Thursday, November 19, 2015

Parallels with 1999 Could Backfire on Putin

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 19 – “Kommersant” reports today that Russian experts say the bomb that brought down the Russian airliner over Sinai resembles those used to blow up apartment blocks in Moscow, with the only differences being the amount of explosive used, the nature of the timing device, and the target (

            Vladimir Putin may be counting on using such reports to mobilize Russian society for a new military action much as he did 16 years ago. (For a discussion, see “Is Moscow about to Use the Sinai Plane Disaster as He did the 1999 Bombings?” November 3, 2015, at,)

            No doubt, given the Kremlin’s control of the media and the willingness of many Russians to accept as true anything Putin says, he may have some success in doing so.  But there is a significant number of Russians and others who don’t accept his version of 1999 and thus may not accept his explanation of the latest terrorist act.

            Instead, they believe that the FSB and Putin personally were behind the blowing up of the apartment buildings; and consequently, this comparison may lead some of them to wonder whether he and his agents were behind the latest disaster as well, especially given how quickly and well he has exploited it to his own ends.

            (For the most detailed discussion of what happened in 1999 and how various groups have evaluated it, see John Dunlop’s The Moscow Bombings of September 1999 (Ibidem, 2014).)

            Whether or not Russians will draw such parallels, either those the Kremlin would like them to draw or those it very much fears that they might, depends on the level of popular memory, and an article in the latest issue of “Kommersant-Dengi” argues that “the main problem of Russia [today] is memory” (

            According to its author, journalist Artem Nikitin, Russians’ memories “are too short, selective and at the same time mythologized. As a result, citizens cannot conduct themselves rationally and take correct decisions regarding their own future, and the authorities have no long-term approach to economic policy.”

            Nikitin points to the fact that “it is senseless to ask Russians about events which took place more than two years ago” or even in less distant times. Even “events in Ukraine are now agitating many fewer Russians than they did earlier not because the war has ended but because this subject has ceased to be on TV with the advent of the operation in Syria.”

            He cites the conclusions of Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center polling agency who says that “the single institution which gives a rhythm to the times in Russia is television, and its memory is very short, a kind of film clip consciousness. People remember events of five years ago poorly because there is no discussion” about them on TV.

            Moreover, Nikitin says, “Russians’ memories are also extremely selective.” They remember some things but not others and thus have expectations that they would not have if they had a fuller memory of the past.  But since 1917 at least, Russians have had problems with the past.

            Gudkov for his part points out that until very recently history “broke off at 1917,” with the period before that remembered if at all in “mythologized” ways.  But after 1991, the situation became even worse because that mythology fell apart without a carefully articulated one taking its place.

            As a result, the Levada Center director says, “the main event on which everything hangs is victory in the Great Fatherland War, and the beginning of history moved closer to 1940. It then ended in 1991 because after that no institutions were created which could describe what had taken place.”

            This short term memory was institutionalized in Soviet times, “In the soviet period, the direction of the authorities changed almost every 15 to 20 years,” Denis Volkov of the Levada Center adds. “Stalin, the unmasking of the cult of personality, the well-being of the 1970s with the Brezhnev cult, perestroika.  Each new era wiped out the preceding one.”

            Consequently, he says, Russians got the habit of “quickly forgetting the past” or seeing it in highly selective and thus distorted ways. This short-term memory, the experts say, not only means that Russians do not take the longer view needed for economic growth but also subjects them to “extraordinary risks” and gives them “a naïve faith in the state.”

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