Tag Archives: vernacular knowledge

Homo (post) Soveticus Part III: Vernacular knowledge and responding to three accusations against the Russian majority

local organising against a landfill in Kaluga Region. August 2021

I wrote about class projection of civilisational incompetence and Levada’s sociological framing of homo (post) soveticus in the previous posts. I then discussed how useful Aronoff and Kubik’s interventions were on these points – particularly their idea of ‘vernacular knowledge’. As I said before, I owe Sam Greene a big debt here, because it was his article that really started my interest in this topic.

As I indicated in the previous posts (one and two), the ideas of homo post-soveticus remain strong as a projection onto others, particularly in a classed sense. But by uncovering the lifeworld practices that contribute to the accusation of being a kind of present-day sovok we can better understand that those accusers often resemble quite strongly those accused. Like Aronoff and Kubik, we can unpack the ‘real’ complexity of these purported behaviours as I encounter them in the field.

Accusation 1: Laziness/expectation of paternalism.

Laziness is a frequent accusation directed towards others from among the more well-to-do in my research. It is often linked to the idea that the poor want ‘something for nothing’, and harbour unrealistic expectations of paternalistic policies from the state. Close observation easily dispenses with the former slander. Low-income Russians are not lazy. What is true is that long/inhuman shift patterns in low-paid work make it often impossible to do much else other than ‘recharge’ (this need for dead time is a very old finding in sociology – we could call it part of the ‘texture of hardship’).

Unemployment (and underemployment) is rarely a ‘choice’, but where it is, it is one based on ‘vernacular’ knowledge that a full-time minimum wage job is worse than informal work in terms of ensuring social reproduction. A common complaint is the Norman Tebbit type: ‘I have to commute to Kaluga/Moscow (insert sacrifice of breadwinner), why can’t they get on their bikes and look for work??’ I wrote about this in my book and the conclusion I came to still stands: there is a perfectly valid set of rational calculations of risk and reward going on. These reasonings are more important than a ‘backward’ maladaptation to localized poverty. (“они как-то отстали от времени”)

The whole concept of what we mean by paternalism is problematic. However, it is true to say that the ‘winners’ in today’s Russia tend towards expressions of what Olga Shevchenko calls: “aggressive emphasis on personal autonomy and self-sufficiency, the “cult of the winner” at all costs, a moral legitimation of inequality, and an aggressive pursuit of self-interest” (59: 2015). Consequently they react very negatively to complaints by ‘losers’ (pensioners, low-paid) about the lack of ‘social guarantees’. These tend to be about (lack of) free higher education, availability of kindergarten places, wages, conditions, lack of adequate local labour markets (decent, dignified jobs), high property prices, corruption, and injustice and inequality more generally – particularly growing inequality since 2014. I often here things along the line of “Crimea is ours, but it belongs more to ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ than to me”. Is this unhealthy paternalistic thinking?

Accusation 2: Dissimulation/craftiness/unreliability/avarice (Levada’s chelovek lukavyi)

As we saw in previous posts, a secondary, but important accusation is moral disfunction: ‘You have to watch them. Russians don’t know how to work. They will cheat you. They complain about being poor but then come drunk and late for work. They want money for nothing. They’ll cheat their employer for a tank of diesel fuel but complain about not being trusted/paid enough.” Many of these alleged pathologies are observations about repeated or patterned real behaviours encountered by employers/those using services. However, of course they are the minority. Indeed, a small minority. Some of these we can interpret in terms of Scott’s “metis”– a ‘weapon of the weak’ (Sharafutdinova also makes this point): cunning or practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment. Or, compare the similar De Certeau’s “ripping-off” [la perruque]: steal what you can opportunistically from any situated involvement with a system. Certainly, the latter does have something in common with the personal use of ‘company time’ and resources in the later Soviet period, but as a ‘tactic’ it’s hardly amenable to extension to an overarching disposition.

If we are going to resort to thinking in terms of work-relations/practices from the Soviet period as inflecting today’s, then equally we should acknowledge avral (intense, time-limited efforts of work), unpaid overtime (with a ‘contractual’ emphasis on completing work regardless of time involved), and, indeed, ‘doing things for free’, because of a quite developed sense of social and network altruism (cf. Sharafutdinova’s critique of H-S which also makes this point by reference to the work of N. Kozlova – for an explanation see here).

And despite the problematic assertation that Russia is a low-trust (to strangers) society, one can frequently observe social imperatives of ‘duty’ having some effect in the real world (towards the old, toward neighbours). As for avarice, I tend to interpret this accusation in the context of an increasingly unequal society where the visibility of that inequality is ever growing. Thus, it does happen that a person engaged for some service or physical task may later interpret that they have ‘undercharged’ for a service. But equally, given how many services – physical or otherwise – exist in the grey economy, quibbling over money is just as likely a product of the highly informalised way transactions and economic activity pan out.

Accusation 3: Political passivity/tendency to value authoritarianism

This is a tougher nut to crack. Certainly there’s some evidence that the better educated ‘liberal’ metropolitans were more in evidence at the watershed protests in 2011-12, and then again in 2019, and 2021. However, at best this is really just an artefact of how we frame protest and opposition in Russia as social scientists. Regina Smyth, Andrei Semenov and I are editing a book on Russian activism that, in the spirit of Sam Greene’s interventions, traces the seeds, roots and shoots of political citizenship that frequently escape notice in Russia. To draw on my own immediate field materials, political conformism in its various guises is, ironically, not strongly correlated with class/material privilege. I wrote in this blog some years ago about how the ‘provincial’ precariat were practicing tactical ‘smart’ voting long before Naval’ny mainstreamed it.

If we turn to the idea of transmission of authoritarian values via elite messaging/indoctrination and so on, then I have uncomfortable news for you. Values that one might describe as vernacularly fascistic, whether directly supportive of the status quo or some future ‘strong man’, are, if anything more articulated, if not more widespread among my educated and ‘civilized’ (as they like to remind me) research participants. I don’t think I need to say much more about this. British readers will be reminded of the response of many ‘left-liberal’ people to the extremely mild social-democratic agenda presented to the electorate in 2019 in the UK…

Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that the Russian middle-classes (and of course metropolitan pensioners, some of whom have some material insulation from the worst privations) watch so much state television, regardless of what they may tell you about their subscription to Dozhd…

The ‘Krym nash’ [Crimea is ours!] half-life effect I find a good indicator. There are plenty of materially comfortable people for whom the annexation of Crimea is personally meaningful – one telling me recently that without the annexation he did not feel complete as a Russian person. For them, Crimea has a long half-life and even now is not decaying. By contrast, while lower income people indeed rejoiced at the foreign policy victory and took pride in the annexation, nowadays they are very ambivalent, if not hostile to the Crimea project because they, rightly or wrongly, link it to falling incomes. These people will spoil their ballot in September if compelled to vote. That too is a politically meaningful action, no less important (and no less risky) than coming out in a cold January in support of Naval’ny is for a Muscovite. I align here with Karine Clement’s argument that instead of taking at face value arguments about Russians’ ‘authoritarian personality’, a closer inspection of critical talk reflects nuanced sociological interpretations of disempowerment of the majority, and a relatively accurate assessment of actually-existing social stratification, as well as the pluralistic sources of power in Russia (security services, presidential administration, personal friends of Putin, Putin himself, technocratic figures such as Moscow Mayor and PM). A key point Clement and I agree on is the underlying demand: ‘we want a more socially interventionist state’. Again, I would strongly resist interpreting this as authoritarian.

I’ll do a final post tomorrow on this topic.