“Scratch a Russian liberal and you’ll find an educated conservative”: an interview with sociologist Greg Yudin

Note from the LeftEast editors: In this interview conducted by Gleb Napreenko, published in Russian in the Colta.ru-hosted Discordance: a Journal of Social and Art Criticism and generously translated for LeftEast by Kristina Mayman, sociologist Greg Yudin speaks about the deceitfulness of opinion polling, the fear of the elites for the people, and the political suicide of the intelligentsia.

Here worker S.A.Lavrov raised the flag of the Revolution in October 1917 (source: original publication)

Gleb Napreenko: There is a widespread idea in today’s Russia about a certain conservative majority that supports Putin and his politics. This idea is based on opinion polls – it is they that demonstrate to us this majority. But what do polls actually show?

Grigoriy Yudin: It seems as if polls have become the key institution of political presentation in Russia. This is a specifically Russian situation, although you could say polls are becoming more and more important all over the world. But the poll model has easily taken control of the public’s imagination specifically in Russia because it has a claim of democratic participation, of a direct voice of the people. And it hypnotizes its audience with its numbers. If the audience were a little less hypnotized, if we separated the democratic process as people’s self-governance from the polls as the institution of total political representation, then we would have quickly discovered several things that everyone in the polling circles knows. First, that Russia is a totally depoliticized country in which it is shameful and inappropriate to talk about politics. So it is not at all surprising that a radical minority of people answers questions (and even less so if those questions are about politics). That’s why the claim that polls represent the population has no foundation in reality. There is a technical indicator in the polls – the rate of answers: the proportion of the people in your selection that answer your questions, the people you manage to interview. Depending on the method this proportion in today’s Russia is about 10 to 30 percent.

Napreenko: That is very little, right?

Yudin: We just cannot say anything about the other 70-90 percent, we know nothing about them. Then we get a lengthy discussion that the polling companies always try to pull us in, about how we have no proof that these 10-30 percent are any different than the other 70-90 percent. Of course, we have no proof. We could only get that proof if we managed to poll those very 70-90 percent that we know do not want to be polled. But the idea that the reluctance to participate in polls is a form of passive protest is confirmed by everything we observe in reality. People don’t go to elections. People don’t participate in any political discussions. This all happens for the same reasons.

Napreenko: And when did this situation come about?

Yudin: There was an impulse of political enthusiasm in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it is exactly in 1987 that the first polling institute was founded – VTsIOM (Russia Public Opinion Research Center – trans.). The polls were a new institution of representation that the Soviet society was unfamiliar with, and they became part of the wave of Perestroika and the post-Soviet democratic enthusiasm. It started fading in 1990s already, and in 2000s the disillusionment in politics came about. Specifically in the 2000s we got an array of political technologies that were deliberately working towards a depolitization, towards making all politics seem like a clown show where only meaningless freaks that no reasonable person would ever vote for compete. The polls suffered from all that. Because polls are not at all a mere scientific method of researching the public opinion but an institution of political representation. This is how they were conceived by George Gallup; this is how they have always worked. Therefore, of course, the disappointment in the political institutions was, among other things, a disappointment in polls.

And lately we have also been in a situation where polls are being used strategically as one of the techniques to suppress political participation. The state has essentially appropriated the poll industry. Although de-facto there are three big players in today’s polling – FOM (Public Opinion Fund – trans.), VTsIOM, and Levada-Center (and we know that Levada-Center occupies a position that is removed from the Kremlin and is under a constant attack from it), but these three companies operate with more or less the same discourse. And when Kremlin managed to establish ideological control over this area, it just stated generating the results that the Kremlin needed.

Napreenko: What discourse are you talking about?

Yudin: How does the poll industry work now? The poll organizers are often accused that they falsify something, but this has nothing to do with reality. They don’t cheat with the numbers and don’t lie, they just take the evening news and the next morning ask people about whether they agree with the thought structure that was just launched there. Since the whole news agenda is dictated by the Kremlin, the people who are ready to talk to the interviewers (I’m reminding you that those are a minority) can quickly figure out what is expected from them.

Napreenko: And why does the seemingly liberal-oppositional Levada-Center operate with the same logic?

Yudin: Because when it comes to the general worldview, it is indistinguishable from all the others. It is situated within that same conservative framework, except for the difference that the state propaganda tells us that Russia is a unique country with its own historic path and it’s wonderful, and Levada-Center tell us that Russia is a unique country with its own historic path, but that’s horrible. In terms of the language they use to describe the world, they don’t differ much. Although sometimes Levada-Center does come up with polls that are not taken from yesterday evening’s news. And in those cases, by the way, the results are completely unexpected – precisely because people are talked to in a different way.

Napreenko: Could you give an example?

Yudin: There was a great example when they were launching the operation to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria. When the discussion about the possibility of such an operation was just beginning, Levada-Center asked people a question about whether Russia should provide direct military support to Bashar al-Assad and put troops on the ground. And got a predictable reaction: that, essentially, few people want Russia to interfere in this military stand-off. And exactly in two weeks, when the intervention had already happened, the administration developed the language to describe it in the news, and Levada-Center used precisely that language in its poll: “How favorable are you towards Russia carrying out strikes against the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria?” – to put it bluntly, they used the phrase from the evening news with no quotation marks. And people immediately reacted to that differently. Polls do not show any kind of a deeply held opinion of the people but rather work on the principle of association: people are ready to say the things that come to their mind when they hear these words.

It is also important that the real production of polls is done not by the Moscow companies that think them up, but rather by specific interviewers and interviewees across Russia. The interviewers are not professional sociologists; they are usually people who could not find another job and do this hard work of collecting data. Just recently we conducted a series of interviews with such interviewers, and usually they say two things. First – people don’t want to talk about politics, it’s very difficult. When they get a question about politics, they try to get rid of it, if it’s possible, because it is very difficult to convince people to answer questions about politics: nobody wants that, everyone’s sick of it, “get off me with your politics” and so on. The second thing is the divide between the city and the country, the young and the old generation. The young people are reluctant to speak about politics; in the cities – the bigger the city, the less willing the people are to answer questions about politics. And here we are left with a very particular population group that is more or less ready to play according to all these rules: yes, folks, you ask us questions from yesterday’s news, we show you that we have digested yesterday’s news.

More than that, usually the interviewers themselves unambiguously think that the poll is a method of the state’s control over the population. That the state needs it so that there are no uprisings or revolutions. And when one side in a communication considers itself a state agent, we can expect that to shape the whole communication. And then, if the interviewee of the poll believes that his answers are a message to the top, then, of course, he probably will not send “black spots” directly to this top – if this person really dislikes the government and does not trust it at all, he will most likely simply not talk to it. And of this person decides to talk, then he will complain to the government about his current problems, because he thinks: there is a nominal chance that it will hear and help.

This is the mode in which polls work today.

Napreenko: Meaning, to sharpen your thesis, one can say that we are dealing with mass skepticism towards politics, but you would not call that conservative public opinion, but rather you would say that the centers that produce polls are themselves conservative?

Yudin: What is conservative here is the language that they use to talk to people. Public opinion is a thing that polls produce. Polls are performative. Pierre Bourdieu has a famous article “Public Opinion Does Not Exist,” which, unfortunately, a lot of people misinterpreted, although Bourdieu included all kinds of qualifications. But people understood it to mean that there is no public opinion at all, that it is a fiction that nobody should pay any attention to. Nonsense! Bourdieu states plainly that public opinion undoubtedly exists as a product of the activity of polling companies; more than that, we see that it plays an ever-bigger role in political technology. It does not exist only in the sense that it is not some predetermined independent reality that is only neutrally measured or represented by the poll.

Napreenko: You have experience in conducting detailed research of public opinion in small towns – with methods that are different from polling. What does your field research say about conservatism and the relationship with politics and history in Russia?

Yudin: Our research had slightly different tasks, but I can say one thing. As a result of this research it became clear that there are very different kinds of conservatism and the word “conservatism” itself is more confusing that explanatory. For example, one of the grassroots agendas today is a localist, parochial agenda, and it is partially conservative. As far as we can tell, its realization is mostly attempted by regional specialists – by people who study local history. Sometimes those are teachers, librarians. Their role is to be guardians of memory, its agents. As a rule, these regional specialists are older people, or at least people who have studied under local Soviet regional specialists. And in the Soviet times starting with Stalinism, from 1930s, local lore was being pushed out quite strongly, which is why regional specialists are often rather skeptical of the Soviet historical period. Khrushchev allowed regional specialists back again with the idea of creating local patriotism that would, like a nesting doll, be situated within the larger Soviet patriotism, but they never became fully loyal, of course. They had their own agenda and they got the opportunity to realize it after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each one of them is a local patriot who cherishes local history, local community, which is skeptical towards globalist tendencies and everything imperial, because it feels that it will be the first thing crushed by the empire.

There is a distinct communitarian conservative agenda connected with the reconstruction of the local identity. Often, by the way, the local history that this identity is based on looks very strange: it’s partial, fake. But this conservatism should be sharply distinguished from the conservatism that we deal with today on the level of state propaganda.

What, for example, is the relationship to history that the state has been trying harder and harder to instill in people starting from the mid-2000s? Naturally, I am talking about the agenda that is pushed in the name of the state. History here is a history of the state, and it can have no other subject. It is a history of eternal triumph with no defeats. There have been no proper internal conflicts in the state, of course – any internal conflicts were and remain a projection of the external ones, internal enemies are agents of the external ones, and the victory over them is a victory over the external enemies. All adversary, pivotal, revolutionary events that Russian history is rife with are smoothed out and ignored. We see a weird continuity between Ivan the Terrible, the Romanov dynasty, the Soviet government in its different forms and Vladimir Putin in the culmination of this history. They all tapped one another on the shoulder and said: dude, don’t let us down. This is history without historicity. After all, historicity and the historical method, starting with the German philosophy of history are based on the idea that things actually change, that the things that we are used to have their beginning and their end.

The fact that periodically, on the territory of what is now Russia, debates on how the country should be organized, who we are, what this state is and whether it should even be there in the first place have been ignited, are ignited, and will be ignited – all that stays silenced. In the context of the anniversary of the Revolution, we see the attempts of “reconciliation” of the reds and the whites, who all supposedly wanted the best for Russia, but in slightly different ways, so they had an argument, got a little civil war going for three-four years, but were all really nice guys and wanted to strengthen the state. It is completely taken out of the equation that a significant part of the people who participated in those events thought that there should be no state at all, and others thought that this state should have nothing at all to do with the Russian empire… that it was a real, serious debate, in the course of which the subject of history changed sharply.

The state idea about the subject that is marching through history is betraying a conservative worldview, but a different one from the local conservatism. State conservatism is a terribly scared conservatism. There is an element of scare in any kind of conservatism, but in this case the Russian contemporary elite exhibits simply panic-like fear of the revolution, which is growing into a fear of any change at all, any independent movement from below, any activity of the people, – and this is where the necessity to make up a myth about the never-changing Russia comes from. It’s interesting that one group that easily bought this myth are the people who call themselves liberals in Russia. We hear from them exactly the same things, just with the opposite sentiment: that there is this special Russian mentality, special Russian archetype, a track that Russia is moving along and cannot escape. When and why did this track start – nobody knows, apparently, it’s been there from time immemorial. But it is stated that it is precisely this track that is impeding us from joining some mythical Western world.

Napreenko: And this agenda is different from the grassroots conservative agenda that you encountered in small towns?

Yudin: A reasonable conservative would never try to stop history. He tries, being able to appreciate what there is, to make it so that whatever there will be at the next step will include what there is now. This is the productive conservative position. Certainly, it presupposes reliance on the existing social entities, does not accept the idea that there is nothing important in the world aside from personal wealth, personal success, and just one’s own family, but rather tries to rely on some collective power. Where does one find this collective power? Our localists here try to find it in the local community. Such conservatism can sometimes be quite anti-liberal in the broad sense of the word, may be ready to suppress some freedoms, even to impose collectivist institutions. But it differs in that it relies on the collective and tries to mobilize it.

At the same time, the panicking conservatism that we are dealing with on the state level has the exact opposite intention: for everyone to sit still, do their thing, in no way interfere with anything, take out the next credit and plan the next vacation.

Napreenko: And what is the attitude towards possible radical political changes in this local context?

Yudin: The state has succeeded in planting the seeds of fear of possible changes. But one should differentiate between apprehension and fear. Constructive conservatism is specifically apprehensive towards everything that is new because it deems it necessary to interrogate this new thing about how much it matches what is already there, and even if something must be changed, how much it can be integrated in the existing order. Of course, revolutions are regarded with particular suspicion because you can’t interrogate them in advance, they happen too fast. But the broadcasting of fear is very characteristic of the scared conservatism. Fear is the key emotion that makes the central absolute power possible. If you want to keep your power, make everyone around you fear that the enemies are about to arrive and destroy everyone, and you’ve done your job: after all, you are the only protector. The fear is connected to the lack of trust, lack of protection – with everything that is very uncharacteristic of the normal, moderate conservatism: on the contrary, it stands on solid ground, knows that behind it there is tradition that can be confidently relied upon. The scared conservatism, on the contrary, doesn’t see what it can rely on. But gentlemen, if you are so afraid of the revolution, that means that you really think that there is nothing stopping it from happening aside from one person at the head of the state? In this situation there is just no security whatsoever. Which is precisely what our compatriots are regularly experiencing: we have nothing to support us, nobody to rely on but ourselves, we are uncertain and try to compensate for our fear with our private life, personal success. We all live with a feeling that tomorrow, a catastrophe might happen.

At the same time, the last way the fear of the revolution needs to be understood is as something that actually prevents a revolution. Rather it’s the opposite: the heightened, emotionally unstable state with nothing to rely on, something that makes very easy to rile people up – that is exactly what is characteristic of mobilization, including the revolutionary kind. This of course does not mean that the revolution will happen tomorrow, but when it is said that there can be no revolution because the polls show that people are afraid of it – that logic is completely faulty.

Napreenko: In the field of art criticism, for example, there still is this terribly popular idea created by Vladimir Paperny about the eternal Russian alternation of the revolutionary “culture one” and the conservative “culture two.” But at what point did the liberal oppositional discourse become this? At what point did this lamentation about the eternal Russian laws arise, one that the writer Dmitry Bykov likes to indulge in, for example?

Yudin: There is an opinion, shared for example by Ilya Budraitskis, that as the result of the shocks experienced by the intelligentsia in the USSR, it has now found a deliverance for itself in a sharply conservative and absolutely anti-populist discourse – it saw an exit in completely stopping to associate any of its hopes with its country. Therefore, ultraconservative and extremely pessimistic writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Vladimir Nabokov became the idols of the late Soviet intelligentsia. I think that, although this explanation has some correct intuition, this view does not consider that in 1991, a significant portion of that intelligentsia was in fact the driving force behind the revolution. It joined the barricades, thereby showing that it had historical stakes, that was ready to sacrifice something (sometimes even life), ready to fight for power. This fact casts doubt on the theory of the late Soviet intelligentsia’s antidemocratism. In the early 1990s there was, among other things, also a democratic element, and Yeltsin was undoubtedly a democratic leader that these people put forward.

At the same time, in the early 1990s we got an ideology that included a rather strong conservative element. This was the ideology of economic liberalism, which was at the beginning connected to political liberalism, but then started to depart from it little by little. As we got closer to the 2000s, the gap between those two positions widened. And today, Russian liberals can be really divided into political and economic liberals. When it comes to political liberalism that is separate from economic liberalism, it has nowhere to go because the left-liberal project failed to occur in Russia. And the economic liberalism was initially based on modernization theory, on the idea that there is some correct condition that needs to be achieved – a perfect market that supposedly exists in the liberal democracies, the model for which are the United States. When it became apparent that this condition is not being achieved, or that, as we are achieving it, nothing is getting better, a conservative side of this position appeared, one that allows people to start feeling sorrow for the myth of the perfect market and the liberal democracy that never happened.

This is to say, if one group is sorrowful for the former imperial grandeur that should be brought back, the others are sorrowful for something that never happened – perfect capitalism. But these are two sides of a conservative worldview, which is why these two ideologies actually find common language quite easily. It is very easy to translate one to the other: where one group says “black,” the other says “white.”

Napreenko: Politics in today’s Russia is viewed as a simplified polarity – conservatives against the oppositional liberals, Putin against Navalny and the leaders of Bolotnaya Square (a place of several mass protests in 2011-2012 – trans.). This clash is pretty much reproduced by all major media outlets, both state media that support the government and the relatively oppositional and more or less independent ones such as Meduza and Kommersant. “The opposition” and “liberals” are essentially synonyms in the media language. And this is of course a very disheartening reduction, that the understanding of the complexity of the political spectrum has disappeared like that – and not just in Russia but in the world too: Trump versus Clinton… What happened?

Yudin: I will repeat: I think that this clash is completely made up. If you scratch a Russian liberal, you will very often find an educated conservative. It is easy to spot him by the melancholy, by the nostalgia for something that can never be achieved in Russia, that, you know, “it would have been good if we lived in some other country but to our chagrin we have to live in Russia.” But I actually think that right now the situation has started getting more complicated – and not for internal, but rather for external reasons. This Other that both these conservative worldviews were building themselves around, this perfect West that the imperial-conservative ideology has suggested to keep one’s distance from and that the liberal-conservative ideology has been dreaming of uniting with – something is clearly happening to it. It is becoming clear that the previously existing image of the Other was somehow simplified, that maybe, this Other does not exist at all. We haven’t gotten there yet, but in some time, we will approach the realization that there is no generalized West, there are only specific Western countries, the differences among which we still can’t see clearly enough and are inclined to simplify what is happening in them. And then the whole Russian ideology will stagger. Right now, we see the defensive attempts to call all people demanding change in the West populists, meaningless demagogues, but those are the remainders of the belief that in some time everything will normalize and we will again be able to live in this conservative circle – some in the “we were wronged” affect, others – in the “we got unlucky” affect. But it seems that the direction that the world is going in will demand that we become more and more actively involved in the problems that are today shared among us and the western and eastern countries. The problems in the world are accumulating, and Russia is being entangled in them regardless of whether it wants to.

Napreenko: The Trump situation is interpreted in the media in anti-populist liberal terms: seems like the uneducated majority elected this terrible leader for itself, a sort of an American Putin.

Yudin: Of course, that’s ideology, it does not give up so easily. But there are some clear failures in it. For a long time, we – I’m talking about us as Russian liberals – have been operating with the assumption that in the normal countries there are normal people that elect normal presidents for themselves. Now it turns out that the countries are still normal, but some crazy people live there and elect some crazy presidents. The next bastion of our faith is that in these countries there are some kinds of institutions that after some time, like supermen, will come onto the battlefield and make everything all right. But there are reasons to think that they will not come anywhere and nothing will be made all right. Then there will be new challenges to this ideology and with them – points of new polarization.

Napreenko: The myth of the enlightened minority and the unenlightened majority, one of the key myths for the Russian liberals, is successfully inverted in the state propaganda: there is supposedly the people, and they all stand for the special Russian way, and there is the “fifth column” of derelicts. How did this binary arise?

Yudin: This is an old liberal-conservative fear of the masses that we find among liberals such as Mill and conservatives such as Burke. This is why their worldviews are very close to each other. And the worldview of Vladimir Putin and his circle is actually very close to the worldview of his staunchest critics – up to the point of distinguishability. Because both groups are afraid of the masses. Both are afraid of independence. Both are reactionary and repressive, really. The problem is that for some reason we think that the people in power are fundamentally different from the liberals. They have exactly the same fears. Putin is most afraid of the people. He tries to keep his distance from them, probably afraid for his physical safety, never engages in any kind of public debate, and if he is offered it, reacts with insults, which betrays his insecurity and unpreparedness to accept anything that comes from the people. And these are the same fears that those who call themselves the liberal opposition experience.

Napreenko: And what happened to our left political spectrum?

Yudin: The worst thing that could have happened. The Soviet project happened to the left spectrum. And the left idea has needed some time to recover. A lot was invested into the Soviet project, ideology-wise, but mostly it did not meet any expectations of the leftists. There are different kinds of leftists, of course, but for the majority, this is the case. And this is a tragedy for the whole world, because an alternative has disappeared, an understanding that another world is possible has disappeared. This is where all the problematic ideas of the 1990s about the end of history come from. What is bad about them is not how stilted they are but how they paralyze the imagination, paralyze the search for political alternatives. It’s bad for the whole world and it’s three times as bad for Russia. Here it is impossible to escape the conviction that there is only one possible path for development. And this is a dangerous conviction.

But time is on the side of the leftists, and precisely because we see that Russia is getting involved in the global agenda we see that the problems that the world is dealing with are our problems as well. And the first one of them is inequality. Russia is a country with monstrous inequality, one of the most egregious in the world. This is something, by the way, that neither the state conservatives nor the oppositional conservatives want to admit. These aren’t just statistical indicators, this is something that can be seen pretty much at any moment with all those symbolical borders between the rich and the poor that are drawn between Moscow and the regions, inside Moscow itself, inside individual districts. The pressing feeling of the resources that the elite acquired unfairly, the pressing feeling of the impossibility of getting what one deserves regardless of how much one wants to, of course, seriously demoralizes and cultivates a suppressed but a very strong passive aggression within people.

The other problem is a lack of democracy. And again, we are not somewhere on the margins of the global trends here but rather in the very middle. The outpouring of people’s discontent that we currently see in different countries in the world is a reaction to the fact that the elites in those countries have usurped the power. It was usurped by the technocrats who decided that all of the world’s problems could be solved with good economic recipes, which is why the people who know their way around those areas should be solving them. Thus, we have come to a neoliberal situation that does not suit the vast majority of people and they are starting to demand the power back, albeit in a barely conscious manner. And “back” is an important word here because we see the conservative reflex. “Make America great again.”

Napreenko: Russia is getting up from its knees (a phrase that became popular in Russia in the early 1990s – trans.)…

Yudin: The American voters say: how about you back out! Possibly without yet realizing that they could demand a return of power. And Russia is again in the very center of the world’s agenda in this respect because the very same processes of depolitization, the transfer of power to the technocrats, the substitution of politics with economics – this exactly what we are living the consequences of here and now.

And right now we have all the elements that constitute the traditional leftist agenda.

Napreenko: You mentioned once that you don’t like it when the world “intelligentsia” is used today. Can you comment on that? Discordance (name of the section the interview was originally published under – trans.) exists under COLTA.RU, and in the “Society” section of that web platform there was a recent text on the topic of intelligentsia by Andrey Arkhangelsky, which caused a very strong reaction among the COLTA.RU readers, because the readers of this liberal website evidently identify with that word.

Yudin: Arkhangelsky writes very well, but to my mind he is doing exactly the opposite job to the one he would like to be doing. Which is to say he is shooting himself in the foot. He is engaging in the political demobilization of his own audience, although he himself is distressed about how his audience is not politically mobilized and is in a state of despair. But Arkhangelsky is consistently depoliticizing its agenda: what he is propagandizing is moralism, which is always dangerous in politics. As if the true political act consists of going onto a square, ripping your shirt apart and saying: I stand for everything pure and moral, against everything that is dirty. This excludes any possibility of a political mobilization and political coalitions, any possibility of the search for identical interests. This is a position of someone who himself is always keeping track of whether the political discourse is ethical enough. People who join this are, naturally, completely stripping themselves of any political chances. The idea itself that there is one single kind of supra-political ethics is naïve; as if appealing to conscience immediately makes you pure. Therefore, I think that what Arkhangelsky is proposing to his audience is a political suicide.

Any term exists in relation to its antithesis. If we define something, we need to distinguish it from something. What do we distinguish intelligentsia from?

Napreenko: Either from the people or from the state.

Yudin: Yes, and therefore when you count yourself among the intelligentsia, it means you have already rejected any political ambitions because you are not with the people and not with the state. So you are on the sidelines.

Napreenko: You mean that nowadays “intelligentsia” is a conservative term?

Yudin: Absolutely! Let’s say you don’t like the existing political system but instead of directly saying why you don’t like it, you begin by exiting the political confrontation and telling people how they should behave. Of course, you are told to go to hell.

When you go to, let’s say, America, you can say the word “intelligentsia” and it will not have a depoliticizing meaning, it will not immediately set you apart from the people and the state. Until the beginning of the twentieth century it was different in Russia as well. What happened then is a separate topic that Budraitskis has analyzed in an interesting way, although I don’t agree with everything there.

In any case, in the late Soviet period the term “intelligentsia” became a way to survive in the conditions of horrible staleness for many people. People needed some existential solution, needed to somehow decide for themselves: how do I deal with this social situation if I stay in it. And the word “intelligentsia” became a form of an internal exodus. There were splits among the dissidents on this matter, of course. Politically active people such as Gleb Pavlovsky now say that they were skeptical of the Soviet dissident movement precisely because it was so sterile, it wasn’t trying to solve its own internal problems by solving political problems and did not believe that to be possible.

Napreenko: And can you imagine a repolitization of the term “intelligentsia?”

Yudin: Theoretically nothing is impossible. Following Ernesto Laclau, I believe that in politics, words can acquire a whole new meaning and be used differently. If my diagnosis, that we are starting to integrate ourselves in the global agenda, is right, then little by little the word “intelligentsia” may be rethought here as well. Because in the whole world the mental workers are being united by common problems – they are already saying that they constitute a significant part of the “army of the precariat.” If you tell someone who considers himself a part of the Russian intelligentsia about the “army of the intelligentsia,” he will probably immediately respond that he is not a part of any army. For the situation to change, one has to realize one’s own problems. For example, to speak about how, if you are a schoolteacher, a professor, a doctor, an engineer, then you should be paid for your work, that you are producing socially valuable labor that you are not being paid for. To speak about how the future of the country is linked with knowledge, education, new technologies. And it is telling that this is well heard by the people that do not consider themselves to be part of the intelligentsia at all.

Greg Yudin is a Senior Researcher in the Laboratory of Socio-Economic Studies of the Higher School of Economics (Вышка), Professor of the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences (Шанинка).



Gleb Napreenko is a cultural critic, art historian, activist. Graduated from Moscow State University’s department of History and Theory of Art in 2015. Currently, chief editor of Discordance: a Journal of Social and Art Criticism (hosted by colta.ru), editor of openleft.ru, lecturer on theory of art in the BAZA institute. Has worked and contributed to Artchronika.ru, Art Journal, Dialogue in Art.

  • Anne Bobroff-Hajal

    Many thanks to Gleb for this very interesting interview (crossing the art-social science divide), and to Greg Yudin for his thoughtful and insightful ideas. I’m particularly interested in two of Yudin’s points, which raise issues relevant to both Russia and the US.

    1) Purity and/or Coalition-building

    First is Yudin’s discussion around political purity, which resonates with Anya Bitkina’s thoughts on the value of socially-aware artists working within current institutions as well as underground, in her interview for Ksenia Nouril’s MOMA post “Five Questions” series http://post.at.moma.org/content_items/957-5-questions-with-anna-bitkina. Yudin describes a Russian political purist who “is always keeping track of whether the political discourse is ethical enough.” The problem, says Yudin, is that political purity “excludes any possibility of a political mobilization and political coalitions, any possibility of the search for identical interests.” We can ask something similar for the US today: how can the socialist left most effectively be active now? As purists, in coalitions, or some integration of the two?

    Bernie Sanders used the institution of the Democratic party to talk about socialism and “Our Revolution.” This begs the question of what revolution and socialism are, and how it’s possible to get from here to there. What do we mean by “socialism” – here or in Russia? A centrally planned economy? More grassroots democratic control of society’s institutions – or less? Can any country get from capitalism to socialism via one of its establishment parties – maybe through evading big-money control by, like Bernie, taking only very small campaign contributions? History has shown that in moments of sudden collapse of old systems – including 1917 Russia – traditional institutions are reborn to one degree or another. This is often because new institutions are desperately needed to serve people and defend against counter-revolution as e. g. food supply chains have been destroyed, but there is little time to generate entirely new forms. Maybe it’s crucial to work within established institutions – as Bitkina suggests with Russia’s Doma Kultury – before a crisis, so that should that moment come, we are experienced with both the good and bad of what has been built before.

    Until Bernie Sanders’ meteoric rise, the word “socialism” had been toxic in most US communities. Since his loss, it’s fallen back into negatively-tinged obscurity among many Americans. In the US, “socialism” and “communism” tragically became conflated with Stalinist authoritarianism, not – as I would define socialism – the extension of real democratic control to all our institutions. As Gleb Napreenko asked Yudin, “What happened to our left political spectrum?” Yudin responded, “The Soviet project happened to the left spectrum…. A lot was invested into the Soviet project, ideology-wise, but mostly it did not meet any expectations of the leftists.” The American Right of course eagerly latched on to the conflation of socialism with all things dictatorial, forcing the Left to struggle ever afterward with the Stalin-stained “s-word,” perhaps inhibiting its ability to reach out a helping hand to ordinary Soviet citizens.

    Today in the US, masses of Democrats are in a high state of post-Trump-election mobilization around immigration, the environment, and so on, after decades of quiescence. My own small city, White Plains, NY, is suddenly a hotbed of grassroots Democratic groups with various focuses: fighting Trump’s agenda; voting out our right wing Republican County Executive; Democratic primary battles against the entrenched White Plains city Democratic Party machine (I’m actively supporting these candidates), and so on. Just as Yudin describes for Russia, we in the US would benefit from being able to discuss a broader spectrum of left politics and strategies than we currently have.

    2) Turning Putinist “Continuity” on its Head

    Yudin’s second point of special interest to me as a Russian/Soviet historian (I lived in the USSR for a year doing research for what became my book, WORKING WOMEN IN RUSSIA UNDER THE HUNGER TSARS), is the question of Putin’s current use of the concept of Russian continuity as a propaganda tool. Putin, as I understand it, sees continuity residing somehow sui generis in what a Marxist would identify as superstructure: tradition, spirituality, “the Russian soul.” Above all, Putin uses “Russian continuity” as a rationale for why Russian autocratic institutions must be eternal. This understandably makes Russians who want change shy away from any vision of long term Russian continuity.

    I would argue, though, that Marxists shouldn’t cede the concept of “historical continuity” to either Putin’s silly superstructural construct or his propagandistic abuse of it. Continuities spawned by the material foundations of varying geographies plague every society. The United States, for example, ended slavery in name at the end of our Civil War, but in fact slavery continued in new guises. The sharecropping system that emerged after “Abolition” trapped former slaves in yet another oppressive cashless economy remarkably similar to slavery. Jim Crow laws, lynchings, real estate redlining, segregated schools, and mass incarcerations of African Americans have all been new incarnations of our exploitative past. Continuities like this must be recognized and understood in order to have any hope of escaping their grip.

    Marxists know that permutations of oppressive economic and social systems have always existed, yet we don’t shy from identifying and studying them out of fear that means we’re conceding they must always exist. We study them to learn how to move beyond them. The same thing holds for understanding the continuities in societies. We need to identify and analyze the differing material foundations that spawn different kinds of continuity in different regions of the planet – along with the specific types of change that periodically rupture them. The American Civil War ruptured the US system of slavery at least partly due to the shift from an Atlantic trade-based economy to a westward-focused manufacturing economy as the US incorporated (and farmers settled) the hyper-fertile Midwest/Great Plains. These settlers promised a vast new customer base for northeast manufactures that would be reduced if the new states used slave labor. After slight tweaks to the system in the Civil War’s aftermath, the US returned to a new version of slavery by another name, with just the right adaptations to keep the hunger to buy consumer goods growing.

    Russia has its own ruptures and continuities. There are material reasons in Russia’s particular geographic situation that have led to the *real* continuities between “Ivan the Terrible, the Romanov dynasty, the Soviet government, and Vladimir Putin.” This is completely different from Putin’s mystical location of admirable continuities in the essential Russian soul or spirit that will live eternally. I’ve been working to understand Russia’s geographic foundation and how it shapes Russian social structure for years; it’s the subject matter of my series of large satirical polyptychs, PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS. Russia has had its particular ruptures, and we need to analyse the ways in which its continuities bridge them. That may help us learn how to break the recurring cycle of autocratic tendencies.

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