Okay, so I had the choice when Covid really started kicking off, of being in Russia, Denmark or the UK. I already had a ticket to the UK, so I went there. But it got me thinking a little about comparisons through the lens of the everyday – yeah, you knew it would!
Apologies if, at some point in the future you’re reading this and thinking it’s in bad taste as survivors huddle round a fire in a post-apocalyptic landscape and someone decides to hand crank up the intertubes. Also apologies for the lumpier than usual writing.
So, what’s clear so far is that Britain is a mess in terms of state capacity for dealing with a major crisis, but also a mess in that there is no herd immunity to panic. Bear with me. I’m not of course talking about bio-immunity. I’m talking about the mythic ‘Blitz’ spirit. First of all, the stoic Blitz spirit myth is unhelpful for many reasons: the UK had an Empire, had the US to its flank, had years to prepare for war etc. Mainly though, it’s unhelpful because there wasn’t so much real social solidarity and grass-roots organisation in WWII. What the UK did have was massive and effective state machinery. That machine, well-oiled and relatively successful in socialising (bridling?) capitalism to non-market ends, was the most effective mobiliser and allocator of scarce resources in modern history.
Now, mobilisation and organisation that’s blind to other interests is usually used to describe the USSR war effort. However, what’s more important here is the long-term effect of the trauma of WWII for Russians, and equally, the continuation of ‘wartime’ elements of lived experience after 1945 in Russia. So one thing that connects this crisis with my research interests is a ‘cosmology of provisioning’. This is the idea that memories abide of ways of being resourceful and resilient in the face of want – witness the culture of pickling and jamming in Eastern Europe generally (there’s even a verbal construction in Russian to describe the physical process of conserving produce at home: «закрывать или закатывать банки» – link from ‘Kapusta TV’!). But it also relates to practical skills of daily living that clearly many have lost – witness the anecdote from the US of a run on pancake mix while eggs and flour were untouched. I’ve seen panic buying in Russia before (the salt and sugar panics from around 15 years ago). So while Russia is certainly prone to conspiracy theories and the virus of rumour, there are socio-cultural elements of making-do and putting-up-with-little that might put them in better stead.
Another topic is what I call the culture of medicalisation in Russia. It’s an irony that the cultural hypochondria, or obsession with avoiding ailments and pursuit of self-treatment (for ailments that British people just put up with) could actually be a helpful thing in Russia. For various reasons, people are much more aware of disease in Russia as an enemy of bodily well-being in a way that seems obsessive to a British person (but not other Europeans or Americans perhaps). Comparing how many people consider having a thermometer essential equipment for their home ‘aptechka’ (note the origin of the Russian word for ‘medicine cabinet’) could be an interesting indicator.
The link here is the Soviet heritage of the scientific approach to disease and the underlying assumption that many barriers to modernisation were rooted in the genetic weakness of the population. Indeed the extreme ‘sensitivity’ in Russia towards ‘infection’ could be a good thing with a potentially higher ‘lay’ understanding of the need for hygiene and quarantine. Of course, at the same time there is a very healthy (in both senses) folk medicine tradition that shows no signs of abating. The scientism, in a positive sense, behind even everyday practices is a long-standing referent, as Galina Orlova has noted [same article in Russian]. And in general we could point to a more ‘holistic’ understanding of disease causes and treatment in Russian historically.
And that’s not to mention the remnants of civic defence culture that remain – visible in every village administration or public building in the form of posters. Really the question here is, are the well funded and equipped security services able to ‘think’ in terms of civil defence, or are they too preoccupied with a mindset of punishing wrong-doers? Ironically there’s more signs in the UK that the extremely depleted thin blue line can do little more than stigmatise and bully those breaking quarantine, rather than switch to civil defence. As Vanessa Pupavac notes in response to the UK police ‘shaming’, lessons from studying authoritarian regimes are that ‘overly-heavy handed interpretation of measures in a situation encourages more flouting of measures and the corrosion of adherence, esp. over time, than if reasonable compliance was fostered allowing citizens to make sensible judgement calls.’
Key here is self-organisation and grass roots initiatives. I’m really impressed with what’s happening both in the UK and Russia, with immediate organisation through social media of support and protection for the most vulnerable. Social media is a boon here, but of course many older people don’t have smart phones or internet. In both countries I see examples of self-organised local pooling of human resources to find the vulnerable people and offer support. Here in the UK in my household we phone an elderly widower every day and bring him groceries – observing a safe distance. I know of similar, well organised things in Russia – micro acts of care or ‘quiet activism’, see in particular the work of Kye Askins and Laura Pottinger.
Both UK and Russian healthcare systems have been decimated by a fetish of ‘leanness’ and cut-to-the-bone medical capacity. Unlike Germany, which looks like being the most successful European society in dealing with the immediate crisis. Similarly, the fiscal policy response in UK and Russia is belated and inadequate, though in Russia especially it looks like a massive policy failure so far. It’s been extremely stingy and tardy: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/03/26/bankrolling-russia-s-relief-program and also accompanied with what can only described as sneaky measures (tax on ‘high’ levels of savings described as a ‘restoration of justice’ by Putin) to claw back more money the state doesn’t know what to do with. https://mbk-news.appspot.com/byvaet/vosstanovlenie-spravedlivosti/. The point is that the authorities once again have sent an incoherent message and accompanied it with contradictory measures.
Literally the first discussion of measures I saw on Russian TV, albeit a week ago, was a talking head on RBK predicting that it would be a terrible mistake to raid the massive currency reserves or undertake fiscal measures (because of the effect on the rouble and the depletion of firepower to protect it). The new tax on savings (see MBK link above), while affecting only a few people, has panicked people with much smaller deposits. This morning I got a message from a very calm and collected friend (see end of the post), who had withdrawn all his savings from Sberbank and gone to hole up in his village house. Now RBK is hinting at bank problems. Others I spoke to were disgusted, but not surprised, that the government has no plan to support incomes for those furloughed, unlike in many other European countries.
While there will be profiteering by sociopaths, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/world/europe/uk-coronavirus-tests-profiteering.html [paywall] the virus provides an important opportunity to ‘illustrates the centrality of care to social life and the limits of contemporary capitalism’s capacity to enable it’, regardless of what society one lives in. There are signs that society is not completely atomised with half a million people volunteering in serve to the caring state in the UK https://www.goodsamapp.org/NHS. In Moscow vulnerable people can phone to get medicines delivered, but of course, that’s Moscow, not the rest of Russia. It’s unlikely that bodies like the All-Russia People’s Front can really compare in capacity, and capacity to inspire mobilization, with the NHS (the link shows how many cases they’ve helped among senior citizens and people with reduced mobility during the coronavirus pandemic – it’s tiny). There’s more encouraging news in this article about St Petersburg.
I think the final words should go to Russians themselves. Here are two reactions from today:
“You know, I’m not a fan of the authorities. No. But I wouldn’t just say that they are in a panic or are late. Rather, they are frozen in the headlights in the face of this non-trivial task that is not embedded in their algorithm programs. In Putin’s speech there’s not a single military metaphor, there’s a domestic tone and there’s a general lack of mobilization – just holidays, financial holidays and a few new taxes. Perhaps the refusal to mobilize and use military metaphors, so routine for our country, is a transition to a state of emergency?…” [Muscovite women in 40s]
“So far, it’s only the beginning, all the most interesting will be from Monday. Sentiment in society is not great. The worst thing is that it’s not very clear, is it all for real or is it a bluff. Small and medium-sized businesses will definitely be killed … A doctor I know said that it will be like in Italy, but in 2-3 weeks. Bu the main thing is there’s no leadership, no support – neither in terms of money or getting the healthservice ready. My father is in hospital now with underlying conditions and the doctors have no masks.
… People will continue to take money from accounts, banks can collapse. Gref this morning sent letters to everyone but it’s too late to say ‘chill’…. I advised everyone to take all my money from even Sberbank. There are rumours that cash circulation will be limted, that they will forbid withdrawals from ATMs. Also that currency exchanges will be closed.” [Man in Kaluga region in 40s]
I’ve just been sent this report from PONARS [pdf opens in a new window] on the way the virus is being tackled in different post-Soviet states. It nicely underlines my idea about an incoherent state response on the part of Russia.