Russia: 'Putin doesn’t know any war except class war'

Interview with Mikhail Lobanov and Aleksandra Zapolski. Reposted from Posle, September 2, 2022.

How has the war (once again) made the Russian Communist Party a conservative force? Why should the left in Russia participate in municipal elections? Will mass political movements appear in Russia? Activist and professor of sociology Aleksandra Zapolski and co-founder of the “Nomination” platform and Moscow State University lecturer Mikhail Lobanov share their predictions ahead of the September elections.

— How has the special operation changed the strategy of the opposition as a whole and the left movement in particular?

Mikhail: After the beginning of the special operation, part of the opposition decided to wait it out, to abandon their plans. Many groups that existed before the “Non-War” [an ironic reference to the legal prohibition on calling the war a war] have disappeared from the public space. For example, some activists, the teams of municipal deputies, [and] people who wanted to become municipal deputies expected Maxim Katz’s team to put forward a platform for the municipal elections this year. But Katz and his team decided that they’re not willing to act in the conditions of the special operation.

Many movements and individual people suffered from political repression. And even those who have only now actively gotten engaged with the anti-war movement have ended up facing criminal prosecution and in pretrial detention centers. This process has affected not only major movements but also small regional activist groups. For example, in Ufa charges have been brought against left activists — it’s an obvious provocation by special forces.

There are political forces who, over the course of many years, were saying that a war is coming, and they could extract some political profit from their warnings right now. For the time being, we’re not seeing it, and it’s not necessarily the case that they’re ever going to do this. I mean the “Yabloko” [the oldest liberal opposition party], for instance, which never did contribute to the anti-war movement. The current situation has had a major influence on the current municipal election campaign: compared to 2017, the number of candidates for the Moscow municipal elections has decreased significantly.

— Mikhail, in the 2021 State Duma elections you ran as a candidate from the KPRF. Is it possible to work with the KPRF today? How has the position and the role of this party changed in relation to the war?

Mikhail: The example of the KPRF can help us see how the politics of parliamentary parties and their preparations for municipal elections have changed since the beginning of the “Non-War.” We saw how Navalny’s followers were persecuted, how non-system opposition groups were destroyed. After this defeat, people ended up willing to vote for the KPRF candidates as a sign of protest. And the KPRF started to position itself as a united opposition platform. It continued to participate in elections in order to preserve its status as a secondary political party — losing it could have led to the disappearance of the KPRF as such.

At a certain moment party representatives started to attract interesting and independent candidates to represent the KPRF in elections. To this end they started to invest more in single-seat districts. The real political struggle in these districts inspired candidates to work in order to succeed in the next elections. This work impacted many people: members of the KPRF, potential candidates, representatives of the opposition, who began to consider voting for the KPRF as a way of participating in the elections. Such an experience does not just pass by without a trace. Many of those who were in the party or near it came to understand that they had really entered into struggle with the Russian political regime. They saw that some of their comrades had been subjected to arrest or repression for their political activity, but that, at the same time, people’s support became palpable.

Young people started coming to the party. The views of old party activists started to change. The KPRF agenda started to move to the left, there has been a noticeable departure from the right-conservative rhetoric. But the current foreign-policy situation in Russia has thrown all these changes into question.

Now we see that many of the deputies in regional and local parliaments who were elected by the KPRF are taking anti-war positions. In Moscow among independent candidates for the municipal elections anti-war positions are in the majority. But the KPRF leadership announced their support for the military operations and the politics of the Kremlin from the very beginning of the special operation, without any thought of making attempts to reckon with what’s going on. At the same time, members of the party, individual chapters and even certain regional Komsomol organizations have refused to support the position of the leadership.

In order to contain the risks of a possible split, the KPRF started to exert pressure on those who publicly took up anti-war positions. For a while they had an agreement about being able to speak out against, but only on an individual basis, not as a group. Moreover, over the last half year, the KPRF has cut contacts with other oppositional forces who speak out against the “Non-War.”

We organized the “Nomination” platform, which can help anti-war candidates achieve victory in the municipal elections. Many KPRF candidates are participating in these elections, and our platform can improve their chances of success significantly. But it doesn’t seem like in the KPRF they’re interested in their nominees achieving good results. Many of them are refusing to interact with us. As it turns out, the party didn’t make this decision officially –– it’s a series of decisions made by individual people

— How do the prospects of electoral politics look today?

Mikhail: We use the elections to mobilize the participants of previous election campaigns. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that we’ll receive any mandates, since candidates can be removed from the elections as a result of administrative and criminal charges and also by electoral commissions. All the same, I think that we have to participate in elections, since the meaning of our activities is organizing teams and getting experience which will be transformed later into something else.

— Has the war influenced urban activism and the municipal elections? Many opposition candidates have been prevented from participating in the elections? What’s the authorities’ strategy here?

Mikhail: The majority of the candidates who have turned to our platform have already been registered. Now the authorities are resorting to various strategies to remove candidates. At the initial stage, the special operation itself, the shock that Russian society experienced in relation to it, filtered out a lot of people. Some refused to participate in the elections, others were removed, and other potential candidates have left Moscow. The next stage was intimidating candidates with administrative charges, for example, for displaying extremist symbols. This affected several people, primarily those in whom the authorities saw potential leaders of neighborhood teams. Anything can become a pretense for charges: displaying extremist symbols [like the exclamation point from Navalny’s logo], references to the “Smart Voting” project [launched by Navalny]. Candidates faced with these charges cannot run for election for a year.

During this second stage there is a filtering out of candidates during the registration of those who are self-nominated and over the course of the ten following days. During this period another candidate can contest [their opponent’s] registration at trial. The mayor’s office had its spoiler candidates: people with the same last names as acting municipal deputies who got some votes through people’s mistakes and those who pressed charges against other candidates through lawyers who illegally got access to documents from the electoral commissions. What is more, young candidates were often rejected based on signatures — graphologists in certain districts made up violations in signature documents.

This costs opposition candidates quite a lot, because they lose those people on whom election campaigns are supported. Those who haven’t been removed yet will more likely than not make it to the elections, after all, the authorities don’t have many opportunities left for excluding someone now. The candidates who are most at risk now are those from parties, because political parties in Russia have always been subjected to pressure by the authorities. There is a third stage of filtration, in which parties can withdraw their support for candidates. Before the special operation, some expected that parties could act freely and choose their own candidates in these elections. They offered to help candidates with the nomination process, but then they received the relevant instructions from the authorities and denied this [offer of] help. In particular, this happened to several candidates who decided to seek the nomination of the “New People” party. At the last moment they were denied the nomination on the basis of the fact that these people participated in some demonstration at some point or spoke out against election fraud.

Aleksandra: Certain party representatives who refused to help candidates said: “We’re engaged in municipal elections here, not politics.” For them, a municipal campaign is not the place for politics.

Mikhail: The authorities are aiming for lower turn-out at these elections. This situation is different from the preparations for the State Duma elections or from the presidential elections, when officials have an interest in the concrete results. The “Nomination” platform was created, among other reasons, to increase the turn-out at the municipal elections. We’re also trying to connect candidates from different neighborhoods with a citywide agenda. This allows us to increase interest in the elections.

— Mikhail, you were given a 15-day sentence for a post on VK [the Russian social network, Vkontakte] about how the cost of the war will fall on the shoulders of the least prosperous populations. Why do you believe this? What is the significance of social inequality for the course of this war?

Mikhail: I was sentenced to administrative arrest for specific statements: for discrediting officials and members of the Government of the Russian Federation and, as the pseudo-expert said in her findings, for fomenting class hatred. In the post itself what was written is that the authorities, the president, and the government are providing for the interests of the absolute minority. I also described the measures that were taken by the government since the beginning of the special operation.

First, they canceled the VAT for the purchase of gold bullion. Clearly, this concern of very prosperous people doesn’t matter for the population of the country as a whole. In this post I wrote that if the authorities were really thinking about the interests of people who had been suffering since the moment that the SMO [special military operation] began from inflation, the growth of grocery prices, the inaccessibility of medicine, then they would have canceled the VAT on medicine and essential foodstuffs instead of the VAT on gold.

Second, the authorities freed major bank investments from income tax. For many years such interest yields were not subject to taxes, but at some point, the tax was introduced, but at the beginning of the “Non-War” they canceled them immediately. Repealing this tax allows financially prosperous people to increase their income. Instead of this, the authorities could have canceled income taxes for people with low wages and helped those for whom every five thousand rubles in taxes means something. In the situation of the special operation, officials only think about their own interests and about how to multiply their wealth. The interests of the people don’t enter into this agenda. In reality, Putin doesn’t know any war except class war. It’s forbidden to call the “Non-War” a war, but in reality we’re dealing with one and with its class aspect.

— People whose income was already low have already started to feel that their economic situation is worsening. Does this factor influence people’s moods?

Mikhail: Naturally, what’s going on will impact, first and foremost, those who live from paycheck to paycheck. The question is how exactly this will happen and what the reaction will be. According to sociological surveys (of course, we have to take into consideration the impossibility of objectivity in all sociological surveys conducted in Russia, especially during the SMO), it’s important that anti-war moods are more often characteristic of people with a low income and without the possibility of putting away savings than for people who can survive a temporary reduction in income, since it won’t have too much of an effect on their quality of life and consumption. But the situation of prosperous, pro-war people can change suddenly. They were hoping for a swift conclusion of the SMO — their willingness to endure difficulties depended on it. But drawn-out military operations and a long-term worsening of the economic situation might change their position. The fact that the first reaction to the beginning of the “Non-War” in our society was, in spite of everything, anti-war also gives hope for the growth of anti-war moods.

— People with low incomes can now sign a military enlistment contract and get a decent paycheck for it by Russian standards. Could this be regarded as a way to improve the economic situation of the poor?

Mikhail: We see that it doesn’t work very well. People aren’t rushing to go to war even for very high wages. They are still looking for other ways to survive.

Alexandra: There are fears that the worsening socio-economic situation will do little to make Russian citizens realize the full horror of what is happening. Rather, the deteriorating condition will lead to an even greater withdrawal into one’s own life and basic survival. If people devote all their time to making ends meet, there is no guarantee that they will have the strength and time to protest against what is happening in the country.

Mikhail: On the other hand, a deteriorating situation could lead to more decisive action in certain areas. Activists may begin to demand that wages be paid on time or that enterprises won’t be closed. This, for example, happened at the AvtoVaz plant in Izhevsk. Society has accumulated a certain experience of collective action, even if it is not yet sufficient for a mass movement. But in the future this experience may facilitate the emergence of isolated or even organized mass movements. There is reason to be optimistic. However, we should not forget that political repression can affect these movements as well.

— Both of you teach at a university. How has the war affected your work, have you faced any restrictions?

Alexandra: Oddly enough, teaching improved in many ways, although it was much harder for teachers and students. People were “barely making it,” as they say. At a Zoom class the teacher turns the camera on and by her face students can see she had been crying. Then she turns the camera off and proceeds to comment on the slides. But the teaching process itself seemed to have gained new meaning. Critical theory, philosophy, and social sciences all of a sudden became relevant. All of this, among other things, helps teachers and students cope with horror through understanding. Students themselves also feel demand for these subjects, because they have realized that the world is complicated, yet we can improve it, or at least make sense of it. My colleagues have also noted that students show more interest [in social theory and sciences].

But in all other respects it has become much more complicated. Teachers were informally advised to be careful, since students might record what we say. University officials did not forbid us from saying whatever we felt was appropriate in class, but they warned us of the potential dangers. The students, in turn, were advised to contact the university administration if an instructor was constantly taking a pro-Ukrainian stance. Among themselves, teachers tried to figure out what could and could not be said in class. Alternative practices of expressing disagreement with what was going on were often discussed.

At the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, where I taught a course, there was a rather high-profile case. Denis Grekov, the teacher of the “Critical Thinking” course, was fired because he wrote an anti-war post on his Facebook page. A pro-government teacher reacted in her telegram channel, after which Grekov was asked to resign at his own request. He quit his job and left Russia. There may have been other cases of this kind, but this one received the most publicity.

Mikhail: I work at Moscow State University, and I have not noticed any additional pressure that would make the university more repressive than it was before. There have always been concerns about pro-government activists working for the administration, or intelligence officers attached to the university. Over the past few years, we have faced even more pressure on students and staff than now, primarily because of political rallies.

Still a rather stifling atmosphere prevailed. What happened was unprecedented, and at first it was hard for me personally to do anything at all. It was also difficult to teach in a state of depression, although I teach mathematics and the subject of special operations did not arise in my classes. Among the important things, the number of contacts with foreign colleagues decreased. Previously, we used to have seminars with professors invited from other countries. Now foreign scientists do not participate. Some Russian colleagues have been excluded from the organizing committees of international conferences. I think that in the long run this will lead to an exodus of young people from the Russian academy. Scientists will refuse to pursue an academic career in Russia because of the lack of prospects. Following the start of the war, many of my colleagues moved abroad or are planning to leave. If this so-called “special operation” continues, education and science in Russia will no doubt face a disaster.

— What is your take on the prospects for research and education given Russia’s isolation?

Alexandra: Scientists and researchers will be forced to leave. It is not just a question of the threat of criminal prosecution, but also of financial reasons. A good specialist can earn much more at a foreign university than at a Russian one. I think that many people will also be confused by the law on foreign agents: a speech at a foreign conference or an internship can be viewed as foreign influence. Doing science involves close cooperation with the international academic community. If this cooperation stops, science in Russia will simply disappear.

— How is it possible to live and act amidst censorship and repression? How do you manage to keep your spirits up?

Mikhail: My experience is that taking a public stance helps get through these difficult times. There are quite a few examples of people who partook in innocent anti-war actions and faced completely disproportionate consequences. But the fact that they took a strong public stance helped and still helps them get through it all. Those who publicly spoke up for them also expressed their anti-war commitment in this way.

Since the start of the war, many people are at a loss, they don’t understand how to live with this. It is difficult for people, because among their acquaintances there are those who are indifferent to what is happening, or those who take a pro-war stance. But those who are confused need to do something. Activity and protest help keep our spirits up. Practices of collective engagement are important. They do not necessarily have to be concerned with the war and the political situation in general. Right now any collective effort, action, and struggle is extremely valuable.

Alexandra: I agree, any collective action is a potential source of support in this situation. For example, it helped me to participate in the monthly recycling events. A lot more people showed up for these events in March and April than in previous months. Since people came not only to take their trash to the recycling center, but primarily to look at others and talk to them. We interacted with each other and with the volunteers, shared our experiences and opinions, and, very importantly, found a connection.

— Are you dismayed by the passivity of Russian citizens, despite the imminent threat of nuclear war? Can you see any change in their attitudes?

Alexandra: When I catch myself deploring that someone dared to sit in a café at such a difficult time, I think that I may have sat there the same way on another day. I try not to be judgmental, because meeting with friends in a cafe can serve as a psychological support to keep from going crazy with what is going on. In Ukraine and Russia, the same war is going on, but these are different catastrophes, and it is impossible to compare them. In each of them, there is a different course of action for survival.

Mikhail: I don’t know how people reassure themselves, but it seems to me that a growing feeling that the war will not end soon may spark anti-war sentiments. We shouldn’t condemn passivity, because people’s views don’t change overnight. The task of politicians and activists now is to look for options that can be offered to society. Our response is to support solidarity networks, help refugees, and participate in the anti-war movement.

Alexandra: People change their views very slowly, and these changes are not so evident. Most often it seems that there is a yawning chasm between people with different positions. It turns out that we have different ways of perceiving these disastrous events. Some people feel deeply involved and they want to do something about it, while others passively wait for it all to be over. Perhaps the problem is that many people are not ready to share what they feel and think.

You could tell the state of people looking at their faces on the subway in March and April, but back then few people talked to each other about what was going on. Active discussion could be observed only in the activist community. But even activists at this time had literally no energy and had to force themselves morally and emotionally to do something. In fact, there were activists who did not take an anti-war stance, and people who had never been activists but publicly opposed the war.

— How do you perceive the notorious division of Russians into those who left and those who stayed?

Mikhail: I would urge people in these two groups to look for common ground. We see that activist campaigns involve both people who are in Russia and those who have left. We need to make sure that this separation does not lead to additional lines of tension or rifts within activist communities. Those who left at the beginning of the war had their own reasons. Events unfolded in a completely unpredictable and rapid way. It is a dubious exercise to judge and blame those who left or stayed in Russia. Many cannot leave for various reasons, including financial ones. Debating with those who have left and now occupy a rather eccentric position outside of Russia is, in my opinion, counterproductive.

— Is it possible to define a minimum and a maximum program for the left in Russia?

Alexandra: The minimum program is survival. But even this requires a lot of hard work. Now the main challenge for the left movement is preserving the networks of solidarity that have been built over the years. Even maintaining them means attracting new supporters and creating new connections, to help the movement grow.

Mikhail: Recently, interest in left ideas in Russia has increased. It is important that this is happening not only in academia, but also among human rights and political activists. We should not simply maintain this trend, but try to use it to increase the organizational potential of the leftist movement. This can be accomplished primarily through mass trade union, social, and political campaigns. This also includes a strategy for participation in elections.

It seems to me that the minimum task for the left should be to engage in the struggle for hegemony in political and cultural life. The maximum program is to promote the emergence of mass movements aimed at political change and to participate in the development of their programs.