Staunton, March 22 – Many see the growing environmental protests in Moscow and other parts of the Russian Federation as representing a hopeful beginning of social activism in Russia must as they were in the 1960s in the Soviet Union where they predated historical preservation movements and then national ones.
But such optimism is likely misplaced not only because of the attitudes of those engaged in this protest but also because of Vladimir Putin’s approach that is likely to allow him to contain or even hijack the movement and open the way for potentially massive purges of mid-level officials.
On the one hand, the Russian people today, in part as the result of national traditions and in part from the propaganda the Kremlin has employed, are far more likely than their Soviet predecessors to accept the “good tsar, bad boyar” argument that implies because lower-ranking officials are often so vile, they can and must place their faith in the top man.
In the final decades of Soviet power, most activists, first environmentalists, then historical preservationists and finally nationalist and democratic were inclined to blame the system as a whole, viewing officials at all levels as implicated and not expecting intervention from on high, even if some of them retained a certain worshipful attitude toward the leader.
But now thanks to Putin’s promotion of the idea that he and he alone can sweep in and solve the most local problems, an idea spread by his actions and his public meetings, many in the activist community are prepared to blame or even attack as in the present case local and regional officials and look to Putin for salvation.
That is something a few Russian analysts are beginning to point among the anti-trash demonstrators; and at least one, Ivan Lapin, has suggested that the anger Russians feel about the way in which local and regional officials have dealt with trash dumps is something Putin is in a position to turn to his advantage (publizist.ru/blogs/4796/24056/).
The Kremlin leader can allow such conflicts to fester and then intervene like a deus ex machina, thus solving two political problems at one and the same time: providing him with the occasion to demonstrate his power by removing various officials in an apparent response to public complaint and reinforcing his image as the only person who can hold everything together.
And on the other, unlike Soviet leaders who generally preferred not to have the media cover popular activism of any kind lest it encourage others but who as a result contributed to the widespread assumption that they were hiding things and that the movements were stronger than in fact they were, Putin media are carefully dosing out coverage of such events.
A survey of how the central Russian media have been treating the current protests shows how this works. While the media have not provided as much detail as their Western counterparts would have in a similar situation, they are not allowing alternative sources of news the unfettered ability to define the situation (meduza.io/feature/2018/03/22/telekanaly-skryli-ot-rossiyan-massovoe-otravlenie-detey-i-protesty-iz-za-musornoy-svalki-v-volokolamske).
Such repressive tolerance, to use Herbert Marcuse’s term, serves Putin’s interests far better than any outright ban. But it is likely to sponsor some new version of the old Soviet joke about Hitler returning from the dead to watch a Soviet military parade in Red Square on May Day.
After watching the soldiers, the tanks, the missiles and the planes go by, Hitler, the story goes, is approached by a Soviet citizen, who says “I bet you are thinking that if you had had all these weapons, you would never have lost.” “No,” the Nazi leader responds; “I’m thinking that if I had a newspaper like your Pravda, no one would ever have found out that I did.”
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