Tag Archives: Kordonsky

Why Russia is not a mafia state.

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This week in a research event at Aarhus University I was asked to discuss with Lucia Michelutti her work on the mafia-like nexus of business-organised crime-politics in Uttar Pradesh. Her work is really thought-provoking and I recommend you check out her book on Mafia Raj.

Michelutti argues for the use of the term ’bossing’ to describe the partly performative work of criminal dons and wannabee mafiosi in India. This is because of the awkward absence of a word in English to describe the enactment of power: we have ‘to empower’ and ‘overpower’, but not a verb that clearly describes  power as a process. For Michelutti, ‘bossing’ by criminals-cum-politicians involves the mobilisation of performative competencies and which is subject to contestation in an unstable constellation of authority (and which lacks legitimacy), charisma, and local contexts (particularly community problems). The highlights of her talk for me were an elective affinity between delegated governance and organised criminality; starting from the premise of the ‘emic’ grounded use of language – ‘boss’ is the currency of talking about criminal/political entrepreneurs; mafia as a systemic yet amorphous reality, not a discrete organisation in itself.

This set me thinking about the use and abuse of the now common-place ‘Russia as a mafia state’. I was sceptical of Luke Harding’s book when it came out in 2011. Subsequent events have proved him right on some things (and me wrong). However, I still want to object to the looseness of the term ‘mafia’, and how it obscures more than it reveals. Quite reasonably, even ‘ordinary’ readers criticised him for not defining why Russia is a ‘mafia state’ when so many other corrupt, kleptocratic regimes are not. Broadly, Harding uses it to indicate collaboration of security services with organised criminality, to indicate the ‘kick back’ ubiquity of corruption to higher officials, to indicate the willingness of the state to use extortion against foreign states, or to indicate a general prevalence of extortion/protection relationships.

First a caveat: there are strengths to Harding’s book – the perspective of a person who feels the full sun-like gaze of the security services when they are let off the leash to harass a foreigner – see Kelly Hignett’s review here https://www.ceeol.com/search/viewpdf?id=61177. However, let’s not forget that Harding gets off lightly in comparison to many Russian victims of the state’s displeasure. Journalists of course write books and are professional writers. But I can’t be the only person to be disturbed (and of course made envious) by the attention these anecdotal, ultimately piecemeal and largely ‘readers digest’ accounts generate. For a critical review of Harding’s evidence-light work see a review of his book on Trump-Russia collusion by Paul Robinson: https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/collusion/ . Now, I’m not saying he wasn’t harassed by the FSB, just that in moving from journalistic fluff and anecdote to book-length serious analysis he, and most others, fall short (I haven’t read Galeotti’s latest). Harding at worst gives readers a version of Cold War 2.0 that seriously impedes better understanding of the everyday reality of Russia.

So, some basic problems with the term ‘Mafia’. Mafia implies an overall structuring of all activity towards the end of enriching the boss via captains, clandestine activity linked to membership of an elect community with elements of charismatic leadership.  Okay, there’s a certain affinity here with descriptions of clientelistic and personalised relations, but why not just use that conceptual toolkit and ditch association with types of charismatic and in-group derived leadership as represented in popular culture by Vito Corleone, Paulie Cicero, or Tony Soprano.

The ‘true’ mafia ( of course they cannot be separated from their popular cultural depiction anymore) are only ever peripherally ‘political’, as Michelutti, points out (that of course, does not mean that they don’t buy politicians and political leverage). As a classic, yet parasitic ‘other’ to capitalism, mafias can only be defined in opposition to state structures. Most of all this is because they actively choose to occupy niches of criminality and employ physical violence, albeit in a limited way, that challenges the monopoly of violence that state reserves for itself. Most notably coercion is of a limited nature (there is a ‘civilian’ category, ‘victims’ are mainly from the same ethno-cultural community). Indeed, that ‘anyone’ can fall victim to the rapacious raiding of business by the kleptocratic Russian elites, means that if anything, Mafia is too ‘soft’ a word!

For organised crime, ‘criminality’ is the keyword. But, in the diffuse, corrupt, dysfunctional and contradictory world of the rule and unrule of law in Russia, words like ‘extortion’, ‘bribery’, ‘racketeering’ lose their meaning, because if state actors take assets from you in a way you experience as illegitimate, it is by virtue of their superior command of legal-administrative resources, but most importantly, their ability to make what appears to us as ‘criminal’, merely accumulation according to a logic of nearness to other more powerful state actors plus already existing financial resources. (Of course a bit of violence does help here – see the interesting work of Jacob Rigi on the ‘Corrupt State of Exception in Russia’).

Using the mafia label is unhelpful as it conjures for a Western audience an image of a Don, a clear hierarchy of made men, of grifting in secret and in fear of discovery, and of highly ritualised organisation of criminality. All of these things exist within the organised crime world of Russia, sure. But it is a massive stretch to make the leap from Goodfellas to The Kremlin. The ‘mafia-like’ practices of the state are both more organised (and less ‘illegal’) and more chaotic (influenced by political expedient rather than just graft), than that of any organised crime group. Indeed, in contrast even to the Sopranos’ ‘postmodern’ mafia, where charisma and tradition are starting to fail to limit conflict or reproduce loyalty, the kleptocratic workings in the Russian state shows an absence of a shared normative understandings of power and sovereignty. Despite Kordonsky’s work on ‘kick-back’ culture, there are no ‘made men’, nor is there a shared understanding of timeserving before becoming captain, and there is no honour, no chance of a ‘sit down’, and no percentage kickbacks with any permanence that would allow them to become informal rules governing ‘taxation’ or authority. What there is is an ever changing landscape of potentially equally powerful others, where there the ‘rules of the game’ can change more abruptly than in any criminal conspiracy, and where there are also ever-present political, policy and governance goals distracting  from – what I admit is the main task – making money.

Then we come to the ‘killing of enemies’ argument that people put forward because of Skripal, or Litvinenko. For the mafia metaphor to have explanatory meaning here it would require the state, security services and organised crime to have clearly demonstrable and densely redundant network characteristics over time. Even if it is shown that the Skripal was targeted because of his knowledge of organised crime in Spain linked to the Russian security services (I think that’s unlikely), a quick glance at the conflicting interests within the elite (and between security agencies), and the infighting of factions even at the highest level, the relative ‘weakness’ of the Presidential Administration to have its orders carried out, shows that such ‘networks’ would break down as soon as they arise, and could be only connections of expediency.

Take the Donbas – more a political project with hot and cold support from Moscow and a way of getting rid of nationalist and violence-orientated entrepreneurs. Most importantly, a huge drain on resources which has enriched only a few local players (hence the assassination of the them now). Not the actions of a ‘mafia state’ looking to get resources flowing upward from a ‘take’. The Skripals and Litvinenko before them are evidence of incompetence if nothing else. They remind me more of contexts like organisational rivalry, poor operational control, and opportunism, than methodical revenge. Certainly, the execution of these operations would embarrass any self-respecting professional hit man in the pay of a ‘mafia’.

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Tony says: ‘You call that a hit? My ducks could do better’

A British journalist discovered that if he writes critical articles in a semi-authoritarian state, the security services will target him. Sometimes there is a blurry line between activities the security services take against critics of the state and other corrupt activities. Sometimes, the security services are not under control of the state, even though there are lots of powerful politicians who have a security services background. Particularly on the last point, it’s been shown by scholars like Bettina Renz that this background is largely irrelevant and in addition is a correlation-causation error.  To end, a similar reminder from Marelle Laruelle on the dangers of rhetorical techniques of facile association. I might come back to this as, in the first place, I started thinking about this topic because I am working towards the idea of the everyday ‘incoherent’ state in Russian, particularly in the workings of the lowest level of street-level bureaucrats.

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Is youth more than just a word? Civic consciousness in Russian youth today

Russia, Sevastopol, Crimea combined rally and concert in Moscow[A version of this post appeared on Ridl in late May. https://www.ridl.io/en/young-russians-are-not-just-young-and-russian/ A Russian version is also available here. With the ‘strapline’: Молодые россияне чувствуют себя неполноценными гражданами, т.к. в стране установлен персонализированный и патримониальный характер предоставления доступа к возможностям, социальной мобильности и привилегиям. I’ll be revisiting this topic shortly.]

Talk about Russian ’youth’ usually assumes one of two modes: either they are easily mobilised by patriotic rhetoric to support the state, or, on the contrary, about to form a progressive vanguard to bring down a corrupt regime. In each case I take a contrarian position. Not for the sake of it, but on the basis of some very old ideas in social research – the difficulty in even defining youth, and the mistake of thinking in terms of group consensus or even cohesive identity.

Let’s take the first point – is ‘youth’ more than just a word? Let’s turn things around – if you’re in your early 40s, are you middle-aged? You probably don’t feel that way. You’re 60. Are you old? I guess you don’t think so. Why then do we expect people who are 20, or 25 identify as ‘youth’? Or even hold positions or perspectives that are coherently similar or correlating to others in such a ‘cohort’. The label of ‘youth’ is invariably deployed by a more powerful group, as a label of insufficiency, of incompleteness. And yet as a term it is frustratingly lacking in explanatory power.

My ethnographic writing on Russia bears out such scepticism. I researched Russians in their 20s in an industrial town in Kaluga Region in the early 2010s. I have also researched relatively privileged and educated young people from St Petersburg and Moscow as part of collaborative projects with Russian sociologists. The people I speak to differ in some ways and are similar in others. In both ‘cases’ I found both political radicals and conservatives. Moreover, in equal measure I met both ‘individualists’ and ‘collectivists’. The best I can do in terms of commonalities is point to a deep need to express young people’s love for and sense of connection with their country, to engage in some way civically. In most cases, whatever their political stripe, youth are conscious that this is quite difficult, if not impossible in today. As a ‘public institution’ youth are objectified by the state either as a ‘problem’, or as a potential group for mobilisation. In either case, they acutely feel that they are incomplete citizens due to the highly personalised and patrimonial nature of access to opportunities, social mobility and privilege.

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Much has been written in the last few years about the visibility of young people in political and social protests in Russia. Who are these people and where do they come from? Undoubtedly this is a metropolitan phenomenon, despite people – including the young Muscovites I speak to – insisting that mobilisation of youth in places like Omsk is important in showing that protest is not just the preserve of the metro-middle-class. However, when I ask these young people the last time they spent time outside Moscow (where I do most of my research) they stumble. There is a real disconnect here. And while they deny it, these sincere and dedicated youth let slip a sense of moral, intellectual and political superiority. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that they would never really consider the idea of building a coalition with other young people. Their interests are dominated by identity politics dictated by privileged backgrounds. When one young woman told me that her strong and vocal opposition was based on personal experience of suffering, it turned out that what she was referring to was the anti-gay propaganda law.  I probed further – what about inequality of opportunity, about blocked horizons for youth without connections? But my 20-year-old students were quite clear that they personally were not, and would not be affected by these, undeniably real, problems. They still believed they could succeed by merit in Putin’s Russia, without ‘connections’. And while they may be personally right, reality tells a different story. Politically engaged, fervent even in their opposition, they were also naïve. They were already sophisticated operators in the Moscow market for opposition:  ‘Navalnyi is a means to an end. We can go to a rally without endorsing his candidature’. But their sophistication was that of the bubble network of Moscow. These were the children of what Simon Kordonsky calls the genuinely ‘free’ and active middle-class, which only exists in big cities and is a marginal ‘estate’ in the stratified system.  They have the most to lose from further political tightening for they exist in a narrowing niche, which emigration is further eroding (in a small sample, small numbers matter). But most consciously make a choice that emigration, for now, is not for them. Indeed, they say, just as proudly as any, that they are civic patriots and that it is youth that has a responsibility to take personal moral responsibility for its country. In general a sense of ‘belonging’ as an urge is important, but searches in vain to connect to a suitable civic meaning. As one young interviewee in 2013 research commented: ‘I do not feel like a citizen. A citizen is someone connected to the state. The state is formed of power… politics… I would not like to be a citizen… the state is over there somewhere and I am here. We exist separately.’

There are other niches as well, more representative of transition to adulthood in Russia. The most important is in the vast semi-formal and informal economy where permanency of employment is unknown. Many survive in a position of economic precarity due to lack of opportunities or the right connections. These include potential allies of the ‘oppositionist’ minded youth: like the IT programmer I know in his 20s, living from gig to gig. Most however have a lower level of education, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also consciously wary of the state. Earning money in the black economy can carry political meaning. For the plumbers, electricians, taxi-drivers and even underground factory workers of my research, it’s more than a convenience that the state is at arm’s length.  It obviates any necessity to make political compromises. It’s a form of freedom, impoverishing and precarious as it is. They make their own society of ‘opposition’ in the back of ersatz taxi-cabs, in garage blocks, and on the summer village plots. Even for those in nondescript blue- and white-collar employment, there is a sense of apartness from ‘society’ or politics. Is that any different from other countries? Well, no. But, the accelerated entry of these ‘ordinary’ (male) youth to the adult world – through the army and then encountering the ‘system’, where they see first-hand the difference in progression between those with pull and those without, makes them cynical and wary of the oppositionist youth. Young women are a different story – there is more buy-in to the ideal of social mobility through educational achievement, which is sometimes turns out to be real but more often, illusory. Youth divisions in a belief in social mobility, and by extension a belief in the ’system’, would be an interesting topic for sociologists to explore in terms of a gendered conformity/non conformity.

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However, there is a third niche for youth that’s more important than ever given the vast resources apportioned to it, and that is the security apparatus. Here I set aside the marginal projects like the abortive ‘Nashi’ movement or the more recent ‘preventative’ work of the Youth Army. I mean the opportunity given (a job, a salary, maybe even a shortcut to a flat) by an ordinary job in the interior ministry troops or special purpose police. Look at the faces of the policemen next time they’re called out to a rally in Moscow. These are the same future-oriented, optimistic, and probably just as critically thinking youth as those they are arresting. One of the most academically gifted kids I ever met in my research actively chose a career in the security forces (after a stint in the army) as a way of escaping small town life. Was this out of political loyalty? Not at all. However, beyond the job security and opportunity, a sense of ‘belonging’ was certainly important.

Here we return to the common feature of all youth, the question of their subordinated place in the order of things and their need for more or less active citizenship. Even for our invisible citizens, theirs is often an actively ‘negative’ sense of citizenship, avoiding formal jobs and the ordering purview of the state. Throughout Russia’s history the idea of visible, or conscious roleness – of the idea of the active young person becoming a part of change, has been a vexed one. This time is no different.