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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
15 April 2023: Return to sender, plus texts and tunes
It’s been a while since I’ve spent all five days of a working week in the same city. Is that a humble brag? Whatever it is, the experience has provoked a corollary to the proposition that time slows down as you accelerate: when an object — in this case, me — sits still, time speeds up. To wit, I found myself dating documents this week with the year 2024. I blame physics.
What I’m thinking about
The news that seemed so monumental when it broke on Tuesday — that the Kremlin was digitizing and, in the process, escalating its military call-up process — had somehow faded almost entirely from view by Friday. Perhaps it got buried under the deluge of post-adolescent Pentagon security breaches. Or perhaps we just have really short attention spans. Either way, it’s worth revisiting, because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s really the only news this week that matters.
Let me take a step back. Last fall, when the Kremlin announced it’s “partial mobilization”, a number of Russia-watchers (this one included) argued that bringing the war home to large numbers of Russians was politically risk, and that risk duly materialized, in the form of small-scale local protests and hundreds of thousands of people heading to the border. The government responded in the way it usually does — by doing more or less nothing. Heavy-handed tactics, in some cases clearing out entire villages of their fighting-aged men, were pursued where they met little resistance; where the regime couldn’t get away with that kind of thing, they didn’t try. Nor did they tighten control at the borders, or prevent people from bribing their way out of service; indeed, entire sectors of the economy and some regions and cities were allowed, in essence, to negotiate mass exemptions.
This response — both from Russian citizens and from the regime — was not surprising, because it reflected precisely the modus vivendi that had allowed Putin to consolidate his power over the last 20-plus years. Simply put, the Kremlin gets enough compliance by not insisting on total compliance. This flexibility allows dissatisfied Russian citizens recourse to individualized coping mechanisms (in this case, emigration, bribery or other forms of subterfuge), thus removing the need for organized political resistance. But at the turn of 2023, as I formulated a set of questions for the new year (in lieu of resolutions), I wondered how long this would last:
Putin faces a choice. If he needs more men for the military, he will eventually have to clamp down on the individualized coping mechanisms that have been keeping things peaceful—at the risk of provoking more wide-spread protest. If, on the other hand, he is more concerned about his domestic position, he may continue, as he has thus far, to sacrifice compliance in the name of relative political tranquility. Whatever he choses, and however Russians respond, we’ll learn something.
That needle began to move this week. To recap what happened, the Duma passed with near-record speed legislation that:
Allows for military call-up notices to be served electronically, through Gosuslugi, the online portal Russian citizens use to get access to basic services, such as passport renewals, school enrollment, taxes, traffic fines and so on. Previously, call-up notices had to be delivered physically, on paper.
Considers call-up notices to have been served — and thus be legally binding — seven days after having been posted to a citizen’s Gosuslugi account, regardless of whether the citizen ever logged in and saw the notice. Previously, a notice was considered to have been served only if there was physical proof (i.e., a signature) of delivery.
Bars anyone who has been served a call-up notice from leaving the country. Again, that prohibition comes into force seven days after the notice was posted to the citizen’s Gosuslugi account, regardless of whether the citizen ever logged in and saw the notice.
Considers any called-up citizen to be in breach of their legal obligations 20 days after the date of service of the notice (i.e., 27 days after it was posted to Gosuslugi). From that point onward, a citizen who fails to report for duty will likewise be barred from leaving the country, as well as from driving or buying a car, from buying or selling real estate, from getting a loan, from opening a business, among others.
Caveats, as always, are in order. We do not yet know how many people the Russian government will seek to mobilize for the war. Neither do we know how assiduously they will enforce these rules. On the face of it, though, this looks and feels like a serious escalation on the part of the state, tightening the rules and making it harder for people to find individualized ways out of the draft. That’s certainly the interpretation of the Russian opposition. As Alexey Navalny’s ex-campaign manager Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, this law…
…allows [Putin] quietly, cleanly and without difficulty to compensate for endless losses. However many [Russian soldiers] are put in the ground in any given month by the ZSU’s HIMARS, Stugs and Leopards, Putin will scoop up the same number in generous handfuls from under the bottomless hems of Russian mothers.
If that is indeed the case, the question then becomes how the Russian public will react. The Russian opposition journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, now in exile, tried to get an answer to that question by asking his Moscow neighborhood chat group what they thought of the news. “It doesn’t effect us — and we hope it will stay that way,” came the answer, as Sergei reported on Tuesday (also on Facebook).
Out of curiosity, I delved into the discussion on one large Telegram-based news channel, as the story broke on Tuesday. While I haven’t (yet) conducted a systematic analysis, I struggled to find any comments of the positive variety. Broadly, the comments I did see broke down into two equally angry camps. The first directed their ire at the Duma deputies and other elites who voted for these changes, and their military-aged sons who seemed to be waiting out the war in various tropical paradises. These comments broadly boiled down to the sentiment, “They should send their own kids to die, before turning to us.” The second group appeared more angry at the military, wondering why it seemed so hungry for troops — and noting that the Ukrainians evidently didn’t need to resort to such drastic measures to get recruits. (Whether or not that latter claim is entirely true is besides the point.)
Mixed in among the anger were questions about how to appeal against call-up orders, how to request alternative service, and so on. Absent entirely, however, were calls to protest or to resist en masse, much less to end the war as such. The picture I came away with was mixed. On the one hand, there is clear dissatisfaction, an unwillingness to see this war come any further into people’s lives than it already is, and little evidence of any sense of personal identification with the war effort. On the other, whatever dissatisfaction there may be, it does not find articulation as anger against Putin or as anti-war sentiment.
As I have argued before, the emergence of resistance from below requires a trigger from above. Without that trigger, individualized dissatisfaction will not galvanize into collective action. So long as the source of that dissatisfaction allows Russians the ability to solve their problems individually, I would not expect any resistance to emerge. The question, then, remains the one I asked in January: will the Kremlin leave Russian citizens no choice but to resist?
What I’m reading
Three weeks ago, I mentioned an interesting piece of academic research by Ho-Chun Herbert Chang, Brooke Harrington, Feng Fu and Daniel Rockmore, whose analysis had shown the unusually critical role played by a remarkably small number of financial service providers in maintaining the coherence of vast networks of Russian (and other) kleptocratic capital. (You may also have seen Dr Harrington’s column in the New York Times on the same topic.) As an academic who cares about policy, then, I would love to believe that their research had something to do with the decision by American and British officials to sanction exactly these kinds of “financial fixers”, as reported on Wednesday in the Financial Times. Unfortunately, politicians rarely cite their sources. As I wrote back in March, I’m not convinced that the centrality of these kinds of people in the networks Dr Chang et al map means that we should now expect these networks to disintegrate; the inertia of the networks makes it likely that new fixers can slot right in, I fear. I hope I’m wrong, though.
Sticking with the economy, there was an interesting little data-driven article in Tuesday’s Kommersant, reporting that foreign-made goods were actually increasing their share of Russian consumer markets, despite dramatically falling import volumes and overall levels of consumption. While the article doesn’t say it in so many words (and, like so many articles in Russian newspapers on the Russian economy these days, is completely devoid of commentary), the upshot is clear enough: whatever the Russian government might be telling you about import substitution, Russia’s wartime economy has consumers paying considerably more for considerably less.
Turning to the academic literature, Maxim Alyukov, a post-doctoral researcher at the King’s Russia Institute, has an excellent new article out in Political Communication, on how Russian citizens interpret the messages they receive from the state. The problem, he finds, is not that Russians are overly credulous of the propaganda they are fed; in fact, most Russians expect the media to be biased, including state-run media, and are skeptical of what it tells them. But moving some distance away from what the state wants them to believe does not guarantee that they are moving closer to the truth.
In a related vein, I missed an interview in late March in Novaya gazeta Europe with Natalia Forrat, a sociologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Michigan. Skip over the headline about how the Russian state is like an abusive parent (it’s an interesting metaphor, but the least interesting part of the interview), and stay for the deep dive into Natalia’s extensive research on how Russians in different parts of the country relate to the state. There is much more diversity than the conventional wisdom would lead you to believe.
Finally, the Russian political scientist and activist Sergei Ryzhenkov has a seminal article in the latest issue of the venerable Russian intellectual journal Neprikosnovennyi zapas, which I do not recommend you read this weekend. Save it for a day you don’t mind ruining, because it’s tough going — but absolutely worth your while. After reminding us of the challenges faced by personalized autocratic regimes around the world and through history, he hones in on one core tendency: over time, they lose the ability to innovate, locking themselves into path-dependent trajectories of political degradation. With this in mind, he re-charts Russia’s political evolution under Putin and shows how the full-scale war in Ukraine is the logical outcome of a series of decisions made year after year. It is hard to argue with his vision of what comes next.
What I’m listening to
The thought of sitting still while time goes haywire brought me — where else? — back the long lockdowns of pandemic-era Britain, and to Ewan Bleach. Every Sunday night (if memory serves), week after week, Ewan would get online and live-stream a one-man jazz request show, singing, playing piano, guitar, clarinet, saxophone, and often all of the above at the same time. It was one of the few things that got me through, particularly on the longer nights of the year.
I couldn’t find any of those old streams, unfortunately, but here’s a taste. (For another, watch him play two clarinets at the same time.)