Nine months have now passed since Russian army invaded Ukraine. Vladimir Putin wanted a quick and victorious war – but his soldiers were met with fierce Ukrainian resistance. The Ukrainians are still defending their country, with significant help of the West which stood in solidarity with them. From time to time, Western media predict a fall of Putin’s government, while the media in Russia claim that the society is united around the president and generally supportive of his actions. In the new episode of Cross-Border Talks, we verify these images together with Russian historian and socialist Felix Levin, member of Russian Socialist Movement.
Together with Felix, we discuss Russia’s social, economic and political situation. We try to determine the genuine attitudes of Russian society, and different classes within this society, towards the war in Ukraine, and explain why it is difficult to trust official public opinion polls.
We also examine how a deliberate long-time depoliticization of Russian society now clashes with big politics influencing people’s lives. Our guest explains why most of Russians still intend to live as if nothing happened – and why this would be impossible in a (not that) long perspective.
Other questions we seek answer to: are there some serious signs of rising resistance or protest potential against the war and the regime in Russia? How did the war influence the position of labour? What are the prospects for Russian society in the future?
The full transcription of the talk is also available below.
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Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Good evening, everybody. This is another episode of Cross-border Talks, your favorite show on international relations from a humanistic and social perspective. Today, our guest is a Russian historian, a member of the Russian Socialist movement, Felix Levin. Hello.
Felix Levin: Hi, yeah! Hi, comrades!
And we will be discussing tough topics. We will be looking into Russian society. We will be looking into Russian class society. Because as every society, Russian society is not a homogenous thing, but a society with class differences. We are going to look into the Russian economy in war conditions and we are also going to look for answers: will we see a huge change in Russia in some foreseeable perspective? How credible are the rumors we hear outside of Russia that resistance mass movements are already starting to grow in this country? So before we get to these key questions, I ask everybody who is listening to us to subscribe to Cross-border Talks. You can listen to us on Spotify, you can listen to us on SoundCloud, you can watch the videos on YouTube. Whatever form you prefer, just subscribe and don’t miss an episode. And today, I am co-hosting this talk with my comrade, Veronika Susova-Salminen. Good evening, Veronika.
Veronka Susova-Salminen: Good evening, everybody.
And I think we can start our talk. Felix I wanted to ask you, what is the Russian society’s attitude towards the ‘special operation’, as Russia prefers to call the war in Ukraine. What prevails in society? Do people support the war? Do people accept what is told to them by Russian authorities, are they indifferent, or begin disapproving? The war was not short like Vladimir Putin promised. So how has perhaps the attitude changed over these times?
Thank you, comrades, for the question. And I have to start with an honest answer. We do not know for sure what the real attitude of the Russians towards war is. And I will try to explain why it is impossible to establish it.
A lot of conclusions about the attitudes of Russian society are based on social surveys. But firstly, one cannot believe the surveys in authoritarian countries simply because of the fact that in such regimes, people are prone to express loyalty while answering the questions for fear for their own safety, and particularly after the promulgation of the worst censorship laws of 2022. So they are even more eager to answer these questions not in a sincere way. By the way, it is indicative that the majority of Russians do not answer the questions about war. Unfortunately that data is not taken into account.
Secondly, I think we cannot rely on the data of these surveys because in order to know the real attitude of the Russians towards war, we have to involve some 80 million people! Asking 20,000 people is not enough. In this context, individual position matters. And later, yes, when we talk about class differences, I will try to explain why it matters more than class below and in group below in whatever.
II presume that the prevailing position is indifference. The Russian government has encouraged depoliticization for more than 20 years, so the situation cannot change rapidly. People still try to refrain from politics as much as they can and to live their own private lives. So mobilization, so partly, of course, broke these social contracts based on depoliticization, but still, people are trying to save the comfort of their private lives amidst the mobilization.
Here I share the ideas of famous Russian left intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky, who says that there are three main lines of division in Russia, that it is not only the conflict between those who support or oppose the war. There is a third side who still would like to live outside politics. So I think this side, still, is the main one in Russia. For them the war is still something far away and external.
As for changes in attitude, I can only highlight here some important events. I think that the sanctions have hindered the formation of anti-military attitudes in Russia because of the indifferent people who felt the discomfort. Because of sanctions, in spring they began to move to the supporting side, thinking and believing in propaganda that Russia is in isolation. And so it led to a certain growth of resentment in Russian society.
Then again, the disposition of the sides changed in summer and it is still changing now, because of military defeats and mobilization. More and more people disbelieve in the government, they are more and more confused with the war objective. They are exhausted with the war and unmotivated. They now see the hypocrisy of the government.
I know several stories in which people who initially supported the war changed their position as a result of a mobilization – when the government required from the population not only passive but active support. So the situation is changing now.
But the final thing I would like to say here is that in my personal opinion, the question of the attitude is not really helpful. We have to reformulate the question so whether the people who are for and against the war are ready to stand by their political views. And we see that both the people who support the war and people who oppose the war are not ready for an active action. Their position is mostly passive. We see how people fled the mobilization and so on, so forth. So the attitudes cannot explain anything when we take into account the nature of authoritarian regimes, not only in Russia but also in Belarus. We see that even if we can imagine that the majority of the society oppose the war, it could not stop the government from declaring it. We have seen it in the case of Belarus in 2020.
If people are not ready to stand for their beliefs, you have already partially responded to another question. How credible is the information about the resistance growing in Russia, including among native peoples in the Far East that were badly affected by the mobilization? Or how important are some resistance movements in the Northern Caucasus as we also saw in the Western media? We saw pictures from Dagestan, people actively resisting mobilizations. So are we still waiting for a real revolt in Russia or something is already coming to the surface?
I didn’t really want to say that the situation with this resistance in Russia is so bad. The thing is rather that the resistance is quite peculiar. It’s highly contingent on the nature of the Russian repressive regime, so there is lots of passive resistance or so called hidden transcripts to use James Scott’s term and I would like to comment on it. I would like to say several things here.
So, resistance depends on individual position and political views more than a group belonging. For the time being, we cannot expect a rise of certain groups because of the fact that in the post-Soviet context the idea of solidarity is discredited due to anti-revolutionary neoliberal ideology. So, autonomous communal solidarity is actively discouraged by the authorities. People prefer individual resistance rather than to act on behalf of a certain group.
But I think the situation is changing now, slowly changing, but nevertheless. It is important to understand that political groups or networks more often speak on behalf of the community of activists, not on behalf of communities they would like to represent – simply because of the fact that communication in Russia between activists and other groups of society is disrupted. This is valid particularly in the context of a lot of protest activists living now outside of Russia.
But I would like here to emphasize the role of truly revolutionary subjects which, in my opinion, have a revolutionary potential or at least certain protest potentials. These are, of course, women because the war uncovered the double burden on them, and generally the issue of reproductive labour – women have to do a lot of things now. Now they are more active in protests. They make it visible or sometimes they are involved in invisible protest activity, such as helping refugees, distribution of leaflets and so on. Generally among the grassroots movements, feminist antiwar movement is the most influential group in Russia. They now possess the strongest network, and they, I might say, protest every day in Russia. With them, in the Russian cities, the antiwar voice is at least visible, people are not muted. It is important to understand and it is due to the actions of the Russian feminist anti-war movement. Generally speaking, more and more women now in Russia are against the patriarchal gender order, which enforces gender roles. So they now problematize the issue of reproductive labour. They question current hierarchies. After the declaration of mobilization and even before, they have questioned the right of the state to have power over people’s bodies. It is important to take this into account.
The second group with revolutionary potential are the native peoples. But I think that here the situation is more complex and highly dependent on certain regions. Now the protest of indigenous people is mainly of social nature. It is a protest against mobilisation. The indigenous peoples in Russia experienced most of all this termination of the social contract. It is them who suffer most from the war. In addition, the mobilization in Russia uncovered what we call institutional or systemic racism, simply because of the fact that the mobilization quota is sent away from the centre. Recruits are to be found in provincial cities and towns or provincial centers. This is a shift of the burden to the little town and the countryside. And this is where the indigenous people live.
I can make several examples. During the first days of the mobilization, the authorities took all the male population from monoethnic villages and little towns in Buryatia. They took them mainly at night. For example, in another village 40 people were taken out of 400 residents. In some multi ethnic towns and villages only the minorities were taken, like Karelians or Armenians in several villages in Krasnodar region. The situation really resembles ethnic cleansing.
What is more important is that according to Russian law, a small-number native peoples and other people such as Chechens and peoples of Dagestan cannot be drafted. Nevertheless, they received the papers and they were protesting against it. They perceived a mobilization as an existential threat because it threatens their economic and physical sustainability. They feel that they are deprived of their autonomy. Now they are beginning to reassert their own ethnic identity, claiming that they constitute minor peoples and the war threatens their potential for self reproduction.
But we have to understand that this protest is situational. The protests to a certain extent died down when the authorities fulfilled some of the demands. So the demobilization was hindered. But the prospects of resistance are higher when there is a more pronounced, more profound dissatisfaction with the Metropoly, coupled with the rise of self- consciousness. With the beginning of the war, the anti-colonial and anti-imperial voices of indigenous and Russian population began to be heard. They question the imperialism of Russia, its imperialist practices. They question imperialist ideology, they reassert their ethnic identity in order to demonstrate their non-involvement in the aggressive war declared on behalf of ethnic Russians. They are dissatisfied with this exclusive Russian revisionist and nationalist ideology. And so there are some prospects here, particularly, when the republics and national regions will feel the weakness of the federal center.
For the time being, I think that people are too afraid of the actions of the Russian repressive regime. But I think when they feel this weakness, the situation will change rapidly. And here, again, I see the potential in anti-imperialist, anti-colonial movements in different Russian regions. We don’t know when it will happen, but it may happen. It will not happen everywhere. But again, it may happen in the regions with the high level of self-consciousness and or the regions which suffer from the war most of all,
I think this is, by the way, a challenge for the Russian left to recognize the potential of politicization of gender and ethnicity. While everything is OK with politicization of gender and so the Russian left actually adopted the feminist perspective, the situation is more complex with politicization of ethnicity. Now the Russian left is trying to respond to such challenges as the Russian colonial past, Russian imperialist ideology, Russian cultural hierarchies and so on. If the Russian left manages to find the language to appeal to non-Russian peoples and to establish a platform for interesting dialogue and to integrate Russian peoples into the left movements, I think it will be a great move forward.
Let us now have a broader look on the Russian economy and how it changed in war conditions. We would also like to ask about the consequences for the working class of this change. But now I would like to pass the floor to Veronika, who has some more specific questions on the new economic model that seems to be introduced in Russia.
Yes. You mentioned the social contract, which, as you said, was actually broken by the Putin regime. Of course, the social contract was structured and it was based, as you said, on depoliticization. It means that the power will not touch us, so we will live how we can. And on the other hand, of course, under a distribution of some wealth in order to keep at least people loyal. Volodymyr Ischenko wrote an interesting article for Aljazeera. He is arguing that the transforming Putin’s regime – because the war means transformation for the regime – is turning towards something he calls ‘military Keynesianism’, which means that the war is changing the character of the regime towards a new version of redistribution of wealth. Based on the mobilization, we have to realize that mobilization is also economic. It’s not just that they mobilize people and send them to war, but that Russia is in the situation when it has to at least partially mobilize the economy. So mobilization of the economy, redistribution of wealth, reconstruction of regions, which is Russia taking into its own system – Ischenko argues that we should not be naive about the Putin regime. The Putin regime is aware of a transformation necessary in this aspect. So what do you think about this opinion? Do you think that this is even possible? Is there a successful strategy behind which would continue to buy at least some part of society in order to survive?
Thank you very much, Veronika, for this question. I have read the article by Vladimir Ischenko, and I think we should ask Vladimir for more evidence proving that Russia is really moving towards military Keynesianism. In my personal opinion, Vladimir bases his conclusion on Russian official rhetoric. I do not see any new deal in Russia, and I do not see any redistribution of wealth because even the demobilized haven’t been paid the sums they were promised by Putin simply because of the fact that there is no money in the budget allocated for that. The government hopes that they will not return and they would be declared missing so as not to pay anything.
I agree here that some groups working in state organs or in military industrial complex are to benefit from the war. But they are very, very thin and they are now, I think, diminishing.
I am skeptical about any transformations of Putin’s regime, because I think that the Russian government is not capable of transforming itself. They are still driven by the neoliberal ideology of market reforms. Their logic was explicitly demonstrated during the pandemic. They are not able to propose a new program, so they will delegate the responsibilities to the regions, hoping that the people will be able to survive like they did in the 1990s. They will rely on the emergent patriotism of the Russians who will be ready to work for free in order to achieve victory. These Soviet analogies are not just mere propaganda. They really think that it will happen! They lie about compensations, but they will rely on unpaid labor. It is not accidental that they declared martial law in the four territories, but so de facto they declare this on all of Russia because it will allow them to involve people in different military projects without the necessity to pay them.
I think that the Russian government is now living exactly on sheer corruption. We see that this works.People are demotivated, afraid of repressions and now of mobilization and loss of income. The Russian ruling classes cannot govern in a new way. So their main strategy is minimum investments except for the military sphere and propaganda, and non-interference in case of problems. By the way, this is why they did not want to declare martial law and declare mobilization because they did not want to accept financial responsibilities. This is why the name ‘special operation’ is used in Russia. They did not want to accept responsibility and they wanted to rely on private donations so as not to spend anything – even now, after the declaration of mobilization and martial law. So indeed, in the workplaces and generally local authorities are appealing to people to donate for the war needs so that they can be mobilized and military equipment is bought and so on, so forth.I do not see any transformation and I don’t see any reconstructionThe Russian regime is an obstacle to itself. It cannot change, in my opinion.
Thank you for this answer. I would still follow what you say about the impossibility of change. The regime got itself in the situation of the war. I would like to ask you about the social consequences of this decision and social consequences of war for Russian society and for Russia. I mean, what kind of consequences do you see for the Russians, for Russian human development? I don’t ask about economic figures and so on, but what is this war doing with Russian society? And what are its prospects if the regime will continue?
The prospects are quite pessimistic – of stagnation. Apart from the polarization or the deterioration of living standards, the prices are increasing. Utility payments are increasing. The salaries have not been indexed for several years. And even if they were indexed, it is not enough, given the rise of inflation. The war effect affects people who live from paycheck to paycheck. They cannot buy some products and we see the delays in drug supply. So the quality of healthcare is diminishing and it won’t be accessible to wide layers of population.
The same story is with education. So simply because of the fact that the Russian intelligentsia and people involved in education and culture are leaving the country, of course it affects the quality of education. When you look at the budget for 2023, you see that the Russian government would invest less in healthcare and education. So the educational programs were dealt a severe blow after Russia exited from the Bologna system.
And so it will be a continuation of neoliberal reforms. So we have to expect again, staff reductions and ideologisation of Russian education will lead to deterioration of its quality. So no decent education, no decent healthcare, no decent living standards, let alone generally the decline in the common after declaration of mobilization. And I’m sure this mobilization will continue in January. So there is not enough of the workforce and it can paralyze a lot of enterprises. People now are demotivated. They do not believe the government. Their position is precarious. They are not confident in their futures. So I don’t see any good prospects for Russia in the current situation. Honestly, I do not believe that it can last for long. If everything stays as it is, there will be stagnation, more poverty, disappointment and depression.
Can we already name some impacts of the war of mobilization on Russian labor relations? Can we say something more about the impact of the war on the working class? How are the workers reacting to this changing situation? Everything you said about the deterioration of living standards, everything you said about the deterioration of public services, it hits, first of all, the working class. So the majority of society people live from their own work. So how are they? So what was the impact of the war on the working class and how is the working class reacting to this?
Thank you very much, Malgorzata, for this quite sorry question, I have to say, because of the fact tha it is not very easy to obtain information about the situation in the working class. I have to rely here on the data from the media and some inside information. The Russian left is not well informed about the situation in the economy and labour market because of the weak connections with the labour unions and the labour itself on the federal level.We know what the working class wants us to know. A lot of labour disputes are invisible, because the workers do not want to publicise it. So we have to wait for the delayed effects of the sanctions.
I can say that the Russian economy has been declining for several decades and it is not easy to say something exactly. The incomes have been diminishing. We have to take into account that in Russia, there is an incredible gap between the official salary and bonuses. Usually bonuses comprise more than half of the salary. The majority of Russian companies are now reducing the labour costs, economizing on these bonuses. It is a continuation of the situation from the pandemic. There are delays in salary payments. So judging by labor disputes, again, it is the continuation of the situation from the pandemic. In addition, the position of precarious workers and gig workers is getting worse and worse. People respond to the current economic crisis and tend to spend less on consumer needs.
There are strikes, there are labour disputes, the workers go to court. They try to petition the authorities and the authorities can expect the growth of unrest. But I would like to highlight some particular novelties of the situation of war. The war has seriously affected the workers who were employed in the foreign companies who decided to leave Russia, those who worked in the industries dependent on the components imported from the US and the West. This happened in the consumer industry and in the transport industry, and there were thousands of workers who faced redundancy. Some were forced to hand in resignation, some negotiated with their employers that they will receive the sum equal to five or six months salaries. Some received nothing and the situation is highly volatile with several cases of cities where foreign industries were main employers – and they are now shut down, and for the time being the workers are furloughed. According to the Russian labor code, if you are furloughed, you can receive two- thirds, two-thirds of your regular salary, but I’m not sure. How long will this situation continue?! I think that quite soon these workers will be laid off and we will see the consequences of this situation.
I predict that there will be growth of social unrest. Particularly when the workers will understand that they do not have any alternatives. The level of disappointments will be very high, especially if coupled with the military defeats. I don’t know when exactly it will happen, but I’m sure that it will happen sooner or later.
We shouldn’t forget about this rise of repression when we talk about the condition of the working class in Russia. We should not forget that they are not only facing the decrease in living standards, but they are facing the repressions on a higher level.People with anti-war positions are coming under pressure at the workplace. People are mobilized and fired immediately. And if you have heard about the detainment of Kirill Ukraintsev, who is the leader of the labor union of delivery workers called Courier, it is a precedent of concern, because it means that the Russian government is going to persecute independent labor unions, in particular after the declaration of martial law. So any labor disputes, so any demand for higher pay can be classed not as an economic act, but as a political act, classified as treachery or whatever. So the workers would face the repressions.
I think that is what we could see. But again, so I think that aApart from labor disputes, we can see some passive resistance also.Sometimes workers are fleeing mobilization. They do not have, of course, enough savings to emigrate, but so they are hiding somewhere. And it means that they cannot appear at the workplace. Escapism is one of the protest strategies. There are also other acts which can be classified as passive resistance. Sooner or later, I think that passive resistance can transform into active resistance. When – when there will be nothing left. And I’m sure that this, sooner or later, will happen.
We have only a few minutes of time left. So I would ask you a very short question which came to my mind when I was listening to you. What you have described, this is already a recipe for something we could call a revolutionary situation. We know that Russia has this tradition. We also know that, for example, in 1990, where things got very bad in Russia, there was nearly no social resistance. So do you think that the situation can heat up now? Of course, we cannot speak about the revolutionary situation like in 1917, because there is no really consolidated ideology behind. But do you think that there is some kind of potential in the future? I know everything is very open, very in flux. We don’t really know. But is there some kind of such possibility for Russia in the future?
A very difficult question. Yes, that is what we are all waiting for. But I think that there are two important factors, or several important factors which hinder the developments of the revolutionary situation. You are right, mentioning here the 1990s. We should not forget the atomization of society. And also for the time being, we cannot expect the kind of protest which, for example, took place in the Russian Empire in 1905 or 1907.We cannot expect this kind of federal solidarity because generally all the actions of protest are local. The same can be said about the protest of the indigenous peoples. We don’t see this countrywide, we don’t see a countrywide solidarity.
Then, the political field. It is so suppressed that there are not enough networks to broadcast the message and to politicize the people.We can count on their own autonomous politicization. So maybe again, it would happen. And the third question also, and as a structuralist left, I have to mention it, it is the question of ideology. the question of discourse here. If we turn to Lenin’s formula, we have to wait for the situation when the bottoms do not want to live in the old way. So there is a question of expectations of the working classes. You have to think about an alternative image of the future, about an alternative kind of lifestyle. And it is the task of the political organization to propose this image of the future. And unfortunately, there are regions which no political opposition can reach. This situation is to a certain extent not very positive, simply because of the fact that so many people still do not reflect on their situation as being very bad. They do not know that there can be an alternative and there is no recognition of their own condition.
But the revolutionary situation can happen. The situation revolves around these issues, the issues of class in itself and class for itself. We have to wait for it to see.
Thank you very much, Felix, for your answers. And I apologize, everybody, that we are slightly over the time, but I think this is such an important topic that it needs to have enough time. So this was our interview with Felix Levin about the situation in Russia. I would like to remind everybody that Cross-Border talks are available on several different social platforms, and also on several different channels where you can watch or listen to us. And I would like to wish everybody a nice day and hope for a better future, not only for Russia, but for everybody. Thank you very much and goodbye.