29 September 2022

Russia: Beautiful future or dead end?

Zdes' i seichas ("Here and Now") presenter Valeria Ratnikova interviews sociologist Grigory Yudin.
Screenshot from source.

The lead story on today's Dozhd' ("TV Rain") daily news program was the Russian government's plan to hold a ceremony with Duma legislators and staff tomorrow at 3 p.m. Moscow time to witness the signing of documents annexing four parts of Ukraine to Russia. The official announcement promises an "extended" speech by Vladimir Putin.

The ceremony is to be followed by a celebration and concert on Red Square. Among the details in the newscast were social network posts promising payment for people to participate in the event, along with a plea for help from an immigrant worker, who explained that she was threatened with loss of her job if she didn't show up.

In the meantime, Ukraine's president Zelenskyy has called a meeting of his Security Council for tomorrow, presumably to formulate a response to the announcements from Moscow.

On the newscast, presenter Valeria Ratnikova interviewed sociologist Grigory Yudin concerning social reactions to the mobilization and annexations, starting with a comparison of today's situation with the 2014 annexation of Crimea. She suggested that these annexations might serve as a sort of conditional victory for Putin and a sign of the usefulness of the "special operation." (After all, in 2014, many Russians were happy to have Crimea "returned" to Russia.) Yudin answered that anyone who is paying attention will hardly count the present situation as any kind of victory.

She continued with a question about the effect of these events and campaigns on, for example, Putin's popularity rating. Yudin points out that when people are in shock, it's unrealistic to expect accurate surveys. People will answer, "We didn't do anything wrong, we love Putin, please go away."

Ratnikova turns to another form of social reaction. We see various protests to the mobilization, she says, but nothing on any sort of mass scale. Yudin:

In order for masses of people to go out on the streets, they need to have some idea that things could change. Of course they understand that the cost might be high, they may be put in jail or in the current situation could even perish. (If thousands can be sent to die in Ukraine, they can just as well die right in Russia.) But that's not the main problem. If you're talking about a collective action ... then there must be a clear path from point A to point B. ... Right now there's no understanding about what we will do when we arrive at B. That understanding will happen when new possibilities appear. If the system starts to crack, then, yes, people will see a path from point to point. For the vast majority of the population today, that option isn't there.

Ratnikova asks her question in a different way: we see the young men going to the induction centers, with bands playing and flags waving, with their friends and relatives cheering, or crying as the case may be ... why are so many going there so obediently, so submissively?

Yudin's answer is interesting. "Imagine the table you're sitting behind begins trying to bite you. Your first reaction will be to deny that this could be happening." People cling to the illusion of normalcy as long as possible. "The preservation of the sense of normalcy is paramount. Otherwise, people couldn't function." When people understand that the boundaries of normalcy have been breached, then they might run, hide, or protest. But for most people, that kind of initiative is simply too difficult. They have become too accustomed to things being normal. They'd rather die than take action, much as Dmitry Bykov said in the interview I cited here a few weeks ago.

As for the instigator of all this, Vladimir Putin, what might he be expecting from mobilization and the annexations? Earlier in the newscast, Ratnikova spoke with political scientist Abbas Gallyamov. She asked him about the fumbling nature of the scheduling and rescheduling of all these events, including Putin's appearances. Gallyamov's answer was blunt: these actions have been taken because Putin had no good options, but something had to be done—one bad option or another had to be chosen. A bit later he suggested that Putin himself is confused and uncertain. Furthermore, Ukraine's successes and Russia's failures have made Putin look like a loser, and the more he looks like a loser, the less use he is to other central actors, foreign and domestic. And there are no easy ways out of this dead end. Even nuclear weapons ("the 'I'm not bluffing' bluff" as Ratnikova put it) cannot provide a more favorable outcome.

Women protest in Makhachkala, Dagestan.
Screenshots from source.
To return to Yudin's words about collective action, does it seem that the system is any closer to cracking? It doesn't appear this way at the moment; Putin's resources for maintaining political and social order are overwhelming. The system's guarantee of "normalcy" seemed to hold, for the most part, through the outbreak of war, through the repression of the remaining independent media outlets and harsh prison sentences in several notorious court cases, through rising inflation, and through increased social and economic isolation from most of the rest of the world. 

However, now his tacit covenant with the Russian people ("Leave politics to me, and I'll keep things stable and comfortable") is on the verge of being torn up by the war, and most dramatically by the mobilization—and its brutal implementation in incidents that even government outlets have acknowledged. 

So now, cracks are appearing. Hundreds of thousands of potential conscripts, preceded by a hundred thousand IT specialists (just to choose one group as an example), have left Russia; tens of thousands of soldiers are dead, wounded, or missing in action; and hundreds of thousands more are on their way to Ukraine to "plug the holes" on the front lines. Each of these people leaves behind relatives and friends who have a new understanding of what Putin considers "normal." There is nothing like having a son ripped from his family by conscription or death to make a mom or dad or dear friend lose their illusions and re-evaluate their priorities.

Nor can we expect that the Ukrainians who have been displaced from the occupied Ukrainian territories, or who are still there despite the occupation, will accept a new Russian normal. Not only that; some of their relatives in Russia may have somehow rationalized the situation, but others constitute a witness to the ruthless sundering of their family.

I continue to hope and pray for the beautiful Russia of the future. Sadly, it looks like the path to that future is obscured by the false normalcy of today. That future may only appear after those cracks spread, and the system fails spectacularly, possibly at the cost of many more lives. If the resulting chaos brings another authoritarian regime to power, the cycle may start over again, preempting a new and better outcome for a time; but those hundreds of thousands of creative emigres, and their disillusioned families and friends at home, might prove to be an enormous force for good. A fake normalcy will no longer fool them.

Related, more or less:

The beautiful Russia of the future, part one, part two.

Hall of mirrors.

How to write about Russia, part one, part two, part three.

I ain't no stranger.

To Russia with love.

Russian humor as testimony.

Farida Rustamova and Maxim Tovkaylo: Putin always chooses escalation.

Illia Ponomarenko: Why Putin's "partial" mobilization is "unlikely to change Ukraine's war course."

Two articles from Open Democracy: Volodymyr Artiukh on the future of Russia's Ukraine war; and Olya Romashova on Russia's conscription centers under attack.

White American evangelicalism is shifting to the South.

The God of transformation, not revolution.

Nancy Thomas: when there are too many funerals.

Re-running a Muddy Waters/James Cotton clip that speaks truth to fake normalcy: "You Can't Lose What You Never Had."

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