Why rhetoric about Russians’ authoritarian proclivities and nonresistance to the war is off the mark
November 29, 2022
  • Karine Clément
    Sociologist, Associate researcher et the CERCEC (Centre for Russian, Caucasian and Central European Studies) EHEES, Paris
Karine Clément explains why there is no broad-based resistance to the war in Russia. Based on her years researching Russian perceptions, she claims that the most widespread view on the war among the working classes is cold skepticism and distrust. 
What struck me in the debates around the war in Ukraine is the absence of the Russian people. Of course, the Ukrainians are the victims and must be at the focus of our attention. However, it is unlikely that the war will stop without involvement of the Russian people.

And where are the Russian people from standpoint of the Western business, intellectual and political elites? They are basically where they are for Putin – nowhere. For Putin, they count for nothing, are deprived of any agency, infinitely manipulable, cannon fodder. For the Western elites, they are a grey mass of “Putinists,” an authoritarian and servile people. That view didn’t start with the war on Ukraine. It has been years since the Russian people disappeared from our political radar, since they became part of the “normal,” “democratic” and “liberal” world after collapse of the Soviet Union.

What is "democracy” to ordinary Russians?

Since the Russian people weren’t properly democratic, socialized and educated during their time under the authoritarian communist regime, it was considered normal that “democracy” came to ordinary Russians as an empty word, with no power to enable them to fight for their rights.

The fact that “democracy” came to ordinary Russians alongside poverty, nonpayment of wages and pensions, the loss of savings, precarity, economic breakdown, the criminal privatization of national wealth and kleptocratic capitalism – this was also seen as normal since the communist system transformed the Russians into a socially and economically disabled people, dependent on the state, irrational and lazy.
However, considering what they came through, the Russian people have every reason to remain passive amid another state breakdown or – in other words – to save oneself and relatives instead of struggling collectively against a regime that has proved that it takes them for nothing and now is sending them to kill and be killed for reasons far from clear and even less acceptable.

In these circumstances, what we should focus on is rather the reluctance shown by so many Russians to participate in or support the war being fought in their name: they are fleeing the country, or – when mobilized – refusing to fight or protesting poor living conditions; they are hiding, campaigning, setting recruitment offices on fire and sabotaging railways, spreading alternative information on social media, opposing coercive mobilization, helping Ukrainian refugees. Maybe the majority isn’t resisting the war, but they aren’t actively supporting it either. When Putin launched his “special military operation,” there was no enthusiasm or patriotic consolidation, no rally ‘round the flag or the leader' – as it was just after the annexation of Crimea, which was seen by the majority as Russian sovereignty being recovered vis-à-vis the West.
"Currently, what people are doing the most is distancing themselves from the war – ignoring the news and propaganda, putting trust in neither Kremlin rhetoric nor other reports about the war."
This is especially true for the less well-off, who are among the least supportive of the war. I consider necessary a socially situated approach when looking at attitudes toward the nation or the state. Sadly, very little research has been done on the working classes, which are the largest social group in Russia if we include not just blue-collar workers, but also low-paid workers, pensioners, many residents of remote and poor regions, and even many small businesspeople or self-employed. As my last field research showed, all these different people share the same social consciousness of being part of the “poor,” “simple,” “working” people contesting social injustice and appropriation of the national wealth by the oligarchs and the powerful. Since there is almost no empirical material available on the working classes – moreover during wartime – I have to rely on my pre-war materials from my last field research (2016-18) across different regions and social classes (237 interviews and some ethnographic observations in six regions. For more details, see my publications here and here), complemented by some pieces and observations by colleagues (see Jeremy Morris’s blog or PS Lab telegram channel, and surveys done by ExtremeScan).
Tent city during the landfill protests in Shiyes, Arkhangelsk Region, in June 2019. Photo taken by a protester. Source: Wiki Commons
Most widespread attitude is skepticism and distrust

Based on that material, I would assume that after eight months of caricatural propaganda, a drop in living standards, coercive mobilization, tens of thousands of victims, an obvious mess in the organization and supply of the army, the most widespread attitude toward the war among working classes is cold skepticism and distrust. Opting for ironic distance from and criticism of the powerful – typical of the working class – they don’t want to have anything to do with a war that was imposed on them at their expense. Some volunteered for the army, going for the money the government promised – before the draft. However, considering the huge number of people living in poverty, we should rather wonder why so few took the opportunity to feed their families and repay their loans.

There might be less much public resistance than we would wish, but the key explanation of that is neither authoritarianism, nor servile obedience, since, as my above-cited research has shown, social criticism and rebellious thoughts have been widespread among the Russian working classes in the second half of the 2010s. The one big obstacle for active resistance and open rebellion is the strong disbelief that they have the strength to fight an oligarchic and militarized regime.

I’m not saying that no Russian is nationalistic or imperialistic, or that no Russian has committed war crimes; rather, based on my above-mentioned research, I argue that this is not the majority (I rely here not only on my assumptions based on my previous research, but also on some data collected by Elena Koneva’s team and published on ExtremeScan and Alexei Miniailo’s team and published on Chronicles) and that spreading such a stereotyped picture of the Russian people is not helpful at all if we want to stop the war and help people in Russia to resist. On the contrary, to spur an anti-war movement, it has to be made obvious to the masses that most of the population doesn’t support Putin’s war, that condemning the war isn’t condemning the people, meaning that you can be against the war while being together with the people and for the people.

Nationalist- and imperialist-minded people are most often found on the fringes of the Russian intellectual and cultural space and are now invading the TV screens, feeding state propaganda. They are much more likely to be wealthy or key beneficiaries of the oppressive neoliberal economic system.

People from below generally don’t share nationalist views – they know from their everyday experience what the Kremlin patriotic discourse really is about: “working for kopeks in the name of a state-manipulated sort of patriotism” that takes people for nothing, as one of my interviewées, a female cook from St Petersburg told me a few years before the war. Russian people have never been foolish puppets. They recovered from the shock of the profound and radical socioeconomic transformations of the 1990s. They criticized their government, including Putin. They denounced enormous social inequalities and the oligarchic nature of the regime. They took to the streets to protest on many occasions, mostly over limited or local social issues, but sometimes over wider political issues as well.
"As my research shows, they developed their own sort of patriotism, people-centered and social, based on attachment to the poor and common people."
What they lacked was faith in their power, in the mere possibility that there can be a government for the people by the people. Democracy is an illusion – an empty word in the best case, a deception in the worst. This is what their own history has taught them.

This is one of the reasons why supporting Ukraine should not be presented as a struggle for democracy against evil – it is not a message that Russian society can hear without suspecting hypocrisy. The working classes in particular are convinced that they live in an oligarchic system where their voices and interests don’t count. They are convinced that democracy is hollow everywhere and that the powerful and rich rule the world.

The Russian working classes have learned to fight for their very concrete and local interests. They have proved on many occasions capable of solidarity and self-organization. The problem, in their eyes, is the agenda: is it about fighting so that our lot, that of little people like us, also improves, or will we be, once again, the victims of struggles that are beyond us and whose ins and outs we don’t control? Another problem is the acute distrust felt toward the liberal opposition, as well as elites on all sides, who are perceived as contemptuous and understanding nothing of the real experience of the working classes. Finally, there is also a strong feeling of powerlessness when it comes to issues related to national politics: what can be done in the face of oligarchy, while “they” have the money and police.

The key to any widespread social resistance in Russia is the involvement of the working classes and the confidence that they must develop in their own power. This entails at least listening to them and respecting them as dignified human beings, avoiding the sort of social contempt characteristic of the Russian (and Western) educated classes for decades. No lasting overthrow of the regime or real democratization can ever take place without the support and active participation of the working classes.
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