Why study Russian society? And why now?

The full version was first published on the Kone Foundation website, At the Well Blog. It can be found here.

At a recent conference in Riga, Latvia, entitled “Russia’s War in Ukraine and the Changing European Security Environment”, the question was raised as to why we should study Russian society. This question becomes even more pertinent as the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance. As an academic with a unique perspective, having left my native St Petersburg in 2017 due to academic and social pressures, I firmly believe that studying Russia is essential, especially in the context of the ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine.

The challenges of studying Russia are significant, including the scarcity of reliable data on public opinion, complicated by the lack of support for fieldwork and research visits to Russia from Western institutions. Moreover, interpreting public opinion polls that show high levels of support for the Russian authorities and their goals in Ukraine can be daunting. However, this should not deter us from studying this complex nation.

To gain a critical understanding of what is happening in Russia, we need innovative research tools and methodologies. In particular, a visual biopolitics approach offers a fresh perspective. This lens allows us to look beyond the surface of massive displays of pro-war sentiment, such as Z-flashmobs, and see the mechanisms of power that govern the collective body of the nation. By analysing the visual side of behavioural conformity in Russian society, we can identify structural aspects of human administration and the regularity of expression.

This approach reveals that the seemingly overwhelming support for the war is in many cases the result of instructions from organisations and social pressure. The question arises: Can individuals, especially schoolchildren and public sector workers, refuse these instructions and express dissenting opinions without fear of ostracism or economic hardship? The answer is often complex, as most individuals tend to conform to the norm in order to avoid becoming outcasts within their communities.

Ethical considerations should guide the analysis of the extensive visual evidence of support for the war in Ukraine. It’s crucial to keep asking new research questions about Russian society and the conditions under which it can unite or oppose the state. By using visual research methods and the biopolitical perspective, we can collect data remotely without endangering vulnerable groups and gain a deeper understanding of how individuals navigate life under an authoritarian regime.

In conclusion, the study of Russian society is not only essential but also timely, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. It allows us to peel back the layers of authoritarianism, recognise the diversity of opinion within Russian society, and gain a critical understanding of the dynamics of state-society relations in contemporary Russia.

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