Jeremy Morris is a professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, who has spent many years doing fieldwork in de-industrializing small towns in central Russia’s rustbelt. He authored several books, including “Everyday Post-Socialism. Working-Class Communities in the Russian Margins” (Palgrave, 2015). His work focuses on the lived experiences of Russia’s blue-collar workers in the context of the painful and dramatic post-Soviet transformation of all aspects of social and economic life. He maintains regular contact with his informants and is now in a unique position to talk to them about their attitudes towards the war. We interviewed him about his work in general and his most recent contributions to the debate about the state of the Russian society since the beginning of the war in February 2022.
— The first question is the biggest one. Could you summarize your previous ethnographic work with Russian industrial workers?
— I started doing ethnographic field work in 2009 in a place in Kaluga region where I had access to a former company town and a factory that was its former principal employer. I had access to a lot of different people in that field site.
I found that people still felt a lot of attachment to their enterprise, because, even as enterprise paternalism had decayed, there was still that kind of almost instinctive connection to the factory. People believed that the enterprise would provide the social function and the social services that it used to provide, that their parents taught them about.
After I did my first field work in 2009-2010, there was indeed some significant social spending right by the state. We can argue about whether it’s significant in the long term, but certainly, some of these places got better. The effect of the oil boom in the 2000s finally had some effect on some of these places.
The other thing that I was interested in is a more anthropological perspective, which is to look at lived experience, the kind of life world that these places create for their inhabitants.
I tried to use the idea of habitability as an organizing concept. People kept talking about their среда обитания (life environment) and how they had this strong attachment to the place; not just to the enterprise, but to the community and to the place.
This was a master concept for the book, that life is a struggle, that this is a harsh environment, a hostile environment. The state is not really there. And as I said, the enterprise has decayed. They’re still expecting paternalism, but there is none.
Instead, there’s a kind of vulgar form of socialism going on in that people strongly articulate and employ ideas about mutual aid within the community.
Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it does, mutual aid works because there are remnants of the occupational community. I decided that I would call it a meta-occupational community.
The working class no longer really exists in the same way. The factory does not exist in the same way, but there is still some kind of identity that can be articulated and accessed that allows a meta-occupational community to sense its own existence.
— Could you clarify: in what sense is it a meta-community?
— The factory does not exist, so, it’s not really an occupational community, but everybody can make use of a memory of that time. Many people used to work in the factory who are in their fifties, sixties, even the seventies. Their children, if you like, are granted an “honorary status” of that community — a little bit in the same way that sociologists talk about intergenerational labor aristocracies in the Soviet period.
It’s also meta-occupational because the space is now more important than occupation itself. People might be taxi drivers, informal taxi drivers — one of the very common forms of work — or they might be вахтовики (rotation workers) employed in construction in Moscow for a long time, or they might be unemployed or they might be doing all kinds of work, very precarious work, but again, they still identify with the place and the enterprise.
In the book, I also talked about practices of mutual aid, practices of trying to get by, but also build some kind of good life. And that’s where the informal economy comes in. Again, a very visible example is taxi driving, but also underground workshops. Even now people do all kinds of informal work and others are handed their wages “in the envelope” (without the formal contract).
— Another thing that you touch upon often is precarity: informality and precarity in post-Soviet working-class life. Could you talk more about that?
— Obviously, this term precarity is used more and has its origin in the global North. Initially it was applied to temporary and insecure work, lack of autonomy, lack of control over the labor process and a lack of common labor identity. I used it in a kind of more mundane way. Economic precarity is a kind of ‘elephant in the room’ for most Russian people outside the metropolitan areas.
“The average wage in blue-collar work is only a little bit more than a pension”
It is the fundamental threat of unemployment as well as underemployment. By underemployment I mean the fact that many women, for example, can’t get full-time work, they would like to be employed for on a full-time contract or, when it comes to traditional blue-collar work, it does not even meet the subsistence minimum or only just.
These fundamental meanings of precarity are the ones that I brought out in my work. It showed me the “class blindness” of the Russian academy itself. I would give papers where I would talk about earnings in those former company towns. And I would say, people are earning less than 20,000 rubles — and those academic scholars from Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, some of them could not accept that this was actually real.
Even really well-informed, educated people in Russia who travel — they switch on some ways of coping with cognitive dissonance to deal with the fact that the average wage in blue-collar work is only a little bit more than a pension.
Moving now to informality, this starts off with a set of tactics to deal with the inability of (usually) men to be full breadwinners because of their precarious working conditions. It is about seeing how people supplement their income, but also engage in things like barter, provisioning work, even subsistence agriculture. In my town, it’s people working in these factory jobs, but also working as taxi drivers because their shift pattern allows it. The interesting thing is that shift patterns in blue-collar work actually facilitate informal economic activities.
Really interesting things that I found by accident were underground factories.
— What do such factories produce?
— The case study that I had, and it continued for nearly 10 years, was plastic windows. It’s almost like an артель, a traditional craft cooperative. While there’s an entrepreneur who buys the equipment, the actual work is carried out relatively democratically and autonomously, and is much better paid than the traditional blue-collar work. And that was paying 30,000 rubles — 10 years ago — which was a lot for a blue-collar worker.
— What other unusual social practices or work practices did you discover while doing this work? For instance, the question of вахта (rotation work), which is pretty special in the Russian context.
— There was a period in the 2000s when, especially in the company towns, people did think about rotation work as a stage in life. Precarity forces people to think about their life stages in different ways. When people were in their twenties, they thought: “Okay, I will go and work in Moscow for six months, for eight months in construction and I will put up with these very bad conditions. I will do that temporarily and then I will come back to my little town.”
A typical biography is this: we do a lot of rotation work in the 2000s and maybe we make quite a lot of money. We bring it back. We buy an apartment. Or, if we can’t buy an apartment, buy a car. And then, when we have children, we no longer want to do rotation work or it’s not available and we go back to a kind of “peripatetic” existence — six months in the factory, six months taxi driving, six months doing something else.
My general observation about the informal work is that even if it’s exploitative it’s valued because it allows some kind of autonomy in work, in how one carries out work tasks. It is experienced as more democratic, non-hierarchical work environment than either the transnational companies or the traditional Soviet-era factories that still exist.
— Amidst the war do you manage to maintain contacts with some of your informants, with some of the people that you have talked to over these years?
— With the core informants I have maintained my relationships. I really want to go back to Russia now because I think if I’m not physically there, I don’t think it’s possible to communicate easily with them. To communicate with them, to understand what they think is impossible using social media. And I also think Russian people, even ordinary Russian people are just as much in shock as people like you and me. And I also think that a lot of them expect me to condemn them, to break off all contact with them, to “cancel” them.
— You know, it’s ironic because, on the one hand, you have people whom you know personally for several years and who still refuse to talk about the war with you — on the other hand, people rely on survey results coming from Russia and expect honest answers to pollsters!
— I agree with you, and I actually think it’s worse than useless.
— Let’s start talking about the present. In terms of the economy, what do you think will change in the lives of your informants? Will they adapt?
— We can look at this in two ways. A lot of people are being retained on furlough, on some percentage of their income, even if they’re not working. But probably by the end of the summer it will become clear. If there’s no investment, if there is no way of maintaining production, there is no demand or there is no supply of components from abroad, then I think some of my informants are going to lose their jobs or have a permanent significant cut in their pay.
“The problem that I see is, that people do resort to some kind of survival tactics through the informal economy and then the state exploits this”
I’m also trying to talk to my informants about their jobs, but again, they’re all saying, oh, it’ll be okay. Which I guess is a form of denial. For example, a lot of my informants worked for Volkswagen, Peugeot, Mitsubishi and those big auto cluster companies in Kaluga.
— Can you briefly describe what’s happening with this whole industrial zone in Kaluga?
— I would call it suspended animation. Initially they tried to keep going, then they basically had a “holiday”. And now, as far as I know, people are on a percentage retainer. And this company is suspending production. I don’t think they can suspend it for very long. I also think that the government might nationalize these companies or might try to find a local takeover.
But how are they going to replace the supply chain? Because the supply chain is complex. Let’s take Continental Tyre Plant in Kaluga. Where do they get the rubber for their tyres? Are they still going to get the steel components? What happens when their equipment wears out? I’m pessimistic. The backbone of the blue-collar industry that exists, with these well-paid jobs — some 40,000, 50,000 rubles wages. Will they all be made redundant?
What is possible in this isolation (or “samodostatochnost” in Russian)? For example, there is a chocolate factory right on the border between Moscow and Kaluga region by Lotte. Maybe the government could nationalize that. But they can’t do it with more complex processes.
— But do you think that these people will turn angry if there is a serious dislocation in their life?
— I think people have a sense of their own dignity. It’s difficult to believe that people will accept complete impoverishment. The problem that I see is, that people do resort to some kind of survival tactics through the informal economy and then the state exploits this. But I don’t think there are any survival tactics that are possible to avoid complete destitution if this whole industrial cluster and everything else in the Russian economy goes down.
— What about the social and political part of the story? You tried to analyze the ways people react to the war and to add something to those surveys that are useless. It seems that this kind of qualitative research might help at this moment. What did you discover by talking to people?
— Right at the beginning of the war, there was obviously shock, denial and disbelief. So, I brought this term “defensive consolidation” because I object to using the term “rally around the flag”, which some of my American colleagues and political scientists use. I don’t think that happens in a highly controlled authoritarian society where the state is afraid of mobilization. So I prefer to call the popular reaction in Russia “defensive consolidation”.
“I think it does find its roots in deep seated feelings of frustration, isolation and inequality”
That indicates that there’s nothing really enthusiastic or even positive about this. As we see with these t-shirts reading — “I’m not ashamed” [in Russian “mne ne stydno”]. Perhaps, there is something to be ashamed of. The defensive part of it indicates that it’s not something that most Russian people are really enthusiastic or happy about. The consolidation part of it is the effectiveness of the Russian state’s propaganda and Western reactions in pushing Russians towards the regime. The sanctions obviously affect ordinary Russians. There is also a kind of anti-Russian campaign “canceling” Russia. To Russian people this often just underlines the idea that they are given from the state that Russia is the victim of aggression in the wider geopolitical context. So consolidation brings this kind of lay political reaction closer to believing the state’s propaganda.
It doesn’t mean that the people are enthusiastically supporting the leader or the military campaign, just a relative closing of that gap between official discourse and popular responses. Consolidation also shows that it’s a dynamic process. It can deconsolidate as well, perhaps, when the economic costs become clear.
So, the Zed people, the people who are active in telegram channels and on social media, I think they are the vocal minority. The active pro-Putin people are fewer in number than the passive pro-Putin people. So we can’t map it onto active regime support.
— Do you think that people’s response will change if propaganda somehow disappears?
— I do. Even looking at Levada over the last 10 years, you see that there are big changes, in public opinion, depending on what the political messaging is.
In the 2000s there was evidence that people considered themselves European. Then when Levada asked people a few years ago, they said no as if they were always like that, but that’s not true. It’s a relatively recent idea.
If the regime disappeared and was replaced by a completely different regime, then public opinion would also reflect that.
— Why is this consolidation dynamic relatively easy to activate and be sustained by the regime?
— I think it does find its roots in deep seated feelings of frustration, isolation and inequality. Keeping people feeling robbed of a big idea, related to a sense of belonging. There isn’t a clear nationalistic way of expressing one’s belonging. We have a country that is strongly divided in terms of economic differences.
I don’t want to justify in any way support for the war or support for the regime, but it’s not just a result of recent propaganda. It has its basis in the last 30 years.
— On your blog you seem hesitant to call this fascism at the moment? Yet, there are clear signs…
— You could be right and we could definitely use the F word there. I guess we’re just not there yet, and hopefully we aren’t going the full distance.