Sergei Vilkov: Everything You Thought You Knew About the Russian Working Class Was Wrong

kalashnikov workersWorkers of the Kalashnikov plant in Izhevsk, Russia, on September, 20, 2016. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov (Getty Images). Courtesy of Fortune

The Heroes of the Day: What We Know about the Russian Working Class
How the Proletariat Stopped Fearing TV and Came to Dislike It
Sergei Vilkov
News.ru
April 30, 2019

It has been a tradition on the eve of May Day to recall the working class, which in Russia has seemingly been usurped by televised images of the “patriots” and regular blokes who work at the Uralvagonzavod plant in Nizhny Tagil.

Actually, Russia’s workers are a genuine black hole to sociologists. No one had seriously researched their circumstances, sentiments, and views for thirty years.

The first tentative attempts to research today’s Russian industrial laborers have produced a portrait that many had not expected. It transpires that today’s proletarians, at least, the most politically and civically dynamic among them, almost never watch television. They have a sober take on politics. They are immune to state propaganda. They have a relatively relaxed attitude toward migrant workers.

They regard themselves as outside observers in the debates between the regime and the opposition, not finding their own interests reflected in them. They are more likely to feel trampled upon by plant management than by a new law passed in the State Duma.

It is the factory where they fight their battles, which are usually invisible to official statisticians. Most important, according to researchers, they have more in common with early twentieth century social democrats than with current parties who try and speak on behalf of workers. However, the new research leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. News.ru took a look at it.

They Got What They Fought For
According to official data, 26 million people in Russia or over 36% of the able-boded population are employed in industry, transport, agriculture, fishing, and several similar sectors. These figures do not include, for example, the large numbers of people employed in commerce and services. Overall, however, sociologists estimate that workers make up 40% of Russia’s population. They identify them as the largest group in society.

These people dwell on the dark side of Russia’s moon, as it were. It would be hard to say when someone last tried to examine them through an academic lens. However, understanding the nature of Russian society and its largest segments is, perhaps, the most ambitious humanities research project in the country today.

In government reports, Russia’s workers are imagined as a passive, homogeneous milieu that positively exudes tranquility. In 2017, Rosstat, the state statistics service, recorded only one strike, while in the preceding years their official number oscillated between two and five strikes annually.

By comparison, in 2005, according to official data, there were 2,600 strikes in Russia. And yet the following year, Rosstat claimed the number of strikes had decreased by a factor of 325. Since then, according to official statistics, it has remained consistently scanty, despite the economic crises of 2008 and 2014.

However, the Center for Social and Labor Rights, which has monitored the situation on its own, claims there were an average of 240 labor protests between 2008 and 2014. In 2016, when the political opposition was quiet, there were twice as many labor protests, while in the first six months of 2018, the last period for which it has data, the center recorded 122 strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Nearly half of these incidents led to workers downing tools.

Since 2014, a year dominated by an apparent “patriotic” consensus in politics, the number of strikes has increased abruptly due to an upsurge of resistance in provincial cities, including district seats. The largest number of walkouts and protests occurred in industry, especially the machine building and metalworking sectors, which have accounted for 28% of the overall number of strikes. The transport sector has accounted for the same percentage of strikes and protests, despite the fact they have mainly been carried out by employees of private transport companies based in the cities. The construction industry has accounted for 19% of strikes and protests during the period.

The main cause of protests and strikes remains unpaid back wages, which accounted for 60% of incidents. Demands to raise pay were factors in 19–20% of incidents.

The Center for Social and Labor Rights noticed a curious thing. In 2018, the number of spontaneous, unorganized protests by workers rose abruptly by 22%. Trade unions were involved in a mere 17% of all strikes and protests. The experts claim this was partly due to the fact that the Russian hinterlands, where there have been no real trade unions for the last one hundred years, have taken the lead in labor activism, along with sectors dominated by precarious employment.

Shop Floor Intellectuals
Someone has been organizing these strikes and protests, however. It is evident there is a core of energetic progressive activists among Russia’s workers.

On April 22, Alexander Zhelenin gave a lecture at a round table held in the offices of Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Zhelenin is a well-known expert on workplace conflicts, and part of his talk dealt with a research study on the Russian proletariat. In July and September 2018, he and his fellow researchers did a small-scale qualitative sociological research study in Kaluga and Omsk that focused on the self-identification and sociopolitical views of workers.

A total of twenty-three people were interviewed. The small sample was offset by a thorough probing, through in-depth interviews, of the respondents’ attitudes and views, which are never revealed by run-of-the-mill public opinion polls. The workers interviewed by the sociologists were somehow connected to independent trade unions, which had, apparently, supported the research study. However, in the main, the interviewees were not politically engaged: only one of them was a member of a political organization.

We should also not forget it is usually the most energetic people who agree to be interviewed for ordinary official public opinion polls, which affects their outcomes.

In Kaluga, the respondents worked in the food industry and the new auto assembly plants, while in Omsk, they were employed at old Soviet military-industrial complex plants. They ranged in age from twenty to fifty, and included women and men. They were quite well-paid technicians who were proud of their contributions to society. On the other hand, they had a constant sense of their status as subordinates. They tended to strongly associate themselves with their workplaces. Family “labor dynasties” were a possible factor in their outlooks.

Most of the workers interviewed at the auto plants had been abroad one or more times, and this partly had to do with Volkswagen’s work exchange programs. One of the things they had learned on these trips was independent trade unions were ordinary, valuable organizations.

On the contrary, a foreign-travel passport was a rarity among the workers of the old defense plants, and yet both groups of workers tended to spend their holidays on the Black Sea coast. Some respondents in Omsk said they had never seen the sea or had seen it in early childhood.

Mortgages were the main financial obstacles to holidays away from home. Financially, the skilled workers felt they were members of the so-called middle class. In terms of standards of living in their regions, however, they noticed the gap between the more affluent segment of the populace and themselves. Thus, they had a keen sense of the difference in life chances for their children and the children of rich families, talking about it with great indignation.

Pavel Kudyukin, ex-minister of labor and employment and a lecturer in public administration at the Higher School of Economics, commented on the growing social segregation in Russia.

“It comes to the fore when talk turns to children’s futures. It is an aspect that will become more acute, because we are moving from segregation to social apartheid. I think it will facilitate [grassroots] civic activism,” he said.

The authors of the report did not hide their amazement at the fact that the respondents were quite well-educated, intelligent people. Nearly a third of them had a higher education or an uncompleted university degree. Many of them pointed out it was ordinary to find university-educated workers on the shop floor.

Tellingly, a man from Kaluga, identified as Anatoly, who did not finish his university degree, and whose outward appearance (a bespectacled intellectual), cultivated manner of speaking, and hobbies (music and organizing non-profit music festivals) gave the researchers the impression he was a local intellectual, although he said he had been employed as a skilled laborer for over eleven years. Like some other respondents, Anatoly noted he had become a laborer because life had worked out that way and he had to earn money. Industry was the only place where it was possible to earn a more or less decent wage, the study noted.

They Have Their Own Values
And yet 74% of of the respondents unambiguously identified themselves as workers, stressing their difference from other groups in society and their direct involvement in production. The remaining 26% preferred to call themselves “employees” and supported the notion of so-called social partnerships with management. However, despite their decent standard of life, it followed from the interviews that the workers believed they occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. This had to do with their palpably subordinate positions at work and the lack of prestige in their occupations. This circumstance was painfully apparent in the tension between blue-collar and white-collar workers at one plant, a tension exacerbated by the arrogance of the latter towards the former.

The workers were very annoyed by the fact that, as Sergei, a grinder who was involved in the Omsk focus group, said, “In terms of wages and education, the blue-collar workers often outperform the office workers, but the latter still treat them as inferiors.”

In Omsk, for example, the wages of workers fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 rubles a month, but workers at some defense plants could earn up to 70,000 or 80,000 rubles a month. However, according to the same interviewee, the well-paid jobs were “inherited.”

Besides, he said, to earn such a wage, one virtually had to live at the factory, working twelve hours a day and enjoying only one day off a week, something not all workers would do. Meanwhile, office workers at the same plant could earn only 20,000 rubles a month, but they treated the workers “as if they were above [them],” said Sergei.

“A really interesting thing is the split in self-identification as workers and members of the middle class,” said Kudyukin. “It clearly manifests the pressure exerted in society by hegemonic views. It is like what Marx wrote: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’ Since the notion of the middle class is constantly in the air, people give no thought to the fact that it’s a sociological fiction. People realize they are workers. They work on an assembly line or operate a machine. Yet in terms of income they identify themselves as middle class in the sense that they are neither rich nor poor. Maybe this has to do with the notion that the middle class is formally defined by income.”

“Russia is a quite highly stratified country, and it is constantly becoming more stratified,” explained Gregory Yudin, a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “It’s not a matter of income gaps, but of what these people say: the sense of symbolic superiority in cases where there is no income gap. When this sense takes root at a particular factory, what happens is quite predictable. In this sense, Marx was more or less right.”

Speaking about their place in production, the workers voiced the opinion their plants could run without managers, but without them the shop floors would grind to a halt. However, they sensed the arrogant attitude towards manual labor that had emerged in other parts of society. They realized that, from this perspective, their status was not considered prestigious at all. The factory laborers responded by opposing the values of their milieu to “other” values, saying that nowadays the chic thing to do was to steal and mooch, to make lots of money for doing nothing.

“I think this is an ordinary means of compensation, a psychological defense mechanism. We are considered impoverished in some way, whereas in fact we are the salt of the earth, and everything would grind to a halt without us. Their sentiments are quite justified. Despite the importance of managerial work, if you got rid of the management staff, the shop floor would function all the same. But if the workers suddenly disappeared, the plant would shut down,” said Kudyukin.

The research study showed the respondents perceived Russian politics as an established system that ignored their interests. This applied not only to the government but also to the opposition. Nearly half of the respondents consciously refrained from voting. By comparison, during the last presidential election, in March 2018, the Central Electoral Commission reported that 32.5% of registered voters did not vote.

Some of the respondents voted for the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), A Just Russia, and LDPR [Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party], although they noted these parties were entangled in establishment and supported workers’ interests more in words than in actual deeds. They were not a serious opposition.

What they had to say on the matter was telling.

“I have little trust in politicos and parties. I have more faith in the people here, the people with whom I work, the people I know. Here, at the local level, there are decent people among the members of different [political] movements. But the leadership is usually a bloody shambles,” said Sergei, 35, a grinder at the Aggregate Plant in Omsk.

“There are currently no parties that would defend workers’ interests. We need to create such a party,” said Sergei, who works at the Volkswagen plant in Kaluga.

Volodya, who also works at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was likewise certain such parties did not exist.

“All of them are against us [workers]. They represent business and big money, even the CPRF and A Just Russia. Those parties just use the ‘movements’ to score political points. They have great jobs. United Russia try and pass bad laws. They have the majority in the Duma, so [the three other parties represented there] can pretend to oppose them, since the bad laws will be passed all the same,” he said.

He quoted Mark Twain.

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”

The federal government was a source of considerable irritation to the workers, especially in connection with the pension reform.

Roman, a 45-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was the only respondent in either city who said he had always voted for Putin and United Russia, but since the pension reform had passed, he was severely disenchanted and was more inclined to vote for the CPRF.

Vladislav, a 28-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, had a confession to make despite the fact he had never voted.

“I was never opposed to Putin. But I did not believe to the last that he would say yes to this cannibalistic reform,” he said.

“Their statements jibe with what we see in other studies,” said Yudin. “People are depoliticized, yes. They distrust the system profoundly. This distrust grew even deeper last year. It’s a typical Russian scenario, and I am not entirely certain it has something specifically to do with workers. It typifies many segments of the populace. People who espouse this worldview serve as the base for different populist projects.”

Researchers describe their views as a contradictory mix of spontaneous anarchism and paternalistic expectations from the state. They would like to see the state solving society’s problems and intervening in the economy to raise wages, create jobs, and distribute incomes more fairly.

Igor, a worker from Omsk, had a typical view of the matter.

“The government should definitely solve these issues if workers have hired them to serve the people. When are they going to handle all of this if they work six and seven days a week? They just don’t have the time to deal with their own improvement [sic],” he said.

However, their political beliefs were more leftist and democratic than conservative and reactionary, even when it came to ethnic, religious and gender issues.

“The workers with whom we spoke, irrespective of whether they believed in God, wanted to lived in a secular state, while hoping the Russian Orthodox Church would be behave more modestly when it came to secular issues and would be less politicized. The views of workers on gender roles, the place of women in families, society, and the state were generally quite democratic. In terms of their worldviews, the workers had more in common with classic leftists than with a good number of current leftist parties and movements in Russia,” write the study’s authors.

Cool Heads
The researchers claim the workers they surveyed were clearly not victims of government propaganda. Their attitude towards Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria was generally very restrained, if not sharply negative. Many of them argued that Russia’s foreign policy, as defined by the country’s leadership, had nothing to with their interests and was even capable of harming them. They also had a skeptical attitude to the promotion of great-power patriotism, seeing it as a means of distracting working people from real problems. But while they openly voiced their attitudes to foreign policy, the workers were cautious about discussing it, emphasizing a lack of information on the subject.

Many of them said society was not told everything.

To the surprise of the sociologists, most of the interviewees (78%) identified the internet as their main source of information, despite the fact they were asked about this part of their lives in a way that mentioned television and newspapers first, while the internet was among the information sources listed last.

By comparison, in March 2018, Levada Center published a poll claiming 85% of Russians got most of their information by watching television; moreover, 72% of respondents preferred watching state-controlled Channel One. On the contrary, only five of the workers (22% of the focus group) watched news and political programs on television. They regarded what they saw on television quite skeptically, trying to detect the influence of certain third-party interests.

They had a rather low opinion of the state of the nation.

“Lately, I’ve been ashamed of my people,” said Roman, a worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga.

Another worker, Vladimir, countered Roman.

“To stop feeling ashamed of your nation, just don’t identify yourself with it. Russia, the people, and the nation are illusions that have been pounded into our heads. There is just the earth and the people who live on it. The people who lived before us dreamed up border: here is Russia, there is Ukraine, here is America. In fact, we are all people. If you look at things from this standpoint, everything falls into place. For example, I don’t acknowledge the existence of national Olympic squads. My world is the people I know. When they say, “Our guys are playing football,” I think of “our guys” as my neighbors, workmates, family members, and the clerks at the shop. I could not care less what is going on in Syria and Donbas,” said Vladimir.

The researchers got rather unexpected and ambivalent results when they asked the workers about their attitudes towards migrant workers. In July 2018, Levada Center reported that 67% of Russians regarded them negatively. It is such sentiments that currently fuel nationalism and xenophobia. Among the workers in the survey, however, the intensity of these sentiments was considerably lower.

The different focus groups were split in their opinions of migrant laborers.

“Why hide it? I have a positive attitude toward them, because they are former brothers [within the Soviet Union]. We have the same troubles as they do. They get paid under the table, and so do we. And sometimes they are not paid at all,” said Mikhail, a 55-year-old freight handler.

“I tend to believe we need to create jobs for our own people first, and only then can we create jobs for migrants. As a worker, I consider them competitors, but as a human being I have no problems with them. On the other hand, how do we employ Russians if no Russians want to work as janitors?” said Svyatoslav, a truck driver at the Volkswagen plant.

Ultimately, 45% of the respondents took anti-migrant worker stances. In Omsk, the breakdown between migrantophobes and internationalists was six to four. In Kaluga, on the other hand, where the focus groups and in-depth interviews were dominated by workers from modern, foreign-owned production facilities, there were seven internationalists, as opposed to three migrantophobes.

The study’s authors argue the discrepancies are due to the different types of industry in the two cities, contrasting the workers from the old Soviet defense plants with the employees of foreign companies. However, we would be remiss not to note the relatively low level of nationalism in all the groups surveyed.

“In our view, this is because the workers have closer and more frequent contacts with migrant workers, and thus have more personal experience with them, something that always shatters stereotypes. It is yet another testimony to the fact that the dominant media coverage in Russia has less impact on the views of workers,” argue the study’s authors.

As for attitudes towards religion, twelve of the twenty-three respondents identified themselves as believers, while eleven identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. Two of the respondents regarded themselves as deeply religious Russian Orthodox believers. However, all the respondents said they wanted to live in a secular country in which the Russian Orthodox Church should have a smaller role in secular issues and politics.

The views of the workers on gender relations and the place of women at home and in society were quite democratic. According to the researchers, nearly all the men agreed women had the right to pursue any career or calling. They would not stop their own wives from getting involving in public life and politics or pursuing a career.

However, they regarded female politicians in the State Duma quite skeptically, since they did not see them as politicians who hailed from the grassroots. The respondents named German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović as positive examples of women involved in politics.

At the same time, both of the experts we interviewed, Pavel Kudyukin and Gregory Yudin, agreed the research study had serious methodological flaws. Besides, it gave its readers no sense of the particular life experiences that had prompted the workers to embrace particular outlooks.

Thanks to Alexander Zamyatin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Two-State Solution (Racism and the Russian Intelligentsia)

Boris Akunin
Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin:

In Russia, two distinct, completely dissimilar peoples live side by side, and these peoples have long been bitterly hostile towards each other. (May the Byzantine double-headed eagle that Ivan the Third selected as the country’s emblem go to hell in a hand basket.)

There is Us and there is Them.

We have our own heroes: Chekhov, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Sakharov.

They have their own heroes: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and now Putin.

Members of the two nations recognize each other at first glance and experience a pang of acute dislike that selfsame second. We do not like anything about Them: the way They look, talk, carry themselves, rejoice and grieve, dress and undress. Their favorite singers, films, and TV shows make us sick. They pay Us in kind, and with interest.

Apart from Us and Them, there are just plain folk, who make up the majority of the population. We and They are constantly trying to win over this neither-fish-nor-fowl, to introduce them to our values.

What do you think should be done with this reality? Should we kill each other?

—Excerpted from Boris Akunin and Mikhail Shishkin, “Conversation between a Novelist and a Writer,” July 30, 2013

Our Swimmer

While there seems to be a fair amount of self-irony, in the comments, above, by the famed Russian detective novel writer Boris Akunin, I cannot help laughing when I read such exercises in self-praise by the so-called Russian intelligentsia and, at the same time, recall something that happened to me several years ago when I was running a summer study program in Petrograd for an American university.

Our students lived with Russian host families, and fitting student to host family was not always a snap, but it was mostly doable. That particular summer, however, more students had signed up for the program than ever before, and our limited resources were stretched thin. So I was taking recommendations from whomever I could get them, rather than relying only on the list of potential host families provided by our partners at the state university here in town.

That is how found myself visiting a couple in their flat somewhere in the city’s Central District. It was in a Stalin-era building, but the couple proudly informed me right away that Oleg Basilashvili, a well-known screen and stage actor and liberal intelligentsia icon, was a neighbor. They, too, were members of the creative intelligentsia. One of them was a theater critic, while the other had something to do with the Conservatory, I seem to remember.

The point, as I had already told them over the phone, was that I had one student left to place with a family, a male student. They, it transpired, had a teenage daughter. Would it be a problem for them to have a male student living in the same flat as their daughter? No, it would not be a problem, they told me.

Given the reputation of the university I was representing, they might have imagined I would be setting them up with a blond scion of a New England old money, so if their daughter was whisked off her feet over the summer or merely made useful connections in high places, what could be the harm?

As we were wrapping our conversation at their flat, having ironed out almost all the practical details, the couple thought to ask me what the young man’s name was.

“Diego,” I said.

My answer literally sent their eyes spinning in circles and smoke shooting from their ears. All it took was the “wrong” name for them to imagine a summer of their daughter basking in the glow of old American money with a patina of academic respectability turning into the constant threat of rape and ravishment at the hands of a “hot-blooded Latino.”

And they told me that in so many words, all the while denying that they were what they were—racists.

The funny thing was that Diego was gay in every sense of the word: fun to be around, a kind, sweet-hearted young man, and no “threat” to their precious daughter. But since Oleg Basilashvili’s neighbors had already outed themselves as racists, I did not want to hang around and find out whether they were homophobes as well.

I was more naïve than I am now. Although I had already had many encounters with “casual” racism and anti-Semitism Russian style, Petrograd had not yet arrived at the bad part of its mid noughties, when more proactive racists than my intelligentsia couple would ever want to be began assaulting and murdering immigrants, foreigners, anti-fascists, and members of Russian ethnic minorities in especially large numbers.

But I was not naïve enough to try and plead Diego’s case to these assholes. I immediately left their precious den of culture-vulturehood and hit the streets, cursing them out loud while also trying to think of a back-up plan.

That it is when I thought of our long-time acquaintance F.A., who had nannied the young son of a friend for years, and even had cooked for our family for a short while when we were in a bad spot. By no means was F.A. a member of the ballyhooed intelligentsia, which was not to say that she was uneducated or crude or anything but kind, loving, funny, smart, warm, and one of the best cooks I have ever met in my life. Besides that, she had worked in a factory her whole life, doing quality control, and she was Jewish.

When I telephoned her and told her what the deal was, she did not hesitate a second to welcome Diego into her home.

Needless to say, Diego and F.A. hit it off and had a great time in each other’s company that summer.

So when, a while later, I was asked to find temporary summer accommodation in Petrograd for another young gay Latino man, I could think of no better hostess than F.A. They also hit it off famously.

This is my roundabout way of saying something that has only been confirmed ten thousand times since by experiences both personal and vicarious: the liberal Russian intelligentsia is not all it is cracked up to be. It is often not particularly liberal or progressive, and is just as likely to be as Putinist or more Putinist than Putin’s mythical alleged “base” among industrial workers and peasants in the “Russian heartlands” or the “simple folk” in the big cities. If anything, my own experience has been that, on the contrary, these simple folk are not so simple and not so automatically inclined to putinize the world around them, much less racialize it.

There are just as many bigots and racists among the “Russian liberal intelligentsia” as there are among the Russian lower classes, maybe more.

Whatever the case, the fact that many Russian liberals have loose reactionary, racist screws in their brains has become apparent from the rabid reactionary discourse that has sprung up within Russia’s talking, thinking, and writing classes around the “refugee crisis” in Europe and the fresh clashes between Israelis and Palestinians..

Yegor Osipov and Kirill Kobrin’s attempts, below, to counter this utterly irrational discourse might seem mild outside of this context, but they are welcome contributions to a debate that it is most remarkable for its near-total absence from Russian public life.

Yegor Osipov
Yegor Osipov

Humanizing Palestinians
Yegor Osipov
October 21, 2015
Radio Svoboda

“Maybe Israel does not behave perfectly in the Occupied Territories, but this is no justification for terrorism.” This comment on Facebook is nearly the most moderate gesture of support for Israel in connection with the new wave of Palestinian terrorism. Despite the fact that nothing justifies terrorism, the situation requires clarification.

Unfortunately, Russian commentators often forget the fact that Israel occupies around 60% of the West Bank and has been building settlements there for its own citizens. (Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords stipulated this state of affairs was only temporary.) They forget the Jewish settlements are built so as to significantly impede the movement of Palestinians between their towns and prevent the expansion of these towns. They forget that between 2000 and 2012 Israel demolished over two and a half thousand Palestinian buildings, buildings for which it, as the occupying power, had not issued construction permits. They forget that Israel restricts the access of tens of thousands of Palestinians to water, forcing them to pay much more for it than Jewish settlers living nearby. They forget that the IDF keeps troops in the West Bank who are engaged only in maintaining the occupation: a noise grenade there, a noise grenade here, searches of houses (women to the right, men to the left), and so on every other night. This tactic is called “mak[ing] our presence felt,” and sometimes it leads to innocent victims. Without knowing this, you might think that Israel and the West Bank were different planets, but in fact both political entities depend on each other. The West Bank depends on virtually everything that happens in Israel, while Israel (and this becomes clear during waves of terror) depends on the social climate in the West Bank.

The situation with the Gaza Strip, about which Russians also do not know very much, is quite different. In 2005, after the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military personnel, the Gaza Strip was declared territory to which Israel had no obligations because it had “ended the occupation,” although it continued to implement land, sea, and air control of the Strip. After Hamas came to power and began rocket attacks on the southern part of the Jewish state, Israel proclaimed the Strip a “hostile entity” and established a blockade of the area along with Egypt, essentially locking around 1,800,000 people in an open-air prison.

In July 2014, in response to the murder of three Jewish teenagers by Palestinian terrorists, Israel launched an operation in the Gaza Strip, killing more than 2,200 people. Last summer, Jewish terrorists tossed Molotov cocktails at an Arab house, burning alive three members of the family who lived there, including an 18-month-old baby. Israel has yet to indict the terrorists. Some people manage to include this in the “Jewish people’s struggle for survival.” I think it only plays into the hands of anti-Semites the world over. But anti-Semitism, according to a newly released US State Department report on levels of religious freedom in the world, is once again on the rise, and the bias of the UN Security Council and the world’s leading media in favor of Palestine [sic] has not gone away.

Whether Israel will cope with the current wave of terror is a big question, because what is happening is not an intifada, which involves the coordination of armed protest. Today, we are seeing one-off attacks by ordinary Palestinians in no way linked to terrorist organizations. This is desperation after nearly half a century of occupation and the continuing colonization of Palestinian lands by Israelis. Last Friday, Benjamin Netanyahu, who during the recent elections declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, urged Mahmud Abbas to negotiate. But it is very likely that, as Israel’s main partner (just compare Abbas and Arafat), Abbas will be unable to help calm the situation. According to reports by Israel’s security services, the leader of the Palestinian Authority has been trying to resist the current wave of violence as it is. All this only shows that the situation is critical.

However, for the Russian intelligentsia, Israel continues to be a place it prefers to discuss with eyes wide shut and using generalizations like the “clash of civilizations.” Divided, like Europe, over the issue of taking in refugees, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Russian intellectuals, with few exceptions, adopt an uncompromising pro-Israeli stance. Reposts of videos from Israeli hospitals showing “ungrateful” Arabs are accompanied by captions such as “Watch this!” or “Read this!” Others post pictures of the Israeli flag emblazoned with the slogan “Yes! I stand with Israel! Share if you do, too!”

​​The rising wave of support for Israel points to the Orientalist bent of Russian minds, with the classic traits of Orientalism. The eastern, Arab world of Islam is incapable, allegedly, of solving its own problems. This world must always be guided by an “intelligent” West, a role that is often assigned to Israel, because Arabs are fundamentally incapable of changing themselves and their societies. The great Edward Said writes in the preface to Mourid Barghouti’s book I Saw Ramallah that the novel’s translator has done her job excellently, and in the English translation “[t]he Palestinian experience is therefore humanized and given substance in a new way.” Russian intellectuals, however, are not yet willing to humanize Palestinians. Indeed, what difference does it make that Asraa Zidan Tawfik Abed, who tried to stab a soldier in Afula and was gunned down, is a mother of three who holds a degree from Technion University in Haifa?

It is unclear how the conflict will end. It is clear only that the conflict is likely to be another turning point in Israel’s history, the next step after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. What can the Russian intelligentsia do if it wants to help Israel deal with these as-yet-unclear new realities? At the very least, it should cease losing its self-control and speaking the language of the “clash of civilizations,” see, finally, what the Palestinian territories are like and how closely bound the West Bank is to Israel, realize the gravity of the situation in the Gaza Strip, and try and work out a positive agenda. In the end, it is this that has not happened the last twenty years. The occupation of and crimes against the Palestinians are, alas, not the problem. The problem is talking about the occupation and crimes of the Jewish state.

In his popular book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, Yossi Klein Halevi, once a member of the radical fringe of American Jewry, describes the process of his transformation from an ultra-rightist radical to a centrist. When Halevi’s first daughter, Moriah, was born in 1985, he moved all his books about the Holocaust (which had once played a key role in his life as a member of the second generation) onto the upper shelves of his bookcases. He noticed that he put away even books with no pictures. He writes that this was his way of saying to himself these books were no longer the center of his life. Just as Halevi put away books about the Holocaust, the Russian intelligentsia needs to remove the imaginary radio broadcasting news either about the Six-Day War or Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and replace it with two maps: a map of the Middle East and a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The old threats to Israel are ever fewer, while we have a hard time imagining the new threats.

Yegor Osipov is a Russian journalist living in the Netherlands.

Kirill Kobrin
Kirill Kobrin

The Intelligentsia and Racism
Kirill Kobrin
October 23, 2015
Current Time

Nationalism was born two hundred years ago. At first, it was the theoretical labor of the early Romantics, poets, folklore compilers, and forgers of nonexistent ancient epics of their own peoples. Only then was it put into practice: amidst the gun and cannon smoke of the Napoleonic epic, in the secret Carbonari societies, on the revolutionary barricades.

In the late nineteenth century, nationalism generated several new nation-states. They became more numerous after 1918, not to mention the post-1945 period.

The process of carving countries up according to ethnicity continued even after 1991. The further disintegration of big countries into small countries, and small countries into tiny countries, was just barely avoided. And yet, until recently it was thought that nationalism in today’s Europe was the bailiwick of football hooligans and political outsiders. However, as recent events have shown, many, many people think in terms of “blood and soil.”

It has transpired that there is no vaccine against nationalism and even racism not only for so-called ordinary people. Wordsmiths, intellectuals, and even liberals chronically suffer from them as well. Russian liberals have proven especially vulnerable, or rather, members of the educated class who consider themselves liberals. We are not engaged in political analysis in this column, but we will look at the ethnic mindset of current Russian liberals as a historic phenomenon.

Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has excited many people dissatisfied with the Putin regime, even those who resisted the Crimean temptation. For example, one well-known Internet figure, who has somehow passed for a political expert, shook the air with bloodthirsty calls to kill as many Syrians as possible, since they are Arabs and, therefore, enemies.

Whoever bombs Syria today, I very much welcome it, and if it is wiped off the face of the earth I won’t be the least bit disappointed. I will only say thank you.
—Anton Nossik

Many have voiced a slightly more restrained variation on this viewpoint, and one progressive media outlet has published an article that discusses, in particular, the indisputable superiority of Jewish men over Arab men in the sense of devotion to their families and courage. In connection with the influx of Syrian refugees, concern for the purity of European is voiced. The article in question is permeated with hidden and flagrant sexual motifs. The subtitle refers to “Raped Europe,” and in the opening paragraphs the author complains it is unfair that “girls love” starry-eyed defenders of refugees rather than defenders of European values.

Fear and loathing towards an alien tribe (the authors of such texts usually do not distinguish Arabs from Kurds, Kurds from Turks, and so on) and an alien religion, Islam (whose sense and essence they are too lazy to understand) have reached a fever pitch. Like all hysterics, Russian “racialist liberals” have been winding themselves up, and the noise level has been steadily increasing.

We are faced with a typical nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century mindset. Take, for example, the motif of the “raped motherland” (or “native culture”). Motherland and Fatherland had become a “mother” back with the Romantics, and later, Alexander Blok, a Late Romantic congenial to proto-fascist views, even proclaimed Russia his wife.

Oh, my Russia! My wife! Painfully / Clear to us is the long road!
—Alexander Blok

In this scheme of things, any outsider is seen as a threat to the mother’s purity, to her sexual serenity. But war and other hostile (or seemingly hostile) actions are attempted rape. Curiously, the identification also works in reverse. An ordinary woman belonging to “our” people is treated as the Mother, the symbol of the nation.

The further we go into the twentieth century, the clearer the purely ethnic and biological features in the countenance of the Woman/Mother become. She is sexually threatened by telltale-looking strangers: Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda was chockablock with depictions of handsome blonde beauties harassed by swarthy apelike creatures.

For current Russian liberals, the role of the Mother threatened by violence is now played by the whole of Europe. It is strange that these folks so rarely invoke the mythological motif of the rape of Europa, in which the maiden Europa is abducted by Zeus in the shape of a bull, who spirits her away—across the Mediterranean!—to Crete, where has his way with her. The discussions of the newfangled national-liberals about the “rape of Europe” naively retell the myth in the most unpretentious racist manner. The “rapist,” “alien” or “suspicious Muslim” crosses the Mediterranean and, once in Europe, rapes her, meaning he bends her to his will. Just imagine that not so long it was said that classic Freudianism and Jungianism were half-forgotten things of the past. But now it turns out that all these things (combined with Social Darwinism and racial theory about the “inferiority” of certain nations) are alive and dominant in the minds of people, moreover, the minds of people whose job it is to reflect on things and generate meaning.

You can, of course, seek out the historical parallels, for example, the steady rightward drift of the liberal segment of the first Russian emigration or the fascist sympathies of such champions of freedom and justice as G.K. Chesterton. But all historical analogies obscure the essence of the matter. And the essence of the matter is this. Suffocating nationalism, moreover, on both sides of the current Putinist divide, is the principal legacy of seventy years of Soviet rule. While preaching internationalism, the communist ideology and the communist regime were weaker than the primitive xenophobia and fear of outsiders that permeated the minds of the Soviet intelligentsia. The collapse of ideology has brought these sentiments to the fore. Aside from everything else, another thing has become clear. The Russian intelligentsia, which considers itself liberal, knows no more about the world than their predecessors from some Turgenev novel.

By the way, have you heard there was a decisive battle on the Danube? Three hundred Turkish officers killed, Silistra has been taken, and Serbia has declared its independence. Don’t you think that you, as a patriot, should be thrilled? As for me, my Slavic blood is just boiling! However, I advise you to be more cautious. I am sure you are being watched. The spying here is horrible! Yesterday, a suspicious person came up to me and asked whether I was Russian. I told him I was Danish.
—Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve

Everything was clear then: we were fighting for our “fellow Slavs” and wishing death on the “bloodthirsty Muslims.” The only difference is that today the names of the people we should be protecting from the villains are very different. We are witnessing a cynical pathetic remake of the novel On the Eve.

Kirill Kobrin is a writer, historian, journalist, and editor living in London.

The texts by Boris Akunin, Yegor Osipov, and Kirill Kobrin were translated by the Russian Reader.