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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
20 August 2022: A matter of trust, plus texts and tunes (but not that one)
For someone who does what I do — trying to understand push and pull of Russian society, the ways it is structured by and gives structure to power — the inability to be in Russia presents a challenge. There are a million reasons why I can’t go to Russia right now, and a million more why I shouldn’t. Nevertheless, from the wilds of eastern North Carolina I find my mind wandering to Moscow more and more, wondering what I’m missing as an analyst, and what I’m missing as a human being; Moscow was, after all, my home for the better part of 13 years.
Maybe that’s why I was particularly struck by Christian Esch’s longish read in Der Spiegel (in English, mercifully) — less for his analysis, which you can agree or disagree with, than for the sense of a city and a society that are transforming, again, for the umpteenth time in living memory. Most of those transformations — from Brezhnev (with layovers) to Gorbachev, the end of the USSR, the trials of the 90s, the emergence and re-emergence of Putin — have been jarring in one way or another, but they have also allowed for hope. Not this one, Esch writes: “Hope in Russia has … gotten smaller.”
Or maybe it just feels that way?
What I’m thinking about
In all the polemicizing the theorizing about Russian public opinion in recent weeks, I managed to miss this observation from Aleksandar Matovski — or rather, I saw it, then forgot about it, then remembered it again when I read Christian Esch’s essay. Drawing together two datasets from the Levada Center, Matovski, an associate professor of national security at the Naval Postgraduate School, put his finger on an important trend: the divergence between levels of support for Vladimir Putin, and the propensity of Russians to trust him.
Let’s take another look at this graph. Aside from a methodological issue — there approval question is asked much more frequently than the trust question — the first observation is obvious: for most of Putin’s time in power, from 2000 through the middle of 2015, there was a close relationship between trust and approval. Trust and approval rose, fell and stagnated more or less on sync. At some point in late 2015, or maybe in 2016, that relationship began to break down. Large spikes in approval still tended to be associated with large spikes in trust (see late summer 2020, for example, or the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine this year), and drops in approval were accompanied by drops in trust. But whenever approval stagnated, trust declined — as it has in the latter months since the start of the war.
To me, that — the fact that trust falters even when approval remains stable — is the most fascinating part of this chart.
Now, without the ability to dig deeper into Levada’s numbers, it’s impossible to know what’s really going on here, but we can make some educated guesses. Way back in 2011, Dan Treisman showed that Russians (like people most democracies or semi-democracies) to reward or punish their leaders for one of two reasons. Most of the time, he showed, support closely tracked economic performance. Every once in a while, however, both Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, could overcome economic malaise by shifting people’s attention — usually for a short period of time — to foreign policy. In other words, there were at least two logics to Russians’ support for their president: one material, and the other emotional.
Since then, others have added more detail to the same basic observation. Thus, just to pick a few studies, Arturas Rozenas and Denis Stukal have shown how Putin and other autocrats manipulate people’s perception of the economy in order to remain popular, and Treisman has joined with Sergei Guriev to elaborate the related theory of ‘informational autocracy’. Regina Smyth and Irina Soboleva have demonstrated Putin’s ability to create an emotional boost by focusing not on foreign policy, but on emotionally laden issues at home. And Tim Frye, Scott Gehlbach, Kyle Marquardt and Ora John Reuter have shown statistically that for a non-negligible minority of Russians, fear can also motivate expressions of support for Putin.
Indeed, the work that Graeme Robertson and I did to unpack the post-Crimea ‘rally around the flag’ seemed to show the same thing: emotions allowed Putin to detach his support from the country’s flagging economy.
But in Graeme and my study, we saw very clearly how the emotional response to the annexation of Crimea actually changed Russians’ attitudes towards Putin: he went from being broadly but unemotionally supported to being loved and trusted. In other words, it looked less like two competing political logics at work — one material and one emotional — to a more unified logic, in which emotional excitement (what Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’) actually improved people’s sense of material wellbeing. As I wrote last week, the available data seem suggest a similar effect this time around.
But if trust flags even as support remains high, then we may be witnessing a more fundamental shift in the nature of public support for Putin. While emotional surges can still improve people’s wellbeing and thus trust, the ‘normal’ relationship between material performance and political support that Treisman described in 2011 looks like it has broken down.
If that’s the case, and if emotion is not generally able to maintain high levels of trust (except in moments of particular excitement), then what is it that is keeping levels of expressed support so high? Fear, of course, may be part of it, though Levada’s data do not suggest that response rates and patterns have shifted all that much. The more likely answer, I think, is the importance people place on social harmony: if you think support for Putin is the dominant public consensus, and you want to maintain the social relationships you rely on to get through life, then you’re likely to support Putin, even if you don’t actually trust him.
For what it’s worth, that thought is in line with what Graeme and I argue in Putin v the People, but that doesn’t make it right. I’ll keep thinking.
What I’m reading
Most of the week, when I haven’t been reading Germans writing about Russians, I’ve been reading Russians writing (or talking) about the war. If you haven’t already seen it, Andrew Roth and Pjotr Sauer’s profile in The Guardian of the Russian deserter Pavel Filatyev is a must-read — as, evidently, will be Filatyev’s book-length memoir. It provides important insights into things we’re still only beginning to understand: the scale and scope of dysfunction in the relationship between the Russian military brass and their soldiers, and the ways that dysfunction mutates into inhumanity and atrocity.
Even more thought-provoking were two pieces — published in Russian, but that’s what Google Translate is for — by analysts once upon a time firmly entrenched on the liberal flank of Russia’s foreign policy establishment. The first, an interview with Fyodor Lukyanov by an Armenian news agency, most of which is focused on Armenia and the South Caucasus, but part of which deals curiously with the broader context. Lukyanov says:
We can see what kinds of lands Russia is gathering. Because there are now two ways in which this gathering is taking place: one, the Eurasian Economic Union, is a more integrated, interconnected space with orderly norms and rules which, in the main, are developed collegially. And the other is what is happening in the south and east of Ukraine. Having started, I think, it is impossible to stop. We will need to continue to some logical endpoint of territorial integrity. No one is talking about end goals for the operation in part because there aren’t any. Whatever will be will be.
Lukyanov is walking a subtle line here, trying at once to recognize the unproductive and irrational imperialism of the war in Ukraine, without putting himself in outright opposition to the Kremlin. Andrei Kortunov, in a column in Kommersant, tries to square the same circle, but with a different angle of attack. The piece goes on at length about how poorly the war is going for Russia without actually saying that Russia is losing. The Ukrainian army, he says, is not the Afghan military, which capitulated before the fighting began, and Volodymyr Zelensky is not Ashraf Ghani, who fled before the Talaban could reach Kabul. You don’t have to read very deeply between the lines to see what role the Russian army is playing in Kortunov’s fable.
And so when Kortunov writes that it’s time for the West to consider coming to the table — asking whether there is room “for the West to plot a new course towards Russia” — it’s hard not to see the piece as actually intended for an audience in the Kremlin. Now, of course, neither Kortunov nor Lukyanov have any illusions that their pieces will sway Putin or those around him. But both men are savvy and careful and would not be sticking their necks out unless they thought there might be something to be gained. Thus, the fact that they clearly seem to be trying to regain traction is, at the very least, worth noting.
What I’m listening to
Tempting as it might have been to dig into the oldies, Billy Joel has not been part of my soundtrack this week. (Or any week in the past 30 years, really.) Instead, as I’ve rounded out my week at the beach, I’ve needed something more in tune with the contrasts of the landscape out here on Bogue Banks — the million-dollar holiday homes and the encroaching seas, the hum of Ospreys from Camp Lejeune and the Trump flags on every other corner, the seedy strip malls and the sharecropper-shack-turned-latte-bar. (It’s in Swannsboro, if you think I’m joking.)
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