A A A

Eastern Ukraine: Is there a way back from violence?

By Blog Admin, on 23 April 2014

2014-04-15. Протесты в Донецке 019

Photo: Andrew Butko СС-BY-SA 3.0

With violent deaths becoming an everyday occurrence in eastern Ukraine and the Geneva deal fading, Rasmus Nilsson asks whether there is a way back to stability and peace.

When Ukrainian tanks rolled into Slavyansk last week, only to be mobbed and stopped by civilians and (Russian?) militiamen it did not represent the finest hour of the Ukrainian army. However, in their seeming incompetence the Ukrainian armed forces did manage to hold fire. Ukraine lost equipment, but no soldiers, or civilians lost their lives. In its own muddled way, the ‘battle for Slavyansk’ indicated that Russians and Ukrainians might be able to resolve the situation gradually, with threats but no deaths.

Now, blood is starting to be shed. Recently, pro-Russian militiamen were shot and killed in a murky firefight and the tortured body of what appears to be a pro-Ukrainian politician, from the Prime Minister’s party has now been found. It remains unclear precisely what happened to Volodymyr Rybak outside Slavyansk, but his fate may spur events on.

It is possible that militias killed Mr Rybak to provoke open conflict with Ukrainian troops. It is also possible, if unproven, that the militias were spurred on by figures in the Russian regime. For now, Russia is not commenting on this murder and, indeed, is keeping fairly quiet in what could be either anticipation or confusion.

Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev has, once more, stressed that Russia can overcome any Western sanctions and that business and ordinary citizens should be kept free from political shenanigans. UN Ambassador Vitalii Churkin, meanwhile, seems unsurprised that tensions will take a while to die down - and, following the recent UN report dismissing claims of systematic threats to Russians in Ukraine, now wants the UN removed from eastern Ukraine. Apparently, the OSCE is now expected to stop any unrest that may appear, together with the Ukrainian conscience or some such. Read the rest of this entry »

Sharing Underwear, Living Revolution: The Urban Communes of Revolutionary Russia

By Blog Admin, on 10 April 2014

 

'In the Commune'. Krasnoe studentchetsvo, 1930

‘In the Commune’. Krasnoe studentchetsvo, 1930

Andy Willimott writes about the self-styled urban communes of revolutionary Russia, explaining how these activist groups made revolution part of their lives, practiced equality, and tried to be the change they wanted to see in the world.

The October Revolution of 1917 marked the birth of the first avowedly socialist state in history. As the earliest posters, fliers, decrees, and declarations appeared promising radical change, many contemplated what revolution would mean for them and their daily lives. Visions of a fairer, collective society, based upon the belief that human relations could be rationally reorganised, were frequently espoused by Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership. In turn, the Bolshevik press readily equated “class struggle” with the rejection not only of existing political and economic elites, but bourgeois norms, habits, and mores. Even when referring to the dense economic theorisations of Das Kapital, Lenin had long insisted that Marx’s assessment was rooted in “flesh and blood” – highlighting “everyday aspects” that had to be overcome if communism was to succeed.

Inspired by these messages and the opportunities of revolution, some activists set about putting into practice their own conceptions of what it meant to be part of this new world. As workers threw out their bosses and teenagers challenged the authority of their parents – all in the name of revolution – urban activists were re-thinking the way they conducted their everyday lives. In the tenements and basic housing of the early Soviet landscape, for instance, some young revolutionaries were dramatically re-imagining the home. Innocuous features of domestic life – from internal walls to personal ornaments – were associated with “bourgeois individualism”, as activists sought to construct new domestic and social relations.

At the forefront of this domestic assault were the self-styled “urban communes”. Essentially the product of like-minded individuals looking to share space, resources, materials, income, and, most important of all, modern socialist visions, the urban communes were cohabitational units run upon a popular understanding of socialist revolution. They embraced one of the key tenets of Marxism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Most adopted a “common pot” into which members placed a share or all of their earnings. Others took the cause one step further, often sharing clothes and even underwear. Founding agreements or “domestic charters”, signed by all members, dictated the parameters of a socialist lifestyle, including systems of collective voting, the promotion of self-betterment activities, as well as a commitment to social and political agitation. Read the rest of this entry »

The Gulag fantastic?

By Blog Admin, on 2 April 2014

Kolyma: Dalstroy prisoners constructing the 'Road of Bones' highway from Magadan to Yakutsk

Kolyma: Dalstroy prisoners constructing the ‘Road of
Bones’ highway from Magadan to Yakutsk

Sarah J. Young discovers unexpected affinities between the literature of the fantastic and the expression of trauma in Gulag writing.

I have just finished teaching a new cross-cultural course, Tales of the Unexpected, with my colleague Peter Zusi. A whistle-stop tour through the fantastic and supernatural from the Grimm brothers to H. P. Lovecraft, the course has been great fun, but beyond the appearance of Gogol (his Ukrainian folktale ‘Vii’) and Dostoevsky (the classic work of the Petersburg fantastic The Double), I didn’t anticipate it having much resonance with my research. It came as something as a surprise, therefore, to find echoes in a number of the texts we studied of ideas that relate to my current work on Gulag writing and particularly the short stories of Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982).

Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the hard labour camps of Kolyma, notoriously the harshest part of the Stalinist gulag, is renowned for stories that, while they are full of poetic nuances, express the brutality of that experience with unflinching realism. The curious echo of the opening line of Pushkin’s fantastic story ‘The Queen of Spades’ at the beginning of Shalamov’s story ‘On Tick’ (1956) may give us pause for thought, but ostensibly these tales have no relation to literature of the fantastic and supernatural. However, as I discovered, there are significant commonalities relating to ideas of language, writing and authorship that suggest Shalamov’s approach to his subject is similar to that of fantastic writers of earlier eras.

In Frankenstein, the developing consciousness of the creature creates the paradox of him telling the story of his life prior to language. As the eloquence and knowledge he acquires later shape his expression of his earlier experiences, the poetry of the creature’s uncomprehending gaze initially obscures, but ultimately emphasizes, the fact that even the concepts he does bring to bear in his descriptions were unknown to him at the time of the original experience:

Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens, and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up, and behold a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder. [...] No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rung in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me: the only object that I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes upon that with pleasure. (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818 edn, book II, chapter III)

Shalamov’s story ‘Sententiousness’ (1965) features a reversal of this process, as convicts existing in inhuman conditions face the loss of human language:

My language, the course language of the coal face, was impoverished, as impoverished as the feelings that still survived around my bones. Reveille, go to work, lunch, end of work, lights out, citizen boss, may I address you, spade, pit, yes sir, drill rod, pick, it’s cold outside, rain, cold soup, hot soup, bread, ration, leave me a bit to smoke – I’d managed with a couple of dozen words for over a year. Half of them were curses. [...] I didn’t look for other words. I was happy that I didn’t need to look for other words. I didn’t know whether these other words existed. I couldn’t have answered that question. (Shalamov, ‘Sententsiia‘)

His narrator (perhaps Shalamov himself, but this is seldom entirely clear), so weak and exhausted that he has been granted a temporary respite from work in the mines, describes a reawakening of language – and consciousness – that parallels the story Shelley’s creature tells:

I was afraid, dumbfounded, when in my brain suddenly – I remember this clearly – under the right parietal bone there appeared a word that was quite useless for the taiga, a word that not only my comrades, but I myself didn’t understand. I cried out this word, rising up on the bunks, turning to the sky, to eternity:

Sententiousness! Sententiousness!’

And I roared with laughter.

The loss and rediscovery of language is significant here because of the impossibility – evident in the creature’s tale in Frankenstein – of conveying those sensations in the language and concepts in which they were originally experienced. For Shalamov, faced with the imperative to bear witness to the suffering of the Gulag, this question is crucial, as it affects authenticity. As he notes in one of his memoirs:

And imperceptibly the intellectual himself loses everything ‘unnecessary’ in his language… Every story of mine is in this respect inevitably doomed to falsehood, to untruth. I never thought a single drawn-out thought [in the camps]. […] How do I return myself to that condition, and in what language can I write about it? […] I want the truth to be the truth of that very day, […] and not the truth of my world view today. (Shalamov, Vospominaniia: ‘O Kolyme’. ‘Iazyk’)

Read the rest of this entry »

International responses to homophobia in Russia: A win-win for Putin

By Blog Admin, on 26 March 2014

Gay putin

Photo: Brian Minkoff-London Pixels/Wikicommons
CC BY-SA 3.0

Vladimir Putin has used the international backlash against Russia’s sweeping anti-gay laws as part of his wider strategy for asserting conservative Russian values against those of the West argues Richard Mole.

Despite the best efforts of President Putin to keep the focus on sport, the Sochi Winter Olympics became a focal point for international criticism of the Russian law banning the spreading of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’, with global media coverage of the Olympics casting a spotlight on Russia’s anti-gay laws and rise of extreme homophobia in the country.

The law did not initially contain a definition of what constituted propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations – not that this stopped the police from making arrests.  But in December the government published the Criteria of Internet Content Harmful for Children’s Health and Development, which listed the following as examples of homosexual propaganda:

  • Information that justified the acceptability of alternative family relations, including any statistics or stories about children adopted by gay or lesbian couples, which might lead to the conclusion that same-sex couples are ‘no worse than straight couples at coping with parental responsibilities’;
  • ‘Intense emotional images’ aimed at discrediting traditional family models and propagating alternative family models;
  •  Information that contains ‘images of behaviour associated with the denial of the traditional family model’ which promotes homosexual relationships;
  • Depiction of homosexual people as role models, including any mention of famous homosexuals; and
  • Anything that ‘approves or encourages’ LGBT people in their homosexuality.

The latter condition is so poorly defined, that it effectively means that any content which may be considered offensive by the Russian government can now be deemed illegal and subject to prosecution.

The international backlash was vocal. Read the rest of this entry »

Can Russia Modernise? An economist’s perspective

By Blog Admin, on 20 March 2014

ICan Russia Modernise Thumbnailn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective systems of informal governance. In the last contribution to a ‘mini-symposium’  Theocharis Grigoriadis assesses the book’s arguments from an economist’s perspective, suggesting that Ledeneva understands the durability of sistema as a series of trade-offs that reduce collective welfare. 

In her seminal book on informal politics and governance in post-Soviet Russia, Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks, and Informal Governance , Alena Ledeneva puts forward a theory of networked governance that relativises the significance of formalised vertical structures and hierarchical decision-making for understanding Russian politics.

 Ledeneva’s theory makes a unique contribution to political science and sociology and deals with following themes in relation to Russian politics and society:

  1. Continuities of power networks under central planning and capitalism;
  2. Sistema as a form of networked governance in authoritarian regimes;
  3. The transformation of the St. Petersburg circle into the inner sistema of Russian politics;
  4. The prospects for societal modernisation under Putin.

 While blat networks in socialism facilitated the provision of consumer goods circumventing the formal absence of marketplaces, power networks in post-socialism involved the provision of public goods such as security, justice, and healthcare. The author suggests that market transitions in the former Soviet Union preserved more elements from the economic organization of central planning than we might want to admit, both in terms of people in power and economic practices.

 As Ledeneva argues, the analysis of informal networks matters, because it is essential to trace the effects of friendships and close relationships on ministerial appointments, judicial decisions and corporate deals. The identification of their existence per se has major theoretical significance, but does not explain current developments in Russian politics. Ledeneva suggests that while continuities in networked governance between socialism and post-socialism exist, what differentiates Putin’s Russia is the even wider spread of informal rules and even higher informational asymmetry between those insider and those outsider a power network. In this sense, Putin’s sistema is at least partially – if not fully – a reversion to the Soviet status quo ante.

 The Russian sistema is a set of public and private networks that manages public wealth and delivers public goods, thus determining the magnitude of its members’ rent-seeking strategies. While the sistema combines both public and private elements in its enforcement strategies, the hierarchical predominance of public over private interests and institutions is indisputable.

This is how, according to Ledeneva, Putin’s sistema has redefined the Russian public domain. Read the rest of this entry »

Can Russia Modernise? The author’s perspective

By Blog Admin, on 19 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective system of informal governance. In the final part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’ the author reflects on and responds to critical assessments of the book.

The criticisms made by Katharina Bluhm and by Geoffrey Hosking are both valid and valuable. In my response I will attempt to clarify my arguments, where I can, and call for further research, where I cannot.

 How do we define sistema? Sistema stands for the network-based informal governance system backing up the formal facades of power. I agree with my critics’ point that sistema is a runaway target. My method was to rely on respondents’ perceptions of it. But they often varied a lot, as in the fable about the elephant and the seven blind men.  There are a range of definitions in the glossary of the book. I pieced together a detailed ethnography of sistema, but conceptualising sistema proved elusive.

 The Soviet writer Fazil Iskander has described the pressure of sistema as follows

 Imagine that you had to share a room with an aggressive madman all your life. Moreover, you also had to play chess with him. One the one hand, you had to play so that you would not win and anger him with your victory; on the other, you had to play so subtly that he would not suspect that you allowed him to beat you.

 When the ‘madman’ disappears this precious skill and the life-long experience of survival with a madman turns out to be redundant. Sistema reveals its features mostly to those who feel pressurised or victimised by it, rather than to its beneficiaries (President Putin is one of latter at the moment, but his memoirs will be an invaluable source on sistema one day, just as President Gorbachev’s ones are now).

 So I interviewed people who in some sense had exited sistema, distanced themselves or had time for reflection (I describe this ‘slow cooking’ methodology in a recent SSEES working paper. Distance from sistema enhanced their ability to articulate – as happened with understanding of the Soviet system after its collapse – and provided a useful point of comparison (especially if people had a chance to live elsewhere). Read the rest of this entry »

Can Russia Modernise? A historian’s perspective

By Blog Admin, on 18 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective systems of informal governance. In the second part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’ Geoffrey Hosking assesses the book and its arguments from a historian’s perspective.

 This is a very good book, but it shares some of the characteristics of the system it describes.  One thinks one has grasped an important point, but then on the next page it turns out that point is not always valid, its operation is subtly influenced by other aspects of the system.

I would see sistema as ‘the way to get things done’, the allocation of power and resources in order to get things done.  It is a system of personal relationships, accepted practices and codes of behaviour (poniatiia), not formulated or laid down explicitly but generally understood.  It centres on Putin as President (and did even when he was Prime Minister:  persons are more important than institutions), but his actual power within it is not unlimited.  He is locked into it and his freedom of action is constantly circumscribed by it.

 In this sense it confirms Foucault’s dictum about power operating along several vectors:  downwards, but also upwards and sideways.  Its operation is intangible:  there is often no need for direct instructions or commands, because people know how they are expected to behave.  Much depends on loyalty and trust, but trust which is limited and instrumental.  A trusts B for certain purposes, but not more than that: I trust him because I know him well, his strengths and weaknesses, and what he is good at doing; perhaps I also have some kompromat on him.  This is also forced trust, because there is no real alternative.

Alena Ledeneva identifies distinct networks around Putin: 1. an inner circle, which is  agenda setting where there  is daily or regular, frequent contact; 2. core contacts for the implementation of policy -  people who are well known from institutional contact, and trusted to get things done without frequent contact.  3.  useful friends who are similar, but with emphasis on relationships formed in youth, who are useful to get things done or trouble-shoot problems, but who will expect in return to be offered opportunities to make money; and  4. mediated contacts used for getting things done locally or at a lower institutional level.  Essentially these are patron-client networks of various types.  However, it should be noted, that patron-client networks differ from authoritarian ones in that clients need to get something out of them.  Read the rest of this entry »

Can Russia Modernize? A sociologist’s perspective

By Blog Admin, on 17 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective system of informal governance. In the first part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’,  Katharina Bluhm assesses the book and its arguments from a sociologist‘s perspective.

Alena Ledeneva is the author of several books all of which centre on informal economic and governance practices in Russia. Her three monographs Russia’s Economy of Favours (1998), How Russia Really Works (2006), and Can Russia Modernise? (2013), can be read as a trilogy. In Russia’s Economy of Favours the centre of attention was the everyday exchange systems of normal people, while in How Russia Really Works Ledeneva’s focus shifts towards business and the asset stripping that takes place through complex inter-firm relationships. Her newest book explores Russia’s power networks and systems of informal governance or sistema.

The 2006 and 2013 books share one particularly important question: Can Russia modernize? In How Russia Really Works Ledeneva asks how Russia’s unwritten rules can be changed, or whether in fact they can. Her answer is laced with scepticism. She points to the fact that over the past decade, actors have fought bitterly over the rules of the game: for example the support for shock-therapy of Western aid programmes and advisers aimed at the rapid installation of a new market economy, or the foreign investors who have tried to introduce Western business practices being studied in Russian business schools today. Small entrepreneurs have called for more transparency in the way business is done.

Russia is now a member of the World Trade Organisation, and Putin once called for a ‘dictatorship of law’ and – at least according to some observers – Medvedev really was interested in changing the rules of the game, but just did not get very far in his efforts. Ledeneva concludes that in order to overcome the informal rules it is ‘simply not enough to transform the formal rules and the way they are enforced. Read the rest of this entry »

Ten things you should know about Crimea

By Blog Admin, on 5 March 2014

Andrew Wilson  offers some key points to think about to understand the current crisis.

1. The new Crimean authorities were established at gunpoint. Despite Russian rhetoric about a “coup” in Kyiv, the real coup was in Crimea. The Crimean Assembly building was taken over at gunpoint after a seemingly successful rally supporting the authorities in Kiev. Berkut militia, fleeing from their crimes in Kiev, were allegedly involved.

2. This is totally unlike the Russian war in Georgia in 2008. Then, by most accounts, the Georgians were provoked into firing first. Only one Russian citizen has died in the current crisis, and he was shot by snipers in Kyiv.

3. The proposed referendum is against the Ukrainian constitution. Only a national vote can change the country’s borders.

4. The new Crimean “Prime Minister” Sergei Aksionov was a local gangster in the 1990s. His nickname was “goblin”. His Russia Party won only 4 percent at the last elections in Crimea

5. There are 266,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Before the coup they were chanting “Allah is Great! Glory to Ukraine!” Now they are reportedly forming “self-defence”units. They were all deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944; half died as a result. They were only allowed to return after 1989 and still live in marginal conditions. The 70th anniversary of the Deportation is this May.

6. The Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslim. The Crimean Tatar Khanate was the dominant power in the region from 1441 until Crimea was occupied by the Russian Empire in 1783. The campaign to turn it into a Russian Athos, a centre of Orthodox Christianity, only gathered pace after the Crimean War.

7. There is an ethnic Russian majority in Crimea (58 percent), but most settled there after World War II. Some 24 percent are Ukrainian. Crimean Tatars are over 13 percent, but nearer 20 percent of the school population.

8. Crimea is a peninsula. It gets all its water and gas from the rest of Ukraine.

9. There are big deposits of oil and gas off the Crimean coast.

10. Russia is re-supplying its Black Sea Fleet for a role in the Eastern Mediterranean, including linking up with the old Soviet naval base in Tartus, Syria.

Andrew Wilson is Reader in Ukrainian Studies at UCL-SSEES.

This piece was first published in the ECFR Blog and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

Holy Sodomy: Incarnation and Desire in Russian Religious Thought

By Blog Admin, on 27 February 2014

The Place of Christianity in History, by V. V. Rozanov

The Place of Christianity in History,
by V. V. Rozanov

Modern theological studies into the nature of embodiment, desire and sex could enhance contemporary scholarship on Russian religious philosophy, especially in its studies of love and homosexual relationships, argues Adam Ure.

I started writing this on (Orthodox) Christmas Day, and it seems appropriate to consider one of the most contentious issues facing contemporary Christianity: the evaluation of homosexual love, as well as of homosexual sex. I mention Christmas Day, as a prominent strand in current academia is focusing primarily on Incarnation Theology in a re-examination of how Churches should appraise same-sex relationships.

Although many studies have concentrated on questions of love and sex in revolutionary Russia, little work has discussed homosexual relationships during this period. Here scholars of Russia should, as in other areas, perhaps start drawing on other fields of study to enhance their work: bringing recent developments in western theological scholarship into Russian studies could help provide new approaches to the questions which faced pre-revolutionary religious philosophers (and contemporary scholars), most particularly how to overcome apophaticism (the conception that knowledge of God is only accessible in terms of what He is not) in Russian Orthodoxy and the resulting bifurcation of religion and culture, which in turn affects the appraisal of homosexuality. Here the body might well be key: a reconsideration of the nature of Jesus’ flesh should help in a reinvestigation of the axiology of the human body (Christ, according to Chalcedon, was of both divine and human nature), and could possibly assist in the Church’s reappraisal of homosexual marriage, as well as answering important questions in Russian studies.

Prurience might provoke reticence amongst some; people are sometimes squeamish when discussing matters of the body – and what the body does. To discuss bodily matters relating to the Holy Family, including birth and sexuality, is more contentious. Yet for us to understand the Incarnation, we should accept that it was a human birth. Jesus was a normal human male and had a penis. But what did He do with it? And what, if any, is the nature of the desire Jesus felt? Can desire be understand as something sacred, where normally in Christian thought it is disregarded or considered something base and even demonic? Read the rest of this entry »