Free Russia Foundation has asked Ksenia Kirillova, a Russian journalist, and contributor of the “New region” newspaper to analyze the main characteristics of Russian general mentality and the ways Kremlin is playing with it.
In this article, I will attempt to reflect the main characteristics of the contemporary mentality of a majority of Russians who have provided the foundation for the widespread support of the aggressive policies of the authorities. I will also try to identify the reasons underlying certain traits as well as their consequences.
1. One of the essential characteristics that distinguish the average Russian in recent years is the blurring of moral principles and norms. Such disregard for moral and legal norms has developed gradually and has been incorporated into the public consciousness at a minimum over the past few years through a variety of trends. I will outline only the most striking examples of these different trends:
1.1. Tolerance for the phenomenon of corruption. The paradox is that Kremlin propaganda has not particularly tried to hide the extent to which the vertical power structure built by Putin is riddled with theft and lawlessness. However, the propagandists have focussed on the idea that representatives of the liberal opposition are just as likely to tend towards corruption. In this way, the Kremlin-controlled media has managed to convince the population that there is no reason to «exchange one set of thieves for another», and that stealing is the norm for Russia, that any person who comes to power will invariably steal.
1.2. Discrediting democratic values. Putin has done everything possible so that the very terms «liberalism» and «democracy» produce a kind of conditioned reflex in Russian society: phobias and associations with coups, violent revolutions, rampant crime, bloodshed, death, and anarchy. In this way, propaganda has succeeded on the one hand in entirely discrediting and debunking the values of lawfulness and freedom, and on the other hand, it has created in the Russian consciousness an irrational fear of people with democratic views both at home and abroad.
1.3. Discrediting the truth as such. Back in December of 2014, «The New York Times» published an op-ed entitled «Russia’s Ideology: There Is No Truth». The author points out that when people with a Soviet mentality who were accustomed to “doublethink and dual faith” came to power, they created a society in which pretense triumphed, with fake elections, a fake free press, fake free markets and fake justice.
Gradually, as a result, over the 15 years of Putin’s rule, Russian society has reached the limit of its moral decay. It is precisely this moral relativism and irrational fear that have provided the basis for the imposition of the contemporary «Crimea is Ours» movement and for the «hybrid war» in the Donbass.
It is worth noting that there is no study on the moral and ethical characteristics of the average Russian, or on the moral category of «norms». The main creative forces in Russian culture, the people who set the moral tone for national ethics and the creators of the most powerful literary works and ideas were persecuted: some were subjected to forced labor and exile, and others, in the 20th century, experienced the inhumane conditions of torture and labor camps. These people truly went through hell and were not broken by it. Their experience is a feat that could not be repeated by the average person.
The consequences are manifold. On the one hand, there is a certain apoliticism on the part of most of the population relating to issues of domestic policy. Russians are convinced that «politics is a dirty business» and, for this reason, one must avoid politics: they are convinced that «everyone steals» and that that is just the way it is, so that any attempts to achieve change are senseless, since fair judges and honest bureaucrats and policemen simply do not exist. This attitude is at the origin of the characteristic Russian lack of trust in the opposition, which is labeled as «the same kind of thieves who want to get their hands on the money». It also explains the high degree of infantilism among Russians in matters relating to the fate of their native city, or even their own fate.
On the other hand, people who think in this way are characterized by the acceptance as norms of behavior of any and all forms of amoral behavior by the authorities. Depending on the situation, such behavior may be interpreted as a necessary evil or even as a courageous act required to «protect their own interests». Many Russians are sincerely convinced that the governments of other countries act, in the same way, and that if they don’t, it is only because the Russian authorities have cleverly «outplayed» them.
2. As if to compensate for the high degree of political apathy in domestic policy, a majority of Russians show a certain loyalty to the authorities on foreign policy. This phenomenon can be explained by the following reasons:
2.1. In Russia, the support systems never developed that would have allowed individuals to become relatively independent of the state. Even in the 1990s, which was a period marked by freedom, the inviolability of private property did not develop, nor did an independent judiciary or the very culture of respect for the individual. Almost every person comes face to face with Russia’s lawlessness and then makes vain attempts to find the truth and break through the wall of corruption. As a result, even the most «patriotic» Russians understand deep down that in their country, anything at all can happen to anyone at all. The only guarantee, though not an absolute one, of escaping this rule is being loyal to the state, and being sufficiently active in demonstrating this loyalty so that the state knows who you are. The Russian sees no other way of protecting him or herself.
2.2. The authorities consider any kind of protest to be revolutionary. Anyone who has had to deal with corruption has practically no way to defend his or her interests through conventional means. If such a person resorts to any form of protest, he or she is automatically branded as being among the ranks of «enemies and traitors». Of course, being labeled as a member of the «fifth column» and pitting yourself against the entire society is possible for an ideologically motivated person who has clear convictions and who is ready to stand up for them, but it is not possible for the average person who is facing injustice. For most people, it is easier to inform on your neighbor and in this way to ensure yourself the protection of the state and its help in solving your problems, than it is to be categorized among the ranks of the unreliable and disloyal.
2.3. Instead of the actual vulnerability of the individual to the arbitrary actions of the authorities, propaganda offers Russians the illusion of self-importance, which lends passion to geopolitics. The lies propagated on the government-controlled television stations fully satisfy the average person, because they give him or her the impression of taking part in meaningful. large-scale events.
2.4. The artificial creation of extreme conditions on account of an «external enemy». Russian propaganda has for a number of years actively suggested that any dissatisfaction with the authorities will end in a sea of blood. Then, having inculcated this fear in people, Putin firmly linked the guarantee of any possible stability to his person.
As a result, people have almost unconsciously developed a certain linkage: that Putin offers the only opportunity to ensure the normal existence of the country in extreme conditions. Accordingly, militant propaganda about external enemies artificially creates the very effect of extreme conditions, which triggers the association that has been induced: Putin is the only one who can save the country.
One consequence is a sharp decrease in critical thinking on foreign policy issues and an unconscious desire on the part of Russians to believe in propaganda despite the obvious, since the media create a comfortable picture of reality and the illusion of being protected – by the «strong leader»- from problems which they see no possibility of influencing themselves.
3. A necessary attribute of the artificially created extreme conditions has been the growth in military hysteria and the constant need for both internal and external enemies. The Russian authorities have created the image of an enemy in the eyes of public opinion in the following ways:
3.1. The direct effects of propaganda. Here follows an overview of the main strategies and methods used to obtain the desired results: 1). Weakening of critical thinking. 2). Creating the image of the enemy. 3). Linking all internal problems to external factors. 4). An emphasis on consolidating society in the face of a military threat. 5). Creating the image of Vladimir Putin as the only leader capable of withstanding the military threat. 6). Preparing for the inevitable hardships of «wartime». 7). Creating an image for the West of a united Russia ready for war.
3.2. It is possible to identify an indirect mechanism to divide society not only by setting separate groups of people against each other, but also by claiming the incompatibility of identities, meanings and values which could easily co-exist in one person. For example, the propagandists have successfully managed to posit as being in opposition to one another the terms «liberal» and «patriot», inculcating in Russians the idea that «a liberal cannot be a patriot».
These processes yield a number of consequences for Russian society:
There is more than ever a high need for «enemies», both for justifying the hardships that are being experienced, and in order that people may take part in immoral activity simply through passively approving of it.
In fact, war is the main element which provides the opportunity for the authorities to influence society in contemporary Russia. It is with the help of war that the image of the enemy is being created and that a cult of personality is forming around Putin: it is war that underpins the consolidation of Russian society, and it is war that explains the hardships which are only destined to grow given the Russian economic crisis. This means that the Kremlin has finally found itself caught in a trap: it cannot stop the war, nor can it turn off the destructive television channel.
– A majority of Russians are characterized by a differentiated consciousness, with a clearly expressed group identification in which the boundaries between groups are very strictly delineated. As a result, such a person, when deprived of the usual freedom of self-definition and development, becomes very easily manipulated. He or she is already trapped in the clearly defined clichés of his or her social group and is unable to go beyond these limits, which are arbitrarily conditioned.
– As is the case with the discrediting of democratic values, Russians have a phobia of certain terms and categories, and of certain groups, such as liberals, supporters of joining the European Union, ethnic Ukrainians, Americans, etc. This makes it quite difficult for members of these groups to communicate with the average Russian.
4. Nostalgia for the Soviet past – and, as a result, «imperial syndrome». The following reasons can be identified to explain these two phenomena:
4.1. Since the Russian authorities have successfully created the illusion that Russia is a besieged fortress, surrounded by enemies, a majority of Russians support «restoring Russia’s influence» in the territory of the former USSR; they genuinely believe that, given the hostility at Russia’s doorstep, the country requires a buffer or protective zone, or some other kind of layer between itself and its «enemies».
4.2. Despite their totalitarianism and aggressive attempts to regulate all spheres of society, the current authorities do not offer society a model of a desirable future or any kind of possible paradigm for development. The distinguishing feature of contemporary Russian ideology is that it is devoid of any actual content. No specific content is given to the ideologically-charged concepts of the «Russian world», «Russian civilization», or the «special path of development». This may be the first time in world history that we observe such a phenomenon – the appearance of a farcical ideology, a quasi-ideology containing only superficial, declarative elements.
As a result, in place of the Soviet myth about the «bright future», Russians are left with only an idealized past. Russians have idealized the model of the Soviet Union. Many Russians really believe that it is still possible to return to the USSR, but they have no concrete idea of how to achieve this goal in reality. For this reason, many Russians are either nostalgiac for the past and idealize it, with the myth serving as a justification to approve the militaristic, expansionistic policies of the authorities, or they believe that the mythologized USSR already exists in the present, and they are ready to defend it from imaginary enemies.
4.3. The idealized image of the USSR gives people hope that they will be protected not only from external threats, but also that they will be protected in domestic policy, through guaranteed employment and social benefits and services, even if of low quality, and a guaranteed paycheck – in short, a social allowance, which is not dependent upon personal efforts, abilities and achievements.
4.4. The Russian yearning for the grandeur of the imperial past is not to be brushed aside. The history of Russia is truly the history of an empire dominated by Russian culture and within which, especially during the existence of the USSR, the national identities of the other constituent republics were suppressed. Imperial Russia was always characterized by collectivism, the search for a «special path» and detachment from the rest of the world, weak development of individual consciousness, etc. Accordingly, many Russians were pained by the disintegration of the empire and the refusal by the peoples who had formed it off the dominant Russian influence.
The consequences of these processes are not only the unconditional approval by the overwhelming majority of Russians of the expansionistic policies of the authorities, but also the idealization of other destructive and aggressive phenomena from the Soviet past: repression, informing on others, persecution of dissidents, the imposition of a mandatory ideology, etc.