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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
21 May 2023: Revisiting political contingency, plus texts and tunes
May I, dear reader, be allowed to toot my own horn for a moment?
I was struck this week by the news — coming first from Paris and London, and later from Washington — that major Western powers would start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s and other NATO jets, in an effort to prepare Ukraine for further phases of the war, to speed the eventual delivery and uptake of aircraft that had previously been off the table, and to communicate to Moscow that the West remained very much committed to a Ukrainian victory.
The reason I was struck, apart from the fact that I take this to be good news and good policy, is that on 16 March, Alina Polyakova wrote the following in the pages of Foreign Affairs, with specific references to F-16s and other aircraft:
Unfortunately, the incremental pace with which arms have been provided, and the very public deliberations over which arms to provide and when, has given the Russian military time to adjust and learn. Flipping that approach on its head would see the West make an immediate and open-ended commitment to giving Ukraine whatever it needs to win, even if not all of those arms can be delivered today. The transatlantic alliance should take a cue from the United Kingdom and begin training Ukrainian forces now to use the full range of weaponry the West can provide—but that should be just the beginning. In the immediate term, the West should make a credible commitment now to providing Ukraine with all feasible military support in the shortest time frame possible.
Now, I am under no illusion that this article had any discernible impact on the policy deliberations in any Western capital. At best, is likely contributed to an emerging consensus. It is a nice feeling, however, both to have been ahead of the curve, and to know that policymakers eventually came to the same conclusion.
What I’m thinking about
In theory, this newsletter is published every Saturday morning at 8:30am London time. Occasionally it is published on Sunday instead — usually because my schedule towards the end of the week has prevented me from whipping it into shape. This Sunday edition, however, is an exception: I could have published this edition on Saturday morning, but it would have been a mistake.
This Saturday, you see, was a particularly auspicious day for thinking.
I had the opportunity this Saturday to take part in two academic panels discussing two excellent and highly recommended new books: Jade McGlynn’s Russia’s War, and Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s Revolution and Dictatorship. Both books are remarkable works by remarkable scholars, unusually readable, erudite but not scholastic, reflecting both a deep feel for the field and an extraordinary ability to tell complex and nuanced stories. They also speak to one another in ways I had not anticipated until engaging with them and their authors in quick succession over an afternoon in New York.
In Russia’s War, Jade — a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London — does more than I think any other scholar debate to decapitate what I once called “the zombie ‘debate’ about the degree to which Russians really support their country’s war on Ukraine.” In the process, she tilts against what she sees as “a tendency in Western thinking to see people living in autocracies as heroes or villains, a binary that overlooks the corrosive nature of fear and how it encourages people to justify their actions.” She then spends most of the book examining the extraordinary lengths to which Russians to go justify the war being fought in their name, and the ways in which the Russian state encourages and helps them to do so. Switching back and forth between the content of Russian propaganda and the interviews she elicits from ordinary Russians, Jade writes:
The sheer range of narratives is suggestive of how most Russians articulate and understand the war in their own way, rather than just following a strict pre-written government line. That is where the Russian government excels in its storytelling: it provides the characters and plot lines but you can arrange them how you like, focus on one story over another, recasting characters.
This is an excellent and important observation. To borrow a term from another book, the legitimacy of Russia’s war is co-constructed from both above and below. But citizens’ participation in this process does not occur in a vacuum. Importantly, the rearrangement of characters and plot lines is not a purely individual pursuit: it is done together with others, in Telegram channels and at kitchen tables and in myriad other social settings. And yet what Jade finds in her interviews suggests that the stories Russians are weaving out of and around this war are kept at a kind of distance from their own lives. Again, she writes:
Of the almost sixty interviews I conducted for this book, a discussion with a Russian friend from a normal middle-class Moscow family summed up the complexity for me. In his view, for most Russians, it is natural to ‘care more about a Pushkin statue than a dead Ukrainian child. My parents would say as much even though they don’t really engage with the war — such things help them to accept the war, it is like an attack on their very being.’
The sorts of responses Jade finds (and she is not alone) — which seem so highly performative, with scripts adapted from material provided by the state — feel less like responses to the war itself, and more like responses to being asked about the war. They may be, in a way, defense mechanisms, and thus what state propaganda is giving Russians is not reasons to support the war, but the means to see off challenges to their own inertia, whether those challenges arise from within or without. Seen this way, the propaganda is a tool Russians are able to use to prevent the war from intruding into their moral and emotional lives.
For those Russians who do allow the war into their moral and emotional lives and find it repulsive, there are choices to be made. Western observers tend to fetishize protest, pretending that protest is entirely coincident with resistance, and thus that the absence of protest equates to the absence of resistance. While it may be true that there is not much resistance, the presence of protest itself would not necessarily equate to the presence of real resistance. That said, Russian history knows at least two modes of genuine resistance: one that is outward facing, trying to undermine the ability of the state to achieve its material ends; and another that is inward facing, trying to create internal spaces of moral sovereignty and thus undermining the ability of the state to achieve its psychological ends. Ever since the authorities crushed the initial anti-war protests of February and March 2022, most Russians who oppose the war seem to have gravitated toward the latter mode, sparking criticism from some quarters that they are too readily eschewing the possibility of outward-facing resistance.
If all of these interpretations are broadly sound, then the process that leads nominally “pro-war” Russians to need bulwarks agains the war’s moral intrusion is likely to be the same process that leads nominally “anti-war” Russians to opt for moral resistance over practical resistance: the emotional and psychological domination of the state. That’s where Steven and Lucan’s book comes in.
In a nutshell, the argument of Revolution and Dictatorship is that the social experience of violent revolution strengthens the internal bonds within the ruling elite and weakens the bonds of members of that elite with non-ruling constituencies. Combined with the fact that violent and transformative revolution eliminates the political infrastructure of many of those non-ruling constituencies, and given the intrinsic links between violent revolutionary regimes and the post-revolutionary armed forces, this means that victorious and coherent revolutionary regimes are unusually well prepared to weather the challenges of persistence. Steven and Lucan, political scientists at Harvard University and the University of Toronto, respectively, combine statistical analysis and careful histories of 20th-century revolutionary autocracies to make a very compelling case.
One question the book left me with, however, is about the balance between the material side of things, and the psychological. On the one hand, we have the tangible balance of power: all of the force and physical coercion the state can bring to bear, the resources at its disposal, and so on. On the other, we have the intangible sense of empowerment (and, among the state’s opponents, disempowerment). Given how frequently we are surprised by the collapse of seemingly powerful regimes, and by the appearance of fissures where there had appeared to be none, I tend to privilege the latter when it comes to regime durability.
Back in August 2022, I wrote in this newsletter about two sociological and social-psychological perspectives on these senses of empowerment and disempowerment. One was Ivan Ermakoff’s work on the theory of contingency, as elites respond emotionally to events that are materially indeterminate — and, indeed, it is the emotional force of their responses that eventually make those events very determinate indeed. The other is Randall Collins’s phenomenology of violent conflict, the outcomes of which are produced not by physical domination, but by emotional domination. (This is, in fact, much more complex than I’m letting on. See the August newsletter for more detail, including links to even more detail than that.)
Importing Ermakoff and Collins into Levitsky and Way leads to the proposition, I think, that durable authoritarian regimes, in addition to having more cohesive elites, better control over the armed forces and a simpler competitive landscape, are also somehow better equipped to manage the emotions of contingency. If we want to understand the future of Russian politics, then, we should perhaps spend less time thinking about the balance of power in the Kremlin or on the street, and more time thinking about the balance of power around the proverbial kitchen tables where Russians’ emotional responses to their political surroundings take shape.
What I’m reading
As though the two books I just put on your bedside table weren’t enough for this week — and Steven and Lucan’s book is nearly 700 pages long, so get cracking! — there are plenty more must-reads for the week, I’m afraid.
Sticking with the theme of emotions, contingency and support for the war, two important (if depressing) long-reads shed further light on the state of Russian hearts and minds. In the first, Novaya vkladka correspondent Yakov Bykov reports from some of Russia’s most deprived communities, along the eastern Siberian border with China, where residents seemingly gladly offer up their meagre earnings and even their lives in service of the war. The second is an unsigned report in Verstka on how the wives and daughters of men serving in the war justify both the conflict and the costs it imposes on their families. While a sense of performative patriotism rears its head in both stories — and more in the former than in the latter — the overriding emotions seem to be exhaustion and resignation. Take that for whatever it may be worth.
In a related story, iStories dug up data from a government-sponsored survey of Russian university students, which will not have made the government terribly happy. We already knew, of course, that young Russians were the most likely to oppose the war, but that’s not really the issue here. Neither is the fact that 44% of respondents said that the best word to describe events in Russia is “crisis”, 32% said “decline”, and 25% said “degradation.” For my money, at least, the real problem for the Kremlin is that 69% of respondents said that the Russian government should focus primarily on the economy and quality of life, versus only 13% who said it should focus on strengthening the state and the military, and foreign affairs. It turns out that one side effect of trying to insulate most ordinary Russians from the war is that most ordinary Russians care about things other than the war. Go figure.
In other news, in yet another step apparently designed to make Russians nervous about all things foreign, the government appears to be preparing to punish Russians not just for being “foreign agents”, but for helping those designated as “foreign agents”, even if such help was inadvertent. In practice, this will likely mean that if a “foreign agent” does something forbidden to them (delivering a lecture, for example, or publishing a book), anyone even tangentially associated with that activity (such as a university administrator or a bookseller) could be liable for misdemeanor prosecution. It is hard to interpret this as anything other than yet another attempt to create mistrust, atomization and isolation.
Finally, in the ‘know your adversary’ rubric, it is worth taking a look at an essay published on 18 May by Ivan Timofeev, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, a government-affiliated foreign policy think tank in Moscow. Timofeev, for what it may be worth, was once among the most reasonable, thoughtful and intellectually honest members of the loyal (if sometimes mildly oppositional) Russian foreign policy establishment. His essay — extolling (in a manner of speaking) Russia’s turn towards a vision of itself as a separate “civilization”, locked into existential conflict with the West — is long and detailed and much less than that of which Ivan is capable. I have a hard time believing that he doesn’t understand exactly how little of what he’s saying makes sense. To me, at least, his embrace of Russia’s new formal definition of itself not as a nation-state, but as a “state-civilization”, is begrudging. But the fact that he felt compelled to write this essay in the first place provides yet more evidence of the Kremlin’s emotional dominance.
What I’m listening to
I’m in New York this weekend. New York is jazz. And jazz is Cannonball Adderley.