Tag Archives: Moscow

Covid field tales – Part Three: Disinfection and the Smart City


This is the third of a series of Covid tales, made possible by collaboration with Galina Orlova of HSE Moscow. Each post is about different aspects of lockdown and postlockdown Moscow. These are based on one long text that appeared in the journal City and Society. That journal, thanks to my colleague Derek Pardue, who is editor, has published some amazing Covid despatches – they are open access –  so please check it out. Space in those dispatches is very limited, so here on the blog I will take a little bit more of a circuitous route.

The last post discussed the political economy of lockdown, how City Hall dealt with it and in particular what this reveals about ‘State Capitalism’.

Operation ‘Disinfection’

After the virus transformed the city into a host of hostile surfaces, the Sanitary Service enlightened Muscovites that the infection “can stay in the air for 3 hours, on copper – for 4 hours, up to 24 hours on pulp and paper surfaces (documents, envelopes, folders), for 3-4 days on plastic and metal.” The developing corona-market offers a “cold fog” method of disinfection from 8 roubles per m2. An invitation to the wake of a neighbour dead from Covid, now includes: “Everything is disinfected.”

Public spaces – sidewalks, underpasses, entry-ways – are treated at city expense. The deputy mayor first earmarked 3,500 units of tractor-street sprayers, deploys 4,500. The air hangs with a bleach smell from the long-forgotten Soviet sanitary aromascape while the yellow sanitisers in the metro whiff of the society of consumption and bananas. Muscovites happily use them and discuss whether the big disinfection is comparable to urban beautification programs famous for exorbitant expenses and corruption. And if there isn’t much point in treating open surfaces, as epidemiologists say, should this be recognized as an urban antiviral ritual?

Our entrance-way, which according sanitary doctors remains the most “forgotten place in terms of anti-epidemic measures”, is disinfected twice daily. Bumping into disinfectors in chemical protection suits with spray guns and getting coated by a dose, you realise the danger, and no longer go out without a mask. Someone repeatedly adds in pencil: “unsatisfactory” to the assessment in the disinfection schedule posted by the elevator. The repairman – tired, in a cotton mask slipping down – is also unhappy: the chemicals have damaged electrical contacts, and now the elevator serves only four floors out of twelve. This metonymizes the city in quarantine as an assemblage of relative safety, partial functionality, attempts to reprogram and restore lost connectivity.


“Unsatisfactory”. Not in focus. Image by Galina Orlova

Not such a smart lockdown  

Maintaining Moscow’s reputation as a ‘smart city’, City Hall placed its bets on the rapid development of digital control over self-isolation. From April any non-hospitalized infected were obliged to stay at home and install a special mobile app – Social monitoring, developed by the city IT Department. From April 15, Muscovites needed sixteen-digit QR codes to make daily work trips, single emergency trips, and twice-weekly trips for personal and private needs. Police, taxi-drivers and transit workers mobilized to check codes using the Transit Department’s Moscow Assistant app. Regimented timetables of walks were dictated via infographics interfaces. Drones and quadcopters for tracking social distancing in re-opened restaurants were Moscow’s moment to jump the shark.

Jung Won Sonn and colleagues, analyzing the effective use of technology to reduce the risks of a pandemic in South Korea with smart city technologies, conclude that Covid-19 is the first epidemic in history for which humanity living in cities has come up with a ready-made response system.  Aggregating mobile operator data, geolocations of bank transactions and transport cards allows the precise contact tracing, avoiding major quarantine. The researchers regret that countries with developed digital infrastructure – with the exception of South Korea and Taiwan – have not made use of this advantage. (Sonn et al. 2020).

Russia, where during crisis the development of a new platform and apps was preferred, entailing large upfront costs, is a special case. While Yandex – Russia’s Google and the co-owner of popular taxi, delivery and mapping apps, – published a “self-isolation index” using its own digital infrastructure and aggregating big data, City Hall chose to develop apps from scratch. Work requiring months was implemented in weeks with many bugs and inefficient decisions. Lacking auto-verification, QR codes turned Moscow assistants into nurses for an infirm technology. Massive queues formed at metro entrances as policemen were forced to manually input codes to their devices. Technical faults were accompanied by social de(trans)formations, compensatory improvisations, and abuses. When Moscow Assistant could not cope with the flood of requests, QR encounters simulated governing. The cancelling of drivers’ codes without explanation led to the use of “service position” and informal connections to obtain permissions. Ordinary Muscovites with Covid-19 paid for geolocation failures, non-stop selfie requirements, multiple disconnections of the Social Monitoring, developed from fragments of code written in ten days for a pilot project to monitor the transport of domestic waste. Heavy fines, the denial of technical errors by City Hall forced the victims of smart lockdown to unite in the FB-community Fined for getting sick and to complain about the app in court and to Google Play.

Techno-political failures of Moscow lockdown are full of heterogeneities. Repressive Social monitoring is the first manifestation of a biosecurity regime replacing biopolitics. While biopolitics featured authorities’ concern with the life of population, biosecurity is built on the responsibility – including legal – of citizens for their health (Agamben 2020). For Muscovites, fined for getting sick, buggy mobile apps became the real punishment. The incoherence of urban mobility monitoring destroyed the technological continuity of the society of control (Deleuze 1992). To check a QR-code through Moscow Assistant, you need a policeman or a taxi driver in person with a mobile citizen. Taxi drivers tell of the discomfort that arose performing these police duties. The mayor’s office sees voluntary assistance and civic duty in them, but just in case, offers numerous sanctions for those who refuse to help. In a country where civil society is supposedly weak, the prosthetics of digital technologies during lockdown risk not so much strengthening the police state but accelerating the emergence of a “police society”.

In our next post we will move on to ‘Care and Disposal’ and the ‘afterlife’ of the consumption city.

From unequal Russian youth citizenship to caste- and estate-based perspectives?

I want to revisit the youth topic of my previous post. I offered there a mild ‘check your privilege’ criticism of the limited perspectives of Muscovite middle-class youth. Additionally, I offered an ‘apology’ for non-politically active or non-‘civically conscious’ young people. I basically said that Muscovites (and I would include all ages here, and other metropolitan areas) have quite a limited understanding of the lives of non-Muscovites. This was illustrated in my interviews with ‘older’ people too. I think this is partly a function of the quite narrow social and geographical circles of acquaintance that I observe.

One might object that educated Muscovites travel a lot, not only abroad, but also in Russia and develop friendships and acquaintance with people beyond their Moscow ‘set’. I would agree, but then I would add that this only exacerbates the socio-economic ghettoizing of relations. In that, while my young Muscovites develop friendships with, say, middle-class educated Spanish youth in their travels and thanks to their parents’ cosmopolitanism, their attitudes to ‘deep’ Russia still faintly resemble that of a bygone time. Okay, that’s provocative and unfair, but I was very much reminded of the narodniks when talking to some of the more politically active youth. And I mean that in a negative way – there is no consciousness of the need to connect to the majority of youth who may well see inequality as more important than identity politics. Of course, the narodniks failed, but at least they were aware of the divide between the different Russias (as is today’s Natalia Zubarevich).

As for travel in Russia – this is very much as a foreign tourist in one’s own land. In one case, I had to explain the workings of the Russian railway timetable, and the ‘local’ inevitability of DIY euthanizing unwanted animals, the limited consumer choice (this is actually the most shocking – to some it is incomprehensible that poor people are unlikely to spend a lot of money on fancy stuff, like ‘parmesan’ – cheese again!).

Okay this sounds like parody but it’s true (and I’ve actually toned it down not to offend too much anybody reading this – of course they are precisely those who speak and read English well!). To be fair, some cosmopolitan Russians recognise this split all too well, and even discuss it with me. Indeed some of the more embarrassing moments of my fieldwork are when Muscovite Russians tease me about ‘knowing more about the glubinka’ than they do. Or when I am asked sincerely about ‘what the locals think’. There are sensitive, thoughtful people who are aware of the great social divide and try to bridge it in their lives. However, even in my fieldsite, the real and metaphorically gated communities grow. Frankly, the more I observe this, the more embarrassing it gets. And I am aware that part of the embarrassment is the way in which this post might be read as insufferable arrogance on the part of a foreigner who can never have the same inside knowledge or linguistic competence as the native. Moreover, the idea of a class of Russians as foreigners in their own land is not new (Decembrists’ failure, partisan war of 1812, etc).


So, why is this important? In the previous post, I also touched on the research I’ve done with colleagues on the ideas of youth citizenship. The split and mutual incomprehensibility of different Russian youth is no doubt mainly due to socio-economic background. However it indicates an open secret about inequality of citizenship as well. ‘Affective ideas of belonging’ was one way of looking at how frustrated young urban Russians were with their inability to get involved in the political workings of their country. Turning away from the insoluble problems is another response. I’m reminded of one of the first times I presented in my old institution in the UK, a Russian colleague approached me afterwards, and with slight hesitation began to question me. Had I not made a mistake in stating that my factory workers in 2009 were only earning 18,000 roubles a month (230 Euro)? In not, was I exaggerating how little they earned. Later on social media, a businessman stated that ‘even shop workers’ earned at a minimum 30,000 roubles a month. Clearly he’d never been to a small town, or even a provincial city. Finally, a couple of years ago, a very senior professor opened her comments to a roundtable with the observation that there was no economic crisis because people in Moscow continued to holiday in Cyprus.

None of my research interlocutors, bar one owns a ‘zagran’ – a tourist passport. To get one would involve taking at least two days off, and travelling to the oblast centre, possibly early in the morning, which is in any case a considerable distance (previously they could travel to the district centre). If a person has been mainly informally employed or self-employed, they may have trouble (or be wary of) filling out the work history form that is required to get a passport. Is it worth discussing ‘affective citizenship’ when the everyday experience of citizenship is so trammelled, or ‘shrinking’, a term sometimes used in a different context to talk about the limited avenues for democratic participation. Shrinking also has relevance when trying to pin down ordinary meanings of citizenship for these same people. Increasingly, people talk about the town, the district, to the exclusion of the national. Their sense of Russianness is localised. Quite ironic given recent focus on the ‘wholeness of Russia’ and increasing use of ‘Russian’ as an ethnic identity marker. So perhaps I shouldn’t be too quick to judge Muscovites for ‘identity politics’.



Finally, all this reminds me of some really interesting research I’ve recently been engaging with – the first is Simon Kordonsky’s on today’s Russia as a kind of caste-based, rather than class-based society. I recently reviewed his English-language book (previous link) for Europe-Asia Studies. I’m now reading some of his Russian sources with my students.

A snippet from the review here:

“Dividing resources among estates is the core process of social life. Crucially, service not labour is the marker of compensation in this system. Therefore classes cannot fully emerge, instead there are non-titular estates of professionals – Kordonsky enjoys provoking the reader in a running joke that lumps scientists, lawyers, and prostitutes in the same category.  Similarly, persons receive estate rent and ‘pay’ estate ‘taxes’ based on their estate position alone. This is why the visible signs of estate membership are so important (think regalia, uniforms, cars with blue-lights); estates makes themselves known to other estates based on ritualised and symbolic practices, leading to widely accepted notions of ‘distributive’, rather than ‘corrective’ justice.”

Recently too, Anna Kruglova’s work has investigated ‘caste’. Presenting at the EASA in Stockholm this year based on research on industrial communities in the Urals she proposes that increasingly workers “get homogenized and ‘compressed’ back to their sosloviie (caste or estate).

Kordonsky’s perspective is pessimistic. Overall he proposes a static, ‘frozen’ system. Is social mobility possible? Can classes with identifiable interests form? While the democratic, market-based society to which Kordonsky opposes Russia is an ideal type, readers may question so stark a differentiation – after all, in the ‘West’, estate-like phenomena such as the increasing significance of unearned income, professional/estate ‘aristocracies’, barriers to social mobility, differential rights, obligations and inequality before the law also feature to various extents. Is it a step too far to think of Russia as a ‘caste’ society when ignoring how socially differentiated our own societies are?