Why did so many Russia experts get Putin wrong?

May 3, 2022
By Caress Schenk
Caress Schenk on why social sciences’ job is not to predict Putin’s decisions and why it matters to focus on those engaged in the unglamorous work of making sure that glimmers of humanity survive in Russia.
Vladimir Putin, 2022. @Pixabay
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many experts have come out saying “I told you so” outright or reminding us that the signs of Putin’s potential for evil were there all along. This echoes predictions that the invasion of Ukraine was inevitable, which were confidently asserted by military and security experts. Social scientists who study Russia, however, were less certain that a full gruesome war was in the offing. Why did so many of these scholars get it wrong?

This can be explained by three reasons. First, the tools of social science don’t produce predictions in the way that some might think. Second, many social scientists who study Russia focus on things that are not directly related to foreign affairs or elite politics – in other words, there’s more going on in Russia than Putin and his elites. Third, some of the most forward-looking social science approaches engage emotion, and scholars themselves are not immune from epistemological hope. Understanding these issues can help us both explain why we got Putin wrong and come to solutions about what we should do about it moving forward.

The (non) predictive capacity of social science

Social science aims to predict future possibilities based on past scenarios. Even in hard sciences and mathematics, experts predict probabilities, not direct outcomes. Social scientists (e.g. political scientists, sociologists and anthropologists) look at patterns of behavior to understand the realm of possibility. We are often right. We are often wrong. This is because the nature of the things we are predicting is not deterministic. We cannot say with certainty what will happen. We are much better at explaining why things happened after the fact.

Let’s take the example of Putin’s rationality. The need to filter political action through a rationality frame goes hand in hand with the types of predictive aspirations of positivist social sciences – whether Putin’s rationality is security-oriented, imperialist, religious, or simply self-serving, these explanations can only help us understand the underlying logic of his behavior at best. They can help us make sense of why Putin might be acting in a certain way, but they cannot help us understand the ends to which he will go to accomplish his goals. Will he go as far as nuclear war? We cannot predict this. But we can prepare for the range of possibilities that the present might be pointing to. Perhaps Putin has it in him to push the button and destroy everything. Perhaps he always has. But we still don’t know if he actually will. Potential is not the same as realizing that potential.

There is more to Russia than Putin

For many, Russian politics is Putin, the Kremlin and Moscow, in much the same way as the world of nation states and borders has become so engrained as to seem natural. This bias of seeing states as the sum total of their national-level decision makers ignores many of the ways politics varies at the local level, even in authoritarian countries like Russia. In my research area, Russian migration policy, Putin doesn’t play a central role. When Putin speaks on migration policy, he is only rarely an agenda setter. In many cases, he has been a mouthpiece of policies formulated at lower levels in the system. When it comes to policy implementation, while regional leaders say they are constrained by federally-defined policies, practices are much more fractured across the country.
"Research on sub-national
politics more generally in Russia shows a great deal of diversity, meaning Putin’s hold on regional leaders is not uniform."
Ethnographic work on Russia goes even further, uncovering micropolitical processes in a way that even aggregating individual responses through mechanisms like surveys cannot. From everyday nationalism to labor relations, from oil production to health care and property rights, on-the-ground, outside-of-Moscow analyses focus on how political and social life is constituted in the daily lives of Russians, far from the Kremlin and without Putin in the forefront of their minds.

In my research on migration in Russia, I’ve rubbed shoulders with many activists who work tirelessly to provide concrete assistance to a precarious group. Sometimes they are individuals working alone, sometimes they are connected with larger networks, governments or international organizations. While studying institutionalized civil societyand protest behaviors are crucial for understanding political opposition, these approaches often do not capture the scattered actions of individuals who are working to make life better for themselves and those around them. This activism is often in spite of the state and/or in the gaps of the state, but not directly in opposition to it. Putin rarely comes up in conversations with the people that work on this level.

In autocratic settings, political action is not uniformly contentious and often the important spaces of everyday politics become smaller and more routine. Hannah Arendt famously contrasted “action” – something that interrupts the trajectory of history – with “mere behavior,” something that produces more predictable outcomes. However, this type of event or action bias obscures the ways in which routine behaviors are always in a dynamic process of becoming. The practice and reproduction of ways of being in the world, from national identity to social belonging and economic reciprocity, are not static – rather they are processes that cannot be captured in variable-oriented analysis, which looks at discreet moments in time in configurational matrices. In other words, politics is embedded in the everyday. Yet it is not the politics of Putin, but that of who gets what, when and how in schools, businesses, courts, social organizations and family relationships.
The epistemology of hope and its bitter journey

Two resonant studies for understanding the sociopolitical field in Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine are The Red Mirror by Gulnaz Sharafutdinova and Putin v. the People by Sam Greene and Graeme Robertson. Both take seriously the role of emotion in politics. Yet emotion is not limited to our research subjects – it also touches scholars themselves.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, a joke made the rounds that Russia experts were the only area-studies scholars who loved to hate their research area. Many of us have indeed grown cynical over the years as Russia has grown increasingly darker and more restrictive under Putin. But underlying this cynicism is often a frustration that Russia is not realizing its potential. It comes from being committed democrats forced to watch Russia increasingly eschew democratic principles. Those of us who spend our professional lives studying Russia and a great deal of time exploring Russia cannot help but to wish the best for the people we encounter and lament what could have been. Working with activists who find ways to help people in the cracks of the state has always given me hope that there is potential in Russia for care and community to overshadow authoritarianism.

Even short of engaging in activist or militant scholarship, hope changes how we interact with interlocutors, sensitizes us to see things that those who hold their research at arm’s length might miss, and can even impact the knowledge we engage in creating. This is not necessarily bias. Rather it is a commitment to push beyond Hobbesian, Machiavellian, and even Augustinian foundational assumptions and instead embrace a vision focused on how people and governments (even authoritarian ones) can practice care.

What do we do now? Are we complicit?
"Were those of us who held out hope for Russia naïve about Putin? Not necessarily. Perhaps we just believed that despite Putin, there were other things going on in Russia that were and are worth paying attention to."
Photo by Ekaterina Kobzareva, 2022. @Pexels
Is hope finished? Do we bear some sort of complicity because we have humanized the people who are now deemed collectively guilty for the crimes of Putin’s regime, simply because we have focused our research attention on Russia instead of on those have suffered because of Russia’s imperial aims? Are our Russian colleagues complicit if they are not making themselves vulnerable to retribution for resisting? These are extremely contentious questions in the current period. Along with the rest of the world, we are helplessly watching as the Russian army relentlessly crushes the life of ordinary people in Ukraine.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann knew the guilt of being on the wrong side of history as a German soldier in WWII. He argued that arrogance is a response of the powerful and apathy is a response of the powerless, but that hope stands against both forces. We must wrestle with the idea that individuals within authoritarian systems do not have the same repertoire of resistance available to them that we have come to expect in democracies. Expecting, even calling for, Russians to risk jail can be emotionally satisfying, but such expectations perhaps do not have the moral clarity we think they do. If instead we look to the spaces of resistance through care that can remain open in spite of tyranny, the picture of hope might look very different. Those Russians who stay in Russia to care for ailing family members despite harassment by the police for online anti-war activity, like those who stay to provide for the intellectual development of students despite increasing threats of isolation and silencing, are engaged in the unglamorous work of making sure that glimmers of humanity survive in their country. Is this apathy? Or does it leave room for hope?

A position of hope should not excuse Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine or its imperialist aggression, past, present or future. Rather it should level blame where blame is due and seek reparations while upholding both justice and care by means of the often-fragile force of being human.
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