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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
14 January 2023: The causes of things, plus texts and tunes
My week in one Tweet:
I hope your week has been full of better choices than mine!
What I’m thinking about
Sometime in 2015 — maybe two or three months after the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov — I was on a panel at Columbia University in New York, and an audience member asked me my interpretation of Nemtsov’s murder. (Apologies if you’ve heard me tell this story before, but it’s been on my vaccine-addled mind all week.)
Anyway, back to the story: I ran through a handful of scenarios. It’s possible, I said, that he was killed on Vladimir Putin’s orders. Or it’s possible he was killed on the orders of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, or some other influential figure. Or it’s possible that he was killed ‘entrepreneurially’ by someone who thought — rightly or wrongly — that it would make the Kremlin (or Kadyrov or someone else) happy. The point, I argued, is that we fundamentally don’t know, but we do know that it’s a bad sign either way.
It wasn’t the most profound point I’ve ever made, and after the talk, the gentleman who had asked the question — a non-academic Russian émigré — came up to me to tell me as much.
“That,” he said, “was an answer only an academic could give.”
What he meant, of course, was that the distinction between those three scenarios only carried a difference if you happen to have the luxury — as I do — of entertaining uncertainty for the purposes of seeking causal clarity. That theoretically valuable uncertainty was a luxury not afforded to Nemtsov, or to anyone else who dared to challenge the Kremlin in ways big or small in Russia in 2015, or in 2023.
I was reminded of that encounter in New York when I read this week the story of Olesia Krivtsova, a 19-year-old student in Arkhangelsk. After posting messages on social media about the Ukrainian attack on Russia’s bridge to Crimea, her classmates turned her in to the police. When the FSB came to arrest her, they were carrying a sledgehammer — a gift, they said, from PMC Wagner, the mercenary group that infamously used a sledgehammer to murder a deserter. Krivtsova is now facing 10 years in prison on charges of terrorism and extremism.
Or when I read this week an interview with Alexandra Zapolskaya, the wife of Moscow State University maths professor and local opposition politician Mikhail Lobanov who was beaten by the police during his arrest for speaking out against the war — photos of which were later posted, by the police, on the Internet. He, too, is facing a lengthy sentence after his current 15-day detention expires.
Or when I remember the story of the anti-war poet Artyom Kamardin, who was raped by the police with a dumbbell in his own apartment, while his girlfriend, Alexandra Popova, was being tortured in the next room. His neighbor, another activist by the name of Alexander Meniukov, was beaten for good measure. Again, police posted videos on the Internet. I could go on.
I can sit here, as I write this, and tell you a multiplicity of stories. I can tell you a story in which Olesia Krivtsova’s classmates are to blame for her plight, and another one in which they lack free will. I can tell a story in which the police who tortured Alexander Lobanov and Atryom Kamardin and Alexandra Popova put videos of the results online because they were ordered to, and another in which they came up with that idea all on their own. I can tell a story in which the Kremlin is orchestrating all of this, and another in which it is riding a tsunami of violence it created but can no longer hope to control.
But those are all stories only an academic can tell. What difference does it make to Krivtsova and Lobanov, to Kamardin and Popova, where the causal buck stops? Will it make them safer or give them solace? Doubtful. Might these kinds of stories have stopped people in the West — after Nemtsov was murdered in 2015 or, better yet, after Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006 — from recognizing the brutality of Putin’s regime and treating it accordingly? Almost certainly. And so, in a very real sense, the habit of telling these kinds of stories is more than useless: to the extent that it robs us of clarity and blurs moral judgment, it is downright deadly.
Rerum cognoscere causas reads the motto on the building where I got my PhD: to know the causes of things. That is certainly right. But what do we do when the causes of things are not knowable? As academics, we stop, we think, and we keep looking: incremental progress is the name of our game. And that, in many ways, is right, too. On a fundamental level, it is important to know how the police came to leak those images, and why those university students in Arkhangelsk turned on their own classmate.
But just as it is a mistake to jump to facile conclusions in the absence of sufficient evidence, it is equally a mistake, I think, to allow ourselves to be morally and politically paralyzed in the absence of clarity. The things we do not know should not obscure the things we do know. Even if we do not know how these processes of repression and violence are functioning in Russia, we know where they began. And even though we cannot predict the future in detail, we know how they can end.
The solution to this dilemma, I would argue, is analytical empathy. I’ve written about empathy as an academic practice before, in a slightly different context, way back in August of 2022, but the point from back then stands: we gain understanding when we recognize the reality that other people perceive. How much clearer does the world become when we put ourselves in Olesia Krivtsova’s shoes, or in Artyom Kamardin’s? What answers emerge, and what questions fade into irrelevance?
Let’s think about that for a while.
What I’m reading
I found myself recently in a briefing for an official of a government to remain unnamed, attended by similarly anonymous academics and thinktankers, for a wide-ranging discussion of a large, mostly northern country that is currently at war. One of the first speakers mentioned that, in his view, said country’s incumbent president is likely to secure his political future among the elites and masses alike “without breaking a sweat”. When it was my turn, I said that I agreed with that. I also said, though, that said president has a habit of breaking a sweat even if, seen from the space outside his cosmetically expanded cranium, it might seem that he should not.
With that in mind, let’s turn to this week’s reading list.
First, on the elite side of things, there was an intriguing FT report I came across this week — but which was actually published way back on 20 December — about the seizure of a Sochi hotel complex owned (until being seized) by Oleg Deripaska. (New Year’s Resolution #1: Don’t call them oligarchs anymore!) The $1 billion complex, which has evidently been handed over to a rather odd entity: a company also designated as a ‘federal territory’, which means it functions as a government, but which is owned by a non-profit foundation that belongs to Sergei Roldugin, a cellist, alleged money launderer and godfather to one of Putin’s daughters.
As the FT’s Max Seddon and Polina Ivanova report:
The legal dispute, following an initial claim brought by a science and educational hub under Putin’s patronage, predates the invasion and is not ostensibly linked to Deripaska’s guarded criticism of the war, which he has called “madness”.
But the court order to seize the $1bn Imeretinskiy hotel complex and marina in Sochi came after the Kremlin asked Deripaska to stop criticising the war, according to two people familiar with the matter.
“The Kremlin asked him to calm down,” said one person close to Deripaska.
We have not seen very much of this kind of things since the war began. I’m not the closest elite watcher out there, but I’m struggling at the moment (maybe it’s the vaccines) to come up with another case since the war began of a demonstrative confiscation of this size. A billion-dollar property is significant, and taking it away from a prominent member of the elite — and putting it in what amounts to Putin’s own pocket — seems calculated to send a signal. That it was perpetrated against someone whose disloyalty seems fairly minor only strengthens that signal. Sending a signal, in turn, suggests that the Kremlin has an intended recipient (other than Deripaska). Hence, I think, the faint odor of sweat.
the more visible elite fissure is — as everyone and their grandmother has been discussing — the one between the military brass and Evgeny Prigozhin, he of the mercenary group PMC Wagner. As you almost certainly already know, Prigozhin took umbrage at the failure of the Ministry of Defense to give Wagner due credit for the (evident) capture of Soledar.
“They’re constantly trying to steal our victories,” Prigozhin said.
Here, though, the task for Putin is different than it is with the likes of Deripaska. Among the military, paramilitary and pseudomilitary brass, Putin’s not concerned so much about defection, as about competition. Prigozhin may or may not be concerned about winning victories on the battlefield. He is certainly, however, concerned about getting credit for those victories, because that credit underpins the flow of money his way, both from the state, and from those who may want to curry favor. In other words, the war is succumbing to the same rent-seeking logic that has governed most of the rest of the Russian political economy since the end of the Soviet Union. That’s certainly a game Putin knows how to play, but the confluence of a rent war and a shooting war is potentially fraught.
Turning to the masses, we have — as always since this war began (and, in fact, well before) — conflicting data. On the one hand, there is a long interview in Spiegel with Lev Gudkov, the academic director of the Levada Center, Russia’s highest quality independent polling agency. Gudkov has never been the type to see glasses half full, but the picture he paints now is unusually bleak:
The war has exposed mechanisms in society that have existed since Soviet times. Out of habit, people identify with the state and adopt its rhetoric about their fatherland's struggle against fascism and Nazism, just like they did in Soviet times, to justify the situation. It's all been present in people's minds for quite some time, and propaganda has activated these patterns. They block out any compassion and empathy for what is happening in Ukraine. Those feelings only apply their own dead and wounded soldiers, "our men."
That inward-looking orientation, however, cuts both ways. As Gudkov notes, among retirement-age Russians, some 79 percent support the war, compared to “only” 59 percent of 18-24 year olds. However, some 65 percent of younger respondents favor stopping the war and beginning negotiations, a discrepancy Gudkov interprets — and I tend to agree — as stemming less from the progressiveness of youth, and more from the fact that young people are more likely to have to fight in the war, the longer it lasts. Thus, while some opposition to the war in Russia is principled, at least some of it is likely to be selfish. Whether you see that as a good or bad thing is up to you.
Another interesting data point comes from Kyle Marquardt, a political scientist at the University of Bergen. In a memo for PONARS, Kyle publishes the first good data I’ve seen on the opinions of ethno-confessional minorities in Russia on the war — specifically, representatives of the titular ethnicities of Tatarstan and Buryatia. Ethnic Buryats, who have been particularly hard hit by the war, are 19 percentage points less supportive of Putin and 9 percentage points less supportive of the war than ethnic Russians living in the same region. The picture in Tatarstan is reversed: ethnic tatars are 7 percentage points behind ethnic Russians on support for Putin, and 19 percentage point behind Russians on support for the war. We have long suspected Russia’s ethnic and religious minorities might feel differently about the war than Slavic citizens; it’s nice to have some data to back up that supposition.
What I’m listening to
No words this week. Just this, from Daniel Pioro.