Friday, May 24, 2019

Protests Likely to Increase in Number but Remain Divided and Diffuse, Lev Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 23 – Russians are angry at the authorities for impugning their dignity and are ready to protest, but they do not see any leaders who can channel such protests and make them effective, Lev Gudkov says. As a result, protests are likely to increase in the coming months but remain diffuse rather than focused on the powers that be.  

            At the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg this week, the Levada Center director says popular anger has been growing more or less constantly since 2015 as Russians have concluded that the regime has no intention of trying to keep its part of the social contract (

            “The number of local protests is already extraordinarily large,” Gudkov says, and “Putin’s high rating is accompanied by the most profound conviction in the totally corrupt nature of the entire system. By my crude estimate,” he continues, “every day appear three to five reports about corruption scandals.”  

            As a result, there is an equally profound conviction among the population that “there is money in the country but that it has been seized by an egoistic and greedy bunch among the powers that be. And there is nothing that can be done about this,” even though it is increasingly hard to put up with.

            People are thus protest for individual reasons but “possibilities for the expression of group interests have been suppressed,” Gudkov says. The number of strikes has gone up by 70 percent over the last three years, but this kind of protest isn’t being transformed into “a democratic and responsible movement.”

            A major reason for that failure is that such events “do not appear on the federal television channels and thus do not become the focus of public opinion. They are consciously sterilized and kept out of public view.” And this highlights an important difference between Putinism and Stalinist totalitarianism.

            The rule of the current powers that be “is based not on direct force as was the case in the times of the totalitarian system … [it] is based on the manipulation of mass consciousness,” something that has become possible using information technologies and the government’s control of television. 

            Only eight to ten percent of all media are beyond the regime’s direct control, Gudkov continues; and as a result, “people cannot get out of the system of propaganda.” The content of that propaganda, he points out, is remarkably similar to what Stalin used. Thus, arguments about Crimea repeated arguments about Finland in 1940.

            With regard to re-Stalinization, the sociologist says, the regime has proceeded extremely cleverly.  But it is important to remember that “recognition [by respondents] of a positive role for Stalin does not mean a desire to live ‘as under Stalin.’”  And consequently, there is no  need for the regime now to deny that there were mass repressions and terror.

            Instead, Gudkov says, the current powers that be “say that ‘each country has its dark spots, we have nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing must obscure the positive in the figure of Stalin and his achievements as the organizer of Victory.” That is “one argument,” the pollster says; but there is another.

            The current powers that be want it to be accepted that “only with an iron hand was it possible to transform a peasant country in to a most powerful nuclear superpower. In other words, modernization and Victory serve as justification after the fact of all crimes.” But the authorities do seek to minimize the number of Stalin’s victims.

            Twenty years ago, most Russians said Stalin killed millions; now, thanks to propaganda, most say that he killed “about a million.”  And many are ready to reduce that number still further or even deny that he killed more than a handful.

            The Putin regime has been helped in this by the rise of a generation for whom Stalin is no more part of contemporary life than Chingiz Khan or Ivan the Terrible. They thus don’t understand the talk about him that dominated their parents’ conversations and don’t recognize what this shift in opinion opens the way to.

            There has also been a fundamental change in popular expectations, Gudkov says. At the end of 2013, three out of five Russians in major cities said “they were tired of waiting for Putin to fulfill his promises and 47 percent said that they did not want to see him continue as president for another term.”

            “But the anti-Ukrainian wave, the wave of propaganda about and confrontation with the West restored Putin’s rating and raised it back to its earlier levels,” Gudkov says. But the pension debacle drove it partially back down to what it is now, about 61 to 66 percent. And that figure shows that once again Russians have concentrated all their hopes on a single figure.

            What is going on, the sociologist says, is the working out of the old principle of “the good tsar and the bad boyars.”  People may be angry and dissatisfied but they are expressing it less about Putin than one might expect but rather at Medvedev, ministers, and officials of a lower level, one more reflection of the weakness of Russian institutions.

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