‘It’s impossible for the system not to change’ Anthropologist Alexei Yurchak on why Putin hates Lenin and how today’s Russia resembles the late Soviet Union
While waging war on Ukraine, the Russian state has intensified its already tight control over the Internet, press, and opposition at home. Meanwhile, the anti-war opposition has resorted to what are essentially guerilla tactics. Many politicians, journalists, and activists were forced to leave the country to avoid being thrown in jail under Article 207.3 — a new law that criminalizes the spread of “fake news” about the actions of the Russian armed forces. Against this backdrop, contemporary Russian society is frequently compared to the late Soviet Union. To put these comparisons in context, Meduza turned to anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, the author of Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, a well-known study on the last decades of the USSR.
One main mechanism of the Soviet person’s psyche described in your book is “being vnye.”In theory, “being vnye” provides resistance to authoritative discourse, to propaganda. Until February 24, 2022, many Russian citizens felt propaganda wasn’t effective, insofar as it’s too crude. Why weren’t Russians protected by this former Soviet experience of “being vnye”?
The idea you’ve just described is more suitable to concepts like escapism or internal emigration. “Being vnye” isn’t really about that. The overwhelming majority of Soviet people continued to study in schools, work in Soviet enterprises, and live like completely normal Soviet people. But, at the same time, most practiced to some degree the principle of “being vnye” — that is, while taking part in the system’s institutions, practices, rituals, and political statements, they interpreted these into their lives slightly differently than the state intended. Thus, during the late Soviet period, most Soviet people lived simultaneously inside and outside the political system. This doesn’t mean they didn’t care about Soviet ideology, or that they experienced it only as white noise. Not at all. Many socialist values, declared in the state’s political rhetoric, were shared in principle by many: for example, contempt for money and material gain.
Russian citizens from the “creative class” often “catch” each other cooperating with the state: Who received which grants? Why did the Ministry of Culture appear as a sponsor in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film credits? And so on. Many have attempted to do something worthy within the system, and many have succeeded. Have all those who’ve worked with state institutions practiced “being vnye” to some degree?
Actually, the ideology of the state [over the last twenty years] has not been so one-sided. There have been many ways to think about what Russia is, including some perfectly commensurate with state rhetoric or financed by the state. And there have been various people within the state who could take a more liberal stance on this — in the fields of arts and education. If you consider the academic world, which I’m closer to, relatively independent excellent universities have existed for many years — for instance, the European University at Saint Petersburg, or the Higher School of Economics. A bunch of periodicals have appeared, good publishing houses [have opened], [as well as] new bookstores and platforms for public lectures. To some degree, these spaces may be seen as functioning on the principle of “being vnye”: the state supports them in one way or another, and at times directly subsidizes them.
Thus, [the state] contributed to the emergence of new meanings, practices, and attitudes that didn’t always align with state ideology. In fact, the widespread experience of Soviet “being vnye”— the possibility of a symbiotic existence with the state, of receiving support from the state but simultaneously doing things that went against its ideological goals — has helped during the last 20 years. But this parallel to the Soviet system and the Soviet principle of “being vnye” only partially works. After all, unlike in the USSR, in post-Soviet Russia there has not been totalitarian control — at least not until recently. There’s been a relatively independent, albeit limited, press, private [non-state] universities, opposition political groups, the Memorial movement, and so on. There have been numerous liberal, leftist, and simply democratic initiatives and activities. Of course, these were squeezed by the state, but they were operating. There were numerous organized protests across the entire country for various causes, [Alexey] Navalny’s organization had regional offices operating in multiple cities, and so on.
I say this to underscore that “being vnye” — at least how I’ve described it — entails a context of totalitarian control. “Being vnye” allows one to remain loyal to the system formally — since in a totalitarian situation it’s the only way. But, in terms of meaning, [“being vnye” allows one] to create а slightly different world, while constantly shifting the ideological content of the totalitarian world from within.
Speaking about the situation today, undoubtedly there has been a pivot toward totalitarian control, although it has not yet been fully achieved. Independent media within Russia has been shut down, terrible new disinformation laws have been passed, etc. Now it will be more difficult to engage in projects that have existed for years, or to arrange exhibitions that were permitted until recently. Independent bookstores will continue to exist, but it will probably become impossible to sell certain books or organize discussions with readers.
Now, many who worked with the state are trying to understand whether they did enough, or if they were “collaborators” with the regime.
I think it’s inaccurate to call these people collaborators. They did everything right. In fact, in Russia there’s been plenty of activities that didn’t align with the regime’s general position. The most important thing that happened is the regime steadily narrowed the spaces where big groups of people could organize together. Today, there’s a huge number of people who don’t support the regime but who also haven’t been to the polls for years.
Not surprisingly, the regime began to quickly eliminate means of independent self-organization, while destroying what remained of the independent press and cracking down on internet resources. It’s obvious that these measures’ sole objective is to prevent people from unifying, [to stop them from becoming] part of a community with similar views, desires, and political language. Without this kind of public organization, it’s impossible to work together.
But at the same time, we see very powerful examples of horizontal organization on social media. Take, for instance, the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, which exists within [an intentionally] decentralized horizontal structure.
Of course, a lot of this [sort of thing] will happen.
Do you think the state will lose the battle with horizontal self-organization?
First of all, naturally the state is trying to put restrictions on the Internet. They’re even trying to block the use of VPNs. It’s hardly technologically possible [that they’ll be able to] shut out everything. But of course, fewer people will have access to independent sources of information—and meanwhile mass television propaganda will continue.
I think the regime’s main problem now won’t be the horizontal organization of citizens online, although this is important, but the fact that the war in Ukraine has completely thwarted the regime’s expectations. In principle, this could lead to changes at the top, in circles who wield political and financial power. A situation could arise that resembles, in certain respects, the last years of Soviet Union. Back then the changes began from above; nothing would have happened without the reforms from above.
When Gorbachev announced glasnost and perestroika, he meant to liberalize socialism, not break up the socialist system and the Soviet Union. But in fact, it was precisely democratic reforms that led to the collapse of the Soviet system. This happened because the system at that time had mutated considerably and was primed to crumble if pushed the right way. But within the system, it was impossible to apprehend the degree of this internal mutation. Little did Gorbachev know of the system he was trying to reform and its inner willingness to change. I think something analogous might happen this time. When reforms begin at the top — and they will, as it’s not possible for this war [against Ukraine] to end “in victory” — the regime will collapse. Exactly how and when will this happen? It’s difficult to say. But we know from recent history that such changes happen quickly and unexpectedly.
What gives you reason to believe this? Won’t there be a conventional Nina Andreeva who steps out, unwilling to forsake her principles, and won’t others support her?
There’ll probably be people like Nina Andreeva, but as in the years of perestroika, they’ll be in the minority. Why? Because right now, the majority of those who seem to support the existing order of things don’t actually have an active pro-regime position. People support the system not out of a deep commitment to its values, but because they perceive the authorities today to be absolute and irremovable. And so, the only way to deal with [these authorities] is through passive support and walling oneself off from them. But as soon as the authorities and propaganda are no longer perceived to be uncontested, support for them will turn out to be rather ephemeral. When the changes begin, there won’t be many [ordinary] people who’ll be ready to take to the streets under the banner of “I Cannot Forsake the Principles” of Putinism.
We often hear about public opinion polls, according to which most Russian citizens support the authorities and the war. As many commentators have observed, such surveys tell us little, since people perceive them as direct communication with a repressive state and, naturally, are afraid of not voicing support for this state. But I think there’s another, even more important, fact: the majority of those approached by surveys refuse to respond. Someone is asked, “Do you support [the war]?”, and they won’t answer. Since the beginning of the war, this “refusing” majority has increased. Why? It’s an attempt to evade a serious relationship with reality, an unwillingness to position oneself as a person who actively participates in the system, and an unwillingness to choose in terms the system imposes. The growth of this tendency is the growth of “being vnye.”
This is exactly what happened in Soviet history. Many people participated in the system’s ideological institutions and practices: they went to demonstrations, participated in elections, worked in trade unions or the Komsomol, etc. They were thoroughly Soviet people, who perceived the system to be unchangeable. But when perestroika’s reforms began, it turned out a great many were ready to participate in this new political process, which they never expected and, until then, had never thought about. People began to read, listen to, watch, and discuss new critical topics. Their attitude toward the reality that surrounded them changed. And this happened unbelievably quickly. That is, people were implicitly ready for change, although they might not have ever guessed this [to be the case].
Obviously, Russia has yet to accept that it is an empire. At present, this isn’t even acknowledged grammatically in the Russian language: people still argue whether to say “in the Ukraine” [na Ukraine in Russian; i.e., in the Ukrainian region] or “in Ukraine” [v Ukraine in Russian; i.e., in the country Ukraine, distinct from Russia]. Many deny that Russia ever was or remains a colonial state.
Undoubtedly, many elements of colonialism were present in relations between the RSFSR/USSR and the union republics. Colonialist elements certainly manifested in relations with Ukraine, and especially in relations with Central Asia, the Caucuses, and the Baltic states. But we shouldn’t overlook another side to these relations: that is, anti-colonialism was at the heart of the socialist project. This idea — anti-colonialism — was not empty propaganda; in several of the Soviet project’s incarnations, it was sincere and real. It’s incorrect to reduce the soviet project to something akin to British, Spanish, or French colonialism. This is the uniqueness of the Soviet state — here, elements of colonialism and antic-olonialism were paradoxically intertwined, and at times the Soviet Union would quite sincerely pursue anti-colonial policy using colonialist methods.
Russia needs not so much a trial over the past or a ritual of “universal repentance,” as some say, but an open public discussion about decolonizing our history. What is our past? What is its legacy, both good and bad? How should we memorialize it? What was the nature of the Soviet Union’s relations with other republics? How does Putin’s authoritarian system operate? And so on.
Does Russia have the academic resources needed to internally conduct this decolonization?
It is necessary to use the intellectual experience of different countries — this is extremely important. In South Africa, for instance, successful work with a difficult past was carried out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
We have considerable intellectual resources within [Russia] and throughout our diasporas [abroad]. For years, a huge number of important books [on this subject] have been translated from different languages. In academia, in the humanities and social sciences, there are a lot of excellent young people who’ve been educated in Russia and abroad. There’s great potential here. We have many political associations, activist groups, skilled in discussion and debate. We have our own movements, [including] LGBTQ, feminist and pro-feminist programs, democrats of all stripes, etc. If the political context changes — and it will change — then it seems to me that all this experience and know-how will be eagerly sought after. I hope we won’t have to wait long for this.
There’s the feeling that several postcolonial countries still empathize and sympathize with Russia based on this inertial love for the USSR.
It’s not so much a matter of inertia. More importantly, today’s Russian imperialism positions itself in opposition to American imperialism, and since American imperialism is a very concrete reality experienced as violence by many in the world, they may feel some sympathy for the Russian regime. But this doesn’t mean that Putin’s imperialism is something that benefits, develops, or liberates the postcolonial world.
Can’t we regard the restoration of the “Russian world” [Russky mir] and the defense of Russian-speaking populations as idées fixe, commensurate with the Soviet idea of building a communist future?
There was a moment when the idea of the “Russian world” could have become a positive project. But this moment was missed. It all depends on which criteria define the “Russian world.” Counterproductive criteria were selected. First, the “Russian world” is defined by the language spoken in some region in the world — in other words, it boils down to the Russian-speaking world. And second, all Russian-speaking people are “our” people. But this is a narrow and inconsistent definition.
Take Ukraine, for example. A huge number of people in Ukraine use Russian in everyday interactions. Some speak Russian natively, some speak it rather fluently, and some [just] understand it. At the same time, the majority also fluently speak Ukrainian, often switching from one language to the other depending on the context or their interlocutor. For Ukrainians, knowing and using Russian doesn’t mean they automatically intuit Russian as the only native language or automatically associate themselves with Russia or the Russian cultural space.
In general, a language can’t be someone’s property or belong to a group or state. And someone being fluent in a language doesn’t necessarily mean they feel it as their own. Petersburg aristocrats, who [Lev] Tolstoy wrote about in War and Peace, spoke French better [than they spoke Russian], but they considered Russian their native language.
Russian policy, including the “Russian world” policy, has caused a growing number of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine to view Ukrainian as their native language. They are not willing to become a part of the “Russian world” under the conditions being offered.
The “Russian world” project could never be realized through empire, by declaring Russia to be the sole center and custodian of “Russianness.” Such a cultural-linguistic policy elicits rejection. The “Russian world” should have been built via recognition and respect for different kinds of Russianness, including different variants of the Russian language and different ways of self-identifying through language.
You’ve written an article about Lenin and the sacred nature of his body. Why do you think Putin, in his pre-war speech, identified Lenin as the creator of the Ukrainian state? Why did Lenin in particular become an object of Putin’s criticism?
Putin has always been against the Soviet project. He is an anti-Soviet politician. The imperialism he preaches has nothing to do with the Soviet Union or communist ideology.
But what about Putin’s remark, “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart”?
This remark means something else to him. The thing is, a huge number of people — our fellow citizens, relatives, and predecessors — lived in the Soviet Union. The meaning of their lives was rooted in Sovietness, in Soviet reality. For many, especially older people, a complete repudiation of the Soviet project meant that their lives had apparently been lived in vain. But for the imperialist Putin, this tragedy has a somewhat different connotation — for him it’s a loss of a large common space, a great unifying goal, [and] status as a world leader, which many in the world strive to attain.
For him, what’s important is not the communist aspect of the Soviet past — he regards this with contempt — but the role of world leader the USSR played. That Putin experiences the USSR’s collapse as a tragedy doesn’t mean he wants to return to a communist society or that he’s interested in Leninist ideas.
Why did he attack Lenin specifically in his articles about Ukraine? Because Lenin insisted that nations have the right to self-determination. One idea central to the creation of the Soviet state was that [ethnic, racial, national, regional] populaces joined it voluntarily, and had the right to leave it voluntarily. Naturally, in practice, voluntary withdrawal from the Union was an ideological fiction. If Ukraine had declared, “We are withdrawing from the Union,” this would have been followed by repressions and accusations of nationalism. But the principle of the sovereignty of each nation was prescribed in the Fundamental Law [the Constitution].
Moreover, following the principle of national self-determination, the Bolsheviks artificially created many nationalities and national territories. In the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, state ethnographers carved up the territory and invented fixed boundaries where they’d never existed before. Since in practice it was impossible to leave the Union, territories were exchanged between neighbors without much trouble. But when toward the end of perestroika the USSR began to fall apart, the once-fictitious right to sovereignty suddenly began to be used as a real mechanism of withdrawal from the Union.
Following Putin’s logic, at this point Lenin was guilty of two crimes. First, his abstract idea about nations’ rights to self-determination had now led to their actual withdrawal from the Union. Second, the Bolshevik approach — through which nations and territories were created at random and, at times, incorporated the former territories of neighbors — now meant that such territories wound up in new, independent states. According to Putin, this is precisely how an independent Ukraine arose, after having snatched away Russian land populated with Russians. Per this logic, territories were taken away from Russia, and Russia came away with nothing.
Why hasn’t Lenin’s body been removed from the Mausoleum? It’s not because Lenin is dear to Putin. Instead, he doesn’t want to make a decision that would be seen both inside and outside of Russia as an admission that Soviet history was a big mistake. There is a rationality in not tampering with Lenin’s body. But when dealing with this history today, it’s possible to endow this body with new meanings. This often happens with problematic monuments. For example, one could propose to transform the Mausoleum into the main museum of Soviet history, with all its accomplishments and crimes, hopes and disappointments. Here, Lenin’s body would be well suited — after all, the entire paradoxical history of the USSR intersects it.
Many view the crisis today not merely as a crisis of right-wing ideas and politicians, but as a crisis of the entire capitalist model. Will the coming changes set in motion not only a restructuring of the power vertical, but also a restructuring of the system?
I think there’s undoubtedly a need for justice and solidarity, which have been missing for a long time. In Russian society today, as in American society, there’s completely unprecedented polarization — a minority holds the lion’s share of resources. This is an extremely antidemocratic situation. In Russian society there is demand for a social transformation you could call more leftist, but which would more accurately be termed democratic in a wider sense.
Part of the blame for the rise of Putin’s regime undoubtedly falls on the financial and political elites of the West. Their greed contributed to the emergence of a class of Putin-state oligarchs. They signed contracts with Putin, multiplying their own fortunes as well as his, bought his gas and oil, sold him luxury real estate and soccer clubs, and held his money in banks and offshore accounts. They helped create the conditions that gave rise to this dictatorial regime, and continued to do so even when there was no doubt of the regime’s cannibalistic nature. Of course, most responsibility for what’s happening today — for this war — lies with Putin and his inner circle. But Western elites pandered to Putin far too long, themselves making money in doing so.
So, will this last forever, or will it end?
It increasingly seems to me — or I want to hope — that after a relatively short period, less than a decade, the system in Russia will change completely. It’s impossible for the system not to change — so much is broken now. The war took almost everyone by surprise, even those close to power. It’s difficult to imagine a revolution coming from below in this system; I don’t think this will happen. But when reforms come from above, it will quickly turn out that huge masses are ready for them. The task will be to return Russia to itself and to the world. I think many will participate enthusiastically in this process, even though today it’s difficult for them to imagine such a thing. But this was how it was during the last years of the Soviet Union — nobody expected changes, but it turned out everyone was ready for them.