Serving not the prince, but the people. Roundtable reflections on Russian fieldwork Part 2.


Photo by Lina Yatsen on Unsplash.

The previous post began my reflections about this rountable I attended last week at IGITI in Moscow. Круглый стол «Полевые исследования России: своя/другая страна»

Now I continue some relatively rough-and-ready thoughts.

— Как воспринимается исследователь и исследование в поле, как происходит вход в поле (и выход из него)? Какие возникают трудности и как они решаются?

[- How is the researcher and research perceived in the field, how does the entry into the field (and exit from it) take place? What difficulties arise and how are they solved?]

For me this question revolves around building trust and overcoming two problems – particularly important for foreigners. These are typified by two reactions foreigners get when they initiate contact with field interlocutors. 1. ‘Why would you study us? There must be an ulterior motive’. And, 2. ‘Ohh, foreigner, I’m wary of saying anything that might be construed as politically critical of my own country’.

Solutions. 1. Long term rapport building, holding oneself back from ‘mining’ for specific, quick and dirty insights at the expense of really inhabiting the world. Developing a public language of research ‘worth’ – ‘This is important to the wider community/world because by talking to you we can better understand X’. But, at the same time, paradoxically, it might be apposite to not hold oneself back and to sometimes ‘display’ and ‘perform’ one’s ideological basis for doing the research – especially if you think it’s neglected, etc. The paradox is that the two approaches are somewhat opposed, but then they ‘aim at’ the same thing – persuading one’s interlocutors of the worth of their input.

Solutions 2. For me the only solution to this is like the purloined letter holder in Poe – have the letter (the political context) on full display but to ignore it. Eventually (and it took 8 years for me) some interlocutors start to point to the letter you are holding – they start to get surprised themselves that you’re not mentioning it. Perhaps the elephant in the room is a better metaphor. But I like the idea that the political implications of your research being understated, ‘hidden’ in plain sight even, but the point being that you don’t mention them, merely let the interlocutors initiate any political talk.
— Как на выбор темы и на фокус исследования влияет собственный бэкграунд, характеристики и опыт исследователя?

[- How do the background, characteristics and experience of the researcher affect the choice of the topic and the focus of the study ?]

Rather than focus on the problems of bias, and of reading too much of the Russian context through the concerns of the origin country of the researcher, here I think I’d make a pretty obvious comment that hunches and life experience are actually a great way to build up a scholarly justification for the relevance of studying something. I use this example a lot but I have a lot of time for scholars like Simon Charlesworth who come to research through their own experience of, for example dispossession and despair, but also anger and thirst for sharing this neglected life experience with others. However, of course this does depend on being well versed enough in two levels of scholarship – the general field studies that relate to your object of interest and at least a few conceptualisations that pre-exist. We had this argument in the roundtable itself between people taking extreme positions that one should know ‘everything’ about the topic in advance that exists in scholarship and journalism, and the other, that one should go into the field ‘cold’. I don’t agree with either…
— Какие теоретические рамки и концепты используются в исследованиях? Требует ли местная реальность местных концептуальных подходов или для её осмысления достаточно общепринятых зарубежных подходов?

[- What theoretical framework and concepts are used in research? Does the local reality require local conceptual approaches or is it enough to use generally accepted foreign approaches to understand it?]

Again this question highlights for me some of the dirty secrets of ethnography and anthropology more widely – the re-packaging of ‘emic’ concepts in a way to make them sexy and accessible in the global core. Inevitable perhaps, but at risk of doing symbolic violence at the very least, and at worst, downright misleading to a scholars’ audience. In particular, I think something of relevance to a Russian audience is the overtheoreticisation of empirical research as a problem. There’s a very big ‘philosophical’ baggage in Russian-focussed anthropology that I think is easy to overlook.

So while some scholars feel they need to ‘justify’ their research based on very complex thinking from philosophy, often ‘classical’ texts, equally there’s something of a neglect of some of the ‘obvious’ but important social theorists who surely have much to say today – Foucault and Bourdieu. Perhaps we are living through a time where fashion is changing, but not for the better. I mention these two, not because I think they are the ‘most’ relevant to someone doing social research in Russia (though they probably are!), but because time and again I feel resistance among some people to engaging with these thinkers over less obvious (and perhaps sexier or exotic choice).

Perhaps this is one point where an outsider perspective is useful, and of course I would say that the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition in thinking might be useful to this. This is why I like what’s going on in critical geography at the moment – which of course is largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. It’s not a de-theoreticizing movement, but a grounding, critical perspective that takes ‘big theory’ hats – like geopolitics, and turns them inside out. By doing that it sees if they still ‘fit’ the head when emptied of the normative and hegemonic. So from geopolitics such scholars move to ‘anti-geopolitics’ in order to look at grassroots practices – ‘in the streets, in homes, in jungles,’ ‘off the page’, as Koopman calls it (2011).

She gives a nice example of an analysis of blogs out of Baghdad as an example of this – (Gregory 2004). But basically the idea is to problematize how ‘elites write space’ and to ‘see’ how geopolitics is peopled and how people have agency. The point of bringing up this example is that it is theoretically, or rather conceptually rich, without being obfuscatorily obsessed with theory. At the same time, these scholars emphasise how science cannot and should not be divorced from ideals of solidarity and collaborative theorising with the oppressed. Serving not the ‘prince’, but the people. This is of course not a new argument, but I think it again underlines how ‘extractive’ sociologists and anthropologists are in reality and how they are often in denial about this.

On foreign and native modes of fieldwork in Russia: postpositivism, interpretivism and extractivist field research. Part 1.


I was invited to take part in a roundtable on fieldwork bringing together ‘foreign’ researchers working on Russia with ‘native’ ones. Here are some of my notes. I’ve split them into three parts and here is the answer to the first question (that we agreed on beforehand).

Какие существуют принятые способы и стандарты полевой работы в вашей дисциплине? Каковы типичные сочетания методов, использование каких методов проблематично?

[What are the accepted methods and standards of field work in your discipline? What are the typical combinations of methods; which methods are problematic?]

I’m interested particularly in the degree of acceptance of interpretive methods beyond their ‘origin’ in anthropological social constructivism, phenomenology and hermeneutics. To what degree does a very open commitment to post-positivism find fertile ground or, indeed, resistance, in Russian research environments where fieldwork is a key method. And I think this is equally relevant to Russia/non-Russian universities because of the ‘colonisation’ by both humanities and social sciences of ethnography in recent years. My own experience, in a political science department for 10 years, allowed me a very small glimpse into the world of political ethnography and organisational studies, as one example of this. And one small set of literatures that I got exposed to was concerning the interpretive turn in political science associated with Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea  – a ‘new’ commitment to ethnography by political scientists and those looking at studying international relations, and organisational and policy studies.

For more on this see this piece on the isolation – ten years ago – of polsci people doing interpretive ethnography.

[It’s a paper on the ‘perestroika movement in polsci’. – a call for a more pluralist approach to political science. Even though I’m guessing that many people are not so interested in ‘hegemonic’ research design based on experimental modelling as in Polsci, the implications of the movement are relevant to all disciplines in making us think about ‘methods hegemony’ in our own disciplinary corners. We also need to be aware of how methodological expectations can be used to discipline ‘unruly’ scholars (for example, accusing them of being less productive because of their ethnographic methods). It does strike me that this struggle in US Polsci may have some relevance to those contexts in Russia where there is a strong positivist tradition in social research.]

However, at this point I should raise my main misgiving about the interpretive methodology, as understood by some political scientists and not only them. There’s a danger here that ‘interpretation’ can be just a repackaging of discourse analysis and can draw scholars further away from the fieldwork of moments and of presence, just as they feel more confident about entering it. It’s more of a hunch than anything, but I do see a lot of scholars figuratively sigh with relief in their early writing and research when they fall back into a very close analysis of speech – really getting into the coding of words of interlocutors and not paying enough attention to the ‘bigger picture’ of their ethnographic interaction. This also relates to the ‘time’ in the field – and I know this is a difficult issue due to funding and commitments. However, perhaps a dirty secret of the new wave of ethnographies is how thin (some of them) really are – both temporally, spatially and, dare I say it, empathetically. I don’t want to single out any of the ‘new’ adopters of ethnography – like political science. In fact I think this ‘dirty secret’ of superficial and rather ‘extractive’ ethnography is just as true of some ‘traditional’ anthropologists.

So what I’m saying is that the varieties of ‘content analysis’ are never enough and can even be a dangerous trap – substituting ‘text’ or ‘textuality’ of lived experience, for embodiment, and even, objective observation (e.g. these people sell mushrooms because of poverty), and subjective observations from the field ‘these people like living here because it seems like a relatively pleasant part of town regardless of what they say about it’. This brings to the fore the researcher in something of a more honest way, I think, whereas discourse analysis can, in the wrong hands, become a rather ‘dishonest’ research practice that hides a multitude of sins – like the ‘extractivist’ mode of fieldwork.

[the point above echoes a point Bourdieu makes about the distinction between linguistic and social dimensions of ‘text’ – see Judith Butler ‘Performativity’s Social Magic’. At the same time he is aware of the problem of subjectivism – that ethnographic practice can ‘forget’ that it doesn’t inhabit the social practices it reveals and so also neglects that it is a translation. Butler also timely reminds us that the linguistic and the social dimensions of habitus can’t really be separated, contra Bourdieu. I guess one thing to take away from this debate is the degree to which our research practices are ‘practical mimesis’ of others’ research. What are the doxa we write in and to?]

From here there’s a point I’d like to make a point about the value of participant observation (PO), which I see less as a commitment by fieldworkers (for structural and economic reasons as much as desire), and this is something true both of Russia and non-Russia work. It seems to me that all over the world there’s a great moment now for PO – whether in NGOs, bureaucracies, activist groupings, but, to give an example in the urban activism book I’m editing, any PO is really buried, when it needn’t be. I’d also argue that to really understand today’s Russian state – it’s ‘incoherence’ as I like to call it, we desperately need more organisational ethnographies from within, and that’s something foreigner researchers in Russia certainly can’t do.

On intellectual journeys without destinations in Russian studies


Some flats in Russia. Image by Natalya Letunova @naletu

I gave a talk at NYU Jordan Center just now, and they decided to get their money’s worth by asking me to do an interview. I hate these kind of things, as I’m a not a great ‘on-my-feet’ thinker, so I prepared a written reflection on the questions they pre-sent me. I think they are quite a fun exercise for any researcher to undertake as a way of pausing to reflect on their own practice.

Here are the questions and some of my answers. I’m not going to link to the actual interview and I hope this doesn’t come across as too self-indulgent.

  • Can you briefly describe your current research, and describe how you initially became interested in it?

My research on ordinary people and the everyday looks quite weird on the surface. My background was in literature and philosophy, not sociology or anthropology. However, a lot of my PhD study focussed on a particular ‘naturalistic’ and ethnographic form of fiction writing in the late USSR. One of the aims of that writing was to uncover a hidden reality – a ‘warts and all’ look at the dirty underbelly of urban working-class life. Most importantly though, it was also ‘sociological’ writing in the sense that it looked at things like work-relations, the black market, criminal violence, ‘organic intellectuals’, etc, – mostly taboo social ‘problems’ that mainstream literature couldn’t touch, and which dissident literature wasn’t interested in. Most importantly, this literature was interested in the ‘voices’ of the voiceless.  So in a sense I was primed by my literature study to then transfer that interest into the social science domain.  I was also primed in that I spent a time living in Russia in the 90s before my PhD, and it was striking to me when I entered traditional Russian studies faculties, how few scholars were interested in the ‘everyday life’ of people in Russia.

  • What is the major conclusion of your research to date?

It’s worth paying attention to the small things – research is increasingly beholden to media interests in Russia – which are about ‘big’ things like authoritarianism, corruption, kleptocracy, state violence, nationalism, but all these things are ‘generated’ or ‘play out’ in ordinary everyday contexts.

  • What’s one thing you’ve learned that surprised you?

How politically conscious and sophisticated and nuanced ordinary people are – an insight for political research generally and for Russia in particular. Of course, only a person working in the media or academia or policy community would make this elementary mistake.

  • How has feedback helped shape your research?

Feedback from as many disciplinary perspectives as possible, from Working-class Studies (which is located more in literature and cultural studies) on rustbelts in USA, but also feedback from people who work on postsocialist spaces but who are firmly situated in Critical Geography. It’s more important to me to get exposed to different literatures than to look for people to comment specifically on technical things like writing.  On the other hand, the more I write for academic journals, the more I doubt my ability and willingness to adhere to the sometimes rigid and narrow interpretations of what a good journal article is. So increasingly I value peer-review feedback – even when it is negative, as it forces me to think not just about academic writing, but about epistemology. What is ‘valued’ as knowledge in the academy is undergoing quite rapid change.

  • How do you make your work relevant?

This is always a loaded question because relevance is in the eye of the beholder. I think it’s a mistake for anyone but the most mainstream scholar to look at the ‘news agenda’, instead I think you need to identify communities of scholars. But of course as my work is about contemporary Russian society it’s a given that I should look at what the media is saying and what’s happening in politics. There is certainly something powerful in the trick of presenting what perhaps looks like a very ‘ivory tower’ argument, but then finding something very concrete in the media that proves your point.

  • How do you keep your personal bias out of your work?

Bias is inevitable – it can’t be avoided and anyone who says so doesn’t fully understand the history and the philosophy of science. Instead, you should try to be in touch with your biases and indeed they can intuitively lead you to some interesting places. Everyone believes that something about their research is ‘true’ – but all those truths are ideologically nested. Science should be more of a story about why you think it’s true. In a scholarly process, the body of knowledge you produce should somehow feel like it belongs to you. It’s more a process of being aware of what your own ideological positioning is, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Thomas Basbøll recently wrote that the purpose of academic writing is to ‘share our reasons for believing things, so that others may understand us or challenge us as they will.’ See

  • What is your favorite aspect of your research

I enjoy all the things in my research. One of them is the feeling of learning more from people, even though I know the people in my research for more than 20 years. Coming back to them and not trying to be too clever in asking them about relevant things to my research – Being too obvious or direct often doesn’t work. For example, for this talk I just did at the Jordan Center, I went back to someone and felt like asking, ‘how are people resisting the state now, given these big political changes in the last 2 years? How are they talking about the constitution?’ This is a recipe for disaster! I would not have got any ‘good’ answers. Instead, we just fell into a conversation about cars, about utility bills, about the lack of jobs. And hey presto, a while later (that’s why patience is a good thing) I learn that a friend of mine had just ‘swapped’ out his car engine for a more powerful one and illegally neglected to update this vehicle passport registration! A big tax saving and an example of ‘ordinary resistance’ to the state.

  • Can you describe some of your experiences conducting research in Russia?

I just finished reading Kristen Ghodsee’s short book of reflections on her fieldwork in Bulgaria. She has some amazing and shocking stories – even the non-fictional ones are unbelievable! I have of course been in a lot of scrapes because of the kind of fieldwork I do. Like the time I helped a random guy on the street who was so drunk he couldn’t work out how to use the push-button ignition on his fancy new automatic car (most people are used to stick-shifts – as am I). After looking under the bonnet (hood) of the car, trying various things, I finally worked out that the car needed to be in ‘drive’ for the push button to work. He was so grateful. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was that he was the brother of the leader of a local criminal group – who insisted on providing me with some rather ‘extended’ hospitality in the next town. Another ‘experience’ is ‘by chance’ getting the opportunity to work in an underground (illegal) factory for a short time.

However, the most abiding ‘experience’ that I think is important is ‘aimlessly waiting’. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that the current moment is not relevant – waiting in a park for someone to come home from work to deliver their acquaintance subsidised medicine. The whole concept of ‘meta-occupational community’ that I develop comes from there. Listening endlessly to a person talk about their former life in Turkmenia and how they don’t feel Russian. I thought it was irrelevant, but it helped me later understand their personal philosophy of post-materialism due to this traumatic experience of leaving everything behind in Turkmenia. Another example is the revelatory feeling on going beyond the immediate field – being reluctant to go to Moscow with my small town interlocutors, but then realising when I actually go there that I would learn a whole lot about coercion, grief, exploitation, and local patriotism.

How to structure academic books (monographs): a dilemma


I’d like to share a banal but important insight about writing books. However you structure your academic book, someone isn’t going to like it (the structure, and probably the contents too). This has struck me quite a bit recently as I plan my third book, and as I regularly read and review others’ manuscripts.

I don’t think we are honest enough about this. And the more I read and think about this, the more I think we need to challenge existing assumptions, models and ‘logics’ of what a scholarly monograph looks like.

All finished books contain the ghosts – often suppressed – of other pathways towards presentation of the same, ‘raw’ data or ideas. This post will be a little thinking aloud particularly about ‘philosophical’ decisions I’m having to make now right now. These are less about structure – although that can’t be separated out, and more about ethos, voice, fine-grain v. broad-brush, and the positioning of the author.

Fundamentally, based on my previous publishing experience – which is quite varied, the questions come down to the following:

  1. How to move past the ‘easy’ option that makes books resemble traditional PhD dissertations?
  2. How to provide enough ‘context’ (history/politics, whatever) without sacrificing ‘working’ – i.e. empirically fine-grained data that really show you know your material?
  3. What to do with the imperative to ‘speak’ to a group of peers – whether that’s a discipline or something else, without falling into the trap of a rather dense, sometimes isolated piece of ‘theory diving’ that few will want to read?

From these three we could break it down further into any number of subsections. Here are a few that are bugging me right now.

On structure (points 1 and 2). A major problem is how to introduce a place and a group of key informants. It is possible to do this in a stand-alone chapter. It’s also possible to have a stand-alone theory chapter, or even a ‘here’s all the politics and history of the fieldsite’ chapter. I know some people can pull this off and this is often what happens as a PhD is turned into a book. However, ‘the theory dump’ is often a tell-tale sign of a weak, uncoordinated monograph – i.e. a sign that not enough time and effort has been taken in moving from PhD to book. I think in field-work based social science monographs writers should really be looking to ways to avoid all of the above ‘easy’ options.

On the other hand, the lack of an upfront theory presentation raises the problem I encountered in my last book – readers criticising it for being undertheorised. One usual solution is to have a kind of 3-step presentation – and that ‘three-step’ is itself embedded within a number of empirical chapters. It goes: Empirics, plus Theory, plus ‘Here’s how my empirics move theory on’. Or a variation on that ordering. Other approaches can be novel. I’m struck in re-reading Alice Mah’s book Industrial Ruination, how she presents three case studies and then three thematic chapters. Mah is also striking for her relatively light theorising approach – some will like it, others not. I cite Mah here as an example of a field-work generating, post-PhD career monograph.

Anyway, this post was part inspired by my planning a new monograph with the structure of the previous one in mind. At the same time, each time I read a monograph I can’t help but see it as a potential template. A case in point was recently re-reading Simon Charlesworth’s A phenomenology of working class experience, which was published 20 years ago and appears to be based on a PhD. There’s clearly a lot to learn from Charlesworth given his book has nearly 800 citations (5 times more than Mah for what is a much more difficult and narrower book in a less cited discipline, albeit published more than ten years earlier). I’m very sympathetic to various choices he makes about voice, structure, and the weaving of theory and empirics. At the same time, you can see traces of the imposition of a PhD-like structure that are less successful. In fact, I suspect that Charlesworth would agree that he is most successful where he resists the ‘right way’ of doing a PhD thesis-book project.

Let me leave you with a few examples from Charlesworth on the hard choices of monograph-crafting.

Charlesworth rejects a true sociological scene-setting chapter. He does this with a justification: ‘the demographic and statistical account separates the phenomena recorded from people’s experience of them. In itself it tells us nothing of the impact of these phenomena upon what people think or feel.’ (he’s talking about the decline of the North of England and austerity politics). He goes on to argue that a ‘landscape’ framing is inappropriate because the academic spectator is divorced from a position within the world. ‘This stance is characteristic of anthropologists who […] seek to relate to the particularities of place through the medium of representation’. Another way of putting this is that it’s like thinking about a place you know intimately but confining yourself to explaining it only by recourse to symbols on a map.  – ‘a familiarity born of preconstructured social knowledge’, as Charlesworth concludes.

While his first chapter is largely devoted to laying out theory, Charlesworth subverts a number of expectations – all of them on purpose: he provides very very long quotes from theorists including within empirical chapters. He partially inserts himself in the text and also in footnotes as a kind of commentator on method and style. He tries, not totally successfully, to mimic his research people’s way of talking in textual form in his quotes (which are also very long in places).  He wilfully ignores various relevant currents in contemporary sociology (he even has a footnote that engages in metacommentary of the criticism his MS got because of this). Some reviews of his book were very hostile. Others understood that the form, content and style of the book were themselves political interventions in academic writing.

This narrowing of dialogue is quite interesting in the context of the perennial problem I started this post with: ‘Who do you want to talk to through this book?’ Charlesworth seems to answer this by wilfully framing to exclude debates he clearly sees as not useful. Similarly, the book is theoretically and empirically repetitive in a way that’s intentional – provocative. I’m not saying I’ll do any of these things in my new book. But certainly subversions of convention are something I’m thinking more and more about.

Extraction, Erasure and excremental excess (My ASEEES 2019)


This will be a mainly descriptive post about a panel I attended at ASEEES 2019 (the US Russian Studies biggest conference), in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to act as Chair and Discussant on a panel about Extraction and Erasure in Post-socialist spaces.

Artan Hoxha from Pittsburgh gave an evocative talk about a terra incognito – an area of South Albanian swamp that slowly was transformed over the course of the later 20th century by the Albanian state to become a sugar producing area. When it was rapidly abandoned after communism, Artan was mostly interested in applying the term heterotopia to the processes this landscape was subjected to, including the placing at the centre of this wilderness another wilderness – a secret forest grove used only by the communist elite for pheasant shooting and invisible on the maps. Heterotopia was  useful to Artan because it shows how a noplace becomes subject to mapping by the state; how closed systems are ‘opened’ up; and how inequalities hidden in societies are revealed through uses of space – how different economic systems produce different types of exclusion and inclusion. Heterotopia is a mastering concept, but a loose one.  He draws on a reading of Foucault where heterotopias are ‘real places that manifest imagined realities’ and on De Cauter, who sees heterotopias as spaces that ‘convey and enact the contradictions of the society that has produced them is unable to solve’. One comment I made as discussant was how striking was the absence of people themselves from the story of this place and a lack of emic terms to describe their experience of change. Artan is completing a PhD on this topic and so I eagerly await the other chapters of this project. One potential point of intersection with other work done on comparable projects was the concept of hauntology, which I’ve sketched out elsewhere. I also need to cross-check how his approach squares with the recent work of Verónica Gago, who makes use of heterotopia to think about the meaning of counterfeiting of clothes and consumption in street markets (linked to what she calls ‘neoliberalism from below).

Natalia Koulinka from UoC Santa Cruz, using mainly newspaper sources, provided a really interesting account of two strikes among Soviet miners in 1989 and 1991. She aimed to show how their demands fundamentally changed between the two sets of strike actions to move from narrow demands to more political ones as they sided by 1991 with Yeltsin. For me this showed an interesting paradox. Workers inadvertently opened themselves up to an emergent neoliberal system by embracing piecework – i.e. to be paid for according to productivity results and market prices of coal. Of course this was because they rightly surmised that they were very underpaid. However, as a result, they ended up proposing their bodies as ‘private property’, believing that the market would allow worker control as a solution to inefficiency – a kind of neoliberal autonomism! – a propertizing of the self that meant that when domestic coal lost its value, they to were devalued – despite a parallel call for collective ownership of the mines. Their calls for greater wage differentials reminded me of the ‘inadvertent’ neoliberals argument put forward by Olga Shevchenko in a very different context of post-socialism. Like other postsocialist selves, they embrace an idealism about marketized reform (efficiency of the market, just reward for work). Natalia’s paper is important because she shows how it was not just liberal intellectuals who were ‘guilty’ of this.

This insight potentially linked the papers in this panel. I was much reminded of Aronoff and Kubik’s book chapter criticising Sztompka’s notion of ‘civilizational incompetence’. Katja Perat’s paper that followed Natalia’s, focussed on how Central European intellectuals end up ‘sacrificing critical thinking’ due to their eagerness to claim their Westernness in the face of the ‘civilizational’ threat of communism. Katja’s reading of intellectuals’ Hapsburg nostalgia, in her view, allows later 20th century history to ‘carry all the blame’ for CEE ills. With obvious implications in the politics of the region today.

It was very striking how Natalia ended with a personal note – that as a former citizen of the USSR she had never imagined how any Marxian framing might be relevant to historical scholarship. In fact for most of her adult life she had strongly believed that Marxism could be no more than crude propaganda in service to the state. Her paper reminds us that the work of self-reflection is still ongoing among intellectuals about their idealisation of non-communist systems and anti-communist modes of thought because of an understandable personal allergic reaction to actually-existing socialism.

The final speaker, Katja Perat from Washington U in St Louis, did a switcheroo on me – changing her paper from one of which she dwelt on the demonization of communism among CEE intellectuals, to a more focussed reading on the meaning of the toilet bowl in the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera! In the first paper she criticized Kundera’s proposal that CEE had been kidnapped by communism – and the interpretation of it as a tragedy of the later 20th century. In this newer paper, Katja employed Žižek to explore the khazi as a space of revelation, inspection and revolutionary expulsion. The bog symbolises class vertigo under communism – the emptiness below us and that we are destined to fall. This complitshitfest (®) was a wonderful end to our panel, but my scrappy notes illustrate how difficult it is for a chair/discussant to follow a read-out paper without prior access to the written version. And this despite my enthusiasm for excreta-examining and scatological scholarship. If I was to give Katja advice it would be to look at what Georges Bataille [opens as a pdf] has to say about excess/excreta (sfw) and maybe bring in Mary Douglas on matter out of place…

I may come back to my (largely positive) ASEEES experience in a subsequent post. There were plenty of interesting papers, and it was an important event for moving forward with a collaborative project on Russian Urban Activism, led by Regina Smyth and involving Andrei Semenov, Perm State University.

What do we mean when we talk about studying ‘the everyday’ in Russia?

Market scene in Russia

contested use of public-space, forms of consumption, strengthening weak-ties – a lot happens in ‘everyday life’.

I have an admission to make. Even though my book was called Everyday Postsocialism, while I was writing it I did not reflect much on the term ‘everyday’.

Part of this is perhaps forgivable. The logic of the book was pretty clear – to understand today’s Russia we should for a moment look away from the ‘big politics’ that dominate research agendas and the media, and turn instead to how ordinary people go about their lives. Fundamentally, my project was, and continues to be: how do we avoid making Russians into passive victims of change?  At the same time, their responses should not be reduced to defensive strategies of survival. That’s why I entitled my first article on the topic ‘beyond coping’ [authors version here].

A useful guiding idea came from Michael Burawoy’s complaint here [pdf opens automatically]:  “Whereas in their earlier writings they focused on the ingenuity of the subaltern classes in coping with socialism, the way workers and peasants challenged and transformed state socialism in the microprocesses of everyday life, Szelenyi and Stark now turn to the elites engineering embryonic capitalisms. Their analyses exclude subordinate classes, which in effect become the bewildered—silent and silenced—spectators of transformations that engulf them”. This was part of a review on Making Capitalism without Capitalists.

Recently, I was forced to confront the ‘everyday life’ usage a bit more explicitly because I decided to focus in some teaching on ‘everyday life’ with a group of undergraduates preparing for fieldwork and language study in Russia. Preparing for this made the genealogy of my own thinking about the everyday clearer.

Of course, when it comes to informing undergraduates, I thought that it was important to start with a reading of the term byt – a term in Russian for ‘everyday existence’ that has a long and troublesome genealogy. The word helps explain the longstanding Russian intellectual interest in contrasting ‘everyday life’ (as frustratingly meaningless or mundane routines) with more ‘essential’ modes of being and action

Svetlana Boym traced the binary opposition of byt and podvig (‘feat’) in the nineteenth century. This includes the binaries action/sacred/spiritual as opposed to private life/practical achievement. Thus byt as a negative, maps on to (self-orientalising) notions of Russia’s civilizational ‘difference’ (think of the opposition of ‘spirituality’ to Western individualism/rationality). This was easily adapted to the USSR context – ‘feats of labour’, ideologization of everyday life to be always about something ‘bigger’, mobilisation and militarisation of social action, ‘struggle’, ‘storming’, the ideological disapproval of privacy, ‘bourgeois’ personal interest, etc.

As a key reading I asked to students to read in parallel Catriona Kelly’s ‘Byt: identity and everyday life’  in National Identity in Russian Culture, and Olga Shevchenko’s ‘Building Autonomy in Everyday Life’ in her Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow. I will come back to these texts in a further post. But for now I want to return to my own pathway towards seeing the everyday as worthy of research.

It starts with my literary studies on a writer, Evgeny Popov, using ‘naturalistic’ depiction of everyday life in the late Soviet Union to work against the grain of ideologically correct meanings of art and literature. At times his focus on the mundane and humdrum, as well as ‘lay existentialism’, for want of a better phrase, borders on the absurd. In some ways there is a debt to Chekhov, and I found both Cathy Popkin’s book, The Pragmatics of Insignificance and Stephen Hutchings’ Russian Modernism: The Transfiguration of the Everyday, really useful in understanding this. Key characteristics in Popov are inconsequential detail (‘incidentality’), natural, earthy speech (a taboo in Soviet literary fiction), the ‘grimy’ and gritty underside of urban life, something like raznochintsy of the late Soviet period (people of indeterminate social standing who struggle to articulate themselves).

It’s perhaps no surprise that my subsequent ethnographic work owes a debt to the dialogue between Chekhov and Popov. A snippet from my book on Popov proves surprisingly predictive of the tension in my ethnographic materials: Chekhov switches attention from ‘the major to the minor in order to bring out the hidden significance of the trivial incident; its rhetoric is still part and parcel of a modernist search for meaning, opting for the possible revelation of truth within the ‘prosaic’. In Popov, the revelatory mode is entirely absent. […] the shift itself from significant to insignificant fails to yield up a narrative perspective that would illuminate the prosaic.’

It’s kind of funny reading that now. The ‘failure to yield a perspective’ chimes with some critical responses I got to my first ethnographic book published 12 years after my literary PhD. Certain ‘big picture’ expectations of ethnographic studies of contemporary Russia proved a problem for the publisher I wanted to go with for Everyday Postsocialism. One MS reader really, really didn’t like my approach, writing rather brutally:

 ‘The author avers, almost proudly, a lack of a scientific approach for this work, by rejecting the need to work from an hypothesis. That’s ok. Interpretation is still de rigeur in many anthropological circles and his commitment to recounting lived experience in holistic manner is quite reasonable. However, despite this claim, the ms makes frequent and broad theoretical generalizations…. there are no data here.’  

The Reader expanded, saying that fundamentally my framing of everyday life in the Russian town as ‘habitability’ added little or nothing new to the literature – essentially it was a mundane observation that was self-evident – people make do in their difficult circumstance. However, I would argue that that was precisely the aim of the book – to bring out and give voice to ordinariness – even the mundaneness but also deeper meaning of quite extreme things like alcoholism, family conflicts, the black economy, and fragile infrastructure (blackouts/heating failures). I hope to come back to other postsocialist treatments of ‘the everyday’ soon and talk about how they uneasily sit with the literature on ‘resistance’ – something Olga Shevchenko writes about.

I chose ‘habitability’ as my master concept precisely because it was the one term that was ‘emic’ – i.e. that ordinary Russian people continuously used themselves via comments like feeling secure and safe in their ‘среда обитания’ or saying ‘нам хватает’. In the book I talked about it as “a hotchpotch of practices made ‘on the fly’, but which are informed by long-standing class-based values and allegiances”.  Stressing mundane practices as making life more than bearable was part of a “propertizing of marginal spaces in a way that allows the maintenance and expansion of the horizontal social network”; Habitability was also connected to “expectation of minimal social insurance indirectly though social wages and its post-socialist echo.” My first MS reader really didn’t like all the heavy lifting this term was doing. We could have a long conversation here about the communication difficulties between anthropologists and sociologists! Certainly I was guilty of overuse and under-explanation of various theories.

However, I think ‘habitability’ does work in bringing out what I mean when I use the term ‘everyday’ too. It links the economic to the moral to the social to the ordinary logics of how people go about their everyday business. It also then helps reveal aspects of political culture and how they might change over time. We’re back to the question of passivity. Everyday life in my fieldwork was partly about a kind of ‘always on’, networked class-based sociality – it was a lot of partially unprompted ‘dropping in’ on others and also calling up, and ‘nudge’ social media use.  This in turn was strongly linked to developing opportunities in the informal economy to reduce reliance on waged work. The nature of both waged work and the forced informal scrabbling for a dime was linked to ideas about dignity, injustice, state-society relations, governance, taxation, corruption, and so on in melting pot of ordinary thinking through of the nature of Russia’s political economy. And everyday practices were both a response to that, but also examples of agency.

The most enlightening new thing I read in preparing for teaching ‘the everyday’ was by David Ransel. He suggests that to avoid a narrowly reactive ‘tactics of resistance’ approach (something criticised by Olga Shevchenko in the same volume), it might be more useful to think, via the work on Yuri Lotman, of the everyday as not only practices but of the building of a local language to describe reality – a kind of domestication and re-shaping of hegemonic meanings. Ransel ends that section with a useful piece of advice: “everyday life studies must be more than good local history. They have to show how local action modifies our understanding of macrohistorical processes”.

Putting in a good word for the Russian bourgeoisie

small shop in Russia

A typical small independent shop in a provincial town now under a lot of pressure from cartel-like supermarket chains.

A shorter version of this post appeared on

As anthropologist James Scott once said, ‘it’s time someone put in a good word for the petite bourgeoisie’. Shopkeeper-owners, small independent professionals and traders fulfil essential social and economic functions in any society but are especially important in modernizing ones. Sooner or later they turn into a middle-class with property rights and economic interests to defend. They are seen, even by Marxists, as a motor of political change.

However, in Russia the growth of a real middle-class and a healthy private sector is hindered at every step, largely in favour of a state-big business nexus. Whole industries – particularly in strategic sectors, are managed by state-owned monopolies, and have preferential access to banking finance, as Ilya Matveev points out.

The idea that the Russian political economy is a hybrid form of ‘state capitalism’ is widely accepted. However, less attention is paid to how these processes affect entrepreneurship generally and the wider implications for society. Coercion to gain access to wealth and the violent form of corporate raiding are also widely studied. However, elite insiders’ appetites for unearned wealth and sources of economic rent mean that even small businesses are subject to ‘taking’, rather than ‘trading’, to use Gerald Easter’s terms. This reflects a ‘maturing’ stage of insider elites and the way natural resources have already been ‘gathered back in’ by the state.

In most societies, the diversity of small and medium sized businesses – made visible in town and city centres – is seen as a key indicator of the health of the economy, and society more generally. If ‘mom and pop’ businesses are driven out of business, goes the logic, it’s because bigger capitalists have preferential access to power or the state, and because taxation and regulations are too burdensome for smaller operators. Russia suffers from both these structural obstacles and things are getting worse rather than better. To explore this we can start from the big picture and progressively narrow our focus to show how entrepreneurs are increasingly squeezed out and how informal ‘micro businesses’ are now one of the only viable alternatives for those without patronage from system insiders.

One way of understanding this is by looking at the share of ‘entrepreneurial incomes’ versus employment wages.  In 2000, it was 15%, but in 2018 it had dropped to 7.5%. Incomes from property are microscopic – 5%. So much for a broad property-owning class. The number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is falling by 6-7% a year. We can also look at the average size of firms as an indicator. Labour researcher Stephen Crowley argues in a forthcoming book that Russia is an extreme case of the privileging of large enterprises. 80% of employment in manufacturing firms is in large companies, only 10% of the country’s workforce is employed in SMEs, versus 70% in the EU. Moreover since the Russia-Ukraine conflict and its economic side effects, consolidation has intensified, with the vast majority of closures in small and medium firms. There is plenty of evidence that monopolies and cartels are growing and competition falling. David Szakony reports that 14% of firms in 2016 reported they had ‘no competition’, a rise from 1% in 2013. Yet the number of ‘unfair competition’ court cases heard has fallen over the same period, while the Federal Monopolies Commission is notorious for pursuing SMEs in bureaucratic actions. Szakony summarises: Since 2014, SMEs have been squeezed by ‘skyrocketing interest rates, unsustainable tax burdens, and uncertain protection for their property rights’.

That the conditions and prognosis for SMEs are so bad is very visible in the Sisyphean efforts of the Minister for Economic Development, Maksim Oreshkin. Today Oreshkin is quoted as saying that preventing the stagnation of small business requires ‘work to increase the confidence of the business community in the state (both in regulation and in the system of enforcement) and reduce administrative costs.’ The report carrying the quote adds, ‘According to him, all these areas are enshrined in the list of key structural reforms.’ The problem is that all the signs are that for good reasons smaller businesses don’t trust the state.

Schemes like low interest loans for restaurants and small shops are a drop in the ocean ($30m), and almost exclusively go to ‘connected’ insiders at regional level. Indeed, this scheme is in fact a policy reversal – a similar scheme was discontinued because it mainly benefited the banks and was abused by businesses with political connections. In Kaluga region in 2017 (where my fieldwork sites are), for example, all the subsidized loans went to four companies owned by a single individual.  But even if the scheme provided fair access, an individual entrepreneur in a low-margin business (which is most shops) would find this a risky proposition.


In addition, for retail businesses there will be a broadening of the ‘compulsory barcoding’ of products to allow the state a real-time assessment of turnover.   While the idea behind these changes is to simultaneously prevent tax fraud and help small businesses by taxing their actual turnover, it is expensive for small shops to install and service. An online ‘cash register’ requires much more work in marking stock and inventory control . Finally, proposals like ‘inspection holidays’ to protect ‘conscientious’ business from excessive regulatory attention, only underline how much predatory and corrupt power bureaucrats have over small businesses. While the rate of some inspections is falling, there has been a sharp rise in ‘unplanned’ visits by regulators – up 74%). Regulatory inspection in Russia remains  a key area where bribe-taking can occur.

These dynamics are most observable in the changing patterns of shops and SME employment in small and medium sized towns. In the town of 20,000 people where I conduct field research, only two independent grocers remains, down from more than a dozen in the early 2000s. Three chains of mini-markets have taken their place – very convenient, but a classic example of cartel-like behaviour. One is owned by a state bank, the other two by oligarchic interests. This pattern is mirrored more widely – around 40% of trade is controlled by large retailers and the trend is increasing. The poorest areas do without the chains completely but even here a genuine local entrepreneur will struggle.  A vocal observer in this has been the controversial business commentator Dmitrii Potapenko, who in 2017 offered a stark analysis – ‘a seven rouble difference in the price of a loaf of bread is a critically significant sum’ (then around 10 US cents) illustrating the extreme price sensitivity of consumers. Potapenko has been in the limelight again just recently, commenting on cryptocurrencies. This was against the backdrop of discussions about the self employed ‘going into the shadows of cash only’, [ушли в кэш], the merits of employees demanding the option of payroll in cash, and the use and abuse of the Federal Law 115-F3 on money laundering that allows banks to freeze business accounts. While there’s more heat than light in the discussion, it highlights how trust of the banking system is still highly relative, and, as we’ve seen with even high-ranking politicians, cash is king!

But back to the suffering of small business under insurmountable pressures…

A similar trend to that seen among small shops is observable in employment, whether in services or manufacturing. In my town, small producers of steel, building materials, and plastic manufactures have either gone to the wall or sold up in the last ten years. Some of this is a natural process as many of these businesses were left-overs of large and outdated Soviet-era enterprises. A few with very special niches will hang on, but most are dying out. The local owner of a steel fabricators employing around 100 people, recently sold out to a conglomerate, tired of bureaucratic sword of Damocles, fed up with competing with Chinese imports, but mostly exhausted by the experience of being an entrepreneur in Russia: ‘in business you need to know when it’s time to leave,’ he told me. Another more optimistic entrepreneur had just opened a high tech laser-cutting materials workshop with around 20 employees – just the kind of business Russia needs, making good use of its still impressive human and technical capital. However, it turns out this venture was more out of necessity than choice. His prefabricated building business had been ‘taken over’ by competitors, against his will, and another side-line in printing merchandising materials and school textbooks was frozen due to a seemingly endless tax inspection.

However, this doleful picture is not the whole story. There has been a statistically measurable rise in start ups – in micro-businesses – defined as having 15 employees or less. While starting small is typical the world over, in Russia it has specific connotations. The smaller the business, the more potential there is for it to disappear into the informal economy and escape taxation and regulation partly or entirely, especially as the law on self-employment is unclear, as discussed in a previous blog post. Indeed, one informal fix to burdensome and predatory state regulation is spinning off part of a business into the underground, a phenomenon I’ve witnessed first-hand. A large proportion of the informal economy is connected to micro-businesses – largely made up of sole-traders.

If the state wants to support legal micro business, one way would be to bring back their most visible incarnation – the street kiosk – typically selling newspapers and magazines, hot food and beverages, or even clothes, domestic goods and toys. While long bedevilled by issues like mafia extortion and high rents, these micro-retailers are making a comeback outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. While the demand is clearly, there is a long way to go, and many municipalities are not keen on these small businesses. There are some 16,000 kiosks nationally, down from 42,000 some years ago. Certainly though, the resurrection of the kiosk, along with the high number of informal sole traders shows that entrepreneurialism is alive and well in Russia. However, that this is limited to the niche of individual self-exploitation – whether in street kiosk or shadow economy self-employment – is far from the dream of popular ownership of the means of production that James Scott lauds for its emphasis on autonomy, civic society potential and self-reliance. We’re back to the argument about Russia’s ‘missing’ middle-class (Balzer’s phrase)- or at least the entrepreneurial conception of it.

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

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

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


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.

Riabov, O. and Riabova, T. (2014) ‘The decline of Gayropa? How Russia intends to save the world’, 5 February 2014 Eurozine

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’hidden’_attraction_of_Russia

Kosachev, Konstantin, (2012) The Specifics of Russian Soft Power. Russia in Global Affairs, 3, 2012.

Viatcheslav Morozov (2013) Subaltern Empire?: Toward a Postcolonial Approach to Russian Foreign Policy, Problems of Post-Communism, 60:6, 16-28:

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:

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.

Flemming Splidsboel Hansen Russian influence operations Trying to get what you want DIIS POLICY BRIEF 30. OKTOBER 2018

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.

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.]

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.

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.

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:

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),

Alternative version:

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,

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


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

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.

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

Levada (2013) ‘Novyi opros ob LGBT’, Levada Centre 3.07.2013

Wiedlack, K. (2018) ‘Quantum Leap 2.0 or the Western gaze on Russian homophobia’, Adeptus, 2018(11).

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.

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. 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 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. 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:

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.

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

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.

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,

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

Ilya Matveev, 2014 The “Two Russias” Culture War: Constructions of the “People” during the 2011-2013 Protests, South Atlantic Quarterly 113(1):186-195

Summary Task:

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. 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,

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.

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


Moscow protests, the stifling Sobyanin embrace, and a tale of two societies.

Inked2019-08-03 14.38.50_LI

DIY social protest in my locality against the costs of living. ‘Leeches on the body of the town’.

I’m still mentally digesting the extreme push-back I’ve encountered in the field this summer against the Moscow protests.

In the meantime here’s a holding thought based on a viral video of a woman interviewed a couple of days ago. Asked about the protests she responded along the lines of : ‘I’m for stability.’ She’s asked to clarify: ‘Is this a good form of stability?’ She answers ‘Yes’. Then some kind of extreme anger clicked in and with a smirk she said ‘If the liberals come out on the street again I’ll fuck them over with chains.’

What’s interesting to me is that this extreme hostility to the protesters is closely echoed in my small sample of Muscovites, but not among my provincial or ‘working-class’ people. So my main conclusion is that people who are hanging on to their tenuous middle-class life-styles feel threatened by change more than the ‘have nots’.

There’s also a generational aspect to this that I’d like to explore more (particularly as I’ve been inspired by Mikhail Anipkin on this topic). I have to say I was shocked talking to a couple of Moscow pensioners well known to me. One of them used to be very ‘anti-Soviet’. They were very hostile to the protests and in particular vilified the ‘young idiots’ taking part. I shouldn’t have been shocked of course.  For one, both these people exclusively get their news from state-controlled TV and radio. But more importantly, these are people who are most comprehensively ‘cushioned’ by the state and Moscow government, and perhaps naturally fear change. Their pensions and Moscow city benefits mean their ‘real’ disposable incomes are in fact higher than most working people in the rest of Russia. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Moscow pensioners are comfortably off, or undeserving of social support.

Without sifting in detail through our conversations their responses contained the usual tropes showing the effectiveness of mainstream media’s aims of inculcating cynicism and passivity: ‘Don’t rock the boat, you might fall out…. Anything to avoid a war….. Stability is worth any price… How is it different from the ‘yellow vests’?…. Protests achieve nothing…. There’s corruption everywhere…. Putin has done so much for the people…..’ Certainly part of what’s at work is ‘naive monarchism‘, but rightly that definition has been criticised and can only very sketchily describe those that see Putin as doing his best to act as arbiter. Perhaps generational cohort analysis alongside looking at incomes and privileges would be useful – certainly some scholars are working on more nuanced evaluations of support/critique of the status quo.

Of more interest to me and my research agenda was the much more muted and indeed nuanced response of those people outside the warm yet sickly Sobyanin embrace. Mainly the response was indifference, with a few people supporting the protests on the grounds that at least ‘young people’ were trying to stick up for themselves (yes, I know that the ‘youth’ focus is a mischaracterisation).

Continuing immiseration and the bifurcation of society

Locals quickly tired of a conversation about Moscow protest so lacking relevance to their own lives. The overwhelming impression was of accelerating immiseration. For the second time I was shocked. This time by the fact that two of my long-standing friends had completely given up on formal employment and dived head-first into a subsistence, black economy existence.  While I’ve written at length about this before, it was striking how they described the deterioration in living standards over the last year and their complete lack of hope.

I also interacted with people trying to make their way in factory work and who were a little more hopeful. Nonetheless it was striking how even reasonably successful blue-collar workers with or without family rely on short and long-term credit for unavoidable living costs (like automobiles, housing costs).

A big complaint was the high bank rates on loans, something articulated just the other day in an embarrassing public question to the Vice President of Sberbank at a youth forum: ‘why is the rate in Russia for Sberbank on average 13% when in the same bank branch in Czechia it is 6%?’  Overindebtedness is a massive issue moving forwards that is going to bite the state in the backside soon. Debt jubilee and bailouts coming this way? Meanwhile, with real incomes continuing to fall, ordinary people struggle to avoid falling further into debt, struggle with bills and petty fines. The ‘them and us’ bifurcation of society into the precarious many, versus the ‘I’m alright, jack’ few, is accelerating as illustrated by two encounters a few hours apart in my humdrum Russia summer:

A friend, ‘Ilya’, arrives in his beat-up car at the village and borrows a few hundred roubles for petrol (he’s on empty as he has no money as he’s unemployed). We investigate how to fix the leaking roof of his village house.  It would be great if his disabled pensioner mother was able to come out and stay in her favourite place. The only option is to completely strip the roof and relay it, something he can’t afford to do. Thanks to the stupid dachniki (summerhouse dwellers) who feed stray dogs, their population is expanding and they have invaded Ilya’s little garden veranda. He has no lumber to board up the entrance, and in any case Ilya’s old powertools are broken and the extension cord he stole from his last job is on the blink. I borrow a battery-powered powertool from another neighbour and give him a surplus old wooden door from my shed to make the veranda inaccessible to the dogs.  This tiny hut stands on a vegetable plot that could be used to help ease the family budget. However, because Ilya can’t even afford fuel, it’s likely he’ll abandon the plot or sell it at a knock-down price to someone like me from Moscow (the land is desirable as it’s in a national park and has retrospective planning permission due to the shack on it).

A few hours later I have dinner with one of my Moscow acquaintances who, between ranting against the protesters as ‘paid-up liberasts by Western governments’ and faithfully regurgitating a media-driven narrative of the dangers of a ‘Russian Maidan’, discusses their latest European trip and how tired they are of the poor quality service and food in Italian hotels. Conversation moves on to the summer employment of their Central Asian housekeeper who is turning out to be a bad investment,  and who will be sent packing at the end of the season. All the food we eat at this dinner is bought from good Moscow supermarkets. These dacha visitors do not buy anything from local shops here in the provinces.  Another guest is surprised by the absence of the cleaning lady that the hosts used to pay to come by taxi from the local town to dust and do dishes. Talk moves on to the latest expensive purchases.

I have no more words at the moment.


A newspaper report on the reality of the high tax burden for Russians which quickly disappeared from any online versions.  While criticised for inaccuracies, it more or less shows that direct and indirect taxes in Russia equate to the so-called ‘high’ tax societies of northern Europe.

A tax-paying non-democracy? Or, ‘don’t touch people who live by their own resources’


Russian tax authorities boast of record collections in the last couple of years. In 2017 collections were 20% higher than in 2016. At the same time the number of taxes is expanding, with new ecology, waste and telecoms taxes, to name a few, as well as the consolidation of ‘duty’ payments into federally enforced taxes . There are signs the Tax Service is growing in confidence, recently proposing to expand its juridical scope to regain control of criminal cases against business.

Are these signs of more effective state, and thus the potential for its bureaucracies to serve more than a few citizens? Or are they examples of the centre’s fiscal cul-de-sac, as it seeks a human replacement for falling natural resource revenues (encapsulated in the recent idea of ‘people as the new oil’). In this post I will review the significant recent changes in taxes that affect individuals (businesses are important but will be dealt with another time). A shorter version of the post appeared in, along with a Russian translation.

First, we need a little history. Russia’s flat-tax is famous as one of the first, boldest reforms of this type in the world with a big cut in income tax from a higher rate of 30% to 13% in 2001. However, Putin’s first years were characterized by even more radical neoliberal taxation reform across the board that built on the IMF programme of 1998 in response to Russian debt default.  The flat tax was part of a package that included lowering corporation and other taxes, and increasing tax collection via VAT. These changes arguably helped small and medium businesses and gave a kick-start to both the legitimacy and bureaucratic logic of the Tax Service going into the 2000s. Employees and entrepreneurs alike were eased into the new economic system, all thanks to the flat tax and low profit taxes. Why was this important?  For ‘cultural’ as much as institution-building reasons. Income taxes in the late Soviet period had generally been very low. Taxes were less ‘visible’ as deductions in socialist societies, and the link between them and the provision of services was equally opaque (Alm et al 2006). People more often linked ‘social security’ to the visible and significant paternalistic obligation of their employer, not the state. Thus ‘tax morality’ was an issue in the 1990s, and arguably remain so today. (aside: it still surprises me that scholars don’t make more of the fact that for nearly 80% of the population, incomes declined year-on-year for nearly ten years, so the fact that tax ‘morale’ was low is hardly surprising – see Alm et al. 2006).

The fundamental idea of a flat tax generally is to expand the tax base – reports vary, but perhaps a majority of people who should have paid income taxes in the 1990s did not. This continues to be important in Russia because of the large size of the informal economy and the fact that it dominates in how people calculate their real incomes (perhaps the majority of people have a ‘white’ income – which is subject to income tax, and an informal extra income source, which is not taxed directly). Tax revenue has been always rising, but from a tiny base in 2000 and is thus not a very meaningful measurement considering GDP has grown much faster. Indeed, as a share of GDP, Ukraine better qualified now as a ‘tax-paying state’ than Russia.

Like other flat taxes, the Russian one has no allowances (which are typically set at a level around the minimum wage, as it is in the UK, for example). Therefore, even the very working-poor pay it. In addition, there is a ‘hidden’ regressive element in the form of the employer’s obligatory deductions for social insurance and pension contributions. The more you earn (starting from an income of around 14,000 Euro a year), the less as a percentage of income the employer contributes. Taking into account the employer and employee deductions, average income-related taxation is more like 33%. (Only medical insurance contributions are not regressive – hat-tip: Ilya Matveev).

Lack of allowances and the relatively large burden of pension and social insurance deductions are major disincentives to register self-employment income because it is so variable.  Moreover, there is little or no evidence that the tax reforms really improved revenue collection, productivity, economic activity and trust in the general fiscal system (Kryvoruchko 2015; Appel and Orenstein 2013). More likely, the rapid improvement in the Russian economy after 1999 was the cause of higher revenues – incomes increased, not compliance (Ivanova 2005 et al [opens as pdf]). The fact that this story is rarely heard is a measure of the dominance of orthodox supply-side economics to this day. In fact, the IMF often criticised the introduction of flat taxes, citing the already weak fiscal position of former communist countries (Domonkos 2015).

Fast-forward to the late 2010s, and against the backdrop of inadequate natural resource revenues the Russian state has returned to the thorny issue of taxes in earnest. However record income tax receipts are only a small part of the story. In Russia personal income taxes have only ever been a small share of all tax-like revenues (Gaddy and Gale 2005), as in Soviet times. Direct personal taxes as a share of all taxes and as a share of GDP are around half of that found in other highly-educated, and industrialised market economies.  Despite this, there is little sign of any political will for a return to progressive taxation, even though it might raise significantly more tax from the 11 million ‘better paid’ Russians. More important is the repeated failure to tax the self-employed and the 2019 changes to taxation of land and property.

Let’s take the self-employed first – remembering that even for people with jobs, ‘side-work’ is an important category for making ends meet. Until the Ukraine/sanctions crisis in 2014, personal income derived from the informal economy was effectively ignored by both politicians and the bureaucracy. It is true that the most visible self-employed were ‘tax registered’, perhaps best symbolised by quasi-private transit operatives (marshrutki drivers operating as lone, or ‘small traders’ in tax terms). However, the vast majority of ‘tradespersons’ and individual service providers – from electricians to home-visit beauticians, operated in a black hole – their complete bureaucratic invisibility was part of a permissive deal with society. This ‘compensated’ for extremely low disposable incomes from formal work, at the same time as allowing ordinary people something of niche in an entrepreneurial climate increasingly dominated by large firms with ‘connections’ to those in power. However, that niche is rapidly disappearing due to the expansion of state-connected large firms.

After 2014 the government put more energy into pursuing the self-employed, to bring them into the formal purview of the state, including taxation, licensing, national insurance, pension payments, etc. The latest version of this is the ‘tax on professional incomes’ starting January 2019. However, each initiative has failed, but for multiple reasons. Firstly, much existing tax law is poorly written, especially concerning definitions of legal persons. Not only that, but the Labour Code too is lacking a clear definition of the self-employed.

Secondly, as mentioned above, the vast majority of ‘self-employed’ are actual ‘side-employed’, not reliant only on a ‘trade’ income. Consequently, they are extremely resistant to the formalisation of what they see as a ‘top-up’ income. In other words, informal work is ingrained as a kind of socio-economic right. This is a legacy of more than the 1990s’ economic disruption, but goes back to way incomes in the USSR were made of multiple components beyond the ‘wage packet’. (Actually there’s a more complex story here too about ‘cultural’ resistance to the term ‘self-employed’ (samozaniatyi) – the historical association with murky ‘trade’ is one reason (to be in trade is to be an exploiter of disorder). Also there’s something about the term ‘entrepreneur’ (the other legal term) and ‘self-employment’ that is devaluing and degrading to people who consider themselves versatile ‘masters’ of trades and ‘authoritative’ individuals in their meta-occupational communities – a term I find useful to talk about mutual-acknowledgement networks of skilled workers).

Thirdly, when the economy not growing and people are economically hurting, they rely even more on the informal ‘cushion’ of side-incomes. Fourthly, the state doesn’t really have as much of an incentive as it appears to squeeze for income tax, as it is regional budgets that depend on direct taxation revenue, not the federal centre (which only takes a cut of 15% of income tax collected).

Finally, and this is important because it contradicts the narrative of the ‘effective taxation state’, the Russia really lacks the political conditions to correct this situation. A fundamental tension in any society is the balance between taxes on incomes versus immovable and trackable assets. And the degree of success in taxing incomes is always a question of consent. In anything, ‘consent’ to the state taking a slice of one’s hard-earned crust is falling, against the backdrop of real declines over the last decade in incomes.

This brings us to the current phase. Alongside ‘regressive’ increases in VAT and ‘sin taxes’, as well as rise in taxes on fuel, the state has learnt that a source of ‘wealth’ that is more difficult to hide than income is immovable property. The real story of changes in the taxation landscape is the big switch to property and land tax, and the lack of awareness of the majority of people about this, as well as the potential ‘compounding’ effect over time of increases in these rates.

Since 2017 the government has undertaken fundamental reform in tax liability of property. One aspect is the shift to assessing immovable property on cadastral value. Cadastral assessment takes into account the real value of land, and so will mainly affect older properties in desirable areas.  Thus, an owner of a three-room Brezhnev era flat of 60 square metres close to a metro station in Moscow will have seen their taxes increase by a factor of six.

There has already been a clear impact, with revenues from this tax rising from 22bn rubles in 2013 to 144bn in 2017, a seven-fold increase. Phased in over five years, at the end of that period the Property Tax will have risen by 20%. This might not seem much given the low starting base of 0.1%, but for houses as opposed to apartments, the starting point of the tax is 0.3%. Strikingly, even structures like garages will be liable for Property Tax.

And this is in addition to Land Tax – in 2019 significant changes were made to this tax as well (local authorities keep this tax). With some exceptions, land with houses on it will attract a tax of 1.5%. This is doubly significant given that previously people only paid a symbolic amount of tax on their ‘country cottage’. Given how many people of different classes and incomes own ‘second’ properties in addition to an apartment, these tax changes are likely to prove onerous and perceived as unjust (pensioners and other groups are exempt from some of them). Property taxes are also likely to accelerate concentrations of wealth even more, and it’s easy to imagine Russia becoming a country of renters, rather than owner-occupiers in less than a generation.

People are now finding out the hard way that immovable property above an arbitrary norm the ‘izlishka’, dictated by the state can be subject to rapid increases in tax over a short period. The izlishka is calculated for all kinds of property and is quite miserly – if you own more than 10 square meters of a room you pay tax on the rest of that room, for example. It is quite common for flats to be divided into ownership by room, even by members of the same family. Thus, even a very modest flat of 42 square meters in a provincial city worth 1.3m roubles will attract a tax of 700 roubles. Not a lot, but given that all taxes fall due at the same time in November, it will be felt as one more example of the squeeze, alongside the near tripling of taxes on waste collection.

These increases have been in the offing since 2011. Back then, the average Land Tax paid was tiny – around 800 roubles a year. State income grew rapidly from such taxes despite the low base – nearly doubling from 2008-2012. Some regions did not apply all these land taxes but the significant change in 2018 is the harmonisation of all regions in the obligatory extraction of these taxes.

Ironically, recently Putin charged the government to investigate the problems of the growth in the ‘population’s tax burden’, asking Medvedev to investigate ‘what is happening in real life, and not just on paper’. What does this reveal? In reality the simultaneous ratcheting up of all kinds of taxes and quasi-taxes – excise duty, land taxes, personal taxes, transport-related taxes and indirect taxes make for a likely future confrontation of elite versus ‘populist’/social-justice political entrepreneurs – as yet unidentified. In the meantime we will observe an intensification of the struggle to formalise incomes, and the equal resistance to do so among self-employed in particular.

Even in  highly developed market economies with long-standing social solidarity and high personal taxes like Denmark see much political debate of the burden of direct taxation, the ‘value for money’ of the enormous tax revenues their systems provide. These are the fundamental tensions inherent in any tax-paying democracy where resource and indirect revenues are less important.  The scholar Simon Kordonsky deserves the final word. Writing about the role of the shadow economy in Russia, his response to the wave of measures to formalize the economy is this: ‘don’t touch people who live by their own resources‘ [za svoi schet]. What he means is that the majority only ‘survive’ today to the degree they can escape the ‘field of view’ of the state. He also gives the example of the rational response to a new tax on heavy goods vehicles’ use of highways: people simply shift to smaller trucks. Taxes are just a form of moving national income from one place to another, or in progressive scenarios, redistributing. But how is it even possible to build a tax-paying non-democracy, when the logic of redistribution functions mainly in terms of a vertical – upwards from the most active, but most powerless, to unproductive elites?