Brown University

The Fluid Russian Propaganda by Artur Avkhadiev @ Brown University

State propaganda organizes the society in a form least conflicting with the state’s objectives. The propaganda’s content is a utilitarian, rather than ideological, concern. Ideology is valuable insofar it helps give the society a structure the state desires — Hannah Arendt underscored that pragmatic approach of propaganda in totalitarian states more than fifty years ago.

More than fifty years later, the propaganda of the Russian authoritarian regime does not have any ideology. The propaganda is simpler, less blatant and invasive, and more pragmatic than that in the USSR, changing fluidly to reflect Kremlin’s priorities at home and abroad.

Consider the last six years of President Putin’s presidency, and how readily the content of Russian propaganda adapted to suit the Kremlin agenda.

In 2012, Russians met President Putin’s third term with large-scale protests. Dissatisfied with government corruption and economic and political stagnation, people took to the streets.

In his address to the Russian parliament, newly re-elected President Putin declared that Russia suffered a deficit of spiritual bracing: a decline in compassion, sympathy, support, and “all those moral foundations that had traditionally made the [Russian] society strong.”

In the same address, President Putin noted that a totalitarian control of people’s views and beliefs was unacceptable; rather than acting through restrictions and prohibitions, President Putin said, the government ought to support those institutions that historically proved themselves successful in upholding traditional Russian values. Of course, Putin meant the Russian Orthodox Church.

During Putin’s presidency, the Russian Orthodox Church regained its prominence. The strategic alliance with the Church allowed the State to cultivate an agreeable Russian cultural identity, and to interweave itself into the source of deep social influence the Church possessed. Without employing outright totalitarian measures, the Kremlin managed to advance its agenda of social conservatism.

At the same time, the traditional values and spiritual bracings at home were continuously contrasted with the liberal values of Western Europe. Before the Ukrainian crisis, the decay of cultural and moral values in Western-European democracies, collectively headlined by the pejorative and pithy Gayrope, was a major topic on some Russian television outlets.  However, the 2014 civil unrest in Ukraine called for a heavier propaganda artillery.

What followed was an obsession of Russian media with protests in Kiev, and its portrayal of the protesters as far-right neo-Nazis. This strategy was exceptionally effective at shaping Russians’ negative view on the Ukrainian coup, tapping into their collective memory of the World War II.[1]

Finally, when the U.S. involvement in the power transition in Ukraine became clear, Russia intensified its anti-American rhetoric. In that light, the Ukrainian coup became another color revolution orchestrated by the GosDep — a term for the U.S. State Department of State, coined in the best traditions of Soviet phraseology (in Russian, “gos” are the first three letters for the word “state”).

Today, anti-American sentiments prevail over Russian domestic issues, helping the Kremlin curb political dissent. Just this week at an annual live broadcast with the President, a journalist asked why Alexey Navalny, a major opposition leader, was held back from participating in 2018 Presidential elections; President Putin avoided the answer, and parried, “Do you want us to have our own Maidan? Our version of the Ukrainian coup? I am confident that an overwhelming majority of Russians do want it, and will not allow it.”

The ease with which the Kremlin has steered the propaganda wheel for the last six years is impressive. The content of its message does not seem to be constrained by any ideology whatsoever; rather, propaganda changes fluidly to help achieve the State’s goals and deter potential threats.

In Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that everyone in the totalitarian system, including the ruling elite, ultimately becomes captive to the regime’s ideology. In modern Russia, it seems that ideology is captive to the ever-changing priorities of the ruling elite.

[1] The casualties of the Soviet Union from the World War II numbered more than 25 million, many of them civilian. The role of the Soviet Union in deterring the threat of Nazi Germany is an important article of Russia’s historical memory. The end of the World War II is a major national holiday.

Featured image from The Economist, December 2016. Link

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