Moscow, October 2022. Graffiti on fence reads: ‘There is always a choice’.
A curious fact: the most demotivated and depressed of all those opposed to Putin’s regime are among the formerly most politically-engaged activists. These are the people who devoted their lives to causes like labour rights, environmentalism, and socialist alternatives. The people I talk to for my latest book project.
I talk to them, in person, or now more likely on Telegram and they say things like: ‘Russia is now a fascist, or proto-fascist state. The only option is emigration. We lost the country.’ Most of all they fear not mobilization, although there is evidence forced mobilization is happening of oppositionists and that it has a high chance of resulting in death. They most of all fear the long prison sentences for anti-war speech and see no point in sacrificing their lives futilely.
Why are they so pessimistic? They believe public space is completely closed off. They feel risks now are too high ‘we are being hunted’, one said, and deleted me from their contact list. Perhaps most significantly, they believe they lost their networks – built up over decades of nomadic opposition. So much has been written about the potential of internet and smart-phone technology to facilitate social movements and change, but with the fast learning of the Russian techno-security apparatus (partly thanks to Covid – Galina Orlova and I wrote about it here), activists are often so paranoid they break all electronic contact with each other.
Delicate webs? Easily broken? But until the invasion of Ukraine they had survived the depredations of Putin’s securitizing efforts to break them. The open war against activists can be traced back to the authorities’ abuse of Article 228 of Russia’s Criminal Code to imprison journalists and activists. This anti-narcotics law was an undisguised weapon to imprison opponents. It is even known as ‘the people’s article’ because so many young people are imprisoned under it. Some examples here. But before the war, threats like arrest on planted drugs charges did not break activists. In my experience is was only after repeated arrests for protests that some activists stepped back, but even then they carried on in other ways.
So people are scared and demotivated. But broken networks are actually a sign of the relative success previously of decentralized and horizontal connections between people opposed to Putin; people who maybe met in person once a year could successful collaborate in opposition despite being thousands of kilometres from each other in Nizhnii and Piter, for example. I write about one case like this in a forthcoming book on activism, co-edited with my colleagues Andrei Semenov and Regina Smyth. Also, ‘weak’ netness, but strong ‘catness’ (strongly shared opposition) can mean that, like in the brain after damage, connections can spontaneously repair and reform. Everyone strongly anti-regime knows the half-dozen activists who were active in the places I did my research. They can find each other again – if they didn’t leave Russia. If they can come back. If they won’t be sent to prison. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world right now, than the end of Putinism. But we have to try. These are some of the questions my book project on micropolitics engages with – what happens when everything except the most micro of politics is impossible? How does netness sustain itself? How and why are Russian activists ‘nomadic’? Yes the nod to Deleuze is intentional.
How can it be that the war elicits near universal unease and fear, but at the same time, Russians continue to perform all kind of cognitive contortions to persuade themselves that they are the victims? A short update on some blog themes from earlier in the war.
Here we have two eye-witness reports, so to speak, from sociologists recently returned from Russia.
People say they don’t want to talk about it, but talk – even in the local shop – inevitably turns to it and people reveals all kinds of extreme agitation, unprovoked. It’s reigniting all kinds of traumatic memories – from their families’ history of repression (“did you hear the Ukrainian family bugged out last night, just in time too”), to the downward mobility and precarious existence of the 90s (a successful businessman says, “I fully expect to lose everything and go back to the potato patch”), to the grandma, who “never really liked Putin before”, but now feels his “pain, his burden. I think about our poor president. He’s doing everything to protect the nuclear plant in Zaporozhe. Fascism really is the scourge of our age.”
In more intimate settings, there is certainly plenty of angry defensive denunciation, especially among older people who daily consume TV alone, and for whom propagandists are a comforting kind of para-kinship presence. Tanya didn’t raise the topic with her mother=in-law, but soon enough they came to the topic after talking about the ‘backstabbing’ of multi-companies leaving Russia.
Tanya: “you know the sanctions – it’s for a reason! You can’t expect differently after what’s happened.
“What do you mean, it is preventative. They talk about war crimes? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s all faked. It just can’t be [straining in the voice] that children are raped. [collecting herself after a long silence]… You know, there’s far more diversity in our media, even if it is state media – they always have all kinds of voices on, presenting different sides. I remember you telling me yourself how biased the Western media are…. How are your TV journalists any better? How can you believe them when they talk about hundreds of thousands of orphans being kidnapped. It’s ridiculous.”
What scholar Sam Greene calls Russians’ typical need for social and political ‘agreeableness’ exists, but is strained at the seams:
The typical village barbeque draws fewer visitors this year. Gosha has gone to “stay” in Turkey; his Ukrainian housekeeper is left tending his enormous country pile. Lyova’s family are in the States, they say they’re not coming back. Sasha has quit drinking. Usually he’s the life of the party. Borya – the district ‘minister of culture’, drops by with a bottle of cognac: “why the long faces? [turning to Tanya] “so, my dear, are your precious Europeans ready to freeze yet over there? You wait until the winter, eh”, he says in a jolly manner.
Sveta, a local business owner, looks taken aback and frowns. She’s usually half-cut by this time in the evening, but she is only drinking wine tonight. “Come on Sanya, why talk like that?”. Sanya, though, has a ‘professional question’: “So you’re a sociologist, right? Tell me, do they really judge us over there? Can it be they don’t know their own history, or ours for that matter? Destiny… A word those Europeans have long forgotten it seems.” Tanya answers calmly: “mainly people judge the Russian government, but not the Russian people…” Sveta is less calm: “Sanya, maybe you should attend to your own duties and ‘destiny’: the district children’s library is in a sorry state. My neighbor told me you laid off the two remaining cultural workers from the Linen District…”
Later, Tanya is approached by the wife of a well-to-do customs officer. She is engaged in much visible organizing of relief efforts for the ‘orphans of Donbas’, though the sum of her efforts are a little sketchy:
“I hope you’ve been able to see that regardless of events, people cannot stop loving their motherland. We support the military operation, but we do not support war. Tell them that. Turning us into outcasts will only make us stronger. We can give up all those baubles, no problem…. What has Europe ever done for us? I hope you are considering and weighing up your own options. For sure things will get better and maybe even you’ll see your way to coming back to your own country.” The woman smiles a little sheepishly, blinking. It’s hard to know what to say in response to this unprompted onslaught.
Emotional pressure cookers:
At the Estonian border is a Siberian woman in her 70s. She’s travelling to her daughter in Belgium:
“You’re looking at my bag? Yes, I always bring some stewed fruit with me – my grandchildren need the vitamins – none of the processed stuff they have over there. Yes, this is frozen mince. I want to make Pel’meny for them when I get there, like when my daughter was a child.”
She starts sobbing silently…. “I don’t know what came over me. I feel dazed all the time. It’s a kind of shock I’ve been in these months.”
Tanya: “It seems to happen a lot now. I often feel like crying too.”
Finally. There’s both paranoia at ‘traitors in our midst’ as well as an acknowledgement that anti-war activism is stubbornly making itself visible.
Auntie Musya: “We reported back in May that someone had cut up all the flags celebrating Victory Day. The same person pushed over the memorial in the next village to fallen in WWII. Then the Ukrainian ribbons appeared at night. We’ve asked the elder to check his CCTV…. I hope they increase the penalty for such disrespect to the army and to veterans
Tanya: “Isn’t it about opposition to the war, not to veterans, Musya? They want to show not everyone consents?”
Vanya the pensioned off cop: “There have been a lot of cases of flags appearing and disappearing. But you know… it makes you think. Keep your head down and your trap shut is what I say.”
Veronika’s more fleeting observations on the compensatory and justificatory lines of thinking and reflection from a southern Russian region. Veronika compressed the lines of argumentation of the people she talked to.
You take a train from Ivano-Frankivsk in the 80s, hear the conductors speak Ukrainian. That’s nationalism, isn’t it? Then forty years later you have to believe that your son died defending the Motherland, otherwise what’s left to believe?
You grow up in the early 2000s Moscow, watching Friends. You speak English so at some point you start hanging out with some contrarian Western leftists enamored with Putin and you end up thinking that it’s all have got to be the Western fault, right? NATO!
You grew up in the Soviet Union: “there is no truth in Pravda and there is no news in Izvestia”. But then those 90s… it was bad, wasn’t it? And Putin came and fixed it, so we have to stick with him, right?
You think that the Soviet Union was not bad, “such a great country was broken”. You used to a job and an apartment from the state. Ice cream was so much better! Why should we listen to the West now? This was part of their Dulles plan all along!
You are sure the Soviet Union was bad. Oh, the Russia that we lost after the Revolution. We need to go back to the Imperial times, maybe even bring the Romanovs back, but in the meantime let’s stick with Putin, he brought Crimea home.
You have no doubt that the Soviet Union was bad, but we won the war and Stalin was an effective manager. You march with every Victory day in the immortal regiment, and they have Bandera in Ukraine, so we have to be the good guys, right?
“when a new russia invasion of ukraine starts i will personally blame each and every russian citizen who is not on the streets right fucking now showing putin there are going to be severe consequences for his plans of a new ukrainian genocide. хватить молчать, гайз.”
Maksym Eristavi in January 2022
I criticized these comments, among other things saying, ‘individual people (who cannot influence politics or take decisions of state) cannot be held to account for state crimes. They can be held to account for their own crimes. Russian soldiers should desert and avoid service.’ To which an anonymous account on Twitter replied: ‘This is simply not true and you are well aware of this, if not, read some history. You are basically absolving everyone of any responsibility to promote change.’
If as a citizen of a country with a dictator you do nothing to change the situation but instead fulfil your part in society that allows the dictator to continue to build his power, are you partially culpable for the actions of the dictator?
Carl Jung’s writing popularized the term ‘collective guilt’ after 1945. Karl Jaspers thought that collective guilt applied to all Germans: not only those who actively participated in Hitler’s project, but also those who passively accepted their place in German society. A contrasting position is taken by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl. “I personally think that it is totally unjustified to hold one person responsible for the behavior of another person or a collective of persons.” Projection of guilt onto others as groups, according to humanistic thinkers like Frankl, is a barrier to our overcoming of suffering and may lead to ressentiment (suppressed feelings of hatred and revenge) – precisely the psycho-social state many accuse the Russians of. (Ironically, Frankl is central to the Russian psychology curriculum today.)
Jaspers would counter that only an acknowledgement of national guilt would allow victims of an aggressor to accept the moral and political rebirth of that nation. Moreover, the Jaspers argument would be that that no one escapes and that indeed, taking responsibility is part of moral growth. While those directly taking part in war crimes are morally guilty, those who offered no resistance are politically guilty – and share collective guilt.
So, what can we learn from the ‘global gold standard for guilt’: post-war Germany? Historians point out a more convoluted and complicated path – the political manipulation by both Israel and Germany itself of gradations of responsibility. Engert points to the long absence of public ‘confession’ in Germany even after 1951, about how political responsibility was questionably ‘decoupled’ from ordinary people, and how a reparations law took nearly 10 years to come to pass. Surprisingly, a full political ‘confession’ of German guilt, addressed to Israel, came only in 1979, and a plea for forgiveness only in 2000.
Other historians take issue with collective guilt on the grounds that resistance-collaboration is an impossible distinction to draw for the majority of citizens in an aggressor state or those occupied by it. Could Dutch railway workers have obstructed the transportation of Jews they knew were being sent to their deaths? What about actions where reprisals were out of all proportion (as they were in occupied territories in WWII)? Is the decision not to shoot a Nazi as good as collaboration?
Some would see further historical parallels: like in Germany, the active political opposition has already been destroyed and its leaders locked up or forced to leave. Nonetheless, like in Germany, many people of different political beliefs but united in opposition to the regime and war engage in small acts of defiance. Further, it is not enough to excuse the rest, who ‘did not keep their distance from the cheering masses’. While no one is free of scrutiny of the security services and coercion can be brought to bear at will, authoritarian ratcheting since 2018 does not explain the lack of active resistance today. We should not give anyone a free pass, the argument goes. ‘How can one imagine a “theory of small deeds,” say, in the Third Reich? All conscientious Germans left Germany in the 30s’. And this latter comment from earlier in the war seems to be gaining traction, even among some Russians. It’s supposedly black and white. Active or passive consent is enough to keep a regime going, and a ‘functionalist’ account (Fritzsche) of dictatorship makes everyone complicit.
Alasdair MacIntyre, my favourite living philosopher, attacks individualism and defends collective accountability in terms of ‘debts and obligations’. He goes on to illustrate with the argument white Americans are often confronted by: ‘I didn’t own slaves, how can I be responsible?’ In other words there is a healthy irony towards the liberal assumption that guilt is voluntary and based on individual actions. We can’t escape living in states and bearing some responsibility for the actions of the societies we are members of. However, others find this inconsistent pointing to the weak ascriptions of (morally significant) collective identity today. If we accept that nations are political entities and not real collective identities, then shouldn’t we reject collective guilt? Indeed, isn’t collective guilt the expression of the spirit of European totalitarianism itself: from its scapegoating of Kulaks to Jews. Other identities make claims to ‘cancel out’ the national-historical. Such that even discussing ‘apologizing’ for the Russian invasion strikes socialist unionizers there today as absurd and even dangerously misguided. Their socialist activism in opposing the Russian state ‘trumps’ their identity as Russian citizens. Is this identity splicing self-defeating?
Now, one of the few visible forms of self-defining ‘resistance’ among Russians is to emigrate, something they are being actively discouraged to do. Hence many people’s criticism of pronouncements like those of the Estonian PM (because tourism visas are the only realistic instrument for leaving permanently). Should collective responsibility be reserved for active collaboration with, and support for war-making regimes? Does signalling like that from the Estonian PM encourage Russians to reflect and resist, or does it make them ‘double-down’ on a victim narrative based on national identity as the ‘bad’ Europeans?
There a low level of active patriotic responses to war (beyond symbolic Zedtivism), a lack of declaration, or effective framing, of war as an ‘attack on us’ – this is not what most people are ready to internalize, despite what the media says. Indeed, there’s a lack of unconditional belief in Russian state media – it’s gone too far in the direction of open propaganda and post-truth that there are signs people’s trust in it is going down. Added to that there are realities that are hard to ignore: Ukraine as an obviously weaker state than Russia – so why is it a threat? Culturally, politically, socially it really was seen (rightly or wrongly) as a ‘brotherly nation’. Zelenskyy as a puppet and ‘ukrofascists’ of course have some traction, but this is all pretty superficial because it has low salience to most people. And the absence of a real casus belli means that overall there’s far too much cognitive dissonance around for a majority, or even a big minority, to ‘rally’.
So, defensive consolidation is this highly ambiguous and contingent set of responses – it includes finding excuses to justify to oneself what’s happening, but which are logically very tenuous and even self-contradictory. To me what is noticeable among a lot of anti-Putinists is a kind of sunk cost fallacy – “Putin was wrong, but now we’ve started we see the world is against us, but precisely because of that we must go on regardless to the bitter end, because to lose will mean a broader disaster”. And even this is not necessarily an immediate geopolitical way of thinking (i.e. about NATO as threat) but tied to longstanding feelings of being a periphery and ‘other’ of the West.
Why is it consolidating? Because it involves a cleaving to forms of immediate authority but I don’t think that’s sustainable over time. So for example, people ask their village ‘elder’ what to do and he answers – collect diapers to send to IDPs. People do this, but already a wave of solidarity is passing for refugees. We see this at every level – ‘what can I do’? People genuinely of course have a desire as part of a socius to do something, but as Ilya says in the talk, the logic of Putin’s Russia is demobilization because of fear of any independent action and civicness. And in fact, when people ‘cleave’ they often find zero leadership and zero answers – authority is so very hollow in Russia.
So, will defensive consolidation break down and under what conditions? The consolidation will partly morph into new and emerging forms of microcivicness, because there is this huge pent up desire to improve Russia. Ironically, the war shows this more clearly than ever. People know they live in a country that lacks many of the goods others, including Ukrainians, take for granted or are willing to strive for. This is not sustainable. Right now I am tracking individuals and micro-associations that search for new forms of activism – from environmentalism to covert anti-war actions. Could this turn into a coalescence of diverse forms of social mobilization with time? Maybe not. How will Russia change? Probably in the least predictable way – in the first Chechen war, people could not have predicted Soldiers’ mothers at the forefront of resistance and protest. Now, who knows what the future catalyst would be to push elites to end the war? Could it be ethnic minority religious groups? Could it be militant unpaid workers? Could it be a consumers’ protest against rising prices?
Creeping mobilization meets hard limits in Russian state capacity
Some brilliant investigative journalism from BBC Russian Service and others has laid bare that the invasion was even more poorly planned and executed than we previously thought. Many soldiers were barely ‘led’ at all (in fact misled). And there are striking details in this long piece, from a lack of night vision equipment to descriptions of soldiers fending for themselves. Later the piece gives a lot of detail about the growing resistance among soldiers to continuing military contracts. Elsewhere the same author has given a good explanation of the war crimes in Bucha as stemming from the same problems of leaderless, drunk, desperate and brutalized-brutalizing troops. Add into the mix doubts about whether the state will actually honour payments to wounded and provide even basic medical treatment beyond emergency care (which is woefully inadequate anyway). My favourite topics of stunted state capacity and the incoherence of governance meet up in this shitshow of a war. Any creeping ‘mobilization’ will be similarly incoherent – enlistment officers face even more obstacles than before because no one really wants to die for Putin (illustrated well in the BBC piece). Urgency too is always the enemy of this state’s machine. You screw up and the boss asks for it ‘yesterday’, even though he didn’t give you the tools to get it done in the first place. As with so much else, we end up with something worse than the previous improvised solution. It seems clear now that the Great Russian Army was an ‘improvised’ solution to the problem of force projection in a massively corrupt and cronyism-ridden Military Industrial Complex. We had a Potemkin village of an army, now with creeping mobilization we will get something ragtag that doesn’t even resemble a modern army. Like the Russian meme about IT projects – instead of good planning, testing and development, in Russia it’s ‘slap shit together and deploy’. We could call this the revenge of a century of ‘avral’ (rushing production targets).
Putin clearly does not want to declare a state of war – it brings too many uncertainties, and even personal risks to him. He doesn’t like that. His whole career has been about making short term, usually conservative decisions to avoid immediate risks, but which bring a huge long-term tail risk. Michael Kofman just wrote about how mobilization is a complex topic; although he emphasizes high manpower capacities on paper, I would emphasize that the state lacks capacity, political will, and actual popular support to translate that into reality.
“So, did you get him an exemption yet?” [‘otkosili’ is a slang term which can mean legally or illegally get exemption or avoid service]
“Finally got him a ‘V’ ticket – legally – thanks to the hospital. It means he can’t be called up in peacetime. I talked to some people whose kids are serving right now. Some places it’s ok, other places it’s totally fucked up and they come back fucked up beyond all recognition. Better not to go. There’s still hazing.”
Whether or not the interlocutors were talking about ‘some places’ in Ukraine, or just military service in general I don’t know. The mother went through a six-step procedure to get the ‘ticket’ and could not have afforded a bribe. The father had said: ‘either he gets a job or let him go to the army’. In any case, since 2016 it has become almost impossible to give a bribe successfully to get an exemption ticket.
Why write about this? I was asked to go on US cable TV to talk about ‘The role of soldiers’ mothers in ending the war in Ukraine’. I’ll post a link when it comes out. I don’t know why I was asked, or where this idea came from.
I guess I could summarize my answer: domestic NGOs like the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers (CSM) could historically put a lot of moral and political pressure on the Russian government. Now, with no independent press in Russia, they can only play a role in giving parents and soldiers good legal advice on their rights. They are not the only way of undermining the war though. There are always informal messenger and social media groups that can make a difference. Perhaps this war is different in that the personal contacts and social pressure of one’s immediate peers is the most important factor.
The longer answer:
The first Chechen war in the 1990s saw a freer Russian press strongly criticize the loss of life of Russian soldiers and the conduct of the war. Mothers’ actions (sponsored by CSM) ‘had a profound effect on raising awareness and turning public opinion against the war’ wrote Amy Caiazza in 2002. Its members often kidnapped their own sons from military bases. What was different in the first war was that everyone had clear information from the press about the incompetence of the military campaign. The government was not trusted, and the army did not have a high standing in society. Furthermore, the mothers had strong support from wider society for their actions. Caiazza writes that CSM was able to be quite activist in the 90s, though its success was more down to publicity and its influence on institutions low in the longer term.
She also notes the organizing principle based not on objection to men making war, but on mothers’ suffering. At least part of the success of the messaging was based on a bio-essentialist version of maternity and instinct. Mother’s activist actions were a ‘natural’ biological imperative to protect their sons and therefore they fulfilled their duty as mothers. This exploited well an ideological opportunity structure to gain legitimacy that has mainly been unavailable for groups trying to undertake civic action in Russia. This is not only ‘smart’ from a perspective that would see Russians more receptive to a conservative message like this. CSM avoided being identified as a feminist organization and instead proposed women’s rights as human rights (Caiazza 2002). This caused conflict with more radical feminist organizations in Russia, but the CSM’s public activities also drew plaudits. Caiazza also writes about the men’s anti-draft movement, which was largely unsuccessful.
CSM lobbied Parliament and got concessions on deserters. (Interestingly only Yabloko and LDPR voted against full amnesties!). Caiazza claims further success in the campaign influencing Yeltsin’s cuts to the size of the military. CSM failed, however, to prevent army service being extended from 1.5 years to 2. CSM also was successful in publicizing the individual resistance to military service – i.e. draft dodging and getting medical exemptions legally. The second Chechen war saw more mobilization of public opinion behind the conflict and a controlled press coverage of it.
This present conflict shows how effective Putin’s destruction of free press has been in the long term, and how the new laws against discrediting the Russian military and spreading ‘fake’ information about the war, mean everyone is afraid to speak out. He has shown himself a master at demobilizing Russian society, but that does not mean that Russians are all falling into line, or that they automatically support the war. Much has also been made of the social profile of soldiers – many hail from peripheries – becoming a soldier is a way of getting social mobility, education, and ‘escape’ from places with no prospects. Most of my informants, even those who served at the time of Chechnya are quite nostalgic about some aspects of military service. However, if further mobilization is attempted, it is likely there will be large scale resistance to the draft. This resistance will be active and passive and it’s important we pay attention to the passive part because like similar phenomenon, it is a huge substratum of Russian political action that can easily be overlooked.
Soldiers Mothers Committee is still active. We should note in passing that soldiers rights were and remain a barometer of health of Russia as a civil society, not least because of the extremely brutalizing experience of being conscripted. Since 2014 it became harder and harder to do even the basic work of a human rights NGO in Russia because of NGO oversight laws. This law was used against organizations like CSM who got funding from abroad. Now, such organizations can mainly just observe and give free legal advice to the families of soldiers – for example on how to claim compensation for death or injury of the son. Here’s a more focused organization – the ‘Rights of the Mother’ NGO Fund, that operates mainly as a legal aid team with funding from various small firms within Russia, along with the small-scale online donation platforms that exist. RMF also provides free legal representation in court cases about discrimination in providing social benefits to the relatives of dead soldiers. NGOs can also document coercion of conscripts in the current conflict – young men forced to sign up to military contracts. The regime shows it is not willing to even allow a mild oversight by civil society of the most vulnerable citizens it asks the most of (laying down their lives). What does it tell us about the regime – that it cannot function without breaking its own rules and laws.
There’s also more qualitative research on how mothers responded to war by organizing – there is a book by Sergei Oushakine partly on this topic from the early 2000s. This research argued that sympathy for traumatic suffering is an effective mobilizer in Russia – more effective that claims of human rights or justice. However, there is always a risk that others and the authorities think there are suspicious motives (and the influence of the West). Finally, it’s possible that mobilization of civil society does not necessarily lead in the direction of claiming rights or righting wrongs, but risks leading to public calls for revenge and retribution. This is what Oushakine found after the Chechen wars. He called this the Patriotism of Despair which is the title of his book.
My own more recent research tends to partly support Oushakine’s earlier findings. Faced with the war there is a form of ‘defensive consolidation’ around the idea of a nation under threat, and of supporting the armed forces, ‘right or wrong’. However, that doesn’t mean over the course of the conflict more positive forms of solidarity cannot emerge. In fact, given the effects of the sanctions, Russian people might be inspired to work harder at permissible forms of social organization and support for each other. There might emerge politically acceptable grass-roots veteran associations and organizations that provide a muted or Aesopian form of opposition to war.
A final point is about ordinary resistance to the war – we find evidence of this among soldiers, ordinary people and among mothers. Russia is not so different to other societies during periods of harsh authoritarian control – there are only a few percentages of the population willing to take risks to stand up. But even this is encouraging. At a more basic level, Russia is not North Korea – you can’t shut it down completely. People communicate in messaging services and create support groups including for soldiers’ mothers. It is thanks to informal groups we know how soldiers were tricked into signing contracts and so on. The formal organizations can only provide legal advice to relatives, but we also find out useful things from their interviews with the media brave enough to produce coverage of the war’s results
Journalists are trying to write about the human costs of the war in Russia. Here is an example about the many military funerals in Buryatiya – a poor region with disproportionate losses among the ethnic minority Buddhist population. The journalists writing this piece (published in Russia in Russian) also interviewed other journalists who report they are pressured not to write about the war. The parents of killed soldiers are also pressured not to talk to press. They are told their words (or photographs of funerals) will be used by ‘hackers in Ukraine who will steal the information and make fakes’. The relatives are even told not to answer calls from unknown numbers. Another interesting point from this article is that many soldiers felt a strong sense of responsibility to their comrades meant it was hard to refuse to go to Ukraine. But they did not mention patriotism, their martial vows, or their duty to the Commander-in-Chief and his aims.
“The military stands at attention at the head of the dead. The backs are straight, machine guns on belts are pressed to the chest. The faces are young, they look like high school students in the guard of honor near the Eternal Flame. Some of the soldiers are crying. Tears cannot be wiped away, and they flow down the cheeks.”
Because I get so many abusive messages every time I post on this topic I have to make a disclaimer: I work on Russian society, not Ukraine. I have many Ukrainian colleagues and friends and my sympathies and support are with them. However it’s not my job to write about places and people I have an incomplete professional knowledge of.
‘More of the same, yet worse’ – this prediction so far is right. Russians are starting to – very slowly – wake up to the very significant reduction in living standards the war brings. However, like many other issues, we can observe delays and still partially effective efforts of the Russian government to lie to people about the causes. Some people are still ready to believe that inflation and shortages of some goods are due to Covid or other factors.
What I underestimated was the effect of nearly a decade of stagnant or falling living standards. People were already in a state of extreme pessimism and resignation. ‘Boiling the frog’ metaphor doesn’t even come close. This is a frog in a pan where the water long since evaporated. The frog is now a desiccated husk.
This weekend is the spring clean for those who own a garden plot. There was no enthusiasm for this task that many thought they’d left behind, but now planting vegetables is confirmation of a return to the worst of the 1990s
‘Mass civilian causalities and Russian confusion and chaos’. Again, while I’m no expert, this was proved terribly prescient. I didn’t write ‘so badly disciplined they would resort to looting and war crimes’ but the implication is there.
‘lack of appetite for war’. This is now controversial because every day someone points to polling and says: ‘the Russians enjoy this war and love Putin’. I’m not going to repeat my and other people’s criticism of polling. I stand even more strongly by my prediction. There’s a visible group of the usual idiots you can see in any country that because of their personal inadequacies just love to parade their skin deep patriotism. There’s good evidence that the majority of Russians despise feel either disdain or indifference towards the Z-people [thanks to Anton Shirikov for prompting me to rethink the wording here]. My research participants are mainly ‘blokey’ working-class guys. They have no time for this b-s. They’re more interested in whether their factory will still be working in June. In short, people are fearful for their material wellbeing and, yes, often callously indifferent to Ukraine. No one even mentions Putin any more, apart from the odd old person who leads a sheltered TV-centric life. For me his lack of visible leadership (since February) in explaining and arguing for the war speaks volumes as to the diminution of his status in actual fact among Russians.
‘Initial limited panic’ at shortages (real or imagined). Here too I think I got it right. Although I did not get right the massive sanctions. I underestimated coordination from the West. Can Russian agriculture feed Russians now? Maybe. There are issues with things like animal vaccines and seeds (remember that most commercial seed produces crops whose seed cannot then be re-sown). Nonetheless, with Chinese help, most Russians will only have to suffer high inflation on food staples.
After the invasion happened I wrote a follow up post about defensive consolidation. This is a way for people to deal with cognitive dissonance around the Russian aggression. Defensive consolidation involves magical thinking and denial (China will help; the war crimes are staged). It involves a cleaving to authority (not necessarily the government, but your boss, your factory, your town leader), not out of loyalty or enthusiasm, but as a kind of relationship like that of an abused victim to abuser. The more Russians cleave to authority the more they are effectively ‘admitting’ to themselves how bad things really are. So my friend says ‘Russian troops are not aggressors’ and then says ‘we should delete this chat and move to Signal (an encrypted message service). She later talks about how many nightmares she has and cannot watch the news because they are so ‘rabid’ there. This is an example of ‘knowing and not knowing’. The finale is ‘I have to support my country in my own way now that everyone hates us’.
What’s next. Escalation with the West? A WWI scenario in Donbas? No one knows. Unrest and coups are unlikely but of course possible, especially if sanctions really do work or Russian forces keep taking very big losses. Can Russian people find a way to relate to their own state other than like a helpless abuse victim? Can they recognize their country’s guilt without resorting to excuses and whataboutery?
Final Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate
March 9, 2022 The flight of many representatives of the Russian intelligentsia, which many pro-European and anti-Putin residents of Russia admired for many years, now causes unpleasant surprise and annoyance for many, it seems. There is an understanding that there could be political persecution of Dud, Dmitry Bykov or Anton Dolin. But after all, it was they who for many years turned to the enlightened European audience of the country, to show citizenship, courage, etc., believing that it was important to fight the regime in this way. And what? Where is their courage and citizenship? They left the country of the new “Z-intelligentsia” like Zakhar Prilepin… Now the voice of the “Russian European” will not only not be heard, it will be absent. And it must be admitted that Navalny became the only truly courageous leader, person and intellectual. Others were unlikely to be threatened by what Navalny received (although Dmitry Bykov seems to have survived the poisoning attempt in 2019), but the haste of this flight is somewhat amazing for many and has not yet been meaningfully understood by anyone. Moreover, with the introduction of total censorship, this can only be understood in kitchens, as it was in the 1970s.
The metaphor of the “kholodets country” (jelly, aspic) was also born – it trembles around the edges when shaken (middle class and big cities), but remains almost unchanged in a viscous state in the depths. It seems to be ready to melt, but vlast’ freezes it all the time, it can be stabbed with knives, but this will not have such a noticeable effect on integrity when frozen. So it is with us – sanctions pierce the country with economic knives, but the authorities will simply keep this jelly with a frost and a distributive economy. Pieces in the form of the middle class will fall off of course, but it seems that it was so superficial … Moscow especially – like fat, appearing on the surface of the jelly. They’ll sieve it off and put it in the trash and all will be well.
March 13, 2022 It is interesting that business in Russia no longer considers itself as an independent political entity, but only as one of the classes according to Simon Kordonsky, which is trying to reduce costs and increase profits in the conditions of corporate capitalism, which the country has become for some time ago. In this sense, it can be said that business, like the military class, is depoliticized in Russia. The so-called “oligarchs” from the 1990s. after the Khodorkovsky cases found their place between the glamorous life of eternal travelers on luxury yachts and the role of cosmopolitan emissaries of the state and their interests in global capitalism. The most cosmopolitan of them tried to find a compromise in the new military reality – abstractly calling for peace like sophomore students. It seems that this was the worst solution for their image in Russia and abroad – for some, their statements seemed to be a surrender of national interests, while for others they were not anti-war enough. As a result, many of them rush around different countries on their business jets and quickly lose influence and money. At the same time, there was an influential cohort of state-owned businessmen in Russia who are at the helm of state-owned corporations, show high management efficiency and strive to implement advanced management technologies in their structures. The most striking figure here remains German Gref, who seems to have not yet expressed a clear position on what is happening and his Sberbank is still in working condition. “Systemic liberals” in business and government should soberly assess the depth of the defeat inflicted by the sanctions on the Russian economy, but they did not outline a visible political position. It is quite likely that now this is impossible, since the stunning economic attack of the West on Russia leaves them no other option than to put out the fire on the ship together with everyone, so as not to be branded as a traitor to national interests. In this regard, the West acted tough and consistently, but not entirely far-sighted, leaving no room for communication.
After the closure of McDonald’s and other global fast food chains that have been operating in Russia for many years, the question arises of replacing them with local businesses. At the level of government officials (Volodin), the departure of foreign networks was perceived with optimism, but Russian businessmen themselves react to this prospect with skepticism. A few days ago, the opinion of the owner of the well-known and large fast food chain based on Russian cuisine (mainly pancakes with filling) “Teremok” Mikhail Goncharov appeared. He believes that the unique technological, logistical and marketing solutions that McDonald’s possessed cannot be replaced in Russia and complains about the lack of targeted government support for national businesses:
“All this comes from decades of hard work by hundreds of thousands of executives, marketers and engineers, and even with the help of stimulating development (!) Government measures. So far, we do not have these measures at all. On the contrary, the existing measures and modes of operation stimulate the degradation and decay of any large business.”
In other words, Russian business was a diligent student of its Western competitors, but it is extremely difficult to make a quick import substitution under the current conditions. In addition, many medium-sized Russian companies are already facing problems with the supply and renewal of equipment, spare parts, with the breakdown of established supply chains and are experiencing a state of shock. Many people think about survival, not about development. Of course, regional producers of food and alcohol will survive by switching to a simplified product line, but this will not be a full-fledged replacement for Western companies. In fact, no one seems to know how the situation will develop in the coming year.
If we talk about the political subjectivity of medium-sized businesses (which are often a large employer in the regions), then we must remember that this subjectivity was also very limited and concerned only those aspects, inclusion in power structures that helped this business to have insider information and to influence the regional authorities in their interests. After the turbulent 1990s, when “power entrepreneurs” and “new Russians” actively entered politics, other times came: after building the “vertical of power”, regional entrepreneurs became part of the “Big deal” or “new social contract” between Putin and society . They remained loyal and donated to the needs of the regions within the framework of “social responsibility”, they could be deputies of city and regional parliaments, but almost never participated in non-imitation political activity. They kept quiet and made money. Various public associations of small businesses “Opora Rossii” or large corporations of the RSPP rather resolved government relations issues and lobbied for the interests of individual business groups, but also were not civil subjects.
It must be said that the position “business is not politics” or “business is not politics” or the neo-liberal version of corporate social responsibility (CSR) “we pay taxes, we give jobs and in this way we perform our civic function” (Milton Friedman) has become very popular in Russia . In the 1990s, a right-libertarian individualist cult of money and an “American story” of success in the vein of Henry Ford or Herbalife network marketing came into vogue among the country’s younger generation, who had abandoned any Marxist interpretation of the social order. Interestingly, the “dollar” and personal success in caricature form captured the minds of many Russians who believed that they could and should become personally successful outside the state and public institutions. In the 2010s, on the wave of new ideologization, Ayn Rand and her famous novel Atlas Shrugged came into fashion when they began to think that minimizing the participation of the state in one’s destiny and a competitive market economy would be a salvation from corruption and bureaucracy. Then the popularity of the idea of “passive income” began to grow – playing on exchange electronic platforms in order to obtain long-term income, which will become the basis of well-being instead of a state pension.
Thus, business (small, medium and large) turned out to be politically subjectless and could only complain to the state about bureaucratic barriers and tax burdens. Now they all suffer from sanctions and each chooses his own path to salvation or survival. A thin layer of the urban creative class and innovative industries (IT, advertising, design) will most likely be suppressed or many will emigrate, there will be more state corporations and derizhism in industry and technology, small and medium-sized businesses will survive on their own – existing in a gray zone of increasingly less clear economic rules and chaotic market.
Will business have political subjectivity? Hard to say. Among the employees and office managers of large advanced Russian companies, their own “Ukrainian war” is already underway; many of them considered the earned style of Western consumption an important element of class superiority, they wanted to travel to Western European countries, someone even had real estate there. Now things have become complicated and they are of course unhappy. But they also have mortgages and are now afraid of losing their jobs, so their readiness for political mobilization is not so easy to believe.
March 14, 2022. In the early autumn of last year, I became interested in the topic of the Latin American dictatorships of the 1960s and 80s. I watched the film “Kamchatka” (2002, directed by Marcelo Pinheiro) and read the novel by Marcelo Figueres. Somehow the clouds were gathering in Russia. Now everything is becoming more relevant – under different scenarios, it seems that there will be no good outcome for Russia. In the meantime every day I find out how colleagues leave the country – the intellectual circle is getting poorer. We stay. Nobody is waiting for us. Will there be something tomorrow? The war will continue…
“The film is seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, Harry (Matías del Pozo), who does not know that Argentina’s 1976 coup d’état is impacting his life. After witnessing the “disappearance” of dissident friends, a human rights lawyer (Ricardo Darín) and his research scientist wife (Cecilia Roth) flee the city and hide from the military police in a vacant summer house. With them are their two kids: Harry, who is fascinated with the escape artistry of Harry Houdini, and El Enano, his little brother. (Translated as “Little Guy” in the English subtitles, played by Milton de la Canal. The actual translation is “dwarf”.) The family adopts new identities and attempts to lead a normal life. Later, they are joined by a student who is using the alias Lucas (Tomás Fonzi). Their new life is difficult, but a visit with their estranged grandparents (Fernanda Mistral and Héctor Alterio) reveals that they are still a close-knit family. Subtly hinted, however, and used as a metaphor, is the mother’s constant smoking and El Enano’s renewed bed-wetting. Both serve to show how stressful and precarious their situation is.” Kamchatka (2002) – Plot Summary – IMDb
Fourth Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate
Can the results of public opinion polls be incriminating evidence against Russia? Such a question arises when various well-known polling companies publish the results of their latest polls dedicated to supporting the so-called “special operation in Ukraine.” Following the well-known Russian intellectuals (Grigory Yudin), I would raise the problem of the status of public opinion poll data in non-free and non-democratic societies. I think that in addition to the system bias, which is caused by the specifics of the mode, there are some other aspects.
According to polls. FOM, VTsIOM and Levada find mass support for the war (special operation). But there are several buts. First, in the wording, instead of the clear and real word “war” (moreover, on a large scale), the official euphemism “military operation” and so on is used. This greatly reduces the drama: “war” is an important and emotionally laden word for any resident of Russia, some other term greatly reduces the attention of respondents to questions. Secondly, it is important how the structure of the questionnaires looked like – what topics and plots were asked before this block of questions about the “military operation”. The previous context of the blocks also affects the responses. Thirdly, G. Yudin is right – of course, there is an effect of socially approved answers, but no one knows how strong it is and how it is represented in different social and age groups. But similar effects can be observed to a lesser extent in Western countries – only in authoritarian regimes they are afraid of political persecution for “wrong” answers, and in democratic ones they are afraid of public censure and moral condemnation. This must also be taken into account. Fourth, the media (in any country) have a major impact on public opinion. And here, not only censorship or propaganda also begins to influence (let’s not be naive, it exists in countries with any regime, but in totalitarian ones it plays an outsized role), but the effect of self-developing mass information waves (mass “infection”) exists everywhere – in Russia with militaristic hysteria and in a world with a total rejection of Russia as part of the world. The echo of social networks and interactive communication – “moral wars” only intensifies this infection and information waves. Of course, the surrounding news agenda is now extremely pressing on public opinion and poll results.
And further. Leading Russian survey companies conduct their surveys according to international methods and the data is not drawn arbitrarily. All samples are accurate and measurements are made according to the methods. But technical sophistication does not mean that surveys show the complex processes that take place in societies at critical moments. [editor: other qualified persons disagree with this assessment and make a distinction between political polling and commercial commissioned surveys – again for a later post]
And most importantly, in a situation of social storm and obvious force majeure, public opinion polls in authoritarian or democratic countries give big failures. They measure something in an instantaneous jump in sentiment or in a situation of a giant information wave and a massive “infection” of public opinion with one idea. But what happens in different social groups and in everyday life – polls do not measure this – they falter like a compass at the moment it is affected by a magnetic anomaly. “Military field” operational anthropology works here – communication with people, all-round, correspondence, included observation. Here and now. At this moment. At the same time, it is important to focus not on the mood of your intellectual friends from the Facebook or Instagram feed, but to try to see the broader social picture in its complexity and ambiguity. Now in Russia it is difficult, the more valuable are the rare anthropologists and ethnographers who know the Russian language, who have been in Russia not only in the circle of prestigious universities, but there – in the very depths where poor people live …
Third Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate.
March 4-6, 2022 During these two days, the situation is as follows – when an endless stream began of all companies leaving us, then even my very, very anti-Putin acquaintances became perplexed and angry. Not towards Putin, which is already customary, but to the West. Annoyance at the very least, because it already seems to them that this whole “cancellation” campaign was carefully prepared, since everything happens so quickly. The thought involuntarily creeps in that perhaps “Putin knew something” by starting this war. The shock of the Great Business Exodus from Russia arises among supporters of a market economy and those who do not support Putin. They ask themselves the question, “how does it feel to cut business ties?” Perhaps if only Apple had left, many would be upset and angry at Putin. But when all companies leave the country in an endless series, the effect is the opposite – from indifference to the desire to survive on their own.
It turns out that in the current situation, the total withdrawal of foreign business from Russia and catastrophic sanctions have played into the hands of strengthening the regime, around which those who have never supported the Russian bureaucracy are beginning to gather. Now it is the chinovniki who will help us survive, since the government of the country is in their hands. The old vulgar slogan of the pro-government “patriots” – “Russia is concentrating” is starting to work, but it works against what the West is trying to achieve – against the escalation of discontent, but in favour of internal mobilization of survival. Orientation towards the coming economic and social problems distracts people from the terrible pictures of the war, everyone thinks about how to stock up food, medicine, how to buy a dacha for a garden, etc. It is difficult to say what is happening in the administrative and business elites, among whom there were many “enlightened Europeans”, but it seems that they still feel like they are in the same submarine, locked from the inside and under torpedo attack from the outside. A noticeable part of the intellectuals and people of art have left, but it is difficult to say how this emigration is assessed by public opinion.
There are more and more statements in Russia from different sides that “in this situation you cannot take a neutral position – this is how you help the enemy.” This enemy could be Putin or the “Ukronazis” – substitute the right one. Probably something similar has happened to intellectuals everywhere: civic passion has become the main feature of discourse, which is understandable against the backdrop of active hostilities in peaceful cities in the center (or in the East? or already on the outskirts) of Europe. It is impossible to be indifferent, but it is proposed to seek understanding – an analytical understanding of what is happening. An analytical understanding of what is happening does not mean support, although the anti-war agenda is win-win. Probably, reflection and understanding is required where and when Europe (the West) lost Russia and how it happened. It would be foolish to believe that everything is the result of the KGB Lieutenant Colonel Putin, who became the Sauron of the cold Siberian Mordor. Of course, this also applies to Russia and its population, where the trauma of the imperial collapse of the early 1990s and deindustrialization could not fully drag on even with the help of the external gloss of the consumer society that engulfed the country’s major cities. The older generation and “poor Russians” – the heroes of the studies of the Russian sociologist Simon Kordonsky – did not forgive the fact that the former Soviet workers and engineers lost their class outlines – they ceased to be workers or employees and became small traders and otkhodniks. They are more comfortable and comfortable in the new world of the post-Soviet market in the end, but the trauma of losing turned out to be inescapable. They wanted not only to be a foreman at a car repair shop, but to be a part of something big – a mythologically creative Soviet project that came to its spiritual and economic collapse in the 1980s, but still possessed positive energy, including for some Western intellectuals.
Now many of the older Russian generation are “losers” from the reforms of the 1990s and not understood by the new Russian intelligentsia, which at first mocked their low taste (as P. Bourdieu would say) in the field of culture – from the vulgar humor of the popular mass satirist Petrosyan to the stupid tik tok videos, and now considers these people a mindless crowd. But there has never been an attempt to bridge the gap and find something in common. Western researchers were also very weakly involved in understanding what is happening in Russia “on the ground”, talking a lot about post-Soviet geopolitics, doing research on opposition rallies on Bolotnaya Square, the Russian LGBT+ community, or exoticizing “poor life in a poor country”. All this sold well in the Western academy and the media, but said little about who these people were – who the post-Soviet worker and lower middle class are, who lives in small towns, how they build their life trajectories. Only 2-3 books have been published. And now, probably, such studies will be very difficult because of the double steel curtain – from Russia and from the West.
Second Guest Post by Valery Kostrov, a resident of the capital, a humanities graduate.
Suddenly, after the zoomers in Russia began to recall the fashion and lifestyle of the Russian nineties (the famous song of the popular singer Monetochka “In the nineties they killed people, And everyone ran completely naked, There was no electricity anywhere, Only fights for jeans with Coca-Cola .. “), they were joined by a generation of those who were teenagers and young people in the difficult Russian 1990s. Neighborly work chats immediately went into threads about how they would buy everything at the clothing markets, how Moscow Mayor Sobyanin would again start building retail stalls (points) in Moscow, how modern shopping centers would be given over to compartments for small entrepreneurs, how everyone would start using pirated software and watch pirated movies with bad translations. How everyone gets poorer and goes to dig forgotten vegetable gardens for potatoes.
My friend today was glad that he bought a walk-behind tractor for cultivating the land in OBI at the old “pre-war” prices, using credit money from a card. Grassroots connections have already begun on the topic of delivering spare parts from China for expensive cars or household appliances and everything that is needed in modern society. Everyone understands that the time has come. Will the criminalization and disintegration of the country become a consequence of this, as it almost happened in the 90s? It’s hard to predict.
But now (despite all the problems of corruption and incompetence) the Russian state bureaucracy is well built (even better than ten years ago), there are digital means of control over taxes and citizens, and these tools are being developed. In addition, smuggling existed before – my father on the outskirts of the Central Russian regional center for a long time in 2018-19 bought Marlboro cigarettes with the inscription “only for duty free”. Where are they from? There are several places in Moscow (large or local markets) where they sell inexpensive and very high-quality cheese from Iran or Serbia. It is almost of Swiss quality, but costs 3-4 times cheaper … There is also a huge segment of regional medium and small businesses that, after some difficulties (of course, many will go bankrupt) will be able to work and produce degraded copies of goods from IKEA (from wood for sure) or beer no worse than Carlsberg. Yes, these entrepreneurs will use foreign machines – but most often they were bought second hand in Europe for next to nothing and restored by craftsmen from the same Russian cities.
Yes, the middle class is shocked by the departure of everyone from the country. But the Russian middle class grew in the 90s. It started in poverty and destitution, he then had black nails from picking potatoes with his hands. And he begins to remember those habits – installing pirated software, visiting the abandoned village of his great-grandfather to plant potatoes and plow the land. Plus everyone already has experience of living in the market and plus there is a huge infrastructure. Now the general consumer exodus of Western companies, the rupture of cultural, social, and scientific ties is beginning to work for the Putin regime, and not in the short term, but for a long time. Everyone knows, everyone says – “these will be difficult years, but.” Those who leave, they leave. The rest will stay and live, and they are unlikely to fall in love with Western brands as passionately as they are now. Yes, Russia is becoming a practically unfree state with total censorship, which affects the educated middle class and the cultural elite very strongly. But the “deep people” have always been drinking in the kitchens. And they will complain about the government by planting potatoes or drinking pickles with vodka. Cucumber, vodka, boiled potatoes, ‘Discount price’ stores with pirated fake cheap copies of Western brands will grow ever more frequent. Chinese household appliances and cars – too. Yes, people will become much poorer and go through a period of scarcity. My neighbors and acquaintances have already stocked up on food and essentials, and the shelves are still full, although prices have gone up a lot. The excitement is palpable. Will it be worse? Yes. It will probably be a tough summer and fall. But it will be the spring of planting the crop, the summer of taking care of it and the autumn of harvesting.
One thing is not clear – an endless rehearsal of public refusals of everyone from Russia, is it supposed to achieve? That Russian tanks will stop, mothers will call their sons and say that they did not bring a new collection to Uniqlo. Most of the wives and mothers of soldiers and officers already led a modest life – like in many armies of the world, the Russian army consists of a “deep”, very poor people, for whom the army is a means of social mobility. In addition, the West has already done a deal with the Russian oligarchs [giving them six months to put their affairs in alternative offshore instruments], but punishes the people. Did Navalny call for this in his heated speeches? Why does Western civilization give Russia to China and Iran… World, give me an answer. It doesn’t give an answer.