Armen Aramyan: Russians Are Not Chimpanzees

These are scenes from a May 2008 session of Petersburg’s Street University, a grassroots undertaking that I helped launch in response to the Putin regime’s sudden, underhanded shutdown of the nearby European University in February 2008. I unearthed these snapshots from my long-dormant Photobucket account, about whose existence I was reminded by an email from the service that I found by accident in my spam folder whilst working on this post earlier this morning. I think it’s a nice illustration of the point made, below, by Armen Aramyan, who must have been nearly the same age as Tasya, the little girl in the second and third pictures, when I took them. If the war can be stopped and Russian society can be salvaged in the foreseeable future, however, it will require a lot more than creative “sociology,” the right combination of critical theories, the power of (“progressive”) positive thinking, and hypervigilant discursive gatekeeping. At minimum, it will require a massive manifestation. This would be different in kind and magnitude from the current instances of grassroots resistance that Mr. Aramyan enumerates below, which are almost entirely the work of lone individuals, not the actions of a seriously mobilized grassroots or, much less, of a more or less widespread and vigorous “anti-war movement.” ||| TRR

Hi, this is Armen Aramyan!

On Monday, iStories published a column by its editor, Roman Anin, in which he laments the moral degradation that “has engulfed not only the so-called elites, but also society.” He claims that the majority of Russians support military aggression, and that the political system is in such decline that we can make predictions about Russia’s future by invoking the discourse of primatology.

“Human DNA is 99% the same as the DNA of chimpanzees, whose entire polity revolves around the alpha male. While the alpha male is young and strong, he keeps the whole pack at bay, manages the distribution of resources, mates with all the females, and severely punishes those who question his authority. But as soon as the alpha male begins to age and show signs of weakness, a fierce war to take his place ensues. […] In my opinion, the Russian political system today is not much different from the power arrangements in chimpanzee troops.”

There is no grassroots resistance in the Russia about which Anin writes. There is no torching of military enlistment offices, no teachers who refuse to conduct propaganda lessons, no activists who assist Ukrainians in getting out of Russia. There are no people prosecuted for speaking out and acting against the authorities. There are only big shots who divvy up the loot behind closed doors.

But activists and anti-war resistance do exist, and [some] sociologists have claimed that the pro-war segment of Russian society is a small minority that is averse to political action of any kind.

Why do we continue to encounter such remarks?

I would suggest calling the worldview that informs such remarks Naive Anti-Putinism, or NAP.

NAP sees Russia as a fringe country. The processes in it can be explained only through allusions to fantasy novels, such as dubbing Russia “Mordor,” from The Lord of the Rings, or referencing the Harry Potter universe. (Have the images from fantasy novels run out and we are now on the Planet of the Apes?) Russia is so unique that there are processes taking place in it that don’t exist anywhere else (with the possible exception of North Korea). This Russia suffers from a patriarchal regime and a total absence of democratic institutions. (That is, power belongs to individual groups and their leaders, who do not rely on any institutions). The enlightened achievements of European democracies have not yet reached Russia, and so now we are doomed to live amidst an endless Games of Thrones (to invoke yet another fantasy novel comparison). In this system, all that remains for us is to analyze what intrigues the different Kremlin clans are pursuing.

Resistance, grassroots movements, the struggle for democracy, and revolution are impossible in this reality. So, all that naive anti-Putinists are capable of doing is resorting to moral critiques delivered from a superior position and continuing to admonish us that the common folk in Russia are bad, having failed to accept the enlightened achievements of European democracies. If there is no democracy [in Russia], [that is because] the ordinary folk simply don’t want it. That is NAP’s entire explanatory arsenal.

Naive Anti-Putinism does not envision the possibility of change in Russia, much less revolution or the destruction of Putin’s elite. It is a readymade scheme that enables certain groups in society to make peace with reality and continue to watch the new season of Game of Thrones.

For example, if you are a businessman or an IT worker who relocated [to another country] after the war’s outbreak and invested all your resources in adapting to a new place (most likely — quite successfully), you probably don’t really want to figure out how to build democracy in Russia and support the grassroots resistance.

But you can also imagine another situation: you are a researcher who has spent a great deal of time and effort investigating how the power elite throws bags of money around. Probably, at some point, you might imagine that there is nothing else besides this cynical redistribution of the loot.

Alexander Zamyatin, in a discussion of the emigration on the podcast This Is the Base, makes a great point: “You can’t be a gravedigger of the old regime while grieving for its missed opportunities.” We can speculate for a long time about NAP’s origins, and why many members of the anti-war movement espouse this position.

But if we want to end the war and build democracy in Russia, we need to think differently. Even if we imagine that this is impossible right now, do we really think that democracy is altogether impossible in Russia? And if it is possible, what would it look like in reality? What movements would be needed to make it happen? How would they gain power? How would this power be redistributed and how to make sure that it is not abused? These are the questions that should concern all of us members of the anti-war movement on a daily basis.

Centuries of class, colonial, and gender oppression led to the emergence of strong theories elucidating the structure of power in modern societies. The crises of the nineteenth century spurred the elaboration of theories about class and capitalism. Representattives colonized peoples, as well as their allies in the West, formulated theories about how imperialism and colonialism function. Activists and theorists of women’s movements offered accounts of how gender dominance operates in modern societies.

If we reject the entire legacy of critical theory, as many NAPpers do, then we need to propose something else. But this something is definitely not primatology or allusions to Harry Potter. But one might have to read other books to to find this something else.

P. S. But also do not assume that the animal kingdom — and in particular the political systems of primates — is so primitive. Usually, reducing people to animals is a conservative move whose purpose is to show that human relations are grounded in competition and the struggle for survival, in which the strongest win. I recommend reading this essay by the anthropologist David Graeber, in which he argues that this is not at all the case.

Source: Armen Aramyan, DOXA Anti-War Newsletter #313 (10 January 2023). Mr. Aramyan is one of the editors of the online anti-war magazine DOXA. In April 2021, he and three other editors of the then-student magazine were sentenced to two years of “correctional labor” (i.e., community service) over a video questioning whether it was right for teachers to discourage students from attending rallies protesting opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s incarceration. Translated by the Russian Reader