Saturday, April 20, 2013

Window on Eurasia: To Retain Power, Russian Authorities ‘Cultivating’ Aggression and Anger in the Population, Moscow Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – In order to strengthen the power vertical, Russian officials at various levels are “specially cultivating aggression and anger in society,” according to participants at a roundtable at the Moscow Higher School of Economics on “The Culture of Hatred:  The Principle of Mutual Assured Destruction of the People and the Strategy of the Nomenklatura.”

            That does not mean there are not underlying factors behind the anger of this or that group, the participants said, but officials at different levels and in different regions are cultivating this anger at other “enemies,” foreign and domestic, in ways that suggest an administered development rather than a truly spontaneous one.

                To date, however, the experts concluded, the regime has not found an enemy that will unite the entire population around it, and consequently, this playing with xenophobia is ultimately extremely dangerous not just for one or another social group but for the powers that be themselves.

            Svetlana Gomzikova, a journalist with “Svobodnaya pressa” spoke to three of the participants at that meeting, all of whom agreed with these general propositions but each of whom offered a slightly different take on the nature of the problem and its future course of development (

            Dmitry Oreshkin, a political scientist who helped organize the session, said that scholars have found that Russians are very much divided concerning which groups they dislike the most.  “Some hate Caucasians,” he pointed out; others hate Muscovites, and still others hate sports fanatics or even dogs.

            Data from polls suggest that this anger reflects genuine feelings, Oreshkin said, “but when you begin to do in-depth interviews, this aggressiveness to a significant degree looks artificial,” as if those who display anger at this or that group are responding to signals from the powers that be rather than reporting their own independently developed attitudes.

            There are some differences among social and regional groups, of course, but the reactions of the population to “enemies” of one kind or another “depends upon the position of the authorities,” Oreshkin argued, because “the people is approximately one and the same thing, and the problems [they face] are one and the same.”

            The political scientist cited in support of his argument the conclusions of Emil Pain, the director of the Center for the Study of Extremism and Xenophobia of the Moscow Institute of Sociology.  Pain has found, Oreshkin said, that manifestations of anger and xenophobia are connected with the attitudes of the authorities who “somehow control or cultivate this hatred.”

            Up to now, he continued, the powers that be have not found “a total common enemy who could unite the entire nation.”  Even the US, a much used object of anger in Soviet times, does not work for everyone, because as polls show, “at a minimum 40 percent of Russians are more inclined to show sympathy” to America than hostility.

            Consequently, he argued, the authorities keep trying out different objects of hatred at a tactical level, apparently unaware that “at a strategic level, [such an approach] will lead to mutual self-destruction.”  Clearly, Oreshkin says, the powers have concluded that “positive methods and levers of support” have ceased to shore up their authority and therefore they have shifted to “negative ones.”

            The variety of enemies and the speed with which they are offered up suggests, the political scientist argued, that they are being proposed by the authorities rather than reflecting the views of the population in order for the powers to “maintain control over the situation and retain power.”

            This primitive approach, Oreshkin warns, is an extremely dangerous playing with fire because it can provoke the rise of real hatreds in the population that the powers that be ultimately may not be able to direct or control.

            Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Research of the Federal Government’s Finance University, agreed that the authorities “in fact often manipulate various social groups in order to strengthen the position” of those in power but suggested that attitudes of some of these groups have been artificially created while those of others are real.

            Migration problems are real, and attitudes about them are real, Salin said, but they may be more or less intense depending upon how those in power react.  As far as “the image of an external enemy” is concerned, the authorities have long experience with promoting that, an experience that dates to the 1930s or even earlier.

            Today, Salin continued, the authorities may try to promote anti-Western attitudes, but they “already understand” that residents of the major cities are unlikely to follow them, although the use of such an enemy will work among residents of smaller cities and rural areas where “old phobias,” including anti-Americanism,” continue to be strong as a result of “Soviet nostalgia.”

            But the researcher rejected the idea that “this cultivation of hatred is the beginning of the end of the powers themselves.”  In fact, “the beginning of the end” reflects the authorities proclivity to ignore real problems, something that is driving Russians toward the Internet and making them ever less susceptible to manipulation.

            Finally, novelist Roman Senchin added that efforts by the authorities to cultivate anger toward selected enemies is part of a more general campaign to distract Russians from the real problems they face, “economic, political and social,” a campaign that may work for a time but that is ultimately doomed to failure.

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