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The (post)Soviet type paternalism: an ethnography of the kolkhoz condition in Belarus

Abstract : The Belarusian society is often studied through a top-down perspective. The authoritarian Lukashenka’s regime is described through its apparatus, its control organs and its media propaganda. The society is often considered as divided into three groups: the activists, who support the regime; the dissidents, who resist the regime; and the others, a passive and atomized society, governed and alienated by the political regime. But very few researchers have done fieldwork in this closed country and explored the effective ways through which the “non-activist” and “non-dissident” people – the “ordinary” people – express their agency, adopt tactics (de Certeau) and secondary adaptations (Goffman) to build their everyday life and to define life projects inside this authoritarian context. I have been adopting an ethnographic approach for more than ten years – in particular I worked and lived five years in Belarus. Referring in my different works to anthropologists (Yurchak, Ries, Caldwell, Shevchenko, Scott…), to historians (Lüdke and the Alltagsgeschichte…) and to sociologists (Goffman, de Certeau, Bourdieu, Burawoy…), I analyze the variety of attitudes adopted by ordinary people within this authoritarian regime (distance, negotiation, retreat…) and I try to conceptualize an ethnographic sociology of authoritarianism from below. In this perspective, my last research deals with the kolkhoz condition. The Soviet collective system has been traditionally analyzed from the top. This system is characterized at the same time by the protections it offers, and the control it exercises. The current Belarusian system, which is inherited from the Soviet times, has the same characteristics. As a matter of fact, many scholars described the Soviet system of social security as being a paternalistic one. Both universal and complete, this system aimed at protecting the person ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the work-place, by providing insurance not only for common social risks, but also for habitats and even organized collective entertainment. After 1991, this model was abandoned in most of the ex-URSS countries. Only Lukashenko - elected in 1994 president of Belarus - has maintained the Soviet heritage, being against the liberal transition towards market economy. Twenty years after his election, he pretends being a model in the region, insisting that in Belarus the chief of the state (or batka, i.e. father in Belarusian), as the state itself, never abandons its citizens. More broadly, this economic system is also a political system, aiming at controlling the rural population and producing docility. The workers have to obey to the hierarchy, otherwise they could not using some kolkhoz’ resources, which are important for their personal activities on their own plots. Gaps between official social protection regime and the realities of social and economic problems existing in rural Belarus can be observed, like short working-contracts, strong disciplinary laws forbidding the change of the work-place, low social security payments or dissembling unemployment. The aim of my research is to complete this top down perspective by an ethnographic one. The long-term ethnography started in 2005 will facilitate the exploration of the collective farm workers’ point of view, in order to understand an apparent paradox: their attachment to this subjugating system. At first I will try to describe the different strategies adopted in order to live better in the kolkhoz: as the wages are low, the workers and the administration use different resources to improve the everyday. These practices imply strong interdependence within the kolkhoz and sometimes it produces a feeling of solidarity. Then I will precisely analyze these moralities and these moral feelings: the kolkhoz system produces at the same time forms of subjugation and forms of dignity. I argue that the kolkhoz workers express their attachment to this constraining paternalist system because simultaneously they can express their distance with this system by adopting forms of ‘clandestine lives’ (Goffman) and ‘arts of resistance’ (Scott). They thus can appropriate small parts of their lives, even being strongly dominated by an authoritarian hierarchy.
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Ronan Hervouet. The (post)Soviet type paternalism: an ethnography of the kolkhoz condition in Belarus. XVth April International Academic Conference On Economic and Social Development Higher School of Economics, Higher School of Economics, Apr 2014, Moscou, Russia. pp.178-184. ⟨halshs-01182385⟩

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