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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
11 December 2022: Reckonings, plus texts and tunes
Perched on the side of the Leningrad highway — the road that led to Sheremetevo International Airport, to St. Petersburg and to Finland — the Mega mall was always a bit more than just a mall. Opened in 2002 and built around Russia’s first Ikea, which had opened on the same spot two years earlier, Mega was the key piece of infrastructure that first made it possible for Muscovites to try to transform their town into a normal European city, complete with family-friendly public spaces and the debatable but irresistible joys of flat-pack furniture.
Mega would go on to become the prototype for countless more shopping centers, first around the city, then around the country. Ikea was joined by the German chain OBI, which helped transform DIY in Russia from a necessity into an aspiration. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine earlier this year did what years of corruption could not: it sent Ikea (flat-)packing for the border. And on Friday, the original OBI went up in flames.
If you think it’s just me waxing poetic about a shopping mall, think again. I only found out about it because Ellen Barry, the renowned former Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, tweeted about it. And Ellen only tweeted about it because Konstantin Sonin, the renowned economist, tweeted about it first. I’m not sure whether the conflagration is symbolic or emblematic or karmic — but it’s definitely something.
What I’m thinking about
I poked a hornet’s nest earlier this week, with a piece for CEPA on the scandal surrounding the Russian oppositional online television channel Dozhd (TV Rain), whose license was revoked on Tuesday by authorities in Latvia, where the channel was reconstituted after fleeing Russia in the early days of the war. I won’t rehash the details of the case — or of my own argument — here; you can find that in my CEPA piece, if you’re interested. But while the idea of shuttering one of Russia’s most powerful anti-war and anti-Putin voices seems anathema to me, the fact remains that there are powerful feelings on the other side of the argument, and these feelings ought to be taken seriously.
Dozhd, in these counter-arguments, stands in for Russia’s pro-democratic opposition. (I’m avoiding the word liberal here on purpose; it means too many different things to too many different people, and in any case is not an encompassing descriptor for the Russian opposition as such.) As such, the charges leveled against Dozhd stand in for the sense among many in the West that even these anti-Kremlin voices — all of whom have spoken out against the war — are not sufficiently robust and consistent in their rejection of Russian nationalism and imperialism, and that they too often put their own grievances against Putin ahead of those of Ukrainians. They may be, some have argued, too worried about Russians dying in this war, and not worried enough about Ukrainians dying.
At the heart of this critique of Dozhd and others lies an accusation against Russian society more broadly: a society that is believed, by the proponents of this approach, to have assimilated imperialist and nationalist ideas, and thus to share Vladimir Putin’s convictions when it comes to Ukraine. Any attempt to keep traction with such people — and it was an attempt to do just that, which got Dozhd into trouble — is thus seen as a sop to the very ideas that led Russia into a genocidal war against Ukraine.
I don’t agree with this argument, but I can’t dismiss it out of hand. I know of no serious analyst who would argue that ideas of nationalism and empire — both latent and explicit — are not present to a problematic degree in Russia. They clearly are. And the argument made recently by Russian opposition politician Leonid Gozman that Russian popular imperialism is not wholly different from the kind found in many post-imperial powers rings false: it is Russia that is at war with its neighbor right now, and the failings of other societies are no excuse for Russia’s own.
It seems clear, then, that the idea that Russia’s conquest and subjugation of Ukraine — including the idea of the eradication of Ukrainianness from the world — has a receptive audience in Russia. But is that the same thing as saying that Russians support the war because they harbor nationalist and imperialist ideas?
With that question in mind, it’s worth taking a look at a tranche of data released this week by Russian Field, an independent polling consortium. On the face of it, the numbers do not make for happy reading:
68 percent of respondents believe the country is headed in the right direction, versus only 20 percent who believe Russia is going in the wrong direction;
50 percent of respondents believe the war is going well, versus only 33 percent who believe it is going poorly;
74 percent of respondents support the annexation of Ukrainian territory, versus only 17 percent who do not.
But dig a little deeper, and the picture begins to shift. Some 49 percent of respondents — roughly the same number who believe the war is going well — said they support the decision to abandon Kherson, despite the fact that it served as rather clear evidence that the war was not, in fact, going well. What’s more, when asked what they would do if they could go back in time to February, only 33 percent of respondents said they would launch the war anyway, knowing what they know now. Fully 51 percent said they would not. And ideas on what to do now are evenly split: 45 percent support continuing the war, while 44 percent favor peace talks.
While I don’t have the raw data I would need to do a deeper analysis, the implications here are, I think, clear enough: these survey responses may reflect a great many things, but they do not reflect a population overwhelmingly or even predominantly motivated by ideology of any kind. Rather, we see people by and large supporting whatever they take to be the Kremlin’s policy — not necessarily because they believe in it, but because it is socially important to them to be part of the social consensus. Indeed, this comports with something I wrote about way back in April: When looking at opinion polls in Russia, we should see them as reflective not of the social consensus, but of what people believe to be the social consensus.
Thus, any question that asks about sentiment regarding policies known to be pursued by the state provokes a strong positive response, cutting across most socio-economic and socio-demographic sub-groups. Where the question does not allow respondents to evaluate where the social consensus might be, we see much greater diversity of response. Perhaps the most striking evidence of this phenomenon comes from two hypothetical question. In the first, when asked whether they would support a new offensive against Kyiv if Putin orders it, 58 percent said yes. But when asked whether they would support negotiations if Putin ordered them, fully 70 percent said yes.
In other words, the bulk of respondents seem to be prepared to support just about anything Putin does — for reasons having largely to do with the high value placed on social consensus. But when given the freedom to choose peace over war without sacrificing their relationships with the compatriots, they are more likely to do so. In this context, then, Putin’s greatest ally is, as many of Dozhd’s critics argue, a social consensus that, at the very least, tolerates imperialism. It is the imperialism, however, that is fed by the importance many Russians place on being part of the consensus, rather than the consensus being driven by a pervasive imperialist ideology.
Dozhd and the other independent Russian journalists now operating mainly from exile know this intuitively, which is why they focus so much on building persuadable audiences. So, too, do Russian activists, like Ilya Yashin, who was sentenced this week to 8 1/2 years in prison for telling the truth about the war crimes committed in the name of Russia’s citizens. In his closing remarks to the court, Yashin called for a new kind of social consensus:
Please do not fall into despair and do not forget that this is our country. She is worth fighting for. Be brave, do not back down in the face of evil, and resist. Stand up for your street, for your cities. But most importantly, stand up for one another. There are many more of us than it seems, and together we are tremendously powerful. … Believe me, Russia will be free and happy.
What I’m reading
There was a lot going on this week, but two human-interest stories in particular caught my eye this week — both having to do with young Russians who dare to break with the social consensus in favor of the war, and the consequences they face. The first is actually a month old, but I only saw it now: it’s the story of Alexei Korelin, a student at Nizhny Novgorod State University, who published videos and other online content against the war. First he was hounded by his university, then by the FSB. When he refused to back down, Korelin was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where he endured what I can only describe as a form of torture. His story — like that of others in Nizhny Novgorod — is chilling.
The other story, published by Kholod, is about a much younger student, who may not even have intended to protest agains the war. Alexander Kulikov is a seventh-grader at a lycée in Kostomuksha, a town of about 30,000 people in Karelia, not far from the Finnish border. Alexander made the mistake of wearing to class a sweatshirt decorated with the American flag. His biology teacher made him sit with his back to the blackboard. His father, Alexei, demanded an apology, which both the teacher and the school have refused to give. Refusing to back down, Alexei Kulikov has been subjected to public derision — not for speaking out against the war, but for speaking out in defense of his son.
Elsewhere, I was struck by Julia Davis’s Monday summary of the hellscape that is Russian TV talkshows and wanted to push back a bit — not because I think Davis got the facts wrong, but because of a difference in interpretation. Davis is undoubtedly correct that there is a rising tide of talking heads warning that, unless things change, they are all headed for war crimes trials in the Hague. She is also correct that this rhetoric is sounding increasingly desperate — unhinged, even. But where Davis sees this as an SOS sent to the Kremlin, I tend to think the intended audience is the broader Russian public: When Margarita Simonyan, Olga Skabeeva, Vladimir Soloviev and other propagandists shout that “we are all headed for the Hague”, ordinary Russians are meant to understand themselves as part of that we, and thus to believe that the only way they themselves will remain free is if Russia fights and wins. This isn, then, about trying to convince Putin to keep fighting. It’s about trying to convince ordinary Russians to give Putin the political space to keep fighting.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give an enthusiastic shout-out to two new colleagues at CEPA, both of whom joined us as part of our Democracy Fellowship program. They are Elina Beketova, a Ukrainian journalist who just launched “Behind the Lines”, a new monitoring project focusing on developments in Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territories; and Ivan Fomin, a Russian political scientist focusing on ideology, who devoted his inaugural CEPA piece to the futility of Putin’s latest anti-LGBT+ crusade. Please give them both a warm welcome and keep an eye out for their work!
What I’m listening to
I don’t often post Russian music here — I don’t listen to it these days as much as I used to — but this one is worth it. Длится февраль, which translates (roughly) to “February won’t end”, is the new album from the Russian hip-hop artist Vladi. (Hat tip to Ilya Yablokov for bringing the track to my attention.) Think Green Day’s When September Ends, but longer, with a sharper edge and less obfuscatory metaphor (and rapped, of course).