Society in Russia “is not in a normal state, but is at the peak of its psychosis.” Russians say they live in a free country, but best-selling authors are Viktor Frankl, Kafka and Orwell. They express optimism on the economic front and do not save money, but consumption is declining. They describe themselves as proud of their country, but also anxious. “Simple answers don’t work to explain what’s going on.” This is how Ekaterina Schulmann, Russian political scientist, former commentator on Radio Ekho Moskva, summarizes the “complex situation” of the country in the Kremlin’s Human Rights Council between 2018 and 2019.
“The contradictions are constant. Society looks at itself in a broken mirror. It doesn’t know itself at all, it nourishes illusions. There is no link between the opinions expressed and the behaviours”, adds Schulmann who, after the start of the war, moved from Moscow to moved to Berlin, where she is a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy. And the state machine, you summarize, has different capabilities and objectives than those useful for war. You know how to organize military parades, special operations but not a direct war and a real popular mobilization in a society that has been depoliticized for twenty years.
In a recent conference at SciencesPo in Paris, introduced by the economist Sergei Guriev, ‘foreign agent’ in Russia like her, but in France since 2013, Schulmann presented an in-depth analysis of the functioning of the state machine and of the trend of opinion public in Russia in recent months, two elements necessary to explain the political situation of the country, whose political system is still a “personal autocracy that is trying to transform itself into totalitarianism”. A “not easy” process, less easy, for example, than moving from a weak democracy to totalitarianism. To transform a regime, you add, you need an ideology, a party that implements it, and many young people. “It is not yet the case in Russia, where the political system tends to preserve itself as it is, even if this objective is in contradiction with the military one”.
“We are not there yet, therefore. There has not been a transformation in this sense, neither in the state, nor in society”, underlines Schulmann, author of the creator of the concept of ‘inverted cargo cult’. If the cargo cult indicates the situation in which you realize that your sand plane doesn’t fly, its inversion is instead when, after you agree that your sand plane doesn’t work, you think that even real planes remain to the ground. And it was clearly coined to denote the way the “Poteomkin democracy” in Russia continues to criticize the Western ones.
The first point that emerges from the analysis carried out on the basis of open and cross-referenced data is the significant increase, already starting from 2014, in the number of direct and indirect public officials, therefore including those who work for large public companies, especially at the local level. After 2011, after the protests and what was perceived as an attempt at regime change, the Russian political system survived thanks to the repressions, from Bolotnaya Square onwards, “and the extension and strengthening of the base of support” , with the annexation of Crimea – which ensured three years of public euphoria – and with an increase in people who work for the state, who thanks to the state can count on a stable and secure situation.
The middle class, journalists, teachers and employees of public companies, therefore work for the state and the state, which has become a very important employer since 2010, is loyal. For the others, payments have arrived from the state “which has never distributed so much money since the war began”. In 2022 the poverty level fell. Pensions have been indexed, allowances have been extended to families with children, no longer just to those in need. “The authorities are gaining loyalty,” underlines the political scientist. The idea is this: “there is war but there is no war, which is made by special people. If you want to be one too, we will pay you and your child will be able to enter any university without exams. Maybe you don’t survive, but your family does”, says the author of the successful text “Practical Political Sciences”.
“The special military operation itself had to work just and only because it was special, fast and easy to show on television. Like the Olympics or military parades, what Russia does best. That’s why it was defined that way. could have succeeded except as a special. As the war dragged on and normalized, the country ended up in a situation it was not prepared to face. And now the whole system, not just the state but the whole political model, try to pretend that not much has happened, that things are going as usual, even if, it sends another message that it is what everything must be done for victory”, adds Schulmann, underlining yet another contradiction. The big extraordinary events, as well as the macroeconomy, the banks, is what the state machine has managed to make work well. The sectors that seem to follow government directives the least, the most reticent – as emerges from 2020 statistics requested and published by Premier Mikhail Mishustin – are the ones that do the best, in fact, finances, economic development, trade. Instead, the most diligent ones, the Space Agency, the Ministry of Justice and that of Defense, are the least performing, lists the analyst, denouncing the “strange correlation”.
To understand the importance of the state machinery in Russia, Schulmann recalls that “power in Russia belongs to the bureaucracy, and since a long time before the Revolution”. “Nobility is not based on birth, but on the efficiency of rank, the power of rank that can be given or subtracted, which gives a lot of power to the central authority. There are no eminences or favourites. In the Soviet Union, they spoke of nomenklatura. In contemporary Russia, power continues to belong to this same bureaucracy, at the federal, regional and local levels. Civilians or siloviki, apparatchiks, representatives of government, ministries, state banks, those who do not have an official position, like the oligarchs who are all “champions of state procurement”. Among other things, this is precisely the difference with the magnates of the Eltsinian period: whoever has rank now, owns nothing but sells something to the state”.
“Right now, an ideology is developing, with bits of earlier history rather than the old ideological system. And it is ideology, not repression, that is a fundamental element of totalitarianism. This system also needs an ideological organization, a party or something else, which conveys this ideology to the people. The closest to the totalitarian transformation in Russia now “is the ideologization of secondary education. And here, the time factor is crucial”. “If the status quo lasts eight to ten years, if you manage to educate an entire school cycle in this situation, to convince these kids that the world is like this, then there will be a new generation of bureaucrats who know nothing but this system and can generate an ideology”.
“In a totalitarian regime we speak of extermination, for who you are. In an authoritarian regime, of intimidation, for what you do, or what they think you do. In the first case there is a vision of the future, whoever is an obstacle to this paradise must be exterminated because the goal must be achieved. Autocracy, on the other hand, has the goal of maintaining power and selling a future of stability,” Schulmann clarifies, to explain why Russia is still an autocracy and the friction to change.
“There is therefore in Russia a clear distance between appearance and reality. With the beginning of the war, we saw that those who most identified themselves with the state and for whom it The state has spent more, the GRU, the FSB, the military and the propaganda which was successful in the first month of the operation but which since last summer has no longer been able to create a message”. While the pieces of the state machine that have proven to be more resilient and effective are those that were considered pro-Western, the financial bloc, the liberals, the civil bureaucracy, thanks to their great adaptability”.
The information system is also changing, but even in this case nobody seems to notice. Since 2016, state televisions have lost audiences – apart from the peak reached in the first weeks of the special operation – following the crumbling of consensus for the annexation of Crimea, the age of the audience is increasing and the level of trust in the televisions. But nothing has been done to change the format, the journalists, the topics. Nothing has changed. “That means it’s a one-man operation that’s still going well.” Information on online media is increasing, and the use of Telegram as a source of information, now the “political media of choice, has increased significantly.
“We live on data and Russian data is not reliable. We don’t even know how many people live in Russia and I’m not talking about the new territories, but about Russia itself. Regional statistics are lying, about births and life expectancy are exaggerated. There they are incentives for the governors of the most populous regions.Some demographers argue that Russians are not 142 million but 130, others 110. Or also, we know that one third of the economy in Russia is public, one third private, one third is gray area , not so much of organized crime, but difficult to identify.
But it is “impossible to say, in this context, how stable the regime is and how long it will remain alive”. “As long as the country has the money to buy loyalties and the strength to repress the disloyal, the country holds. But we don’t have much to hold us together. The language, the school curriculum, Soviet movies and songs, the President, and two holidays, New Year’s Eve and May 9. Not anymore. And most of the unifying symbols belong to the older generations. In a couple of decades, this post-Soviet unity may dissolve but not before,” predicts Schulmann.
And what do we know about the support for the special military operation? “There are three groups of comparable size. Those in favor of the war, who tend to decrease, those against, who do not increase, and the opportunists. A third of Russians argue that the war must go on. They approved the start of the operation and they think it should continue. But the overall thinking is: ‘you started, you had your reasons, we trust you, you manage it and you have to finish it’ and that the operation is ‘too long’. “People expected that was fast, but they still expect something’. The richest people support the war more. The poorest less. Less well-off in the cities, more in the provinces, unless one belongs to the less well-off category. Age is the determining factor: we are heading towards a conflict between those over 60, the ‘Soviet baby boomers’, and all other age groups. But the mirror is broken and the vision of the present, even before the future, is difficult.