Why an anti-Russian visa policy in the EU is morally wrong and counter-productive

American-Japanese children interned during WWII – “the most atrocious violations of American civil rights in the 20th century”

Yesterday the proposed visa ban on Russians to the EU was widely discussed. One Twitter user, responding to a criticism of it, wrote:

“But the proposals I’ve seen would only limit tourist visas. Doesn’t that mean that Russians would still be able to move to the EU for study and work, or to apply for asylum there?”

These kinds of responses reveal that people don’t seem to know that tourism visas are the only realistic and timely way of leaving Russia if you are at risk. What other possible visa would people be applying for – business? (Where’s your letter from your employer and permission for leave from them) Student? (see below). There really are very few grounds for Russians (and the majority of people on this planet) to claim the freedom of movement that we in Europe and NA take for granted.

Tl/dr – human rights orgs themselves highlight tourism visas as one of the most effective ways of getting to a safe place where claiming asylum is possible.

Asylum is not an option

Let’s quickly address asylum: you need a credible fear of persecution and this is almost impossible to prove or even document for the vast majority of even those who qualify. Just taking the US case, regardless of nationality 60-70% of asylum cases are denied outright. In recent years, Russians seeking asylum to the US via the southern border were more fortunate – only 30% were denied. In the US case, as in other jurisdictions, it may not be possible to even present oneself ‘non-adversarially’ to claim asylum (because of the Catch 22 that the border crossing to claim asylum from within the US was only possible to undertake ‘illegally’).

Once again, it still seems most people don’t understand that Russians cannot claim asylum by going to an embassy in Moscow and presenting themselves – a staple scene of many Cold War films. Other issues I won’t go into here: the shift to demanding written documentary evidence to support a claimant’s narrative; the disturbing cases of deportation (not extradition) of Russian nationals back to Russia from the EU even when they clearly documented high risk of harm (Chechen cases). In the one case of political asylum I was involved in (as a material witness) the case only moved forward because of written evidence from ‘figures of authority’ within the EU, and because of some institutional support from the EU colleagues – without an existing tourist visa (she previously had an academic one but it expired), this person would not have been able to claim asylum in the first place. Some good write ups here of the US process. Meduza wrote up here the sobering facts of how hard it is to get political asylum from Russia in the EU. It covers the case of trying to claim asylum without already having a visa (for example using a transit flight): in short there’s a high risk of rejection and deportation.

‘It won’t hurt genuine need for Russians to travel’

Again, this shows how little people understand. People travelling for non-tourist purposes make a lot of use of tourist visas for reasons that should be obvious, but clearly are not. You need to be in a privileged position in terms of professional network to qualify for an official invitation to get an academic visa – you need a cast-iron reason. A Russian scholar who wants to visit a UK archive to do ground-breaking research? Who’s your UK sponsoring institution? You don’t have one? Tough. You need a bilateral formal agreement between your Russian employer and the UK uni – things that are now largely impossible because of Russian rectors’ support for the war. Want to attend a conference to present important work? We will let you come – only you’ll have to pretend you’re not affiliated to a Russian university. However, without that official affiliation you won’t be able to prove to the embassy issuing the academic visa that you have a need to travel. You also will get in trouble with your Russian employer (who funded your research in the first place and expects you to acknowledge that support when you attend conferences – indeed it’s a condition of your employment) and won’t be able to get your trip funded (attending an international conference may cost over $1000 in out-of-pocket expenses). Finally, people seem to think ‘some kind of official visa’ would solve the problem of Russians fleeing – well again, even an official Schengen usually only covers 90 days. What about after that?

After the war started I followed the efforts of two colleagues who were openly anti-war, who were at risk of arrest and dismissal, and both of whom applied for academic visas to an EU country. One was able to get the visa, but only after pulling strings with the cultural institute attached to the embassy. The other, despite having all the necessary documentation, is still waiting for her application to be processed. ‘If I’d known, I would have just booked a hotel and got a tourism visa to Spain’, says that person.

What about student visas? Well yes, if you’ve got an unconditional university place (!) or you’re studying at a fee-paying private school, sure, no problem (we don’t want to upset those Rich Russians who already successfully laundered their cash through our banks). Oh, and you need to prove access to over £9000 cash.

Let’s be honest: this is about the enjoyment of punishment

So, of course to Ukrainians this sounds like ridiculous special pleading. By all means, if the EU or other states want to limit mobility of Russians they should make a blanket ban and just come clean – this is about collective punishment, not helping Ukraine, not security. Most of all, it is about making the handwringing majority feel better about themselves (‘our government is doing something’). I don’t want to resort to psychoanalysis, but those who propose such measures with gusto should reflect on how their need for fulfilment via punishment mirrors that of people engaging in hate speech – the frisson of hate, the jouissance that is more than satisfaction, but the erotic payoff element of aggression.

But surely governments could be doing something different – more constructive in aiding Ukraine and countering Russia? Indeed, the rush to impound yachts and immovable property owned by some of the most disgusting propagandists and two-bit thieves revealed that even after 2014, EU states were perfectly happy to allow these people to become residents and even citizens – as long as they laundered their money via local property markets.  

‘Be careful what you wish for’

Or rather: what you impose on others, sooner or later gets imposed on you. One of the characteristics of deglobalization, or rather global segregation, is that liberal and authoritarian states are great at learning from each other. Migration rules start off as merely reciprocal between states, but soon spiral out of proportion and become the plaything of the bureaucratic logic of information and accounting bloat. Once again, those with UK, EU or US ones can be forgiven for remaining largely ignorant.

For a long time, the main barrier to Russians visiting the UK was cost – not just of the visa which could cost many hundreds of pounds, but the necessity to prove significant means well in excess of average wages. More recently both Russians and British people have been subject to an arms war in information harvested from them and torture by application form. Here’s just some of the information needed for a Russian visa:

your employer’s address and telephone number and your employment history; your parents’ dates of birth, dates of death, and place of birth; the exact dates of your previous visits and their purpose; your social networking account IDs; all other countries you visited in the last 10 years (dates and purpose); name of your bank; your national insurance number (perfect for fraud); all your expired passport details [here I personally have to give information going back to 1990]; the employment status and details of your spouse if they work for the state; the usual declarations about criminal convictions, crimes against humanity, terrorism, extremism, offenses within Russia, psychiatric or mental disorders ‘dangerous to society’, drug-use; children’s passport numbers and data along with addresses and dates of birth; information about relatives in Russia.

I would stress, most of these demands from the Russian state are due to mirroring UK demands from Russian applicants.

‘Be careful what you wish for’ because tomorrow it may apply to you, and populist migration laws can quickly spiral out of control. By the end of the year I’m sure we’ll be discussing internment of anyone who held a Russian passport after 1991. I didn’t even mention the propaganda victory a visa ban would hand regime ideologues like Soloviev.

Let’s step back: what would an anti-Putin response from the West look like in immigration terms? Well, while I’m personally against discrimination on grounds of education, wealth, and skills, why not offer incentives for Russians with qualifications (perhaps especially skills that otherwise would support the war effort in Russia) to leave?

Finally, if you’d like to read an interesting write up of the important signaling effect of political emigration from Russia, this article by Laura Henry and Elizabeth Plantan is interesting.

‘Exit shows that the regime is vulnerable and that grievances are widespread, increasing “common knowledge” among citizens and setting off an “information cascade” that could increase protests. However, beyond a certain threshold, exit could drain the protest movement and depress voice…. Exit is anything but a “safety valve” for the regime.’  

Are Russians ‘collectively guilty’? Should they be punished as a national group?

Alleyway in Tbilisi, Georgia, with graffiti saying ‘no Russians allowed’. August 2022

Even before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, people discussed the culpability of ordinary Russians for military aggression since 2014 (and in Georgia in 2008 too, presumably). Now today with the Estonian PM suggesting EU countries stop issuing tourist visas, the issue gains new visibility.

“when a new russia invasion of ukraine starts i will personally blame each and every russian citizen who is not on the streets right fucking now showing putin there are going to be severe consequences for his plans of a new ukrainian genocide. хватить молчать, гайз.”

Maksym Eristavi in January 2022

I criticized these comments, among other things saying, ‘individual people (who cannot influence politics or take decisions of state) cannot be held to account for state crimes. They can be held to account for their own crimes. Russian soldiers should desert and avoid service.’ To which an anonymous account on Twitter replied: ‘This is simply not true and you are well aware of this, if not, read some history. You are basically absolving everyone of any responsibility to promote change.’

If as a citizen of a country with a dictator you do nothing to change the situation but instead fulfil your part in society that allows the dictator to continue to build his power, are you partially culpable for the actions of the dictator?

Carl Jung’s writing popularized the term ‘collective guilt’ after 1945. Karl Jaspers thought that collective guilt applied to all Germans: not only those who actively participated in Hitler’s project, but also those who passively accepted their place in German society. A contrasting position is taken by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl. “I personally think that it is totally unjustified to hold one person responsible for the behavior of another person or a collective of persons.” Projection of guilt onto others as groups, according to humanistic thinkers like Frankl, is a barrier to our overcoming of suffering and may lead to ressentiment (suppressed feelings of hatred and revenge) – precisely the psycho-social state many accuse the Russians of. (Ironically, Frankl is central to the Russian psychology curriculum today.)

Jaspers would counter that only an acknowledgement of national guilt would allow victims of an aggressor to accept the moral and political rebirth of that nation. Moreover, the Jaspers argument would be that that no one escapes and that indeed, taking responsibility is part of moral growth. While those directly taking part in war crimes are morally guilty, those who offered no resistance are politically guilty – and share collective guilt.

So, what can we learn from the ‘global gold standard for guilt’: post-war Germany? Historians point out a more convoluted and complicated path – the political manipulation by both Israel and Germany itself of gradations of responsibility. Engert points to the long absence of public ‘confession’ in Germany even after 1951, about how political responsibility was questionably ‘decoupled’ from ordinary people, and how a reparations law took nearly 10 years to come to pass. Surprisingly, a full political ‘confession’ of German guilt, addressed to Israel, came only in 1979, and a plea for forgiveness only in 2000.

Other historians take issue with collective guilt on the grounds that resistance-collaboration is an impossible distinction to draw for the majority of citizens in an aggressor state or those occupied by it. Could Dutch railway workers have obstructed the transportation of Jews they knew were being sent to their deaths? What about actions where reprisals were out of all proportion (as they were in occupied territories in WWII)? Is the decision not to shoot a Nazi as good as collaboration?

Some would see further historical parallels: like in Germany, the active political opposition has already been destroyed and its leaders locked up or forced to leave. Nonetheless, like in Germany, many people of different political beliefs but united in opposition to the regime and war engage in small acts of defiance. Further, it is not enough to excuse the rest, who ‘did not keep their distance from the cheering masses’. While no one is free of scrutiny of the security services and coercion can be brought to bear at will, authoritarian ratcheting since 2018 does not explain the lack of active resistance today. We should not give anyone a free pass, the argument goes. ‘How can one imagine a “theory of small deeds,” say, in the Third Reich? All conscientious Germans left Germany in the 30s’.  And this latter comment from earlier in the war seems to be gaining traction, even among some Russians. It’s supposedly black and white. Active or passive consent is enough to keep a regime going, and a ‘functionalist’ account (Fritzsche) of dictatorship makes everyone complicit.

Alasdair MacIntyre, my favourite living philosopher, attacks individualism and defends collective accountability in terms of ‘debts and obligations’. He goes on to illustrate with the argument white Americans are often confronted by: ‘I didn’t own slaves, how can I be responsible?’ In other words there is a healthy irony towards the liberal assumption that guilt is voluntary and based on individual actions. We can’t escape living in states and bearing some responsibility for the actions of the societies we are members of. However, others find this inconsistent pointing to the weak ascriptions of (morally significant) collective identity today. If we accept that nations are political entities and not real collective identities, then shouldn’t we reject collective guilt? Indeed, isn’t collective guilt the expression of the spirit of European totalitarianism itself: from its scapegoating of Kulaks to Jews. Other identities make claims to ‘cancel out’ the national-historical. Such that even discussing ‘apologizing’ for the Russian invasion strikes socialist unionizers there today as absurd and even dangerously misguided. Their socialist activism in opposing the Russian state ‘trumps’ their identity as Russian citizens. Is this identity splicing self-defeating?

Now, one of the few visible forms of self-defining ‘resistance’ among Russians is to emigrate, something they are being actively discouraged to do.  Hence many people’s criticism of pronouncements like those of the Estonian PM (because tourism visas are the only realistic instrument for leaving permanently). Should collective responsibility be reserved for active collaboration with, and support for war-making regimes? Does signalling like that from the Estonian PM encourage Russians to reflect and resist, or does it make them ‘double-down’ on a victim narrative based on national identity as the ‘bad’ Europeans?

On the state of Russian anthropology and qualitative sociology

Street library, at a Kaluga bus station.

Jeanne Kormina wrote in March 2022 about how Russia’s invasion has forced anthropologists to rethink their work. Firstly, because the war makes sympathetic understanding of informants’ worldviews untenable. Secondly, because in Kormina’s view Russian anthropology has been politically apathetic – by which she means studies preferred to focus on what was reassuringly metropolitan and liberal in Russia.

When I read Kormina’s piece I identified strongly with her comment about the ‘class-squeamishness’ of scholars working on Russia. I’ve written about that many times on this blog and in my work. Many times in academic contexts I have been asked how I can study ‘monstrously alien people’, as Kormina puts it.

However, no sooner had I positively commented on Kormina’s piece, Sam Greene rightly took me to task. In his view, the problem is not a lack of social research that reflects the diversity of Russian society. Instead, Sam argued that there’s a gap between what is read and what is written; there has been plenty of qualitative sociological and anthro work well beyond Moscow and the middle class. Instead, Sam argued that there isn’t enough theorization that usefully incorporates non-elite people.  Tomila Lankina and Maria Sidorkina also had some things to say on these points. Tomila said that survey research has become the go to way of studying #Russia because of supposed “rigour”, but that surveys are more problematic than ever. Maria commented that the problem is that not enough Russian elites read this research and thus change the way they address/talk to people in the general public.

If you don’t know Sam’s work, you should check it out, including the up-coming re-publication in paperback of his book with Graeme Robertson. Their work on social conformity and agreeableness is very relevant to understanding pro-war sentiment now. It also points to how quickly things might change.  

Sam posted links to various recent publications; let’s review some of them.

First up is the Russian sociology journal Laboratorium. This journal is in good health, publishing many local researchers who employ qualitative methods like interviews and ethnography. Articles are in Russian with an extended summary in English, or vice versa.

A recent issue of Laboratorium is of interest to me because it was co-edited by Elena Bogdanova, the author of a recent book on complaint letters. Bogdanova and Olga Brednikova present seven pieces on neighbourness and civic action in contemporary Russia. The works feature research from beyond Moscow and St Petersburg and draw on/build on a variety of sociological theories.

Karine Clément, it’s fair to say, has been at the forefront of politically-engaged sociology about Russia. In the last years she’s published a lot on urban grassroots movements in Russia. She’s critiqued the idea of an ‘authoritarian personality’ among Russians and offered insights into the locally-rooted and everyday forms of civicness based on her reading of French pragmatic sociology. This has the potential to bring into dialogue different approaches – social psychology, political culture, and the phenomenological. Directly and indirectly the influence of Clément and others can be seen in the research agendas of two important young Russian sociologists Anna Zhelnina and Oleg Zhuravlev and their collaborators. Clément’s work is particularly important to me because she focuses on contexts of transformative experience that turn ordinary people into political subjects. She’s interested in how ordinary people learn, interact and invest themselves emotionally in civic and political causes.  Charles Tilly meets Goffman meets Thévenot.

Some other very recent pieces were pointed out by Sam. I just highlight two of them that were particularly interesting to me:

The Post-Soviet City as a Communal Apartment: Spatialized Belonging in Ulan-Ude by Kristina Jonutytė (2021) in Nationalities Papers. Extract:

“contentions over the city indeed seem to occur prominently in spatial forms such as sacred spaces, memorial statues, and public celebrations, and also discoursively in the city’s promotional materials and publications, as I outlined above. However, although the shifting political and cultural landscape likely played a part in the recent urban changes, I argue below that the seeming contestations should not be read as direct confrontations – or, as Breslavsky (2012a, 313] put it not as an “ethno-political” project – but should instead be seen in the local field of ideas and practices of coexistence.”

Perceptions of governance: state and non-state governance in the North Caucasus by Sasha Klyachkina (2021) in Post-Soviet Affairs. Extract:

“Using original interviews and household survey data collected over nine months of fieldwork, this article offers a nuanced and empirically driven comparative account of how governance works in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. Mitigating between accounts of a hegemonic state that has saturated public space and strong non-state actors that consistently organize parallel systems of governance, I demonstrate that residents identify a role for both state and ostensibly non-state authorities in governance…Following Ostrom’s (2010) call to examine the “wide diversity of institutional arrangements that humans craft to govern” at multiple scales, it highlights two main contributions. First, the paper demonstrates the need to interrogate the relationships between authorities when making inferences about governance rather than grouping them into dichotomous “state” and “non-state” categories. Second, the three cases demonstrate that conclusions about who governs and how are likely to be highly dependent on the domains of governance selected.”

Sam’s other comments were that “the problem, of course, is that most of this kind of stuff never makes it to Western journals, because it’s qualitative – and quantitative studies (despite attempts at representativeness) do tend to over-estimate the role of ‘elite’ constituencies. But that’s not because people aren’t doing the work. They are. It’s just that too few people outside Russia are reading it, and that the polisci establishment even in Russia is broadly not reading it.”

Does war mean making the case that – survey work aside – small-scale sociological work is more important than ever? Yes, it does. The kind of sociology that Clément proposes is useful because it helps understand that the politics of Russia – both ‘monstrous’ and mundane, find their origin in personal responses to, and forms of coping with, the big and imposing structures of society. These associated traumas and tragedies, resentments and revelations via a process of alignment with elite political expediency can crystalize into the forms we see before us today – among them, radicalized bitterness searching for political representation.

Is Russia Fascist?

A painting depicting WWII through Russian ‘eyes’ at a Moscow market in 2022

The fact that I’m writing a blog post about this topic shows how detached from reality the commentary on Russia is. It’s understandable, I guess. But shoddy, media-ready ‘analysis’ from public intellectuals that does its best to ignore any sociological knowledge about the country is just really lame.

Tim Snyder’s NYT piece is a mishmash of historical analogism that focusses on Putin and sidesteps scholarship on Russian society. Snyder claims Russia (what, all Russians?) is fascist because it has a ‘leader cult’; celebrates a ‘cult of the dead’ via Victory Day; and is hostage to a myth of an imperial golden age. Very little of the essay, in fact almost nothing apart from a passing mention of Z people and rallies actually pertains to Russia beyond the Kremlin and some ideologists of questionable relevance (‘not Dugin again!’, said one of my undergraduate students).

All of these things are ‘true’, but they don’t really mean what Snyder says they mean.

At home, Putin has always been an ambivalent figure and never enjoyed unalloyed ‘enthusiasm’, even among his voting constituency. There’s loyalty and respect, even among the ‘morally opposed’. But that’s not a leader cult. The fact that so-called political technologists had to create so much PR for him, rather than let it naturally develop, proves the point. The guy never had an iota of charisma. He could never build a following like Trump.

A ‘cult of the dead’? There’s been a few pieces on this in the media. They tend towards a dangerous culturalism (the libel that Russians have a genetic ‘Asiatic’ predisposition to devalue human life and value violent domination). What Snyder ignores is the sociological research on the ‘Immortal Regiment’ marches, by scholars like Gabowitsch. Russians marching with placards of their ancestors who fought in the war is mainly not even a patriotic statement. It’s a rare permission to express personal loss, to experience connectedness, and to give voice to frustrated feelings of a need for communal activity.

The ‘Imperial Golden Age’? Well, this is true to an extent. I’ve written in this blog in the last 3 months that this does motivate some to support the war. But these people are a minority and in any case exist more visibly in societies like the US, France, and the UK. The irony here of Snyder’s comment is that it ignores the bigger golden age myth in Russia: the time people really pine for is the 1970s – the period of détente, peace, and the cementing of non-Russian elite power in the future independent republics of the USSR. Hardly imperial fare.

In reality, Snyder merely projects yet another US-centric take on what’s happening. This reflects liberal anxiety about Trumpism, real white supremacism in the US, and the militarization and securitization of US and Western societies.

Shall we actually look at some definitions of fascism?

I re-read Ian Kershaw recently and anyone who wants to understand pro-war sentiment in Russia should read his account of German society in WWII.

Kershaw’s is not the only definition, but it’s pretty simple. Fascism is based on hypernationalism that’s violently exclusionary and racial; It’s violent towards all political enemies; it’s macho, disciplined and militaristic.  Optional features: social ‘renewal’ based on romantic utopian thinking; irredentism/imperialism; anticapitalism; corporatism (people know their place in society)

On Kershaw’s definitions we do find some fascistic elements to the Russian regime. But this comes up against the contradictions in ethnicizing Ukrainians. The whole point of Putin’s irredentism is that in his view Ukrainians aren’t really Ukrainians, they’re frustrated and misguided Russians (actually he probably doesn’t even believe this). Yes, they are ‘incorrect’ and errant Eastern Slavs, but the whole racialized perspective on Russian attitudes towards Ukrainians is, once again, a US-centric projection. The dehumanization of the ‘other’ is present among Russians and Ukrainians since the start of the war (but of course the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric in Russia was strong for a time now). But this is nothing to do with race or racism. Against Kershaw’s set of features, Russia is an insipid and equivocal ‘fascistic’ regime. Some of these features do not fit at all.

What about recent scholarship on ideology in Russia? Here we must turn, as Snyder fails to do, to Marlene Laruelle’s painstaking research. Her book is called Is Russia Fascist? Snyder commits perhaps the worst possible academic snub in ignoring it in his piece.

I know Laruelle’s work and I read her articles with my students every year. But don’t trust me, we can turn to the excellent reviews of the book. For example, this one by Roger Chapman. This is a positive, but critical review that unpicks Laruelle’s argument that Russia is a kind of illiberal state: rejecting global institutions, promoting economic protectionism and revaluing multiculturalism. Chapman questions why we need the term illiberal when in his view Laruelle could have just written ‘authoritarian/totalitarian’. The reason Laruelle does not use these terms is that in her view ideological diversity is still permissible and that coercion has some hard limits within Russia (so far).  

Laruelle (in Chapman’s reading) makes use of a different historian’s definition of fascism – that of Roger Griffin. According to Griffin, fascism is a ‘revolutionary-utopian form of nationalism’. It requires an anti-modern myth of regeneration involving the violent destruction of enemies. Enemies are racialized through an ideological doctrine that catalyzes mass mobilization to ensure domination of those enemies both at home and abroad. So far, pretty similar to Kershaw. Laruelle notes that by these criteria, “not only is Putin neither Hitler nor Mussolini, he is not even Pinochet”.

In a late-2018 piece for PONARS, Laruelle picks apart similar arguments Snyder has made before. She says his approach is comparable to those of an observer who would extrapolate from Charlotteville riots to conclude that white supremacists had an iron grip on US society. “Simplistic reductionist techniques and invalid reasoning further confuse the analysis—and bias policy responses.”


In my view, the ‘Russia is fascist’ argument is so far from the reality of Russian society that it amounts to dangerous disinformation. What do actual political sociologists find?

Political and social demobilization at every turn – even incorporation through a ‘party of power’ does not serve ideological purposes or help mobilize. On the contrary, incorporation by the regime serves its stasis and the continuing enrichment and insulation of the elite. With some visible exceptions (who now get a lot of undeserved attention) the elite is uninterested in ideology and even governance (so an Eichmann could hardly be found). There isn’t a banality of evil. Just banality. In some senses the ‘mafia’ metaphor is better (though I criticise it here and reprise an analysis of corruption as a ‘thing’ that drives the regime here). ‘Ideology’ and ‘causes’ are dangerous to this regime.

In actual fact, most Russians’ lives are profoundly depoliticized to an unhealthy extent. Ironically, here is where Russia is open to a charge of fascism: the idea of fascism as a creeping erosion of citizenship and the achievement of the aims of totalitarianism by procedural means. The irony? The scholarship of this ‘post-fascist’ fascism is about our societies.  About the UK, European states and the United States.

So, what is Russia as a political regime? Well, my recent take is here: an authoritarian neoliberal regime of some complexity. I argue that elements of this are present in our own societies and that many states are hurtling into the precipice Russia already occupies.

In Russia there are many forces of prefigurative politics, resistance and renewal, stacked against the seemingly dominant authoritarian power (the topic of my current book project!). Russian society has its share of neo-Nazi far-right forces which are both feared and leveraged by the elite. Other formations are far more visible and make Russia look more like….. Ukraine. There’s a liberal mainstream that dominates the ‘discourse’ beyond the state-controlled media and a strong communitarian strand of political thinking. Takes like ‘Russia is fascist’ ultimately show, once again, the unhealthy focus on the current elite, an elite that’s more and more disconnected from the majority. The invasion of Ukraine itself illustrates the intellectual, political, and institutional exhaustion of ‘Putinism’. But it proves little beyond that.

Creeping Russian mobilization meets growing public knowledge of the horrors of war

2022’s 9th May Parade and Immortal Regiment procession just outside Moscow.

Ilya Matveev and I were invited to talk about Russian responses to the invasion by Russia of Ukraine. We decided to use our six minutes of this experimental podcast platform ‘conversation six’ to talk more about Defensive consolidation. I use this phrase (here’s another take on it) to characterize the majority reaction to the war at home in Russia and here are my notes for the talk:

Why it’s still not a rally

There a low level of active patriotic responses to war (beyond symbolic Zedtivism), a lack of declaration, or effective framing, of war as an ‘attack on us’ – this is not what most people are ready to internalize, despite what the media says. Indeed, there’s a lack of unconditional belief in Russian state media – it’s gone too far in the direction of open propaganda and post-truth that there are signs people’s trust in it is going down. Added to that there are realities that are hard to ignore: Ukraine as an obviously weaker state than Russia – so why is it a threat? Culturally, politically, socially it really was seen (rightly or wrongly) as a ‘brotherly nation’. Zelenskyy as a puppet and ‘ukrofascists’ of course have some traction, but this is all pretty superficial because it has low salience to most people. And the absence of a real casus belli means that overall there’s far too much cognitive dissonance around for a majority, or even a big minority, to ‘rally’.

So, defensive consolidation is this highly ambiguous and contingent set of responses – it includes finding excuses to justify to oneself what’s happening, but which are logically very tenuous and even self-contradictory. To me what is noticeable among a lot of anti-Putinists is a kind of sunk cost fallacy – “Putin was wrong, but now we’ve started we see the world is against us, but precisely because of that we must go on regardless to the bitter end, because to lose will mean a broader disaster”. And even this is not necessarily an immediate geopolitical way of thinking (i.e. about NATO as threat) but tied to longstanding feelings of being a periphery and ‘other’ of the West.

Why is it consolidating? Because it involves a cleaving to forms of immediate authority but I don’t think that’s sustainable over time. So for example, people ask their village ‘elder’ what to do and he answers – collect diapers to send to IDPs. People do this, but already a wave of solidarity is passing for refugees. We see this at every level – ‘what can I do’? People genuinely of course have a desire as part of a socius to do something, but as Ilya says in the talk, the logic of Putin’s Russia is demobilization because of fear of any independent action and civicness. And in fact, when people ‘cleave’ they often find zero leadership and zero answers – authority is so very hollow in Russia.

So, will defensive consolidation break down and under what conditions? The consolidation will partly morph into new and emerging forms of microcivicness, because there is this huge pent up desire to improve Russia. Ironically, the war shows this more clearly than ever. People know they live in a country that lacks many of the goods others, including Ukrainians, take for granted or are willing to strive for. This is not sustainable. Right now I am tracking individuals and micro-associations that search for new forms of activism – from environmentalism to covert anti-war actions. Could this turn into a coalescence of diverse forms of social mobilization with time? Maybe not. How will Russia change? Probably in the least predictable way – in the first Chechen war, people could not have predicted Soldiers’ mothers at the forefront of resistance and protest. Now, who knows what the future catalyst would be to push elites to end the war? Could it be ethnic minority religious groups? Could it be militant unpaid workers? Could it be a consumers’ protest against rising prices?

Creeping mobilization meets hard limits in Russian state capacity

Some brilliant investigative journalism from BBC Russian Service and others has laid bare that the invasion was even more poorly planned and executed than we previously thought. Many soldiers were barely ‘led’ at all (in fact misled). And there are striking details in this long piece, from a lack of night vision equipment to descriptions of soldiers fending for themselves. Later the piece gives a lot of detail about the growing resistance among soldiers to continuing military contracts. Elsewhere the same author has given a good explanation of the war crimes in Bucha as stemming from the same problems of leaderless, drunk, desperate and brutalized-brutalizing troops.  Add into the mix doubts about whether the state will actually honour payments to wounded and provide even basic medical treatment beyond emergency care (which is woefully inadequate anyway). My favourite topics of stunted state capacity and the incoherence of governance meet up in this shitshow of a war. Any creeping ‘mobilization’ will be similarly incoherent – enlistment officers face even more obstacles than before because no one really wants to die for Putin (illustrated well in the BBC piece). Urgency too is always the enemy of this state’s machine. You screw up and the boss asks for it ‘yesterday’, even though he didn’t give you the tools to get it done in the first place. As with so much else, we end up with something worse than the previous improvised solution. It seems clear now that the Great Russian Army was an ‘improvised’ solution to the problem of force projection in a massively corrupt and cronyism-ridden Military Industrial Complex. We had a Potemkin village of an army, now with creeping mobilization we will get something ragtag that doesn’t even resemble a modern army. Like the Russian meme about IT projects – instead of good planning, testing and development, in Russia it’s ‘slap shit together and deploy’. We could call this the revenge of a century of ‘avral’ (rushing production targets).

Putin clearly does not want to declare a state of war – it brings too many uncertainties, and even personal risks to him. He doesn’t like that. His whole career has been about making short term, usually conservative decisions to avoid immediate risks, but which bring a huge long-term tail risk. Michael Kofman just wrote about how mobilization is a complex topic; although he emphasizes high manpower capacities on paper, I would emphasize that the state lacks capacity, political will, and actual popular support to translate that into reality.

On Not Talking to Russians about Downed Airliners and Murdered Dutch Children

From a Russian cafe: ‘We are Russians. We are not Ashamed

Because we’re talking endlessly about the inability of many Russians to admit they live in an aggressor, neoimperial state, or even register the reality of what’s happening, I thought I’d go back to this piece I wrote about doing fieldwork in 2014 and after.

I went back to the field after Maidan and Crimea, but just before the 2014 Malaysian airliner MH17 downing during the war in Donbas. I wanted to write about the sensitivities of doing fieldwork in such times where I was already seen as a representative of an enemy country. The shoot-down event is on my mind because of 2022 Ukrainian allegations that Russia is planning a false flag operation to shoot down an airliner over its own territory using Western weapons transferred to Ukraine.

Unfortunately, as with a lot of academic projects that are spun out of material for different purposes, the article is a bit of a mess. Too many themes and ideas. Boiling it down in this post, here are some of the ideas which still have relevance.

Political’ events are not experienced the same way and post-truth media makes things worse

I opened my news feed the day the airliner was shot down and experienced shock, disbelief and nausea. Pretty soon it became clear that Russian forces in Donbas were responsible. However, what was for me the defining ‘event’ was no such thing for 90% of Russian people. Firstly, there’s a tendency to delay and obfuscate big news like this – remember the flat denial and then spinning of the Moscow Cruiser sinking just recently. This seems ridiculous to people paying attention in the West, but it ignores that it buys time for the second stage: the post-truth coverage by Russian mainstream media. There are seemingly smart people who believe the corpses of the victims from the airliner were transported to Ukraine. This is not so different from 9/11 truthers. But this is in a society where media allows such post-truth versions space to breathe and spread. Having said that, at the time there were people who saw this event as THE dividing line. A crime so terrible that there would be no coming back for Russia. This was also communicated to me in the field. After this event some people already made plans to leave Russia, or even prepare for nuclear war.

People internalize propaganda as a structure of feeling even while avoiding ‘news’

That day I went to a birthday party held by some friends of mine who are well-to do in the cultural scene. They’re average, upstanding Russian middle-class – politically loyal people. Stupidly, I expected the ‘event’ to overshadow our party; most people were not aware of what had happened. Later I observed ‘avoidance’ as the most common response to what was going on in Donbas. While the television blares continuously in the background and clearly shapes how many people respond to the war on Ukraine, this effect is much more indirect and insidious than people generally think – it’s a vaguely felt itch at the back of peoples lives through their interaction with television as a form of verbal and visual wallpaper. While I don’t think direct comparisons to Nazi Germany really work in general, the ‘Ukraine question’ is a little like the ‘Jewish question’. Over a pretty long period of time, constant and building anti-Semitism in public life created a strong social desirability bias of hatred and blame towards Jews. Once war came, this in turn allowed enough fear, resignation and – mainly – indifference to be produced so that the Final Solution was possible by that small group of willing executioners and a much larger group of loyal bureaucrats – Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. Many ordinary Germans were also guilty of latent anti-Semitism which the regime successfully leveraged. The point is the mass of people for whom even after 2014, Donbas was a low-salience issue and so they easily fall in to the ‘structure of feeling’ that the regime helps foster: “Ukraine = bad, West manipulates and betrays, We are the victims, We won the war. We are righteous.” Just a few weeks ago, I mentioned the Malaysian airliner to a Russian who is deeply ashamed of the invasion and politically aware. They’d completely ‘forgotten’ it!

Silences and pauses can draw attention to the discomfort with political events

So my article is really about trying to interpret pauses and silences where people don’t acknowledge or mention the elephants in the room. I argue that forms of silence and acknowledgement of the other person through silences – uncomfortable pauses – are themselves forms of communication about ‘political events’. This is heightened when one of the people is a Russian and the other is a foreign person from a Western bloc state. I conclude the first section: “Interlocutors and researcher are forced to negotiate the event within their everyday encounters in a way that maintains civility and the possibility of an ongoing commitment to relations. This is the ‘intimate’ reconstruction of (geo)political subjectivities.”

Victim narratives go far back and scaffold the current shared ‘feelings’ in Russia

Some of the rest of the article is about how clearly, even in 2014, Russians articulated a victim narrative and how effectively Putin has manipulated this. (I came across this excellent post by Anna Razumnaya on victimhood stemming from feelings of inferiority and humiliation). This framing goes back to the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 where I first experienced the deep-seated sense of geopolitically ‘structured feeling’: outrage and resentment that was sincerely expressed, but mainly communicated through emotional reactions – like my colleagues demanding of me a ‘political statement’, and then walking out of our shared office in Moscow, or the ‘dirty’ protests where people smeared the US embassy with faeces. The conclusion here is that ‘willingly or unwillingly, we come to embody public diplomacy’ in some way in fieldwork under such circumstances. Is it possible to overcome the way we are unwillingly inserted into this position?

To confront or to maintain tactical silence?

Sometimes we have time and space to talk about geopolitics in a considered, intimate way with people who have different worldviews, but mostly not. We could argue that it is important to signal strong disapproval of the invasion and support for Ukraine. I think that’s true and essential for Russians talking to Russians. But for ‘non-native’ researchers, confronting people politically is completely at odds with anthropological practice in fieldwork.  But it is sometimes interlocutors who confront the researcher. What is she to do? Confront back? Unfortunately, this is part of the geopolitical script the Russian media have anticipated. More often people laugh at you: ‘You’ve been brainwashed by Western media.’ Adopt the ‘silent’ approach of many Russians themselves? Can ‘tactical silence’ express more? Can just the persistent presence of the representative of the other have jarring political effects? Scholar Yael Navaro talks about silent, phantom presences ‘irritating’ people even as they try to carry on as if nothing is happening.

Silence can invoke opposition and resistance, but it can also signal indifference and consent to barbarism. That’s why it’s important for Russians who oppose the war to carry on making small symbolic acts of resistance. As one activist said to me recently: ‘all I’ve got now are these anti-war stickers, but they mean so much to me.’

The visible resistance to war might allow a change of tactic: from being silent ourselves to forcing the silences and pauses on to those who say they support the war. Make them think, and make them confront the idiocy of the argument Razumnaya highlights: ‘We’re bombing Kharkov so that the West would fear us’

Can Soldiers’ Mothers End a War?

Middle-aged man in camo in central Moscow. In what way is Russia a ‘militarized’ society?

A conversation somewhere in Russia:

“So, did you get him an exemption yet?” [‘otkosili’ is a slang term which can mean legally or illegally get exemption or avoid service]

“Finally got him a ‘V’ ticket – legally – thanks to the hospital. It means he can’t be called up in peacetime. I talked to some people whose kids are serving right now. Some places it’s ok, other places it’s totally fucked up and they come back fucked up beyond all recognition. Better not to go. There’s still hazing.”

Whether or not the interlocutors were talking about ‘some places’ in Ukraine, or just military service in general I don’t know.  The mother went through a six-step procedure to get the ‘ticket’ and could not have afforded a bribe. The father had said: ‘either he gets a job or let him go to the army’. In any case, since 2016 it has become almost impossible to give a bribe successfully to get an exemption ticket.

Why write about this? I was asked to go on US cable TV to talk about ‘The role of soldiers’ mothers in ending the war in Ukraine’. I’ll post a link when it comes out. I don’t know why I was asked, or where this idea came from.

I guess I could summarize my answer: domestic NGOs like the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers (CSM) could historically put a lot of moral and political pressure on the Russian government. Now, with no independent press in Russia, they can only play a role in giving parents and soldiers good legal advice on their rights. They are not the only way of undermining the war though. There are always informal messenger and social media groups that can make a difference. Perhaps this war is different in that the personal contacts and social pressure of one’s immediate peers is the most important factor.

The longer answer:  

The first Chechen war in the 1990s saw a freer Russian press strongly criticize the loss of life of Russian soldiers and the conduct of the war. Mothers’ actions (sponsored by CSM) ‘had a profound effect on raising awareness and turning public opinion against the war’ wrote Amy Caiazza in 2002. Its members often kidnapped their own sons from military bases. What was different in the first war was that everyone had clear information from the press about the incompetence of the military campaign. The government was not trusted, and the army did not have a high standing in society.  Furthermore, the mothers had strong support from wider society for their actions. Caiazza writes that CSM was able to be quite activist in the 90s, though its success was more down to publicity and its influence on institutions low in the longer term.

She also notes the organizing principle based not on objection to men making war, but on mothers’ suffering. At least part of the success of the messaging was based on a bio-essentialist version of maternity and instinct. Mother’s activist actions were a ‘natural’ biological imperative to protect their sons and therefore they fulfilled their duty as mothers. This exploited well an ideological opportunity structure to gain legitimacy that has mainly been unavailable for groups trying to undertake civic action in Russia. This is not only ‘smart’ from a perspective that would see Russians more receptive to a conservative message like this. CSM avoided being identified as a feminist organization and instead proposed women’s rights as human rights (Caiazza 2002). This caused conflict with more radical feminist organizations in Russia, but the CSM’s public activities also drew plaudits. Caiazza also writes about the men’s anti-draft movement, which was largely unsuccessful.

CSM lobbied Parliament and got concessions on deserters. (Interestingly only Yabloko and LDPR voted against full amnesties!). Caiazza claims further success in the campaign influencing Yeltsin’s cuts to the size of the military. CSM failed, however, to prevent army service being extended from 1.5 years to 2. CSM also was successful in publicizing the individual resistance to military service – i.e. draft dodging and getting medical exemptions legally.  The second Chechen war saw more mobilization of public opinion behind the conflict and a controlled press coverage of it.

This present conflict shows how effective Putin’s destruction of free press has been in the long term, and how the new laws against discrediting the Russian military and spreading ‘fake’ information about the war, mean everyone is afraid to speak out. He has shown himself a master at demobilizing Russian society, but that does not mean that Russians are all falling into line, or that they automatically support the war. Much has also been made of the social profile of soldiers – many hail from peripheries – becoming a soldier is a way of getting social mobility, education, and ‘escape’ from places with no prospects. Most of my informants, even those who served at the time of Chechnya are quite nostalgic about some aspects of military service. However, if further mobilization is attempted, it is likely there will be large scale resistance to the draft. This resistance will be active and passive and it’s important we pay attention to the passive part because like similar phenomenon, it is a huge substratum of Russian political action that can easily be overlooked.

Soldiers Mothers Committee is still active. We should note in passing that soldiers rights were and remain a barometer of health of Russia as a civil society, not least because of the extremely brutalizing experience of being conscripted. Since 2014 it became harder and harder to do even the basic work of a human rights NGO in Russia because of NGO oversight laws. This law was used against organizations like CSM who got funding from abroad. Now, such organizations can mainly just observe and give free legal advice to the families of soldiers – for example on how to claim compensation for death or injury of the son. Here’s a more focused organization – the ‘Rights of the Mother’ NGO Fund, that operates mainly as a legal aid team with funding from various small firms within Russia, along with the small-scale online donation platforms that exist. RMF also provides free legal representation in court cases about discrimination in providing social benefits to the relatives of dead soldiers. NGOs can also document coercion of conscripts in the current conflict – young men forced to sign up to military contracts. The regime shows it is not willing to even allow a mild oversight by civil society of the most vulnerable citizens it asks the most of (laying down their lives). What does it tell us about the regime – that it cannot function without breaking its own rules and laws.

There’s also more qualitative research on how mothers responded to war by organizing – there is a book by Sergei Oushakine partly on this topic from the early 2000s. This research argued that sympathy for traumatic suffering is an effective mobilizer in Russia – more effective that claims of human rights or justice. However, there is always a risk that others and the authorities think there are suspicious motives (and the influence of the West). Finally, it’s possible that mobilization of civil society does not necessarily lead in the direction of claiming rights or righting wrongs, but risks leading to public calls for revenge and retribution. This is what Oushakine found after the Chechen wars. He called this the Patriotism of Despair which is the title of his book.

My own more recent research tends to partly support Oushakine’s earlier findings. Faced with the war there is a form of ‘defensive consolidation’ around the idea of a nation under threat, and of supporting the armed forces, ‘right or wrong’. However, that doesn’t mean over the course of the conflict more positive forms of solidarity cannot emerge. In fact, given the effects of the sanctions, Russian people might be inspired to work harder at permissible forms of social organization and support for each other. There might emerge politically acceptable grass-roots veteran associations and organizations that provide a muted or Aesopian form of opposition to war.

A final point is about ordinary resistance to the war – we find evidence of this among soldiers, ordinary people and among mothers. Russia is not so different to other societies during periods of harsh authoritarian control – there are only a few percentages of the population willing to take risks to stand up. But even this is encouraging.  At a more basic level, Russia is not North Korea – you can’t shut it down completely. People communicate in messaging services and create support groups including for soldiers’ mothers. It is thanks to informal groups we know how soldiers were tricked into signing contracts and so on. The formal organizations can only provide legal advice to relatives, but we also find out useful things from their interviews with the media brave enough to produce coverage of the war’s results

Journalists are trying to write about the human costs of the war in Russia. Here is an example about the many military funerals in Buryatiya – a poor region with disproportionate losses among the ethnic minority Buddhist population. The journalists writing this piece (published in Russia in Russian) also interviewed other journalists who report they are pressured not to write about the war. The parents of killed soldiers are also pressured not to talk to press. They are told their words (or photographs of funerals) will be used by ‘hackers in Ukraine who will steal the information and make fakes’. The relatives are even told not to answer calls from unknown numbers. Another interesting point from this article is that many soldiers felt a strong sense of responsibility to their comrades meant it was hard to refuse to go to Ukraine. But they did not mention patriotism, their martial vows, or their duty to the Commander-in-Chief and his aims.

“The military stands at attention at the head of the dead. The backs are straight, machine guns on belts are pressed to the chest. The faces are young, they look like high school students in the guard of honor near the Eternal Flame. Some of the soldiers are crying. Tears cannot be wiped away, and they flow down the cheeks.”

[from the Buryatiya piece]

What did I get wrong and right about the Russian Invasion?

At the end of January 2022 I made some educated guesses at the effect of a war on Russian society but I didn’t really believe it would happen. Now I take stock briefly.

Because I get so many abusive messages every time I post on this topic I have to make a disclaimer: I work on Russian society, not Ukraine. I have many Ukrainian colleagues and friends and my sympathies and support are with them. However it’s not my job to write about places and people I have an incomplete professional knowledge of.

‘More of the same, yet worse’ – this prediction so far is right. Russians are starting to – very slowly – wake up to the very significant reduction in living standards the war brings. However, like many other issues, we can observe delays and still partially effective efforts of the Russian government to lie to people about the causes. Some people are still ready to believe that inflation and shortages of some goods are due to Covid or other factors.

What I underestimated was the effect of nearly a decade of stagnant or falling living standards. People were already in a state of extreme pessimism and resignation. ‘Boiling the frog’ metaphor doesn’t even come close. This is a frog in a pan where the water long since evaporated. The frog is now a desiccated husk.

This weekend is the spring clean for those who own a garden plot. There was no enthusiasm for this task that many thought they’d left behind, but now planting vegetables is confirmation of a return to the worst of the 1990s

‘Mass civilian causalities and Russian confusion and chaos’. Again, while I’m no expert, this was proved terribly prescient. I didn’t write ‘so badly disciplined they would resort to looting and war crimes’ but the implication is there.

lack of appetite for war’. This is now controversial because every day someone points to polling and says: ‘the Russians enjoy this war and love Putin’. I’m not going to repeat my and other people’s criticism of polling. I stand even more strongly by my prediction. There’s a visible group of the usual idiots you can see in any country that because of their personal inadequacies just love to parade their skin deep patriotism. There’s good evidence that the majority of Russians despise feel either disdain or indifference towards the Z-people [thanks to Anton Shirikov for prompting me to rethink the wording here]. My research participants are mainly ‘blokey’ working-class guys. They have no time for this b-s. They’re more interested in whether their factory will still be working in June. In short, people are fearful for their material wellbeing and, yes, often callously indifferent to Ukraine. No one even mentions Putin any more, apart from the odd old person who leads a sheltered TV-centric life. For me his lack of visible leadership (since February) in explaining and arguing for the war speaks volumes as to the diminution of his status in actual fact among Russians.

‘Initial limited panic’ at shortages (real or imagined). Here too I think I got it right. Although I did not get right the massive sanctions. I underestimated coordination from the West. Can Russian agriculture feed Russians now? Maybe. There are issues with things like animal vaccines and seeds (remember that most commercial seed produces crops whose seed cannot then be re-sown). Nonetheless, with Chinese help, most Russians will only have to suffer high inflation on food staples.

Continuation of the ‘politics of fear’. Again, I underestimated how fast Putin would clamp down and allow the narrative of internal enemies and traitors to justify all kinds of score-settling. I also did not foresee significant emigration by the upper-middle class. Fascism lite? Bonapartism? Others (Greg Yudin here) are very quick to go down those roads. I think for the time being I’ll stick with my version of authoritarian statism inspired by reading Nicos Poulantzas. “the ‘masses’ are not integrated (partly because politics is replaced by a single party centre), and pernicious networks like security interests are ‘crystalized’  in a permanent structure in parallel to the official state”.

After the invasion happened I wrote a follow up post about defensive consolidation. This is a way for people to deal with cognitive dissonance around the Russian aggression. Defensive consolidation involves magical thinking and denial (China will help; the war crimes are staged). It involves a cleaving to authority (not necessarily the government, but your boss, your factory, your town leader), not out of loyalty or enthusiasm, but as a kind of relationship like that of an abused victim to abuser. The more Russians cleave to authority the more they are effectively ‘admitting’ to themselves how bad things really are. So my friend says ‘Russian troops are not aggressors’ and then says ‘we should delete this chat and move to Signal (an encrypted message service). She later talks about how many nightmares she has and cannot watch the news because they are so ‘rabid’ there. This is an example of ‘knowing and not knowing’. The finale is ‘I have to support my country in my own way now that everyone hates us’.

Recently, Sam Greene wrote that he thinks there is now a real rally around the flag. A top-down process using propaganda and repression. Sustaining such negative emotions is hard work and will not last, he predicts. Yesterday Ben Noble did a great thread on the same topic. A general increase in support for state institutions shows that a rally is not about particular actors and what is important is ‘social-desirability bias‘ strengthened by the costs of going against the war (prison, fines, or worse).

What’s next. Escalation with the West? A WWI scenario in Donbas? No one knows. Unrest and coups are unlikely but of course possible, especially if sanctions really do work or Russian forces keep taking very big losses. Can Russian people find a way to relate to their own state other than like a helpless abuse victim? Can they recognize their country’s guilt without resorting to excuses and whataboutery?

Contempt and Arrogance: How Russian liberals are complicit without (perhaps) even knowing it

Ranepa graduation ceremony. Source: https://en.newizv.ru/news/society/16-10-2020/the-prosecutor-s-office-demands-from-ranepa-to-disclose-data-on-enemies-of-the-people-among-students

Guest post by a Russian academic.

Prominent Russian educator and liberal Viktor Vakhstein recently defended liberal arts education in Russia after the authorities started auditing his programme at RANEPA. Vakhshtein sarcastically imagines the response of the ‘old guard’ of Soviet education:

 “To a person formed by Soviet education, this form of education seems wild. How does the student know what he needs? Where is the educational component? Half of the courses are in English – are you preparing political emigrants? Too many different disciplines – is it a factory of dropouts? Where will they work then? Graduates of the Academy of the Prosecutor General’s Office are very worried about the fate of Liberal Arts graduates: they read the titles of courses and see crowds of future dissidents who are deprived of “systematic education”, “patriotic education” and not ready for “labor activity for the good of the Motherland.”

But he insists that he prepared his students to face this conservative establishment. He exemplifies how this preparation will manifest itself, by imagining a conversation between the “police state” and his students:

“Let’s say a man armed with a government manual comes to talk to my students about patriotism. They print out the slides of his presentation, put the text of the current law “On Education” side by side and arrange a two-hour discussion in the form of a court session: does this conversation violate only paragraph 3 of Article 48 of this law or a few more paragraphs. He tells them about “protecting the state interests of the Russian Federation.” They divide into groups and conduct a fascinating historical investigation: how the idea of ​​”state interest” is connected with the philosophy of Machiavelli, the intrigues of Cardinal Richelieu and the activities of international tribunals. He resents the position of the “fifth column”. They politely remind him that the idea of ​​the fifth column (according to one of the four versions) was invented by the failed dictator Emilio Mola shortly before his death in a suspicious plane crash. I sincerely feel sorry for this person.”


First of all, anyone who had a normal conversation in their lives, would see this more as an example of inability to communicate than a display of critical thinking. All the hypothetical students do in the example, is change  – or ignore – the framing, the context and the point made by this imaginary “policeman” interlocutor. When a communicator – like that hypothetical policeman in Vakhstein’s clever tale – has  absolutely openly set the frame of the present moment,  justice, morality and political interest,  then it is stupid to throw back at him some clever formal definitions from Webster’s dictionary, or quoting dead white Western men, or giving answers like “I know the law” or “history says otherwise”.

So, firstly, one should note that intellectually and psychologically, only narcissists and idiots ignore the pragmatics of conversation. Secondly, pragmatically and contextually, anyone who lived in Russia outside of protective bubbles of elite universities, and especially in the last couple of years, knows that quoting laws back at the police is useless at best. The same goes for quoting excerpts from the historical experiences of some countries, which – both the countries and the experiences – will be seen by the policeman as completely irrelevant.  

Apart from stupid, it is criminal because the conservative parents of these uni kids will read it and understand it in only one way: “why was Vakhstein allowed, for so many years, to teach our kids to be that stupid? Putin must be right. The fifth column is real”.  And the policeman who Vakhstein “pities”,  will not himself pity for a moment. He will get what he came for – the confirmation that the students are “brainwashed” and their education is, at best, irrelevant. And his rage will fall on those students – while the Vakhsteins of the world will be accepted as martyrs by Western academia.

This “commentary” by Vakhshtein shows how the intellectually brilliant,  pro-western, liberal intelligentsia continues to be complicit in making it all possible for Putin – because of their empty intellectual arrogance and genuine contempt for the “lower”, the older, the “uneducated” and conservative “masses”, for their grudges and traumas and opinions; how instead of working for better communication within Russian society, these intellectuals did everything to increase fear, bragging how they teach this arrogance and communicative, contextual daftness to kids; and how this very  contempt was made possible by spatial and social elevation, which in turn was made possible by high salaries that Putin paid these intellectuals  when, until recently, “our cosmopolitan academia” was the preferred discourse on the state agenda.

Who else will pay for this narcissistic arrogance? Well, this will be the people who actually worked all these years to give voice all parts of Russian society, including the conservative and the less educated, in hope to build communication and compromise.

[ed. We see a glimmer of reflection and understanding of the need for wider social communication in this interesting piece by Jeanne Kormina https://culanth.org/fieldsights/very-dark-anthropology-aphasia-presentiment-of-a-civil-war-and-anthropology-at-home:

the consistent political apathy of Russian anthropology has suddenly been revealed, making many of us unprepared for the new political reality that has forced us to redefine our positionality in the field. I do not mean to say that local anthropologists had not been interested in political activity before, but those who did such work preferred to study the pleasant and sympathetic people of their own social circle who engaged in protest actions in the big cities. A sort of class-based squeamishness, the roots of which one can find in the good old contrast between the educated intelligentsia and the “deep folk,” made the study of political apathy and political nonparticipation uninteresting and unpleasant ]

The Three Body Problem in Russian Academia

Considering the possibly international readership of this blog, we need to observe that Russian academia can be imagined as consisting of three parts. There is the most numerous body of people who have few means, either intellectually and/or by their social background and /or moral identity, or simply financially – too overburdened with over a thousand of hours of teaching a year to read all those (usually, Western old white male) scholars Vakhstein was lucky to read and to promote to his students as the names they should throw at an upcoming policeman. These are the people mocked by the Moscow “public intellectuals” with high salaries and cult followings – like Vakhstein.

But there is also a very thin layer of people who actually tried to build bridges of understanding between the actually-existing majority in Russian society and the “West”.  Unlike Vakhstein’s, my example will not be imaginary, but merely anonymous.  I have an acquaintance who is a head of lab, and who won this position, against the overbearing conservative establishment in his department, exclusively because Putin’s rhetoric until very recently was cosmopolitan. The government demanded publications in western journals, and he is one rare scholar who actually had the desire and the means to both understand the “deeper” conservative Russia, and to learn the Western academic discourse. Recently, the requirement to publish in western journals was officially withdrawn, because of – quite real – barriers and prejudices in Western academia. His conservative rivals are now gloating and revelling in their restored position, while he is told to sign the pro-war letter, or to lose the lab.

The lab which he spent 10 years building, introducing entirely new sub-fields, scraping the bottoms of his budgets to invite western lecturers, hand-picking smart graduate students who were eager to read both the latest French philosopher, and their colleague from Saratov; and to research Russians living beyond the Moscow ring round, to give these Russians voice, to clarify their conditions and opinions – and to “translate” it all for Western academia. Now, he says that his only priority is to keep the lab and to continue to give meagre scholarships for his students, while also being a shoulder on which these students cry (literally, not figuratively) because people in uniforms come to their meeting saying explicitly that if any one of them will as much as pip against the “special operation”, they will lose their position immediately.

I should add that my friend may be not such a smooth speaker as Vakhstein, but unlike Vakhstein, he can actually discern the context of communication, culture and power that is set by your counterpart. He knows how to listen, not just speak and “retort”. But while Vakhsteins of the world undoubtedly end up in some Western university as martyr, this head of lab just lost an opportunity for which he and his students worked very hard, to win a governmental grant to just that: research actual things in Russian society and “make it understandable” for the west. Why? Because the government made the grant conditional on being overseen by a scholar with a star-like reputation. And the head of the lab chose a Western scholar who gladly agreed. This was in January. In February, the university in which that Western scholar works, demanded that he severed the tie with Russia. He regretfully withdrew his sponsorship of the grant – nothing personal, but he had to obey, he explained. Again, the conservative establishment in that institution rejoiced. They never had Western connections, and now all the grants are theirs.

Russian academic boycotts, bans, and the global production of knowledge

circa 1955: American broadcast journalist Edward R Murrow (1908 – 1965) sits behind a console in a CBS television control room, holding a pen in the air, 1950s. There is a microphone in the foreground. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Guest post: Letter from a concerned scholar

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already provoked a serious humanitarian crisis, with an unprecedented number of refugees and displaced persons next to civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure. The Western academic community is correctly focusing its resources on supporting the victims of the invasion – Ukrainian and Ukraine-resident scholars and students among them. These are the people that deserve unconditional solidarity now and maximum support, both material and moral.

On the other hand, however, short-term initiatives and reactions – however decisive and crucial they are – have to an extent overshadowed the understanding of long-term issues. The war is likely to increase dramatically the share of people living in poverty in Ukraine, an already poor country – this would require more significant initiatives to strategically ramp up humanitarian aid and write off the country’s foreign debt, that have been raised by Ukrainian activists themselves.

The other aspect is that the disruptive effects of the war are likely to have a significant impact on other vulnerable populations. For example, the poorest African countries will probably be drastically affected by the drastic reduction of wheat imports from both Ukraine and Russia. Another issue close to many – in terms of the contradictions it implies, and the way in which they are handled – relates to the attitude towards Russian people and the Russian academic community in particular.

The invasion has already provoked an increase of repression within the country, accelerating a decade-long trend. At the very least, any kind of dissent about the war is now criminalized / punished in some form – but explicit large-scale repression is likely to be the reality on the ground of the Russian state even after the conclusion of hostilities. The ‘economic war’ with the EU, NATO and allied countries is likely to lead to an economic depression that may equal the one that took place in the 1990s. Overall, ordinary Russian people are likely to suffer for a long time from the consequences of the war. Many Russian academics living abroad are vocally opposing their government’s war of aggression; some have at least temporarily left the country in the last weeks, with an uncertain future ahead; many others have remained – either due to personal choice, or for lack of resources and connections.

The Western academic world is not fully unaware of the situation. However, the (more or less) open letters that I read in these days look dramatically inadequate. Some basically consist of calls for an overall ban on Russian scholars just because of their citizenship, sometimes in favor of (token) Ukrainian representatives. They also ignore the understandable desire for many Ukrainians to stay in Ukraine. This zero-sum game logic is sometimes reflected in actual academic policies, with explicitly anti-war scholars and cultural activists being de-platformed, or, with the same logic of collective punishment, students being barred from enrolling in universities. However, no states have expelled current students.  

Other documents acknowledge the plight of many Russian colleagues and formally declare solidarity with them but look somehow disingenuous in their stance and extremely ambiguous in terms of their actual implications. An example of the former: in an open letter addressed to Russian scholars, the (real) issue of de-platforming and collective punishment is sidestepped by the author who wonders whether such extreme positions aren’t’ just part of Russian ‘regime propaganda’. The implications of political hygiene tests for scholars are chilling, but they are regularly discussed with no reflexivity. With a few laudable exceptions, solidarity is almost always conditional to ‘actively’ stating opposition to the invasion. This hold many scholars – those who have remained in Russia in particular – to impossible standards: one thing is to voice opposition from abroad and being affiliated with a foreign institution, another is to do it while living and being employed in Russia; it is laudable that associations like European Association of Social Anthropologists and BASEES/ASEEES have been clear that they will not discriminate on nationality grounds.

These attitudes, in my view, raise serious issues about the approach and mindset of many Western academics. Here are a few points for debate.

1. Most Russian universities remain peripheral in the global production of knowledge even in the context of area studies – how is this power asymmetry acknowledged by such calls coming from richer Western institutions? Do they have the right to set moral standards for precarious researchers with little to no resources, at risk of being fired, fined, arrested? Does the often-imperialist attitude of Russian cultural institutions (and among many academics, to be sure) towards Ukrainian culture make this issue irrelevant?

2. To what extent are open letters writers and signatories aware of the characteristics of the political system, consensus dynamics, societal attitudes, opinion polls in Russia? Did the ‘national’ focus of much post-socialist studies research – often justified by de-orientalizing reasons – actually compartmentalize/provincialize the understanding of the post-socialist condition and its various outcomes? This can be seen from the surprised reaction of scholars from all kinds of states at the lack of an uprising or greater protest in Russia.

3. Are some terms – that to a large extent describe real issues – being abused to the point of being distorted to the opposite? Talking about Ukraine by silencing Ukrainian voices is indeed a very bad case of ‘westsplaining’, but isn’t it conceptually the same to discuss about Russian state ideology, politics, society without the contribution of informed and critical Russian scholars? Is it ‘whataboutism’ to ask about the position of ‘cancellers’ regarding BDS – or what their position would have been about scholars from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries (including Euro states) being not sufficiently vocal against the unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003? Should they have been de-platformed?

Any comparison with BDS is usually dismissed as ‘not relevant’ by those defending banning Russian scholars or ignored completely. The academic boycott of Israel is in reality not a unified position. For example, some support boycott initiatives in occupied territories but not BDS. However, many voices are advocating a more extreme position than most BDS organizations in relation to Russian academia. This deserves discussion and debate.

My thoughts return to Ukraine and Ukrainians at this time of their struggle. What scholars can do is maximize informed, analytical and critical voices from within Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.