Tag Archives: homo soveticus

Russians’ (supposed) ‘polycentric relativism’: Levada’s legacy and the sociology of Homo Soveticus (Part II)

Is byldo the bridge from sovok?

My own initiation into the meaning of Homo Soveticus was via literary sources – from A. Zinoviev’s Yawning Heights and other works. Zinoviev, for example, talks about how living in an ideological society does not allow one to become a ‘genuine man’, but instead “learn to cleverly grab all that one can, to be evasive and shrewd in order not to get hurt” (1983) – a kind of social maladaption is described.

But the canonical Homo Soveticus surely emerges from Yuri Levada’s longitudinal studies – mainly survey data on attitudes and social behaviours. With my students each year we read the English translation of a 2000 article Homo Post-Soveticus, Working out of a functionalist tradition of studying human socialization, Levada is obsessed with (mal)adaptation to Soviet rule. For example: like Zinoviev, he believes that inevitably, in a society characterized by informal and incomplete ‘deals’ with Soviet state, individuals are subject to ‘moral corruption’, ‘acceptance of sham’… ‘bribery and doublethink’. Loyalty only emerges through fear of punishment.  At the same time, these forms of adaptation mean that Soviet man is ill prepared for the collapse of the Soviet system.

The ‘comfort’ for those who lived under the protective social paternalist ‘roof’ of the Soviet system is removed in 1991. Some – particularly the educated, adapt to the new reality, but most resent ‘being forced to hustle’ [приходится вертеться]. This peculiar phrase is given a lot of attention. One might note that it’s the sociologist’s imposed criteria – not an ‘emic’ term’ (as far as I can tell). It seems to express the new reality. Now everyone has to take individual responsibility for one’s social and economic position in society. However, Levada extends this finding into a quite partial portrait where implied laziness, timidity, anti-entreneurialism, generalized dissatisfaction tending to nihilism reign supreme. I recall one student remarking – “if one looks at the raw survey data, it looks quite different from the general story Levada tells”. And to be fair he does mention “upward adaptation” for those finding new opportunities, but one would struggle to find an adequate reflection in his commentary of the fact that 89% of his respondents “find new opportunities” because of the enterprise society that emerged after perestroika.

Levada segues from generalized dissatisfaction to the easy manipulation by elites of homo post-soveticus via populism and the selection of external enemies. Enter Putin, and the stage is set for a mature phase of ‘polycentric relativism’ where one can justify ignoring any social or juridical prohibitions based on contingencies. But by falling into the little deceptions that ‘everyone commits’ – whether lying or ignoring traffic laws, one is deceiving oneself. Deceptive double-think, moral and social degradation are the current result as the Russian cycle (in its market-capital iteration) repeats itself. Overall though, it’s striking that Levada’s project as a whole sees ‘adaptability-as-expediency’ приспособленчество – as a vice, but ‘adaptability’ that of becoming “неприспособляемых”, as a rational, cognitive choice and step, to make the best of opportunity as a virtue [thanks to Denys Gorbach on clarifying this]. At no point does he reflect on this irony.

Revisiting Levada – two critiques from Greene and Sharafutdinova, and the need to study vernacular knowledge

In my classes, after Levada, we turn to two contemporary critics of his homo post-soveticus: Gulnaz Sharafutdinova (2019) and Samuel Greene (2019). Greene contextualises Levada in a broad intervention about the need to pay closer attention to “common-sense, locally grounded, defensive, and slowly changing guideposts for navigating uncertainty” among Russian citizens. His text connects to Aronoff and Kubik’s critique of the term homo soveticus, and Greene reanalyses Levada’s material to note the development (or maintainance?) of strong prohibitions against breaches of interpersonal trust in contrast to breaches of impersonal, generalized trust. In conclusion – strategic, non-atomised/anomie social action is possible in Russia, but is local. Citizenship exists, but we need to be sensitive social scientists in uncovering it.

Sharafutdinova, in a blog post based on a substantive article underlines the outdated functionalism of Levada’s portrait, with its roots in what is now personality psychology (for an important inside critique of personality psychologies methodological and theoretical approaches see here).

“Instead of promoting human agency and revealing political potential at the individual level, the Levada Center’s analysis blames (if indirectly) the Russian people for the reemergence of authoritarianism. It thereby provides a blueprint for domestic “othering”: Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses in the way they apply the construct Homo sovieticus. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible.” 

I think Sharafutdinova’s summary of Levada’s project is probably the most comprehensive and critically informed in English. It’s worth reproducing part of her article:

Levada’s “research project [was] entitled “the Soviet simple person” to study the ideal-typical features of the personality type developed during the Soviet Union that he thought might become a hindrance in the post-Soviet democratization process. Levada’s aim was to develop a list of mutually interdependent characteristics that linked the social system and the symbolic sphere: the commonly-shared thinking patterns, dispositions, attitudes, and values of Soviet people. The project was based on a massive representative survey of Soviet citizens across the USSR, with the sample of 2700 respondents, and its findings were summarized in Sovetskii prostoi chelovek (A Simple Soviet Man, Moscow 1993), which elaborated the key personality traits that could be viewed as specific to the Soviet system. The survey questions were very wide-ranging and explored, among other things, people’s salient identities (who do you feel yourself to proudly be?), attitudes towards the state, a sense of obligation to and expectations from the state, moral predispositions (should a person be responsible for. . .?), images of the nation, views of important historical events and prominent historical personalities, the balance of preferences on risk and stability, levels of tolerance, views of social stratification, professional and educational aspirations, a sense of social and political efficacy, and views about the Soviet collapse. The findings were both provocative and in line with the criticisms originating among educated groups in the society. Based on these surveys, sociologists from the Levada group suggested that the Soviet man was (a) simple and simplified (in a sense of being obedient to authorities, modest and satisfied with what he/she has, living as “everyone does,” not trying to stick out, not trying to be different from others), (b) isolated, (c) lacking choice, (d) mobilized, (e) hostage to the group, and (f) hierarchical. Furthermore, the fundamental features of homo sovieticus included a sense of exceptionalism, state paternalist orientations, and imperial character.”…” The analytical lens used to explore the massive empirical data collected through surveys—sometimes involving 200–300 questions—was itself colored by a critical and even moralizing stance that resulted in accentuating the attitudes and predispositions of the survey designer. This lens was maintained throughout the continuation of the Soviet man project in the 1990s and the 2000s, thereby constantly shaping data interpretation and highlighting Soviet legacy issues at the expense of situational factors.”

Back to Aronoff and Kubik. Towards the end of their book the authors make a lengthy critique of the charge of ‘civilizational incompetence’ against homo post-soveticus, as outlined in Polish sociologist Piotr Stompka’s work (1993). This is worth summarizing. Incompetence in Stompka’s view comes down to a number characteristics or tendencies: overly personalized trust leading to allergy to social engagement; past-orientation/nostalgia; fatalism due to learned helplessness in the face of punitive state; negative freedom (freedom from) leading to atomization, permissiveness, impotence; instrumentality of double-standards; susceptibility to mythical thinking.

Aronnoff and Kubik comment: “Sztompka’s black and white logic is criticized for neatly allocating civilizational incompetence to one group or category of people, while there are others who are blessed with the required competence that allows them to become, rather effortlessly, the citizens of a democratic state equipped with a market economy. Buchowski offers an intriguing correction when he suggests that the “socialist” habitus diagnosed by Sztompka is not a dysfunctional relic reproduced by inertia, but rather a useful adaptive strategy to the shock caused by yet another “modernizing” project that shares with state socialism certain “logical and structural similarities,” at least in the experience of some actors.”

While this might sound like a partial justification of the adaptive spirit of homo sovieticus, later on Aronoff and Kubik provide a host of contradictory data, showing how in each of Stompka’s examples – for example, ‘past orientation’, it is easy to provide counter evidence, or, more likely, contradictory co-existence of tendencies, behaviours, beliefs. They conclude thus:

“People who experience an externally engineered social change are neither necessarily defensive nor incompetent; they often plot offensive actions. Such plotting usually occurs from within culturally constructed social worlds that are often local or regional. In order to explain and understand people’s actions, their conception of the world, and their life strategy, including economic choices and political sympathies, researchers need to study vernacular knowledge. They need to reconstruct locally developed cultural scenarios.”

In the next post I’ll try to triangulate all of the above in relation to my own research findings.

Laying Homo Sovieticus to rest, Part I: who are you calling bydlo?

Representatives of Moscow intelligentsia get uncomfortably up-close with bydlo in their natural environment.

Later this week I’m taking part in a discussion with Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, King’s College London, Ronald Grigor Suny, University of Michigan, Greg Yudin, Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences / National Research University Higher School of Economics

And Viacheslav Morozov, University of Tartu (he’s also the organiser) with the title: Laying Homo Sovieticus to rest. What follows are the terms of that roundtable, and my modest contribution.


In the spring of 2019, Russian Internet exploded with a debate on the perceived prevalence of totalitarian attitudes among the Russian masses. The controversy was sparked by the Levada Centre data on the approval of Stalin, but involved other issues including the concept of Homo Sovieticus. The theoretical paradigm that explains the failure of the “transition to democracy” by referring to the alleged resilience of the Soviet totalitarian personality underlies a large number of academic studies and popular accounts of Russian politics, many of which (e.g. Masha Gessen’s recent book ‘The Future Is History’) have a tangible impact on the public attitudes and policy-making in the West. Participants of this roundtable will explore the reasons for the revived appeal of this concept, its theoretical assumptions, empirical foundations and political consequences, and argue that it is time to lay the notion of Homo Sovieticus to rest. The arguments include: (1) that the concept of Homo Sovieticus builds on the idealized, abstract image of a “liberal self” and market democracy; (2) that, empirically, the concept promotes the study of the Soviet Union, contemporary Russia and other East European societies as deviant and pathological, instead of looking at the actually existing mechanisms of social and cultural reproduction; (3) that, politically, by presenting the common person as an inner barbarian, the concept works to legitimize the exclusion of the masses from politics and ultimately leads to the endorsement of “the strong hand,” whose mission is to discipline and civilize the unruly native population.


Those that follow this blog or my other writing will recognize that I frequently make reference to emerging class relations in Russia. Unlike researchers like Simon Kordonsky, I don’t make a distinction between a service class and others, but instead I focus more on the gap between a small and emerging middle class – in terms of income and assets – and the majority – broadly a dispossessed group living precariously. While I’m not always successful, it’s this material basis of differentiation that I find most useful in understanding differences in attitudes, differences in the way people go about building and maintaining their lifeworlds, intentionally or unintentionally. And in this sense, though I am occasionally accused on romanticizing the lives of the people among whom I do research, my main aim is not to say that these dispossessed Russians are somehow different, but more to draw attention to how their situation is simply a more extreme condition that many in the global north and the global inbetween (those countries caught in the middle-income trap) find themselves.

Bydlo as the Sovok of our times

How does this relate to Homo (post) Soveticus? My first point is a long-standing observation. This is how the idea of a deficient person specific to Russia is transformed from sovok (the often derogatory term for person with a Soviet outlook) to ‘Cattle’: lit. bydlo. Like sovok this term bydlo gains wide currency (indeed its use goes back to serfdom. Ushakov’s definition is, “used to denote stupid, weak-willed people, submissive to violence.”).

By its nature (denoting the crowd, mindless, content with chewing on the cud, requiring little to no stimulus) this term is laden with class distinction. There is us – we might be politically liberal, we might be politically conservative, but we are the thinking reeds (to use the metaphor from Pascal beloved of Russian intellectuals) and then there are the cattle. My mention of the Pascal metaphor is to underline that while few people nowadays would call themselves ‘intelligentsia’ the mental division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is, ironically more tangible within Russia itself than the current elite-projected division of Russians=god-bearing people v. decadent westerners, about which I wrote here. It’s interesting to me that people don’t make more of this irony. My views on this grew out of similar observations, in the West, popularized by Owen Jones’ book Chavs: the demonization of the working-class, and the work of Don Kalb and Brian Fabo on Central Europe. Fabo shows how in Slovakia a similar discursive exclusion to that of Russia is visible:

“The underprivileged […] are usually portrayed as myopic actors, incapable of recognizing their true interests, keen on pursuing narrow personal gain at the expense of the whole society. This approach offers no ground on which it is acceptable for the poor even to voice their grievances”

Winiecki on Poland:

“they haven’t learned how to work and after the dissolution of these deficient creations they have no place now from where they can steal…. The problem of Poland is the Poles themselves who wait for a manna

from heaven and think that they deserve everything without work and commitment. It is the passive part of society that is at fault”

The last quote, from a prominent liberal economist, comes from a book by Aronoff and Kubik (2013: 242-3). Based on such pathologisations, they define Homo sovieticus: people who were socialized under state socialism who cannot “properly” function in a new system built around the precepts of capitalism. They dismiss this characterisation of sections of postcommunist societies as ‘civilisationally incompetent’ (P. Sztompka’s term) and I agree with them. However, it’s interesting that we can identify more specific characteristics from these critical accounts. Namely: immaturity/infantility. In turn, this manifests itself in economic and social incompetence. In particular there is a strong and highly unsociological attribution of ethical or moral shortcomings which are immutable (because of socialisation, what?). Avarice, selfishness, petty stupidity, social and political atomisation, or, as is frequently heard in Russian context: ‘social nihilism’.

If we come back to ‘bydlo’ for a moment, we can note that despite ideas in the West about Russian media as carefully state-curated to serve the narrow aims of the elite, there is a recurring trope of the stupid mass that is raised again and again by so-called liberal-oppositional figures. Indeed the term itself is associated with a particular use of it by the prominent writer/publicist Yu. Latynina. She is a frequent contributor to Echo of Moscow radio station (owned by Gazprom, don’t forget). Common tropes she and others recycle are the dangers of the populus/demos (толпа, народ). For example in a long monologue from the station she provides a reading of the contemporary relevance of the Shakespeare play Coriolanus. We can detect the inheritance of H-S in her use of ‘bydlo’ – the Russian voters expect paternalism, they are ‘khalyavshiki’ who do not pay taxes, I.e. they are socially and politically infantile. Similarly, Latynina’s use of the word (which is often accompanied by the term ‘lumpen’) emphasises moral shortcomings I’ve already mentioned: sloth and avarice – habitual disinclination to work leading to a miserly desire for gain without effort: e.g. among those willing to attend pro-Putin rallies for 500 roubles. At the same time, these people are contrasted to the ‘working Muscovite’ who even if unsuccessful, is hard-working and earns their crust. Then she makes a transition to those that participated in anti-Putin rallies in 2011: “они что-то из себя представляли” – lit. ‘made something of themselves’.  They are self-made, like those millionaire acquaintances Latynina takes the time to tell us about, who would not be seen dead in the company of pro-regime bydlo. Ironically for someone condemning avarice, material wealth is something of an obsession of hers.

It’s unfair to focus on a freak like Latynina, I know.1 To you and me her views might seem unhinged, projection, but I assure you I meet carbon-copies of her rantings all too frequently in my research when I talk to people who ‘fit the profile’, so-to-speak. However, for balance, allow me a short note about celeb poet/writer D. Bykov. Bykov is a more acceptable2 face of anti-regime intellectualism – Bykov’s most famous pronouncement about the 2011-12 protests were that those participating wanted to show each other that they were not bydlo and that to consider one’s fellow citizens bydlo is dangerous. In a follow up ‘Treatise’ entitled “Народническое” (Populism) Bykov goes into detail about the term ‘bydlo’. The bydlo is not the ‘people’, i.e. the narod.3 The narod is active, creative, productive. However he warns, increasingly the cattle call themselves ‘the simple folk’, but are passive, prone to rumour, basely cunning and immune to notions of what is noble in life. Behind Bykov’s characteristically shock and awe use of the Russian language is a similar rather hackneyed notion of social hierarchy, containing both politically conservative fantasies of the peasant/craftman populus-plēbēs and Soviet tropes of moral worth through labour. Bykov represents a kind of Arendtian liberalism: where the focus is on liberty through the active vita. As many have pointed out this account of the person-in-society remains stunted sociologically because its logic derives from Greek models of the individual inscribed within the private household and is structurally naive. Indeed, some argue that this Arendtian approach is actually closer to forms of conservatism than liberalism.4

Why rake over the ravings of a peculiar journalist and writer – surely this is setting up a straw man or other logical fallacy? Two reasons: Latyninism exists on the airwaves for a reason – it reflects a broad logic of classist disgust I encounter all the time in my research (I’ll come back to this later). Secondly, as I have started to argue, there is overlap/affinity with H-S. I’m not saying that one is the direct inheritor of the other, because of course the circumstances that generated the idea of H-S were different. Nonetheless, liberal-intellectual disappointment with the ‘common man’ and the perception of his moral failings, political shortsightedness, and immersion in his own petty cares and worries to the detriment of the greater good are obvious carry-overs. But as usual I’ve got ahead of myself. Let’s roll back to H-S in its true sociological element – Yuri Levada and co. More to follow in the next post.

(Posting on state capitalism will resume later this summer/early autumn).

  1. I don’t really think it’s unfair – she has an outsized influence on metropolitan liberal opinion, takes the Kremlin’s shilling, yet does not live in Russia (yes, I know that’s complicated). See the various wiki-parody sites devoting pages to Ms L. E.g. on Lurkmore.
  2. That Dmitry Lvovich is the ‘acceptable’ face of morally upright intellectual opposition is itself a grimly funny indictment of liberal double standards.
  3. Interestingly, ‘narod’, is such a problematic term as in any iteration it too appears as an example of lazy, essentialising thinking. I was rightly called out for it the other day on Twitter, although in my defence I was quoting a conversation.
  4. Greg Yudin wrote about conservatism masking as liberalism among Russian intellectuals here: https://lefteast.org/scratch-a-russian-liberal-and-youll-find-an-educated-conservative-an-interview-with-sociologist-greg-yudin/

Conference Groundhog Day – Russian self-stigmatisation and more public opinion problems


‘Hey that coffee is for the whole conference panel!’

This post is ‘inspired’ by the Groundhog Day I experience when visiting international conferences. On the one hand we have intellectuals focusing on elite discourses and the exaggeration of their effects – a depressing fact that tends to trammel the terms of the debate (and the views of anyone listening) on what is happening in Russia. Carine Clement put this well when she similarly lamented:  “a conference where a small group of intellectuals [discuss] the “people” without ever mentioning any empirical arguments other than the speeches of leaders and/or intellectual elites.”

On the other hand we have the problem of ‘self-orientalisation’ (the very topic of my own paper at the conference) writ large in the presentations of respected Russian contributors. Recently, my own experience of the uncanny was a panel which looked like one of the outstanding events of the conference, devoted to language, society and state discourses. This is something of a churlish post and therefore I’m not going to name the conference or presenters. Of course it would be easy to work it out.  Call me a ‘sub-blogger’ if you like, but my motives are partly ethical. I went to this panel because I respect the work of both the scholars concerned and the main discussant. Their work elsewhere is really good (perhaps there’s a lesson here about presenting only your best stuff to international colleagues).

One participant presented a polished paper investigating whether the ‘rally round the flag’ effect in Russia was sustainable. The presenter argued that it was possible to ‘move’ opinion  by presenting information on how sanctions negatively or positively affected the economy and asking people about ‘preferences’ between Great Power status and economic well-being (can you see the parallels with Brexit yet?).

I understand that experimental survey design is really exciting to political scientists (yes, you can read sarcasm). However, the methodological assumptions of the entire thing are a bit obscure, like when somebody combines steak with ice cream on the basis that steaks are good, ice creams are good, let’s eat them together. For a start the ‘rally round the flag’ and preferences things seem so crude and, well, artificially distant from how (most) human beings really think. (This is what relates this post to the idea of nuance and context being lost when we talk about measuring public opinion on artificially ‘curated’ topics – the point of my last post). For example, sensible (real, non-neoclassical) people might understand the Keynesian nature of the military industrial complex and that it is not necessarily a trade-off between it and the rest of the economy. I.e. butter might be dependent on guns. In addition, this might be true not just in the underdeveloped rest but also in the ‘cradle of civilisation’, see Cypher, 2015: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01603477.2015.1076704

The paper argues that Russians increasingly favour ‘butter’ over ‘guns’ under economic distress. And here is the novelty of the study –  it tries to causally grasp this question. But there is a reason that others do not attempt this kind of tweezing of causality, because circumstantial evidence cannot really be translated into anything meaningful other than a lot of variables. This leads to bigger standard deviation, smaller significance level, small explanatory power. Not only that, but what are the confounders? Everything I guess is a ‘lurking variable’ here. What if any observed changes in the experimental group were not due to the intervention but were merely a Hawthorne bias? I think this is really an underappreciated issue in survey-based research generally in Russia – even that which is supposedly ‘anonymous’. What the Hawthorne effect means, is that people modify their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed – and not just in terms of the immediate context of the poll. There’s an even more mundane objection: that people’s ‘immediate’ response to a bad or good news story tells us little or nothing about their deeper or more enduring political ‘preferences’, if they have them at all.

We also are presented with a black box of the execution of the study – nothing on completion rates of the survey (similar criticisms of the big opinion pollers I discussed in the previous post). After the attrition rate are the groups still representative? Was a little bit of imputation involved maybe? If so, did it remain under 10%? In what sense was the study ‘representative of the Russian population’ when it was performed in white-collar offices in Moscow? The answers are not marginal to the research question. How did the study avoid the cart and horse problem of questionnaire design? ‘Could it be that the methodological standards are much lower in Polsci than in sociology, let alone epidemiology or medicine?’ mused my colleague (whom I thank for his help in thinking through these issues).

For a long time when I first got exposed to quantitative papers in social science, I felt some awe in front of these wizards of the regression. Especially when I was usually next up to present my extreme qual musings on what Russians ‘really thought’ based on ‘conversations’ (participant observation) with around 50 research participants. ‘Your ‘n’ was what? 52?…. ok….’ Or this priceless comments from a dear colleague with significant interdisciplinary experience and sensitivity: ‘So your research is like a form of journalism, right?’


Steak AND ice-cream in one paper? Just tell me your attrition rate, ffs!



The following paper on the panel was on propaganda and resorted to a framing now subject to increasing critique – including in this blog. The ‘Soviet person’ was deprived of a ‘restraining notion of culture’ and therefore has (what, still?) not learned the ‘lessons of modernity’. This provides fertile ground for the ‘mythological propaganda language’ of journalists like Dmitry Kiselyov who successfully propagate a kind of T.I.N.A perspective: ‘Progress’ in the form of western-style modernisation is to be feared in all its guises. Society suffers from a kind of ‘moral degradation’. I think, though I’m not sure, that at one point the speaker mentioned the ‘catacomb’ existence of contemporary Russia.


The discussant (the person supposed to read and respond to the written versions of the papers and tie them together) was critical, drawing attention to the problem of studying public opinion in Russia in the same way it is studied in more pluralist societies. Talking to him afterwards, I mentioned how the whole idea of ‘political preferences’ was so difficult to impute to research participants in these kind of studies. That’s not to say they are unthinkingly loyal or ‘know the script’, on the contrary, it is because they themselves know that ‘preferences’ are less meaningful, so their ‘answers’, are not necessarily very meaningful either.

Similarly, in response to the second paper, the discussant pointed out that it might be more useful to look at the experience of ‘liberal’ journalism compromising with its own principles in the 1990s as the root for a decay in public discourse (it’s only partly relevant here, but it’s worth reading Sean Guillory’s piece on the 1996 re-election of Yeltsin in these terms). The Russian intelligentsia would be as much to blame for the failure to develop a ‘critical’ perspective more generally of how all discourses are political, including their own. He also made some excellent points about the ritualization of media discourse and consumption having more of a religious quality than necessarily indicating the malleability of opinion.

All of which reminded me of a number of things. Firstly, having seen the kind of performance provided by the second speaker I have to admit I was reminded of the idea of the ‘self-hating Jew’. Okay, bear with me, I know this is a much critiqued idea and that it’s not comparable to the situation of Russian intellectuals towards Russianness. However, these kind of approaches do qualify as a form of ‘extreme vilification’ of not only one’s own state and society, but attributing a kind of sustained moral failing to the nation. Is this not also an internalised form (self-stigmatizing) of some Western essentializing ideas about Russia and Russians?

The talk reminds me of the debate on ‘Soviet man’ as a ‘methodologically contestable’ category – that ignores diversity and compresses time. (Sergei Abashin here also makes some great points about areas where it might be worth researching what makes a person ‘Soviet’ – hinting at an approach on embodied experience and the everyday – his words remind me of Mauss on body techniques). Oleg Kharkhordin’s work also came to mind on how ‘Russia lacks a public language’. It’s not that Kharkhordin is wrong, or that our second speaker doesn’t have a point. It’s that so often these perspectives fall into an idealisation of non-Russian models. In turn this has the effect, intentional or not of a totalizing rejection of indigenous possibilities. For example, Kharkhordin proposes adopting parliamentary procedure to promote civil society – as if ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ were ever practically applied outside a few narrow examples of associational life in the ‘West’. In turn, this reminds me of the way Putnam-inspired approaches fetishize a version of civil society (not even one that really approximates to the ‘real’ US) that sets up a hierarchy of societies – with Russia obviously being ‘backward’.

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In my own contribution to the conference I examined the so-called conservative turn in attitudes and critiqued the idea that the transmission from elite or political entrepreneurs to ordinary people is quite so direct or simple. Using Michael Herzfeld’s idea of ‘cultural intimacy’  (an aspect of ‘social poetics of the nation state’) I try to show that any ‘self-orientalizing’ by ordinary people (‘we’re Orthodox and we’re proud to be intolerant’) serves locally salient political and social purposes that are at variance with the conservative rhetoric from on high. But that paper is a work in progress and a topic for another blog post.

Russian ‘notorious’ homophobia? The perils of measuring intolerance (and making cross-cultural comparisons)

LGBT right activists protest Russia

Activists in Berlin protest LGBT rights violations in Russia, including egregious abuse of Cyrillic and a large dose of Orientalism to boot.

I’m reading a lot at the moment about ‘culture war’, the conservative turn’ and things like historical homophobia in Russia. This is to prepare a paper and, hopefully, publication on this topic for a special issue in Europe-Asia Studies that a colleague proposed. So immediately I thought, well, what about looking at this from the ground up? Instead of taking it as read that where conservative entrepreneurs like Yelena Mizulina lead (‘prohibition is freedom’), ordinary people ‘follow’, my hunch was that actual penetration into society of ‘Gayropa’ tropes is weak. That’s not to say there is some fertile ground, and of course a long history of different types of intolerance, some of which are ingrained.

And so I was lucky enough to be able to do some focused interviews with some of the long-term contacts I have and surprisingly was able to get quite a (small) cross-section of people talking about this in my fieldwork last year. My rather banal conclusion is that while homophobia (like antisemitism) is sometimes talked about as if it were a national pastime (hey don’t troll me; more than one Russian friend has made this ‘joke’), Russia is not the ‘intolerant’, socially conservative place it is so often presented to be, when observers assume an active response to elite-led rhetoric about the malign influence of a degenerate western ideology of permissiveness. Take up and ordinary use of ‘Gayropa’ is the exception, not the rule around ‘everyday homophobia’. Although, having said that more than of my close friends in the field is a very big consumer of the Juvenile Justice narrative and there certainly is a susceptibility to the paedophilia-homosexuality linkage slur (Tova Höjdestrand has done good work on this and ‘grass-roots conservatism’ in general). This was brought home to me because when I moved from the UK to Denmark, it became a hot topic – Scandinavia being the blank canvas of permissiveness onto which some people project their fantasies (no I’m not going to talk about the story about the brothel for animals in Denmark – get your own browsing history tagged).

Danish Porn and Art Warning Sign

One of a collection in the series ‘You know you’re in ultra-laid back Denmark when…’ Porn (including some hardcore and violent films!) ‘might not’ be suitable for children?

Anyway, I will get back to those topics in a later post, perhaps when my article it better developed. In this post I want to focus in on the recent polling on homophobia (an ‘emblematic’ topic for measuring intolerance of others), in the light of the equally topical debate on the perils of opinion polling, and the homo soveticus debate. These three issues are now linked in my mind. What follows is my rather rough working draft of my deep suspicion of public opinion polling as evidenced by that done in Russia on homophobia (okay, I only looked at Levada).

Let’s take the recent Levada poll on ‘Attitudes towards LGBT people’. Radio Echo Moskvy presents these as: ‘More than half of Russians are negative towards sexual minorities’. This is accurate. However, without longitudinal context (conspicuously absent in coverage of the poll), things look different. While the headline ‘disapproval’ of homosexuality (56%) is presented with no time series to compare it to, other longitudinal data shows an ebb and flow from 51% approval in 2005, to a low of 39% in 2013, and back to 47% in 2019. Similarly, instead of ‘disapproval’, one could highlight the volatility of the ‘strong approval’ rating of equal rights: from 17% in 2005, down to 7% in 2013 and now 20%. In any case, psychology of survey data shows that people are more likely to respond with a ‘strong’ answer to items they interpret as politically topical and are presented with (compare the critique of ‘push polling’) – Brexit and migration is a good example of this.

Looking at the question of survey data and public opinion more generally, a major problem of interpretive comparability over time (among many others) is the tweaking of question wording that inevitably happens and the difficulty in formulating open questions. Levada recently came in for criticism on this very issue with their controversial survey on Stalin and Stalinism.  Here too, on homosexuality, the same problem is evident; it is very difficult to compare longitudinally a much more interesting question about ‘nature versus nurture’ in the creation of sexuality. In the 2019 poll, the question is, ‘Do you think sexual orientation can be changed under the influence of external circumstances or is it an innate characteristic?’ Leaving aside the clumsy and potentially confusing wording of this question that many respondents might struggle to understand, this question is quite different from the one in 2013: ‘Do you think sexual orientation can change under the influence of propaganda?’ Interestingly, Russians gave a resounding ‘no’ to this answer in 2013. In the 2019 version 46% agreed that sexual identity is malleable, while 27% thought sexuality was innate. I would argue that both question forms are methodologically ‘leading’ and that pollsters could have chosen a more neutral or open form of questioning.

There appears to be more interpretive value in more modest aggregate longitudinal comparisons. On ‘family values’ and the civilizational differences between Russians and ‘Europeans’ this has been attempted through integrating survey data going back to 1989. These show a relatively rapid movement from harsh intolerance of homosexuality towards a slightly less intolerant mindset by 2011. For example, Fabrykant and Magun (2011) present data showing a sharp fall in people wanting to exterminate homosexuals (from 31% to 5%) while ‘toleration’ nearly doubles to around 25% of respondents. The authors are optimistic about changes to normative values given that even the highly stigmatised meaning of homosexuality shows moderation over time. On the other hand, their comparative results show that in 2013, 70% of respondents still gave answers indicating they thought homosexuality was pathological in some way. (Big thanks to Marharyta Fabrykant for making me aware of these materials – you can check out her work here).

More recently, the same authors have pointed out that Russia is among on the ‘medium-high’ end of tradition-normative values in comparison to other European countries (Fabrykant and Magun 2018: 82) [opens as a PDF]. They base this evaluation on the work of Viktoriia Sakevich (2014) who analysed Pew Research Center data on ‘moral’ values.  When these findings are broken down by category, Russia differs little from Western European countries on issues such as extra-marital and premarital sex, divorce, abortion, contraception. In some cases Russia is more ‘liberal’ than both Anglo-Saxon and some Southern or Eastern European countries. Homosexuality is the outlier, with Russia more similar to Asian and African countries.

However, we should again exercise caution, because so much depends on how questions are phrased. If we return to the important question of nature-nurture and homosexuality, Russians do not look so much like outliers. A recent UK poll, for example, records 34% of respondents as believing that gays are not born, but made, with much internal variation in the sample (YouGov 2017 – Opens as a PDF). As recently as 1998 a majority (62%) of British people thought homosexuality was always, mostly, or sometimes ‘wrong’ (Clements and Field 2014). One could even take a contrarian view and argue that based on attitudes towards adoption of children by homosexuals, British and Russian people are pretty similar when it comes to the question of equal rights: British people are strongly against gay men adopting (actually, like Russians they are very inconsistent and answer differently depending on how the question is asked!). Edwin Bacon makes a similar argument, highlighting similar levels of nationalism in Russia and some Western countries today, and reminding us that attitudes towards homosexuality only changed (but did they?) in recent living memory in the West, and that on some measures, Russia is arguably more socially ‘liberal’ (immigration). Finally, as I write this, open hatred of gay people is in the news in the UK with two violent attacks in public given widespread coverage (in Southampton and in ‘tolerant’ London) this week and the ongoing standoff over the teaching’ of LGBT issues in Birmingham.




Infrapolitics, Russian style

making life habitable

The art of making life habitable is only possible through mutuality and reciprocity


In my third post on the topic ‘people as the new oil’ (the two previous posts are here, and here), I make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics and Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadism to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the ‘extractive turn’ – the idea now widely discussed, even among elites, that Russians are ‘sponges’ in two senses – to be wrung dry to fill the hole in the country’s finances, and are uniquely capable of absorbing such punishment. After all they are incapable of organising real opposition to hold their leaders to account, and in any case – they can retreat into some kind of dystopian subsistence existence, supplementing poverty wages with their little garden plots, with a ‘grift’ here and there, and a tiny state pension if they can live that long.

Just yesterday, Vladislav Inozemtsev published a long discussion of the completely alien concept, in his view, of the responsive, social security state in Russia. In it he makes very detailed comparisons of how, even in the US, combating poverty is a huge budgetary priority for the government. One point though, stick out for me,  that Russian politics lacks entirely the relationship of obligation to an electorate. As I have written previously, we need to go further and highlight the increasingly open contempt by politicians and elites for ‘ordinary people’. There is an increasing rhetoric of the unworthy poor in Russia. People who can barely feed and clothe themselves are personal failures.

Perhaps it would be inevitable that after the trauma of the collapse of the USSR, a decade of extreme economic and political dislocation, a kind of Social Darwinism would emerge among the winners of post-socialist transformation to help them psychologically cope with their good fortune. They are ‘better people’ because they adapted, and thus those that failed to ‘adapt’, deserve to die off, as a dead end species of post-Homo Soveticus. Perhaps I push this idea too far, but it doesn’t seem too out of place in the light of a ‘serious’ sociological conversation about how ‘Soviet people lacked all moral compass‘.  Homo Soveticus casts the USSR as creating an impoverished moral personhood, cowed by the punitive Stalinist state, distrusting of all but those in one’s inner circle: ‘servile double-thinkers

Thank goodness for people like Greg Yudin (responding here to the questionable methods used to prove that Russians pine for Stalin), and Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, who thoroughly demolishes the rhetoric of Russians as trapped in a totalitarian mindset. The self-justification of the  economic fortunes of the winners of transition are linked to their political ideology – the poor are not only guilty of being poor, they’re also to blame for the failure of democratisation in Russia! As Sharafutdinova continues: ‘Russian intellectuals who disagree with the current political system “other” the Russian masses. Instead of building political bridges and coalitions, intellectuals frequently end up blaming the masses, without whom long-term political change is impossible.’

There is of course reason to agree with one aspect of the ‘Homo Soveticus’ idea – that a violent coercive system has an effect on society (and individuals) long after that system (Stalinism) is consigned to history. Yes, there are aspects of today’s Russia that indicate political and social disconnection, that people expect little but more corruption from the powers-that-be, that they understand the massive brutalising potential of the state (this May Day’s beating of protesters by police emboldened by the new privilege not to have to wear identification is a case in point). But for me it’s the opposite conclusion – not that the Soviet legacy (and authoritarian redux) means that people distrustful or passive, or fearful, but that they respond in an everyday, ordinary rational way to the uncaring, crony-capitalised venal elites. One of the main ideas I put forward throughout my own research is that in the face of an state abdicating social welfare, people more than ‘make do’ by falling back on tried and tested resources, like the garden plot, like close-knit networks of mutual aid. More than that, they will, given time, more than adapt to dysfunctional systems, but start to inhabit the nooks and crannies – making a virtue even, of that dysfunction – hence my long-standing interest in the ‘shadow’ or informal economy. If ‘just coping’ or ‘getting by’ is hiding in a burrow, then more than coping is building a house – inhabiting a space, no matter how inhospitable.

Even the most marginalised and ‘weak’ people are not as passive as they seem. Over the last three decades people have got used to the informal, networked way Russia is governed – capitalism without capitalists, rule without law, power without responsibility. Samuel Greene argues that where people are forced to adapt to the informalized political and economic social relations, they then actually resist the very institution building and formal bureaucratic ways of ‘normal’ functioning states. This paradox can be expressed simply – Russians want more and less state at the same time and this is due to both socialist-era legacies of paternalism and the traumatic post-socialist transition.

It is ironic that privileged observers view ordinary Russians as ‘sponges’, or ‘bydlo’ while daily enjoying the services of informal workers.  Whether it’s nannies or house cleaners, plumbers fixing heating systems, or economic migrants building homes, modest yet cumulatively powerful economic agency is exercised by the vulnerable in escaping the clutches of the extractive state. The informal economy is of course no less exploitative or supportive of inequality, but it indicates the fundamental weakness of the state.

In thinking about the ‘minor warfare’ people wage against the quantifying state, Deleuze called this ‘nomadism’, and it could well describe the mobile tactics and ‘lines of flight’ many ordinary Russians take. Stuck between penury and the extractive state, the only option for many is movement – making use of those ‘weak ties’ to work a hack here and there – siphoning off company fuel for private use, filching some stationary from work, or that oldest forms of nomadism – the informal taxi-driving that supports a million families. Even with increasingly technological ‘fixes’ to stop the informational holes into which millions of people disappear to reappear in informal economic spaces, niches and hacks will arise. For example, while the Russian state cannot yet link up the database of insured drivers to its impressive network of road cameras, at some point this technological issue will be solved. However, there is already a nomadic hack available to every driver, from covering one’s numberplate with transparent shoe polish which ensures a thick layer of dust will immediately adhere (along with numerous other ingenious tricks), to simply using the inefficiencies of the Russian postal system to challenge the legality of the fine. Not to mention a very Russian phenomenon where it’s not uncommon for officials that are tasked with reinforcing the state control to simultaneously advise ordinary people on how to avoid state penalties, out of compassion and solidarity.

A second perspective is to adapt James Scott’s idea of the infrapolitical: ‘the … substratum of those more visible forms of action that attract most scholarly attention’. Scott argues that as “long as we confine our conception of the political to activity that is openly declared, we are driven to conclude that subordinate groups essentially lack a political life” (1990, 199). Many aspects of people’s non-registration of economic activities qualify as the not-quite political. Scott challenges scholarship on dissent to reassess the definition of interventions in the public sphere (we might add, to reassess the idea of the public sphere itself). His contributions include a critique of hegemony and therefore false consciousness, as well as the “safety valve” theory—the notion, for instance, that the patriotic politics around Crimea serve as a distraction from quotidian woes.

Infrapolitics are nurtured by ‘hidden transcripts’. The more the ‘public transcript’ is seen as hypocritical the more it is likely to generate a rich and ‘hidden’ alternative. For example, cynical talk about the importance of the development of human capital and productivity while at the same time hearing that ‘state owes you nothing’, intensifies the creation of counter discourses. Indignities lead to ‘rehearsals’ of injustice and in turn reinforce ‘nomadic’ actions. An enormous wave of memes criticising the pension reforms, sometimes humorously, but often pointedly, are shared through the safety of encrypted messaging services. Two different viral examples illustrate the pointed politicising of the private virtual spaces of dissent. The first is a vlog poem, written and performed by a Urals nurse. Railing against her tiny salary and her inability to adequately feed and nurture her child she asks: ‘Why do you dislike the people so much, they who feed your righteous arses.’ The second is also a video, by a regional Communist deputy, but disseminated anonymously via Whatsapp and other encrypted messaging services. A parody of the presidential New Year’s message he addresses the viewer ‘friends, we have had a difficult year, like many before it. And the problem here is of course not the Western sanctions… not the ‘lazy people’… but the shameless and deceitful authorities’. One possible state response is to try to shut down the most reliable motor of the infrapolitical – the internet. But as with other authoritarian technological fixes, there will always be hacks, and it’s not even clear if firewalling is possible.

The point is not that there is some inflection point where rage converts to rebellion, merely that hidden transcripts reinforce the logic of nomadic, state-distancing moments, like refusing to register as self-employed, like evading a traffic fine, or just having the courage to openly discuss politics for the first time with acquaintances.  Each element gives the other traction. Even though nomadism and infrapolitics work insidiously, they have political significance because they continuously prod at the limits of the publically sayable. While the idea of the state as abstract, distant, and an uncaring entity is ingrained, so is the tactic of nomadism. Recently Vladislav Surkov turned the phrase ‘deep state’ into ‘deep people’ in his eulogy on the greatness of Russia’s system. He might be right about the primacy of the Russian people, but he seems to have forgotten the very Russian saying, ‘still waters run deep’ [в тихом омуте черти водятся].

[a shorter version of this post previously appeared at Ridl.io under the heading ‘People as the New Oil?’  in English https://www.ridl.io/en/people-as-the-new-oil/ and in Russian ]