Book review: Zigon’s "HIV is God’s Blessing"

This article is part of the following series:

Jarrett Zigon. “HIV Is God’s Blessing”: Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 280 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Tomas Matza (Department of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University)

Anthropologists have taken a keen interest in the way that the collapse of the Soviet Union has impacted the everyday lives of the people living in that region. The fact that the Soviet state placed the formation of persons at the center of its cultural policies has served as a pivot from which anthropologists have explored subjectivity in the throes of Russia’s emerging market- (a.k.a. “sovereign”) democracy. Many studies in this vein have focused on sites of self-(re)formation. Mostly set in urban locales, the list includes studies of labor and human resource training (Dunn 2004), alcohol treatment (Raikhel 2010), pre- and neo-natal health care practices (Rivkin-Fish 2005), NGOs and women’s empowerment (Phillips 2008; Hemment 2007), self-defense programs (Drwecki 2009), and psychological self-help (Matza 2010; Matza 2009). As a whole this work has shown not only that the post-Soviet pedagogy of the self/person works with the materials of Soviet precursors, but also that those pedagogies are complexly articulated with Russia’s current political and economic structures. As such, self-(re)formation in Russia has become a place to study the intersection of postsocialist capitalism with the substance of the self.

Jarrett Zigon’s recent book “HIV Is God’s Blessing” adds a crucial site to the list—a Russian NGO working in concert with the Russian Orthodox Church on rehabilitating HIV-infected intravenous drug users. To date, only a few studies have tackled the hugely influential Russian Orthodox Church and its role in self-(re)formation (cf. Rogers 2009). And, as Zigon notes, the targets of the NGO—intravenous drug users with HIV—are also significant since Russia has one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection in the world—the majority of which is from intravenous drug use. The question his study broaches is how are these at the margins of Russia’s post-Soviet economy faring? Who helps them? To what end?

To answer these questions, the book offers an ethnography of an organization called The Mill that operates at the intersection of secular NGOs and Church-based work. The Mill employs both trained psychologists as well as Orthodox priests in its work, which takes place both at an HIV-specialized clinic in St. Petersburg, as well as a camp-like recovery center in the outskirts of town. (Interestingly, he points out that The Mill was founded as a secular organization, but eventually had to align itself with the church in order to receive support.) In part a result of this status, The Mill employs a mixture of what Zigon calls “secular therapeutics” and Russian Orthodox moral teachings. This mixture, in turn, produces a fascinating tension between reform objectives. On the one hand the Mill appears to pursue conversion, on the other secular self-development. As Zigon shows, these objectives are mutually constitutive, and yet in many instances also at right angles. (And in this vein, his work also broaches some recent discussions, a la Asad, on the relationship between the secular and the religious in modernity.)

As Zigon explains, the Russian Orthodox Church has become an important force in reshaping Russia’s conversation about itself as a nation. A telltale sign of this is the Church’s privileged political status (while not the official state religion, it receives special treatment), and also its influence over public discourse on topics from human rights, family structures and gender roles, to social issues such as drug addiction and HIV. We learn that in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, the Church has criticized Western individualism, consumerism and conceptions of rights, and instead argued that Russia’s future must be oriented around a strong, Orthodox, moral center. Zigon shows how The Mill’s efforts have extended the Church’s interest in rehabilitating the Russian nation through saving individual souls to the area of drug abuse and HIV.

One of the main findings of this study is that the Church’s objective to reshape the nation aligns “unwittingly” with neoliberalism in Russia. Once again, this is highly ironic because of the Church’s vocal opposition to said agendas. How does this alignment happen? Through The Mill’s efforts to teach recovering addicts to become responsible for themselves and to others it constitutes subjects ready to live a “sane” life in a “neoliberal present.” By scheduling out the day, it prepares them to be working-class subjects. Through teaching rehabilitants new forms of emotional management and discipline, it prepares them for the new kinds of “normal life” (normal’naia zhin’) found in contemporary Russia (forms that Zigon suggests are more consumerist and individualist in orientation). On the whole, Zigon charges that this effort “is about cultivating and enacting limits rather than enabling the creation of moral possibilities.” Thus, a force for possible critique of unbridled capitalist expansion in Russia (i.e. the Church) is nonetheless a part of those very processes.

Like many studies of self-cultivation (e.g. Mahmood 2005; O’Neill 2009; Matza 2010; Rogers 2009), in order to draw the links between moral pedagogy and self-formation, Zigon draws on and also seeks to extend Foucault’s late interest in neo-Aristotelian ethics. His study makes very productive use of the insights opened up by that framework. Zigon is careful not to identify only one kind of “moral discourse” at work (i.e. Russian Orthodoxy), but multiple ones (he identifies three others: secular therapeutics, Soviet and neoliberal moral discourses). These moral discourses do not shape subjects in a deterministic way; rather, they are stitched together into “local moral and ethical assemblage,” constituting the range of possibilities and constraints for people. It is these possibilities and constraints that together comprise the new “normal” in Russia—one that Zigon argues has been shaped by neoliberal agendas.

His main theoretical intervention concerns the concepts of ethics and morality. Zigon departs from Foucault’s view that morality is a set of codified constraints, whereas ethics is a set of open-ended practices. Instead, Zigon lays it out this way: Over time, people come to embody a particular moral habitus (conditioned, but not wholly determined by, both public discourses and institutions). When faced with a “moral breakdown,” however, that embodied and nonconscious “moral mode of being” is brought to light. People undergo conscious ethical self-cultivation aimed at becoming new kinds of moral persons. Eventually, this results in a new kind of unreflexive morality. Through this cycling between stasis and breakdown, Zigon seeks to show that the ethical and the moral are not abstract concepts, but dynamic, socially situated understandings and practices. Nor are they distinct from one another. The ethical becomes expressed through a conscious pursuit of self-making, and being a moral person is emergent from those pursuits, often taking the shape of an embodied disposition. In addressing himself to the category of the moral in Foucault’s work, Zigon thus clears conceptual space for the inclusion of religious discourses in self-cultivation in ways that do not reduce them to forms of indoctrination.

An inevitable consequence of Zigon’s focus on these theoretical debates is that the portraits of drug users (their biographies, stories about how they began to use, their accounts of use, their struggle to kick the habit) can seem at times to take a backseat. It is not that these details are absent (for Zigon clearly had great access and includes lots of direct quotes); rather the interpretive frame makes sense of their efforts to kick drugs and deal with HIV-infection largely in terms of the constellation of discipline, cultivation, control, responsibilization. After having read the book, I am left wondering about the things outside the framework: What kinds of medical treatment did rehabilitants receive? What is withdrawal like? How is getting high woven into their daily lives? Nonetheless, the book offers a solid account about the “ethical cultivation of moral personhood” in and through this pedagogical process.

I suspect that Zigon was aware of this trade-off inasmuch as he commits himself at the start to focusing on what Kleinman has called the “therapeutic process”—that is what happens to rehabilitation participants beyond the pedagogical moment. He also makes reference the “experience” of his informants. Yet much time is spent on the contours of the pedagogy, its disciplinary function, its role in the formation of new ethical practices and, ultimately, in the formation of new forms of moral personhood suitable to adapting to the landscape of post-Soviet Russia. There is nothing wrong with focusing on pedagogy as such; the fact that Zigon sets out to do otherwise is a testament, I think, to the types of analyses an exclusively Foucaultian framework enables and constrains.

An area that is sometimes missing in anthropologies of Russia is the historical dimension. Yet Zigon admirably situates his ethnography of moral-ethical cultivation in relation to Soviet discourses as well as traditions of self-cultivation in Russian Orthodoxy. For instance, his exploration of neoliberal responsibilization in the Mill’s work is also discussed in relation to late-Soviet discourses of cultivating personal responsibility. This raises fascinating questions about responsibility as a discourse and practice: Is it only a neoliberal mode of subjectivation? How do we know if it is?

In the final analysis, Zigon’s book is a provocative and clearly argued work that offers both theoretical exploration as well as new research on Russia. Anthropologists interested in morality and ethics will find theoretical resources in its pages. And readers interested in the Russian Orthodox Church and its social positions and campaigns will gain new insights from this book. The book shows how difficult the path to rehabilitation is, and Zigon demonstrates an abiding care for those whom he interviewed (one reason, I think, for his effort to disconnect morality from determination): To become rehabilitated—and not just “normal” but also no longer self-destructive and “existentially comfortable”—people have to uproot themselves from their former lives. They have to avoid their old friends. They have to employ any means they can (often the “Prayer of Jesus”) to keep vigilant watch on their desires to get high. They have to be ready to be inserted into the formal economy. At the same time they have to face the stigma of being a recovering user, and, often, an HIV-positive person. The hill to be climbed is steep indeed, and their efforts to make a healthier self may be more arduous than Russia’s ongoing market transformations.

Works Cited

Drwecki, Abby. 2009. “‘A Lot Depends On Us:’ Discourses of Individual and Collective Responsibility in Polish Women’s Self-Defense Courses.” Anthropology of East Europe Review 27: 176-192.

Dunn, Elizabeth. 2004. Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hemment, Julie. 2007. Empowering Women in Russia: Activism, Aid, and NGOs. Indiana University Press.

Mahmood, S. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Matza, Tomas A. 2009. “Moscow’s Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics and Politics on the Russian Talk Show.” Cultural Anthropology 24 (3) (August): 489-522.

_______. 2010. Subjects of Freedom: Psychologists, Power and Politics in Post-Soviet Russia. Stanford, CA.

O’Neill, Kevin Lewis. 2009. City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala. University of California Press.

Phillips, Sarah D. 2008. Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Raikhel, E. 2010. “Post-Soviet Placebos: Epistemology and Authority in Russian Treatments for Alcoholism.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 34 (1).

Rivkin-Fish, Michele. 2005. Women’s Health in Post-Soviet Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rogers, Douglas. 2009. The Old Faith and the Russian Land: A Historical Ethnography of Ethics in the Urals. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Tomas Matza is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.  He completed his PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies and Anthropology at Stanford University, with a dissertation entitled “Subjects of Freedom: Psychologists, Power and Politics in Postsocialist Russia.”  His article “Moscow’s Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show” appeared in the August 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology.