The Kremlin’s drive to weaponize information for the sake of rallying an already traumatized population behind an unrecognized, unjust war is leaving deep-seated scars that will last long after the dust has settled in East Ukraine.
In his penetrating travelogue cum historical drama ‘The Last Man in Russia,’ Oliver Bullough pins down the deep-seated despair of a nation by tracing the rise and fall of Orthodox priest Father Dmitry Dudko.
Like a character who fell from Gogol’s overcoat, Dudko’s story arc bends towards tragedy. Having garnered international and domestic acclaim for a message of love unbound by race or creed, Dudko went on to die in relative obscurity — turning towards nationalism and bigotry after seemingly being crushed by a highly publicized betrayal.
Ironically, before his own spiritual crisis, Dudko had become intimately aware of the private suffering endured by the Soviet citizens. In one of the most telling passages in Bullough’s work, the mechanism of state control was laid bare.
“He (Father Dmitry) realized that trust between people is what makes us happy. Any totalitarian state is based on betrayal. It needs people to inform on each other, to avoid socializing, to interact only through the state and to avoid unsanctioned meetings…
The misery that Father Dmitry heard in confession was the symptom of the state’s policy. No one trusted anyone, and that is a parlous way to live. People were living in solitary confinement in the middle of crowds, and it was killing them.”
It is true, of course, that modern day Russia’s soft authoritarianism does not write paeans to children who allegedly informed on their parents, although the president does warn kids about the dangers of disunity amidst “powerful and traitorous enemies.” A North Korean-style totalitarian system no longer exists, though some have taken the initiative to promote the “time-tested friendship” between Moscow and Pyongyang.
No, in this globalized era, social control in many ways has become far more sophisticated. Rather than have security services wholesale clamp down on dissent, using intense propaganda and subsequent social exclusion, people are now keeping themselves in line. And with state media perverting journalism into an instrument of unreality, patriotism has similarly been hijacked via the dark collective force of nationalism.
Whereas patriotism binds a nation through love of the motherland, nationalism unites through fear and loathing. Nationalism does not build communities, it destroys them. It forces people to live in solitary confinement in the midsts of crowds, to express themselves through an orgy of psychological and physical violence, least they themselves be consumed by the beast. Community, in short, becomes a mob. And every day, state media fuels what has often been referred to as a process of “zombification.”
The scene painted by multiple reports shows a nation seemingly at war with the outside world, with anti-US sentiment, fueled by “militaristic” rhetoric”, having eclipsed that of the Stalin era.
That picture, however, does not tell the whole story. Writing for the Moscow Times, Ivan Sukhov recently said that the so called “majority” of Russians deriding the US as a spiritually bankrupt country in fact numbered 15 percent. What’s more, surveys putting Putin’s popularity consistently above 80 percent have belied another fact: few people are willing to chime in when the pollster rings their doorbell. As Sukhov puts it, field workers now have to knock on “seven times as many doors as before” to find someone willing to talk. No one, government officials or independent pollsters, “know what those reticent citizens are thinking.”
Which is to say, even if many Russians haven’t been brainwashed by state propaganda, they are unwilling to admit otherwise.
“Mass Emotional Rape”
It appears the Soviet-style psychological compartmentalization which relegated all truth to the kitchen table is making a comeback. But under the new regime, the pressure to conform to a highly skewed vision of what Russian patriotism represents has usurped the sanctity of the Russian kitchen as well, setting many a table on fire.
“One can say that over these past months Russian viewers have been subject to mass emotional rape, propaganda carpet-bombing,” the BBC cites Moscow-based family psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya as saying.
“The point here is not to impart a certain point of view. Reports and messages are constructed so that the viewer understands that he himself should make a moral choice.”
The fallout has been clear.
Psychologically speaking, one need not simply disagree with a family member to fly into a rage due to genuine belief in “fascist juntas” in Ukraine or supposed Western plots to keep Russia on its knees.
The cognitive dissonance resultant in attempting to conform to a highly militaristic and paranoid version of reality creates an equally corrosive burden on individuals who have found themselves on the wrong side of state-sanctioned morality. This is Foucault’s interpretation of the panopticon; now people police themselves under the “unequal gaze”.
PTSD as a national phenomenon
But are Russians uniquely susceptible to this form of manipulation? There is a case to be made that Moscow’s current propaganda war is so effective because it cynically feeds on deep-seated trauma within Russia itself.
Generations of Russians have arguably been raised by parents suffering from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder. They in turn, have found their own neurosis compounded by some form of repression, privation or collapse.
Russians, by and large, have neither faced their own personal or national trauma. Clinical psychology is still marred by its pervious use as a tool of state repression, forcing many people to “simply deal” with severe mental health issues and other tragedies, which may in part explain large levels of substance abuse throughout the country. This, coupled with denial over Russia’s loss of imperial status, has left the populace by and large open to wholesale manipulation. The government is both playing on the wish fulfillment of those seeking identity through the medium of national greatness, while at the same time creating a social atmosphere so toxic that people censor themselves, least they fall victim to the state, or (in a far, far more likely scenario), their own neighbors.
The nation, in short, is suffering from a collective form of Stockholm Syndrome.
“Dying of a broken heart”
Living this way may not only affect psychological health. In May, the Russian State Statistics Service (Rosstat) released data revealing that the number of deaths in the country had grown by 5.2 percent in the first quarter of 2015. Further data released in September shows the death rate for the first 7 months of 2015 was 1.5 percent higher than 2014, with an increase among men and women of working age.
Those deaths, however, were largely not the result of murders or accidents, but rather those suffering from a range of physical ailments, including blood circulation disorders. The question is why. Writing for Forbes, Mark Adomanis noted that some researchers had linked 1990s-era circulatory-system-related deaths to the pervasive insecurity accompanying the fall of the Soviet Union. In the words of Masha Gessen, “Russia is dying of a broken heart—also known as cardiovascular disease.”
That, coupled with disturbingly high death rates from alcoholism and suicide, recently prompted Yury Krupnov, the head of the Institute for Demography, Migration and Regional Development, to warn that Russia’s population could half by 2050, The Times reported.
Taken all together, it appears that the psycho-social stress stemming from the Ukraine crisis and subsequent economic downturn may be helping reverse otherwise positive (albeit limited) natural demographic gains made during Putin’s tenure. It is darkly ironic that Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s war (along with those absorbed through the annexation of Crimea) are helping to mask otherwise negative trends.
It should come as no surprise. Moscow is teaching an entire generation deeply in need of community to once again live in solitary confinement. What awaits Russia when economic crisis comes to a head and the realities over Moscow’s clandestine war in Ukraine eventually come to light neither bodes well for the country or the individual. And even if the current regime remains intact, many people and families may be irreparably broken.