Russian liberals often claim Vladimir Putin has his base in the “vatniki,” the uneducated lower classes. But his rise didn’t owe to the “brainless masses” — it’s the result of the social Darwinism that gripped Russia in its shock transition to capitalism.

A billboard poster featuring President Vladimir Putin stands beyond a public tram stop in Moscow, Russia. (Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Who is to blame for the war on Ukraine? Russia, obviously. But which Russia? Many Western and domestic liberal critics of Vladimir Putin’s regime agree that support for the war comes overwhelmingly from “vatniki” or “vata,” who might be described as Russia’s modern-day lumpenproletariat.

The original vatniki were the ubiquitous padded jackets worn by laborers, prisoners, and students all over the Soviet Union (“vatnik” comes from “vata,” or cotton wool). In recent years the term has become shorthand for a particular kind of person: over-fifty, often rural, almost certainly retired or a “byudgetnik” (employed by the state, whether as a teacher, nurse, or low-level official), and nostalgic for the stability and order of the Soviet system.

Caricatured by the liberal intelligentsia as propaganda-addled zombies, the vatniki have become the key scapegoats for the government’s imperial adventure in Ukraine. News articles on foreign sites like Radio Liberty or domestic liberal outlets such as Meduza are often accompanied by comments disparaging working-class Russians.

“I notice a trend,” writes one Radio Liberty commenter under a recent vox pop relating to attitudes among Muscovites toward the so-called “special military operation.” “The poorer a person, the less intellectually developed they are and consequently more susceptible to propaganda, more angry at the world. Putin’s politics is aimed at the eradication of the middle class, those most educated, thinking and least susceptible to propaganda.”

Established voices tend to use more coded class language: for example, the exiled sociologist Igor Eidman refers to Putin supporters as the “aggressively brainless” who “inhabit not reality but rather a cartoonish fever dream constructed by Russian television propaganda.”

Such opinions have become commonplace, particularly in the wake of the Ukraine war. Yet it whitewashes and elides the essential role played by the middle and upper-middle classes in bringing about and sustaining Putinism.

Cynicism

“The Russian intelligentsia traditionally blames the lower classes for their alleged naiveté and tendency to be influenced by propaganda,” says Natalia Kalfics-Mamonova, an expert on grassroots politics in the former Soviet Union at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “However, the true picture is much more nuanced than that.”

She notes that in an authoritarian context, it is probably impossible to know the extent of popular support for the war. According to her, even among regime functionaries and members of the security services, “financial reasons often trump ideology and Soviet nostalgia” when it comes to people’s willingness to tolerate the war and other excesses. However grotesque it has become, Putinism remains at heart a neoliberal phenomenon.

That is a point made in a recent essay by prominent sociologist and Putin critic Grigory Yudin. The social order Putin built in Russia, he writes in the opposition outlet Meduza, is a “radical version of modern neoliberal capitalism, in which greed rules, the ultimate aspiration is individual comfort, and cynicism, irony and nihilism provide a cosseting feeling of easy superiority.” Yudin’s contention contradicts a central mainstream shibboleth about Putin’s Russia — that, whatever its problems or merits, Russia’s current system has fundamentally broken with the post-Soviet Russia built in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.

Depending on who you ask, those years were either a time of imperfect but blossoming democracy or chaos, humiliation, and degradation. Yet as Tony Wood, a member of the New Left Review editorial board, argued in his 2018 book, Russia Without Putin, “The system that prevailed in the 2000s was not a perversion of Yeltsinism but its maturation.” It remains underpinned by a commitment to insider capitalism at home and postimperial denial abroad, with rampant inequality whose effects are papered over by commodity booms and the tattered remnants of the Soviet welfare state. The poet and activist Kirill Medvedev concurs. “For all Putin’s rhetoric of Soviet nostalgia, he is a man of the ’90s, the heir to [Russian president Boris] Yeltsin,” he told me.

And just as the 1990s oligarchs were deeply entangled with the state, so the “siloviki” (securocrats) who have replaced them as the arbiters of political power under Putin are embedded in the capitalist system. For all their superficial differences, both groups turned the apparatus of the state into an instrument for individual enrichment. As business and mafia groups were gradually brought under the control of the security services, the state absorbed and internalized their profit-driven ideology and modi operandi.

Many of Russia’s most vociferously anti-Putin voices supported the neoliberal underpinnings of his regime even after its repressive and exploitative nature became apparent. Natasha Sindeyeva, owner of the opposition broadcaster TV Rain (Dozhd), relocated the station to Latvia after it was shut down following the Ukraine invasion. But, as she admits in the recent documentary F@ck this Job, she was an enthusiastic supporter of former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev during his four-year term as placeholder president from 2008–12. Other recent political émigrés, such as Anatoly Chubais, the Kremlin’s former special envoy to international organizations and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, were so-called systemic liberals — reform-minded officials integrated into Putin’s power system — who helped underpin many of Putin’s early economic reforms.

Slumbering Masses

Indeed, the vilification of the lowly vatniki obscures the fact that, in his first decade in power, Putin relied heavily on support from the aspirational middle classes. This was after all the original core audience for Dozhd: educated white-collar urbanites who coveted Western lifestyles and consumer goods but remained largely apolitical until the first of the mass middle-class protests against the government in 2011. It was only when the economy stopped being able to deliver rising living standards and Putin turned decisively toward a politics of socially conservative populism at home and Soviet irredentism abroad – marked by the 2014 invasion of Crimea – that he was finally abandoned by this social group.

According to Medvedev, “The idea that the well-off are anti-war and the poor and uneducated are pro-war is not borne out by reality.” He believes that support for the war among poorer and working-class people is actually lower than among the middle classes. “Those with very little seek stability because they are afraid to lose what little they have,” says Medvedev. “Any shock can be fatal, and war jeopardizes stability.”

Indeed, it was the vatniki who provided some of the greatest challenges to Putinism, especially in its early, most openly neoliberal incarnation. In 2005, the government was forced to ditch planned social reforms, including scrapping free transport for seniors, after pensioner protests brought the country to a standstill. A decade later, truckers revolted over a corrupt motorway toll rollout.

Social elitism has been an integral part of Russian liberalism since its inception. The pioneering nineteenth-century liberal philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev, among the first to claim that Russia lagged hopelessly behind Western civilization and could only be redeemed through a clean break with its past, was convinced that only a miniscule elite – the intelligentsia – was capable of awakening and stewarding the mute, slumbering masses. “A tiny minority thinks; the rest merely feel,” Chaadayev wrote in his Philosophical Letters.

Chaadayev’s conception of the masses — irrational, unsophisticated, and easily swayed — survived both the heated Westernizer-Slavophile debates of the 1800s and the Soviet system, which purportedly glorified the common man even as it withheld real political agency from the working class. The shock therapy of the 1990s, which brought untold wealth to a clutch of oligarchs and the pauperization of much of the country, turbocharged that age-old notion into a kind of outright social Darwinism.

The war in Ukraine has further legitimized the rhetoric of class hatred, often deployed by Ukrainians online against the occupiers. Since 2014, invading Russian troops have been frequently characterized as poor, backward, and violent; a 2015 survey of anti-Russian hate speech in the Ukrainian media by the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine found that “vatnik” was the most frequently used term of abuse.

In many ways, the discourse around vatniki resembles Hillary Clinton’s notion of the “deplorables.” Then, American working-class voters were blamed by many in the liberal establishment for Donald Trump’s victory despite his being backed by billionaires and CEOs; indeed the income of the average Trump voter was higher than that for Clinton. Today, their Russian counterparts are being scapegoated for a war being waged by a man whose regime remains sustained by oligarchs. In fact, the war in Ukraine has been weaponized against the poor, and not just in Russia. As the US cultural commentator Angie Speaks noted in a rare piece of dissent in Newsweek shortly after the outbreak of the war, the US working class is now “being asked to suffer to punish Putin” through rising petrol and food prices resulting from sanctions on Russia.

As the war drags on, bringing with it increasing social and economic costs, it is difficult to avoid pointing fingers. Yet “it’s important not to keep throwing around the blame between Putin, or different kinds of Russian people, or the West,” says Medvedev. “There is enough blame for everyone. What’s important is to focus on the future and find ways of collective resistance.”

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