“Russian workers aren’t as passive as they are thought to be”

Sociologist Aleksandrina Vanke on the masculinity of office clerks and workers. Part 2

“Russian workers aren’t as passive as they are thought to be” Photo: courtesy of Aleksandrina Vanke

Workers with different levels of qualification account for a third of the working population of Russia. However, the working class isn’t an attractive topic for research today – sociologists prefer studying representatives of the elite, middle class and new professions. There is a stereotype about workers that it’s apathetic part of the population that doesn’t have firm beliefs and often leads a dissolute lifestyle. This isn’t true – sociologist Aleksandrina Vanke proves it with her research. At first, she compared the masculinity of factory workers and office clerks when writing her PhD dissertation in the Russian Academy of Sciences in the Institute of Sociologists and later focused only on workers and their problems and became a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester (Great Britain). In the second part of the interview with Realnoe Vremya, Vanke shared the results of her research.

Discussion of mens sexual experience isn’t the done thing in Russia”

Aleksandrina, what men did you talk with in your research on masculinity?

Half of the participants of my research lived in Petersburg, it was both workers and office clerks. The other half of the informants lived in Moscow. The project’s topic was about men's body. In the interview, I asked how men saw themselves from a perspective of their body in the office and in the factory. The participants of the research had completely different specialisations, somebody workers in factories in Leningrad Oblast, somebody did on construction sites in Moscow, office workers represented a wide range of professions – from journalists to project managers, from employees of big IT companies to energy company workers. 40 men, 20 workers and 20 office clerks participated in the research. The majority of the people surveyed are heterosexuals. Only one informant from the group of office clerks identified himself as homosexual. This is why in articles I write mainly about heterosexual masculinity.

It was an interesting project. But compared to other projects I took part in, the masculinity research was less emotional for me. My interlocutors were reserved. It was quite uneasy to start talking with them about sexuality. Older men who belong to Soviet generations in general avoid such topics. They hardly talked about their sexual experience, as this issue was tabooed in the Soviet era. Young men more willingly shared information about sexual relationships but at the same time experienced difficulties when discussing some moments, which can be explained by a lack of language means allowing to express intimate experience with words. The case is that sexuality and body in Russia aren’t in the public discourse, except for those plots considered in glamorous magazines. Nowadays Russia doesn’t have legitimate ways of public speaking about physicality and sexuality. That’s to say, there aren’t speech forms that would allow speaking about these things thoughtfully. Such topics, as a rule, aren’t discussed and reported. However, during my research, the talks with men about body, sexuality and feelings not only were successful but also turned out quite interesting.

“Workers’ body makes goods, interacts with mechanisms. Here we face alienation of labour and physical capital.” Photo: Fyodor Telkov, Could photo project

They think women dont choose worker men

What was the result of this research?

Of course, there are differences in the labour system, there is inequality between the men who are workers and the men who are clerks. Workers talk about the body often using verbs, they describe their bodies through practical actions at work. Workers’ body makes goods, interacts with mechanisms. Here we face alienation of labour and physical capital. The worker man’s body is often injured, the physical capital runs out.

The office clerk’s body mainly obeys the system of symbolic exchange. A man in the office cares about his physical appearance, he cares about the way he looks, his representability and he is persuasive, for instance, when selling goods if he works in sales or how persuasive he is when presenting an IT product to big corporations. An office worker’s body turns into a sign.

If we turn to Jean Baudrillard’s theory, we can say body here participates in the chain of symbolic exchange, serves as a means of generation of myths and simulacra in the consumer society. The body becomes a tool to make a profit. In this sense, there is a similarity: men's bodies of both the worker and the clerk are exploited but in different ways.

I managed to find out that office workers’ sexual life is more stable, they, as a rule, have partners and relationships. They can afford to organise a balance of life and labour, make time for both work and leisure. Their quality of life is higher compared to workers.

While workers who very often said they had fragmented sexual relationships, there are complications in starting a relationship. They think in modern society nobody needs a worker man, and women don’t choose worker men. Firstly, because they have a low salary, secondly, they don’t have education, thirdly, they can have health problems. This all fits in the general scheme of the patriarchal gender order, which exists in Russia at the moment.

What do you mean, when a woman expects a man to be the breadwinner?

Yes. And in this sense, many of those worker men who I surveyed felt uncertainty, their masculinity was under question. At the same time, it’s characteristic of not all men who have vocational professions. Or men can launch their own business, for instance, a worker man opened a car service and works for himself. Workers are quite different, and they have a sexual life. My research shows that there is no difference in types of masculinity between workers and office clerks. Both can recreate the same types of masculinity.

One constructor, a representative of the older generation who was above 50 years, said a man must have “a wide chest, big hands”, that’s to say, it’s such a strong man. Photo: Fyodor Telkov, Could photo project

Talking about the ideal woman, they enumerated qualities: kindness, understanding, softness”

How do ideas about a man’s appearance change?

I also asked this question in the interview, people gave different answers. Workers’ answers were more interesting. One constructor, a representative of the older generation who was above 50 years, said a man must have “a wide chest, big hands”, that’s to say, it’s such a strong man. Another worker man, who was 30 years, said: “I am not a Greek athlete, my body doesn’t look like Greek sculptures, I have an ordinary body”. Greek sculptures were an ideal for him.

As for clerk men, heterosexual ideals of masculinity also prevail here, at least according to my interviews. However, a man working in the office pays greater attention to his appearance, and in the interview, they say they did care what shampoo to use, what clothes to wear, they shove different parts of the body, sometimes even the legs. Because appearance for them is a way of self-introduction, which they associate with sexual attractiveness: if you look good, you have a greater chance to attract a sexual object. But this might not be of that great importance to some men. For instance, if they work in an IT company, and the organisation’s culture is so that appearance isn’t paid great attention.

According to my research of media discourses about men's sexuality, for instance, the popular magazine Men’s Health promoted a liberal model of masculinity. It’s an image of a successful, unmarried and wealthy man with a lot of sexual relationships. This man looks good, he is fashionably dressed, does sport, cares about his sexual health and is good at women. He knows how to incline women to sexual contact. However, a woman, in his opinion, is an object of desire and also must care about her body, lead an active lifestyle and be ready for sex at any moment. Such an obedient and comfortable glamorous girl. These examples illustrate that the characters of masculinity and femininity promoted by popular magazines serve as patterns of gender behaviour. But in fact, not everyone can comply with them, as it’s obviously models for young and wealthy readers.

For Russian society, the aspect of appearance is very important in general. According to my observations, people in British society don’t care about their appearance much. Comfortable clothes matter more to the British.

What do men expect from women?

I asked a question about the female ideal, what a woman men would like to see next to them or how a woman should look in their opinion. Some found it difficult to answer this question. People rarely said appearance was important to them. They mainly talked about women’s qualities not linked with the body: the woman must be kind, understanding, soft, ready to support.

Vanke’s interview with a young factory worker in the project Everyday Life and Culture of Industrial Workers: Ethnographic Case Study of Industrial District, Yekaterinburg, May 2017. Photo: Yelizaveta Polutukhina

“They don’t have a steady salary, they don’t have social support, they can’t afford sick leave, a holiday”

What are the moods in the workers’ environment?

I come to a conclusion, and it’s a preliminary presupposition at the moment, that Russian workers aren’t as passive as they are thought to be. Workers are often considered as patient, inactive, as a relic of the past. These stereotypes are reproduced also in Russian and foreign scientific literature. But my research shows the contrary, as well as recent research of sociologists Carine Clément and Jeremy Morris. Russian workers are anyway able to organise themselves, can endure life hardships, solve problems creatively. And in this sense, they have protest potential. The protest potential also increases when social support is cut and the economic situation of the low-income population worsens.

Back to our talk about the role of intellectuals in society, I would like to say the role of workers and the working class in general is no less significant in terms of social transformations. Russian workers have the potential for low activity and can change the usual way of things. Meanwhile, modern-day Russia doesn’t have a single working class, this is why I’m likely inclined to talk about working classes.

Who can be considered as these working classes today?

There are Soviet industrial workers who are simply forgotten, their status devalued in the 90s. There are workers who work in the tertiary industry, it’s the youth placed in tough life circumstances. They don’t have a steady salary, they don’t have social support, they can’t afford sick leave, a holiday, they can’t plan their life several years in advance because they work with short-term labour contracts or just under a verbal agreement. And the above-mentioned examples demonstrate how neoliberal ways of management in the form of flexible types of employment define service workers’ life. And in this sense, their life choices depend on actions of external regulating mechanisms. There are labour migrants who represent another faction of the working class. There are self-employed people who run a small business in their districts.

According to the latest estimates of the Russian Economic State and Health Monitoring, workers with different level of qualifications account for a third of the working population of Russia. However, they are unnoticeable in the public space, their voice isn’t heard. Photo: Fyodor Telkov, Could photo project

There is also a stereotype that workers are people prone to immoral actions, that they aren’t educated who can cheat, consume alcohol and so on. Is this true?

According to my research, there is no difference between workers and office clerks in number of sexual relationships and cheating. Here it’s rather a case of the difference in generations. There is a Soviet culture, it’s one type. There is a post-Soviet culture where the attitude towards cheating is simpler compared to the Soviet era. I can’t say that workers cheat their wives more often. Neither can I say that workers are immoral and don’t appreciate their partners. Factory workers are people with an interesting Soviet culture, they go to the theatre, the cinema, read books.

For instance, some workers have their own libraries. Some older women told me they were interested in people, for example, foremen who created libraries and shared books with workers. There is an aspiration for self-education in the working environment. For instance, the same stories of older factory workers about how very beautifully women dressed even they went to work in hot shops, they did physical work but they had a beautiful hairdo, they were fashionably dressed and looked proud. It’s not those stereotyped images.

Not all workers aspire to self-education and to improve their level of culture. This can be linked with dramatic events in their biographies, and then it’s about survival. Some of my interlocutors used to be factory workers and then were jailed or turned out in tough life circumstances, for instance, couldn’t pay off a loan. However, plots of my research allow breaking the stereotypes about workers. Today the role of workers in the social process is underestimated. In this respect, it’s important to understand how the process of winding down factories affects everyday life in industrial regions. What people feel and experience who worked in the production industry in the Soviet era, while now their status is symbolically devaluated, though their number is still big. According to the latest estimates of the Russian Economic State and Health Monitoring, workers with different level of qualifications account for a third of the working population of Russia. However, they are unnoticeable in the public space, their voice isn’t heard. Today the working class isn’t an attractive topic for research, as it used to be in Soviet sociology. Now scientists study representatives of the elite, the middle class and new professions more. But, in my opinion, the researchers’ task must be to understand what people who are the majority feel and turned out on the brink of life due to circumstances.

By Natalia Fyodorova