By Kseniya Kirilova
In this text, I will attempt to reflect the main characteristics of the contemporary mentality of a majority of Russians who have provided the foundation for the widespread support of the aggressive policies of the authorities. I will also try to identify the reasons underlying certain traits as well as their consequences. In the guise of a conclusion, I will offer a series of recommendations on possible work with mass consciousness in Russia.
- One of the essential characteristics that distinguishes the average Russian in recent years is the blurring of moral principles and norms. Almost everyone who has tried to show the supporters of Vladimir Putin the illegality and immorality of the seizure of foreign territory, the support of militants, murders, corruption, the incitement of war, etc., has encountered this phenomenon. Experience shows that, even in those cases when such Russians were unable to deny the obvious, they began to adhere to the principles that «the end justifies the means» and «in times of war…»: they were prepared to recognize the admissability of any methods in order to achieve a goal.
Such disregard for moral and legal norms has developed gradually, and has been incorporated into public consciousness at a minimum over the past few years through a variety of trends. I will outline only the most striking examples of these different trends:
1.1. Tolerance for the phenomenon of corruption. The paradox is that Kremlin propaganda has not particularly tried to hide the extent to which the vertical power structure built by Putin is riddled with theft and lawlessness. However, the propagandists have focussed on the idea that representatives of the liberal opposition are just as likely to tend towards corruption. In this way, the Kremlin-controlled media has managed to convince the population that there is no reason to «exchange one set of thieves for another», and that stealing is the norm for Russia, that any person who comes to power will invariably steal. What is more, the idea has taken root in Russian consciousness not only that «everyone steals», but also that members of Putin’s elite are «just thieves» while their opponents are thieves and «foreign agents» who will not only steal and deplete the state coffers, but will also knowingly «ruin Russia on the orders of overseas masters». As a result, the average person is convinced that theft cannot be avoided, but that those who steal for their own personal needs at least leave something for the country, while those who steal both for themselves and following orders from abroad will rob Russia even faster. Unfortunately, a majority of Russians are simply unable to believe that countries exist in which the level of corruption is extremely low.
1.2. Discrediting democratic values. In addition to the fact that, through the efforts of propagandists, Russians began to associate democratic values with poverty, stealing and «foreigners robbing our country,» Putin has done everything possible so that the very terms «liberalism» and «democracy» produce a kind of conditioned reflex in Russian society: phobias and associations with coups, violent revolutions, rampant crime, bloodshed, death and anarchy. In this way, propaganda has succeeded on the one hand in entirely discrediting and debunking the values of lawfulness and freedom, and on the other hand, it has created in the Russian consciousness an irrational fear of people with democratic views both at home and abroad.
1.3. Discrediting the truth as such. Back in December of 2014, «The New York Times» published an op-ed entitled «Russia’s Ideology: There Is No Truth». The author points out that when people with a Soviet mentality who were accustomed to “doublethink and dual faith” came to power, they created a society in which pretense triumphed, with fake elections, a fake free press, fake free markets and fake justice.
The author of the op-ed, Peter Pomerantsev, described how on the one hand, Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov supported human rights organizations comprised of former dissidents, while on the other hand, he organized pro-Kremlin youth movements like «Nashi». «Everything is P.R.,» Pomerantsev is told by his «Moscow peers». According to Pomerantsev, «This cynicism is useful to the state: When people stopped trusting any institutions or having any values, they could easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world.” He continued, “At the core of this strategy is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. This notion allows the Kremlin to replace facts with disinformation.”
Gradually, as a result, over the 15 years of Putin’s rule, Russian society has reached the limit of its moral decay. Russians are firmly convinced that everyone steals, but that some do so for themselves, while others do so for «foreign clients»: they believe that freedom and democracy are just a cover for organizing revolution, which will unfailingly be followed by devastation and poverty, and that objective truth does not exist in principle. It is precisely this moral relativism and irrational fear that have provided the basis for the imposition of the contemporary «Crimea is Ours» movement and for the «hybrid war» in the Donbass. In a world devoid of moral norms and absolute values, in which totalitarianism, lies and stealing can be justified, anything else can be justified as well.
It is worth noting that there is no study on the moral and ethical characteristics of the average Russian, or on the moral category of «norms». The main creative forces in Russian culture, the people who set the moral tone for national ethics and the creators of the most powerful literary works and ideas were persecuted: some were subjected to forced labor and exile, and others, in the 20th century, experienced the inhumane conditions of torture and labor camps. These people truly went through hell and were not broken by it. Their experience is a feat that could not be repeated by the average person.
As a result, the only people able to repeat that heroic exploit are similarly persecuted seekers of truth who inevitably appear in Russia in every era. Russian culture, having provided models of high morality, has paid very little attention to the standards of behavior of ordinary people. There has been no development of the understanding of norms in the Russian mentality. The understanding of holiness has been very clearly developed in the Russian mentality – it is the inheritance of a special minority, which trods a well-worn path in an admirable succession of generations. However, no model of behavior has been developed for the ordinary, law-abiding inhabitant: its absence has created the conditions for the extreme blurring of moral reference points for the majority of the Russian population.
The consequences are manifold. On the one hand, there is a certain apoliticism on the part of most of the population relating to issues of domestic policy. Russians are convinced that «politics is a dirty business» and for this reason one must avoid politics: they are convinced that «everyone steals» and that that is just the way it is, so that any attempts to achieve change are senseless, since fair judges and honest bureaucrats and policemen simply do not exist. This attitude is at the origin of the characteristic Russian lack of trust in the opposition, which is labeled as «the same kind of thieves who want to get their hands on the money». It also explains the high degree of infantilism among Russians in matters relating to the fate of their native city, or even their own fate.
On the other hand, people who think in this way are characterized by the acceptance as norms of behavior of any and all forms of amoral behavior by the authorities. Depending on the situation, such behavior may be interpreted as a necessary evil or even as a courageous act required to «protect their own interests». Many Russians are sincerely convinced that the governments of other countries act in the same way, and that if they don’t, it is only because the Russian authorities have cleverly «outplayed» them.
- As if to compensate for the high degree of political apathy in domestic policy, a majority of Russians show a certain loyalty to the authorities on foreign policy. This phenomenon can be explained by the following reasons:
2.1. In Russia, the support systems never developed that would have allowed individuals to become relatively independent of the state. Even in the 1990s, which was a period marked by freedom, the inviolability of private property did not develop, nor did an independent judiciary or the very culture of respect for the individual. Almost every person comes face to face with Russia’s lawlessness, and then makes vain attempts to find the truth and break through the wall of corruption. As a result, even the most «patriotic» Russians understand deep down that in their country, anything at all can happen to anyone at all. The only guarantee, though not an absolute one, of escaping this rule is being loyal to the state, and being sufficiently active in demonstrating this loyalty so that the state knows who you are. The Russian sees no other way of protecting him or herself.
2.2. The authorities consider any kind of protest to be revolutionary. Anyone who has had to deal with corruption has practically no way to defend his or her interests through conventional means. If such a person resorts to any form of protest, he or she is automatically branded as being among the ranks of «enemies and traitors». The regime does not leave room for compromise or nuance, rather it gives it’s citizens a stark choice of «all or nothing». Either one must unconditionally accept everything the authorities do, including cracking down on undesirables and committing war crimes, or one is automatically considered an enemy and a traitor. The regime makes it quite clear that it will not make concessions, and that it will battle against its own citizens should they make the slightest attempt to express dissatisfaction, but that it will not listen to their requests and requirements.
Of course, being labeled as a member of the «fifth column» and pitting yourself against the entire society is possible for an ideologically motivated person who has clear convictions and who is ready to stand up for them, but it is not possible for the average person who is facing injustice. For most people, it is easier to inform on your neighbor and in this way to ensure yourself the protection of the state and its help in solving your problems, than it is to be categorized among the ranks of the unreliable and disloyal.
2.3. Instead of the actual vulnerability of the individual to the arbitrary actions of the authorities, propaganda offers Russians the illusion of self-importance, which lends passion to geopolitics. The lies propagated on the government-controlled television stations fully satisfy the average person, because they give him or her the impression of taking part in meaningful. large-scale events. Reasoning about such topics creates the illusion of having some kind of influence over these events, which, again, significantly increases the average person’s self-esteem.
2.4. Artificial creation of extreme conditions on account of an «external enemy». Russian propaganda has for a number of years actively suggested that any dissatisfaction with the authorities will end in a sea of blood. Then, having inculcated this fear in people, Putin firmly linked the guarantee of any possible stability to his person.
As a result, people have almost unconsciously developed a certain linkage: that Putin offers the only opportunity to ensure the normal existence of the country in extreme conditions. Accordingly, militant propaganda about external enemies artificially creates the very effect of extreme conditions, which triggers the association that has been induced: Putin is the only one who can save the country.
Indeed, creating the illusion of a «besieged fortress» has become more necessary than ever, since the average person understands quite clearly his or her inability to influence events at the level of foreign policy. For this reason, as regards international affairs, support for the policy championed by the authorities is seen as the only way to maintain one’s internal emotional ties with Russia. In this case, the average person has the feeling that he or she automatically joins the ranks of those who the «strong president» is defending from external threats.
One consquence is a sharp decrease in critical thinking on foreign policy issues and an unconscious desire on the part of Russians to believe in propaganda despite the obvious, since the media create a comfortable picture of reality and the illusion of being protected – by the «strong leader»- from problems which they see no possibility of influencing themselves.
- A necessary attribute of the artificially created extreme conditions has been the growth in military hysteria and the constant need for both internal and external enemies. The increase in aggression and belligerence among the population was also not implemented in one fell swoop: rather, it was cultivated over a period of several years, although it has reached its apogee with the advent of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The Russian authorities have created the image of an enemy in the eyes of public opinion in the following ways:
3.1 The direct effects of propaganda. Here follows an overview of the main strategies and methods used to obtain the desired results:
1). Weakening of critical thinking. The most cynical means are used to achieve this result. In propaganda, methods of psychological manipulation are widely used which are designed to reduce dramatically, if not to block entirely, the ability of critical thinking on the part of the viewer or listener through an appeal to his or her feelings. Hatred is not necessarily always the feeling sought. Propaganda actively exploits the feeling of pity: in so doing, it plays not only on the worst but also on the best human instincts. It does so, for example, by showing ruined residential buildings in the Donbass, or children who are suffering from the effects of war. In propaganda, there is no hesitation to resort to open lies: it is sufficient to recall the story about the «crucified boys» and other similar subjects.
The characteristic that distinguishes propaganda from regular reporting is that the person who is experiencing feelings of pity, pain, fear or «righteous anger» is not given the opportunity to think rationally about the subject that has elicited such feelings. He or she is given a prepared response, and a prepared image of the enemy – «punishers», a «junta» and the Americans who back it, «destroyers of the civilian population». More often than not, Russians are slipped a veritable cocktail of emotions intended to block the very ability to think during the time it takes to process the information. Examples are the horror of war, pity for the victims, fear that can reach proportions of panic, and the dread of an impending military threat.
2). Creating the image of the enemy. When a person has been mentally prepared, he or she is then given an answer to the internal unspoken and not yet understood question about who is responsible for the pain and fear into which he or she has been plunged. The image of the enemy in Russian propaganda is not distinguished by its originality, and has been forming in varying degrees of intensity over the past few years. Of course, it is the USA, and those who the propagandists call «American puppets», beginning with the Ukranian authorities and ending with the whole of Western and Eastern Europe.
3). Linking all internal problems to external factors. As noted above, by adopting the official foreign policy rhetoric, the average person compensates for his or her own helplessness through the illusion of involvement in historical events and a link to the abstraction called “Russia.” Understanding the essence of foreign problems is far more complicated for the average person than understanding domestic issues. More often than not, such Russians have never been abroad, and do not know the actual attitudes of western countries. For this reason, such Russians are easily subject to manipulation, in this case leading them to blame external enemies for their own problems.
4). An emphasis on consolidating society in the face of a military threat. Once again, this is done at different levels and with different connotations, ranging from aggressive calls to fight against the «national traitors» to constructive attempts to unite people in order to solve problems, but only in the case of their total approval of the foreign policy of the authorities.
5). Creating the image of Vladimir Putin as the only leader capable of withstanding the military threat. I don’t think any further explanation is needed here: much has been said and written about the contemporary cult of personality surrounding Putin. It’s apogee is represented by the film «President.»
6). Preparing for the inevitable hardships of «wartime». Having plunged the consciousness of the population into an endless militaristic hell and frightened them with the constant specter of imminent war, including nuclear war, makes it possible to justify any hardship or deterioration in the economic situation in the eyes of the population. The threat of an impending nightmare will make people accept any other deprivation as a “lesser evil,” or as a sacrifice that must be made to avoid war.
7). Creating an image for the West of a united Russia ready for war is a technique worth noting separately. Of course, the work of influencing a foreign audience is left to specialized media such as RT or «Sputnik», though «domestic» propaganda can have this as a secondary aim.
3.2. It is possible to identify an indirect mechanism to divide society not only by setting separate groups of people against each other, but also by claiming the incompatibility of identities, meanings and values which could easily co-exist in one person.
For example, the propagandists have sucessfully managed to posit as being in opposition to one another the terms «liberal» and «patriot», inculcating in Russians the idea that «a liberal cannot be a patriot». The propaganda has repeated the idea that «liberals hate Russia» so often that this idea is taken as a given not only by opponents of democracy, but also by the liberal intelligentsia itself.
In the same way, a number of elements of personal identity have been presented as being in opposition to one another when in point of fact these elements do not contradict one another. A few examples are fatherland and freedom, Christianity and the defense of human rights, love for Russia and hatred for the Soviet past, or for Russian and other ethnic cultures.
These processes yield a number of consequences for Russian society:
There is more than ever a high need for «enemies», both for justifying the hardships that are being experienced, and in order that people may take part in immoral activity simply through passively approving of it.
In fact, war is the main element which provides the opportunity for the authorities to influence society in contemporary Russia. It is the horrors of war that are capable of undermining critical thinking on the part of individuals, and it is with the help of war that the image of the enemy is being created and that a cult of personality is forming around Putin: it is war that underpins the consolidation of Russian society, and it is war that explains the hardships which are only destined to grow given the Russian economic crisis. This means that the Kremlin has finally found itself caught in a trap: it cannot stop the war, nor can it turn off the destructive television channel.
– A majority of Russians are characterized by a differentiated consciousness, with a clearly expressed group identification in which the boundaries between groups are very strictly delineated. Such a person is unable to encompass different identities, even if they are not mutually exclusive in nature. He or she is accustomed to identifying exclusively with a narrow category that has pre-established logical links and attributes. As a result, such a person, when deprived of the usual freedom of self-definition and development, becomes very easily manipulated. He or she is already trapped in the clearly defined clichés of his or her social group, and is unable to go beyond these limits, which are arbitrarily conditioned.
– As is the case with the discrediting of democratic values, Russians have a phobia of certain terms and categories, and of certain groups, such as liberals, supporters of joining the European Union, ethnic Ukrainians, Americans, etc. This makes it quite difficult for members of these groups to communicate with the average Russian.
- Nostalgia for the Soviet past – and, as a result, «imperial syndrome». The following reasons can be identified to explain these two phenomena:
4.1. Since the Russian authorities have successfully created the illusion that Russia is a besieged fortress, surrounded by enemies, a majority of Russians support «restoring Russia’s influence» in the territory of the former USSR; they genuinely believe that, given the hostility at Russia’s doorstep, the country requires a buffer or protective zone, or some other kind of layer between itself and its «enemies».
4.2. Despite their totalitarianism and aggressive attempts to regulate all spheres of society, the current authorities do not offer society a model of a desirable future or any kind of possible paradigm for development. The distinguishing feature of contemporary Russian ideology is that it is devoid of any actual content. No specific content is given to the ideologically-charged concepts of the «Russian world», «Russian civilization», or the «special path of development». This may be the first time in world history that we observe such a phenomenon – the appearance of a farcical ideology, a quasi-ideology containing only superficial, declarative elements.
As a result, in place of the Soviet myth about the «bright future», Russians are left with only an idealized past. Russians have idealized the model of the Soviet Union. Many Russians really believe that it is still possible to return to the USSR, but they have no concrete idea of how to achieve this goal in reality. For this reason, many Russians are either nostalgiac for the past and idealize it, with the myth serving as a justification to approve the militaristic, expansionistic policies of the authorities, or they believe that the mythologized USSR already exists in the present, and they are ready to defend it from imaginary enemies.
4.3. The idealized image of the USSR gives people hope that they will be protected not only from external threats, but also that they will be protected in domestic policy, through guaranteed employment and social benefits and services, even if of low quality, and a guaranteed paycheck – in short, a social allowance, which is not dependent upon personal efforts, abilities and achievements.
4.4. The Russian yearning for the grandeur of the imperial past is not to be brushed aside. The history of Russia is truly the history of an empire dominated by Russian culture and within which, especially during the existence of the USSR, the national identities of the other constitutent republics were suppressed. Imperial Russia was always characterized by collectivism, the search for a «special path» and detachment from the rest of the world, weak development of individual consciousness, etc. Accordingly, many Russians were pained by the disintegration of the empire and the refusal by the peoples who had formed it of the dominant Russian influence.
The consequences of these processes are not only the unconditional approval by the overwhelming majority of Russians of the expansionistic policies of the authorities, but also the idealization of other destructive and agressive phenomena from the Soviet past: repression, informing on others, persecution of dissidents, the imposition of a mandatory ideology, etc.
Recommendations for working with mass consciousness.
In working with with Russian society, it must be borne in mind that these recommendations will only be effective if it is possible to distance the public from the influence of Russian propaganda and to ensure access to (impartial) media by those who are interested in a normalization of the situation in Russia. For such persons, we offer the following guidlelines:
- In the very first stage of the new informaiton policy, pacifist rhetoric should be employed as much as possible, together with constant indications of the need to rehabilitate the country after the devastation of war. The main idea here is to focus on formation and rehabilitation.
- The existing aggression in society on the part of specific social groups will need to be re-channeled on the war as a phenomenon/ concept. Существующую в обществе агрессию необходимо перенаправить с конкретных социальных групп на войну как явление. It is entirely acceptable to label the war as a factor that is ruining Russia and its economy, as well as ruining relationships between fraternal peoples, as well as the trust of the Donbass residents who are «loyal to Russia.» The war should be emphasized as being a betrayal of Russia and of all Slavic peoples.
- It is important to focus on small actions and small victories to rehabilitate the economic and social infrastructure. Once this is done, it will be necessary gradually to augment people’s view of local events.
- It is important to use the most ideologically neutral terms and to avoid words and categories that invite inappropriate associations, such as «democracy», « European values», «civilized world».
- It is important constantly to indicate the benefits of rejecting military action, such as restoring relations not only with the West, but most importantly with «fraternal peoples», i.e. with Ukraine.
Once the preparatory work has been effectively laid the groundwork, then the future leaders of the country can institute a policy of moving closer to the West with a minimum of ideological populism. It will be important that real change occur, change in the structure of the state and in the judicial and law enforcement systems, rather than simply statements of intention or ideological statements. Change must be introduced with a focus on the benefits to be felt by the population once corruption has been decreased and the rule of law has been instituted, rather than a focus on introducing western standards. It will then be possible to achieve real modernization in Russia rather than just talk of modernization, with a minimal risk of a rise in revanchist sentiment on the part of the population.
Kseniya Kirilova is a Russian journalist that focuses on analyzing Russian society, political processes in modern Russia and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. She writes for Radio Liberty and other outlets and is an expert of the Ukrainian Center for Army, conversion, and disarmament studies and the Free Russia foundation.
© Copyright 2017, Kseniya Kirillova.
This article part of in an ongoing series of scholarly or academic papers to be presented on the Global Geopolitics net site. Scholars and journalists are welcome to submit papers with more in-depth analysis for publication as part of this series.