Александр Бикбов / Alexander Bikbov - photo by Valerij Ledenev/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Александр Бикбов/ Alexander Bikbov - photo by  Valerij Ledenev/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 )

"The stable emergence of a Russian civic consciousness against the war is inseparable from a collective elaboration of the trauma of belonging to the aggressor country", says Russian sociologist and dissident Alexander Bikbov in this interview

15/11/2022 -  Asia Leofreddi

“Putin's is a neo-mercantilist war, moved only by reasons of profit and power. If we don't start from here when it comes to peace, the war against Ukraine will not be the last". Thus Alexander Bikbov , Russian dissident sociologist and intellectual who has been studying social movements in Russia for more than twenty years. Until 2017 Bikbov was the deputy director of the Centre for contemporary philosophy and social sciences at Moscow University. Five years ago, given the censorship and the impossibility of carrying out his research freely, he left the country. Today he is a research associate at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Ehess) in Paris, from where he has repeatedly spoken out against the war, describing Russian society, its inequalities, and its hotbeds of resistance.

You have repeatedly criticised an overly geopolitical approach to war in Western media and politics – including left-wing ones. What do you mean? What are its limits?

I am referring to the fact that this conflict often tends to be explained in terms of an opposition between two blocs: NATO and Russia. In my opinion, it is a methodological error which, in its excessive schematism, forgets the role played by the political and cultural history of the societies involved in this conflict. Geopolitical narratives, in fact, erase societies as autonomous entities and the result of a long construction: there is no Ukraine, but neither there is Russia with all its internal tensions, its contradictions, and its complexities. The history of power and social structures that are activated in the context of war, on the other hand, is a fundamental aspect for understanding the situation and a starting point for building a just peace.

So what are the "internal" roots of this war?

This conflict cannot be traced back only to Putin's suicidal folly, but is rather the result of the progressive degeneration of the relational structures of his power model: a breakdown of the balance between the modernist and traditionalist components of his government.

This process already began at the end of 2000 and took a clear form in 2011-2012 when, in the wake of the protests against electoral fraud, a critical public space was formed in Russia that did not exist before. From that moment Putin decided that it was no longer (and should not be) possible to dialogue with the opposition. In addition to becoming increasingly repressive towards civil society, he began to progressively distance people and experts from the heart of power with a certain form of European and Westernised "rationality". This was the case, for example, of propagandist Gleb Pavlovsky, fired in 2011 and today in the opposition; or of Finance Minister Aleksej Kudrin; eventually, of Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin's closest strategists who however failed in his idea of creating "controlled democracy". It was a sort of marginalisation of all his more "modernist" entourage, which led to the neo-traditionalist, more conspiratorial, nationalist, and belligerent components prevailing, including the more conservative wing of the Orthodox Church.

The pandemic completed the radicalisation of this symbolic universe and turned it into action. We do not know the exact moment when the decision was made – if we did we certainly would not be here talking about it publicly! – but the restriction of the circle of government experts, together with Putin's progressive isolation due to Covid, has certainly created the "environmental" conditions in which this war was conceived.

You say that this war brings together power and profit. How?

Based on my research  on the dual structure of the Russian regime, in which de facto neoliberal policies are disguised as traditionalism, I have come to the conclusion that, since the beginning of the 2010s, the Russian political regime has taken a neo-mercantilist turn. The awareness of not being able to prevail neither from a technological nor from a demographic point of view and the obsession with defending oneself from possible invaders have led the government to attribute ever more importance to the territory as a source of power and to conquer new territories under the pretext of the "restoration" of great Russia.

However, this is not a project driven only by a colonial and nationalist approach, but also by considerations of profit which, although capitalist, move in a different logic from neoliberal rationality. If, in fact, we reason from the point of view of maximising profit, territorial expansion is not convenient, as war and occupation are hugely expensive undertakings. If, on the other hand, we start from the point of view of mercantilist rationality which sees in the territory first a source of power and then, only following the occupation, also of wealth, Putin's bloody "madness", albeit archaic, will become clearer in his intentions. This is the logic which, in the first months of the war, led Russia to protect the energy and economic infrastructures of Ukraine, with a view to their recycling after annexation.

You have often described Russian society as marked by profound inequalities, due to the legacy of the democratic transition and the neoliberal policies of Putin's government. How was the war grafted into this context?

War has made the ethnic, cultural, and class divisions already criss-crossing Russian society more visible and exacerbated them, leaving it to people further down the social ladder to suffer the heaviest consequences of the conflict. To give an example, on 21 September Putin announced the "partial" mobilisation throughout the country, but on 17 October  the mayor of Moscow had already declared it over for the capital. It was certainly a decision aimed at reducing manifestations of dissent; however, it also uncovered one of the grave inequalities of this conflict. Some data  show that most of the soldiers who lost their lives came from rural areas and from the ethnic republics: Dagestan, Tuva, Buryatia. On the part of the government, this is not ethnic discrimination, at least not explicitly, but it is in the poorest regions where joining the armed forces is one of the few possibilities for social mobility for young people.

Another interesting fact involves psychotropic drugs. Compared to 2021, their sale has doubled. Unsurprisingly, the regions where it is highest are Moscow and St. Petersburg, the same ones where the highest rates of departures to escape the war are recorded; those where it is lower are Chechnya, Dagestan, Tuva, i.e. those that suffered the most in the early stages of the conflict and from which, for economic reasons, it is more difficult to escape. In fact, we must not forget that in order to flee and escape conscription, one must have economic capital and not everyone in Russia has it.

For years, you have been involved in protest movements in Russia. Can we speak today of a movement of opposition to the conflict?

At present, at least three forms of resistance can be traced. The first is the one carried out by groups such as the feminists of the Fas  network, the LGBT movements, or the anarchists. They do not organise large demonstrations, but use symbolic practices, typical of those who have had to act in an increasingly repressive context: they open Telegram channels, write anti-war messages on banknotes, leave graffiti and objects in various parts of the city to remember the children of Mariupol killed by Russian bombs, or organise performances such as those of the "women in black". They have also set up a relief fund for people who were fired for opposing the war.

The second is carried out by the democratic or liberal opposition. They use more "classic" forms of protest: street demonstrations, individual pickets. These are actions that favour the idea of the political message in the public space and are directed above all to the media. This is a very well tested dissident repertoire in Russia since the Soviet era and which recalls the six Russian dissidents who gathered on Red Square in 1968 to protest against the invasion of Prague by Soviet tanks.

Finally, the third is represented by the forms of resistance that take place in the social strata that belonged to the majority loyal to the institutions and that had never mobilised before, but which now began to do so, especially after the last call for mobilisation called "partial", faced with the risk of death of their loved ones.

Could you give some examples of this third form?

Since the beginning of the war, 75 Molotov cocktails have been thrown against police stations, with the aim of protesting against the war, but also of destroying draft records. If some of these actions were carried out by activists – even of the extreme right – others were carried out by ordinary people, who did not want the men of their own families to go to war.

Another interesting initiative is collective absence from the workplace, presenting a regular medical certificate. It was a strategy invented by the radical left to protest against the neoliberal economy, avoiding the risks of repression. After they began to take men to enlist in the workplaces, unskilled workers and workers also began to use this tactic to evade the call and not participate in the economy of war.

Finally, after the announcement of the mobilisation, people who remained in Russia, and who observe daily life in Moscow, told me that several people, who for months had not spoken about the war in public for fear of censorship, started discuss loudly – on buses, in cafes, or on the street – about how to make their children or grandchildren escape.

These are not massive or spectacular movements, but a daily and instinctive resistance, very important for a repressive context like the Russian one, which demonstrates that the government does not have totalitarian control over the population and that the consensus towards this conflict is not as high as it wants us to believe.

Do you think that the opposition in Russia has been sufficiently supported by European governments and civil societies?

Certainly there was sensitivity towards the Russian resistance. However, some issues remain. The first concerns the near future of resistance networks, both in Russia and in Europe. At the moment, the reception of exiles in the various European countries is based above all on individual assistance: visas, accommodation, the offer of short-term scholarships. However, there is a lack of a long-range strategy for their social and political integration (an issue that concerns Ukrainian refugees even more), with the effect of a diaspora isolated from European civilian interests. Another theme concerns the rather fragmented support for research and training activities in fields currently prohibited on Russian territory (protest, anti-colonial thought, issues related to the LGBTQ universe), both for refugees and for those who continue to resist in Russia. The stable emergence of a Russian civic awareness against the war is inseparable from a collective elaboration of the trauma of belonging to the aggressor country and, therefore, needs associative and collective structures to acquire a lasting form.

In the context of this war, what should a “just” peace entail?

I know that a large part of the Italian and international left is demanding that NATO, and more generally Western countries, stop providing military support to pro-Western forces in Ukraine. Surely, and rightly so, a critical approach to the power structures of "one's" society is a constitutive factor of the left. In this case, however, it comes at the cost of not recognising (and sometimes not wanting to recognise) the complex and oppressive Russian reality of the last ten years. It is not only Western power structures that have their history and weight, the same is true of Russian power as well. On the other hand, just asking for a ceasefire is not enough either: it is too minimalist an option that freezes the conflict without seeking a real solution. Instead, we must also ask for the withdrawal of the Russian armed forces from Ukrainian territory. As I said before, this is a mercantilist war with a strong colonial and capitalist character, not recognising it is an epistemic error that does not offer a solid basis for reflecting on a "just" solution to this conflict.

How do you see Russia's future after this war?

I am not very optimistic. If my hypothesis about the neo-mercantilist character of the current Russian regime is correct, this war will not be the last. The idea seems rather to reorient the economy more and more towards war production and continue territorial expansion, with the aim of creating new colonies on a capitalist basis. I fear that state structures and large economic enterprises will increasingly be subjected to this project. It must also be considered that the part of the population most inclined to resist had to leave the country. Also from a social point of view, therefore, the scenario is envisaged of a population which is asked for an increasingly forced consent, subjected to ever more acute inequalities, made even less visible under the slogan of national union, in an increasingly internationally isolated country. And all this, it must be said, is frightening.

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