Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Window on Eurasia: In Russia, Iron Curtain Falls Not at the End of the Play But Much Earlier, Moscow Sociologist Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, August 12 – Aleksey Levinson, a Levada Center sociologist, says that iron curtains like the one now being erected around Russia are a political strategy that reflects weakness rather than strength and that its appearance is not the end of the story but somewhere much earlier.


            In an interview published in this week’s “Ogonyok,” Levinson says that “iron curtains” “arise not by themselves in a country that is well off.” Instead, they appear “when things are already in a bad way” and are erected by the authorities to protect themselves by drawing on the loyalty of the population to the state (kommersant.ru/doc/2542566).


            Moreover, he says, this form of isolation consists of two kinds: one that is set up by the authorities when “the external world is more or less indifferent” to what occurs inside the country and another when the curtain is erected “under conditions of sharp conflict with the external environment.”


            Over the last weeks and months, he continues, Russia has passed through three phrases in this regard. In the first, “there was no curtain at all.” In the second, people began to talk about a hostile environment and some administrative borders went up. And now, in the third, it is going up with the help of both inside and outside sanctions.


            Far more Russians believe that their country is surrounded by enemies and that they are isolated in the world than believe that they can exist in an open international environment, Levinson says. Indeed, at present, Russians identify only three “friendly” countries: Belarus, Kazakhstan and China.


            That the first two are viewed as friends reflects the fact that they are indeed Russia’s closest allies, but the situation with China is more complicated. Not only have Russia and China been at odds in the past, but “for China Russia is not only not a friend but even not a partner” because in any contest, Beijing would come out on top.


            “And so,” Levinson says, Russians “live in a circle of enemies.” Most Russians accept that and declare their support of President Vladimir Putin as a result. He points out that “support of the president in Russia has a deeply symbolic character: it is an indicator of the unification of society around a certain center” and not a measure comparable to those in other countries.


            With regard to the current sanctions, a significant majority of Russians “prefer to live as if nothing has yet happened.”   Young people are especially indifferent to them, he says, because they assume that they can outlive them. But that of course means that they “will not go into the street with anti-war placards.”


            The group most concerned by the prospect of a new iron curtain, Levinson continues, includes bureaucrats and leaders of various levels. They are most concerned, “apparently” because they understand to what this will lead.”


            But this doesn’t mean that everything is fine, the sociologist says. On the one hand, Russians “are afraid of something more terrible than curtains.” That is the possibility of a third world war.”  And on the other, “the majority of the population does not have a real consciousness of the danger in which Russian now finds itself.”


            As vacation season ends and as the fallout from Ukrainian events on Russia’s relationship with the West becomes clearer, Russians will have to face up to the fact that “the raising of the curtain is not an accident.” It is something Russian elites have done for their own benefit. In Soviet times, they put up with this; but now, “the people, of course, are no longer Soviet.”


            The process of erecting a new iron curtain and the possibility of combatting it are long-term propositions, Levinson says.  If the elites succeed in raising this curtain, it will be a tragedy for the Russian people. But at the same time, if they try and fail, it will also be a problem because there is no obvious way out.


            “In fact, [Russians] do not have an alternative elite with an alternative picture of the world,” Levinson says, “and few are those who would agree to return to Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking.’” 


            Much of this now appears almost “funny,” he says, but Russians must face the fact that they are “participants not in a vaudeville performance but in a drama in which the curtain falls not at the end of the spectacle but at the very beginning.”

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