Category Archives: Youth

From unequal Russian youth citizenship to caste- and estate-based perspectives?

I want to revisit the youth topic of my previous post. I offered there a mild ‘check your privilege’ criticism of the limited perspectives of Muscovite middle-class youth. Additionally, I offered an ‘apology’ for non-politically active or non-‘civically conscious’ young people. I basically said that Muscovites (and I would include all ages here, and other metropolitan areas) have quite a limited understanding of the lives of non-Muscovites. This was illustrated in my interviews with ‘older’ people too. I think this is partly a function of the quite narrow social and geographical circles of acquaintance that I observe.

One might object that educated Muscovites travel a lot, not only abroad, but also in Russia and develop friendships and acquaintance with people beyond their Moscow ‘set’. I would agree, but then I would add that this only exacerbates the socio-economic ghettoizing of relations. In that, while my young Muscovites develop friendships with, say, middle-class educated Spanish youth in their travels and thanks to their parents’ cosmopolitanism, their attitudes to ‘deep’ Russia still faintly resemble that of a bygone time. Okay, that’s provocative and unfair, but I was very much reminded of the narodniks when talking to some of the more politically active youth. And I mean that in a negative way – there is no consciousness of the need to connect to the majority of youth who may well see inequality as more important than identity politics. Of course, the narodniks failed, but at least they were aware of the divide between the different Russias (as is today’s Natalia Zubarevich).

As for travel in Russia – this is very much as a foreign tourist in one’s own land. In one case, I had to explain the workings of the Russian railway timetable, and the ‘local’ inevitability of DIY euthanizing unwanted animals, the limited consumer choice (this is actually the most shocking – to some it is incomprehensible that poor people are unlikely to spend a lot of money on fancy stuff, like ‘parmesan’ – cheese again!).

Okay this sounds like parody but it’s true (and I’ve actually toned it down not to offend too much anybody reading this – of course they are precisely those who speak and read English well!). To be fair, some cosmopolitan Russians recognise this split all too well, and even discuss it with me. Indeed some of the more embarrassing moments of my fieldwork are when Muscovite Russians tease me about ‘knowing more about the glubinka’ than they do. Or when I am asked sincerely about ‘what the locals think’. There are sensitive, thoughtful people who are aware of the great social divide and try to bridge it in their lives. However, even in my fieldsite, the real and metaphorically gated communities grow. Frankly, the more I observe this, the more embarrassing it gets. And I am aware that part of the embarrassment is the way in which this post might be read as insufferable arrogance on the part of a foreigner who can never have the same inside knowledge or linguistic competence as the native. Moreover, the idea of a class of Russians as foreigners in their own land is not new (Decembrists’ failure, partisan war of 1812, etc).

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So, why is this important? In the previous post, I also touched on the research I’ve done with colleagues on the ideas of youth citizenship. The split and mutual incomprehensibility of different Russian youth is no doubt mainly due to socio-economic background. However it indicates an open secret about inequality of citizenship as well. ‘Affective ideas of belonging’ was one way of looking at how frustrated young urban Russians were with their inability to get involved in the political workings of their country. Turning away from the insoluble problems is another response. I’m reminded of one of the first times I presented in my old institution in the UK, a Russian colleague approached me afterwards, and with slight hesitation began to question me. Had I not made a mistake in stating that my factory workers in 2009 were only earning 18,000 roubles a month (230 Euro)? In not, was I exaggerating how little they earned. Later on social media, a businessman stated that ‘even shop workers’ earned at a minimum 30,000 roubles a month. Clearly he’d never been to a small town, or even a provincial city. Finally, a couple of years ago, a very senior professor opened her comments to a roundtable with the observation that there was no economic crisis because people in Moscow continued to holiday in Cyprus.

None of my research interlocutors, bar one owns a ‘zagran’ – a tourist passport. To get one would involve taking at least two days off, and travelling to the oblast centre, possibly early in the morning, which is in any case a considerable distance (previously they could travel to the district centre). If a person has been mainly informally employed or self-employed, they may have trouble (or be wary of) filling out the work history form that is required to get a passport. Is it worth discussing ‘affective citizenship’ when the everyday experience of citizenship is so trammelled, or ‘shrinking’, a term sometimes used in a different context to talk about the limited avenues for democratic participation. Shrinking also has relevance when trying to pin down ordinary meanings of citizenship for these same people. Increasingly, people talk about the town, the district, to the exclusion of the national. Their sense of Russianness is localised. Quite ironic given recent focus on the ‘wholeness of Russia’ and increasing use of ‘Russian’ as an ethnic identity marker. So perhaps I shouldn’t be too quick to judge Muscovites for ‘identity politics’.

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Finally, all this reminds me of some really interesting research I’ve recently been engaging with – the first is Simon Kordonsky’s on today’s Russia as a kind of caste-based, rather than class-based society. I recently reviewed his English-language book (previous link) for Europe-Asia Studies. I’m now reading some of his Russian sources with my students.

A snippet from the review here:

“Dividing resources among estates is the core process of social life. Crucially, service not labour is the marker of compensation in this system. Therefore classes cannot fully emerge, instead there are non-titular estates of professionals – Kordonsky enjoys provoking the reader in a running joke that lumps scientists, lawyers, and prostitutes in the same category.  Similarly, persons receive estate rent and ‘pay’ estate ‘taxes’ based on their estate position alone. This is why the visible signs of estate membership are so important (think regalia, uniforms, cars with blue-lights); estates makes themselves known to other estates based on ritualised and symbolic practices, leading to widely accepted notions of ‘distributive’, rather than ‘corrective’ justice.”

Recently too, Anna Kruglova’s work has investigated ‘caste’. Presenting at the EASA in Stockholm this year based on research on industrial communities in the Urals she proposes that increasingly workers “get homogenized and ‘compressed’ back to their sosloviie (caste or estate).

Kordonsky’s perspective is pessimistic. Overall he proposes a static, ‘frozen’ system. Is social mobility possible? Can classes with identifiable interests form? While the democratic, market-based society to which Kordonsky opposes Russia is an ideal type, readers may question so stark a differentiation – after all, in the ‘West’, estate-like phenomena such as the increasing significance of unearned income, professional/estate ‘aristocracies’, barriers to social mobility, differential rights, obligations and inequality before the law also feature to various extents. Is it a step too far to think of Russia as a ‘caste’ society when ignoring how socially differentiated our own societies are?

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Is youth more than just a word? Civic consciousness in Russian youth today

Russia, Sevastopol, Crimea combined rally and concert in Moscow[A version of this post appeared on Ridl in late May. https://www.ridl.io/en/young-russians-are-not-just-young-and-russian/ A Russian version is also available here. With the ‘strapline’: Молодые россияне чувствуют себя неполноценными гражданами, т.к. в стране установлен персонализированный и патримониальный характер предоставления доступа к возможностям, социальной мобильности и привилегиям. I’ll be revisiting this topic shortly.]

Talk about Russian ’youth’ usually assumes one of two modes: either they are easily mobilised by patriotic rhetoric to support the state, or, on the contrary, about to form a progressive vanguard to bring down a corrupt regime. In each case I take a contrarian position. Not for the sake of it, but on the basis of some very old ideas in social research – the difficulty in even defining youth, and the mistake of thinking in terms of group consensus or even cohesive identity.

Let’s take the first point – is ‘youth’ more than just a word? Let’s turn things around – if you’re in your early 40s, are you middle-aged? You probably don’t feel that way. You’re 60. Are you old? I guess you don’t think so. Why then do we expect people who are 20, or 25 identify as ‘youth’? Or even hold positions or perspectives that are coherently similar or correlating to others in such a ‘cohort’. The label of ‘youth’ is invariably deployed by a more powerful group, as a label of insufficiency, of incompleteness. And yet as a term it is frustratingly lacking in explanatory power.

My ethnographic writing on Russia bears out such scepticism. I researched Russians in their 20s in an industrial town in Kaluga Region in the early 2010s. I have also researched relatively privileged and educated young people from St Petersburg and Moscow as part of collaborative projects with Russian sociologists. The people I speak to differ in some ways and are similar in others. In both ‘cases’ I found both political radicals and conservatives. Moreover, in equal measure I met both ‘individualists’ and ‘collectivists’. The best I can do in terms of commonalities is point to a deep need to express young people’s love for and sense of connection with their country, to engage in some way civically. In most cases, whatever their political stripe, youth are conscious that this is quite difficult, if not impossible in today. As a ‘public institution’ youth are objectified by the state either as a ‘problem’, or as a potential group for mobilisation. In either case, they acutely feel that they are incomplete citizens due to the highly personalised and patrimonial nature of access to opportunities, social mobility and privilege.

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Much has been written in the last few years about the visibility of young people in political and social protests in Russia. Who are these people and where do they come from? Undoubtedly this is a metropolitan phenomenon, despite people – including the young Muscovites I speak to – insisting that mobilisation of youth in places like Omsk is important in showing that protest is not just the preserve of the metro-middle-class. However, when I ask these young people the last time they spent time outside Moscow (where I do most of my research) they stumble. There is a real disconnect here. And while they deny it, these sincere and dedicated youth let slip a sense of moral, intellectual and political superiority. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that they would never really consider the idea of building a coalition with other young people. Their interests are dominated by identity politics dictated by privileged backgrounds. When one young woman told me that her strong and vocal opposition was based on personal experience of suffering, it turned out that what she was referring to was the anti-gay propaganda law.  I probed further – what about inequality of opportunity, about blocked horizons for youth without connections? But my 20-year-old students were quite clear that they personally were not, and would not be affected by these, undeniably real, problems. They still believed they could succeed by merit in Putin’s Russia, without ‘connections’. And while they may be personally right, reality tells a different story. Politically engaged, fervent even in their opposition, they were also naïve. They were already sophisticated operators in the Moscow market for opposition:  ‘Navalnyi is a means to an end. We can go to a rally without endorsing his candidature’. But their sophistication was that of the bubble network of Moscow. These were the children of what Simon Kordonsky calls the genuinely ‘free’ and active middle-class, which only exists in big cities and is a marginal ‘estate’ in the stratified system.  They have the most to lose from further political tightening for they exist in a narrowing niche, which emigration is further eroding (in a small sample, small numbers matter). But most consciously make a choice that emigration, for now, is not for them. Indeed, they say, just as proudly as any, that they are civic patriots and that it is youth that has a responsibility to take personal moral responsibility for its country. In general a sense of ‘belonging’ as an urge is important, but searches in vain to connect to a suitable civic meaning. As one young interviewee in 2013 research commented: ‘I do not feel like a citizen. A citizen is someone connected to the state. The state is formed of power… politics… I would not like to be a citizen… the state is over there somewhere and I am here. We exist separately.’

There are other niches as well, more representative of transition to adulthood in Russia. The most important is in the vast semi-formal and informal economy where permanency of employment is unknown. Many survive in a position of economic precarity due to lack of opportunities or the right connections. These include potential allies of the ‘oppositionist’ minded youth: like the IT programmer I know in his 20s, living from gig to gig. Most however have a lower level of education, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also consciously wary of the state. Earning money in the black economy can carry political meaning. For the plumbers, electricians, taxi-drivers and even underground factory workers of my research, it’s more than a convenience that the state is at arm’s length.  It obviates any necessity to make political compromises. It’s a form of freedom, impoverishing and precarious as it is. They make their own society of ‘opposition’ in the back of ersatz taxi-cabs, in garage blocks, and on the summer village plots. Even for those in nondescript blue- and white-collar employment, there is a sense of apartness from ‘society’ or politics. Is that any different from other countries? Well, no. But, the accelerated entry of these ‘ordinary’ (male) youth to the adult world – through the army and then encountering the ‘system’, where they see first-hand the difference in progression between those with pull and those without, makes them cynical and wary of the oppositionist youth. Young women are a different story – there is more buy-in to the ideal of social mobility through educational achievement, which is sometimes turns out to be real but more often, illusory. Youth divisions in a belief in social mobility, and by extension a belief in the ’system’, would be an interesting topic for sociologists to explore in terms of a gendered conformity/non conformity.

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However, there is a third niche for youth that’s more important than ever given the vast resources apportioned to it, and that is the security apparatus. Here I set aside the marginal projects like the abortive ‘Nashi’ movement or the more recent ‘preventative’ work of the Youth Army. I mean the opportunity given (a job, a salary, maybe even a shortcut to a flat) by an ordinary job in the interior ministry troops or special purpose police. Look at the faces of the policemen next time they’re called out to a rally in Moscow. These are the same future-oriented, optimistic, and probably just as critically thinking youth as those they are arresting. One of the most academically gifted kids I ever met in my research actively chose a career in the security forces (after a stint in the army) as a way of escaping small town life. Was this out of political loyalty? Not at all. However, beyond the job security and opportunity, a sense of ‘belonging’ was certainly important.

Here we return to the common feature of all youth, the question of their subordinated place in the order of things and their need for more or less active citizenship. Even for our invisible citizens, theirs is often an actively ‘negative’ sense of citizenship, avoiding formal jobs and the ordering purview of the state. Throughout Russia’s history the idea of visible, or conscious roleness – of the idea of the active young person becoming a part of change, has been a vexed one. This time is no different.