Reforming habitus, reordering meaningful worlds
Soldiers' Mothers and social change in postsocialist Russia
|Reforming habitus, reordering meaningful worlds: Soldiers' Mothers and social change in postsocialist Russia
This thesis is an examination of how The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg establish a historically grounded notion of 'civil society' and attempt to bring about social change in Russia. The thesis is based on six months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted with the organisation in 2003. It concentrates on the mothers of draftees and deserted soldiers who come to the organisation and on their endeavours to achieve an exemption from military service on medical grounds for their sons. During my fieldwork, I went with the women to their sons' recruitment stations, military units, courts and hospitals, participated together with them in the organisation's lectures and workshops and interviewed them about these events.
During Perestroika (1986-1991), the deteriorating conditions for soldiers in the Soviet-Russian army, the violence, suicides, murders, diseases, lack of food and proper clothing, became known to the public, and the Russian Soldiers' Mothers' movement was established to protect the soldiers in the army. Today the movement counts more than 300 local organisations spread all over Russia with the two biggest in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The political, economic and jurisdictive changes since the dissolution of the Soviet Union have given Russians new opportunities to claim their civic rights and influence official authorities' decisions. With the goal to make democracy work in practice, the so-called "rights-defending organisations" (pravozashchitnye organizasii), which emerged out of the small circles of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s, teach people to make practical use of the available legal mechanisms to defend their rights. The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg use rights-defending methods to protect draftees and deserted soldiers.
I suggest that The Soldiers' Mothers through their methods engage people in changing their understanding of the social and political order and their embodied dispositions. I have described these social processes as "the reordering of meaningful worlds" and "reforming habitus".
The concept of "meaningful worlds" broadens the understanding of the shared, political realm to include complex symbolical processes, social relations and ideas of morality. While the women write official letters of complaint, put together their families' medical histories, participate in discussions, and go together to their sons' military units and meetings with the draft board, they contemplate and reconsider their fear of bureaucrats, their experiences of birthgiving and of growing up in a militarized society. The Soldiers' Mothers offer them an alternative narrative of Soviet totalitarianism that Russians have to overcome, both personally and as a nation, in order to establish a new social order and "meaningful world".
With the concept of "reforming habitus" I shed light on the ways in which meaningful worlds are internalized in individual persons' bodies and how people's habitus can be changed through active self-work, like the women at The Soldiers' Mothers work to overcome their embodied fear of bureaucrats through role play, games and mutual evaluation.
The "meaningful world" that the parent generation grew up with in the Soviet Union was symbolically construed as a family relation between the Father State and men as workers, soldiers and "sons" and the Father State and women as workers and "mothers" of the fatherland's sons. Drawing on such metaphors of kinship and gender, the obligations felt towards the state are deeply embodied. It is goal of The Soldiers' Mothers to change people's relation to the state into formal and legal instead of moral ties. Thereby they seek to establish new understandings of "public" and "private" and new ways of filling out the intermediate social space in between, that is new ways to conceptualize and enact 'civil society'.
The thesis thus underlines that social change occurs on various levels - both in regard to the shared, political level and on the level of individual person's bodily behaviour - and accordingly must be studied with different analytical frameworks. The Soldiers' Mothers offer a perspective on social change that builds on existing local structures and socially grounded values, ways of acting and thinking.