Liberal observers say that, by giving ample airtime to figures such as the rightwing propagandist Alexander Prokhanov and denouncing government critics with terms such as “fifth column” and “national traitors”, Russia’s official media has borrowed from the tactics of totalitarian regimes, Kathrin Hille writes for The Financial Times.
“It now resembles Goebbels; and even comrade Zhdanov would never have dreamt of this,” says Echo Moskvy’s Sergei Buntman, referring to the man in charge of cultural policy and censorship under Stalin.
A handful of young people are trying to counter that. Organised by Maxim Katz, a deputy in a Moscow district assembly for the liberal Yabloko party, they began analysing TV news programmes and rating them for propaganda three weeks ago. …
But while media veterans are encouraged by their efforts, they harbour little hope for change. Several opinion polls have shown that a majority of Russians believe the state has the right to censor the news and shape a national ideological narrative.
This situation, say analysts, is the result of a consistent push by Mr Putin to consolidate his control over the media, school curriculum and culture policy since taking power in early 2000.
“A monopoly on information has been established,” says Igor Yakovenko, former head of Russia’s Journalists’ Association. “It was not absolute, and is not absolute now, but over all the 14 years of Putin’s regime, he has strengthened the information vertical, step by step.”
Russia’s official ideology prior to 1917 was Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, Narodnost, which has been translated as Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, notes Walter Laqueur, formerly the head of the International Research Council of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of, among many other works, The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union.
“It was therefore no surprise that with the fall of the Soviet Union some of the old pre-1917 ideas resurfaced and should undergo something like a renaissance,” he writes for World Affairs. “In his first major speech during his second term as president, Vladimir Putin declared that Russia should look to its history and traditional values to determine its post-Soviet development, not imitate Western political models.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has searched fruitlessly for a new grand strategy — something to define who Russians are and where they are going, analysts Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn write for Foreign Affairs:
“In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods — monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika, and finally, a democratic path of development,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Each stage has its own ideology,” he continued, but now “we have none.”
To fill that hole, in 1996 Yeltsin designated a team of scholars to work together to find what Russians call the Russkaya ideya (“Russian idea”), but they came up empty-handed. Around the same time, various other groups also took up the task, including a collection of conservative Russian politicians and thinkers who called themselves Soglasiye vo imya Rossiya (“Accord in the Name of Russia”).
Putin, to whom many of the Soglasiye still have ties, happened to agree with their ideals and overall goals, Barbashin and Thorburn note:
By the late 2000s, he had breathing room to return to the question of the Russian idea. Russia, he began to argue, was a unique civilization of its own. It could not be made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes and had to live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals. And so, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin began a battle against the liberal (Western) traits that some segments of Russian society had started to adopt. Moves of his that earned condemnation in the West — such as the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” and the sentencing of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock collective, to two years in prison for hooliganism — were popular in Russia.
To the degree that any of them are in opposition to the ruling elite, it is certainly as a loyal opposition. Some of the more serious figures and groups of “the Russian party” have been absorbed by the ruling stratum—this goes for instance for Dmitri Rogozin, who for several years became Russia’s representative at NATO. It does not apply to certain neo-Nazi fringe groups that are not players in the political game. From time to time they appear in the news as instigators of riots, but their prospects for attaining real power remain minimal.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ultranationalist ideologies were decidedly out of vogue, Barbashin and Thorburn suggest. Still, a few hard-core patriotic elements remained that opposed de-Sovietization and believed — as Putin does today — that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, including the ideologist Alexander Dugin (left):
His earliest claim to fame was a 1991 pamphlet, “The War of the Continents,” in which he described an ongoing geopolitical struggle between the two types of global powers: land powers, or “Eternal Rome,” which are based on the principles of statehood, communality, idealism, and the superiority of the common good, and civilizations of the sea, or “Eternal Carthage,” which are based on individualism, trade, and materialism. In Dugin’s understanding, “Eternal Carthage,” was historically embodied by Athenian democracy and the Dutch and British Empires. Now, it is represented by the United States. “Eternal Rome” is embodied by Russia. For Dugin, the conflict between the two will last until one is destroyed completely — no type of political regime and no amount of trade can stop that. In order for the “good” (Russia) to eventually defeat the “bad” (United States), he wrote, a conservative revolution must take place
Dugin is the preeminent political theorist of the nationalist camp, although his ideological peregrinations have been so rapid and radical that he has had little opportunity to take a seat in the front row of Russian politics, Laqueur writes for World Affairs:
He began his career as a follower of the rabidly anti-Semitic movement Pamyat in the 1980s, but soon left because it was “too primitive and simplistic.” Dugin drew his inspiration from a multitude of sources, very often obscure and obscurantist. He discovered extreme right-wing and neo-fascist thinkers little known in the West, such as Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist, the protagonists of the French, Italian, Belgian, and German extreme right, and also, in a seeming paradox, national Bolshevism….Over the years, Dugin has moved away from neo-fascist and neo-communist fringe groups to more respectable sources. This journey was rewarded by a professorship at Moscow State University, access to the Kremlin, and appointment as an adviser to various committees of the Russian Duma. He may well be the world’s leading expert on (and believer in) conspiracy theories. His message at present can be summarized as follows: Russia’s main enemy is (democratic) liberalism, and its geopolitical and ideological future lies with Asia, not the West.
But today? It seems to be the product of a certain intellectual lethargy on the part of President Putin and his generation, who are stranded between two justifications for the state which they now control. The one, what they see sentimentally as the ordered society and global power of communism at its height, is dead. The other, an updated version of the older ideas of the Russian Orthodox Church, Authority, and Nationalism, is still struggling to be born. At present, statism—the belief in the necessity of a central authority and a strong state, coupled with anti-Westernism—is almost all there is. And this will probably not be enough in the longer run.