russian Gay Myths: Four Myths that Fuel Hatred for Gays in Russia’, 29 March 2016 https://codastory.com/lgbt-crisis/russian-myths/ accessed 8 June 2019.

Pomeranzev, P. (2016) ‘Europe, Putin and “Gayropa” Bait:  The Kremlin’s messaging on gay rights issues has little to do with beliefs’, 18 January 2016. https://codastory.com/lgbt-crisis/putin-wants-to-confuse-you/ accessed 8 June 2019.

Sirotin, V. (2009) Children and adolescents in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List.  Special Issue No. 45. November 2009. Available at: http://stephenshenfield.net/archives/research-jrl/97-jrl-special-issue-no-45-november-2009#2.


Week 6:  Race, ethnicity and religion as sites of cultural politics

Anderson, J. (2013) ‘Rock, art, and Sex: The “Culture Wars” Come to Russia”’, Journal of Church and State, 55(2) 307-334. https://academic.oup.com/jcs/article/55/2/307/807019

Laruelle, M. (2010) ‘The Ideological Shift on the Russian Radical Right: From Demonizing the West to Fear of Migrants’, Problems of Post-Communism 57(6): 19–31.

Summary task:

Zhuravlev, D. (2017) Orthodox Identity as Traditionalism: Construction of Political Meaning in the Current Public Discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Politics & Law, 55:4-5, 354-375, DOI: 10.1080/10611940.2017.1533274

As previously, make a summary in one or two pages of this article based on the assumption that you will later write an essay referring to it. The purpose of the notes is to record now the main content you will need in an essay: You need to summarise the main argument, but also find useful quotes to use in your essay.

[60 pages]

Further Reading:

Agadjanian, Alexander: “Revising Pandora’s Gifts: Religious and National Identity in the Post-Soviet Societal Fabric” in Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 53, no. 3, 2001

Aitamurto, K. 2016 Paganism, Traditionalism, Nationalism: Narratives of Russian Rodnoverie. Routledge. DOI https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315599304

Arnold, R. & Lawrence P. Markowitz (2018) The evolution of violence within far-right mobilization: evidence from Russia, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:9, 1558-1573.

Bahry, D. (2016) Opposition to Immigration, Economic Insecurity and Individual Values: Evidence from Russia, Europe-Asia Studies, 68:5, 893-916, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2016.1178710

Damm, Emily Belle, and Skye Cooley. “Resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church: Narrative of Analysis of the Russian National Myth.” Social Science Quarterly 98, no. 3 (2017): 942-957.

Hutchings, Stephen, and Vera Tolz. 2015. Nation, Ethnicity and Race on Russian Television: Mediating Post-Soviet Difference. London: Routledge.

Kizenko, N. (2013) ‘Feminized patriarchy? Orthodoxy and gender in post-Soviet Russia’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(3), pp. 595-621.

Dzidziguri, Shalva. “The Power and limits of the Russian Orthodox Church”. Forbes Opinion. December 14, 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2016/12/14/the-power-and-limits-of-the-russian-orthodox-church/2/#362fd0bc6c5d

Petro, Nicolai N. “Russia’s orthodox soft power.” Carnegie Council (2015).

Laruelle, M. In the Name of the Nation: Nationalism and Politics in Contemporary Russia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Laruelle, M. (2014) ‘Beyond Anti-Westernism: The Kremlin’s Narrative about Russia’s European Identity and Mission’, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo 326,

http://www.ponarseurasia.org/.

Lomagin, Nikita. “Interest groups in Russian foreign policy: The invisible hand of the Russian Orthodox Church.” International Politics 49, no. 4 (2012): 498-516.

Teper, Y. (2016) Official Russian identity discourse in light of the annexation of Crimea: national or imperial?, Post-Soviet Affairs, 32:4, 378-396, DOI: 10.1080/1060586X.2015.1076959

Tipaldou, S. and K.Uba (2014) The Russian Radical Right Movement and Immigration Policy: Do They Just Make Noise or Have an Impact as Well?, Europe-Asia Studies, 66:7, 1080-1101, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2014.927647.

Tolz, Vera, and Sue-Ann Harding. 2015. “From ‘Compatriots’ to ‘Aliens’: The Changing Coverage of Migration on Russian Television.” Russian Review 74: 452–477.

Umland, A. (2017). Post-Soviet Neo-Eurasianism, the Putin System, and the Contemporary European Extreme Right. Perspectives on Politics,15(2), 465-476. doi:10.1017/S1537592717000135


Week 7: The liberal alternative? – Russia’s opposition as a cultural sphere

Laruelle, M. (2014) ‘Alexei Navalny and Challenges in Reconciling “Nationalism” and “Liberalism” ’, Post-Soviet Affairs 30(4): 276–97.

“Scratch a Russian liberal and you’ll find an educated conservative”: an interview with sociologist Greg Yudin http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/scratch-a-russian-liberal-and-youll-find-an-educated-conservative-an-interview-with-sociologist-greg-yudin/#.WNPNJyj31Jw.twitter

Ilya Matveev, 2014 The “Two Russias” Culture War: Constructions of the “People” during the 2011-2013 Protests, South Atlantic Quarterly 113(1):186-195 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274055930_The_Two_Russias_Culture_War_Constructions_of_the_People_during_the_2011-2013_Protests

Summary Task:

https://srbpodcast.org/2019/03/08/transcript-russian-nationalism/

Listen to the podcast and make notes. Try to cross-reference your notes with material from Laruelle that you have read in her articles.

[43 pages + 1 hour listening]

Further Reading:

Morozov, V. (2017) ‘Mif o reaktsionnosti rossiiskogo massovogo soznaniia i problema intellektual’nogo liderstva’ [The myth about reactionary Russian mass consciousness and the problem of intellectual leadership], Blog Post/Policy Memo. PONARS Eurasia. New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia. 28 April 2017. http://www.ponarseurasia.org/ru/article_20170428_Morozov accessed 8 June 2019.

Hale, H. E. (2011) The Myth of Mass Russian Support for Autocracy: The Public Opinion Foundations of a Hybrid Regime, Europe-Asia Studies, 63:8, 1357-1375, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2011.601106

Hopf, T. (2013) ‘Common-Sense Constructivism and Hegemony in World Politics’, International Organization 67(2): 317–54.

Morozov, V. (2015) Russian’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World (Basingstoke, Palgrave). [chapter 5 on populism is useful]

Pavlova, E. (2014) ‘Fight Against Corruption in Russian and European Discourse: “Irreconcilable Differences”?’ EU-Russia Papers 14, http://ceurus.ut.ee/home/eu-russia-forum/.


Week Eight: Grounding the study of Russian political culture and alternative perspectives

4 hours booked for final session.

Compulsory Reading:

Morozov, V.  Chapter 5 The People Are Speechless: Russia, the West and the Voice of the Subaltern, in Russia’s Postcolonial Identity A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World. Palgrave. pp.135-165. [pdf on Blackboard – Copydan]

Karine Clément & Anna Zhelnina, 2019 Beyond Loyalty and Dissent: Pragmatic Everyday Politics in Contemporary Russia International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, pp. 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-019-9319-0

Summary task:

Work on a one-page plan of a possible assignment topic based on one of the week topics. Try to go beyond just a topic to create an ‘argument’ within a title for the essay. E.g. “Russian soft power appears successful based on projecting an image of conservatism to those abroad, however, based on the evidence from its foreign policy actions in Georgia, the Baltics and Ukraine, in reality it has few supporters outside Russia”. Decide on 4-6 academic sources that you would need to re-read and use for the evidence in your essay. Write a few sentences summarising each article and indicating how they are relevant to your argument.

[52 pages]

Further Reading:

Karine Clément (2018): Social mobilizations and the question of social justice in contemporary Russia, Globalizations, DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2018.1479014

Samuel A. Greene, 2019, Homo Post-Sovieticus: Reconstructing Citizenship in Russia, social research Vol. 86 : No. 1 : Spring 2019 181-202.

Morozov, V. (2015) Russian’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World (Basingstoke, Palgrave).

Joanna Szostek (2017) Defence and Promotion of Desired State Identity in Russia’s Strategic Narrative, Geopolitics, 22:3, 571-593, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2016.1214910

 

Working Class Life in Anytown Russia – An Interview

I’ve been meaning to come back to the topic of my book on Everyday Post-Socialist life in the small Russian town for a while. Having just done an interview for Sean’s Russia Blog gives me a good opportunity to do that.

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The blog homepage is here. I was very busy with other things at the time of the interview so I don’t think I did a very good job of describing the breadth and depth of the stories in the book. So I’ll have another go here in brief.

Here are the questions Sean asked me, pretty much as they appear on the transcript. They’re in italics. My more considered answers follow and include some reflection on what I actually said in the blog interview.

Interview: Jeremy Morris

  1. Your book is about everyday life in small industrial town of Izluchino. Where is this town and what is it’s postsocialist dowry? Why is everyday life important to study in a place like Izluchino?

The town is just one example of the small industrial, working-class communities that exist today in Russia. It isn’t necessarily representative, because it is in Kaluga region. Kaluga has all kinds of relative advantages as a region which feed into local economic opportunities. On the other hand, it faces the same issues as most other places – rust belt deindustrialization, the still keenly felt withdrawal of enterprise support for local infrastructure and so on.

The dowry is a term I borrow from Kaika and Swyngedouw (2000) via Elena Trubina who speaks of the ‘worthless dowry’ of Soviet industrial modernity (Trubina 2013). The urban dowry is the imposing elements of  (often Soviet-) build environment that accompany technological networks. These are both the source of risk (accidents, pollution, unemployment) and the life-blood of industrial communities, even now. I critique the idea of industrial Russia as ‘worthless dowry’ as it reminds me of ‘modernization’ theories more generally, through which space, and ultimately people are reconstructed in a hierarchy of value. Workers in small towns at the bottom. But it is at the bottom that so many people live and call home. They don’t think about it in terms of ‘risk’ and danger. So a lot of the project is about giving voice to the normalization of the small town experience. Making it ‘anytown’.

  1. Reading the book, it’s clear that you developed close relations with your respondents. Who are these people? How did you meet them and how did your relations with them shape how you approached your understanding of postsocialist daily life?

 

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What was surprising to me was that if you show you’re prepared to listen, people will take that as goodwill and talk to you. And I tried in the book to be faithful to my ‘informants’ or research participants. I met some of them through my summer connection to a small village nearby. But most of them I built relationships with long term by being in the town and sharing in their lives. This also shaped my approach – to try to bring out as much of what was normal and everyday – as what was ‘bad’ or difficult. So there’s a lot in the book about relations of support, reciprocity, the informal economy and ‘getting ahead’, as much as ‘getting by’. Although simplistic ideas about ‘social mobility’ and entrepreneurialism are dealt with critically.

  1. You write that your book is “not a description of deindustrialization or factory life, nor is it a story of dispossession, pauperization and trauma after the end of the Soviet Union.” Rather it’s about how people make their life habitable. Talk about the concept of habitability and its centrality to your understanding of daily life in Izluchino.

Having said that there’s a lot in the book about the ‘normal’ experience of everyday life, there’s also a lot of traumatic feeling expressed by young and especially older people – often in terms of the loss of a ‘social contract’ and social wages from the factory town. This was vividly expressed to me when I was interviewing a man in his 50s who had worked in the town his whole life and who felt, even now, completely betrayed by the processes of post-communist transition.

His and other stories were supported by changes in the built environment I personally witnessed, such as the decorative Soviet canteen signs being taken down to be sold as scrap and the local authority’s inability to fund the repair of the local Soviet-era theatre and formerly well-equipped secondary school. So ‘habitability’ emerged as one way of talking about both ‘normalisation’ of life, and about the ongoing sense of loss – people’s awareness of losing out, but their commitment to making the best of the present in the local here and now. In another context I wrote about people’s local patriotism in terms of ‘malaia rodina’ – little motherland. This was a term people used in the town too.

 

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  1. The issue of time has a presence in the book and how people situation themselves in it and understand their lives through it. How does how Izluchino’s residents understand the past and present, their feeling of being “out of time,” and “inbetween” function?

This question was very much answered in terms of the sense of loss described in the previous section. What was surprising was that it also applied to younger people – some of the now in their thirties and forties and who were only kids or not even born in the USSR. This is still making me think a bit differently about the meaning of the word ‘nostalgia’.

  1. Your study is about personhood and working class identity. What does working class mean and how has life in post-Soviet Izluchino changed it?

This is really tricky and I don’t think I can do justice to it in a blog post. Personhood is a just a way of drawing attention to the socially-shared and experienced aspects of ‘identity’. I used it to avoid too much the language of the ‘self’, which is so associated with a middle-class, bourgeois sense of identity – acquisitive, individualistic, and interpreted in similarly negative ways by working-class people all over the world. Here Bev Skeggs’ work was really instructive.

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  1. What about the gender dimensions of this working class identity? How has it shaped postsocialist masculinity and femininity, men and women?

One thing I am really happy about is how many women’s stories there are in the book. In fact you could say they dominate in the end, or at least resonate most. There is a lot from the perspective of the ‘old guard’ of women who quite often were the real ‘builders of communism’ in this town: the librarian, the forewoman of the main factory. They are left holding on to the remnants and trying to make it work – an impossible situation. Of course at the same time they are expected to hold the family together too. The classic ‘double-burden’ that many scholars of Soviet gender talk about. Then there are the younger women. There’s a chapter about three women in their early twenties making different choices – social mobility through migration, education, local compromise, and also the informal economy. One thing I would have liked to say more about is the mass of working women ‘at the bottom’ in shop work. There were only two times I had arguments with people concerning the material I collected for the book: a Russian colleague and a Western businessman both expressed disbelief when I told them how little women in shops were paid.

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  1. What role does the informal economy play in Izluchino?

This is a topic I’ve really done to death elsewhere. But, as in the interview, I’d stress how ‘black work’, or ‘cash-in-hand’ day laboring and gypsy cab driving is both a trap and an ‘opportunity’, and experienced as such by people. It’s both freedom from a ‘day job’ in the factory, and also drudgery of another, even more exploitative, and self-exploitative kind. But still some (men) prefer the ‘freedom’ of the unregistered taxi work, than the factory (whether old-school Soviet type, or new, shiny Western type). What does that tell us about blue-collar work now in the 21st century?

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  1. Talk about the generational experience of Izluchino’s residents. How do the experiences of elderly and younger people intersect and diverge?

This I think is answered already.

  1. The collapse of the Soviet system necessitated the transformation of the self to suit a capitalist economy and society. How do working class people of Izluchino address the challenge of becoming “flexible subjects” in an increasingly neoliberal atmosphere?

This is also partly covered by the ‘person’, v. ‘self’ discussion. Also in the bit on the informal economy. Some people buckle up and dive into the remaking of the self – though consumption and production (and retraining to work in new jobs and industries). They squeeze the sovok small town out of themselves, sometimes literally (the story about the merchandiser woman who tries to reinvent herself in Moscow). Others, like my favourite Nikita, do everything they can to avoid self-work, including living ‘underground’ in the informal economy, or staying in the terrible working conditions and pay of the local cement factory.

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  1. Finally, most of our understanding of Russia life in general, and life under Putin specifically through the big city—Moscow especially. How does daily life in towns like Izluchino say about “Putinism”?

For this answer I refer to the piece I did for Current History: Putinism has little to say to working-class people and I resist the idea that they are somehow more vulnerable to populist rhetoric (although I’ve written about why they vote for the LDPR). What’s really depressing is how much punishment and lowering of living standards all Russians can put up with. One can’t help but look at Russian politics through the age-old prism of elites’ disregard for human life and human dignity. There is a cynicism at the top and a sense of disconnect from ordinary people that of course one finds everywhere in the world. Only in Russia it is pretty coarse.

But I don’t want to end on that note. Rather I’d like to give the word to one of my research participants:

I’m just a bloke…. Those who know how to work know many other things besides and so won’t lose out. They can do things with their own hands. They get a satisfaction from it – that they did it themselves. I suppose it’s a kind of inner happiness [dushevnyi pod’em]. You’ve just got to try to do it! Don’t be afraid, someone will see and try to help you if you are prepared to help yourself. […] This is where I’m comfortable, my habitat [sreda obitaniia], and I this is where I will stay.

 

Pessimism and punditry

It’s been a long while since I wrote for this blog – partly because I moved institution over the summer at quite short notice. My book also finally came out. I’ve hardly had time to open the hard copy sent to me by the publishers. I’d like to do a lot more micro blog entries about the contents, but for the time being I’ll recap on some of the other stuff I’ve managed to do between moving across the North Sea and adapting my teaching for the rather strict requirements of the Danish Higher Ed system.

One novelty for me over the summer was writing a piece for Current History – a non-academic piece limited to around 8 pages. It won’t be any surprise to other academics to say this was a great opportunity but was also daunting. Here’s the remit:

a piece aimed at general readers that might delve into themes you’ve focused on, such as the informal economy, working-class life in monotowns, and the effect of Western sanctions on Russian workers. Ideally it would also provide a brief sketch of the history of Russian labor relations and particularly the transformations seen since the end of the Soviet Union.

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Uralvagonzavod in ‘tanktown’ – I talk about this in the piece

 

Arrgh – how to give that coherence in what is a short piece in comparison to full-length articles of 20 pages?

The full piece is here [Paywall!!]: http://www.currenthistory.com/Article.php?ID=1347

With the description:

Russia and Eurasia: October 2016

Working-Class Resilience in Russia

Description: “Workers form the exemplary class of economic, social, and psychological ‘losers’ of the postcommunist transition.” Second in a series on labor relations around the world.

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Random pic of dubious relevance

 

As you can see from the mini-abstract – I went with a kind of popular class analysis – working-classes of emblematic of the social and economic costs of postcommunism, but also the loss of status and sense of psychological security that many people felt in the socialist period. This isn’t original – David Kideckel in particular does a really good job of bringing out the ‘losers’ argument in relation to Romanian miners in his work. Of course, on the resilience front there’s been lots written from different angles – from Sarah Ashwin on ‘patience’ and endurance of Russian workers, to this recent Reuters piece.

What was instructive for me in writing this piece based on the material for my book was how to write to a set of subheadings in a short piece. This is something I’ve recently encountered elsewhere – writing for the BBC (for an internal report). Just today, when struggling with a mass of data (28 focus groups), it was actually really helpful to be told by the subeditor: “the subtitle should tell your readers what you want to say!!!” Yes, we academics really are that buried in the detail that we can’t see the wood for the trees.

The Current History piece is split into such subtitles as follows:

[Preamble]: workers don’t look to the state to help them, even though the state has tried to co-opt them politically with things like the All-Russia People’s Front.  Workers have formidable potential structural bargaining power but are relatively poorly organised. The overall institutional wasteland that is the Russian state means that it lacks effective feedback mechanisms to understand how badly Russian workers have fared in the last 7 years.

Slow Bleeding is a 600-word section on the erosion of employment and pay over the last 25 years for blue-collar work. I talk about this a lot in the book. Also I talk about the effect of ruble devaluation on real incomes. People even in Russia don’t believe me when I tell them how much people live on. Sheesh!

Lost Guarantees is a shorter summary of how the loss of social benefits is still really keenly felt.

Monotown islands talks about the geographical isolation of industrial towns in Russia (the metaphor borrowed from Finn Sivert Nielsen). Again, I indicate the potential relevance here for politics as it is easy to ignore these places until the anger boils over, like with Pikalevo in 2011.

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Kindalike an island I suppose

 

Production Cultures talks about how working class identities remain important, and these are local AND classed identities at the same time. What I like about this section is how I contextualise Russian labour migrations in the middle of the twentieth century as a still living part of a late industrial revolution – with identities still important now.

There are a couple of other sections, including on the significance of the informal economy and autonomy in work – two big topics in the book.

I round up with a very pessimistic section on the unlikeness of significant working-class protest in Russia – why? Because of the infinite capacity of Russians – not just workers – to put up with being punished by their state.

Here’s a snippet:

“On the face of it, Putin’s ‘system’ has effectively sidelined any potential militancy by workers. While the mechanisms each taken separately are relatively weak (anti-union laws, political-co-option), they pale into significance in comparison to the one big success and the one big truth of the Russian political-economy. And this relates to the whole population, but is most ‘expressed’ among workers. The ‘success’ is the careful management of the media and the general population’s exposure to news. Add in to the that the age-old accelerant of xenophobia and nationalist fervour. A dollop or two of war helps. All of my working-class informants whole-heartedly support all the current military adventures and shudder with disgust at the ‘fascistic’ machinations of the West and its puppet Ukraine. This type of effective populist distraction takes real effort, but is all the more effective in a state where most people get information from the television alone. Second is the one ‘big truth’ – which has already been presented: the bottomless resilience of particularly working-class Russians. They will take any punishment you care to throw at them, and the Russian elite, unfortunately, cynically, know this.”

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Who got the co-opt job? ‘I think that in this context, you, as someone who has spent your working life in industry and knows how ordinary people live, would be the right person for this job and will be able to defend people’s interests.’ – Putin to the former foreman of the tank factory on appointing him as the Kremlin envoy for Urals.

 

Maybe my conclusion was rather too neat – and this was my major misgiving after writing my first real op-ed piece.

On the other hand, as an exercise in bringing together rather disparate aspects of current research I like it – particularly it forced me to read up more on the political moves to co-opt workers and that fitted nicely with a forthcoming piece my colleague Sarah Hinz of the University of Jena and I have on new workers’ movements and unions in the European Journal of Industrial Relations – will be out in a few months, if not before. Here’s the abstract:

 This article compares industrial relations in production sites in Slovakia and Russia owned by a single transnational automotive firm, Volkswagen. We analyse the empirical data using a working-class power approach. In Slovakia, associational and institutional power is well developed and influenced by the model of German work councils, but structural power is weakly exercised and unions rely on non-conflictual engagement with management. In Russia, structural working-class power remains strong, but the opportunities for transforming this into lasting associational, let alone institutional power, remain limited; thus new unions make use of unconventional methods of protest to promote worker interests.

 

 

Post-socialist working-classes as subalterns?

The relevance of ‘post-colonialism’ to post-socialist contexts just keeps cropping up in the most diverse of places (Snochowska-Gonzalez’s recent piece, and my colleague Kevork Oskanian’s work), so while it’s not the main focus of any of my work at the moment, it’s definitely worth making some space to think aloud.

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A book I’d like to have written! – another thing that prompted me to write this post was rediscovering an essay I wrote in 1997 about the Zapatistas and Franz Fanon.

What initially kicked off my interest in the applicability of the term ‘subaltern’ was its use by David Kideckel in his 2002 article: ‘The Unmaking of an East-Central European Working Class’ in Postsocialism. London: Routledge, pp.114-132. In the undergraduate class I teach on anthropological approaches to post-socialism, I ask students to read that article alongside this one: Stenning (2005) ‘Where is the Post-socialist Working Class? Working-Class Lives in the Spaces of (Post-)Socialism’, Sociology, 39(5), 983-999. Then I ask them the question: What do you understand by Kideckel’s use of the word ‘subalternity’? Compare it to Stenning’s discussion of passivity?

Most of them feel that Kideckel is justified in using it. But, this is probably not really a fair question, as most of the students haven’t yet been exposed to much in the way of literature on post-colonialism.  Because of that, I usually give them a crib sheet like this:

In postcolonialism, subaltern is the social group who are socially, politically, and geographically outside of the power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland.  The term subaltern derived from Gramsci’s work on cultural hegemony, which identified the social groups who are excluded from a society’s established structures for political representation. It is a matter of debate whether he meant to use the word in place of ‘proletariat’.  “Subaltern is not just a classy word for ‘oppressed’, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie. . . . In post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern—a space of difference. Now, who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern. . . . Many people want to claim subalternity.” (Spivak, in de Kock, 1992).

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But how does Kideckel use the word? It really is fundamental to his argument that post-socialism sees the imposition of a form of neocapitalism. For him, transition theory underestimates the pace of change in the 1990s and after. Neocapitalism is a ‘social system that reworks basic capitalist principles in new, even more inegalitarian ways than the Western model from which it derives (2002: 115). He then gives a strong hint that he sees this as related to the argument that transition can be compared to neo-feudalism – which is confusing given that feudalism and capitalism are normally seen as distinct stages of accumulation. Actually he relates the present predicament of his Romanian workers to that of peasants in Braudel’s ‘long sixteenth century’ and neo-serfdom – whereby peasants were nominally free, but landless, and still tied to a wage-paying landowner (see Makkai 1975). In this sense, Kideckel aligns his position to that of World-systems theory (Wallerstein and Eric Wolf) and the latter’s call for giving voice to the ‘people without history’, but who are always present and part of processes of globalization.  Accordingly, Romania is caught in a system of dispossession sees a Western ‘prototype’ reworked to establish a dependent semi-periphery in CEE.

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[By the way, Michael Hudson’s blog has a nice take on how neoserfdom as a term can be accommodated into the neoliberal ‘compact’. http://michael-hudson.com/2014/01/n-is-for-neo-serfdom-o-is-for-offshore-banking/ ]

So what about the subaltern? Kideckel continues his analysis by using words like ‘durable inequality’, and ‘degraded supplicants’ to describe workers. The mines close and workers, already towards the bottom of a knowledge-based division of labour under socialism, are structurally relegated again. Kideckel notes that Rudolf Bahro (1977) used the term sub-alternity to describes workers under socialism. Bahro, who also coined the term ‘actually existing socialism’, argued that workers were cut off from involvement in the ‘plan’ and forced to do the psychologically and intellectually deadening work of routine production (Gabbert 1983). Subalternity is therefore the ‘condition of psychological and intellectual narrowness experienced by those whose work provides no opportunity for aesthetic and mental growth’ (ibid). This sounds a bit woolly to me. Kideckel is much more robust – in fact he provides an eight-point definition of subalternity under post-socialism which boils down to lack of information, knowledge, representation, class solidarity, symbolic capital, and the dissolution of social networks of support.  This sounds a lot like the more recent concept of precarity to me.  The 2008 Kideckel book doesn’t have an index entry on subaltern, but does have a chapter talking about the othering process of workers.

The reason I ask students to compare Kideckel to Stenning is because of her use of the term ‘passivity’ and her concern with the need to foreground a ‘middle-position’ of agency between passivity and organised industrial action. That brings us nicely to Robert Brenner’s critique of the world-systems theory that Kideckel implicitly draws on, which he argues neglects local class structures and class struggles: ‘They fail to take into account either the way in which these class structures themselves emerge as the outcome of class struggles whose results are incomprehensible in terms merely of market forces.’ (Brenner 1982). Criticisms of Bahro revolve around the rise of worker self-organisation in Poland in the early 1980s as a refutation of his position. And all this relates to a potential criticism of the subaltern label as effectively denying any sense of agency. It is a long time since I read much on colonialism, but the term ‘subaltern’ brings associations of utter powerlessness to mind. In my book, I talk a bit about Bhabha’s work and make use of bell hook’s famous quote on the dangers of academics thinking they can ‘talk about you better than you can speak about yourself’ – the dangers of academic interpretation on behalf of the subaltern redoubling that positioning. However, I don’t want to rehearse those arguments here. The main point is that Stenning is right – there has to be a balance between inflexible structurated and naïve ‘resistance’ positionings of the post-socialist working-class.

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As so often in such circumstances, I look for help in Burawoy’s work on Hungary and Simon Clarke’s still under-rated work on Russia.  Burawoy famously noted that workers developed a ‘negative’ class consciousness – they held communist governments responsible for not fulfilling their promises of worker’s ‘inheriting the earth’ (1992: 114). Clarke makes a very good job of explaining how the potential structural power of workers was (and remains) high, yet they remain atomized politically. He goes to great lengths to criticise the argument that the soviet system was a form of state capitalism. Instead he proposes it as a form like feudalism (What about the workers? 1992: 26). Here were are back again at a term that links to a kind of subaltern positioning, and the present.

Just like in Burawoy’s context of late socialist Hungary, we now also have social and economic conditions not keeping pace with workers’ expectations, and a new urban middle-class growing and claiming ‘too much’ of the economic resources. Clarke says that in the late Soviet context workers were subordinated in a sense that was comparable to capitalist alienation. For Clarke, class struggle could not develop as it was displaced into factional struggles in the other structures of power. Kideckel (2002, 2008) stresses the ‘unmaking’ of a working class in Romania; the pace of ‘neocapitalist’ forces there leads to extreme declines in workers’ fortunes. By contrast, Stenning and Adrian Smith emphasise the domestication of neoliberalism by ordinary people – effectively their uneasy accommodation with it – using the informal economy and survival tactics taught by socialism to get by. Repoliticisation is not offered as an option – except perhaps recently by Don Kalb. But the ‘political’ response can take many forms, as any history of colonialism shows. If we accept two conceptions of subaltern – Spivak (silenced), and Gramsci (denied political representation) and then add Clarke’s ‘subordination’, as well as a good dose of alienation and the continuation of atomization, then surely subaltern works as well as any other term.

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The centre of Kaluga in 2009 – one of my informants took me to this spot to illustrate a point about ‘powerlessness’ in Putin’s Russia.

But what about Burawoy’s ‘negative class consciousness’? – it implies, after all a political articulation of the worker’s objection to his or her positioning. Maybe ideas like ‘proletarian refusal’ are ways of linking the post-socialist workers’ tactics with those of the traditional subaltern of colonialism. Indian swadeshi stressed self-sufficiency and the ‘refusal’ of the colonisers’ goods and economic settlement (Manchester cloth). Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire use the term ‘proletarian refusal’ in name-checking Kelley’s black working-class history of the US. There are plenty of points of intersection between the tactics by the subjects of my research and Hardt/Negri’s ‘nomadism’, ‘refusal’ and ‘vogelfrei’ metaphors. (The latter – ‘free yet rightless’, derives from Marx’s own kind of Bhabha-esque interstitial conception of workers between feudalism and capital – seemingly used by Hardt/Negri as a metaphor more positive – making a virtue of precarious positioning). The tactics used by people in my research in relation to what they perceive as a ‘bad’ formal jobs include actual ‘refusal’ of formal work, engagement with informal or subsistence economies and work, self-provisioning, and other ‘tactics’. I suppose one of the real tests of the term subaltern, is the ability of groups of the dispossessed to turn tactics (boycotts of British cloth or sugar) into viable long-term strategies. A strategy, in turn means they are no longer ‘subaltern’.

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A ‘tactic’ of the powerless? graffito demanding ‘equality’ in central Kaluga, 2009.

Keywords: subaltern, post-colonialism, Kideckel, working-class,

The ‘lumpen’ and postsocialist academe’s class blindness

This post is a bit at cross-purposes – I’m writing about class from so many angles now.

First we have the old ‘lumpenisation‘ of the masses argument as a convenient peg on which to hang explanations of Putin’s popularity and the so-called passivity of Russians. Here’s our scapegoat:

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Testament to the unorginality of the argument today is that the comparison is implicitly made to Bulgakov’s objection to the Russian Revolution.

Then we have the issue of academe’s built-in middle-class perspective in any society – it reproduces bourgeois conceptions of politics, even as it makes a pretense to being ‘critical’.

But in Russia and elsewhere in the East it is worse, as any study of working-classes is like academic kryptonite – associated with the ideological straitjacket of the socialist era when all academic work had to pay lip service to a painting-by-the-numbers Marxism-Leninism.

A year ago I was asked to write a ‘review’ piece justifying the need for a new working-class studies in former communist societies. I agreed enthusiastically, but because of my book project I put the idea aside until a few weeks ago. I am not going to give details of the journal yet, as the piece should be out for blind peer review.

Anyway, I finally got back into it but immediately there was a problem – how to summarise in 4000 words the rich patina or work going on not only in social sciences – particularly ethnographically, but in labour history and elsewhere? In the end I’m not really happy with the result which is bitty, and still rather disorganised. I still like the first bit though, where I argue that in Russia in particular, normative assumptions about class are everywhere, even as ‘working-classes’ are made invisible or rendered passive ‘bydlo’ (yes Latynina, I’m looking at you!), prey to populism and the latest ‘ura-patriotism’ of Putin’s state machine.

Two recent publications really stick out as confronting this issue and I’d like to engage more with them: First is Don Kalb‘s edited book Headlines of Nation, Subtexts of Class. (I need to write a review of this soon!)

Second is this really nifty piece on Slovakia by Brian Fabo that arguably renders my own efforts rather superfluous: Rediscovering Inequality and Class Analysis in Post-1989 Slovakia.

The original impetus for my piece, however, was reading Natalia Zubarevich’s ‘Four Russias‘ pieces and discussing them with my Political Economist colleague, the wonderful Richard Connolly. I then came across Anatoly Karlin‘s well-reasoned objections to Zubarevich’s position. While I don’t share his pro-Putin agenda, the highlighting of the elitism and barely disguised contempt of ordinary Russians by the intellectual opposition is spot on (more in the comments than the actual blog).

Anyway, here’s the first bit of my piece – sans the references, maybe I should tone down the sarcasm…

Class is everywhere you look in the post-socialist world. The media are awash with stories about aspirational yet ‘normal’ ‘European’ lifestyles and the desirability of gated communities. There is the endless discussion of ‘communist-era’ mentalities and outmoded concepts such as social justice and cohesion.  Popular culture is rife with trashy stereotypes of ‘low-lifes’ and track-suit-clad petty criminals that serve as thinly veiled fantasies about the dangerous lumpenization of the post-socialist working classes. Given the persistence of semi-authoritarian governments in the former Soviet Union and resurgent populist politics in Eastern Europe, social protests are analysed for what they reveal about the growth of the middle class. In scholarship too there is selective attention and selective invisibility.

In Russia, one of the least democratic and largest of the post-socialist states, the liberal English-speaking intellectual elites bemoan what they see as the political compliance of ‘ordinary people’ to the government’s revanchist, chauvinistic and authoritarian agenda. Pensioners, rural dwellers, but even more so the blue-collar workers of the industrial ‘hinterlands’ are seen as a dangerous class of political conservatives, or worse, in Central East Europe they are seen as easy prey to populist neo-nationalist movements (Kalb 2011: 7).

Easily written off in this way, the road to modernization and democratization is reserved for the ‘creative class’, a construction that belies the continuing widespread reality of low-tech manufacturing and resource extraction which underpins many of the regions’ economies. Indeed, many of these states have become sought-after sites of manufacturing because of the new consumer markets they offer to transnational corporations. It is strange that we write off the study of workers at the very moment they may serve as a revealing crunch point at the meeting of unbridled neoliberal capital and disembedded labour between global north and south.

Just as once the working-class were the ‘vanguard’ of revolution and progress, now the ‘creative class’ are a talismanic ‘locomotive of modernisation’ and social transformation of these countries into ‘normal’ polities. ‘Middle class’ comes to stand for class studies more generally, but with little or no acknowledgment that in CEE this group still remains a ‘spirit seeking a social body.’  Similarly, when it comes to work and organizations, scholarship often focuses on the genuine success of the creative and new media industries, while the bread and butter of the socialist era – blue-collar work or the factory, is rarely the object of research, except as a form of ‘ruin-gazing’ (High 2013), or as part of the study of urban renewal and deindustrialization.