TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
3 December 2022: Human nature, plus texts and Christine McVie
Avoidance, I’m not proud to say, plays an outsized role in my life. It is, among other things, the reason why this weekend’s roundup is so long: the more time I spend here, the less time I spend immersed in the thoroughly repulsive and yet strangely magnetic orgy of narcissism that Elon Musk and Matt Taibbi unleashed on Twitter Friday evening. (If you don’t know, count your blessings.)
The other reason this is long, of course, is because I skipped an edition for Thanksgiving, so some of this has been building up. Sorry about that, too. But it’s all better than Twitter, no?
What I’m thinking about
Contemporary authoritarianism is infuriating. It is also banal. In fact, it is infuriating because it is banal.
The banality lies in its simplicity and utter lack of creativity: authoritarian leaders all play from the same playbook, whether its Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Elon Musk (bear with me). They begin by making rules that take power away from people who aren’t you — “elites” or minorities or others. Then they chip away at bits of power you weren’t really using, like the ability to monitor your government or to protest. Each incremental loss of franchise seems so trivial that it hardly seems worth a revolution, until, of course, there’s nothing left.
It’s infuriating in part it’s so damned transparent. You don’t need to be a political scientist to see what’s going on, to understand that you will probably come to miss what’s being taken away, and that what’s being done — often in your name — is wrong. And it’s infuriating because we let it happen. Eventually, of course, some of us rise up, we protest, we get arrested, maybe we even make headlines. But by then, the system doesn’t really need us. The leader, by that time, has gathered around him a constituency more than happy to bask in his reflected glory, and to point their fingers laughingly at us. We’re free to leave, of course. But we probably won’t.
When the Russians, Hungarians and Turks who saw their democratic franchise being stripped away rose up in protest, were they gunned down? No. Arrested? Mostly not. They were ridiculed, until they began to ridicule themselves. Putin, Orbán and Erdoğan realized they could never win them back, and so they used the power they had amassed in the media and the political system to marginalize them, and to amplify the voices of their own supporters. You’re the minority, they were told, the outliers, hated by the true Russians, Hungarians and Turks. What the actual distribution of opinion was mattered little: in politics, as in so much else, perception is reality.
So, too, with Musk. I may never understand why he wanted control of Twitter, but having captured it, he found it full of too many people who did not want him in charge. And so, now with the help of Matt Taibbi (who should know better, but doesn’t), he has set about recruiting and rallying his own troops. Whether Musk shares the views of the wingnuts he has let loose on his website only he knows, but it matters little or not at all. All that matters to Musk is that they are there, they are amplified, and they will make life on Twitter for people like me as miserable as they can.
And yet I will probably stay. Yes, of course, I’ve explored a Plan B. In fact, you’re reading it right now. And I’ve even got a Plan C and a Plan D. But the sad fact is that Twitter matters to me more — and not just because I’ve still got almost 63,000 followers, compared to under 1,000 on Mastodon and only 60 or so on Post. Or, rather, it is because of that, but not because I’m a glutton for ersatz glory.
The reason I’m likely to stay on Twitter is the same reason that most Russians — including those who are unhappy with Putin and his war — are likely to stay in Russia and remain relatively quiet. While I may berate myself for it, it is not, first and foremost, a moral failing (I think). It is, rather, a social instinct.
As normal human beings, we tend to think about the various aspects of our lives as things: Twitter is a thing I use to communicate, my citizenship is a thing on my passport and my ballot paper, my job is a thing I do to get money, and so on. As a sociologist, though, I like to think of those and other parts of life as processes, as continuous, iterative chains of action, reaction and interaction that give life meaning and content. And, because humans are social animals and we are more or less incapable of achieving anything at all without recourse to others, all of these processes involve socialization. Without that socialization we are poorer and hungrier, more vulnerable and, ultimately, less happy.
Now, think about Twitter not as a thing, but as a process. More than that, think of it as a social process, about all of the roles that it plays in my life. It allows me to connect with readers, and to read others. It helps me to situate myself in conversations and conflicts. It imbues my day with emotions both positive and negative. All of this, of course, is adversely affected by just about everything Elon Musk is doing — but for the moment, at least, he hasn’t taken away the one thing that makes it work: the socialization. The vast majority of the people I rely on to make all of those processes work are still on Twitter. The vast majority of them are not on Mastodon or Post. Leaving Twitter for Mastodon or Post, then, might make me feel morally superior, but it will inevitably leave me socially bereft, at least until I can build new relationships with new people and restore the processes that made my life work.
Twitter, of course, is trivial. At the end of the day, if I lose it I lose it, and life will go on. But if it is hard for me to abandon something even so trivial as Twitter, imagine how hard it must be for people to walk out of the non-trivial social processes that make their life function: to abandon “normal” politics, “normal” economic exchange, and so on, simply because what has become “normal” no longer feels morally acceptable. Yes, there will always be some people willing to do that. But they will always be a minority.
The news came out this week that a new survey — evidently conducted by the Russian government but leaked to the independent news website Meduza — shows that only 25 percent of Russians want the war on Ukraine to continue, down from 57 percent in July; meanwhile, 55 percent want negotiations, up from 32 percent in July. This has contributed to a new round of debates (yes, including on Twitter) about why Russians aren’t protesting. As I’ve written before, I don’t think the answer fundamentally comes down to repression. Neither, though, do I think it comes down to some kind of ideological commitment to imperialism or even tacit support for the war, as some are arguing (though I sympathize with the moral despair).
Recent events in Iran and China have shown that protest in the face of brutal repression is possible, even in highly ideologized and indoctrinated societies. By the same token, though, the fact that the Chinese and Iranian protests are extraordinary underlines the point I’ve been making about anti-authoritarian protest for about a decade and a half: collective resistance is an exceedingly rare phenomenon. There are libraries full of books explaining how and why it can happen, but they all deal with the exceptions to the rule: most leaders, whether authoritarian or democratic, are able to to commit crimes against their populations and others most of the time without facing much challenge at all.
While large-scale resistance movements vary widely in provenance, form and outcome, what they all have in common is the ability to replace one set of social processes with another. Sometimes this happens because key social processes in an individual’s life get caught up in the wave of mobilization: if all of the people you rely on to make your life functional and meaningful are joining the resistance, then you’re likely to join with them, even if only to keep your social processes intact. Think, for example, of the Solidarity movement that challenged communist Poland, or the movement that brought down Pinochet in Chile.
And sometimes this happens because of a twin set of shocks: one that pushes people out of their familiar processes, and another one that occurs when they arrive at some new place and see just how many people are right there with them. This is rarer, but it does happen, when people turn up to a protest they expect to be sparsely attended, and are shocked — pleasantly — to find throngs. The 2011-12 Bolotnaya protest movement in Russia fits this pattern, and the 2020 uprising in Belarus even more so.
Either way, it is the nature of resistance as a process — and the way that resistance interacts with the other processes in people’s lives — that is decisive. Absent the ability to maintain at least some certainty in the processes of daily life and socialization, those processes themselves will put up a powerful resistance to change, drawing us back to the routines that we know will keep us safe, and warning us off of changes that may bring risk.
There are, of course, outliers: the people who protest anyway, or who uproot themselves and seek exile, despairing at the seeming inertia of their compatriots. But that inertia is generally the norm, in Russia or on Twitter, and the knowledge that our own social instincts will keep most of us in line is what gives Vladimir Putin and Elon Musk so much power.
What I’m reading
Just before Thanksgiving in the States, Post-Soviet Affairs — which, for my money at least, is rapidly becoming the indispensable academic journal for those of us who study Russia, Ukraine and the surrounding regions — began publishing a series of essays not of research, but of thoughts on how we need to change the way we do what we do.
Regular readers of this newsletter will know that this is something I’ve been grappling with more or less since the beginning of the war. Most of us in the field didn’t see the war coming — which is to say that our models of Russian politics made it seem unlikely. Part of the problem is that, while we have learned to measure the role of emotion and psychological predispositions in political behavior, we don’t have good ways of incorporating things like ideology and identity into our models, and we’re even worse at doing that when we’re trying to explain the behavior of small numbers of people — such as those who make the decision to go to war.
But part of the problem may also be that, as Russianists got better and better at deploying ever more sophisticated approaches to the collection and analysis of data, our research became increasingly relevant to the discipline of political science writ large — and increasingly irrelevant to the study of Russia itself. This tension, between explaining the general and the particular, has always existed in social science, but as Alexander Libman points out in his contribution to Post-Soviet Affairs, it may have done particular damage in our field. The focus on experimental methods and disciplinary contributions, he argues, took us away from the study of things like historical legacies, which are difficult to measure in the randomized controlled trials that have become the gold standard of political science. Given Putin’s penchant for history, that omission now looks foolish, to say the least.
Alexander also points out that, even if we wanted to carry forward with the kind of sophisticated research that had been in vogue, the war makes it almost impossible, as running robust surveys is both increasingly difficult and ethically fraught. Even more difficult, though, is a return to more qualitative methods, such as ethnographic observation and in-depth interviews. As Jeremy Morris writes in his essay, such methods could potentially get us much closer to an understanding of the processes of thought and behavior that have flummoxed us — but most if not all Western analysts would find themselves barred from conducting such research, while the risks involved for Russian researchers are considerable.
In the end, though, I like where both Alexander and Jeremy are pushing — and, indeed, Tomila Lankina and Vladimir Gel’man push broadly in the same direction: we need approaches to research in Russia that call into question both our old methodologies and our old concepts, and which get us deeper into Russia itself, even if that means losing touch, a bit, with our academic disciplines. I don’t know how we’re going to achieve that, given the barriers to research at the moment, but it’s good, at least, that we’re thinking in the right direction.
Elsewhere, I was struck on Thursday by a diary published on the Russian opposition news website Mediazona, written by a Russian construction engineer who spent a month on assignment in occupied Mariupol.
“I’m scared of the thought that I could get killed here, and de facto they would have every right to. I’m an occupier here. Nobody invited me.”
The author — like many of his colleagues — seems to have signed up to work on reconstruction in Mariupol in order to avoid being sent to the front. It’s easy to understand, I suppose, though perhaps harder to sympathize. At the very least, though, it’s an honest portrayal of at least a slice of life in a Russian-occupied Ukrainian city, including the reactions of locals, and it’s worth reading for that reason alone. (As usual, Google Translate is your friend.)
What I’m listening to
There really was only one song I could have possibly posted this week. RIP, Christine.
Ditto---a thoughtful and insightful post, thank you. Inertia is a problem in so many areas of our lives these days, it seems, from small to large. It's good to hear about the social/political science analysts rethinking their approaches. I hope you can write about this more in the future. As only an observer of current events, I've found historians to be essential the past few years for understanding the now and then and am glad many of them are having their voices heard on mainstream media outlets and more in classrooms.
A really thoughtful post, concluding with the most beautiful of ballads.