Entretien avec l’universitaire Sergueï Medvedev

Sergei Medvedev is a Russian scholar, a specialist of the post-Soviet period. In his analysis of Russian society, he uses sociology, geography, literature and cultural anthropology. He won the prestigious Pushkin Book Prize 2020 for his book The Return of the Russian Leviathan, Polity Press, 2019, widely acclaimed in the United States and Britain, as well as in France (under the title Les Quatre Guerres de Poutine, Buchet-Chastel, 2020). Read the interview.

Interview by Galia Ackerman

In your book, you write that a feudal State is being formed in Russia. Can you explain this idea? In particular, can we talk about serfs, one of the core elements of any feudal society?

I refer you to the classification of Simon Kordonsky [Russian philosopher and sociologist, editor’s note], who studied the Resource State, i.e. a State that distributes money among different strata of the population on a regular basis. What is the Resource State? It is a State organized at every level around the search for, extraction and accumulation of resources, and their distribution according to the priorities of the State. In such a State resources are not only raw materials or goods already produced, but also population, education, health and land. Labor is also a resource, and not a commodity. Naturally, the Resource State is opposed in principle to the capitalist State.

Classes, or castes, are constituted according to the resources they control and benefit from. The first of these is the ruling class, which is the main beneficiary. Kordonsky estimates that this body represents about 7 million individuals. The number may be a little higher, say ten million. This group directly controls the “pipelines”, i.e. the oil and gas resources. It includes members of parliament at all levels, members of the law enforcement agencies and various security services that sprout up like mushrooms, federal and regional authorities and their apparatus, senior civil servants and heads of local administrations, diplomats, etc. They also enjoy privileges. For example, employees of the Ministry of the Interior, the Prosecutor’s Office, the FSB, etc., have absolute priority in getting their children into the best schools. They have the right to retire at 40-45 years of age, and their pensions are much higher. They receive other allowances and enjoy vacation homes and resorts at symbolic prices, just like in Soviet times. In other words, they serve the Leviathan and receive all its benefits. There are tens of thousands of families in the ruling elite. They have a distinct legal status, I emphasize, especially if one approaches the top of power, including immunity from prosecution in common law cases. For example, if a member of the elite causes a fatal traffic accident, he or she will receive a one- to two-year suspended sentence, while an ordinary citizen might spend five to ten years in prison. This is an absolutely medieval system, where people are not equal before the law.

The second class consists of a large and amorphous mass of about 80 million people, mainly employees of public enterprises who receive budgetary benefits. It should be remembered that state management of the economy is being revived in Russia and that two-thirds of GDP is produced in the public sector: in other words, we are almost back to the Soviet situation. This mass is, so to speak, the “second oil”, it bears the major part of the tax burden and is pressurized as the resources decrease. They have seen the retirement age raised and are constantly told that Russians do not need money, that they do not work so hard and that the State does not owe them anything. They are the “serfs” of modern times.

The third class consists of “commoners”, who earn their living by themselves. They are entrepreneurs or employees of private companies, or self-employed — freelancers, lawyers, artists, prostitutes, etc. They earn their living not from the State, but from the private sector. There are 17 to 20 million of them in all, and it is a shrinking body. They are particularly burdened by demands of the regulatory authorities. In addition, the business climate in Russia is exceptionally bad: our country is ranking second to last in terms of the level of optimism among executives. Russia is totally dominated by the State, and it is Putin who has resurrected this system.

But is it really a feudal system?

In any case, it is a kind of a medieval society, where people occupy fixed places inside of their respective castes and where the social elevator is severely limited for the lower castes. The most serious problem of this society is the inequality before the law. The main characteristic of the bourgeois revolutions was, let’s remember, the establishment of the equality of all before the law. In Russia, however, this equality has been taken away by the State. Some 9 million citizens are not allowed to vote in the elections, and the number of people deprived of this right because of political charges is rapidly increasing. Russia is a most unequal country: unequal access to the right to vote, unequal access to justice, unequal access to resources, unequal access to social benefits.

In the short story that concludes your book, you talk about the eternal journey of Russian history: the absence of political freedom. At the same time, you show a certain awakening of consciences in the face of violence, which means that society is evolving and will continue to produce opponents.

I do not agree with your postulate about the awakening of mass consciousness in the face of violence. Yes, there are progressive individuals, women who are starting to protest against domestic violence, students who sometimes organize demonstrations, but these are isolated acts. In recent years the violence in Russia has become commonplace. People get used to this violence, they know they could be beaten by the police and tortured in prison. And society approves of it. It approves of what happened to Navalny. In the seven months he has been behind bars, his support has dropped even further, from 18% to 14% today. This is monstrous. Most Russians think the authorities are right to mistreat and imprison Navalny, and have doubts about his poisoning last summer. They recognize the right of the State to use violence against a citizen and to deprive him of his vote. This is what breeds all other forms of violence. Violence of teachers against pupils, violence of husbands against their wives, violence of parents against their children. Russian society is based on a contract of violence, which is in place in the police and the army, in schools and in families. It is true that there have been some breaches in this contract, the progressive press is indignant, Novaya Gazeta is monitoring different cases, but all this is a drop in the ocean. I don’t think that an LGBT person, for example, can spend his life in Russia without being subjected to violence. Not to mention the total lack of freedom for women in the Northern Caucasus.

Moreover, I do not exclude, if relations with Europe continue to deteriorate, that Russia withdraws from the Council of Europe and restores the death penalty, as in Belarus, to the great satisfaction of public opinion. The authorities will find good reasons to carry out this punishment, for example for high treason. Russia is clearly following the Belarusian path. At first glance, Belarusian society is modernized and progressive. In the cities, almost every second person is a computer geek. Belarusians frequently travel to Poland and Lithuania. However, society has bowed to terror. No one protests anymore, and neither does the outside world. Belarus has become a terrorist State. And Russia might well follow the same path.

In this utterly repressive society, what should do those 14% of the population who disagree with Putin’s regime?

These are very difficult individual choices. One option is to emigrate, although it is dwindling, with the additional constraints of Covid-19. For all these years, we knew the door was open, but now there is only a small wicket and the possibilities of settling in the West are also restricted. If you stay in Russia, you have to make a difficult moral choice: to stick to your guns, to say aloud what you think, to participate in rallies, but at the same time you have to be aware of the risks involved — the risks of administrative and criminal liability, of being listed as a “foreign agent”, a member of an “undesirable organization”, of having your bank accounts confiscated, etc. It is a constant repressive pressure. And, of course, there is the choice of conformity: this is how tens of millions of perfectly normal people live. After all, there is no social catastrophe in Russia, basic commodities are relatively abundant, salaries and pensions are paid, people generally do not suffer from hunger, socially disadvantaged regions are isolated and have no influence on the political situation. Nobody cares about those who die there. On the whole, there is no way to upset this balance. So it is an individual crusade and moral choice.

A large group of academics and intellectuals recently signed a letter calling for the creation of an Eastern European university where the future elites of Russia and Belarus, now forced to emigrate, could study. This topic revives an old dispute from the Soviet era between those who saw emigration as the only way out (I did, having emigrated in 1973) and those who felt that they should continue to do research and develop culture, even in the darkest of circumstances. What is the attitude of young intellectuals today?

The possibilities for action within the country are increasingly reduced. Any dollar, any euro perceived from abroad by an individual or an organization can lead to persecution. It is even possible to be labeled as a “foreign agent” without having received any money. Suppose your article is published on a non-Russian website, this could be considered as administrative support from outside. In these circumstances, it is necessary to create “windows” to the world so that Russians or Belarussians can participate in webinars and travel abroad for academic study. So far, no one has been arrested for receiving a foreign degree. So the idea of the Eastern European University is logical. More broadly, we need to create new centers of Russian culture, like the great centers of Russian emigration in Berlin, Prague, Paris, Belgrade, Rome in the 20th century, to preserve the nation’s intellect.

In order to prevent such a development, the Russian authorities are trying to control the diaspora…

This is part of Putin’s policy, and it is partly successful, because many emigrants try to maintain their identity in their new environment. Many are not well settled, have precarious living conditions, and they are offered a grandiose project called “Greater Russia”, the “glorious past”. The Kremlin actively works with emigration. For it, it is a battlefield.

The role of the Church seems diminishing in recent years, giving way to cults of a watered-down Sovietism and of the “Great Victory”. Basically, these are pagan cults, which in some respects are reminiscent of Nazi pagan cults. Do you share this view?

Yes, I do. We have quasi-religious cults linked to the State ideology. May 9 is a quasi-religious holiday. temples are built to commemorate the Victory, like the frightening one built in Kubinka, near Moscow, which is inspired by numerology, even black magic: it is 75 meters high, to remind us of the 75 years of the Great Victory, with a dome 14.18 meters in diameter, in reference to the 1,418 days of the war, and cast iron staircases for which German weapons confiscated as trophies were used. Frescoes and mosaics representing Stalin, Putin, Choygou, Matvienko have been created, but, in front of the protests, they were dismantled. It is the temple of the new religion, with its own rituals, such as the Immortal Regiment, a procession in which people carry portraits of their fallen relatives, like icons. A hagiography is being born: in propaganda videos, we see individuals addressing these portraits as icons. We are witnessing a carnivalization of Victory: some people dress up in military uniforms, dress their children as soldiers, transform baby carriages into tanks. In Soviet times, everyone said, “Let’s hope there would be no new war,” but today, stickers on cars read, “1941-1945: we can do it again!” People are ready for war! The cult of Victory has been transformed into a quasi-religious cult of war, chauvinistic and militaristic. And the church is invited to adapt, to bless these actions, to bless weapons, Victory Parks and temples. This ideology has created its own canonical texts, taught in schools, while new laws sanction and repress any different viewpoint.

The Church cannot fully accept the rehabilitation of the Soviet period, when it was humiliated and banned, when priests were persecuted and executed, can it?

The Church is an absolutely servile institution; it is integrated into the system of distribution of resources; it is one of the bodies of the State. There are the oil companies, the military, the cops, and then there is the Church, which provides its ideological and legitimizing services in exchange for special benefits from the State. No one has any interest in remembering the priests hanged and shot during the Soviet period. One even sees zealous Orthodox people walking around with icons of Stalin. Listen to Zyuganov [communist leader]. In his speeches, everything is mixed: communism, Stalinism, Orthodoxy, the particular way of Russia.

The writer Vladimir Sorokin published Day of the Oprichnik in 2006. Do you think that Russia could close itself completely to the West, as described in his dystopia, and become a vassal of China, for which Russian propagandists have an unbounded admiration? One often hears the lament that Russia did not follow the Chinese path, that it did not have “its Tiananmen” to stop the decay of the regime at the end of the Soviet era.

Sorokin’s book is frighteningly prophetic. When it was published, it seemed grotesque. It still seemed grotesque in 2012. Until recently, many things seemed grotesque. When you read Zavtra [an ultranationalist newspaper founded in 1993], fifteen or twenty years ago, you used to choke with laughter. Just as we used to chuckle at those old people who lined up to go to the Lenin Mausoleum or the Museum of the Revolution. But it turns out that Zavtra has reached the Kremlin and the Security Council, and that the line of this newspaper is becoming a State ideology, which asserts that Russia represents a civilization apart, at eternal war with the West… This is the frightening face of Russian postmodernity. At the time of its publication, Day of the Oprichnik was perceived as a postmodern game with patriotic discourse, but suddenly the discourse turned into reality, and texts started killing people. This had already happened with Marxism, which was embodied in Russia as a dystopia, and not as a civilized social-democratic practice. Today, although it is too early to say, I do not exclude that Russia might cut itself completely off from the West, introduce exit visas and confiscate passports. This will not affect the majority of the population at all: only 5% of Russians travel abroad, the rest have never visited a foreign country in their lives. And now, because of Covid-19, the country is completely closed. In theory, I don’t see any institutional obstacle for this regime to last. The people who govern us today are around 70 years old. Putin as well as Lavrov and Shoigu are doing very well; they can stay in charge for ten or fifteen years. So we will live in Sorokin’s Russia for a while!

Do you see a Chinese-style evolution of the Russian political system?

It seems that Russia is becoming China’s little brother, its vassal. China’s hatred for the West is such that Russia is willing to throw itself into its arms; it is ready to adopt the experience of Chinese digital authoritarianism. We too will have a social rating, a total surveillance system, our own social networks, our own Internet. It all sounds a bit scary, of course, but in Russia, as always, the brutality of the law is mitigated by carelessness in its application. There will always be holes in the Russian fence. These laws will be circumvented, people will install proxies, VPNs, they will connect to Elon Musk’s satellite internet. They will find ways to travel abroad or consume imported goods here. It won’t be a North Korean type dictatorship or an Iranian type ideological dictatorship. It will be a postmodern Russian dictatorship, corrupt and predatory. People will be killed, the death penalty may be reintroduced, but it will be a very comical spectacle. Even today, Putin’s Russia and the laws it adopts are ridiculous. What was a tragedy in the 20th century is now a farce. The problem is to live inside of this black comedy, this grand-guignol, without knowing how long it will last. Maybe five years, maybe fifteen. I hope that one day Russian oil will become useless and that changes will occur… In any case, the next few years will be both scary and funny.