- Homo Post-Sovieticus:Reconstructing Citizenship in Russia
it seems odd to speak of transition in russia. the problem is not just with the term itself, loaded as it is with normative expectations that Russia and its neighbors, having thrown off a seemingly unnatural system of governance, would inevitably converge to the politically and economically liberal mean. And yet it is not entirely a fool's errand. While Russia is neither a liberal market economy nor a functioning democracy, Russian citizens today are not living in the same circumstances that obtained in 1985 or 1991, or even 1999 when Vladimir Putin first came to power. The state's monopoly of the means of production is a thing of the past, as is its insistence on a single ideology that transformed and constricted the lives of its citizens. Though myriad caveats are due, Russians are broadly freer and more prosperous than they have ever been before, and the state plays less of a role in their lives, having largely ceased curating not only their bookshelves and travel plans but also their educational and career trajectories, their health care, and so on. Moreover, this new state of affairs appears to be reasonably well consolidated and capable of sustaining and entrenching itself for the foreseeable future (see, among others, Hale 2014). And so it does not seem unreasonable to argue that there has been a transition from one state of affairs to another.
More broadly, the study of durable authoritarianism—the ostensibly surprising perseverance of a regime type thought to be on the way out only two decades ago—owes much to the failure of both [End Page 181] democratic transformation and the transition paradigm in the post-Soviet space. From an academic standpoint, at least, this has been a good thing, calling established categories into question and forcing a reconsideration of significant segments of democratic theory (see, among many others, Carothers 2002; Levitsky and Way 2010; Diamond et al. 2014). But the integration of the study of "post-transition" into mainstream comparative politics, while fruitful, has imposed certain limitations. For the most part, following trends in political science writ large, the resulting research has focused on institutions—both formal and informal, and the ways in which they are both captured and subverted—and on the behavior of elites. A second important strand of this research has focused on microstructures, with particular (though not exclusive) reference to China (see, for example, Tsai 2007; Repnikova 2017).
Increasingly, however, research on Russia has begun to elucidate a range of pro-autocratic phenomena that lie deeper in the social equation—factors including personality, emotion, and the evidently careful and contingent calculations that inform the expression and/or falsification of preferences (see Treisman 2011; Frye, Reuter, and Szakonyi 2014; Frye et al. 2017; Greene and Robertson 2017 and 2018). This essay argues that scholars should push even further in that direction. While not negating the importance of institutions and elites, the suggestion here is that research should move beyond received assumptions about the ways in which autocratic "distortions" originating at the top of the political hierarchy might cascade downwards. Rather, a cross-disciplinary approach to the study of Russia can help in understanding the ways in which autocratic governance produces not just political behaviors but also more deeply engrained social incentives and preferences, which in turn lend internal coherence—and thus durability—to authoritarian systems.
This essay takes inspiration and guidance from Aronoff and Kubik's (2013) use of the anthropological concept of "vernacular knowledge"—the intuitive, common-sense guideposts that communities use to interpret complex challenges—in their critique of Homo [End Page 182] sovieticus, the idea that Russian (and other postcommunist) peoples are culturally incompatible with liberalized social, economic, and political systems. Without the benefit of ethnography, of course, studying the political vernacular knowledge of ordinary Russian citizens is impossible. Instead, I will try to tease out some hypotheses, informed by key strands of contemporary research focusing on three central questions: (a) how Russians have assimilated the legacies of the rise and fall of state socialism; (b) how Russians instrumentalize media and mediated communication, with particular reference to politics; and (c) the...