The ability to travel or foreign channels on cable TV are failing to safeguard homo post-sovieticus from propaganda of hatred
Escape from freedom is a fixed expression and also the title of Erich Fromm’s famous book, an opus magnum of the 20th century. The founder of modern psychoanalysis, Fromm was interested in a human being not so much as a storehouse of sexual traumas as man of free will wanting to find moral justification for his actions. After fleeing from Nazi Germany, the scholar dedicated his life to the study of the very phenomenon of totalitarianism. His conclusion is a sad one: to contemporary man (the book was published in 1941), freedom turns out to be such an unfamiliar and unbearable feeling that he “tends to escape into the severe comfort of totalitarian dictatorship”.
Since that time, various nations have gone different ways: those that were initially more inclined to educate themselves and strove for maturity have joined the “golden billion”, while those that clung on to their past, from Haiti to Somali, periodically go through stages of self-destruction. Adaptation to freedom, i.e., possession of personal, rather than collective, individuality should be recognized as a crucialdirection for the development of people as social beings.
So what does propaganda have to do with this? It is simple: the more socially mature an individual is, the more critical he is of information that comes from the outside world, particularly from the mass media, and the more sophisticated explanations he seeks. It is not an issue of some special perfection – just a matter of education. On this scale, homo postsovieticus, aka sovok, is somewhere near the bottom. Paternalism, dependence, infantilism, lack of initiative, a need for simplified relationships with the employer and the state and a tendency to see an enemy in whoever is different – these qualities are partly inherited from the traditional Russian cultural matrix and partly improved through totalitarian practices. They are imposed on everyone who has found themselves this way or another under the Kremlin’s influence.
After the breakup of the communist system, millions of people were forced to paddle their own canoes – without having the requisite skills, a clear understanding of the rules of the game or social goals. Some of them adjusted after painful withdrawal; others joined a new pyramid; still others decided to seek easy fortunes in the world of crime, and for the rest the time stood still. Throughout these merciless, uncertain, cursed years following the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe”, as Putin described it, the sovoks had just one thought on their minds – having someone to trust, rely upon and shift responsibility on. They found what they were looking for in one of the post-Soviet countries – Russia.
Despite a great measure of similarity and affinity, the old sovoks and modern-time homo postsovieticus are two distinct anthropological formations. The former were more skeptical and more fatigued, especially at the last stage. They could joke about Secretary General and despise the authorities, sincerely believing that they could do without them. The latter will not allow any self-destructive habits of this kind. Instead, what Russia has is a national leader with a record-high 82% support, artificial myths about both the distant past and the recent times, obsession with military power, disregard for and hatred of all others, from Ukrainians (“bloodthirsty Bandera followers”) to Americans (“stupid Yankees”) – all these things serve primarily to remove uncomfortable psychological uncertainty. The Russian sovoks have now found firm ground – their “index of happiness” has shot up to the record-high 78%.
People still steeped in Soviet mentality ignore or tolerate any everyday inconveniences, broken infrastructure, the absolute power of bureaucracy, an enormous gap between the poor and the rich and shocking cases of indigence, especially in remote regions, which they explain, at best, by the perfidious actions of some mythical enemy: the Jews, the blacks, imperialists and now also Ukrainians. This betrays an abnormally high level of aggression among the sovoks. Aware of how vulnerable their position is, they are ready to cut their opponent’s throat at the drop of a hat. In terms of sociopsychological makeup, the sovoks are not bourgeois or, even less so, proletarian, regardless of their financial status and place in society. They are déclassé elements, plebeians, lumpens, and their dominant position, regardless of their real numbers, poisons entire society by forcing it to accept their values.
The Russian and Ukrainian sovoks are somewhat different species. The former is a direct descendant of the “revolutionary” masses that quickly set up communist dictatorship. They feed on the continuous tradition of monarchy and serfdom. The latter are not a product of long-established evolution. On the contrary, they emerged after a forceful traumatic loss of tradition and replacement of their identity with an evil, contradictory construct. The difference between the two species is in their origins, but the result is the same – both types plead “Please send us back to the dark and damp place where father waiting with a belt in his hand!”
Since day one, the sovoks have craved for a simplified worldview. It can be incorporated into a certain doctrine and implemented in practice, and the sovoks will be pleased. This is precisely what the Russian authorities have been doing for the past 14 years at least. The foundation for imperial propaganda was laid down back in the 1990s: TV channels, which were then owned by individual oligarchs, focused on an apparently lofty goal – re-electing Boris Yeltsin, who could be tentatively called “liberal”, over diehard communist Gennady Zyuganov. In this way, muscles were built, cadres were educated, and technology was polished. When Vladimir Putin ascended to the throne, all this potential was deployed to serve the regime. TV channels were quite brutally taken over by more loyal owners andno longer criticizes or even doubted official policies. The television completed its transformation into a brainwashing tool, plummeting to the depths of manipulation techniques and patent lies.
However, the press and online media outlets gave an illusion of independence for a while. In the early 2010s, Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s only opposition newspaper, quipped: “In Russia, there are two parties – the television party and the Internet party.” What he meant was that the passive, gullible TV viewers who were content to chew the propagandist cud mixed with patriotic series, dumb entertainment shows and sports broadcasts wereopposed to the liberally-minded “creative class” that feeds on information from independent sources. After several mass protests in Moscow, starting from December 2011, the Kremlin turned its attention to this “territory of freedom”. Management was replaced in a number of nominally independent media outlets on orders from above; some media were charged with violations and disconnected from the Internet in the territory of Russia. Repressions also hit NGOs and think tanks, effectively putting an end to credible population surveys and analytics. The handful of media outlets that can be very tentatively said to be in the opposition were rendered marginal, and their impact was reduced to zero. The rest are controlled through a carrot-and-stick approach, i.e., a combination of strict content monitoring and increasing government financing of the mass media in the past years (over USD 2.5bn in 2013).
The Kremlin takes a comprehensive approach to propaganda, from government support for jingoist films and the formation of pro-government quasi-public movements to the elaboration of concepts of national ideology. So-called intellectuals who were only recently considered to be too far-right and odious (such as Sergey Kurnyagin and Alexander Dugin) have been involved in the latter activity. The entire thing is set up so adroitly that the duping of the Russian population is largely financed through market or quasi-market mechanisms – the volume of the advertisement market in Russia is nearly USD 10bn.
A person from the older generation who remembers Soviet realities has a hard time understanding the modern laws of propaganda. In the past, protest leaflets were copied by hand; banned literature was multiplied using typewriters or cumbersome copying machines that were hard to access – only a handful of institutions had them and they were closely watched. Any mischief of this kind entailed a risk of imprisonment. When the Iron Curtain fell, the truth about the crimes of the communist regime was published not only in specialized literature but also in the mass press. For example, the opposition magazine Ogoniok had the print run of 4.6mn copies in 1990. Moreover, the radio and television also exposed Soviet crimes. Since then, all classical works in political science, history and economics have been published in Russian translation. Many Russians are now able to read in the original, at least in English. Everyone who wanted to know the truth about the past learned it a long time ago. Truthful accounts of current affairs are only a few clicks away and are so far accessible to those interested . So the problem is not with access but with a desire to accept information. If average Russians believes that “bloodthirsty Ukrainian fascists” need to be stopped at the cost of the lives of their sons and grandsons and if 70 per cent of respondents in Russia believe that their mass media are objective, it is their choice, whether conscious or unconscious.
The success of any propaganda lies not only in how skillfully it is crafted or how large an audience it reaches, but also in the internal readiness of the targeted audience to be duped. These people are voluntarily escaping from freedom and have, in fact, already done so.
The Ukrainian Week talked with French cybersecurity expert Christine Dugoin-Clément about mechanisms for fighting fake news, the prospects for certifying true information, and the likelihood of separating propaganda from journalism once and for all.