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“We will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” Vladimir Putin said during the night of the invasion. The Russian government consistently uses the word “we,” as do many others. By doing so, it’s as if the state is expressing the will of the people.
“We” should be reconsidered. In Russian society, whos name is used to wage an aggressive war in Ukraine, in particular. Are “we” leading it (not long ago graffiti appeared in Tel Aviv saying “We are not him”)? And who are “we”?
Today, this is an important question. Victory in the war is necessary for the Kremlin and from a public point of view too. The invasion of Ukraine should accelerate the process of creating a new “Russian matrix” – including in the occupied territories.
It is commonly believed that the Kremlin is successful in this regard – supposedly evidenced by public support for the invasion and Vladimir Putin’s high ratings. However, I believe that it is actually the opposite. Russians have long learned to live not only “outside politics”, but also “outside the state”. It has become “them” for them, not “us”, and this is true even for Putin’s own electorate.
Putin has repeatedly explained his aggressive foreign policy as a response to external threats and the efforts of enemies allegedly aimed at dismantling Russia. However, there is no basis for the country to break up along regional borders. But the further fragmentation of society into many communities – open and hidden, regional and personal, those who have left and those who have stayed – is a very real prospect. Therefore, the Kremlin has actually lost the social war. However, this does not mean that society has won. It seems that we have all lost, and this is the topic of my letter today.
Many individual “I”s see themselves as part of a “we” – for example, families. They view themselves as residents of one house, district, city, region or country. Participants in one public movement, representatives of one nationality, one generation, or a professional community. Followers of one doctrine or faith.
Communities intersect (each of us is part of a whole set) and differ in the way they are formed. In some, people end up involuntarily – due to age or nationality. In others, they enter by their own choice – if we are talking about profession or chosen place of residence, for example. And some people “get into” them by the will of researchers (sociologists often group people with similar values) or poets (“I sadly look at our generation”).
People often form temporary “we” to show solidarity with victims of violence or persecution. In the summer of 2019, a public campaign was held in Moscow to save the journalist Ivan Golunov from a fabricated criminal case, under the slogan “I/We am Ivan Golunov”. One can also recall the #metoo hashtag, which became a symbol of the movement against sexualized violence, as well as the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), which turned into a slogan – condemning the murder of employees of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. All of these are examples of recent years, but such a way of forming collective solidarity is not new in itself. For example, there is a popular legend about the Danish King Christian X. He sewed a yellow star on his clothes when he learned that the Nazis had ordered all Jews in Denmark to wear this symbol.
The pronoun “we” creates great opportunities for collective action. However, it also allows for manipulation of society. The direction of the process is important here: are many individual “I’s” coming together consciously to form a “we,” or is this “we” being imposed, say by authorities.
“We” is also a tool of political speech, dictating people’s presumed agreement with any decisions made by the leadership. In Russia, the state’s ambiguous “we” has a long history. Joseph Stalin usually avoided using the pronoun “I” and instead said “We supported” or “We decided.” Other Soviet leaders raised toasts “To the success of our cause.” Yuri Andropov, the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee and longtime chairman of the KGB, is attributed with a phrase that can be attributed to the rare genre of critical attitude towards the “we” of Soviet leaders: “To be frank, we still have not fully studied the society in which we live and work.”
In this war, the Kremlin needs to achieve victory not only on the battlefields, but also in society
The goal is to “format” it, including on occupied territories.
It can be argued that the state actively expropriates the “we” – any state, not just Russian or Soviet. This is true. After all, many constitutions of the world begin with the words that “we, the people of such-and-such country based on our understanding of our community, have decided to adopt the basic law.”
This phrase, wandering from one state text to another, originates from a philosophical fable about a social contract. It refers to the idea of the origin of the state, in which people gathering voluntarily, independently decide on the basic rules, which they are ready and willing to obey. It is a reminder that society can shape itself.
This imaginary voluntariness is not only embedded in laws, but also in textbooks. It exists by default, as if it couldn’t be otherwise. However, the idea that the state “we” voluntarily expresses the public will requires a modern reinterpretation. Especially in Russian society, on behalf of which a war has been going on in Ukraine for several months now. Do “we” lead it?
It shouldn’t be too difficult for us Russians to rethink this “we”. The modern Russian state was formed in the memories of many of those currently living – after the collapse of the USSR. This happened just over twenty years ago, and changes to the Constitution were only made in 2020. That’s when words like “historically established state unity,” “ancestral memory,” and “faith in God” (Article 67) appeared in the country’s main law, as well as the family as an exclusively “union of a man and a woman” (Article 72).
So in 2020, President Vladimir Putin, the initiator of the amendments, edited the legal description of the Russian “we” as if it was accepted by everyone in the country. He did this on his own and completely openly, but something similar has been happening in various areas of the country’s public life for over two decades.
For all these years, the Russian state has been striving to establish control over “us” – the maximum possible number of communities. The authorities are consistently working to make them controlled from the top rather than formed on a voluntary horizontal basis.
Therefore, the government comes not only through political parties, public organizations and professional communities, but also through families, intimate partnerships of people. And even (through monitoring of social networks) in their way of thinking – in order to reformat, “reprogram” society from within. To ensure that the “I” unite into the “we” only by instruction or with the permission of the authorities.
The war finally exposed this process, revealing its purpose. And it’s not about total control for the sake of control itself, there’s something else going on here. Many military analysts rightfully pointed out that the plans for the Russian invasion were based on distorted information about the state of Ukrainian society and armed forces, calling it senseless and doomed to fail. But if we look at the internal, societal side of the war “from the Kremlin’s perspective,” with Kremlin eyes, it becomes clear: the invasion itself – regardless of successes on the battlefields – makes sense for the state, especially within Russia itself.
Victory is very necessary to the Kremlin, also from a public point of view. Because this war – with its hidden mobilization and imperative of solidarity among the ranks – is designed to accelerate the creation of a new “Russian matrix”. This matrix should cover not only Russia itself, but also the territories that the country is trying to make “its own”. In all the captured cities, Ukrainian society expects a complete reformatting according to the Russian model – through the use of force and at an accelerated pace. That is already happening.
Historically, the Russian authorities have a vast experience in this area, gained in the 1940s and subsequent years in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, and other countries that were captured and occupied by the USSR. In all these states, the Soviet government crushed grassroots structures, closed or displaced independent funds and public organizations – from political parties to philately clubs. Instead, it established and imposed its own pseudo-public structures on society, which it controlled from above.
This experience proved useful in domestic politics as well. With the beginning of the war, the destruction of independent media, repression against opposition politicians, and the expulsion of international organizations from the country became truly massive. That is, the war is being fought not only on Ukrainian territories. It is a war against everything that has grown in Russia since the time of perestroika with its openness to the formation of grassroots structures.
When Putin and his subordinates talk about “anti-Russia“, they mean precisely the unformed society. Such, where there are too many communities formed on voluntary principles and not controlled by the state.
The Kremlin is waging this war in order to finally gather all possible “keys” to itself, including everyone it can reach.
However, Russians have long learned to live not only “outside politics” but also “outside the state
They live in different universes from the state and do not want to have any contact with it.
Is it possible for the Russian government to finally take control over all associations, communities, and even the entire society?
Thanks to years of independent surveys, we can judge the state of the all-Russian locus of control. Psychologists use this term to describe people’s tendency to attribute their successes and failures either to external influence (“external locus of control”) or to their own efforts (“internal locus of control”). In other words, the state of the locus of control shows how much responsibility a person – and, broader, society as a whole – feels for what is happening.
According to studies, the sense of responsibility among Russian citizens is developed fragmentarily. This is similar to concentric circles: the closer it is to “I,” the more control they feel, and the farther away, the less. That is, people believe that they can influence themselves and their situation, but not the decisions of the state – rather not. Moreover, they have been thinking this way throughout the post-Soviet years.
Here are the results of the 2021 survey as an illustration. Russians feel most responsible for their own families – 88%. More than half – 54% – believe they can influence what’s happening in their own yards. And 51% – what’s happening at work. Responsibility for the city and the country is much weaker – 34% and 30% respectively.
The latest indicator has been growing in recent years, but remains extremely low. To understand this, it is enough to simply compare. For example, according to data from one of the American polls, 58% of US citizens are confident that voting in elections literally gives them a voice in the government. And 50% believe that an ordinary citizen can influence the government if they make an effort to do so.
Authoritarian regimes are largely built on social passivity, but there is another side to this. In a situation where the state has driven everyone except itself out of politics, being “outside politics” also means being “outside the state.” Yes, the Russian government has extensive experience in “formatting” communities, but society has extensive experience in effectively defending itself from the state’s “we”.
According to various estimates, from 30 to 40 out of 72 million employed Russians (almost half) work in sectors that are either not controlled by the state or are very weakly controlled. These are not officials or employees of state-owned companies, not teachers or doctors, not police officers or law enforcement officials, not even employees of private enterprises. They are workers in the unobserved sector of the economy (also sometimes called the “shadow” sector), including “garage workers.” This term is used to refer to small informal producers who are not included in government statistics.
According to the “Khamovniki” Foundation’s estimates, in large but poor cities of Russia, around 15% of the working population can be involved in the “garage economy”. Providing for themselves, they do not expect the government to solve their problems. And, of course, they do not want the authorities to control their lives in any way.
They exist in different universes with the state but they don’t want to come into contact with it. And the words of one of the “garage dwellers” well characterize the attitude of these people towards any state intervention: “We don’t have a state. We have a flag, a coat of arms, a president, but there is no state”.
In such a situation, it is impossible to create a real big “we”
Neither repression, nor threats, nor violence will actually help here.
Running away from the state’s “we”, people can disperse into many small “I’s”, like “garage owners” do. Or even physically isolate themselves from power, like the inhabitants of remote settlements of the country – villages, hamlets and tiny towns.
Professor Yuri Plusnin from HSE and researcher Artemiy Pozanenko have studied such settlements extensively. They have come to the conclusion that only in these settlements is it sometimes possible to find real local self-government, which is incompatible with state management. There are even cases where people in these areas consciously refuse to build roads and bridges in order to preserve their autonomy. It is the highest good for them.
In general, many Russians know how to live and work outside the sight of the state. And many are currently learning. In a sense, the current wave of Russian emigration that formed after February 24th is a new group of “garage workers”, physically expressing themselves outside of the larger state “we”. So far, this is the only significant response to the state’s efforts to establish control over any communities within the country.
What can the state respond with? Another common place in public discussion these days is that the government introduces a new control based on imperial or Soviet principles. Supposedly, the Kremlin is building either an imperial or Soviet “we.”
If we remember the history, it becomes clear that neither one nor the other is actually possible. The Russian Empire was a society in which each estate lived according to its own laws and rules. Each social group – peasants, clergy, merchants, nobility – had its own economy and politics. This system divided the society by boundaries that were very difficult to overcome, and assigned each their role. Peasants had to economically provide for the country, the church – maintain the spiritual legitimacy of power, merchants – trade, nobility – fight.
Traditionally, representatives of the aristocracy – even after the abolition of compulsory service at the end of the 18th century – connected their privileges and prestige with the status of military leaders. And the power and prosperity of the state were based on military successes. In fact, Russia gained its status as a European power thanks to its military successes. It seems that modern Russian leaders partly live in this paradigm and may even see themselves as the “new nobility”. However, it will not be possible to reproduce the same social structure now. The modern economy and the current structure of society simply will not allow it.
In turn, the Soviet country that replaced the empire was a society of the modern era. The success of the state was determined by the opportunities of mass production – it required a powerful concentration of resources to create colossal state structures involving millions of people. These structures, having proven their non-viability, were looted and privatized. There is also no longer a public culture where everyone marches in sync to the music – despite all the efforts of state television. That is, the Soviet “we” is also not possible.
Of course, the current Russian state has a new means of control that was absent from both the imperial and Soviet eras – access to citizens’ consciousness through social media. Let’s recall how the hero of Evgeny Zamyatin’s novel, “We” (how could we forget), describes his world: “Among our walls, transparent as if woven from sparkling air, we always live in plain sight, constantly washed by light. We have nothing to hide from each other.”
However, this weapon is not as powerful in a society that is permeated by individualistic values rather than collectivism. The trap that the Kremlin has created for itself – by shaping public passivity, erasing any lower-level cooperation and solidarity – is that it is impossible to artificially unite multiple individuals who have long strengthened their own “I” into a “we.” Propaganda is just words. In order to truly unite, disconnected people need something more serious than just a word.
This is similar to what is happening now with Russian public opinion polls: high ratings for Putin and the current war are ensured by the “right questions” and other efforts of palace sociologists. Beautiful numbers on the screen, apparently, are very pleasing to the authorities, but what’s next? Yes, in parallel with the external war in Ukraine, the Russian authorities are also conducting an internal one – exerting a forceful seizure of the Russian society. However, just like on the occupied Ukrainian territories, the real “Russian matrix” will not be born from this seizure.
Therefore, regardless of the situation on the battlefields, the efforts of propagandists and the repression of authorities, the societal war with the Kremlin has already been lost. In a country where 61% of people “rely only on themselves” and “avoid contact with the authorities,” the state is seen as “them” and not “us”.
Despite all the endless references Putin makes to the past, the transparent and convenient society he is creating is not the revival of the imperial or Soviet era, but a compilation of the most controversial elements from both.
This rough reconstruction resembles a house without a foundation and cannot stand. The appearance of its stability can, of course, be maintained with threats and repression, but no violence, even the most severe, can lead to the birth of a true great “we” anymore.
The simple truth is that the legitimacy of “us” is determined either by a spontaneously arising movement, similar to Me Too, or by representation obtained through trust from equals or as a result of elections. So the legitimate “us” is now born where there is no Russian state as an institution. In mutual support chats. In volunteer groups. In activist communities. In underground grassroots movements. In remote cities and villages.
All these countless tiny “we’s” – different, sometimes not at all alike – are now very difficult. In conditions of suppression of any grassroots collective action, they are forced to run and hide, fear for their future and the future of their loved ones.
But it is these little “us” that are the foundation on which the big “us” can someday appear.