Tag Archives: Russia

Patriotism and nationalism among ordinary Russians today


I am giving a paper at Malmo University for the second RUCARR conference and this is a great excuse to revisit a topic I wrote about some time ago – Russian everyday nationalism and patriotism since the Ukraine conflict. So this blog post is in lieu of a paper for the conference – I hope I finish it in time!

In my article on ‘everyday diplomacy’ in the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, I was encouraged by Diana Ibanez Tiraldo to write about my experience of how geopolitical ‘events’ impacted my fieldwork relationships in Russia when I returned there in 2014.

In that article I talk about my sense of myself as unwilling representative of my origin country during fieldwork, and how, despite the unrelenting media campaign in Russia, most of my encounters that involved political talk were characterised by ‘civility’ and ‘silence’, or the agency of ordinary people in negotiating their way between the strident tones of state propaganda on the one side, and their genuine feelings of patriotism on the other. So the article is something of a contribution to what has been called ‘everyday geopolitics’ or popular geopolitics, but specifically thinking in terms of subjectivities. Therefore I make some use of the term ‘intimacy-geopolitics’, that comes from geographers Pain and Staeheli 2014. Consequently, I think about how ethnographers resemble or don’t resemble diplomats, or are inevitably hailed as representatives of their origin countries’ international policies. The article ends, not by focusing on how media propaganda around the Ukraine conflict activates nationalism in everyday contexts, but on the contrary – TV and internet endless, in-your-face, over-the-top rehearsal of tropes like ‘Kiev’s fascist junta’ and ‘crucified Russophone children’ seems to traumatise my Russian informants. The Russian state does such a ‘good’ job of speaking to the most unpleasant nationalistic perspectives that most people are left mute, bereft of any position of their own. As a consequence, if anything, nationalist discourse is externalised from the subjectivities of my informants – the state performs it for them, thereby replacing them as nationalist subjects.


However, one thing I really wanted to return to was an issue touched on only tangentially in the article – the distinction between patriotism and nationalism and the ‘classed’ nature of discourses around nationalism. Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism was an important reference point here. Orwell sees nationalism as a ‘moral’ failing in modern societies and as present in all individuals. At the same time he makes the case for a kind of positive identity politics of place that does not require an ‘other’ to justify and sustain itself. For him this is patriotism. What starts out looking like a leftist apology for patriotism actually comes closer to a sense of unstructured, yet embedded communitas. I am particularly influenced by Stephen Lutman’s article on Orwell and Patriotism, published in the Journal of Contemporary History in 1967. Not only Lutman has highlighted how Orwell describes patriotism as defensive, originating in a communitarian political posture where one’s origin culture is cherished, but not to the detriment of others. Lutman traces how Orwell’s essay is the culmination of a long process of his thinking about the left’s need to acknowledge the power of patriotism and thus begin to consider how to utilise it in the cause of social change (in 1945 when the essay was written, much of Orwell’s earlier optimism on this count had dissipated – by this point patriotism has been reduced to at best a kind of defence against totalitarianism).


Orwell contrasts patriotism to nationalism, which is often an ideological commitment that is intellectualised, yet not standing up to rational analysis – it is always negative because it is founded upon a commitment to competitive prestige. The most famous quote of the essay, actually relating to a leftist illusion runs as follows: ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. ’  Orwell’s vision of patriotism can be compared to the idea of cultural intimacy proposed by Michael Herzfeld.  And this may provide us with a way of thinking through Russian nationalism and patriotism today. That both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects of group loyalty can be simultaneously present and ‘performed’ by people. This resonates with many of my encounters with my Russian research participants, both before and after the Ukraine conflict, and before and after the Russian state-controlled media ratcheted up nationalist rhetoric against the perceived enemies in the West. Ukraine and Ukrainians as an ‘object’ of xenophobia and chauvinism, mainly (although not exclusively) take on a minor aspect of the ‘everyday discourse’ of nationalism, despite the media propaganda’s attempts to the contrary.

I offer three examples (all of which are included in the article) of thinking about nationalism-patriotism in a more nuanced way. Firstly, a long-term low level badgering by a few (the minority) of working-class research participants which I term ‘political testing’. This include provocative statements about Russia’s ‘victimhood’ status in recent history: from accusations about Western delays in opening the second front in WWII, allegations of separate negotiations for peace with the Nazis, to more recent events like the bombing of Belgrade in 1999.


What did I really think about these things? I was prodded repeatedly, although usually in a relatively good-natured way. In the article I mainly focussed on this political talk, not as expressing nationalist views, but as a kind of invitation for acknowledging the traumatic Russian past, the often double-standards of the West in more recent history, and even, ethnographically speaking, asking me to acknowledge a kind of privileged positionality (I talk more about this in the article). Certainly, it does not relate to the now widely discussed ‘whataboutery’ of Russian discourse when presented with criticism (although I encounter a lot of that from some Russians). I’ve largely given up trying to engage with whataboutery – there’s a revealing anecdote about that in the article regarding Obama, Libya and Ukraine.


The second example is related – a kind of generalised resentment about the ‘post-communist compact’ in Russia that has mutated into what certainly looks like negative nationalism as Orwell’s terms it (anxiety about the loss of Russian/Soviet prestige). One informant – Sasha, a factory worker – in particular is frequently fervent in his ‘bury the west’ rhetoric and likes to fantasise about cutting off Russia’s gas supply to the whole of Europe (‘to see how you like it, when you’re begging us for a crust of bread’). Certainly, this fits a  classic frame of analysis about nationalism as a response to decline. However, this is the same informant who despises the Russian government and insists on muting the television when any representative, including the president appears – ‘they don’t care about people like us’.

I call this response the ‘national patriot’ reaction to events. But how deeply does it go? One thing I’m interested in is how quickly a lot of analysis of current events seems to readily fall back into an adoption of a kind of uncritical acceptance of the old hypodermic needle effect of nationalistic rhetoric from the media. Sasha wasn’t particularly nationalistic before, so he seems to fit that model. However, he is the tiny minority. Overall, I’d say he, like many of my informants, is a patriot more than he is a nationalist (we’ll come back to Orwell in a moment). His problematic positioning does illustrate Paul Goode’s contention that every patriotism and nationalism are not easily distinguished and that one may easily transform into the other.


Third and final ethnographic example. This is a recent acquaintance and not really an informant. A Professor of Physics from Moscow with whom I had a number of arguments in the summer of 2014. His basic position was that Ukrainians were inferior to Russians and that Ukraine historically had never been a coherent nation, and was in the present undeserving of statehood. This intellectualising, (flawed and false) rationalising of national superiority and inferiority is at the heart of Orwell’s argument.  My example nicely illustrates also how class difference may play a role; for Orwell, patriotism is largely unconscious, operating at the level of affect, whereas nationalism is a rationalising force – making it all the more dangerous and unpleasant.


Two further reflections are in order. The first is on the the role of the state as an agent in forming public opinion. The second is on the artefact of polling data. While naturally sceptical of the very concept of public opinion, we can note one thing – states can be effective in amplifying sentiments, but the roots of those sentiments may be diverse – resentment at decline, loss of prestige geopolitically, are perhaps the least problematic ‘nationalist’ levers brought to bear here. However, I’d like to pause for a moment to consider whether it’s really the case that Russians, even after all these amplifying and mobilising efforts, are more ‘nationalist-minded’ than other Europeans, or even Americans. Here I follow the lead taken by Edwin Bacon in his latest book ‘Inside Russian Politics’. There he points to how survey polling reveals very little difference in xenophobic sentiment between different countries. In fact his headline finding is that Russians are far more optimistic about the chances to avoid conflict than those in the West. On the topic of patriotism he also notes that polling reveals people in the US and UK as more strongly patriotic than Russians.


‘There must be a border!’ Danish People’s Party

A further look at some recent polling is even more revealing: Levada finds that in 2017 attitudes towards ‘foreigners living in Russia’ are the most positive since polling on this topic began (albeit only 13 years ago). As a proxy for ‘xenophobia’ this doesn’t sit well with a view on a sustained upsurge in nationalism. 54% think there should be limits on foreigners’ rights to live in Russia (in 2013 it was 81%). In the UK and US these figures are significantly higher. In my own country of residence, Denmark, the second biggest political party believes in a kind of immutable ethnic purity for the Danes, and around 50% of people don’t believe immigrants should enjoy equal rights. Back to Russia, but this time on ‘external enemies’. If in 2014 84% thought Russia had external enemies, now that figure is falling somewhat (in 2016 it was 68%). More encouragingly, 30% of respondents think that ‘talk of enemies is pursued by the authorities in order to frighten people’.

I hesitate to say that polling really tells us much about actually-existing, let alone ‘everyday’ nationalism. Certainly the amplifying effect can be measured, as I’ve said earlier. But what exactly is being amplified? Here I would return, tentatively to the idea that it is as much about a generalised resentment, disillusionment about the whole processes of social and political change in the last three decades in Russia, as it is about nationalism. Yes, some of this can be redirected towards external enemies, and yes, a lot of this resentment can be easily amplified thanks to the real hypocrisy of the ‘West’ in matters geopolitical.

Another way of saying this is to think of ‘nationalism’ as a ‘social fact’ in the same way Durkheim examined suicide. But Durkheim was wrong. His social fact of suicide turned out to be an artefact of different ways of recording deaths, rather than the ‘real’ meaning and causes of suicide itself. It is the same with nationalism – we should be careful of not mistaking state-discourses for ‘everyday’ nationalism and patriotism, which may turn out to be something quite different.  (Of course banal nationalism is another story, but something I’ve written about elsewhere).

What I’m not trying to do here is downplay the significance of the increase in nationalist propaganda at all levels propagated by the Russian state – from schools, to television, to the highest level of government itself. Indeed it was that elite-directed signalling that prompted my interest. What I hope to draw attention to is how it is problematic to impute a clear transmission belt effect to so-called ‘ordinary’ Russians, who are usually more than sophisticated enough to see they are being hailed in a particular way. Again, Paul Goode’s focus-group and interview research on this topic back that up. Secondly, I draw attention to a fact that I’m sure my political science colleagues wish to stress themselves – that this is a clearly conscious elite strategy of chauvinism and xenophobia.


Surkov in suitable company

Indeed, there appears to be evidence that a lot of the Ukraine ‘adventure’ and its attendant rhetoric is associated with a particular individual – Vladislav Surkov. A better example of the arrogant intellectual one would struggle to find in Russia today. Recall the Orwellian reference point again: ‘one would have to be an intellectual to believe that…’. Surkov also strikes me as being a good example of the salience of the other point I wish to make – patriotism versus nationalism. Surkov wears his sophistication, dare I say it given the associations of the word, ‘cosmopolitanism’ as a badge of honour. Now, as the chief ‘theatre-maker’ of Russian politics, it’s not difficult to imagine that while having a vivid understanding of the meaning and potential for nationalist rhetoric, he would struggle to understand everyday Russian patriotism, as expressed by the kind of people in my research, and as distinct from nationalism. I can’t help but imagine he would react cynically to my position here. Any maybe that would just prove my point.



Cheesed off, but not because of sanctions. Immiseration, elite disconnect and neoliberal convergence.


‘Get this straight, it isn’t even a question of whether you give the cheese up or not…’ (contemporary Russian version of Aesop’s fable 124)

With the constant, confusing and often misinformed media noise around Russia, you would be forgiven for believing a number of unhelpfully distorting half-truths:

That Russia has been a pariah state for a while (connected to sanctions after the occupation of Crimea and intervention in East Ukraine). That Russia is on a kind of lock-down with no outlet for protests and careful management of dissent by the state, or that Putin is so popular that protests are pointless or restricted to a small educated minority.


‘tyrant-fellating’ gun for hire with former employer

Lastly, you might get the impression that oil money continues to keep the Russians reasonably quiescent – after all, the government spent heavily on social programmes before and after the initial shocks associated with the global financial crisis.

The aim of this piece is not to go into the all too frequent errors, overestimations of Russian efforts ‘against’ the West, the misunderstandings that conflate domestic-orientated actions with those directed outward. Overall, the obsession with a kind of ‘Cold War 2.0’ makes debate all about ‘us’ in the West and obscures or impedes analysis of the increasing similarity of social, economic and political crises in states like Russia and the ‘West’. In this blog post I will present a kind of thought experiment about what could be called provocatively ‘neoliberal globalizing convergence’ by focussing on the forms of elite enrichment and detachment from ordinary people; the impoverishment and precarisation of the majority of citizens; and thirdly, ‘cheese’ (specifically the lack of access to affordable cheese). This is one anthropologically meaningful symbol of the failure of governance for ‘the people’ – the latter a category important in Russians’ understanding of the social state (“why doesn’t the state do more to look after ‘the people’?”).


An innocent-looking piece of Russian cheese

Elite enrichment is perhaps the one area where the Trump-Russia scandals may actually help us shed light rather than generate heat. As I write, it is emerging that Paul Manafort – who worked as Trump’s campaign advisor and who previously served Ukraine’s deposed president Yanukovych, is alleged to have laundered $75m dollars to avoid US taxes through a Cyprus bank tied to Russia.  The opposition blogger Alexei Navalnyi has long made Russian corruption through offshoring and laundering a mainstay of his political campaigns against the Russian elite. Now today in the US we have a kind of mirror image – albeit in miniscule form – tens of millions is chicken feed compared to the billions alleged to have been offshored by the Russian elite. What’s more, these are the proceeds of crooked state-budget tenders, and the ill-gotten proceeds of privatised, and then asset-stripped, Russian companies – a process stretching back to the 1990s, not the ‘legitimate’ earnings of a ‘tyrant-fellating’ lobbyist like Manafort. The point is, the Manafort revelations are just the latest, and most direct, US-Russia linked examples of elites operating to extract and then protect (otherwise taxable, or ill-gotten) wealth beyond nation-state jurisdictions.


‘Pre-approval’ presumably refers to how rich you are

More importantly, inter-elite relations between the US and Russia aside, we should be more concerned with the plain fact that despite all the individually targeted sanctions by the US and EU against Russia, the ‘West’ is still the banker for the Russian elite. It is alleged that even the top level Russian political figures supposedly banned from the EU frequently travel to holiday residences incognito, perhaps even via those ‘non-governing nations’ – i.e. British and US sponsored tax havens, such as Gibraltar, or Russian favourites like Cyprus, where their wealth is stored alongside that of the West’s elite. If the global financialization-capitalist moment means anything, it is that public political punishment (sanctions), or national, or even international legal jurisprudence shouldn’t really affect the private flows of expropriated wealth from poorer countries to richer ones.


No comment

As a formerly highly industrialised country that had the neutron-bomb treatment of ‘economic shock therapy’ as Russia did in the 1990s, the re-current ‘capital flight’ which  supports liquidity and financial speculation elsewhere especially after the financial crisis 2008-, has uncanny echoes of that earlier transition period from Communism.  As the global capital accumulation cycle entered a slowing phase, the opening up of the vast resource extraction economy that was the USSR acted as a kind of stimulus to Western economies, flooding the market with cheap industrial commodities while enriching a small group of Communist-party-connected elites. Analyses such as these serve as grist to the conspiracy theory mill within Russia, by presenting these processes as planned by the West, rather than the result of capital in search of assets suddenly arriving in a new market. Opportunism is domestically presented as a foreign directed criminal conspiracy to pauperise Russia.  Certainly, the wholesale asset stripping and under-the-radar export of resources formed the basis of economic and political power for the Russian elite and shifted abruptly a low inequality society to one of the most unequal in the world.  It’s easy to understand the attraction of conspiracies when proponent cite the well-researched work recently done by Thomas Piketty’s team. In reviewing the present position, they baldly state: “there is as much financial wealth held by rich Russians abroad—in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Cyprus, and similar offshore centers—than held by the entire Russian population in Russia itself.” (Novokmet, Piketty, Zucman 2017: 5). In this latest stage of offshoring, the main motor is not privatisation (now around 70% of GDP is produced by state-owned enterprises) or resource sale, but siphoning off state tenders and procurement ‘padding’ to the value of $17bn a year – or twice the state education budget for a country of 144 million people.


I just love the irony of this British tax-authorities’ poster.

The important thing is that despite lip service paid to the effect of sanctions on Russia and the punishment of reducing Russian access to international money markets, so-called ‘round tripping of capital’ from emerging economies to offshore financial centres (OFCs) and back as foreign direct investment (FDI) remains par for the course in Russia. A parallel process, described by the Guardian’s Luke Harding, protects the incomes and lifestyles of elite individuals named in sanctions. Any celebration of news of the delayed extension of US sanctions applied to military exporters in Russia misses the point. Weapons exporters can get Russian state loans and don’t export rifles or planes to the US. We must leave ‘sanctions busting’ aside as a minor issue, however interesting we find the relabelling of EU and Norway-caught fish to come from Belarus, or the diverting of Scandinavian produce via the Faroe Islands.


The well-known salmon fisheries located offshore from the Belarus fjords.

While ‘round-tripping’ FDI is not the same thing as ‘real’ FDI (Ledyaeva et al. 2015) which comes from transnational companies continuing investments in plant, production and personnel in the Russian Federation – Volkswagen cars being the example that features in my own research, in reality that ‘real’ FDI is also little effected by sanctions, except for an initial wobble in 2014-15. The ‘sanctions’ regime distracts from the ongoing and more fundamental incorporation of Russian economy and employment into the global capital systems – albeit with Russia forced into adopting a model of the low-cost manufacturing and relatively low-added value production activities – ice cream from Unilever, consumer automobiles from Hyundai, building insulation from Danish Rockwool. Gurkov and Saidov (2017) note two other more important points here – the MNCs produce in Russia for the domestic market, but now also for export, and increasingly move towards localisation of production – meaning that various parts of the supply chain – milk for ice cream, for example – are sourced from Russian suppliers.

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‘Gold Standard’ ice-creams. A Russian brand belonging to Unilever. Advertised as the ‘tasty pride of Russia’.

The point is not that sanctions should be targeting the jobs and livelihoods of ordinary Russians. That would be even worse than the status quo, which gives a veneer of political punishment, but leaves the game the same. The point is that the incorporation of Russia into the global economy has actually intensified under sanctions – not to the benefit of ordinary people, who increasingly face the same progressive deterioration in their living standards as elsewhere. If anything it is the ‘sameness’ of social suffering in comparison to other states that we should be more attentive to when studying Russia – rather than the obvious differences (such as political regime and ‘human rights’).

So it is here I want to move on to the second and more ethnographically informed part of this post: A parallel process to the preservation of capital for the elite in Russia is the progressive immiseration of ordinary Russians. Initially the general disruption in Russian-West trade due to the Russian embargo on EU produce led to many food staples becoming much more expensive and of dubious providence (including cheese). In addition, the difficulty in planning any investment in such a political environment led to increases in unemployment, indebtedness, wage arrears and underemployment among Russians. Finally, the continuing economic crisis was an easy excuse for the Russian government to further restrict welfare provision and other social budget items while ratcheting up the xenophobic rhetoric – ‘your pension isn’t inflation indexed, the rouble has crashed, but Crimea is ours, and look at Gayropa!’.


A parody election poster referring to Medvedev’s comments to Crimean pensioners

The realities of everyday insecurity, impoverishment and long-term woe for many Russians pre- and post-date the sanctions regime, as Novokmet’s and Piketty’s research neatly summarises.  In this section I to focus on the 2009-present moment. Why 2009? Because it was that year that marked the end of a decade of real improvements in all Russians’ living standards. It was also the year I started doing my research on the Russian working poor in small industrial communities. There was one consumer staple that for me came to symbolise ongoing ‘everyday precarity’ of Russians’ lives: dairy products – or rather their recategorisation from affordable staple to out-of-reach luxury. Why focus on dairy? Elsewhere I’ve written about the symbolic significance of meat, beer, and other foods for Russians (Morris 2014). But milk and in particular, cheese, cuts to the core of Russians sense of the present as ‘not normal’, and in turn to unwelcome realisations about elite cynicism and disdain for ordinary people, or ‘cattle’ as some Moscow intellectuals like to call them.


The common or garden Russian pensioner. Laser-focus on price tags

In the late Soviet period, cheese had become a familiar food staple – ‘Russian (rossiiskii) cheese’ was an affordable, if bland, standard dairy product. Despite the hyperinflation, destruction of savings, devaluations and other dislocations affecting Russians in the 1990s, ‘Russian cheese’ did not disappear from the shelves or diets of the urban consumers.   When I started ethnographic work in 2009, for most of my research participants, cheese, along with red meat had been consigned to the ‘occasional luxury’ category of their mental shopping lists. Indeed, I recall being quite annoyed that milk, cheese and salami were never bought at all by my first host family, until I was able to better appreciate the fact that despite having two salaries coming in from the public sector, they lived significantly below the poverty line (even giving up their domestic telephone). Our staples were macaroni and tinned fish, with chicken also a ‘luxury’. I recall well the disgust of my host when I bought some fruit juice – ‘what a waste of money – for chemical water and flavouring!’


Cheese for me, but not for thee.

My experience is borne out by fine-grained survey research in Russia. Combining numerous data sources and taking a national overview, Strzelecki (2017, 10) notes that ‘the number of individuals who declare that they have too little money to buy enough food and those who cannot afford to buy clothes […] amounted to around 40% of the population. The low paid workers in some regions are now spending up to 80% of their pay on basic food staples [pdf link!](TsEPR: 2016, 5).

If poor Russian had long given up on being able to live a ‘normal’ consumer existence, with cheese and salami excluded from their diet, the sanctions regime suddenly gave the ‘middle class’ a taste of this experience. Because so many products, from dairy to fruit and vegetables, were imported, even the better off urban Russians in office jobs were suddenly faced with much higher prices as the Russian economy shrank by 5% percent in just half a year in 2015 and the rouble crashed. At the same time the state set about publicly destroying (bulldozing and then burning) tonnes of confiscated cheese and apple imports, refusing even to redistribute them to the needy. The shortages in imported staples coincided with the shrinking of the economy which meant that many ’better off’ Russians’ incomes were affected for the first time since the late 1990s. Only a small fraction of the metropolitan (Moscow and St Petersburg) middle-class have incomes ’indexed’ to Euros.


If we bury this now, in a hundred years we will have a beautiful Parmesan orchard

Four years after the beginning of the sanctions, cheeses are back on the shelves, but the market now even more clearly reflects the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, with many more now in the ‘have-nots’ pile. In supermarkets forlorn packets of unbranded ‘Russian cheese’ sweat in cling-film alongside neatly packaged ‘President’ Brie (domestically produced by French subsidiaries – to avoid counter-sanctions).  A relatively protected group like Moscow pensioners (with numerous social benefits and a higher, inflation-indexed pension) would struggle to buy either product. Even a ‘lucky’ pensioner might live on only 250 Euros a month – from which they will have to pay for utilities, as well as food. The suspicious-looking and almost tasteless ‘Russian cheese’ now costs six Euros a kilo, the ‘branded’ President, over 12 Euros. Why ‘suspicious’? Because stories real and imagined abound of how cheese has becomes a ‘dark story’ of Russian autarky after sanctions, with all kinds of fly-by-night producers rushing to fill the gap with ‘surrogate’ products containing palm oil, or in some cases bulkers not fit for human consumption. By some measures up to 25% of cheese is not what it seems, by others, up to 80% of cheese is counterfeit. You might not have considered this before but cheese is a ‘secondary’ product of milk production, and requires over 15 litres of milk per kilo of cheese. Milk producers’ costs have doubled since 2012. It’s telling that milk production and consumption today in Russia is still 40% below the late Soviet-period figures; a lot of milk production is small-scale and doesn’t enter commercial distribution networks. Long distances preclude distribution, production is inefficient and imports play a significant role in the market.


‘Something approximating cheese’

Of course there are other measures of the continuing downward spiral of Russians’ economic well-being – the 20-fold increase in consumer credit at punitive rates, the resultant delinquent loans and epidemic of aggressive debt collecting being one. But as an everyday ‘simple’ pleasure of the table, cheese can perhaps more starkly show how badly ordinary Russians live, how little an obscenely wealthy elite cares about them, and how large and increasing is the gap between them. More than that it shows how Russia is dominated by both very visible real disparities as well as the open secret of the counterfeit.  Adulteration substitutes for the real; and the longed-for ‘normal’ remains out of reach (what could be more a sign of normality than a bland holed triangular chunk of cheese). There are many parallels in the counterfeit political sphere of course – not least its rubber consistency and lack of aroma.

However, in a different sense, Russia is just a ‘normal’ country, just not in the mildly optimistic sense the political scientists Daniel Treisman and Andrei Shleifer (2005) predicted: a middle-income country facing typical developmental challenges. Instead, I would contend that Russia is ‘normal’ in a different way: the dominant politics of ‘austerity’ (I prefer the concept of a continuously residualizing social state); real income falls over protracted time periods; the end of upwards social mobility and the privatising of educational opportunity; the expansion of indebtedness and precarity ever more widely in the population; the strengthening of multinational corporations’ clout and the intensification of their role in the economy (a process actually accelerated by sanctions – see Gurkov et al. 2017). All these represent Russia as converging with the ‘West’, regardless of the media focus on authoritarianism and the ‘new cold war’.

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‘Time to fend off the debt collectors again’

[This post was written for the Focaal blog, associated with Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology http://journals.berghahnbooks.com/focaal/. A slightly different version was published there 16 November 2017: http://www.focaalblog.com/. Thanks to Don Kalb and others at Berghahn Press]


Igor Gurkov & Zokirzhon Saidov (2017) Current Strategic Actions of Russian Manufacturing Subsidiaries of Western Multinational Corporations, Journal of East-West Business, 23:2, 171-193.
Igor Gurkov, Alexandra Kokorina, Zokirzhon Saidov. (2017) The cul-de-sac of foreign industrial investments to RussiaPost-Communist Economies 29:4, pages 538-548.
Ledyaeva, S., Karhunen, P., Kosonen, R. and Whalley, J. (2015), Offshore Foreign Direct Investment, Capital Round-Tripping, and Corruption: Empirical Analysis of Russian Regions. Econ. Geog., 91: 305–341. doi:10.1111/ecge.12093
Morris, J. 2014. The Warm Home of Cacti and other Soviet Memories: Russian Workers on the Socialist Period.’ Central Europe 12(1): 16-31.
Novokmet, F, T. Piketty, G. Zucman. 2017. From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016. Working Paper 23712 August 2017 NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH, Cambridge, MA http://www.nber.org/papers/w23712
Strzelecki, J. 2017, ‘Painful adaptation The social consequences of the crisis in Russia’, Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich im. Marka Karpia, Centre for Eastern Studies, no. 60, Warsaw, Poland.
Treisman, Daniel, and Andrei Shleifer. 2005. “A Normal Country: Russia after Communism.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19 (1): 151-174.
TsEPR [Tsentr Ekonomicheskikh i politicheskikh reform – trans. Centre for Economic and Political Reform], 2016, ‘Kak vyzhivaiut rossiskie sem’i’ [trans. ‘How Russian Families Survive’], Available online: http://cepr.su last accessed 31 March. Direct PDF link: http://cepr.su/2016/12/21/%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%B8%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%8C-%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%BD%D0%B5%D0%B3%D0%BE-%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B0/ Summary in English here:  http://cepr.su/2017/05/17/low-standard-of-living-in-present-day-russia/

On the Coalescence of Protest


I wasn’t going to write any more articles on the material collected as part of my Russian working-class project, but two things happened to change that this spring. First was an invitation by Irina Olimpieva to come to the jubilee conference of the Centre for Independent Social research. The second was the call for papers from the new-ish Journal of Working-Class Studies on ‘Popular Revolt and the Global Working Class‘. Both the Centre and the unrelated US-based journal are causes well worth supporting.

The result was a conference paper given in St Petersburg in May summarising many of the issues in my three papers on new independent trade unions, co-authored with Sarah Hinz in Post-Communist Economies, The European Journal of Industrial Relations, and forthcoming for Berghahn. I also reworked many ideas for a paper for JWCS which I hope will come out soon. In this post I will try to summarise the main points and the ideas that came out of interacting with union activists and scholars at  St Petersburg.

The CfP from the journal asks contributors to evaluate the argument that a global revolt is occurring against establishment systems of governance. Given this is a US-focused journal, I chose to contextualise the Russian working-classes long ‘patience’ in the 1990s, despite disorganised resistance from miners and others against Yeltsin. I used Paul Christensen’s ‘Labor Under Putin’ as an excellent summary to contextualise the difference between Russia and the US over the last 25 years.


‘It is fair to speak of wholesale deindustrialisation; industrial production is still only 85% of its 1990 level and seven million industrial jobs have been lost (Christensen 2016). This is a 16% fall in the industrial labour force, in contrast to the US, where 4.5 million jobs were lost in the same period – or a 5% fall (ibid). It is often thought that the experience of postcommunist transition meant mass unemployment, but it more resembles the slow loss of industrial lifeblood as enterprises used natural wastage or fired women to reduce headcounts (unemployment reached a high only in 1998 at 14%). The massive destruction in the purchasing power of incomes is much more keenly felt in the living memory of working people.  People cannot forget the real terms reduction of those incomes as they were left unindexed throughout the high-inflation 1990s and early 2000s, and in some insolvent firms workers were affected by long-term wage arrears. This is important in the present, as Russians face a similar downturn in purchasing power of incomes after the sustained oil price fall in 2014 and other factors such as the Ukraine crisis.’

I concluded this section by comparing the ‘end of patience’ in Russia (people ‘endured’ the 1990s, and felt that ‘waiting’ had ended in the early 2000s) to that described in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s work on the US context (2016). The rejection of political-business-as-usual has led to Trump’s victory there, but even in Russia, there are limits to the authoritarian state’s capacity to defuse discontent based on injustice and inequality indefinitely, particularly at a time where these issues can only grow worse and become more visible. Patience may be a working-class virtue, but it is not a renewable resource.


The second half of the paper asks whether, given the growing labour protests in Russia since the late 2000s (on which Petr Bizyukov presented and has widely written), these sporadic and unorganised disputes can grow into anything more than annoyances for employers and the government to be picked off, one by one. At first I wrote a draft where I pondered on the existence of an ‘event horizon’, beyond which mass protests at falls in living standards might occur (patience is exhausted). (Bizyukov’s previous data on protest to 2015 is below)


Just like the press in the US and UK, mainstream Russia-watchers largely ignore the ‘pauperisation’ of society, so it’s worth underscoring the kind of poverty many Russians face. I am in debt to a colleague who pointed out some survey data that supports my own ethnographic fieldwork materials: Centre for Economic and Political Reform’s report on living standards in Russia today.  I used this data along with others’ to make the claim that today, because of stoppages due to falling demand, and compounded by currency devaluation, many Russian workers are experiencing the worst reduction in standards of living in living memory. Indeed, they are pushed back into almost third-world levels of subsistence. Strzelecki (2017: 10) notes that ‘the number of individuals who declare that they have too little money to buy enough food and those who cannot afford to buy clothes […] amounted to around 40% of the population’. The low paid workers in some regions are now spending up to 80% of their pay on basic food staples (TsEPR 2016: 5).

In the final draft of the paper, however, I deleted the references to ‘event horizons’ as pompous and difficult to justify. Instead I focused on the likelihood of a ‘coalescence’ of labour, political and social protest leading to regime transformation. This was based on what I heard from union activists and others in St Petersburg, but what does coalescence mean?

From the roundtable: ‘Is successful labour protest possible in today’s Russia?

The participants noted the maturing of the union movement, where people expect more from employers and employers are correspondingly more responsive to the needs and demands of workers – where there are active unions, of course.  Viacheslav Zhuiko stressed the division in workplaces now between those who are experiencing wage arrears and the rest underlining that where unions are present, employers now have to listen to demands. Karine Clément stressed that today we observe a sharper articulation of the distinction between the haves and have-nots in society. Petr Bizyukov highlighted the way labour protests today in Russia are always rooted in the ‘right to dialogue’ of workers.


In her writing Clément notes that many ordinary people who participate in local and less ‘organised’ protests ‘have no previous activist experience, and may even have held negative attitudes towards activism and collective action before becoming involved’ (Clément 2015: 212). The same is true of labour protests such as the long distance truckers’ dispute in 2015 and its ’round two’ this year. This is one meaning of convergence-as-coalescence – the growing politicisation of protest that becomes a virtuous circle as people’s confidence in their right to a dignified life grows as does their realisation that economic and social problems have political roots. Petr Bizyukov illustrated this really well in his talk that touched on the Truckers’ protests, which started out as ‘patriotic’ and avoided blaming Putin, but which rapidly lost its political naiveté.

Another key participant of the conference, Aleksandr Bibkov highlights the common themes of protest in Russia as attempts to activate ‘dignity’ and a sense of ‘collective autonomy’. This also gives cause to think that convergence and coalescence between disparate groups – say political protesters of the Navalnyi ilk, and, say, people protesting the  destruction of Soviet-era housing in Moscow (motivated by corruption and private profit), could make common cause.


After I had written the second draft, the UK elections gave me further cause to ponder the appropriateness of the term ‘coalescence’. David Timoney scathingly notes that the UK press were unable to ‘locate Labour voters’ until late in the day. It’s obvious why – there is now a startling disconnect between even the erstwhile centre-left press – represented by The Guardian – and the reality of Britain. It’s very telling that this newspaper spent most of the last two years supporting the line that a moderate leftist set of policies were impossible to sell to the electorate. In the end it seems clear that voters from all over the UK came back to Labour at least partly because of the effects of the Conservative government’s austerity policies on healthcare, education, and other public services.  Timoney notes that the ‘meta-story across the country is the return of substantive social and economic policy to the heart of political debate’. Can we see this as a coalescence of the concerns of different generations, classes, even? I would hope the answer is yes. Like in Russia, there is a limit to the degree to which people are willing to see their living standards eroded and essential public services gutted. At the heart of this, I would argue, lie the values of ‘dignity’. When politics assumes that the arrogance and callousness needs no window dressing, sooner or later we get the ‘coalescence’ of affronted dignity that transcends people’s ordinary political prejudices. Perhaps the same is possible in Russia. Without meaningful political party vehicles, activating, channelling and enacting Bibkov’s ‘collective autonomy’ is the hard part.


Petr Bizyukov had another interesting comment to make: in answering a question about revolutionary activity arising from Labour protest, the former tool maker and long-time researcher of labour disputes, said ‘be careful what you wish for. I’ve seen these guys up close and they don’t take any prisoners [referring to the Donbas coal miners’ underground strikes in the 1990s]. As a coda, I strongly recommend Petr’s recent work. He’s written on the increasing rate of ‘impatient’ and spontaneous labour protest, that bear witness to people’s despair.  He’s also written comprehensively here about precaritisation through informalisation of employment here.