Anecdotalizing Ourselves To Death: Or, How Do We Know What Russians Think?
October 13, 2023
  • Jeremy Morris
    Professor in Global Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark. His latest (co-edited) book is Varieties of Russian Activism (Indiana University Press 2023).
Jeremy Morris cautions against unfounded and oversimplified conclusions about the Russian people’s thinking about the war in Ukraine and suggests that, despite demands for social consolidation, strong centrifugal tendencies are afoot.
What do Russians really want? It seems that the less actual research or in-depth interviewing is carried out with Russians, the firmer people’s opinions get about them. As with many sources of animus, whether Trump voters, Brexit supporters, ‘the Russian public’ is now an object of sociological reductionism to an absurd degree.

It goes like this: ‘sure there are some antiwar Russians, but the majority are if not active supporters, then callously passive supporters of Putin’. The next step is this: if the majority are deplorables, we don’t need to inquire any further. We can write them off and feel both intellectual and emotional satisfaction. Some things are just bad. Or like Hilary Clinton mused aloud in a recent interview: the best we can hope for is a ‘formal deprogramming of the cult members’.

Why should be care about what Russians think?

In a recent piece for Russia.Post, Karine Clément posed the problem well: Putin and the West agree on one thing, the irrelevance of the Russian people – ‘infinitely manipulable, cannon fodder’. While we might not agree with her that people power will end the war, two things are certain:
“The war will end, and Russian society in many ways will not change so much.
Saima residential complex, Vyborg, Leningrad Region. Source: Wiki Commons
Inquiring into what social mechanisms end up sorting them into groups with sometimes distinct characteristics such as those who willingly choose to fight and those who actively resist is surely important. Especially if we want to gauge the chances for the recovery of a post-war society.

Of course, that too is a simplification. In reality scholars and observers alike should be reflecting on the ever shifting and quite diverse currents in Russian society which remains as diverse as any other. Russian Field and the Public Sociology Lab have made impressive strides in showing how stratified and ‘divided’ Russian society is in relation to the war. On the basis of interviews, they highlight differences based on geography, income, education and professional identity. In my own ethnographic research, I trace all kinds of dispositions towards the government and towards the war on Ukraine. Without interrogating complexity we can only offer simplistic answers which will then end up disappointing us, and policy communities too. But the fact is, these kind of interpretative approaches get little traction in the wider scholarly and media spheres. People prefer to look at opinion polling data from organizations like Levada, despite the many valid methodological and other criticisms leveled at them.

The broad dissemination of polling data indicating support for the war does not exist in a vacuum. In the Western press polling data is inevitably accompanied by academic or other commentary which reinforces the validity of such data, without any attempt to educate the reader about epistemological limitations. And Levada itself is often careful to curate its own polls in the media – as Lev Gudkov did for this important poll in January 2023 in an interview with Spiegel International. He chose to press home his interpretation of mass moral nihilism among Russians, while his poll actually provided startling evidence of a deeply morally divided populace.

Furthermore, in an insidious way, polling results gain spectacular power in concert with two deeply flawed phenomena: the vox pop from Russia and the ‘cultural’ history piece. I’ll deal with the latter first. Time after time broadsheet media have rolled out their favourite columnists to hold forth on the violent or slavish nature of the Russian soul. They might put a scholarly historically-determinist veneer on it. But let’s be clear that it is not analysis and would not pass a smell test if we (in the West) were on the receiving end of similar. It is a short trip to imputing almost genetically inherited imperialist mindsets and murderous drives.
But the vox pop is what particularly exercises those of us who do long-term field-work based research.
Fatal flaws

As most journalists have left Russia, those few individuals doing street interviews about the war now gain greater visibility. Just like polling, regardless of the intentions of those doing vox pops they suffer from the same fatal flaws as polling does. Sergei Chernyshov’s first-hand account about life in ‘provincial’ Russia won fulsome praise from many experts for its attempt to shine a light on the effects of the war far away from the cosseted metropolises. He was writing about his family and the place where he came from.

It is not a vox pop, to be sure but it is an example of the ‘Facebookization’ of liberal Russian commentary. In it he drew attention to the money brought back to marginal spaces by Wagner fighters and local people’s pride in such veterans. Chernyshov is a welcome reminder of the limited impact of sanctions on ordinary people in far-flung places. But in my reading it suffers from many of the same prejudices, flaws, and misunderstandings that polling and vox pops reproduce.

While sympathetic to structural causes of poverty which make a few desperate people join the war effort, Chernyshov is guilty of a common sin when the privileged take the time to enquire into the lifeworlds of society’s least fortunate. He argues that if people are brutalized and poor they give in to the basest of instincts and are fatalistic. Except there’s no real evidence for this generalization, which was in any case subject to strong critique even fifty years ago by sociologists. The anecdotalization of observations about Russian society is of course inevitable given the circumstances, but the vulgarization of knowledge should be resisted by serious observers and social scientists. And indeed, anyone interested in more than simplistic answers to difficult questions.

This isn’t a call to police the borders of inquiry, quite the opposite. I want to draw attention to how much knowledge is produced about Russia from highly situated, we can even say, biased perspectives. This was true before the war and will be true afterwards.

What can we do?

Admit that interactions, from polling, through to focus groups and vox pops are highly artificial situations. They are at best refracted forms of knowledge creation. The light produced is bent in the process and can change in intensity and colour depending on the lens the observer is using. Now I’m not saying my own method – long term immersion and ethnographic triangulation – is free of bias. I would freely admit that it took me time to come to terms with those of my informants who clearly do delight in the destruction of Ukraine, however tiny a share they represent. For a better example of careful eye-witness reportage, here is a report from Mother Jones on mobilization.

From around the 1920s, field researchers distinguished themselves from social scientists who sought to ape the natural sciences through applying the principles of positivism. They emphasised that the researcher must first experience what their research subjects experienced before being able to take a more ‘objective’ or ‘detached’ view. This emphasises retaining the context of the social phenomenon under study.

As a result, ethnographers tend to relinquish claims to repeatability [‘reliability’]. But they try to overcome this by repeatedly revisiting the field. They go to other field sites to compare results there, and they ‘triangulate’ – cross-checking accounts in the same place, with other external observers, and by observing what people actually do, alongside their speech.
The point about going beyond ‘logocentrism’ – focussing too much on talk – is really important.
Zaryadye Park, Moscow. Source: Wiki Commons
Embedded field researchers may end up with a quite robust level of case study ‘saturation’, have spoken to and observed at length many dozens, if not hundreds of people. And in terms of ‘representativeness’, if not generalizability, their findings might be more valid than those of other methods.

Influential studies sometimes lead to counterproductive ideas

Reflecting on what that means in the context of Russia’s war, I keep returning to the roots of Cold War knowledge production and even earlier scholarship about ‘the enemy’. History shows that some of the most highly influential studies led to deeply flawed and counterproductive ideas which then influenced not only policy but the wider society in which they were produced. Two famous examples are Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (first published in 1946 it proposed that Japanese have no concept of freedom, only conformism and shame) or Margaret Mead’s Swaddling Hypothesis (published in 1951, it suggested that Russians are hateful yet dependent on external authority because they are tightly bound in bedclothes as infants). We should seek to resist the mysterious power of highly refracted takes from whatever source.

The parallels are ominous. Benedict ended up imputing ruling class ideology (refracted through newspapers) to the whole of society. She relied on one informant without reflecting on the highly specific circumstances of that person’s life. Like Benedict, Mead had access only to narrow or biased sources of information. In both cases neither had access to the actual country they were researching.

I wish I could offer a more satisfying conclusion, but without acknowledging complexity and accounting more for biases, we will end up repeating the mistakes of the past. This will help neither Ukrainians nor Russians. And will leave our understanding impoverished and faulty.

The best work we have on Russian publics shows strong centrifugal tendencies despite desires for social consolidation. Ideological or ‘hegemonic’ explanations fall flat in the face of evidence of a lack of understanding about the reasons for the war. Further military mobilization, if attempted, may provoke even deeper fissures to propagate up to the surface. Prolonged intensity of the conflict will lead to the same, not least because, unlike the impression given in Chernyshov’s piece, ordinary Russians are paying a terrible economic and social price for the invasion, and most importantly, most of them know it.
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