I’d been struggling for several days thinking of how to review Samuel Greene and Graeme Robertson’s book Putin v. the People, when I stumbled across a post on the blog Duck on Minerva which provided me with a way to do it. The post points out that political scientists are obsessed with methodology but spend very little time thinking about ontology. I normally avoid words like ontology and tell my students not to use them if they don’t want to be penalized, but here I’ll make an exception. Essentially what’s being said is that political scientists are deeply concerned about how they study things, but don’t often stop to reflect whether the things they’re studying are actually things at all.
Greene and Robertson seek to explain why the Russian people support Vladimir Putin. There’s a pretty simple explanation for this, well expressed today in the following tweet by Russia-based business journalist Ben Aris:
If we now go to back to issues of ontology and ask what the ‘thing’ is that Putin v the People studies, we discover that it isn’t this thing – it isn’t a Russia which has enormously improved in the past 20 years. Rather it’s something quite the opposite – a Russia with a pretty awful government, and with a people whose lives are fairly miserable, and who are experiencing an overall sense of ‘desperation’. It’s also a Russia in which there is a pervasive atmosphere of falsehood, which means that everyone is living in a world of ‘lies’ and ‘fantasy’. Thus the ‘thing’ which the authors of Putin v the People wish to explain – their research question, as it were – isn’t ‘Why do Russians support Putin given the “enormity of the improvements” their country has experienced under his leadership?’ but ‘Why do Russians support Putin given how much everything in Russia sucks?’ Of course, they don’t put it in quite those words, but the overall tone of the work very much comes across that way. And unsurprisingly, the answers the authors provide reflect the underlying negative ontology – i.e. the authors’ negative understanding of the nature of Russia’s being.
I say all this as a means of explaining the issues I have with this book. In terms of methodology, there’s much to praise. Greene and Robertson have done a large amount of original research – carrying out surveys and interviews, and mining through thousands of social media posts on Facebook and VKontakte. I found some factual errors (for instance, the Ukrainian parliament did not impeach President Yanukovich, as the authors claim), as well as occasionally dubious interpretations of facts, but this isn’t one of those awful books I’ve reviewed in the past which plays fast and loose with reality on every page. There are even bits I found myself in full agreement with – e.g. when the authors note the hostile relationship between the Russian government and Russian nationalists. The book avoids over-simplistic clichés, and overall is a much more sophisticated depiction of Russia than is common nowadays. Moreover, the authors ground their conclusions in well-established social science, especially the psychology of personality. As they themselves put it, ‘We reject stereotypes and prejudice and present analysis based on solid evidence and proven social science methods.’
All that is well and good. What conclusions do the authors draw? Simply put, they reject the idea that Putin’s rule is based primarily on oppression. Instead they conclude that, ‘Vladimir Putin’s rule is not forced on an oppressed and unwilling public, but is jointly built – co-constructed.’ The most important element of the book, in my view, consists of the results of a survey which compared political opinions with personality types. These results show that the more highly people score for ‘agreeableness’ the more likely they are to support Putin. Greene and Robertson conclude that support for Putin is very shallow – it’s just that supporting him has become the normal thing to do, and so people who want to fit it support him. As the authors put it, ‘support for Putin and his policies have become normalized as the socially appropriate set of attitudes to have … people who are concerned with fitting in … have internalized these norms of support.’ In a sense, it’s a large-scale system of peer pressure.
To my mind, there’s something to this. Any political regime relies to a large degree on consent (even if it’s an entirely submissive kind of consent). Antonio Gramsci, for intance, pointed out that hegemony generally depends less on coercion than on the consent of those being exploited, who subconsciously accept the ideology of their exploiters. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see a similar dynamic happening in Russia. But while I see the logic in the Gramscian view of the universe, it does kind of portray the masses as fools. Maybe they’re not. Perhaps they accept the way things are because it does actually bring them benefits. But that’s not something Greene and Robertson are willing to consider. Instead, they portray the Russian people as thoroughly self-deluded. Thus, readers are told that the surge in support for Putin after the annexation of Crimea was ‘built on shared myths – lies really’, and on ‘shared lies and shared delusions.’ The ‘agreeable’ people who watch state TV are ‘cut off from reality’ and live in a ‘fantasy world’. Basically, Ben Aris has it wrong. Putin’s support has nothing to do with life becoming better. In fact, most people are really pretty miserable. They are Putin’s ‘victims’. ‘Ordinary Russians are clearly the injured party in their relationship with the state,’ write Greene and Robertson. The system ‘delivers neither prosperity nor security’ ‘In all the interviews we conducted, it is hard to find much optimism. Desperation is more the order of the day,’ they remark.
According this thesis, the Russian regime survives because it has popular support, but that support isn’t based on anything real. Reality is grim. But very few want to do much about it because that would mean stepping out from the crowd to protest, and that’s not the socially acceptable thing to do. So instead of protesting, people just tag along behind a system which is doing them down. Greene and Robertson conclude that this means that the ‘Putin regime’ is extremely ‘fragile’. As the penultimate sentence of the books says, ‘‘Putin’s power will crumble when we least expect it.’
If the authors had said ‘might crumble’, I might have been more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. ‘Will crumble’ is a bit too confident for me. In my mind it indicates a strong political bias. Greene and Robertson spend a fair amount of time chatting in Alexei Navalny’s headquarters, hanging around with people from Dozhd TV, and generally talking up what are often called the ‘non-systemic opposition’, portraying them as the people who can really see what’s going on, unlike most of their deluded compatriots. But what’s the truth and what’s the fantasy here? Are ordinary Russians really ‘victims’? Are they actually an ‘injured party’ in their relationship with the state? Is ‘desperation’ truly the ‘order of the day’? I’m not so sure about any of that. As Aris notes, there has been extraordinary progress in Russia over the past 20 years. For sure, economic benefits have been very unevenly distributed, and in recent years incomes have stagnated. All is far from well. But progress there has been, and very substantial progress at that. Numerous social indicators have moved, and continue to move, in a positive direction – lower crime and incarceration rates, greatly increased life expectancy, a huge decline in alcoholism, and so on. I won’t question Greene and Robertson’s survey results. If they say that their respondents were pessimistic, then I must accept that they were. But other sociological surveys – e.g. those conducted by Levada – paint a rather different story, one of fairly (though not massively) high levels of happiness and optimism. The latest Levada data, for instance, shows that more Russians think that their country is moving in the right direction than in the wrong direction. In short, the nature of Russia’s being may not be what Putin v the People suggests it is.
The authors of Putin v. the People play up their methodology a lot, bragging at one point that their work is ‘groundbreaking’. But even the best methodology is no use if the ontology is wonky. If your understanding of Russia’s nature is that things have generally gotten a lot better over the past 20 years, then you really don’t need the kind of complex psychological explanations for Putin’s popularity which Greene and Robertson resort to. Putin’s popularity only needs explaining if you insist on viewing contemporary Russia in an overwhelmingly negative light. Then indeed his popularity is a puzzle, and you have to set about doing complex research to try and solve it. And that’s where I find that I have issues with Putin v the People. I don’t have a problem with its methods, but I do have a problem with its ontology. As someone who’s been travelling to Russia for nearly 40 years, I have to agree with Ben Aris. The ‘enormity of the improvements’, especially in the last two decades is striking. It’s not all ‘desperation’. The system could have served people much better than it has, but most of them think that it has served them reasonably well.
Thus it turns out that the question Greene and Robertson are trying to answer – why Russians support Putin given how rotten their lives are – isn’t the right question to ask. The thing they’re studying isn’t a thing at all. Consequently, while I thought that the personality study at the heart of Putin v. the People has the makings of a good academic journal article, overall I found the book something of a disappointment.