How codes of the underworld leads to military aggression

Machine assist­ed translation

Peacetime soci­ol­o­gy can­not yet explain how a full-scale war with the vio­la­tion of sov­er­eign­ty and the seizure of anoth­er state’s ter­ri­to­ry became pos­si­ble in twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry Europe. We asked Svetlana Stephenson, pro­fes­sor at the School of Social Sciences at the University of London Metropolitan and a mem­ber of the T-invari­ant Coordinating Council, to explain the fail­ure of the demo­c­ra­t­ic tran­si­tion in Russia that has result­ed in the emer­gence of an aggres­sive mil­i­taris­tic state.


In her book Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power (Cornell University Press, 2015), Svetlana Stevenson shows how with the col­lapse of the Soviet Union a social trans­for­ma­tion took place in Russia, and as a result groups of new «mafia-mil­i­tary aris­toc­ra­cy» came to pow­er, which in many ways shaped the face of the state. Our con­ver­sa­tion began with a dis­cus­sion of this process.

SS: With the col­lapse of the Soviet sys­tem, in a sit­u­a­tion of cri­sis of the state and bro­ken social struc­ture, groups that had the resource of vio­lence began to rise to the top: youth gangs, peo­ple from the crim­i­nal world, vet­er­ans of Afghan war, ath­letes. They com­pet­ed or col­lab­o­rat­ed with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of state secu­ri­ty and inter­nal affairs bod­ies. During the 1990s all these forces were self-orga­niz­ing in the strug­gle for the Soviet lega­cy. The new Russian state was formed in their con­fronta­tion and cooperation.

The rul­ing coali­tion that emerged under Putin con­sist­ed, on the one hand, of mil­i­tarist-mind­ed groups, includ­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the FSB and oth­er secu­ri­ty ser­vices, and the oli­garchs, on the oth­er. The oli­garchs, who had no uni­formed forces back­ground, were moti­vat­ed by peace­ful devel­op­ments: cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty, which glob­al­iza­tion, among oth­er things, offered them.

The mid­dle class, which could also stand for a shift away from vio­lence toward a civ­i­liza­tion­al path that would bring Russia clos­er to the mod­ern Western world, failed as an object of pol­i­tics. The rea­son was the choice made in the 1990s in favor of the oli­garchic ver­sion of cap­i­tal­ism. The state favored big cap­i­tal, which was eas­i­er to con­trol. The oli­garchs, get­ting large prop­er­ty at their dis­pos­al, agreed to state con­trol and con­tributed to the sup­pres­sion of small and medi­um-sized busi­ness­es, while resources were direct­ed to a bunch of the rich­est people.

Aggression led to Russia’s break with the glob­al world and to colos­sal loss­es for the oli­garchs. The fact that no mid­dle class has formed in Russia explains how the war became pos­si­ble: the side of the silovi­ki [from Russian word «сила» (sila) — force, pow­er. — T-i] did not meet seri­ous civ­il resis­tance to their mil­i­tarist agen­da. The oli­garchs, being depen­dent on the state, could not offer such resis­tance in spite of all their resources.

Т-i: There is an opin­ion that Putin’s regime topped it off with aggres­sion was a response to the wish­es of the grass­roots and the pow­er elites who emerged from it, with their char­ac­ter­is­tic ethics of liv­ing by codes of the under­world and by the law of the strongest.

SS: I would­n’t blame the grass­roots, because for the peo­ple the main task is sur­vival. For the sake of this, peo­ple either vio­late or abide the law, guid­ed by the spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tion. But the rules of the game are set by the pow­er and the elites. The war is the guilt of the entire rul­ing class. And the peo­ple adapt to the rules of the game, which they saw.

Т-i: But in Ukraine, peo­ple refused to adapt and went to the Maidan.

SS: First, there was the motive of the nation­al lib­er­a­tion strug­gle, a very strong dri­ving fac­tor that often leads to suc­cess. Second, Yanukovich’s gov­ern­ment was quite weak, maneu­ver­ing between soci­ety and the inter­ests of the oli­garchs, while at the same time try­ing to please Moscow. In addi­tion, it did not have the kind of repres­sive sys­tem that exist­ed in Russia. By the way, before the last Maidan, Yanukovych tried to push repres­sive laws that would have made Ukraine more like Russia. And then the peo­ple rebelled.

Т-i: Russia also had the Bolotnaya expe­ri­ence [A huge ral­ly in Moscow against fraud in the 2011 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. — T-i]. Why did­n’t it help?

SS: Things have gone too far in Russia. And I don’t see any way to break this regime with peo­ple’s resis­tance. It is safe to assume that if Bolotnaya had behaved more rad­i­cal­ly then, and peo­ple had tak­en up arms, Putin would have drowned every­thing in blood.

Т-i: Is today’s pro-war major­i­ty con­formist or indifferent?

SS: Survey data does not give much insight into what is going on in soci­ety right now. But it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that there are real­ly many indif­fer­ent peo­ple in soci­ety. It is impos­si­ble to remain apo­lit­i­cal in times of war. But we live in a soci­ety where a machine of com­pul­sion oper­ates. It does not only work for the mobi­lized who are sent to war. It works for every­body. Nurses, teach­ers, most peo­ple are embed­ded in some kind of bureau­crat­ic struc­ture that demands obe­di­ence. Especially in times of war, when the state wants the peo­ple to share its goals, it’s very dif­fi­cult to protest or dis­sent. And, of course, there is an ide­ol­o­gy that offers a vari­ety of ways to jus­ti­fy war.

Т-i: But today’s ide­ol­o­gy con­tra­dicts itself every day. How can it be tak­en seriously?

SS: Ideology does not have to be con­sis­tent. It refers peo­ple to famil­iar nar­ra­tives. For exam­ple: «the coun­try is at war with Nazism,» or «the USSR is a fam­i­ly of nations,» or «Russia has been fight­ing the West all its his­to­ry». They are famil­iar to peo­ple. And peo­ple per­ceive these mes­sages with­out much reflection.

Т-i: There is an opin­ion that sanc­tions will lead to the impov­er­ish­ment of the pop­u­la­tion. The TV will lose to the refrig­er­a­tor, and peo­ple will come out to protest. Is this a real­is­tic prediction?

SS: I do not think that the impov­er­ish­ment of the pop­u­la­tion will lead to protests. When faced with eco­nom­ic tur­moil and a full-blown cri­sis, the peo­ple, on the con­trary, expect the state to help them orga­nize their lives. In the 1990s, when there was real impov­er­ish­ment, ban­dits became qua­si-author­i­ty, sup­plied the pop­u­la­tion in their ter­ri­to­ry with food, installed secu­ri­ty sys­tems, rein­forced doors in high-rise build­ings, and con­trolled unor­ga­nized crime. And the pop­u­la­tion tol­er­at­ed this ban­dit pow­er pre­cise­ly because there was no oth­er. And when there is no pow­er, the peo­ple suf­fer. So I don’t think that sanc­tions here will lead to any sig­nif­i­cant result.

Т-i: Then, what could lead to a regime change?

SS: Perhaps the defeat of the war will lead to a change of leader. If the leader changes, and I believe he will, there will be a change.

Т-i: But, won’t the new leader turn out to be even worse than the old one?

SS: Any per­son who suc­ceeds Putin will have to form a coali­tion, and this coali­tion will have to promise some­thing to its mem­bers. And I don’t think that these peo­ple will want a new author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing the Putin mod­el. They will want to breathe eas­i­er, they will want to be able to use their cap­i­tals in the West again, and they won’t want to fight with the whole world again, see­ing that Putin has lost. So who­ev­er comes in, the con­di­tions will be cre­at­ed to nor­mal­ize life. And then every­thing else is quite unpre­dictable. I hope that the forces that want to return to the pro-European way will be able to take advan­tage of this sit­u­a­tion. And, of course, the younger gen­er­a­tion is quite dif­fer­ent from the one that came into pow­er as a result of the 1990s. If they break through to polit­i­cal influ­ence, there is some ground for optimism.

Т-i: Sociologically speak­ing, how does soci­ety change after these men return from war?

SS: There are American stud­ies that have shown that rather many crim­i­nals emerged from peo­ple who returned from World War II or from the Vietnam War. And there is even a the­o­ry that the increase in the num­ber of ser­i­al killers in America in the 1960s and 70s was due to the fact that the gen­er­a­tion of fathers trau­ma­tized by the war could not ade­quate­ly social­ize their chil­dren, so peo­ple with a com­plete­ly patho­log­i­cal mind grew up among them. War, unfor­tu­nate­ly, has very long-term consequences.

Т-i: And what hap­pens to the major­i­ty who today sup­port the war? How will it change?

SS: When the war is over, the ide­ol­o­gy will change and most peo­ple will recon­sid­er their views. Although, of course, there will be a prob­lem of resent­ment, and there will be forces who will argue that some inter­nal ene­mies pre­vent­ed Russia from win­ning, «stabbed it in the back».

Т-i: What chal­lenges does war pose to soci­ol­o­gy as a science?

SS: In the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, soci­ol­o­gy was hard­ly con­cerned with war as a phe­nom­e­non. Meanwhile, wars were still going on, but only on the periph­ery of the devel­oped world. This is a moment of truth for soci­ol­o­gy, and peo­ple are active­ly seek­ing answers to the ques­tions war has posed.

Т-i: What are these questions?

SS: There are a lot of them. Well, for exam­ple, about the nature of con­formism. To what extent is it con­di­tioned by fear, by the threat of repres­sion, and to what extent does it arise out of a desire for social approval, sol­i­dar­i­ty, when one can­not bear a thought of con­fronting even a group of neigh­bors or rel­a­tives, not to men­tion a whole nation.

Т-i: But con­for­mi­ty is a prop­er­ty of soci­ety. Isn’t it?

SS: Without con­formism, social life would not be pos­si­ble at all. But the fact that a large part of Russians accept­ed the aggres­sion against Ukraine, a coun­try where mil­lions have rel­a­tives, is a soci­o­log­i­cal mys­tery that has yet to be answered.

Questions asked by: MARINA STEINBERG

,   6.03.2023