Russians react to the beginning of the offensive against Kyiv: The looking glass world but with some cracks in it

Alice through the looking glass (Kievnauchfilm 1982). Source:

This is a slightly edited version of a thread I made on Twitter 27 Feb 2022. I have obscured identities.

“Don’t want to do a long thread but I said I’d update with the ‘everyman’ view from the ‘averagely informed’ Russian [some people didn’t like this wording, but I leave it here]. So far, it can be summarised as everything we see in Western media about conflict in Ukraine is transformed into a kind of Alice thru the Looking Glass world for some of these people.

That means, for example, the difficulty in even starting a conversation with my acquaintance who I text a couple of times a month. I gingerly tested the waters with her. She’s c.35 years old, and her sister has a kid who’s 18. I text: ‘everything ok? I hope you’re keeping Dima away from the enlistment office’. Her answer ‘What?’

I paused and thought long and hard before continuing and choosing my words carefully: ‘There are a lot of conscripts in Ukraine, it seems.’ She: ‘Yes, I heard that. Poor Ukrainian mothers.’ I.e. she interpreted it ‘through the looking glass’ – subsequently it was obvious she thought I was talking about ‘poor Ukrainian conscripts’ being forced to fight. Later she talked about avoiding television news and only vaguely knew there was a ‘special operation’ in Donbas.

Older bloke: ‘mood is good. A quick jaunt to Kiev and back in time for tea. Without too many casualties. Symmetrical sanctions – you’ve got more to lose. Jobs a good-un’. President looking firm, saying the right thing.’

I have always held complex views about rally-round the flag effects (it’s decay was faster than people think after 2014, it’s ‘drowned out’ by material concerns), but this man is a ‘putin-sceptic’, so his positive comments about Putin alarm me.

Woman in 50s: ‘Russia has never invaded anyone; we don’t have taking territory in our military doctrine. Did you see ‘wag the dog’? You could learn a lot about what’s happening in the US with Biden’s unpopularity’. Again, you can see a kind of ‘trickle down’ of media talking points here in a garbled way.

Texts in the night: He: ‘Why are you awake?’ Me: ‘I can’t sleep – watching the war.’

He: ‘Completely f’up. I’m watching the tele – explosions, wounded, tanks.’

I respond: ‘Kyiv being hit by rockets’. No answer for last 2 days to that message.

My ‘conscious’ friend, as he calls himself, in his 30s: “we’ll this is f**ed up. What does the overseas say? Putinists don’t care -they’ll burn the world to get their way… everyone thinks we are driving the Nazis out of Ukraine! Even a friend here showed his colours! He seemed ok before.’

My friend continues [who incidentally is unemployed mechanic without higher ed]: ‘It’s not TV, it’s inertial thinking and low capacity for critical reasoning. And absence of alt sources of info. If the economy wasn’t so bad people would have a chance to ‘look up”

And then he ends: ‘What is the opinion of people outside of Russia? On what is happening now? Surely there is no one who thinks that Russia is doing a good deed? See you in ten years, if God wills it. It’s tragicomic [И смех и грех]’

One reader objected to my categorization of some of these people as ‘averagely informed’, or ‘unemployed without higher education’. The point is that while Russian media messaging and broader discourses do shape opinion, they don’t dictate it. Similarly, an abiding theme of my writing is that especially when it comes to xenophobia and bigotry, we should avoid facile assumptions about correlations with class.

Why Didn’t the Working Class Defend the Soviet Project? A Commentary on Maksim Lebskiy

I was really excited to hear about this new Russian language book called The Working Class in the USSR: Life in conditions of industrial paternalism, by Maksim Lebskii. It’s right up my street as you can imagine, and it’s such a rarity for this topic to get a serious treatment in Russia/n because of the class bias in scholarship, as I wrote at length here.

I hope the book gets translated into English soon, but in the meantime I made a summary of some of its points and how they intersect with my scholarly interests. There will be a lot of egregious plugging of my work in this post! There is also a Russian language summary here of Lebskii’s book (he spells it Lebskiy in translit). Here is a collection of his writing on other topics.

This is a book about the role and identity of the working class in Russia since the Russian Revolution with a focus on the post-1965 period. It’s mainly based on archival documents as well as Soviet and Russian newspaper sources. Ten chapters take us on a detailed tour of the social functions of the Soviet enterprise up to 1965 and the Kosygin reforms after that. Key topics are the problem of how to stimulate economic productivity, the intensification of paternalism, the growth of the expectation of a mass consumption society only partly fulfilled by enterprise resources, the conflicts between ministries, the collapse of the USSR, workers in post-Soviet Russian.

Lebskii’s own intervention is this: rather than a history of the Soviet working-class as a whole, he proposes an institutional and structural focus on the period 1965-95 where the tendencies of mature socialism were intensified: industrial paternalism, with its contradictory role in the subsequent history of the USSR. The main question posed by the book then becomes: Why did the massive Soviet working class at the beginning of the 1990s not defend the principles of Soviet society? Lebskii argues that the working-class had gained enough to want to defend paternalism, but not enough to be prepared to defend a state and polity it did not identify with socialism or collectivism once a series of political entrepreneurs came along to offer alternatives. The working class emerges as both radical and conservative: attempting to cling to decaying paternalism, and alternating between extremes of potent activism and passivity.

Soviet collectivism was no fiction, it had a palpable reality in the weak economic stratification within the enterprise and the genuine power of an ideology of social flattening and the shared goal of the ‘plan’. This is a topic my own work echoes in part when I interviewed and observed workers in an industrial setting in the 2000s and 2010s (obligatory link to my book here – it’s near the top of the linked page). For Lebskii, class was more an economic than a political reality in terms of how it ‘created’ working-class persons. Lebskii uses the work of E. P. Thompson, but in my view rather superficially, to argue for a ‘social community’ approach where class comes into being as a result of social conflict and interactions. For me there’s not enough granularity to make this claim based on the evidence available to Lebskii. I actually agree with his argument though, based on my own ethnographic evidence where I use the term ‘metaoccupational community’, even to describe a deindustrializing set of towns and factories in the Russian rustbelt today.

What was new to me, as a non-historian, was Lebskii’s observation that as early as the 1920s factories begin the shift towards paternalism by providing social support and housing. Lebskii then narrates the massive forced labour migrations under Stalin and the retention of peasant characteristics by the new working class, as well as the attempts to more firmly attach workers to enterprises via the provision of privileges – in particular accelerated access to housing.  By overfulfilling the plan, factory bosses could significantly reward workers with material benefits as well as giving the enterprise autonomy via discretion on use of retained funds. This is a novel finding, argues Lebskii, when considering the existing picture of Stalinist production command. By the time of Khrushchev, this dynamic’s growth is visible in the disparity between housing built by enterprises for their workers and the lag in municipal housing. This factor also strongly ties workers to their enterprises, ensuring the retention of skilled and technical workers. By 1949 in fact the pattern is set – the expansion of ‘social-ministerial/departmental facilities’ (‘departments’ understood in the sense of Soviet industrial silos), dominating the urban and industrial development of the USSR and largely out of the control of the government itself. Lebskii provides new archival evidence of the massive social spending by factories on housing and other facilities.

Kosygin under Khrushchev attempts to reinvigorate industry and growth by decentralising planning and break the centralized ministries’ bureaucratic power. This is a primary reason for the removal of Khrushchev in 1964. Lebskii puts this into a longer-term context of an increasing concern with efficiency, profits, and incentivization. Again, Lebskii makes use of new archival sources to underline the earlier turn towards reform than previously appreciated. His conclusion here is that the reforms, intended to halt the hoarding of resources by enterprises by effectively taxing them on ‘profit’, in reality led to a blurring of the unified institution of state property by treating the enterprise as a unit of accounting in this way.

To improve the USSR’s woeful industrial productivity the late 60s saw successful experiments in applied material incentives, a rejection of Taylorism, and a reduction in workforce – not expanded elsewhere because unemployment would have been politically unfeasible. Again, as is fitting for the theme of the book (paternalism), the point here is the growth in discretionary sources of material reward – a money fund, a social-cultural fund, and a productivity development fund. During periods of reform (65-70 and 87-90), enterprises get a large amount of funds to disburse with discretion, and even in other periods the percentage of surplus available is not less than 40%. This meant a substantial growth in the power of the factory administration over time. By 1969, 7% of wages were from discretionary bonuses in contrast to 2.5% in 1950. Overall though, productivity did not rise, as this system encouraged factories to focus on high-price industrial goods which allowed overfulfillment of the plan according to imputed output value, rather than overall output and at the expense of the consumption goods sector.

Lebskii also describes the explosion in spending by enterprises on social-cultural facilities under late socialism. For example, the Kirov factory in 1985 had at its disposal children’s summer camps capable of housing thousands of children. Similarly, the role of the enterprise in housing is dealt with in detail with many examples. Lebskii also deals with a corollary of paternalism – workers are individualised as they engaged in individual bargaining with the enterprise for resources – something my informants recall in a bitter-sweet way in my research – one of my main interlocutors describes how the factory boss could veto personal relationships and dealt out the best housing to high productivity workers even in the late 1980s.

Again, because of my relative ignorance of Russian labour history, Lebskii’s description of widespread strike action even in the 1930s was news to me. Under high Stalinism, workers were still able to ‘vote with their feet’ because of the shortages in labour. Active protest was unnecessary because of the structural power workers wielded – again a point my work on labour protest deals with in the present. After Stalin, infighting for resources between ministries intensified. Economic-costs accounting was only ever half-hearted due to the weakness of the centre. Attempts to make enterprises self-financing and self-managing had deleterious effects on the overall state budget.  Eventually the producers win out over the centre, resulting in the inflation of the late 1980s and the breakdown of the entire system.

Lebskii then focusses on the attempts from 1987 to transform the Plan into state orders and allow the enterprise leeway to dispose of its hoarded materials and capital. Similarly, the experiments with pseudo-workplace democracy are described. Lebskii highlights the continuing sense of a ‘labour collective’ over other forms of identity (such as national separatism), and workers’ attachment to the enterprise during crisis. The nascent workers movement is manipulated by political entrepreneurs, chief of whom was Yeltsin.

As the post-Soviet period begins, genuine unions form to oppose the defacto privatisation and seizure of state property by the nomenklatura. There are attempts to re-collectivise the means of production. The first stage of privatisation between 1992-4 is described in detail from a workers’ perspective. What looks like a promising ‘popular’ privatisation where the entire collective received 51% control (the other options being the state selling 40% of shares, or worker buy-outs) is used by the management to gain control in the face of a general hegemonic perspective on the inevitability of capitalist transition and republican populism. This underlines once more the legacy effect of paternalistic relations of ‘trust’ towards management,  a state of affairs that continues into the 1990s as Russian workers confront social breakdown and unemployment.

In a precursor to his conclusion, Lebskii rehearses a relatively familiar argument that the Soviet leadership mistakenly believed they could build a socialist society from a low material and cultural base. The leadership lacked the theoretical understanding that the USSR was a transitionary state between capitalism and socialism but lacked the material base to achieve this. Even in the 1950s, mechanised labour was less than 50% and labour hoarding one result. The late USSR also suffered from the same slowdown of growth as the capitalist states after 1960. Despite the enormous social achievements of the period, the contradiction that doomed the USSR was the leadership attempt to make a consumer society without the tools to do so.

What’s novel here is Lebskii’s recognition of working-class agency: the USSR saw a growing working class accept a developmental-modernisation compact with an oppressive state, but not at any cost. The factory become the main organising space of the worker’s life. This had the effect of the worker seeing himself not as part of a working class but as a participant in a small corporation. This is where Lebskii and me part ways, as I see this as too historically-determinist, relying on a false continuity stretching back to ‘corporative’ ideas about Russian peasant life that are out of date. It’s hard to argue with Lebskii when he says the rise in paternalism had such strong legacy effects that its infrastructure had an ameliorating effect in transition – allowing millions to survive the catastrophe of the 1990s – this is essentially the thesis of the first part of my book. What’s missing for me is a conversation with the emerging scholarship on Soviet socialism like that in Keti Chukhrov’s work. Chukhrov liberates Soviet subjecthood from the limiting interpretations of it as alienation, atomization and libidinal desire based on lack. Lebskii’s is a condensed history of worker-enterprise relations, but it clears some ground for further thinking about roads not taken and the enormous political potential of Russia’s working class both past and present.

Is Moscow the most liveable global city in the world?

Quality of Life Ranking for 29 World Cities

A draft of the UN’s global cities prosperity ranking 2022 saw Moscow take first place for ‘liveability’. Cue crowing from RT, who were the only outlet to run the story today. Coverage highlights Moscow’s scores for quality of life and wellbeing, but what does liveability really mean? This was, ironically, one of the concluding points of my book [pdf opens automatically]: that for their inhabitants, many small deindustrializing towns in Russia are highly ‘habitable’, in comparison to the big cities in Russia. [Links to the rest of the book here]

When indices are published about any ‘quality’ of life measure, I’m always sceptical. The question of course is always – liveable for whom? Moscow is even more diverse than ever, and surely that’s a good thing, right? But what if we substitute more ‘unequal’ for ‘diverse’? Far too often the commentary to these reports is made either by ‘expats’ – who have a very skewed view, obviously, or by the urban middle Russian class who have benefitted most from Mayor Sobyanin’s transformations (themselves mainly a supercharged version of the previous governance – see my series of posts on governance from earlier this year).

Let’s have a quick look at the UN report [annoyingly only opens as a pdf]. It has six criteria: Productivity (and I recommend this recent book on that subject by Michael Haynes), Infrastructure, Quality of Life, and Equity, Environment, and Governance. The premise of the index itself is a little misleading, as it only includes 29 cities in the first place, and there is no clear rationale for selection. We get Delhi, but not Karachi. There’s New York, but no Los Angeles. The exercise seems unintentionally set up to flatter metropolises with lots of mass transit urban mobility, well-paid jobs, housing growth, educational attainment, public space. Note that Quality of Life is a measure independent of Social Inclusion and Equity – the latter only includes income equality as a minor measure with ‘women in local government’ getting as much weight. The index draws on existing UN Sustainable Development Goal indicators (I teach a course on this topic) and adds a few more relating to ‘tech’, airports, road congestion (still a notorious problem in Moscow), science and education, culture and recreation, and e-governance.

Unsurprisingly, Moscow does really well on infrastructure and e-governance. For a non-Asian city, its mass transit really is awe-inspiring as are its joined up ‘state-services’ online portal. Overall, it is third placed, behind Singapore and Toronto. RT got their headline because Moscow scored highest for Quality of Life, but low for Environmental Sustainability, and was middling for Equity. (As an aside it was interesting that London scored spectacularly low for Equity, much lower than Moscow or any Global North city). I don’t have time to go more into the details, but here’s my quick take that reiterates some of the themes of this blog over the last few years.

If you have a professional managerial-level job (we can argue about what that means), Moscow has a much higher quality of life than in other European or NA cities. It’s partly because of the capital premium on such salaries that Moscow attracts. But it’s also because service industry jobs are so badly paid by comparison – the people who dry clean your clothes (delivered back to your flat vacuum-wrapped), chauffeur you to work (my friend in a mid-level managerial job for a state corp has his own 24/7 driver), tutor your children in the evening (an acquaintance who owns a not particularly successful medium-sized business employs a cleaner, live-in nanny, cook and three tutors), deliver your groceries, clean your yard and stairway. Then we come to the backbone of Moscow’s growth – housing (and the infrastructure that follows) – dominated by central Asian migrants trapped in a cycle of exploitation and grey-zone legal status, as eloquently explored in the new book by Rustamjon Urinboyev.

a flop house/dosshouse for migrant workers in central Moscow

A much more revealing measure would be to compare the cost of a typical basket of goods for the urban poor and urban rich. In Moscow the contrast is staggering. Again, if you’re in the system and have city residency, you gain benefits not only denied to semi-legal migrant construction workers (who can’t even see a doctor), but denied also to the rest of Russia: subsidized transport and other essential services I wrote about in this post. Discounting components like mass transit, greenspaces and e-governance, this is a story about inequality. A couple of ironies I take away are that the people who live well in Moscow make little use of mass transit, e-governance, or green and public spaces, but their service class does. The wealthy consume a lot, sit in cars in traffic, and leave for the country at the weekend (or even fly abroad). In those senses they don’t differ from those that ‘live well’ elsewhere. I will always be an adoptive Muscovite at heart, although nowadays I spend much more time outside the ring road. Like all other cities I’ve lived in, I have a love-hate relationship with it.  

A much more interesting discussion last week about relative social exclusion and poverty caught my eye because this debate is too often dominated by discussion of money incomes, and not enough space is made for subjective (or what academics call consensual measures of poverty) assessment by a society of ‘enforced lack of necessities’. Like in the rest of Europe, the author of the piece sees social exclusion in the ability to consume things necessary for a ‘normal life’ – high speed internet, access to a computer or smart phone, holidays away from home, extra-curricular activities for school children, savings, access to affordable credit (these are examples the article gives). On these and other measures, 30-40% of Russians are living in poverty. It might be much lower in Moscow, but it’s still significant.

If Russia invades Ukraine (again)

‘If there’s a war tomorrow’ with soldiers expressing support for sustaining the lifestyles of corrupt elites

This post focusses on the effect at home of a bigger military conflict between Russian and Ukraine. It can be summarised as ‘more of the same, except worse’. My two main points are this: Russians have been desensitised to conflict. Unfortunately, open warfare would not fundamentally change anything. Secondly, the many voices that condemn Russians for the absence of widespread anti-war protest show their ignorance – not only about the reality of life in Russia, but how their own societies would perform in analogous circumstances. In the final part I will come back to the question of effects on the Russian regime.

I make no predictions in the post. Full disclaimer: I was dismissive of the possibility of a Crimea annexation and Donbas conflict in 2014. I was wrong then. Now, I still want to believe that the Russian security elite is fundamentally calculatedly and collectively timorous – despite all the noisy bluster. Here’s a sober, sceptical take I liked, if not feeling qualified to endorse it.

Firstly, the much debated military confrontation itself. I’ve little to add here. The millions of words written about the forms an invasion, punitive expedition or intervention would take are enough already. I limit myself to some obvious points. 1. Ukraine east of the Dnipro is full of people – airstrikes and missile attacks short of invasion, even against known Ukrainian military positions, would still cause mass civilian casualties. The Donbas conflict in 2014-15 saw disproportionate civilian casualties from indirect artillery/rocket fire hitting built-up areas. This is horrific, terrifying, and almost as bad as the Chechen conflicts. 2. Full invasion/intervention: combined arms advances of this sort require expert and practised command and control even the ‘forever-war’ UK-US axis struggles with today. Look at the amount of confusion, chaos and friendly-fire deaths as a proportion of casualties in the Iraq wars. I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the Russian armed forces, but their officer class is still underpaid, undertrained and overall of poor quality (which is why I agree with Farkas at the end of this). Protective equipment used by average squaddies is not great. Russia’s record in dealing with quality opposition in urban warfare is woeful. Draw your own conclusions.

Back to Russia itself: we should connect the crackdown on all opposition in the last years to the securitization and partial gendarmization of the Russian state that would ensure continuity in the event of a widespread armed conflict and a Western response. This might seem obvious to close observers, but I write this in response to two misconceptions: that the widespread fear and lack of appetite for war among Russians could somehow translate into real protest and opposition (it couldn’t). Second, that Russians are willing accomplices (they’re not). I reject any strong comparisons to fascism and to the debate on collective guilt of Germans after WWII. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

What would happen in Russia? Initial but very limited panic expressed in stocking up on food, currency and supplies. Even without war, there have been completely random salt and sugar panics in the last fifteen years spread by word of mouth when people fear sudden hikes in prices during the ‘closing’ season in late summer when the (mainly) poor maniacally stock vegetable and fruit preserves for the winter. Inexplicably, sometimes there’s a matchbox panic. Local shops used to make a killing – here’s an example from 2006. Call it a reflex of collective memory.  It would pass very quickly – as others have pointed out, Ukraine has no military capacity to strike back beyond the conflict zone. Russians have panic-fatigue after years of sanctions, counter-sanctions and currency devaluation. There won’t be any ‘return to the land’ – the panic-planting of potatoes in kitchen gardens that historically was a barometer of social strife. Counter-sanctions have been very effective in developing domestic agriculture. Can the rouble fall any lower? Yes it can. Does it matter much now after a decade of stagnant or falling incomes? Maybe not.

In actual fact, there’s evidence that war ‘panic’ has already passed in Russia. Parts of the housing market have seized up completely since 2021 in anticipation of further currency devaluation. As has the used car market – now a store of ‘real’ value.

While the focus has been on arrests of political opposition, the politics of fear in Russia, as Guzel Yusupova calls it, goes much further, with public space in cities noticeably securitized since at least 2018. Things are better in the sticks where I live, but people still know not to draw too much attention to themselves if they have any reason to watch out for the police. And let’s face it, no one in their right mind wants to interact with the Russian police. However, I don’t want to overemphasise fear. It’s more discomfort, politically cognitive load and dissonance that incrementally increases year after year. It’s not a full-on police state, it’s not a dictatorship and it’s still not a fully-blown authoritarian state, but a Ukraine escalation would be an admission of the failure of the Putin project to sustain itself without resorting to an anachronistic Russian version of the última dictadura cívico militar. To be clear I’m not saying Russia would have a ‘dirty war’ on such a scale, but history can always rhyme: a declaration of emergency enables further and wider repression of any hint of opposition, further sidelining of even potential institutions, the removal from politics and the state of inconvenient fellow travellers that the paranoid elite would like to replace with clients. Under cover of emergency, widespread unpopular economic measures like wage freezes could be undertaken, as in Argentina. For a take on the wider polycrisis of Ukraine-Russia as a political economy story, Nick Trickett wrote this recently: “Arguing about Russia’s preponderance of military power is of the utmost humanitarian importance, but it misses the plain fact that the regime badly blundered if it thinks it can swallow a whale.” 

National Guard station in Southern Russia today

What would Russians think about the war? Well, like now, many people would be wholly ignorant, beyond knowing the basic media talking points from eight years of conflict (Ukrainian government is bad, etc). One thing that annoys me is the continuing assumption that, because Russians historically have consumed information via TV, they still do so, and that current affairs are particularly salient. Would we say this about our own societies? Both these ideas are out of date by at least 10 years. What we do know is that Russians do not, on the whole, think Ukrainians are an inferior people to be subjugated. They don’t think they are ‘nazis’, and, well, they don’t think much about them at all, to be honest. I doubt a much bigger war would change that. Yes, a small minority are performatively outraged by ‘colour revolutions’ and the ‘CIA plot that was Maidan’, but these are a particular subsection of a subsection of middle-aged men who have too much time on their hands. I don’t deny there was a rally-round-the-flag effect in 2014-15 with the annexation of Crimea, but that was a long time ago now, and, as I commented recently, most Russians have conflicted feelings now about Crimean incorporation. A false flag operation to justify further intervention would not have even a fraction of the effect of the propaganda from eight years ago, such as the false story of Ukrainians crucifying children which is still visible on Channel One’s site, or the reports of a ‘genocide’ of thousands of Donbas residents, published by the Russian government newspaper. Of course that doesn’t mean the awesome arsenal that is mainstream Russian TV media won’t be enrolled in a military-jingoistic propaganda campaign. Parts of it have been almost continually at it since 2014.

Denis Volkov of Levada writes in Ridl of an apparent consensus in Russia about fear of war, blame of the West, and expectation of escalation.  However, his conclusion that Russian public opinion is ‘homogeneous’ suffers from the typical salience problems of polling and focus groups (when moderators say: ‘X is in the news, what do you think?’). Others have recently pointed out that Russians, when not prompted to talk about geopolitics, are much more likely to talk about domestic issues. To be fair to Volkov, he admits this – people have fatigue about Ukraine, confrontation and are not genuinely interested. Volkov says because they’re not fully engaged they therefore accept the narrative of NATO encirclement. I would disagree here. In reality one encounters a lot more diversity in opinion about Russia’s neighbour as one gets further in time away from 2014. This, in case I need to spell it out, is a good thing. At ‘worst’ one could say there is ‘resignation’ in Russia that war is possible but this resignation is a product of the complete political powerlessness of the majority.

Nicos Poulantzas wrote about the rise of authoritarian statism in the Western democracies in the 1970s. While direct comparisons to Russia today are as open to criticism as my Argentinian junta ones, I want you to indulge me a moment longer. Poulantzas’ point was that crisis tends towards forms of state authoritarianism that do not need open repression, but act via the state apparatus in an insidious, creeping way. There is a retreat of the rule of law because of bureaucratic power (or juridical preemptive policing ‘with the law and against the law’), but this is not fascism, there is no ‘break’ and Poulantzas writes in opposition to Foucauldian version of power effects. Further, these forms of authoritarian statism see the executive as much as hostage (to conflicting interests among the elite) as arbiter.

While writing mainly about the French Fifth Republic, Poulantzas has some sobering observations about executives that attempt a monopolistic ‘super apparatus’ with Bonapartist pretensions. Homogenization of the state tends to backfire, as do shifts towards plebiscitary manipulation; contradictions between economic interests are exacerbated, indeed, some negative economic processes of consolidation may accelerate; 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. Poulantzas, though he died in 1979, was remarkably prescient about the direction of western democracies. My point is that we should be on the one hand more sensitive to Russian foreign policy as a symptom of domestic crisis in Russia, and on the other that Russia is not an ‘exceptional’ (i.e. fascist) state and is subject to the same cyclical tendency to towards crisis in the power bloc.

Bob Jessop has a critical update to Poulantzas and Stuart Hall here that underlies much of my own thinking about how under Putin Russia developed a form of authoritarian neoliberal statism. You can read my open access piece on that topic here. Unlike my argument that Russia is a kind of vanguard neoliberal state Jessop prefers tracing historical neoliberal regime shifts rather than ‘varieties’ or global neoliberal logics. My final point here is that Ukraine has the potential to accelerate conjunctural tendencies in the Russian state at home, as much as influence Ukrainian and European geopolitics.

*hello there, British politics and welcome to the cartel party era!

Spooks and the haunting of Russian Area Studies

A spooky Russian house, which, like Area Studies, is both haunted and possibly in need of kapremont.

Just a quick follow up to my last post on Russian punditry, which got quite a lot of private responses of support. I hadn’t considered adding the ‘spooks’ (not-so-secret security agencies) angle; my piece was mainly about the domination of public and social media attention by a narrow and not always best informed commentariat sitting uncomfortably between academia, journalism and think tanks.  

However, after I wrote the post, a few people mentioned the security services angle. What does this mean? Well, in a sense it’s the second elephant in the room of Russia punditry. If the first elephant is the clear leveraging of latent public sympathy abroad for the Russian regime by our friends at the English-language offices of RT, then the other elephant is the continuing relevance of academic and think-tank contacts with the security services in the West.

If you underestimate the hidden motives of those that comment on Russia – from both elephants, then you are guilty of the ‘fallacy of insufficient cynicism’, as Bruce Cumings wrote in 1997 about Russian and Asian Area Studies’ partial capture by security service interests.  Cumings’ illuminating piece is still relevant today. I’ll come back to his proposal for Area Studies later.

What is clear from the reaction to my original post is that many people don’t really get how ‘ideological’ commentary is that comes from both ‘foreigners’ and ‘natives’ alike. Many also don’t want to talk about how the filtering mechanism of funders, results in funnelling out diversity. Perhaps that should be ‘Diversity’ with a capital ‘D’ (in terms of viewpoints, background, gender and race).

Cumings mentions Richard Pipes at one point. Pipes is an example of a type of Eastern European anticommunist intellectual recruited to enthusiastically tell the US government what it wanted to hear about Russia at a particular point in time. A leading critique of détente, his hawkish views came from his flawed reading of Russian history (a kind of historico-genetic autocracy thesis that even at the time was seen as simplistic). The result: advising politicians and the public that the USSR was bent on world domination and a real military and economic threat to US hegemony. Both these hyperbolic assertions were empirically falsifiable at the time by any curious undergraduate student with a good grounding in Russian Studies; the point is that effectively countering such an approach was not possible – not because of group think, but because of the structural conditions of academia-as-adjunct-of-security-state. Cumings:

“foundations (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford) worked with the state and the center to fund projects and, in some cases, to launder CIA funding; that the same scholars who undertook this activity often were themselves subjects of FBI investigations; that some of these scholars, in turn, were responsible for denouncing other scholars to the FBI; and, finally, that these academics were major figures in the postwar development of Russian area studies in the nation as a whole.”

People like Pipes acted to shape Area Studies as a Cold War industry dependent on the security services for social science research, an issue not just in Russian Studies (96% of all social science funding in the US came from the military in 1952).

Today, my previous post reflects concerns about the way Twitter acts as an amplifier of sometimes narrowly-informed and narrowly-thinking people in think tanks and policy who are less dependent now on the academic setting. Just as on one side some of the loudest voices come from journalists and grifters making money from laundering Russia’s geopolitical reputation, we should be aware of the continuing influence of security services’ patronage on Russian punditry at ‘home’.  The funniest line in Cumings’ piece is this:

“It has been estimated that while about 60 percent of the academics working for the CIA know that is what they are doing, the others do not.”

What he means by this is precisely the laundering of influence and policy-papers through academic and para-academic writing for the think tanks and foundations that have only increased in visibility in the era of social media.

What’s different today? In some respects nothing. If someone in a Western think tank is very hawkish or very dovish, ask yourself why? If they make grand knowledge claims, also be suspicious. Are they grifting for themselves or for a blob-faction?  One thing that has changed is that academia itself has become too neoliberal for most dedicated spooks to survive there. While there were a few in the Cold War institutes I taught in back in the day, even then they were leaving to go freelance because the requirements to publish or perish in the ivory tower are not so conducive to spook work. [allow me one little shout out to the prof I met a few years ago with so many passports and travel money, despite not publishing or getting grants! He’s not on Twitter! But he’s the exception and not the rule in terms of successful academic career and spookdom.] I digress, but the point is that a list of Russia experts that weighs heavily to the think tank side should give pause for thought.

Which brings me back to Cumings. While the Cold War birthed Area Studies (and hijacked anthropologists), Cumings in 1997 proposed rethinking the boundaries of area and discipline to reengage American minds with the task of understanding the world beyond the US. He was alarmed by the prospect of the rational choice paradigm taking over social science. Was he was right?

“it is a simpler matter of the researcher staring at the game-theoretic mathematical formulas that appear on the computer screen, thus to determine how the real world works. If the theory does not explain political, social, or economic phenomena, it is the real world’s fault.”

He had a two-pronged response to this challenge. The first was based on ‘boundary displacements’:

  • (1) move away from fixed regional identities (that is, the area committees), given that globalization has made the ‘areas’ more porous, less bounded
  • (2) utilize area expertise to understand pressing issues in the world that transcend particular countries, which is the real promise of area studies in the post-1989 era
  • (3) reintroduce area knowledge to social science disciplines that increasingly seem to believe that they can get along without it
  • (4) integrate the United States into “area studies” by recognizing it as an “area” that needs to be studied comparatively

Then, following Immanuel Wallerstein’s similar intervention, Cumings had more concrete suggestions; they are just as provocatively relevant today as 25 years ago:

  • All academics should reside in two departments
  • Thematic, yet heterodox, research themes that are not US-centric, but neither driven by supposed specificities of ‘Russia’ or ‘China’
  • Embrace post-positivism
  • Fold all the social sciences into ‘political economy’ (and preferably get rid of economics to the Business School)
  • Let funding flow from corporate identity of the university (serving society as the institution imagines it)

For that to be possible, especially in area studies, Cumings had one final prerequisite:  “Abolish the CIA, and get the intelligence and military agencies out of free academic inquiry”.

The Russia Pundit Problem

This post was provoked by the rash of new and reheated Russia takes getting a lot of visibility on Twitter recently because of the escalation threat in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. I also got a little ‘triggered’ by Kevin Rothrock’s* ‘head-to-head’ voting competition between Russia experts – also on Twitter. In fact, the whole ‘expert’ thing is weird in the first place. What does it actually mean? There are millions of Russia experts. In Russia, they’re called Russians… We’ve basically just accepted that expert is someone who mediates second-hand sources to buttress their own opinion and usually reinforce preconceived opinions that serve the powerful.

So what’s my beef? It’s twofold: there’s the usual problem of social media grifters. Since Trump and Russiagate they are like mushrooms in an endless late Russian summer – they just keep coming. What’s a grifter? A self-appointed expert who is a fraud; we could even call them ‘hack frauds’ as many are adjacent to a media outlet or think-tank that churns policy and opinion pieces.

The second problem is that Russia coverage on Twitter is dominated by Washington DC policy types who may not be frauds* (although some of them are), but who often have a very narrow, and second-hand, knowledge of Russia the country, and Russia the diverse population, as opposed to Russia the foreign policy problem. I’ve written about ‘imperial’ hierarchies of knowledge production before here. Another issue was the extreme Anglo/US-centric focus of Rothrock’s list. (The finalists of his list were defence and crime/security/military scholars; you couldn’t get a more depressing picture of how Russia is framed).

You can see where I’m going here – I’m making a claim for ‘in-country’ knowledge, and depth and breadth of engagement. For some reason, some people don’t even understand this argument.

In case you think I’m talking exclusively about non-Russians, I’m not. These issues pertain just as much to ‘natives’. There are plenty of Russian Russia experts who have long had a comfortable DC or US media gig and who have a weak direct grasp on events. Just as much as others, they are vulnerable to bad takes due to the secondary, or belated sources of their analysis.

Another hobbyhorse of mine is the extreme self-selection and self-reproduction of this group: in the main they are privileged Russian liberals who are often the last people to ask about the diversity of Russia itself. Think for a moment about who can and who can’t up-sticks and move to the US, regardless of the level of repression in Russia. Think also for a moment about the clustering of political viewpoints that this results in (something I implied in my piece about Navalny-love in 2021)

But that’s not the end of it, the same DC types and ‘expat’ Russians often read the same set of narrow sources and have the same contacts. So not only does their shared relative wealth and class position lead to blobism, but also their lack of interest in exploring other sources or coverage adds to that as well.

Some of these people have spent the majority of their adult life outside Russia, or only visiting Moscow/St Pete. There’s two ‘syndromes’ we could coin: the ‘Marriott-International Russia expert’ (folks who get uncomfortable leaving their hotel in Moscow – yes, I know them); and the ‘not-outside-the-ring road’ native Russian experts who disdain and are often even fearful and incredulous of non-Metropolitan Russia (yes I know them too).

Aside: who do you think is most incredulous about my research and work? Yes, that’s right, it’s privileged Russians. And by incredulous, I mean, they regularly say things like ‘how can you spend so much time outside Moscow?’ ‘What food do you eat?’ ‘How can you talk to ordinary people?’

As this post is already a rant I want to shift the focus. A third thing that prompted me to write this post was that a few people got in touch to say how recent events not only pertaining to Russia express something alarming about how editors and publishers value expertise. They also said things like: ‘I’d love to call out so-and-so, but I need a job in the US’, or ‘Yes we know so-and-so is a fraud, but as part of the community ourselves we can’t say so’. The incestuousness of ‘Russian expertise’ is another problem that as often prevents open debate as stimulates it.

Here’s some of what they said to me and allowed me to report anonymously:

  • The shift of so many Russian journalists abroad has actually weakened ‘mainstream’ coverage in English as these experts are unable to adequately filter their own sources back in Russia and they themselves rely on Telegram channels, many of which are not at all reliable. Ex-Lenta editors have been in Riga for 8 years, remember.
  • ‘The worst of Polsci is on Twitter’. There are too many ‘Putin is THE problem’ people there, banging the same drum, year after year. Polsci is partly responsible for the perception that Putin controls the discourse. So stop talking about him, if you don’t like it! People should stop writing books about Putin, but they won’t because they make money. [caveat – there are great polsci people on Twitter like Sam Greene, for example. No, he didn’t contribute to this rant]
  • Detachment from country and embeddedness leads to extremes and tired replication of Cold War Kremlinological approaches. ‘Russia is about to have a revolution because my taxi-driver said so’, or ‘Putin is a puppet-master’ are both outcomes.
  • Presentism (obsession with the news) and the need to be shown to be relevant leads experts to echo conspirological tropes on the one hand, and facile historical analogies on the other (‘Kazakhstan intervention as another 1956’).
  • Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good). Particularly with regard to the Blob (DC Foreign policy community). There are great people even at the Atlantic Council, but, to use the example of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the best people have been crowded out in that space by less informed and highly ideological voices.
  • The obvious paucity of regional coverage in Russia (and on Kazakhstan) as a result of the loss of Area Studies expertise and programmes.

Why does this matter? Because increasingly ‘experts’, particularly on Twitter, drive media coverage. If they are narrowly wonkish, and narrowly blobby (the DC academic and think-tank community) this only hurts societies’ understanding of Russia. The real tragedy of the ‘Russia discourse’ online is that so many got caught up in the idea that ‘understanding’ a country involves just understanding foreign policy and kremlinology and that ‘understanding’ anything else is seen as secondary.

*I want to be clear that these criticisms are not directed at Rothrock himself.

*on fraud – eventually we are all frauds in some aspect of our professional life: we are always going to be guilty of talking about something publicly about which we do not know enough. In the post above I’m using the term fraud about a Dunning-Kruger level of commentary.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 4: ‘Affording’ suffering under sanitary authoritarianism

Final blog summarising a Russian-language book chapter about Moscow as a not-so-smart city during Covid. You can read the first blog post here. Here is the book and pre-print chapter. We turn the final part of our chapter to the neologism ‘affordances’, as invented by James Gibson in the 1970s to described the possibilities that emerge from the contact of an organism with its environment – both positive and negative.

Donald Norman (1988) adapts the term to concentrate on “affordances as perceivable action possibilities – i.e., only actions which users consider possible. So, designers must create objects’ affordances to conform to users’ needs based on these users’ physical and perceptual capabilities, goals and past experiences.” An example of ‘negative affordances’ from technological ‘improvement’ are things like reading on a screen rather than paper (eyes get tired, making notes is more difficult). There’s a rich literature on negative affordances in higher education which we seem to have completely ignored in the now compulsory delivery of so much ‘content’ via learning portals.

Studies of the internet in everyday life have attempted to contextualise unforeseen positive and negative affordances by doing ethnographic work on how technology is really incorporated into the lives of people. I wrote about this long ago, predicting that social media use in Russia would develop differently to that in the ‘West’. There’s also an interesting phenomenological literature on affordances and technology – on how perception of virtual environments affects interpretation of utility and disutility (e.g. Facebook algos and the way I perceive it responding to my inputs in a feedback loop; the emotional relationship I develop with software and hardware).

In our work on Moscow Social Monitoring app, Galina Orlova and I observe how the responses of the people self-isolating to the app are often emotional, physical and therefore reflect the production of phenomenological affordance – or rather negative affordance. People go to sleep cradling their phones with the SM app, open in dread anticipation of being woken by its sadistic logic of enforced selfie roll-call. Further, as the users discover bug after bug, they perceive the app as a demonic, retarded, or sadistic being – an easier response than an interpretive rational one. Can it be that sadism is programmable into a push-notification system, some ask? Some users go further, pondering the effectiveness of the system in implementing the kind of sleep deprivation torture used during the Stalinist Terror, a system that was more routinely effective and efficient than physical beatings or threats in extracting confessions. Others reflect on how even ineffective digital governance both lines the pockets of those developing the app and gives City Hall a mine of biometrics on its subjects. A keyword here to describe the app, in opposition to ‘health’, is ‘vred’ – ‘harm, injury, detriment, damage’. Thus our chapter suggests the need to view the app as creating an affordance of suffering and disorientation. But perhaps they are essential to the logic of a future effective control society in the service of a sanitary authoritarianism.

The SM app was updated nine times in the summer of 2020 and many bugs were removed. However the main issues remained – frequency of push notifications, battery use, stability. Furthermore a key design flaw – the absence of confirmation of successful receipt of a selfie sent to a server (delivery confirmation) also remained. Again, one could ask the question – did this enforced helplessness of the app on the dividual, not enhance the effectiveness of control? Users continued to be fined for not responding to notifications which they never received; a record of notification was still not incorporated into the app’s functions. At the same time the City Hall technical lab (Department of IT) responsible declined to comment, even after a month of the app’s use. As an aside, the DIT could serve as an emblem of how Moscow City Hall operates as a mill in churning public money into rents. As an anonymous observer notes: “DIT: A bureaucratic filter for controlled siphoning off of budget money. Idiotic purchases of equipment, bureaucratic delays, systematic reworking of all and sundry for the sake of the ‘process’ itself. The Department has very few specialists, all projects are outsourced, facilitating further fraud.”

Characteristic was the eventual knee-jerk reaction of DIT: “There was no record of a single fine being imposed in error”. In July 2020, The State Duma essentially supported City Hall by declining the opportunity to implement an amnesty for the fines. Mayor Sobyanin continues his line about the technology “saving the lives of tens of thousands of Muscovites”. Only the Human Rights Council continued to raise the issue of “repressiveness”.

A less extreme emotional response to the app was one of ‘irritation’. We analyse the mild forms of ‘insurgent citizenship’ available to users as they en masse give the apps a zero rating on phone appstores and write detailed letters of complaint that, like so many app ratings, appear to disappear into the ether. Perhaps ‘irritation’ is a particularly metropolitan keyword for states of discomfort and dissatisfaction that serve as points of entry to the ‘political’ in the lives of pampered Muscovites. Certainly we can observe the genre of service quality assessment as part of consumer culture. What is important is avenues of activating ‘pretenziia’ – claim-making processes that are different from ‘complaints to the authorities’. Nonetheless there is also the activation of moral values of civic worth here too: human rights and freedoms, respect for people, and so on. We also observe a strong element of the emotional response to injustice: those fined by the app are indignant that they have to prove their innocence. There is no habeas corpus on offer here in an incorporeal dividual world. Evaluations of the circumstances of self-isolation range from ‘totalitarianism’, to ‘electronic concentration camps’. A civic, or pre-civic position is actualized through interaction with the unjust app: “is this what we pay taxes for?” “I will not vote for the current authorities!”

In the SM case, we also trace legalistic routes to get fines cancelled, including using the smart city’s other sources of data to justify the wrongly-fined person’s case: requests for access to entry-way camera data, for example. The emergence of a claim to a kind of digital citizenship is visible. While the class-action lawsuit against the fines doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere, there are cases of people avoiding SM by making use of data protection regulations. The Facebook group in ‘defence’ of SM victims has morphed into a social justice message about the miserly support for people from the Russian state during the pandemic. SM continues to be a requirement for those infected in Moscow and the ‘service’ is now outsourced, raising further ‘digital rights’ concerns. In late 2020 many fines were overturned by Moscow courts.

We end our chapter by reflecting on the smart city’s choice of technological control over society, in place of alternatives such as a collective solidarity approach or a state of emergency (the latter rejected because of the miserliness of the federal government). Our chapter ends in early 2021, with the routinization of remote working (for the middle classes), QR codes for entry to night clubs and the like – and now in late 2021 we are confronted with déjà vu. We focus on the positives – the response of Muscovites and their development of a more conscious critical and multifaceted strategy of co-existence with digital governance and also the transition to hybrid forms of action, civicness and solidarity.  

If you’re interested in the chapter and the wide range of other material in the book on Russia, smart cities and urbanism, please consider buying a copy via the link at the top of the post.

If you want to read a piece about what internet and social media use looked like ten years ago in Russia, here’s the first piece I wrote on VKontakte and tech in 2010-11.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 3: Surveillant Assemblage

In our third blog post of our book chapter, on which these posts are based, we turn the next part of our chapter where we discuss theories of surveillant assemblage.

Haggerty and Ericson proposed a theory of surveillant assemblage in 2000 in the British Journal of Sociology. This develops Deleuze’s control society ideas: human bodies are abstracted “from their territorial settings, … separating them into a series of discrete flows. These flows are then reassembled in different locations as discrete and virtual ‘data doubles’. The surveillant assemblage transforms the purposes of surveillance and the hierarchies of surveillance, as well as the institution of privacy.” Like Deleuze, emphasis is on the seamlessness, continuity, and ability of the system to ‘modulate’ itself. However, the Moscow case gives cause to inject a note of reality – in our chapter we write about ‘a collapse of upravliamosti [manageability]. The Moscow QR assemblage demonstrated the relative powerlessness of the digital overseer precisely because it was itself a hybrid assemblage of ‘technocratic phantasms of City Hall, infectious viruses, disobedient bodies, dependent taxi-drivers, at-risk-of-infection police-officers,  masks and gloves, different kinds of smartphones, unstable apps, electronic passes and their print-outs, crashing platforms, and financial penalties.’ In reality we observe interruption, discontinuity, and detuning as the attributes of technosocial control.

In a much more recent Deleuzian approach, Mark Andrejevic proposes three defining characteristics of automated surveillance: operationalism, environmentality and framelessness. In each case Andrejevic highlights how these supplement Deleuze’s insights because they illustrate how the control society reveals the post-representational character of surveillance. The capacity for the semi-autonomous system of control to pre-empt or predict is key to this movement. But, this is only possible by virtue of comprehensive monitoring in a multi-scalar way – i.e. of populations and individuals in a defined shared environment. The Moscow case is interesting as it stretches this task to the most ambitious frame, possibly even exceeding that attemped in China – for Moscow has arguably freer mobility. Operationalism refers to the capacity of the system to respond to inputs; environmentality – to the way the system is able to adjust the context of action; framelessness – to the limitless potential for the system to granulate data collection. Andrejevich rightly notes the antipathy towards (or perhaps better, the absence of) the political, and the de-subjectivation of the person or human in the logic of his elaboration of control society. Operation replaces deliberative action in a way that inevitably results in perilous technoutopian thinking. Green (2019), like Andrejevic, sees the problem of the control society in the unstated assumptions about the conflict in deliberation about the embedded values in technology. In what is now a staple critique, all operationalisations of control efface what are at root political decisions about the value of outcomes and the relative value of citizens – whether prioritizing car flow over public transport, or marking ethnic minorities as a higher risk for criminality. 

However, again, we return to the reality of Moscow – where in the QR saga the checking of codes, like the enforcement of masks, develops into a simulacrum – it masks reality. A great example being police-officers using broken scanners to pretend to scan QRs, or tapping random numbers into a device whose interface is broken. In the last part of our chapter, we analyse the Social Monitoring app in Moscow introduced at the end of April 2020. Both infected and close-contacts were required to observe ‘self-isolation at home’ and to install a mobile app after having been photographed. Notoriously, the app started sending out push-notifications to the isolating, demanding uploaded selfies at all hours of the day and night, seemingly at random. The selfies were supposedly uploaded to a server of City Hall. Failing to provide a selfie, or leaving one’s apartment resulted in an automated fine  of 4000 rb. Those isolating reported push notifications a minute apart and cumulative fines for infractions sometimes reached 80,000rb. In our chapter we summarise the IT specialists’ assessment of the security and coding flaws in the SM app – how it was cannibalized from a completely different monitoring system, to its coding and resource bloat, to its insecure transmission and storage of personal data (via Estonia to private German servers)

In May, Evgeny Danchenkov, of ‘Glavkontrol’ reported that 216 million roubles of fines had been imposed. Every third app user received a fine, although City Hall claimed that only one in nine did. The vast majority of fines were not due to real infractions: geolocation was inaccurately recorded, face recognition didn’t always work – all things one would have predicted. Internet defence communities were formed to fight the ‘SM terror’ and a class action lawsuit prepared, while the authorities talked of the need for ‘social responsibility’. Ekaterina Shulman predicted an integration of sanitary surveillance and the security services and the emergence of Rospotrebnadzor (Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights)* as an independent political security structure within the Russian state. That looks less realistic now, although certainly it enjoyed exercising power over areas of life not previously its purview. Agamben’s updated argument about a permanent state of exception is worth consideration (the ‘worst possible scenario’ dictates a regime of political rationality regardless of reality). This may help when we analyse how agencies like Rospotrebnadzor are unwilling to give up powers granted once there is no public health logic in their enforcement of the ‘obligation of health’ as a condition of mobility – like their monopoly on third country entry points to Russian airports, for example. Many will have heard of Europeans being turned away at the border with Russia (the point of entry being an international airport) because they flew via Amsterdam instead of Paris. Even now in late 2021, airlines are at a loss at the complexity of the rules on testing, isolation and third-country entry, to the degree that in my last trip to Russia, I was handed a phone by check-in staff in Copenhagen to ‘negotiate’ my entry to Russia with border control at Sheremetyevo. My pretty straight-forward itinerary, visa- and vaccine-status was ‘illegible’ to Finnair staff.

A further post will follow on our chapter. In the meantime, consider purchasing the Russian-language book linked to at the top of the post and supporting our co-authors’ and editors’ work. There are many other interesting chapters in the work.

*Note: Rospotrebnadzor is currently claiming the right to define the level of antibodies in the blood that ensure protection from Covid with a view to extending its remit in the issue of Covid passports to those with high antibody counts. Rospotrebnadzor is not part of the Ministry of Health but reports direct to the Russian Government and employs over 100,000 people. Since 2014 the agency has regained significant powers to collect informal economic rents.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 2: Social monitoring and prostheses of control

In the second part of our book chapter, on which these posts are based, we turn to a description of the steps the Moscow government made at the beginning of the pandemic. The Russian pandemic ‘began’ in Moscow. Perhaps out of admission of the Russian state’s low capacity, perhaps out of cynicism, the federal centre ‘delegated’ to the regions responsibility for measures against Covid. Certainly part of the logic was to preserve the austerity politics the centre has pursued for some time; from the perspective of today, Russian fiscal expansion to cope with Covid has been among the smallest proportions of GDP in the developed world.  For example, one of the early ‘responses’ was a capped 8% loan to a limited groups of SMEs – hardly comparable to the significant support in some other complex and service-orientated economies. Now problems are emerging with a promised 3% loan cap for small businesses. The GDP deficit never even reached 5% during the pandemic and is now back in surplus (compare this to the immediate fiscal response in Anglo-Saxon countries that was nearly 10% of GDP). The refusal to make use of fiscal ‘space’ by the government in 2020-21 is not only criminal, but economically illiterate. Poverty rates have risen by around 10%. For the first time I’ve encountered beggars in even the smallest towns.

The implementation of QR codes made Moscow’s response in 2020 famous, but the first use of these was actually in Kazan. From 15 April 2020, QR codes in Moscow were required for internal movement. In reality though, the limits on mobility without the use of codes was hazy – taking out rubbish, walking pets 100m from residence all allowed Muscovites to test the practical limits. Of note is the enrolment as ‘police’ of Moscow’s taxi drivers – now required to check QR codes of their passengers, as were turnstile controllers employed by Moscow Transit Authority. By the end of April, a ‘social monitoring’ app was imposed on the infected to enforce ‘home quarantine’.  The ‘mask-glove regime’ was introduced in May 2020 and is absurdly still in force as of November 2021, although since summer 2021 I have rarely seen anyone in transit wearing gloves. Interestingly, the full regime seems to be only enforced in one of the higher-end shopping chains.

In the chapter version of our research, we reflect on the Moscow authorities’ attempt to emulate China’s fangkong system of public health surveillance. We also contrast the Russian ‘Social Monitoring’ system with Singapore’s horizontal TraceTogether system, and Seoul’s use of mobile and banking app data to track individuals. Arguably, Moscow’s system was most similar to China’s Alipay Health Code, although the latter was both more sophisticated and less transparent in operation. The Moscow Social Monitoring app was plagued by bugs and ‘dirty’ code, seemingly slapped together in just a few weeks and was a far cry from the initial promises by City Hall that a system like Seoul’s personal data aggregation was planned.

What can we learn from re-reading Deleuze’s 1990 ‘Control Society’ essay? This is a post-institutional look at control. Deleuze pessimistically sees Foucault’s governmentalizing (the ‘sovereign’ person learns to love the policing of herself) as transient. Using the metaphor of a corporation, Deleuze foresees control as continual adjustment via the codifed ‘dividualization’ of information about people (did he read Marilyn Strathern on the quiet?). Deleuze anticipates how technology can create a kind of double of an individual based on her data trail – and that this trail can enable control mechanisms via real-time exploitation of data – what Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘universal modulation’. Presciently, Deleuze also sees this logic as destroying the rationale for traditional state institutions (why do we need a hospital or public health system based on evaluation of evidence and research, when an algorithm can be pre-programmed to optimise health outcomes on the basis of a simple risk calculation? Do you take a particular diabetes or asthma drug, asks the algo? Then your mobility card is automatically blocked when R-reproduction reaches a certain point). Judgement is suspended on the basis of simple big-data calculations of relative risk.

But what does the imperfect implementation of this logic look like in the case of Moscow in 2020? On 15th April, QR codes for essential journeys were supposed to be available for download from the City Hall website, but immediately the site was shown to crash repeatedly under the demand. The embedding of QR codes into the existing digital infrastructure of ride-hailing apps also failed ‘due to the providers not yet having found a way of doing this’. What we observe is an interesting example of improvisation based on using old tech for new purposes – a 2015 app from the Transit Authority was repurposed for use in hand-held tablets by law-enforcement personnel. Enormous queues at Metro stations formed, giving a fundamental insight into technology-led surveillance policy, one that is not so different from elsewhere: almost no ‘real-world’ contingencies were really considered. For example, what was the lone Rosguard officer supposed to do with someone whose code didn’t work? It became clear that only the first link in the chain was considered. The sight of law enforcement telephoning for advice and their superiors having no response was repeated over and over.

In late April 2020 the QR was finally linked to individualized travel cards (noting that these are a small minority of cards in use – the majority being anonymous cards that you can load with credit). Despite this advance, police did not change their protocol – they still required a barcode or QR and did not have the capacity to read the travel card’s Covid validity. The much admired private sector was no better. The Yandex taxi app is a sophisticated piece of flexible software allowing you to tell the aggregator whether your driver is wearing a seatbelt, has good taste in music, etc, and allows you to leave a tip or not. In our chapter, we discuss the potential for this IT giant to have assisted City Hall’s control society. It did aggregate its own data about Covid risk using geolocation data and published it publicly. But this was not integrated into the City’s response and clearly City Hall feared the dilution of central control.  In the next part of our chapter and in the next blog post tomorrow, we discuss the relevance of theories of ‘surveillant assemblage’.

Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 1

As I promised, here is the first of four posts that summarise in English the Russian-language chapter Galina Orlova and I wrote for this book. A draft of the chapter in Russian can be downloaded here. This post also picks up the story after the series of posts I wrote last year about Covid in Moscow and Russia.

Сети города: Люди. Технологии. Власти: Под редакцией Екатерины Лапиной-Кратасюк, Оксаны Запорожец, Андрея Возьянова

…In spring 2020 Moscow implemented a ‘regime of heightened readiness’ – a heterogeneous approach to the pandemic which combined partial quarantine (karantin) with self-isolation regimes and targeted state financial support that conformed largely to a neoliberal logic of delegated responsibility.  We also pay attention to the technocratic ‘fix’ attempted which was highly ambitious and at first disastrous.

One aspect worth highlighting is that electronic ‘nadzor’ – ‘surveillance’ was built into the Moscow-city government’s response from the start. Over 65-year-olds’ transport cards were blocked and individual housing blocks were assigned set times for exercise.

At the same time we trace the evolution of Moscow’s Smart City 2030 plan. This plan was fundamentally affected by Covid and the previous version removed from еру web in May 2020 (prompting various characteristic of Covid conspiracy theories). In our book chapter we discuss the glaring disparity between the smart city goals about ‘quality of life’ and the Covid reality, which was about enrolling new agents (human and otherwise) of police control via the smart city. Similarly, the low quality of so-called ‘algorithmic’ solutions was laid bare for all to see. Our chapter is called the ‘not-so-smart city’ in English, which loses the pun of the Russian title – (bez)umnyi gorod: the ‘(de)mented city’. Crazy/mad/demented as a noun is derived from the root word ‘mind’, or ‘clever’.

So how did the Mayoralty change their plan for smartification? If anything they doubled down with the help of the decree signed by the president in June 2020: Moscow becomes an experimental juridical regime where aggregated use of personal data is no longer constrained by law. More prosaic is the full commitment to fully digitize city-citizen services. Of note are experiments with automating 5G cleaning vehicles and – now the stuff of internet memes – ‘smart’ face-recognition door locks to communal entry-ways. Even without drunk old men headbutting HAL-like video-locks that refuse them access to their own homes, the naïve technoutopianism is evident in proposals like those to replace wheelchairs with smart exoskeletons (yes this is a real proposal) in a country whose hostility to the disabled is literally built into urban design.

Now, that’s not to say that Moscow isn’t already a leader in smart-city affordances for its exclusive citizenry. There are well developed projects for a single electronic system for doctor’s appointments, school timetabling and public Wi-Fi coverage that put many European and N. American cities to shame. Smart City 2030 is only one of three stages, two of which are already complete. For this stage, the blockchain, AI, and the internet of things are highlighted areas. The Muscovite (Social Services) Card has been around a while (2001). This is a combined bank, travel, cultural services, and medical services plastic contactless chip card. In a city that continues to provide very generous social benefits to large numbers of residents this card is highly valuable. This is evidenced by the city government wanting to making it a criminal offence for a person other than the owner to make use of the card. The card – characteristically – is also vulnerable to hacking, and contains sensitive personal data beyond that which is necessary for its use. In 2018 there were 5 million cards in use.

Annalisa Cocchia has made a systematic literature review of the differences in understanding the use of the words: ‘digital’ and ‘smart’ cities. She finds the latter to focus on a move away from technological determinism and towards decentralization. In practice we can’t really talk about even an ‘actually-existing’ smart city. There are plenty of examples of reality falling far short of rhetoric, from Songdo in Korea, to Toronto in Canada. Nonetheless, Moscow really is a leader – top in the world for carsharing apps, top-10 for internet speed, a UN-recognised leader in electronic services, and top for video surveillance for a city outside China. Characteristic of Moscow is the retention of techno-deterministic aspects and a centralizing logic and this is in contrast to the original ‘electronic Moscow’ plans from the early 2000s. There’s definite echoes detectable in the plan of Soviet ‘atomic powered communist’ technoutopianism (see Josephson 1996). 2030 is envisioned as a ‘city governed by data’, where aggregated biometric data is fed to AI, even via clothing to monitor the habits of its owner that can then be used by insurance companies. Automation of decision makers will obviate the need for citizen involvement. The thing is, there are always real choices to make in which systems to expand: free Wi-Fi, or face-recognition? Access, or Control. Covid accelerates the choice for the latter. Free Wi-Fi hotspots appeared in Moscow in 2012. I well remember getting high-speed free Wi-Fi for a while even in my apartment there! There is free Wi-Fi of varying quality in the Metro and buses. There are over 150,000 security cameras and 175,000 devices feed data to a ‘unified centre’).

In 2020 the Tholons city-rating of ‘smartness’ saw Moscow make massive gains against other world cities. Moscow scored very high, but only thanks to a change in weighting that emphasised digitization over liveability and intellectual development. In our book chapter we ask the question – is Moscow anticipating an ‘anti-humanist’ trend away from smartness as emphasising human development and towards control? Find out in the next post.