Support for Putin’s war exposes a flaw in Russian studies

I think when we try to make sense of why so few Russian people are challenging the propaganda machinery supporting the war against Ukraine, we forget how many people are actually vulnerable to manipulation because they are just not highly educated.” – Tomila Lankina, professor, London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom.

In the days following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, commentators struggled to explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s throwing of the dice.

The question was not why he had decided to use military force; in 1999 he had in Chechnya, in 2008 in Georgia, and 2015 in Syria. Rather, the question that perplexed observers was the urgency, which to some degree he had telegraphed in an essay published in July 2021.

Ukraine was not about to sign up as NATO’s 31st member and its wished-for admission to the European Union was all but a chimera. Nor was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about to order his troops into the Donetsk and Luhansk to flush out the Russian-backed separatists Putin had unleashed in 2014. Still less was Ukraine set to liberate annexed Crimea, at the southwestern tip of which is Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and its only true warm water port.

Why would Russia break what since the mid-1990s had been a rough and ready truism: No two countries with McDonald’s had ever gone to war?

In her recent article in Post-Soviet Affairs, “Branching out or inwards? The logic of fractals in Russian studies” (hereafter referred to as “Branching Out”), Tomila Lankina, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argues that Western analysts and pundits have failed to understand Russia, Putin and Putinism largely because they have internalised the narrative Russia created during the communist period and have focused on so-called ‘Big Politics’ of ministerial statements.

The dominant paradigm, that the Soviets completely remade Russian society leads to a number of lacunae. Instead, by focusing on the perseverance of social structures and societal groupings dating to the Tsarist times – and the different types of higher education modern day members of these groups receive – she sketches out an analytical plan that explains Putin, public support for his autocracy and where dissent might come from.

“On the surface,” says Professor Vitaly Chernetsky, who teaches in the department of Slavic, German and Eurasian studies at the University of Kansas in the United States, the article “is a critique of currently dominant paradigms in political science (especially overreliance on quantitative methods and ignoring local specificity)”.

“It makes a strong critique of presentism bias in political science research and argues that nuanced knowledge [such as the settlement patterns of peasants who moved into Saint Petersburg and Moscow in the late 1800s] and that important insights into understanding socio-political problems in Russia (but not only in Russia) need historical depth and ethnographic approaches.”

Putin’s support from marginalised groups

Drawing on her research for The Estate Origins of Democracy in Russia: From imperial-bourgeoisie to post-communist middle class, published in December 2021 by Cambridge University Press, Lankina theorises that Putin’s supporters largely come from either marginalised rural groups, or state functionaries and security forces, most of whom are but a few generations removed from their peasant origins. Peasants made up 77% of Russia’s population a century ago.

Of the marginalised living in remote areas, little is known because Russian scholars view them, she says, much the way Western pollsters view the ‘hard to reach’ – and then do little to reach them.

Since it is likely that they would self-select out of a poll, Lankina told University World News, a full study of these Russians would amount to an ethnographic study. The researcher would have to be embedded in the local community and have to earn their trust; only then would the researcher be able to speak with people and learn “how they derive meaning from everyday life”, she writes in “Branching Out”.

The model for this type of study, she says, is the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System. It is, she says, close to unimaginable in today’s world of Russian studies that is siloed, like so many other academic fields. Running from 1917 to the early 1950s, the project combined quantitative survey data with open-ended interviews in order to determine, for example, what made a Soviet medic choose that career, and to understand values and allow people to speak in their own voice.

As was seen following the partial mobilisation in late September, a majority of the men conscripted into the Russian army come from underprivileged urban and rural, ethnic minority areas.

They also make up the majority of the more than 100,000 soldiers killed in Ukraine. Proportionately, these soldiers are dying at a greater rate than those from Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

The socio-economic level of many of these soldiers’ lives was evident from the number of washing machines stolen and sent back home.

“Political scientists don’t really study this part of society very much. They don’t make the connections between ordinary people’s lives, especially at the margins, and political outcomes. What I’m saying is that they are actually – and we see it now politically – highly consequential, because they’re apparently delivering support for the war autocracy,” Lankina says, identifying one major lacunae.

In discussing the second, mainly urban, group that supports Putin, Lankina draws our attention to the massive increase in the public sector under Putin. This expansion included stable, white-collar jobs. More visibly, it has also given jobs to hundreds of thousands in the police and National Guard, who, dressed in riot gear and wielded batons, break up the few anti-war protests that have taken place.

While noting that “these jobs come with reasonable pensions and perks of all kinds”, neither in her book nor article does Lankina adopt the vulgar Marxist equation that explains fealty to Putin’s autocracy only by reference to individuals’ pocketbooks.

Rather, she told University World News, the archival materials she was the first to examine led her to conclude that “the weight of the resentments that have been accumulating across generations and that transcend even the Soviet project … encourage people to align their preferences with those who are against the ‘Westernised liberal elites’,” which are regularly denounced on RT TV and by Putin himself (despite the fact that his immense wealth derives from the men who became oligarchs during the period when Russia was following neo-liberal economic policies).

University education or, to be more precise, the type of university education these white-collar and security services personnel receive is a major contributor to their feelings of resentment.

According to Statista, a German company specialising in statistics, 75% of 25- to 64-year-old Russians have post-secondary education. The breakdown of this figure supports Lankina’s surmises that “education statistics may mask unprestigious degrees”. For, 44 of those percentage points are in post-secondary, non-tertiary and short-cycle tertiary education.

By contrast, only 2.6% of Russians have a just bachelor degree but 30% have a masters or an equivalent and 0.6% have earned doctorates.

Instead of being liberating, as, for example, higher education was for the hundreds of thousands who attended New York City’s free university system from the 1920s onwards, education which opened the door to the upper middle class, Lankina’s research shows that less prestigious diplomas from less prestigious institutions “reproduce the structure of inequality and domination” because of the ‘stigmata’ of ‘catching up’, a phrase she borrows from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

According to Lankina, the pedagogy in many of these institutions can be characterised by Bourdieu’s phrase, “crash and cram”, which the students know is far from what students at Lomonosov Moscow State University or Saint Petersburg State University, the nation’s top universities, experience.

“A college degree is just a data point for researchers working with large-N data. But for the Russian village women, in addition to the promise of escape from the dreaded kolkhoz [Soviet collective farms, created under Stalin], it also means lifelong self-awareness of being distinct from those with other kinds of education, usually intelligentsia who derive from the pre-Revolutionary estates of aristocracy, clergy or the urban merchants and meshchane [poor town resident],” she writes.

Even those who hold degrees from the same universities as those whose families had been urban for generations, Lankina found, continue to suffer “the stigma that comes from other traces of the origins in the kolkhos – whether in residence in an unprestigious micro-district, or the accent, or lack of cultural reference points shared with the descendants of the pre-Revolutionary privileged groups”.

For his part, Chernetsky agrees with Lankina’s sketch of those Russians who remain influenced by their peasant roots. In an email to me, he wrote of “the endurance of old Russian peasantry attitudes or approaches despite waves of ‘escaping into the city’”. Entrenched patterns of behaviour are meshed with systems of discrimination resulting in limited social advancement, he says.

Leaders’ shared resentments

After winning the South Carolina primary in February 2016, which set him firmly on the path to the Republican nomination for president, Donald J Trump declared: “I love the poorly educated” (the state ranks 45th in the nation for education).

Lankina believes (and Chernetsky agrees) that what’s important is not what Putin feels about those who trace their origins back to the peasantry but, rather, that he shares their resentments. True, he graduated from Leningrad State University, but he grew up in a rough part of Leningrad where, as he has discussed a number of times, he had to use his fists. Further, his grandfather was of peasant background, an estate he barely rose above even when he was Lenin’s and, later, Stalin’s cook.

Because most Westerners do not speak Russian and ‘hear’ Putin only through translators, it is all but impossible to grasp how he taps into the sentiments of people like himself, which, Lankina told me, “are the vast majority of the Russian people who are not in the elite”.

They identify with his narratives of patriotism during the Great Patriotic War (World War II), feel nostalgia for the Soviet era and, perhaps most importantly, feel both slighted by the West and, largely because of government propaganda, believe the West aims to destroy Russia and its Orthodox culture.

“Behind Putin’s lashing out against a new liberal Russia and the Western-oriented intelligentsia, we may well then see the generations of accumulated marginality that began with his peasant ancestors and ended in the Saint Petersburg kommunalka [communal apartment].”

In our discussion, Lankina teased out the central role higher education has in the construction of the ‘social imaginary’ in which Putin’s supporters live by referencing two of RT TV’s top-rated shows, one hosted by Margarita Simonyan and the other by Vladimir Solovyov.

Solovyov is Jewish and his parents both graduated with degrees in history and philology from Moscow State University of Education. He earned a masters from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations and taught physics, mathematics and astronomy before his broadcasting career began.

Simonyan, who is also editor-in-chief of RT TV, is of Armenian background and graduated from Kuban State University in Krasnodar, a city in southern Russia.

Both are fluent in English; the 15-year-old Simonyan spent a year as an international high school student in Vermont.

As if to prove the rule that elite higher education does not automatically result in a critic of Putin’s regime, neither show betrays a hint of their education. Rather, both trade in grievances against Ukraine (claiming it is not a real country or that it is infested with Nazis), NATO, the West and the United States.

On 5 December, Putin signed into law a bill banning LGBTQ propaganda in Russia. Dutifully, the pundits on RT TV asserted that since NATO could not possibly defeat Russia, China and India (implying that they were allies), the West was using LGBTQ rights as a way to depopulate the world so that it could take it over.

A few weeks ago, RT TV viewers saw a debate about whether Ukraine’s (Jewish) president (Zelenskyy) was the Antichrist or only a minor devil. Glitzy scenes of explosions and tank movements accompany almost every segment.

Solovyov’s pose is calmer, but no less manipulative, and owes much to Fox News. In monologues, sometimes he decries the state of the Russian military and calls for soldiers who retreat to be shot. A favourite refrain is the decadence of the West, which lacks, he says, a unifying “soul”, as Orthodox Russia does.

Solovyov regularly shows Tucker Carlson’s anti-Ukraine diatribes. Over the two days during which I wrote this article, Solovyov twice interviewed the Columbia University Economics Professor Jeffrey Sachs who is calling for Ukraine to negotiate and step back from what he calls its “maximalist demands” of evicting Russia from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

(Ironically, three decades ago, it was then Harvard University professor Sachs who convinced Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin to adopt “shock therapy” that decimated the Russian economy and pitched tens of millions of Russians into poverty – an episode of deep shame that Putin regularly reminds Russians of and one he uses to excoriate the West and shore up his support with the poorly educated).

Both TV shows, Lankina explained, are designed to appeal to a less educated audience primed by the shows themselves for grievance. “They amplify the ignorance of their less educated audiences. Russia is a very divided society [in terms of higher education] and a very large chunk of the population is not very well able to adjudicate between types of information,” she says.

“This is the legacy of what really was an overwhelmingly rural society that never managed to overcome the historical social divisions, including in higher education,” which, Lankina stressed again, has largely been missed by Russian scholars still being tied to the Soviet’s story of the creation of an egalitarian society.

Bearers of progressive intellectual tradition

In “Branching Out”, Lankina refers to the descendants of the aristocracy, merchants and intellectuals and some clergy who survived the Revolution, as the bearers of the late 19th century progressive Russian intellectual tradition associated with writers like Ivan Turgenev.

In his recent biography of the writer, Orlando Figes shows him to be the ultimate “European”, an almost one man European Union, avant la lettre, connecting writers and other artists across Europe to each other.

When we spoke, Lankina said that she had used the word “aristocracy” somewhat “metaphorically” before saying that “the cultural aristocracy of the Soviet Union came from a mixed bag of those privileged groups who were mostly urban” and included Ukrainians, Poles and Jews.

Lankina’s archival research shows that despite the deaths, estimated at over two million in the Soviet Gulag and Stalin’s purges, a large part of the educated elite survived, by adapting, changing names, and going to work in provincial libraries, museums and galleries far from Moscow.

These people transmitted to their children human capital, cultural values of prioritising knowledge and higher education that set them apart from those who suffer the stigmata of catching up.

Descendants of the cultural aristocrats often pursued advanced degrees – in physics, neuroscience or [referring to her own family] “like my parents did in Oriental studies”, writes Lankina.

The highly educated physicist, Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, she told me, was able to become a dissident because his profession, nuclear physics, was not infused with Marxism-Leninism.

Others embedded in jobs requiring high levels of education, at least before the crackdowns that began after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, are more autonomous than are state functionaries. In addition, and because of their education, she says, they are better able to see through the regime’s propaganda.

By way of example, she draws attention to the biographies of TV Rain’s editor-in-chief, Tikhon Dzyadko, and reporter Anna Mongait. TV Rain was an independent TV station that six days after the invasion of Ukraine, the state prosecutor-general accused of spreading “false information about the actions of Russian personnel” as well as “information calling for extremist activity”.

A day later, on 3 March, Dzyadko announced that he and the station’s personnel had fled to Latvia.

Dzyadko’s great-grandfather, Gregor Friedland, may or may not have had working-class origins, but in 1913 he attended the juridical faculty in Saint Petersburg and after the Soviets came to power, was the first dean of the history faculty at Moscow State University. His son was a prominent dissident as was his son, Dzyadko’s father. Dzyadko’s mother, Zoya Tsvetova was a human rights activist.

Mongait’s father, Viktor Loshak is the former chief editor of Ogonyok one of Russia’s most important and popular weekly news magazines (comparable to Time magazine).

He also had worked at both Moscow News and Kommersant, a nationally distributed newspaper that focuses on news and business. “Loshak came from a family of journalists and technical intelligentsia,” writes Lankina.

At the end of her discussion of these intellectual critics that in both The Estate Origins of Democracy in Russia and in “Living as Before: Keeping up with the Joneses”, a forthcoming paper written with professors Alexander Libman (Free University of Berlin) and Katerina Tertytchnaya (University College London), hitherto unexamined archival records show “the probability of a peasant otkhodnik [a social position between farmer and urban worker] ascending to the prestigious and autonomous Soviet professions without the pedigree of Dzyadko or Mongait’s family was extremely low.”

Chernetsky too believes that the “resilience or endurance of the elites ” is important for understanding Russia’s history and present. “Even with the decimation of the old elites, some did survive, and then there were intermarriages (literal and metaphorical) of old and new elites to sustain or perpetuate themselves. There are always talented individuals who break the pattern [ie move up from the lower educated group], but their cases are ultimately exceptions that prove the rule.”

What did Russian scholars miss

When I asked Lankina to look back and tell me what Russian scholars missed prior to the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, she made two points.

The first concerns the paucity of information on marginal groups and vulnerable communities. “We didn’t think them consequential enough for politics. We didn’t really study social relations. We need to use anthropological methods to understand how these people actually come to their opinions. How do they make sense of political reality?”

The second point she made concerns Putin himself.

“We haven’t thought through the deep cognitive factors, such as, how was he affected by where he was in the social structure of Russian society? How does that affect his world view?

“Because we haven’t thought enough about it, we don’t really understand how he taps into the sentiments of people like himself. We don’t understand how he connects with the vast majority of the Russian people who are not in the intellectual elite, and who identify with his narratives of patriotism and being slighted by the West.

“And, because we haven’t thought about it enough, we don’t really know enough about Russian society.”