Staunton, March 4 – It is an axiom in most countries that people will protest when their living conditions decline and that assumption underlies current Western policy toward Moscow, but Mark Urnov, one of Russia’s leading political analysts, argues that the situation in Russia is different and that Russians are less rather than more likely to protest as conditions deteriorate.
In an interview in “Profile” today, Urnov notes that “in Russia as in all societies where the demolition of totalitarian or traditional arrangements is far from complete … the reaction of the population to changes in its material situation is fundamentally different from those typical of developed industrial and post-industrial societies” (profile.ru/society/item/93378-ot-patriotizma-k-politicheskomu-terroru).
And consequently, he says, unlike in the latter, “dissatisfaction and political activity [in Russia] intensify not when the situation is getting worse but when it is getting better … When the situation is getting worse, demands sharply decrease, the split between ‘I want’ and ‘I can’ becomes smaller, frustration weakens and protest activity falls off.”
This pattern was first noted by de Tocqueville in his book, “The Ancien Regime and Revolution” (1856) and has been confirmed by Russian experience from the Bolshevik revolution, which happened after 40 years of “stormy economic growth and the improvement of the standard of living of the population” as well as in other times and places.
Today in Russia, Urnov says, there is “again a crisis and naturally a fall-off of mass political activity is beginning.” That is because people are now focusing on “individual survival” and “collective protests are losing their attractiveness” for almost everyone, whatever some may hope and others fear.
Urnov, the head of the political science department of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, tells his “Profile” interviewer Dmitry Ivanov that this is only part of the reason for the high levels of support Russians are giving to Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime at the present time.
Most of this, he suggests, is the result of propaganda, which has been far more successful than he had thought possible even a year ago, given the Internet and other sources of information which mean that the Russian population is far less cut off from accurate information than was its Soviet counterpart.
The main reason Russian government propaganda has been so successful, Urnov argues, is that it has played to the requirement many Russians feel for “a positive identity, self-assertion and national pride,” something that the propagandists under Russian conditions can give by presenting Russia as standing up to and thumbing its nose at the West.
Seizing Crimea was not primarily about increasing the size of the country, he continues, or even about righting what some Russians view as a historic wrong. Instead, as the propagandists recognized and promoted, it was “a demonstration” of aggressive political behavior.
Russian television assured Russians: “Having returned Crimea, we have not only restored historic justice but we have also thumbed our nose at the US and in this way and yet again shown everyone that we have risen from our knees” and won’t be pushed around. That message played a far greater role than any other in winning support for the Kremlin.
Prior to the Crimean Anschluss, Moscow propagandists pushed the notion that Russia’s achievements were peaceful: its athletes at the Olympics and its rich businessmen who were able to buy everything. “Now,” however, “militarist rhetoric predominates,” and that has nothing to do with concern about “the good life” but rather with patriotism and enemies.
In some respects, Moscow’s rhetoric today is like that of the Soviet Union’s, Urnov says. “But one must note that in the USSR of the Brezhnev period, the core message of propaganda was, in comparison with that of the present day, “more calm, more peace-loving and more kind.” And that does not bode well for the future.
Today’s rhetoric is “nervous, hysterical and extremely aggressive,” and that has consequences which are “extremely dangerous” not only by creating the preconditions for intolerance and political terror, whose most recent victim was Boris Nemtsov, but also stimulating emigration of the most educated and talented people in the population.
Within Russia now, Urnov suggests, there is no “organized opposition which could really pose a threat to the authorities” and that it will “hardly appear over the next several years.” Hope in the middle class is misplaced because most of it consists of those employed by or dependent on the government rather than independent of the regime.
If the current kind of propaganda continues, the share of aggressive people in the population will increase because their numbers are “absolutely dependent on the authorities” rather than reflecting the decisions of the individuals involved. Their attitudes and actions are thus “triggered” by the propaganda.
Some of these people will be passive as a result, but others will become active and do things that will threaten society at large and also the regime which riled them up. Overcoming that and overcoming Russia’s totalitarian and authoritarian past will not happen quickly, he says. Instead, it will require concerted effort over several generations.
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