Staunton, February 14 – Because of the rise of the Internet and social media, the Kremlin is losing its information and propaganda monopoly and as a result, it is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Russians,” a development that portends enormous changes eventually even if not yet tomorrow, Aleksandr Zhelenin says.
The rise of the Internet combined with declines in the standard of living of most Russians means that Russians are forming opinions on the basis of information the Kremlin doesn’t control, the Rosbalt commentator says; and this will “seriously influence the future of the country” (rosbalt.ru/blogs/2021/02/13/1887351.html).
The penetration of the Internet “of course does not mean that the Russian authorities have ceded that field to the opposition,” he says. “On the contrary, a large part of the content of the Russian-language segment of the web reflects pro-Kremlin positions. But “the Internet is so constructed that here, in contrast to domestic television, there cannot be a full state monopoly.”
And that means, as viewership of the Navalny film on Putin’s palace highlights, that “the vision of the world Russians have” is changing and that “this is a most important factor of life today.”
From tsarist times through Soviet ones, the state used a variety of channels to promote desired vision of reality and used its powers to prevent the dissemination of alternatives. That system collapsed in perestroika times and that collapse lasted until the first years of Putin’s rule, Zhelenin says.
When he came to power, the current Kremlin ruler immediately took steps to retake control of the main federal television channels and then gradually the rest of TV because “he understood that he who masters television masters the country.” Some variety remained possible but the core message was the indispensability of “the supreme ruler, the tsar president.”
Putin did so in reaction to what had happened under Gorbachev and continued under Yeltsin: The media called into question the notion that the country was ruled by a real tsar and things went off in various uncontrolled directions. What he wanted to do was to restore the notion that he is a real tsar on whom Russians could again count.
His strategy worked remarkably well as long as television was the uncontested channel for the communication of imagery about Russia. Indeed, Zhelenin concedes, he himself often suggested that “the powers in Russia could be changed only if television was changed but television could be changed only if the powers were,” a vicious closed circle.
The Internet began to challenge television even in those years, but Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea overwhelmed everything else for most Russians for a time. But then, the Internet continued its expansion and television lost is uncontested monopoly over the minds of an increasing number of Russians.
The response to Navalny’s film about Putin’s palace showed that now “we have landed in a different country. Of course,” the commentator continues, “in mass consciousness as in the head of each individual, things do not go so quickly.” Many who watched the film have not responded in the radical ways that the opposition hoped for. But the situation is in motion.
For change to come, Zhelenin says, “it is not required that the majority cease to believe in ‘the real tsar.’ It is sufficient that certain significant strata of the population are doing so, for example, residents of the capital and major cities, young people, and women.” New surveys show that this is happening and remarkably quickly.
Several aspects of the new situation are especially important. Those who took part in the Navalny protests did so not just because they supported him but because they oppose what is going on in Russia more generally. People who never took part in protests before are doing so. And an increasing number outside the capitals are doing so as well.
Perhaps most important, Zhelenin continues, the protests are attracting the young, not minors as Putin’s propagandists say, but those between 18 and 35 who are the future, and women are participating in almost as great numbers as men, something very different from protests earlier.
Repressions may hold these changes back as they did in tsarist Russia before World War I; but they didn’t stop the revolution then, Zhelenin says, and they won’t this time either. The tsarist government fell “because its time had come.” Now, thanks to changes in Russian society intensified by the Internet, the time of the Putin regime is coming as well.