What strikes me in the debates about the war in Ukraine is the absence of the Russian people. Of course, the Ukrainians are the victims and should be the focus of attention. However, it is unlikely that the war will stop without the involvement of the Russian people.
By Carine Clément
What strikes me in the debates about the war in Ukraine is the absence of the Russian people. Of course, Ukrainians are the victims and should be the focus of attention. However, it is unlikely that the war will stop without the involvement of the Russian people. And where are the Russian people from the point of view of Western business, intellectual and political elites? Basically, they are where they are for Putin – nowhere. For Putin, they count for nothing, they are deprived of any agency, infinitely manipulable, cannon fodder. To Western elites, they are a grey mass of “Putinists”, an authoritarian and servile people. That view did not begin with the war against Ukraine. It has been years since the Russian people disappeared from our political radar, since they became part of the “normal”, “democratic” and “liberal” world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is “democracy” for ordinary Russians?
Since the Russian people were not adequately democratic, socialized, and educated under the authoritarian communist regime, it was considered normal that “democracy” came to ordinary Russians as a void word, with no power to enable them to fight for their rights.
The fact that “democracy” came to ordinary Russians along with poverty, non-payment of wages and pensions, loss of savings, precariousness, economic breakdown, criminal privatisation of national wealth and kleptocratic capitalism was also seen as normal, as the communist system would have transformed Russians into an economically and socially handicapped, state-dependent, irrational and lazy people.
However, considering what they went through, the Russian people have every reason to remain passive in the midst of another state collapse or, in other words, to save themselves and their families rather than collectively fight against a regime that has shown that it takes them for nothing and now sends them to kill and be killed for reasons that are far from clear, let alone acceptable.
In these circumstances, what we should be focusing on instead is the reluctance shown by so many Russians to participate in or support the war being waged in their name: they are fleeing the country, or, when mobilised, refusing to fight or protesting poor living conditions; they are hiding, campaigning against the war, burning recruitment offices and sabotaging the war. When Putin launched his “special military operation”, there was no enthusiasm or patriotic mobilisation, no demonstrations “around the flag or the leader”, as there was after the annexation of Crimea, which was seen by most as the restoration of Russian sovereignty vis-à-vis the West.
This is especially true in relation to the poorest, who are among the least supportive of the war. I see the need for a sociological approach that analyses attitudes towards the nation or the state. Unfortunately, very little research has been done on the working classes, which are the largest social group in Russia if we include not only manual workers, but also low-paid workers, pensioners, many residents of remote and poor regions, and even many small entrepreneurs or the self-employed. As my latest field research showed, all these people, despite their differences, share the same social consciousness of being part of the “poor”, “simple” and “working” people who challenge social injustice and the appropriation of national wealth by the oligarchs and the powerful. Since there is almost no empirical material available on the working classes, especially during the war, I have to rely on my pre-war materials and my latest field research (2016-18) in different regions and social classes (237 interviews and some ethnographic observations in six regions). For more details, see my publications here and here), complemented by some pieces and observations from colleagues (see Jeremy Morris’ blog or PS Lab’s Telegram channel, and surveys conducted by ExtremeScan).
The most widespread attitude is scepticism and mistrust.
Based on this material, I would assume that after eight months of cartoonish propaganda, a fall in living standards, coercive mobilisation, tens of thousands of casualties, an obvious disaster in army organisation and supply, the most widespread attitude towards the war among the working classes is cold scepticism and distrust. Opting for ironic distance and criticism of the powerful, typical of the working class, they want nothing to do with a war that was imposed on them at their expense. Some volunteered for the army, enlisting for the money the government promised, before conscription. However, given the large number of people living in poverty, we should ask ourselves why so few took the opportunity to feed their families and repay their loans.
There may be less public resistance than we would wish, but the key explanation for that is neither authoritarianism nor slavish obedience, since, as my research mentioned above has shown, social criticism and rebellious thoughts have spread among the Russian working classes in the second half of the 2010s. The big obstacle to active resistance and open rebellion is the strong disbelief that they have the FORCE to fight against an oligarchic and militarised regime.
I am not saying that no Russian is a nationalist or imperialist, or that no Russian has committed war crimes; rather, on the basis of my research, I argue that this is not the majority (I rely here not only on my assumptions based on my previous research, but also on some data collected by Elena Koneva’s team and published in ExtremeScan and Alexei Miniailo’s team and published in Chronicles) and that spreading this caricatured stereotype of the Russian people does not help at all if we want to stop the war and help the Russian people to resist. On the contrary, to encourage a movement against the war, it must be made clear to the masses that the majority of the population does not support Putin’s war, that condemning the war is not condemning the Russian people, which means that you can be against the war as long as you stand together with the people and for the people.
Nationalist and imperialist-minded people are most often found on the margins of Russian intellectual and cultural space and are now invading the TV screens, feeding state propaganda. They are much more likely to be rich or important beneficiaries of the oppressive neoliberal economic system.
People at the bottom generally do not share nationalist views: they know from their everyday experience what the Kremlin’s patriotic discourse is really about: “work for kopecks in the name of a kind of state-manipulated patriotism” that considers people nothing, as one of my interviewees, a cook from St. Petersburg, told me a few years before the war. Russians have never been foolish puppets. They recovered from the shock of the profound and radical socio-economic transformations of the 1990s. They criticised their government, including Putin. They denounced the huge social inequalities and the oligarchic nature of the regime. They took to the streets to protest on many occasions, mainly over specific social or local issues, but sometimes also over broader political issues.
What they lacked was faith in their power, in the mere possibility that there could be a government for the people, of the people. Democracy is an illusion, a void word at best, a delusion at worst. This is what their own history has taught them.
This is one of the reasons why support for Ukraine should not be presented as a struggle of democracy against evil, it is not a message that Russian society can hear without suspecting hypocrisy. The working classes in particular are convinced that they live in an oligarchic system where their voices and interests do not count. They are convinced that democracy is hollow everywhere and that the powerful and rich rule the world.
The Russian working classes have learned to fight for their very concrete and local interests. On many occasions they have shown themselves capable of solidarity and self-organisation. The problem, in their eyes, is the agenda: is it about fighting for the betterment of our fate, the fate of little people like us, or will we, once again, be the victims of struggles that are above us and over which we have no control? Another problem is the acute distrust felt towards the liberal opposition, as well as towards elites on all sides, who are perceived as contemptible and who understand nothing of the real experience of the working classes. Finally, there is also a strong feeling of powerlessness when it comes to questions related to national politics: what can be done against the oligarchy, while “they” have the money and the police.
The key to any widespread social resistance in Russia is the participation of the working classes and the confidence they must develop in their own power. This implies at least listening to them and respecting them as dignified human beings, avoiding the kind of social contempt characteristic of the Russian (and Western) educated classes for decades. No lasting overthrow of the regime or real democratisation can take place without the support and active participation of the working classes.
Carine Clément is a sociologist, former director of the Institute for Collective Action (IKD) in Moscow until the Putin regime expelled her from Russia in its repressive campaign against the left. She is currently a researcher at the French CNRS.
Source: https://russiapost.info/society/rhetoric Translation: G. Buster