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Archive for the 'Russia' Category

Russia’s Civil Society: From Democracy Backpedaling to Informal War

By Blog Admin, on 30 July 2016

 

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by Professor Alena Ledeneva

Across Central, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, democracy and civil society in the post-communist era are being diverted by informal ties, networks, practices that hide behind democratic institutions. The main problem with powerful informal obligations to family, friends, colleagues and bosses is that they also compromise the state, governance and civil society, especially where clear boundaries between public and private cannot be drawn. Imagine official positions that take over private lives, or having to choose between being a good bureaucrat and a good brother.

I’ve presented my research into informal practices in my trilogy on Russia: Russia’s Economy of Favours, How Russia Really Works, and Can Russia Modernise. In these three books, I take an ethnographic approach towards studying informal practices at different levels and periods, from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia. I view communism, its collapse, and the formation of a new system from the perspective of informal practices, and question the predominant discourses of the state, democracy, and civil society, associated with formal institutions.

There are three strands to my argument.

Firstly, the 1990s’ liberal reforms in Russia were originally thought to allow civil society to emerge and get grounded in already existent networks, yet this was not what happened. It turned out that Russia’s informal networks operate according to the ‘us versus them’ logic that is largely self- or network serving, and thus not conducive to civic values.

Secondly, the double standards widespread under the communist oppressive system continue to operate even after the fall of such a regime. The post-communist vacuum was hard to fill, and after a short blip of enthusiasm for democracy in late 1980s and early 1990s, the informal practices in politics – black PR, kompromat, krugovaya poruka (joint responsibility) – have increased people’s cynicism towards the new democratic institutions.

Thirdly, the non-civic nature of informal networks in Russia has also had effects on those in power. On one hand, Putin’s power networks served themselves and reproduced the culture of privileges, which is detrimental to civil society. On the other hand, Putin’s restrictive laws of 2006 and 2011, which, although damaging to existing non-governmental organisations, had the unintended consequence of benefitting civic initiatives emerging ‘bottom-up’. This was illustrated by the Blue Buckets campaign for equality on the roads, and the anti-Putin protests of 2011. The internet has become an important tool for activism, such as the Last Address initiative, whereby people commemorate victims of Stalin’s purges by putting a plaque on their building.

However, since 2012 powerful nationalist propaganda has considerably eroded the atmosphere for bottom-up social initiatives. This was launched by the Kremlin to ensure popular support for the continuing confrontation with the West over the situations in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and now Turkey. The informal war – an undeclared warfare behind the misleading facades – has gone international. This is not surprising, given the decades-long tradition of informal economy and informal politics. The future is even more worrying, as the number of leaders who admire and emulate the Most Powerful Person in the World is only likely to increase.

 

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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

Stalin in Manhattan

By Blog Admin, on 20 May 2016

By Dr Elisabeth Schimpfossl – Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL SSEES

Elisabeth is giving a talk on 23rd May on ‘Russia’s New Rich and Their Attitudes to The West’ at UCL as part of the UCL Festival of Culture

(Seminar room 20, Wilkins South Wing, 18.00)

During my last trip to New York I was invited to attend the annual PR event of a chic Russian-owned Manhattan antiques shop. Everything was fancy; the location in one of the trendiest streets in Upper East Side that attracts a cosmopolitan jet-set crowd, the subtly tanned maître de, a young man with a gym-honed physique complemented by the most perfect manicure possible, and the champagne-sipping ladies elegantly balancing on pencil thin heels. I chatted with the wife of the new owner, a very pleasant thirty-something, who appears genuinely natural, despite being perfectly turned out, thanks to Botox, good dentistry and professional fashion styling.

Masha was born into an engineers’ family in Novosibirsk. Her family left for Spain in the early 1990s. After graduating from an international school, Masha did an economics degree at a UK business school. She worked for her father’s company for a few years before meeting Vadim, the son of a Forbes-listed oil and gas businessman. Vadim had some of his business in Latin America, so the young couple settled in New York City. He had a longstanding passion for antiques, and the year before he finally decided to realise his dream of owning a small antiques boutique. Masha was all up for it. She loves meeting new people, the quirky antique art dealers and the international ladies of fashion whom she primarily considers her husband’s clients, and also the people from the neighbourhood, some of them proper New Yorkers, who pop by every so often for a glass or two.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masha and I got to talk about the Moscow metro; how it is superior to the New York subway, not least because of the resources which were put into it by some of the best engineers of the early 1930s; and how little surprising it is that this greatly helped boost Stalin’s popularity. Stalin was not only good though, Masha adds. I nod quickly, affirming to her that that was indeed very much the case. Then I learned I had not nodded to the same idea. Stalin did not go far enough, she says, with the kind of un-Russian, professional smile on her face, learned at her international school.

Yes, it was crucial to eliminate all those Trotskyists and Leninists who would have only sabotaged the Soviet Union’s leap into an industrialised future. Stalin had never been a Leninist, hence Lenin’s suspicion towards him shortly before his death in early 1924. Both Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, became very wary of Stalin. Lenin had only endured young Stalin before the First World War for successfully staging bank robberies to fill up the party’s fighting fund. At the time Lenin’s party was working underground and any source of income was highly appreciated. So obviously Stalin had to settle his accounts with Lenin, his heritage and all his living memory.

Masha went on to explain why Stalin had to liquidate other revolutionaries and their sympathisers, for example the old Bolshevik Bukharin, a fellow traveller of Lenin. Bukharin had great charisma and was very popular, but he sided with the rich peasants. No industrialisation would have gone ahead with them clinging to their old ways of production; hence Stalin had to get rid of him. He also went on to liquidate the Red Army’s high command in 1937. Masha was now quite animated and in full flow. No matter how Bolshevik Marshall Tukhachevsky and the other senior commanders perceived themselves, they had a Tsarist mind-set. They would have become a massive problem, hindering more courageous military strategies during the Second World War.

If anything, Stalin was not tough enough. This is evident in the fact that there were still massively damaging saboteurs left, such as the Red Army general Vlasov who collaborated with the Nazis after his capture in 1942. At this point Masha’s husband waved his wife over to introduce her to a new customer who was interested in a fine pair of lacquered armchairs. The antique shop staff started collecting the empty Ruinart bottles and champagne glasses. The two pieces I liked most and would have loved to buy if I was rich, a 1940s cabinet for $35K and an art nouveau coffee table for $40K, had red stickers on them to indicate that they had been sold, and I left into the fresh air of a relatively clear New York September night.

 

As cosmopolitan and sophisticated as Masha is in most aspects of her lifestyle, her expensive European schooling and university education had failed to convert her to Western-type humanistic thoughts. Patriotic thinking, including seeing Stalin as the great moderniser and overseer of the Soviet Union’s rise to global superpower, was clearly more persuasive to her. As we saw in the case of Kremlin TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, even repressions in one’s own ancestry suffered during Stalin’s terror do not necessarily outweigh the deeply conservative views that began flourishing in the Putin era, supported by nostalgic feelings towards the Soviet period, primarily associated with solid traditional family values. Stalin is associated as much with the glory of the Soviet victory in the Second World War and with the country’s economic development as he is with atrocities and terror.

 

The tendency to hold such strong convictions arises within the context of clashing historical narratives. Western education, lifestyle and permanent residence do not necessarily have great influence on this view; on the contrary, they can rather cement it: the Western schooling Russians are presented with as gospel truth could not deviate more from what they have heard from relatives, seen on Russian television and read in Russian textbooks. In the Soviet Union, the only channels for alternative versions of history were close friends and family. Patriotism – and with it nostalgia for Russia’s lost status as a superpower – is such a strong component of national identity that Western takes on history are not perceived as pluralistic views, but as a sharp knife stabbed into Russia’s heart. Western textbook writers are partly to blame. It has happened to me, not just once, that when I asked a full lecture hall of history students in England who won the Second World War, the Soviet Union was conspicuous by its absence from their list of victorious countries. Those full of pride in their culture and history (to some extent almost every Russian), if not socialised into a belief in superiority, will necessarily defiantly reject an unsubtle Western understanding of their country and society.

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.

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Dr Phil Cavendish at Grad London

By Blog Admin, on 29 March 2016

Dr Philip Cavendish spoke at the recent GRAD Eisenstein exhibition on the introduction of colour film to Soviet cinema.

The overarching title of the Gallery for Russian Art & Design’s (GRAD for short and based in Little Portland Street, London) series of public lectures this Spring is a play on the well-known slogan, ‘A Cinema, Understood by the Millions’. This became associated with Soviet cinema of the 1930s.
Dr Phillip Cavendish: SOVIET COLOUR FILM, 1929–1945: AN EXPERIMENT UNDERSTOOD BY VERY FEW

Courtesy of GRAD

Since the drawings of Sergei Eisenstein are the subject of the exhibition currently being curated at GRAD, it might be worth pointing out that the title also makes reference to the title of a newspaper article which Eisenstein published alongside Grigorii Aleksandrov in early 1929. Entitled ‘Eksperiment, poniatyi millionam’ (An Experiment Accessible to Millions), this was published in the film journal Sovetskii ekran to accompany the release of the film Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New) – also known as General’naia Linia, which they had directed together.

By suggesting that colour cinema was an ‘experiment understood by very few’, I don’t mean that Soviet audiences experienced conceptual confusion in relation to the phenomenon of colour. Instead, it is that the complexity of the scientific processes that underpinned the development of colour technology was generally grasped poorly. This is true of the direct consumers of film culture, the vast majority of film critics and correspondents who reported on that culture, the senior managers and employees of Soviet film studios and the bureaucrats that were responsible for the film industry as a whole.

This lack of comprehension had dire, if not tragic, consequences for some of those involved in colour-film production in the Soviet Union. It also produces significant challenges for the film historian who seeks to understand the phenomenon and its implications for the development of Soviet cinema and Soviet culture more broadly.

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Courtesy of GRAD

The reasons for being interested in this subject are nevertheless various and compelling. (more…)

How Western plans to fight Putin’s propaganda war could backfire

By Blog Admin, on 26 June 2015

Joanna Szostek, a Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow at UCL SSEES, considers the implications of Western proposals to fight Russian propaganda. She argues that injecting Western government money into Russian-language news content could backfire.

An information war is raging in Eastern Europe; at stake are perceptions of the situation in Ukraine. In both Russia and the West, the commentariat claims the other side manipulates gullible minds with propaganda.

Vladimir Putin on Russia Today. Photo: Wiki Commons.

In mid-May, Russian television ran a six-minute report about “battle formations” pitted “against Russia” on the internet and airwaves. By this it meant the volunteer Information Army established by the Ukrainian Information Ministry and the “myth-busters” Brussels hopes to recruit to defend its Eastern Partnership initiative against Russian disinformation.

A week later, the Latvian capital Riga hosted a conference where hundreds of journalists and assorted experts discussed how to counter the “Russian information threat”. EU officials were in attendance, promising tens of millions of euros to support “free media” across the six Eastern Partnership states.

(more…)

A prayer for the Russian dead

By Blog Admin, on 29 April 2015

Tim Beasley-Murray considers Emmanuel Carrère’s Retour à Kotelnitch and what it tells us about death in contemporary Russia. 

Retour à Kotelnitch (Back to Kotelnich) is a documentary film, made in 2003, by Emmanuel Carrère, a French writer of Russian descent, that tells of life in a small and unexceptional town eight hundred kilometers east of Moscow. The ending of the film is almost unbearably sad. Beneath the soundtrack of Carrère’s tender and unaccompanied singing of a Russian lullaby, Lermontov’s Bayushki Bayu, the images show us the desolate forecourt of Kotelnich’s railway station, under darkened skies, covered in frost and snow, an empty bench, leafless trees. We have already seen this place earlier in the film. In the earlier scene, Anna, a young woman whom Carrère has befriended, is with Lev, her baby boy of about four months, in a sling on her chest. She is talking animatedly and distractedly to the camera, proud, bubbling with the love of a mother for her child. Carrère, behind the camera, at this point in making the film, has begun to lose interest in Anna in terms of her value for his project. Nevertheless, in a cutaway from middle distance, Carrère sits on the bench and plays happily with the baby. In the book that accompanies the film, Un roman russe, the reader finds out that it is at this moment that Carrère sings the Lermontov lullaby to Lev in his arms. It is summer and the sun gently shines through the leaves of the trees on the station forecourt.

Kotelnich train station (Photo: Wikicommons).

Between these two scenes and these two views of the same place, one wintrily desolate, the other sunlit and full of a love that is low-key but self-evident, something terrible has happened: Anna and her baby have been brutally murdered. Anna, strangled in her flat with the cord of her telephone; Lev, hacked to pieced with an axe. Summer has turned to Winter. The viewer cannot but superimpose her or his experience of the two similar, but cruelly opposed scenes. (A clunkier film-maker would intercut a flashback here.) What we see through the falling snow on the empty Winter bench is the absence of this mother and child and the crushing presence of their death. The lullaby that Carrère had sung to a living, sun-dappled Lev, a lullaby that tells of a mother’s hopes for her child as he grows up, has now, sung again at the end of the film, become a grave-song for a life brought to an end, so soon, so unimaginably violently.

(more…)