Staunton, January 29 – Since the protest wave of 2011-2012, the Kremlin has promoted both traditional values and “emotion-driven collective identity” in order to mobilize the population behind it because when news events are “framed with reference to national identity, people tend to form judgments on the basis of perceived threats, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova says.
The widely published Tatar scholar who now teaches at King’s College, London, says that as long as issues are presented in that way, people are inclined to “defend and even glorify in-group members and leaders” and dismiss out of hand any reports that challenge that narrative (ridl.io/ru/gruppovoe-myshlenie-po-russki/).
In a new book, The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity (Oxford, 2020), Sharafutdinova argues that over the last decade, the Kremlin has successfully articulated “a shared collective perspective and thus built social consensus by tapping into powerful group emotions of shame and humiliation” to form a common “groupthink.”
Those feelings arose in the 1990s following the collapse of the USSR; and the Putin regime has completed its narrative by promoting the idea that World War II showed that Russians can rise to and overcome any challenge, including “’the chosen trauma’” of the first post-Soviet decade.
This campaign, the London-based Tatar scholar says, has allowed for the reinvention of group ties and the reassertion of group purpose and has “overturned humiliation” and allowed for the rise of a new “pride and patriotism” which holds that Putin is “’a group savoir.’” Rejecting this comfortable position is not something most Russians yet want to do.
What the Kremlin has done in the last decade is “not a new strategy,” Sharafutdinova continues. “Soviet collective identity had long relied on a sense of Soviet exceptionalism and a carefully cultivated image of the external enemy.” For many Russians, especially of the older generations, this was another reason for the success of Putin’s approach.
As she points out, “such persistent political leads to the formation of a specific type of ‘groupthink’ that is not rational.” It is not based on facts but rather on the way in which these facts are framed by Kremlin-controlled media. As a result, as long as the frame remains, the facts that Russians accept or pay attention to can be controlled as well.
As powerful as this approach is, it is not now “universally accepted and supported” in Russia. (And it is not absent from other political systems as well, the scholar says.) “A major fault line is along generations and both their own memories – many are too young to remember the 1990s let alone the Soviet period – and new media which the state doesn’t control.
As a result, the Kremlin’s success in promoting groupthink, she suggests, is declining; but it is still sufficiently strong to ensure that most Russians respond to queries the way the powers that be would like them to rather than on the basis of an open and honest consideration of the facts.
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