How Putin Bribed Russia’s Peasant Army Into a War They Don’t Want

Russia’s poor are paying for Ukraine in blood.

by Liza Smirnova & Alexey Sakhnin

3 May 2022

Russian army take part in a rehearsal of military parade on April 18, 2022 on Red Square in Moscow, Russia, in preparation for the May 9 parade. About 11 thousand military personnel, 131 units of modern weapons and military equipment, 77 aircraft and helicopters are involved. Russia is hurling its military might against Ukrainian cities and towns and pouring more troops into the war, seeking to slice the country in two in a potentially pivotal battle for control of the eastern industrial heartland of coal mines and factories.
Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

“Tired of debts and loans? Want to change your way of life? Want to be respected, a source of national pride?” reads an ad posted on every lamppost in Kaluga, a Russian city of 450,000 people roughly 200km from Moscow. “Contract from four months, net salary from 220,000 [rubles, or £2,466]. Education not required. Travel, accommodation and meals are free.”

A poster advertising the Russian army
Photo: Liza Smirnova

The Ukrainian Telegram channel Goryushko collects data from social media networks and local authorities about Russian soldiers who have died in Ukraine. At the time of writing, the channel had recorded 2,000 funerals, one and a half times more than the number reported by the Russian authorities. Yet what’s most shocking is not the number of dead but their demographics.

From the 12 million-strong Moscow, there have been only three deaths reported on the channel; from Kyakhta, a town on the Mongolian border with 20,000 inhabitants, at least seven. Most of those killed come from the poorest regions with the highest unemployment rates. Buryatia and Dagestan, republics that between them have contributed most to the war dead, have some of the country’s worst living standards. The price of conflict is being borne by the poor, who pay in blood.

The working class’s willingness to offer themselves as cannon fodder is no surprise. The average monthly salary in the Kaluga region, considered among Russia’s most prosperous thanks to its developed automotive and military industries, is 48,000 rubles (£538) – a figure likely skewed upwards by senior officials and corporate bosses. The average Kaluga worker could make around ten times their usual pay at war.

On Kirov Street in the centre of Kaluga, a new advertising billboard was recently installed. Currently, it depicts marching soldiers and symbols of the current Russian military operation in Ukraine, above them the slogan: “Work, brothers.” At the bus stop opposite, a man with no legs sits in a wheelchair, wearing camo gear. He is maybe in his sixties; beside him a plastic cup for small change. We’ve never had the heart to ask: in which of the countless wars did he lose his legs?

A pillar billboard with soldiers on it and the slogan (in Russian) "work, brothers". Next to it a man in a wheelchair.
Photo: Liza Smirnova

Peasants in overcoats.

Three-quarters of Russians are city-dwellers. Yet the Russian army today looks almost the same as it did under the tsars: peasants in overcoats. Many of these hail from poor areas populated by ethnic minorities – meaning that Vladimir Putin’s Russkiy mir (Russian world) is being defended by Dagestanis, Chechens and Buryats.

Putin’s regime has been fine-tuning these social mechanics for years. In deindustrialised towns, the army and police are the only escape routes out of poverty. The siloviki (enforcers) are paid a salary two to three times the average in their hometowns and enjoy excellent benefits, from early retirement (military service-people are permitted to retire between the ages of 40 and 45, versus the national average of 60-65) to preferential mortgage terms (the rate for military service-people cannot exceed 6%, while for others it can be upwards of 17%). Their children receive priority admission to Russian universities.

The deep deindustrialisation of many Russian regions leaves people with little choice other than the military. One alternative is the public sector – but there a worker will be directly under the thumb of the government. Senior officials systematically coerce their employees into participating in government-approval rituals or committing electoral fraud, for example, threatening those who refuse with dismissal. A friend’s mother, a civil servant, communicates her coercion: “I will not shove against the system. I am not a rebel. I need a job.”

Liberals chime in.

Despite criticising the regime’s authoritarianism, Russia’s liberal opposition has done much to further Putin’s agenda of disempowering the country’s poor through their dehumanising rhetoric and their undying support for neoliberalism.

During the national protest movement of 2011-13, sparked by claims of electoral fraud, the authorities held pro-regime rallies, rounding up state employees and workers from single-industry towns to populate them. The liberal commentariat’s account of the events reinforced the class warfare on which Putin had built his power.

Ksenia Sobchak, the Russian-Israeli TV anchor and socialite whose father was Putin’s former boss, compared the “rich and educated” protesters with the “stupid and uneducated” counter-protesters. “I absolutely don’t feel any compassion for or understanding of the motivation of these cattle,” wrote the influential journalist Yulia Latynina.

Another animal metaphor – that of a shoal of anchovies – has become a popular way to contrast the two sections of society: “There were two rallies,” said Latynina: “The demonstration of the free people and the rally of the anchovies.” Until relatively recently, opposition-spokesperson-turned-RT-propagandist Anton Krasovsky had a YouTube show titled The Anchovies and Margarites.

At the same time, the opposition has lauded the neoliberal reforms of Boris Yeltsin (and the early years of Putin), which brought untold suffering to Russia’s poor majority, a fact the Kremlin understands intimately: it regularly uses the threat of the “new 90s” to terrorise the working class into submission.

The silent protest.

Despite constant accusations of working-class Putinism, research shows that Russia’s poor tend to support war less than its wealthy: “People with low incomes are more concerned about the military operation, as they expect a further deterioration in their financial situation,” notes one study. Another from April showed that of those who had barely enough money for food, 41% were opposed to the war and only 19% supported it.

“I don’t understand politics, but why do we need Ukraine, why do we need the whole world, if we are beggars here?” a taxi driver asked on an anti-war Telegram channel. Over the past two months, her income has almost halved. To feed her family, she has to sit behind the steering wheel for 16 hours a day.

The Russian authorities are well aware that this situation is untenable – that the rapid decline in living standards, massive inflation and widespread unemployment undermine the patriotic unity the state is demanding – and is preempting dissent. Kirill Ukraintsev, leader of the union of delivery workers, was arrested on 25 April, accused of planning unauthorised strikes of precariously employed workers. He faces up to five years in prison.

Historical optimism.

The war has plunged Russians into a state of shock and depression. Yet while most are pessimistic about their financial prospects in the coming months, their expectations of financial perspectives for the next five to ten years have risen sharply, according to a recent study by the Russian central bank.

This paradoxical optimism is due to the fact that the war promises to end the stagnation in Russian politics and the endless economic crises that accompany it; the horrible end is better than endless horror.

Ultra-patriotic politicians and journalists feed these hopes, promising radical social transformation as a result of the war. They describe Western sanctions as a historic chance for Russia to break out of an unfair global economic system in which the country is doomed to be a raw material colony of the west, hailing the seizure of oligarch’s property as the start of a “left turn” that will address social inequality in the country.

These dreams will inevitably be crushed by the Putin state machine. Yet so too will the last illusions that this dictatorship can protect the people from predatory oligarchs and foreign enemies. And then the working class will be left with the fact that every war Russia has ever lost ended in revolution – though this itself may give rise to historical optimism.

Liza Smirnova is a Russian activist, journalist and poet.

Alexey Sakhnin was one of the leaders of the anti-Putin protest movement from 2011 to 2013 and is a member of the Progressive International Council.

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