Staunton, January 2 – Present-day Russian society is ever more like the old Soviet one, many people say, Aleksandr Zhelenin observes; but this is true “only in part” because the way in which today’s Kremlin manages its information monopoly leads many Russians to conclude that they are still living in freedom and thus are even more inclined to follow what the leaders say.
In a commentary for the Rosbalt news agency, Zhelenin notes that “in the last two centuries, the only things that has prevented the transformation of human society into a herd have been media which are independent of the state.” But those require independent business, and in present-day Russia “such business has disappeared” (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2018/01/02/1671952.html).
And despite what some on the left think, the absence of real private ownership means that power and ownership have become so concentrated that it is far more appropriate to speak of a ruling group rather than a ruling group; and not surprisingly, membership in this group requires loyalty and that requires not supporting an independent media outlet.
“For almost 20 years,” Zhelenin says, “there has been in Russia practically total control over the state of the mass consciousness in the country” because there has been practically total control over the media. “However, in contrast to Soviet times, the people almost completely lacks that ironic (and this means critical) attitude toward the supreme power.”
Then, the crudity of the ideological message meant that people might follow every twist of the general line of the party but with near total cynicism and almost complete lack of genuine acceptance. Now, the Rosbalt commentator says, the situation is different; and one can’t explain it by the ruling group’s monopoly over the media.
A more important reason lies in the views Russians have been cultivated to have about the nature of fascist dictatorships and the experiences they had in what most of them call “the wild 1990s.” They assume that the old fascist states had total control over the media and that the absence of any controls in Russia in the 1990s was a mistake.
“A majority of citizens both in the West and in the East had formed a somewhat distorted idea about fascist regimes.” There is no reason to whitewash these states. “But in mass propaganda, everything as a rule was reduced to concentration camps and wars, although real life in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy was somewhat more diverse.”
Zhelenin gives the following example: “the majority of citizens both in Russia and in the West up to the present do not know that in the Third Reich for almost a decade openly came out the opposition paper Frankfurter Zeitung which allowed itself to criticize the Nazi regime in moderation and gave the latter in this way a certain respectability.”
And most are not aware that in Germany of that period, the courts sometimes acted independently, refusing for example to convict Georgy Dimitrov and his cohorts of setting the Reichstag on fire in 1933.
“Such things then convinced many Germans (and not only them) that Germany of the times of the Third Reich was apparently a completely civilized country,” Zhelenin says.
Something similar is going on in Putin’s Russia today. The fact that several opposition newspapers at least on line continue to come out “creates the illusion of a diversity of opinions and the presence in the country of independent media and thus in the final analysis strengthens the existing regime.”
Another reason Russians today lack an ironic and critical attitude toward the state and thus can be manipulated so much more easily is that “up to now we have in Russia the soviet type of individual,” educated and suspicious of sloganeering but easily taken in when the media uses more sophisticated measures.
Such people were struck when the media opened up during perestroika and in the early 1990s. A minority found that to be a gulp of fresh air, but for the majority, it was something else, “’freedom without limits’” that was in their view inappropriate. They thus become complicit in the restoration of control.
“It was precisely this majority of the times of ‘the wild nineties’ which ever more loudly called for the return of ‘a firm hand,’ a good master who will come and ‘impose order.’ In this sense, what was at one time the ‘soviet’ majority has become in present-day Russia the true ‘party of order.’”
According to Zhelenin, “this ‘soviet’ majority today is completely satisfied with the current monopolism in politics and the media and the present ‘pluralism’ in the media appears to it to be the height of freedom. As a result, this majority is so easy to manipulate [because] it is satisfied with this arrangement.”