It is “a serious exaggeration” to suggest ethnic Russians living in the Baltic countries are a threat to the national security of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania or that Moscow’s propaganda machine can make them into one, according to MGIMO Professor Valery Solovey.
In a wide-ranging interview with Taavi Minnik of Tallinn’s “Postimees” newspaper, the Moscow media expert says that the notion that they are is at a minimum “exaggerated” and that it is kept alive to serve the political purposes of various political leaders and countries.
Because of their experience in Soviet times, Russians watch an enormous amount of television and even rely on it for news because in their view “seeing is believing,” although younger Russians while watching almost as much TV as their elders are more skeptical about its messages, Solovey says.
But “the influence of Russian television would be significantly less if there had been Russian-language television channels” in Estonia and Latvia after 1991, he argues. They would have been far better off with them because it is television in Russian in general rather than Moscow television in particular which is influential.
However, Solovey continues, he “would not speak about the all-powerful quality of Russian propaganda in the post-Soviet space” as many do. “Russians especially of the older generation may identify themselves with Russia, be glad of its successes and achievements, and be angry at Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians.”
At the same time, Solovey argues, these very same people “are not ready to reject life in these countries or move to Russia and act in the interests of Russia.” That is even more true of young Russians. “they are integrated in Europe … and the possibility of freely moving about through Europe, to get an education and do business there.”
Estonia and Latvia would thus be wise to offer its Russian speakers a Russian-language television channel, because they would watch it rather than Moscow television, according to Solovey, because they increasingly are part of and interested in the communities of people among whom they live.
(Another visitor to Estonia says this in a more lapidary way. He observes that the ethnic Russians in Narva don’t want a Russian Estonia; they want “an Estonian Russia,” something that isn’t now possible.)
With regard to propaganda, Solovey says, “theoretically propaganda” can achieve a great deal, “but for this it requires a great deal of time, the correct strategy and a great deal of money.” Unfortunately, for those who want to use it, “these three conditions never correspond.” Moreover, propaganda has limitations: people are seldom ready to trust propaganda if it is about things they have direct experience with.
Put simply, one can convince Russians that “Americans are the source of all evil because Russians don’t know Americans very well, but it is much more difficult, indeed, almost impossible, to convince them that Ukrainians are because they know Ukrainians well.”
In democratic societies, there is another limitation: those who are targeted with propaganda can always turn to other sources of information to check what they have heard, Solovey says. And in all societies, there is the factor of boredom: Russians are already “not interested” in Ukraine, and “film from Syria is viewed as a Hollywood action flick.”
Solovey points out that “the majority of people” – some 70-80 percent – “do not have their own opinion” and thus are quite prepared to accept much propaganda about things not in their immediate experience or about which they do not think they can do anything about. These people accept because they are conformists.
There is only a small stratum, perhaps five percent, of people who are not affected by propaganda – sociopaths and extremely intelligent people. They are the non-conformists and typically the moving force of change. Indeed, typically they are behind revolutionary change, although Solovey says there is something everyone should remember about that.
“It is impossible to predict revolutions,” he says. After they happen, analysts can see causes, but no one has figured out a way to predict when or even if a revolution will break out. Everyone can see that Russia is in crisis, but no one can say how that crisis will end, the MGIMO analyst continues.
Asked about Putin’s ratings in Russia, Solovey suggest that “the simplest means of sociological manipulation is the correct formulation of the question asked.” When Russians are asked whom do you trust and Putin is on the list, the conformist majority knows exactly what answer it is supposed to give and does.
This does not mean that Putin does not enjoy serious support, but it is not the 90 percent Moscow reports and claims, Solovey says. He suggests that a similar process is at work as far as Russian support for restoring monuments to Dzherzhinsky and Stalin: “Human memory is selective both personal and group.”
There is no reason to doubt that many Russians may have a better view of Stalin now than they did or that they support restoring a monument to Dzherzhinsky. But if such people are asked whether they would like to live under either, the answer would be no. “Attitudes toward symbols is one thing; the real behavior of people and their preferences for themselves are something else.”
Solovey says that one of his acquaintances jokes that “many Russians would like Stalin but only for their neighbor, not for themselves.”
Similar selective memory and conformism is at work in Russians’ attitudes about the disintegration of the USSR and Boris Yeltsin. If you ask them now, Solovey says, you can’t find anyone who says he or she is in favor of either; but of course, at the time, a large number of those saying that now said something different earlier.
Sometime in the future, the MGIMO scholar says, Russians will be asked “’Who supported Putin?” And the answer will be silence.”
By Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia