Much has been made of the post-modernist theater which has come to govern both the Russian political experience and its increasingly aggressive ‘information war’. But what factors have left the Russian populace particularly susceptible to tactics which, in the West, would easily be dismissed as crude propaganda?
“Everything is P.R.” That’s what members of Moscow’s jet set class told Peter Pomerantsev, the television producer cum journalist whose theories on Russia’s managed reality have become all the rage in the wake of Putin’s silent war in Ukraine. The gist of it goes that with stagnation in the late-Soviet period, followed by chronic disillusionment and eventual collapse, people disengaged from politics and stopped believing in much of anything at all. Barring any efficacious institutions or values, Russians exist in a vacuum of belief that can “easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world.” The paradox, in Pomerantsev’s words, is born: “the gullible cynic.”
The greatest irony of all, perhaps, is that you’d be hard pressed to find a country that is both so deeply cynical and yet so fawning of power. It is arguable that the roots of Russian susceptibility to phantasmagorical perceptions of reality lie in its non-analogous experience during the post-war period, a time of philosophical transformation which arguably left western media consumers more comfortable with navigating ambiguity. In short, while baby boomers were questioning the very nature of existence, Russians were scantly able to question their own history.
The affects of that disparity are made manifest in how Russia is governed today.
Orange juice and the Communist mushroom
Members of Generation X and beyond grew up on the myth of the young man who took too much LSD and ended up in a psych ward, believing for now and forever he was a glass of orange juice. The cautionary tale actually dates back to the 1960s, when often misunderstood (or intentionally misconstrued) information about psychedelics and the profound impact they were having on society was circulating en masse.
Such urban folklore represented a long held ‘what you see is what you get’ attitude towards the world. Drugs like LSD make people see things that are not real, the argument went. There is a baseline for objective reality, what people call “feeling normal.”
The counterculture was preparing to turn that notion on its head. Through the medium of mind altering drugs, a growing interest in eastern religious practices, and the popularization of post-modernist thought, a serious conversation on the nature of reality got underway in the “free world” during the post-war years. Schrödinger’s cat might have been lying in a box for decades by that point, but the idea that reality was somewhat slippery was only starting to become woven into the wider culture narrative.
Nothing that was called real or true could be taken as a given. Previously, the West, more or less, held to two sides of the same materialist coin, or what the Zen philosopher Alan Watts called the “ceramic” and “fully automatic” models of the universe. One found a need for God, the other didn’t, but they both posited a mechanical view of a knowable universe that was hard to the touch and governed by laws. We might not always know the truth, but the truth was always knowable.
These suppositions came under fire, largely as a reaction to the untold horrors unleashed during Second World War. Two French philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, came to articulate the malaise felt particularly by those in Western Europe. How could God, justice or meaning exist in a world so patently cruel? It was an old question given urgency by a new era. And the answers, at times, were grim. Grim, but not without hope. The conclusions of Sartre and Camus were, after all, deeply humanist.
Sartre believed man had to go through a crisis in which belief in God and ultimate meaning were thrown by the wayside. This ‘we are all alone in the universe’ moment does give way to what he called “nausea” and despair. But once this crisis passes, there is liberation; people are empowered to fashion the world as they wish and create their own values, rather than being bound to some ideal notion of form or nature. In the West, those who set sail on the sea of despair passed through choppy waters, by and large accepting empowerment as agents in the universe, be it reaffirmed Christians, Eastern travelers or committed atheists.
It was not a seamless process, as the societal chaos of the times shows. But the West “lost” its religion during ‘the golden age of capitalism.’ When they peaked out into the abyss, it was through the rings of a massive safety net. Ultimately, post-modern interpretations of the world were the byproduct of critical theory, which in turn spurred critical thought. People became more, and not less critical of power, but for all of the right reasons. Knee-jerk refusal of everything was not the name of the game. Alternative visions of the world, rather, were key. Philosophically, it was a natural progression from the 16th century Protestant reformation, which started a long process in the West of assailing the gatekeepers of reality. It was part and parcel of a long humanist drive towards liberation. It was a cry for better ideas. It was, ultimately, a sign of progress.
But just as the Russian Orthodox Church never had its own reformation, the Soviet Union in the post-war era went through no such progression, where old ideas were challenged and a new era of thought came to light. Rather, a 19th century form of materialist naturalism remained the primary prism through which reality was filtered. This was a time, after all, when typewriters were registered with the KGB, photocopiers were severely restricted, and Goskomizdat, Goskino and Gosteleradio controlled all printed material, cinema and radio and television broadcasts, respectively.
The government might allow for the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s labor camp fictionalization ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, as it did in 1962, only to later label him an enemy of the state, arresting, and ultimately deporting him in 1974. In contrast with the Western counterculture of the 1960s, with its “turn on, tune in, drop out” approach to life, the de-Stalinization campaign in 1956 did little to roll back proscriptions on “anti-Soviet” ideology or challenges to officially vetted values. As a result, Soviet society remained overwhelming conservative. Areligious yes, but its utopian values served as a surrogate for traditional religion. Much like the Sadducees, if there was heaven, it was a place on Earth.
Even in the absence of God, essence was very much bound to existence. Such an attitude was evident in Socialist Realism, the predominant form of art until the late 60s (and officially until the demise of the Soviet Union). Reflecting the broader social values, it very much relied on idealized forms, both physical, psychological, and for a lack of a better word, spiritual.
The same year ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ was published, Krushchev derided artists such as Ernst Neizvestny and Eli Beliutin for being “homosexuals” who produced “shit” due to their abstract offerings during a socialist realism-heavy exhibition for the 30th anniversary of the Moscow Artist’s Union. In the decedent West, meanwhile, Roy Lichtenstein was holding his first exhibition in New York, while Andy Warhol was offering up the West Coast’s first pop art exhibition, Campbell Soup cans and all.
No, there was no doubt what the world was or what man was meant to be. The question was, not if, but when he would become it. In Kruschev’s own crude words, society didn’t have much time for those who thought (or dared express themselves) otherwise.
Disillusionment with the system, in turn, only started bubbling up during the 1970s — the years of stagnation. Ironically, it is those very years that many Russians are most nostalgic for. And even with the onset of the Afghan War in 1979, they were not ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Socialism was okay, even worth fighting for in a far off land. It was the communist party leadership under Brezhnev that was the problem. But as the idealism of the Afghan campaign and its promise of socialist nation-building descended into brutality and chaos, communism was on the ropes.
By the time Glasnost rolled around, the rot, both economically, politically and societally was too deep. The tendency towards personal compartmentalization was also well-entrenched; being a Soviet functionary by day, and a kitchen table drinking radical by night, had become the norm. It’s a trait that has been exploited deftly in Putin’s Russia. It was particularly in the dying days of the Soviet Union that young people, already deeply cynical, started exploring, in earnest, alternative interpretations of reality.
A primary example of this was captured by Adam Curtis in a seminal article on Russia’s punk avant-garde moment, “The Year of Stagnation and the Poodles of Power.” In it, Curtis recounts a 1991 incident in which Sergey Kuryokhin, from the band Popular Mechanics, attempted to prove that Lenin was really a mushroom on a popular TV talk show.
“Kuryokhin wanted to show that in a society where no-one believed in anything, the media could be used to make anything real,” Curtis wrote. “To western eyes it is a bit silly, but at the time it caused a sensation.”
What’s telling is that pretentious stoner philosophizing had been elevated to the level of national discussion. It was like debating whether Lenin believed himself to be a glass of orange juice. But in a country steeped in 70 years of materialist tradition, to even start playing with the slippery nature of reality was an altogether different proposition.
But unlike the West, this examination of reality came not during the halcyon days of social revolution and economic boom, but during a time when everything was falling apart. In the absence of genuine civil society, a robust economy or any form of institutional mooring, rather than sail through the death of a godless god and the birth of another, Russia has been left in a two-decade long holding pattern — existential purgatory.
And as logotherapist Viktor Frankl beautifully expressed, meaning more than anything else is key to survival. Many Russians, incidentally, had lost that. The subsequent malaise was shocking. In the first 20 years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, nearly one million Russians committed suicide. As Curtis pointed out, many of Russia’s perestroika-era bards were among them. Crime was rife, substance abuse sky-rocketed, anomie set in. It was in this context that Putin’s managed reality took hold, under the guiding hand of his chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov.
‘Thus spoke the Grey Cardinal’
Surkov is a brooding, violent, Warhol-esque figure who arguably transformed the whole of Russia into his own dark “Factory”. Pomerantsev called Putin’s Russia (and by extension Surkov’s) an admixture of despotism and postmodernism. The writer and radical nationalist Eduard Limonov said Surkov had “turned Russia into a wonderful postmodernist theatre.”
Surkov has arguably reshaped Russia’s media landscape (and beyond) around the ideas of François Lyotard, the French theoretician of postmodernism who, in his 1979 work ‘The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’, blasted an “incredulity towards meta-narratives” which post-modernism had spawned. Given the lack of consensus on what reality is or the capacity to know anything at all, he argued, post-modernism had given birth to myriad micro-narratives.
But while the West had been chewing on such ideas for decades, Pomerantsev notes that Lyotard was only translated into Russian by the end of the 1990s. That Lyotard and Jacques Derrida would explode in popularity, while two decades-old and controversial practices — neuro-linguistic programming and Ericksonian hypnosis — would become all the rage in modern day Russia, belies both how the elite themselves are behind the times, and how a largely cynical population largely educated by rote are deeply susceptible to intellectual parlor tricks.
Lyotard and his micro-narratives, meanwhile, are now the pulsing heart of Russia’s propaganda efforts. Russians, after all, had already lost the greatest metanarrative of all; the Hegelian dialectic, which was destined to result in the triumph of socialism. Any explanation to world events that they found emotionally satisfying (both as unreformed imperialists and insecure supremacists) were likely to hold say.
Thus, Russia’s current information war is less about truth and more about muddying the waters so that no one can really know anything. The new tactic is to provide shotgun explanations to everything and leave your critics chasing (or dodging) the individual pellets. That Russians feel comfortable with the government providing a new narrative to how MH-17 was shot down every other week seems to prove the Kremlin has its heart on the pulse of the nation. Just hold one variable constant in a nation that has never had a moment of truth and reconciliation: ‘blame anyone but us’.
This protracted campaign of disorientation has been pivotal to the government maintaining its grip on power. It coincides with a fundamental resentment which exists in the hearts of many Russians, a resentment that is a reaction to lacking agency domestically, while at the same time maintaining a myth of superiority intended to shore up deep-seated insecurities.
Through a lack of belief in politics, democracy, civil society or institutions, Russians feel powerless to control their own fate, and are deeply needing of an enemy to project those frustrations onto. The government has deftly served up variations on that enemy, namely the United States. If nothing feels real apart from that which one hates, then the purpose of propaganda is to bypass the cerebral cortex and set your viewership’s limbic system on fire.
The government is no longer selling its achievements to the citizens Soviet-style. Rather, they are relentlessly broadcasting a stream of death and desecration at the hands of “Ukrainian fascists” into people’s homes on a daily basis. This is not longer about the mind. Rather, it’s about the “soul.” The whole, maddening process, which has rent more than one Russian family apart, was characterized by a former state media employee as a process of “zombification”. Russians have few footholds to step back onto and get their bearings, leaving them ever susceptible to the barrage. Their foray into existentialism was not about an expression of freedom. It was capitulation to desperation, and it shows.
‘…Fall for anything’
Russia is a sick country suffering from a collective sense of post-traumatic stress disorder. But rather than attempt to heal the nation, the government has opted to throw firecrackers at them in the night.
In the West, post-modernism ultimately became a means to challenge authority. In Russia, it was turned into another tool of control. For a leader ostensibly bent on rising Russia from its knees, Putin appears incapable of helping his countrymen overcome their trauma and learning to stand on their own two feet. But he can’t. A citizen can stand via the proxy of the state, but under the state they must remain on their knees to support the base of the power vertical.
Genuine belief spurred by critical thought would bring down the house of cards. Faux patriotism, “tradition” and moral confusion are key to business as usual. It’s the Soviet Union without socialism, neo-tsarism that dare not utter the words peasant or slave. It is a bad trip that cannot ever stop. As a result, Russia has become a country where 55 percent of the country lament the fall of the Soviet Union while nearly half also believe that Soviet-style repressions will return in their life time.
If one were to track those respondents in a Venn diagram, the percentage who hold both positions would be shocking to those expecting more intellectual consistency. The number who support Putin, an avowed global capitalist heading up one of the most unequal countries on earth (who would theoretically head up those repressions), is consistently over 85 percent. Something clearly does not add up. But it is the absence of believe that fuels this social and political schizophrenia. Writing for the journal Mental Hygiene in 1945 while war still raged in Europe, Gordon Eadie had these ever-relevant observations for those lacking in genuine belief and pining for lost days. “
“We are trying to show him not only what we are fighting against, but what we are fighting for. So many of these boys have only a very hazy idea of the real issues of the war. About all they see is ‘going back to the good old days.’ This is a dangerous state. If they don’t stand for something, they will fall for anything.”
Russians believe they have beat the system by refusing to believe in anything. Every night when they turn on their televisions, the system wholeheartedly agrees.