Sociology War

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