2014 saw the rise of what most have labeled a wave of patriotism in Russia. State run media outlets and other institutions have been bombarding viewers with tales of Russian greatness, usually in the form of historic military victories. Whenever a spat arises between Russia and another country, commentators on TV provide a one-sided history lesson for viewers, in which they explain all the evil deeds of that particular country going back centuries as was the case with Turkey recently. This may lead some to conclude that patriotism is the secret to Putin’s power; faced with economic disaster and spooked by protests in Moscow and later in Kyiv, Putin turned to populism to shore up his regime. Judging by his approval rating, the president must still be riding that wave of patriotism. Sounds legit?
There’s just one problem though. Much of the rhetoric we hear coming out of Russia today isn’t new at all. The conspiracy theories about color revolutions and NATO encirclement have been around for years, along with the tirades against the “decadent” West. Of course in those days if you brought up these topics with most Russians they’d think you were crazy. For an increasing number of people, things were good. But where the system left much to be desired, people simply rolled their eyes at the idea that NATO was somehow responsible for run down health clinics or atrocious roads, or the claim that they owned their newfound material wellbeing to the benevolence and wise leadership of Vladimir Putin. Generally people were apathetic and would rather discuss anything other than politics, but up until about 2014 pretty much anyone you met wouldn’t hesitate to tell you what they really thought of the system, including Putin himself. And of course, the tall tales of Western agents and CIA conspiracies failed to prevent the outbreak of mass protests in 2011-2012.
Now some might insist that the Kremlin’s propaganda machine was different back then. Prior to 2011-2012, for example, the internet was largely the domain of the opposition and anyone who didn’t like the system. Fake blogs and debates staged by paid trolls in seemingly innocuous comments sections on the internet might have convinced a significant amount of Russian citizens that the national mood was changing. Some might also point to the increasing crackdown on dissent both online and off, as well as various forms of harassment, to explain why more people seem to be toeing the Kremlin line since 2014. Again, a fair point.
The problem is that neither of those points can explain a phenomenon that virtually everyone I know has experienced numerous times since 2014, namely people who should know better almost unconsciously repeating Kremlin talking points in contradiction to their previously held opinions. It’s really hard to put this phenomenon into words, especially for outsiders who don’t have the experience in Russia, but for the sake of brevity simply imagine the following scenario. You have a friend who has constantly and consistently complained about something for years. It can be anything — a pop group, a film, Obama, whatever. Then one day, without anything about the object of their scorn changing in any significant way, they suddenly make a 180 degree turn. Now Justin Bieber is a musical genius, and if you don’t agree you obviously just hate music. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is George Lucas’ greatest masterpiece and Jar Jar Binks is a much deeper, multifaceted character than Han Solo. Obama is the greatest statesman in the history of states, and so on.
In my opinion, the increase in state-sponsored propaganda activities isn’t enough to explain this phenomenon. Nor does it explain why so many Russians, even as they meekly start to grumble at the system once again, still seem willing to accept and tolerate the system no matter how much it abuses and humiliates them on an almost weekly basis. I feel the answer lies in another message the Kremlin has been sending for quite some time, one which is far more subtle yet far more effective than patriotism and inflated national pride. It is in fact domestically manufactured Russophobia.
Once more we must go back to the days before 2014. One thing that stunned me in my early years in this country was the predictability of conversations I’d have with people, regardless of whether they were in Russian or English. In those days, people would complain about the system and the country to no end. I, having faith in the Russian people and not believing in the concept of inherent inferiority, would often be the optimist. “Yes, it’s bad,” I’d say in so many words. “But you should stand up for yourself. You can change things. There’s a lot of potential in Russia, and with the right people and policies it could even rival the United States in some areas.” Like clockwork, they’d vehemently disagree. “You don’t understand. We have this Russian mentality. We’re lazy, we don’t do anything right. We steal and cheat.” I’m condensing it but this was the general tenor of the responses I’d get on a consistent basis. People in a country which experienced two of the most world-changing revolutions of the 20th century would consistently insist that “Nothing will ever change.”
It stands to reason that if a belief is widespread in a society, it must come from somewhere regardless of whether or not it is true. To this day I can’t claim to have discovered the definitive source of this idea, but I’m not convinced there was ever one source. I think it was the sum of ideas both implicitly and explicitly disseminated in school textbooks, non-fiction literature, entertainment media, and the news. Entertainment media seemed to be a major culprit. Corruption and stealing have long been the subjects of humor in Russia. This myth of the inherently incompetent Russian mentality is joined by a common media-inspired meme in Russian political discourse. This is the claim that Russians cannot handle democracy. “We tried that in the 1990’s,” they’ll say. “And look what happened!”
This concept, specifically the idea that Russians are overgrown children who are unable to have the same institutions that plenty of other countries with diverse cultures and histories have, is crucial to Putin’s regime. I’d go so far to say it is much more important than the myths about Russian imperial greatness and the superiority of Russian civilization. Few of the regime’s ordinary supporters actually believe that Russia has a superior society to that of the West. They’re more likely to believe that Russia can never be like the West, even in a good way. Nor does the regime or its media pretend that corruption and domestic problems don’t exist. But the message they do send is this: “Sure, we’re not perfect. Maybe we’re even bad. But at least we give you stability. Without us, you’ll have chaos, and then the Americans will come in and enslave you!” Essentially the message isn’t “Support us because we’re great and we will bring you greatness too,” but rather “You’re pathetic, infantile, uncivilized, and incompetent. You need a strong hand to keep you in line.”
It’s important to keep in mind that whenever Russia’s self-proclaimed “patriots” espouse these ideas, they are essentially calling their own people mindless cattle. A friend of mine in 2014 who used to work as an English teacher developed a pretty good approach for dispelling this anti-Russian idea in the mind of his students. When a student would dismiss the idea that Russians could ever have a functioning democracy with the same freedoms as citizens of dozens of democratic countries, he would ask them if they believed that Americans, Canadians, Germans, etc. were more intelligent than Russians. Of course the student would reply that they weren’t. Then my friend would follow up by asking why those other nationalities could have democratic systems with competitive elections and politics if they weren’t somehow inherently smarter or more capable than Russians.
At about this time some Western readers might strenuously object to the idea that Western countries, or perhaps any countries, are truly democratic. This is especially true of the US with its two-party dinosaur of a system. Even if we were to accept the idea that elections in America make no significant difference, a highly debatable claim, we’re still stuck with the same quandary when it comes to Russia. That is to say that if American elections make no difference and the choice is meaningless, what is the harm in allowing Russians to make such a meaningless choice roughly every four years? American presidents come and go almost like clockwork, and yet the system keeps chugging along, relatively well. Ditto with Canada, France, Japan, Germany, etc. If the choices offered by the various forms of liberal democracy are so meaningless and don’t really affect anything, why do they suddenly become dangerous in Russia?
When Western politicians or activists criticize the Russian government’s record on human rights or democracy, the Kremlin’s defenders often refer to this as Russophobia. But what is more Russophobic? To say that the Russian government doesn’t treat its people with the dignity they deserve, or, like the so-called patriots, insisting that Russians cannot possibly achieve a certain minimum in terms of human rights and dignity, that they cannot handle the same level of freedom that the “patriots” themselves declare meaningless or illusory anyway? It should be obvious who the real Russophobes are.
What clearer example of “Russophobia” can there be than claiming that Russians are backward savages who cannot possibly maintain a society of democratic norms, pluralism in political discourse, and rule of law? How does one get more Russophobic than one who claims that the whole country must submit to the will of one man, because they are unable to determine their own affairs or maintain their country’s sovereignty without him, and who claim that in 15 years Russia has not produced a single person capable of serving as head of state? After all, when opposition activists and politicians are said to be preparing a violent overthrow of the state on behalf of the United States, there’s a logical implication that the vast majority of Russian citizens would then just sit there and allow the dismantling and dismemberment of Russia that the West supposedly has in store. Is implying that the vast majority of Russians would just sit idly by while Navalny’s Moscow hipster junta trades Russia’s nuclear weapons and energy infrastructure to the United States in exchange for Big Macs not Russophobic in any way?
And how Russophobic must one be in order to routinely lie to their fellow Russian citizens in a condescending way that treats them like small children? Even regime supporting Russians I have met acknowledge that their media lies to them, but for me it’s not that they lie, it’s how they lie- without even the slightest effort, without any concern as to how easily their claims can be debunked. We’re talking about people who routinely pass off poorly photoshopped pictures or photos from movies as real events; what must one think of one’s audience in order to do that? You have to assume that your audience won’t bother to check, or that even if they do, it doesn’t matter. Is that not Russophobic?
Another American friend of mine, when finding himself in arguments with pro-regime Russians, would often conclude such discussions about the “Russian mentality” with the same phrase: “The sad thing is that I have more faith in your people than you do.” There’s really no better way to put it. The Kremlin’s most effective propaganda isn’t Russian greatness. After all, the desire for true greatness can spur people on to demands for change and improvement. No, the weapon of choice for Russia’s “patriots” is truly Russophobia. Self-hatred, self-doubt, Schadenfreude, fear, and paranoia. Those in power are keenly aware that their position will remain secure so long as Russians are too afraid of what they themselves might do without that paternal authority of the state, so long as they lack self-confidence in their ability to determine their own affairs.