Category Archives: Russia

Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus: a world-system biography, by Georgi M. Derlugian


Chechnya is one of these places that are commonly only known through their TV or internet mediated pictures of destruction and violent emptiness. Personally, the name Grozny makes me think of images in which little elderly women with colourful headscarfs and grey coats hurriedly run inbetween rubble and ruins, with half a loaf dark bread and maybe some tomatoes in a basket under their arm. It is, that is for sure, not a place where I would expect someone even knowing the name of Pierre Bourdieu or having read him. Shame on me for my lack of awareness.

Georgi M. Derlugian’s book is an immensly refreshing reminder of the stifling ignorance we have of exactly those parts of the world that are most often in the news. It is furthermore an excellent exercise in dismantling received ideas, prejudices and stereotypes of civil wars and of uncivilized so-called islamists or warlords. The most exciting aspect of Derlugian’s book is, indeed, that he resists simplifications; on the contrary, he masterly delves into the entire complexity of the end of Soviet socialism, the fates of peripheral developmental states in the great neoliberal age of the 1980s and 1990s and the complexities of shifting elite and popular systems and cultures in these marginalising world regions.

Derlugian centres his intelligent analysis of change and violence in the Northern Caucasus around the figure of Musa Shanib (or Yuri Shanibov in the russianised version). The admirer of Bourdieu, that’s him. Shanib also happened to be a prominent figure in the  independence movement of the region, first assisting Dudayev in his bid for Chechen independence, then leading a volunteer force into Abkhazia in their secessionist struggle against Georgia. Shanib’s personal history comes to stand for the political and social history of the former Soviet Union and its republics, most notably of Chechnya.His trajectory, bizarre as it seems, is representative of the Soviet nomenklature, its tribulations in the post-Stalin era and their disillusionment.

Derlugian draws on a large number of illustruous examples for his analysis: Charles Tilly, Rendall Collins, Immanuel Wallerstein and Pierre Bourdieu, himself, of course have inspired his approach of socio-political archeology. Yet, unfortunately, the theoretically inspired discussion of sociological paradigms is the weakest part of the book. The author frankly admits not being at ease with the often parochial chapel fights of the discipline; nevertheless, a more systematic comparison of these authors and a more thorough exploration of the synergies their work might offer would have been much appreciated, if not already for the fact that there is still very little written on the matter. Apart from some occasional, hardly discussed and even more sparingly referenced uses of the concepts these authors have coined, there is relatively little of Charles Tilly’s thorough historical and archive-based puzzleworking, Wallerstein’s lengthy theoretical comparisons of economic paradigms and national economic histories, Rendall Collins’ experimental sociology, or Pierre Bourdieu’s extensive empirical research in Derlugian’s book. There is also, contrary to what the title makes the reader expect, very little of Shanib’s view and understanding of Bourdieu. From this point of view Derlugian’s book is disappointing.

However, he compensates for this theoretical weakness through his own, original field research. Although not as systematic and detailled as Bourdieu’s work, Derlugian bases his research on Bourdieu’s claim that all politics are, essentially, struggles over social positions and power. Derlugian carves out which social classes contributed in which way to the disasters of the Soviet breakdown. He argues that three classes played a central role throughout the existence of the Soviet Union and that their interactions in each subnational region, most notably in each Republic, predicated whether the disintegration of the Soviet Union would result in collective violence or not.

The nomenklatura was, according to Derlugian, primarily responsible first for fractionalizing the Soviet state and second, for carving it up during privatization and to the benefits of their private bank accounts. This thesis is anything but new and has been discussed in various forms before. What is new, however, is how Derlugian interweaves this narrative with the particular story of the nomenklatura’s fate in those Republics, which were the furthest away from the political centre such as Chechnya.

The two other social classes emerged from the split of the Soviet Union’s principle class, the proletarians. Whereas the job security and boring predictability of a state-guided life led one part of the proletarians, in the 1970s notably, to embrace intellectualism, another larger part sank down to a sub-proletarian status as state-sponsoring ceded in the 1980s before it completely broke down after 1989. Derlugian goes to some lengths to explain why the emergence of a large class of intelligentsia, which in their intellectual expressions reflected a broad range of democratic orientations, did not lead to a broader democracy movement like it did in Poland, Hungary or the Germand Democratic Republic. In his view, a peculiar mixture of proletarianization of the intelligentsia, of state repression and surveillance but also lack of organisational opportunities – for instance the lack of unionization due to state-paternalistic undermining of professional groups – hampered the transformation of the Soviet intellegentsia into a broader social movement. The Soviet state’s reach into all professional categories, whether doctors or drillers, stiffled any autonomous organisational capacity, and it did the more so in the provincial republics of the Caucasus where the state’s grip was doubled by the more traditional social structures of clan and family networks. The intelligentsia resented the Soviet system less for its politically authoritarian character than for its central government tendency to tamper with those networks which commonly provided extra income from gift making (otherwise called corruption), smuggling, insider deals or outer-institutional work (e.g. doctors doing private visits for private money). Derlugian concludes that this class’ democratic orientation would better be called a consumerist orientation: “In sum, the university-educated proletarian specialist did not merely seek an opporutnity to earn extra money and gain access to scarce goods. They sought to translate certain kinds of occupational capital into the consumption and symbolic display associated with the prestigious imagery of the Western middle class.” (p. 146) A Potemkin democracy struggle so to say.

The subproletarian class, finally, is one that official Soviet ideology denied to exist yet whose reality not only preceded the Soviet breakdown but which also has been constantly growing since the economic downturn started in the late 1970s. Derlugian admits that this class is the most difficult to characterize as income opportunities, local hierarchical positions and even education might vary enormously across the category. He offers a phenomenological characterization (you recognize a subproletarian if you see one) and one based on the dialectics of formal and informal income sources. Subproletarians, notably in rural regions, will, according to Derlugian, draw their income from a large variety of sources of which state employment would be one but not the main source; others would be any kind of agricultural production, side businesses like shops or little workshops, migration to construction sites in more labour affluent areas or any kind of illegal income. The inclination to diversify business has made this class a fertile recruiting ground for illict trafficking and violence entrepreneurs.

The latter’s habitus fits particularly well to what Derlugian calls the brutality of the subproletarians’ lives: “A great deal of aggressiveness is displayed in the dress and demeanor of males and in the ‘marketplace scandalousness’ of many women. Domestic violence serves to reaffirm the fledging patriarchy; street gangs become the default mode of socialization among adolescents; violent sports like boxing and wrestling serve to uphold the virtues of masculinity; vandalism against the symbols of the dominant order (be it a defenseless park bench or a toilet seat in a public restroom), seemingly unmotivated hooliganism, and occasional rioting all help to vent social frustrations. Sub-proletarian social beliefs are precariously suspended somewhere between the ritualistic religiosity of peasants and the secular confidence of urbanites. Hence the responsiveness of sub-proletarian masses to secular populist or religious fundamentalist cults” (p. 153).

Such sweeping generalizations are not uncommon in Derlugian’s book and they make the reader feel uncomfortable at times: not a single footnote, not a single systematic comparison of any empirical data upholds this assertation that the certainly more visible violence of sub-proletarians would be, indeed, more brutal than the often better hidden violence of the middle class or of elites (referring to examples of other societies it might even be doubted that hooliganism or boxing are good indicators of sub-proletarian classes). This is one passage where Derlugian dreadfully fails to achieve one of his declared goals of the book, namely to displace prejudice as he reproduces his own appreciations of sub-proletarian culture. It sometimes sounds that Derlugian is rather cladding his own intelligentsia prejudice towards the subproletariat in academic terms.

The empirical weakness is in those parts particularly evident where his theoretical approach is equally weak. From describing the historical emergence of these three main classes of Soviet society, Derlugian is faced with the task of explaining how social class translates into collective politics. He is certainly not the first who has failed to convincingly explain how individual dispositions turn into collective movements. Yet, his slight tendency of stereotyping makes some of these passages sound strikingly superficial given that his field research otherwise is brilliantly detailled, fine grained and differentiated.It is Bourdieu’s “habitus” which he (wrongly but that is not the matter here) likens to Tilly’s routine scripts that receives the honour of becoming the keystone in the bridge that Derlugian builds from his purely social to the political analysis.

The three classes initially shared the same habitus in the streamlined Soviet society, hence, they respectively responded to the same discourses and ideas for change that circulated in the revolutionary moment since Brezhnev. Nationalism notably became the central idea that allowed coalitions of regional nomenklatura and intelligentsia to say good-bye to Moscow all the time populistically mobilising the support of the sub-proletarian classes. So far, he argues, the same happened in all republics. Yet, why some republics tumbled into violence and civil war, and others not, depended not on ancient hatreds or other arguments that have been made about ethnic violence. Rather, the reasons why the transition succeeded without violence in some republics but not in others have to be saught in the “mundane details of administrative relations, social networks, class and group attributes, and various conflicting efforts to reshape the networks and reframe the goals that taken together produced the vector of nationalist mobilizing and violence” (p. 174)

It is with this programme that Derlugian’s departure from conventional wisdom becomes most pleasant to read and think about. Derlugian makes three arguments against the common statement that nationalism brought the Soviet Union down. He first points out that chronologically nationalist discourses appeared only long after perestroika had set off other ideological and social movements. Nationalist mass movements in form of demostrations etc. only appeared at a later moment in Gorbachev’s era; before that social manifestations had been held over environmental issues (Chernobyl), social issues (like youth) or health issues (alcoholism). Nationalist discourses and nationalist events (ralleys) etc. hardly attracted any interest in those early times.

Derlugian further argues that those nationalist movements which then, with a time lag of several years, gained in strength, drew mainly on two of the three dominant social classes: the local and regional nomenklatura that had become extremely disgruntled with Gorbachev’s “de-bureaucratization” policies and the sub-proletarian underclasses which grew in size and which slowly became aware of the end of state-sponsored employment and social welfare. Violence resulted, in his view, if the two established direct relationships, the former addressing directly the latter for support, thereby marginalizing the intellectuals. Had his book ended here he would not have added anything to the well-known argument of ethnic entrepreneurs populistically manipulating the masses. Yet, Derlugian asks further where the intellectuals disappeared to, and it is here where his account originally interweaves the personal story of Musa Shanibov with the history of the Soviet disintegration and Chechnya’s wars. Comparing the Armenian-Aserbedjan conflict, the Georgian conflict and the events in Chechnya, Derlugian describes how the intelligentsia class was crushed by the unhealthy coalition of nomenklatura and sub-proletarian crowds. The nomenklature itself is described as a victim of the contradictory and, in the end, substanceless politics from Moscow that left the bureaucrats rely on their own networks for survival, hence, engaging in a nationalist competition to rally support from the masses. Derlugian singles out the lack of a “bureaucratic” ethos, which preceded Gorbachev’s reforms and had translated into an extensive system of patronage on the central governments costs. Notably in Georgia, the breaking away of Moscow’s suppport accelerated the nomenklatura’s fall and the nationalist turn.

On the other hand, Gorbachev’s increasingly obvious incapacity to manage the breakdowns of regional party structures, and his unwilligness to combat nationalist movements gave the latter even greater momentum. Turning to Shanibov, Derlugian describes in detail how the intellectuals in these republics were confronted with the dilemma of either being ran over by the historical situation or to rally with nationalism. In Derlugian’s account, nationalism became essential for political survival. Independence of the republics, before and in the wake of August 1991, precipated the nationalist movement even further as now popular unrest catalyzed dissatisfaction of the crumbling Soviet system against local and regional elites. The breakdown of the Soviet Union and the unleashing of nationalist and ethnic violence in these republics followed several interlooping spirals of escalation in which each social group aimed at surviving by betting on the nationalist card: “As the Soviet state was breaking apart, the scramble for fragments of its political and economic assets became increasingly turbulent. The course of events could turn on such small contingencies as timing, personal acquaintance, contemporary social ‘mood’, or one lucky move. The broaken and chaotic system of relations nonetheless formed a maze that allowed only certain pathways.” (p. 219) Short-termism was endemic to the system’s breakdown.

Reproducing the structural differentiation of peripheries and semi-peripheries in the world-system, socio-political changse without supporting economic changes escalated into violence. The violence and its causes pushed these regions further into the periphery. If Derlugian’s explanation of the unholy alliance between a nomenklatura that is squeezed by the dilemmas of ungovernability and sub-proletarian masses is correct, the prospect of the region’s further descent into deindustrialization and poverty is anything but cheerful. Middle classes shrink and hardly reproduce themselves, notably with those gaining valuable professional qualifications emigrating; proletarian classes are further pushed into the sub-proletariat due to the increased de-industrialization of these regions; intellectuals like Shabinov emigrate or remain marginalized and forced to subdue to radicalizing ideologies, which confer them a position in the infernal system; bureaucrats and politicians keep their grip to power through authoritarian violence and patron-client networks.

This pattern is not exclusive to the Caucasus and this is why Derlugian’s analysis is highly relevant for the analysis of other conflict cases. Although his analysis could have been in parts formulated in a more straightforward and systematic way, his insights in the mechanisms by which those parts of the population will rebell who have been for a long time excluded from any chances of social mobility and participation through socio-economic status, are highly valuable for further research.

Yet, just as Bourdieu himself and many who used his sociology, Derlugian stops short before answering one crucial question. If classes are constituted by varying configurations of capital (social, economic, cultural etc.) and if politics is nothing else than the struggle of these classes over social positions how can we know at which point such a struggle will be violent? This is less an empirical than a systematic question. Bourdieu observed empirically for the middle classes an almot unsatiable desire to emulate and imitate higher social classes; he also testified empirically that those classes, which traditionally have been seen as potential radical elements in a society, i.e. the working class and other subordinate classes (petty clerks, small shop owners etc.), find a common ground in a cultural, moral, and ethical attitudes which favour authoritarian morality and discipline. In the mid-1990s Bourdieu saw a glimmer of hope that new social movements of the time, i.e. the unemployed movement or the students’ movement of 1995/6, could be this confictual and radical force just to see them vanish quickly and being absorbed in the “pensée unique” of neoliberalism.

Yet, there seems a point when subordinate social classes choose to use armed force against a dominant class. The question is why and when. That the subordinate class wants its share of the cake is not a sufficient answer as exactly Bourdieu’s studies have shown the huge weight of symbolic power that keeps the subordinate classes accept and even justify their subordinate status (see for instance Bourdieu’s work on real estate and home buying in France). That timing and luck contingently play a role is not a helpful answer either. Yet, the procedure of looking at coalitions and alliances between different groups and how their respective positioning forces the various social classes to choose their arms (literally) is a promising approach for the analysis of social conflicts that turn into war.


Syria — the return of proxy wars.


Kofi Annan is giving up. Assad’s deafness towards any mediation and the impossibility of a cease-fire or even complete cessation of violence have worn this skilled, experienced and certainly sincere mediator out. Given the daily reports on the increasing violence, the advances of the “rebels” (or however they need to be called), it does, however, make one wonder where Assad takes his intransigeance from if not from his deep conviction that he will be able to survive the violence and stay in power. The support of Russia and China are, materially and ideologically, probably the most important pillars of this conviction.While China is hiding discretly behind the large back of Russia, the latter is not hiding the least its full support of Assad’s regime and their hostility towards any UN action in Syria. The situation resembles the unfortunate history of those endless proxy wars that the US and USSR have had waged in the past in the names of “freedom” or “socialism” respectively. Both use allies to arm their respective sides in the violent clashes, both oppose diplomatically any proposal that might resolve the confrontation in one or the other sense, and Russia seems to please themselves in the role of Mr Niet in the United Nations Security Council.

And just as at the height of the Cold War the issues at stake have only very little if not nothing to do with the reasons for rebellion and violence that have motivated the rebellion in the first place. There are geostrategic motives for Russia and China to keep, or rather in the case of China to get a foothold in the Middle East, just as the motivation for the US to partake the Libya intervention was the geostrategic need to keep a foothold in the Maghreb. But there are also “ideological” reasons to support Assad if the mixture of one-man/one-party authoritarianism and rapaciaous, capitalist enrichment of a select few can be called an ideology. And finally, just as the nuclear deterrence of the Cold War offered an almost perfect security cover for the geostrategic pushing-and-shoving on the ground, the Israel-Iran conflict with the menace of a nuclear escalation offers a convenient cover for showing off geostrategic competition in Syria.

And just like in the proxy wars of the past this greater chess game is played without the least consideration of the population and will only serve to radicalise the worst elements of the violent players. The war in Angola lasted 30 years, the war in Afghanistan is yet not over. A Twitter went round that Syrians were returning in the hope the battle over Damas would be over soon; from former proxy wars they’d better seek refuge far away and for a long, long time as this might be only the very beginning of decades of violence.