By Kseniya Kirillova, for Integrity Initiative

In the first year of the Russian-Ukrainian war, while trying to understand the origins of the patriotic upsurge that had gripped Russia after its aggression against a neighbouring state, I wrote about the vagueness of moral norms in public consciousness. The same thoughts were later expressed by many political scientists and publicists: Kremlin propaganda does not try to convince Russians that their country is ideal, it only aims to convince them that others are no better, or even worse. Russian ideologues do not aim to show that Russia is a stronghold of democracy, freedom and the rule of law; they only systematically promote the idea that, in principle, there is no democracy, freedom or rule of law anywhere in the world.

Russians, for the most part, are tolerant of corruption because they are confident that everyone steals, and the liberal opposition, once in power, would also steal, and on top of that, deliberately destroy Russia on the orders of their ‘foreign masters’. Russians strongly associate democratic values with the ‘wild 90s’, the plunder of the country, and the ‘colour revolutions’ with accompanying chaos. Many Russians no longer believe in the existence of truth as such, having become accustomed to believing that everything is relative, and everyone has their own truth which corresponds to their own interests. The concept of objective truth does not exist for them. They have a similar attitude when it comes to Western countries, believing that these countries have no real democracy, that all decisions are made ahead of time in back rooms, dissenters are treated as badly as in Russia, and corruption, especially in the ruling circles, is just as prevalent, but carefully hidden from their citizens.

One element that led to this worldview was disappointment — partly absolutely sincere, and partly competently directed by the state. Russians’ disenchantment with democracy is the product of the wild 90s, but domestic propaganda neglects to mention the ties that were forged in those years between organized crime and the KGB, and that it was the former security officers who were able to monopolize resources and positions in Russia.

Against this background, it’s paradoxical that rampant crime, banditry, the notorious ‘new Russians’ and mafia turf wars are still associated in the mind of the average person only with reforms, democracy and the West. At the same time, more and more facts are coming to light that prove that in the 1990s, it was not the young reformers, who were connected with crime, but people from the Soviet KGB, and it was they who plundered Russia. At the same time, the West itself was not at all pleased with this symbiosis: Western countries not only did not control the process of the criminalization of elites in Russia, but also suffered from it.

Nevertheless, with the help of propaganda, it was possible to convince most Russians that organized crime was associated with reforms, reforms with democracy, democracy with the West, and the West itself exclusively with the CIA. This false association was enough to instill in Russians a panicked fear of returning to the 90s and total distrust of the West in general and democratic values in particular.

The propaganda efforts were so successful because the feeling of disappointment is a strong emotion that’s difficult to overcome. Disappointment is like a feeling of past love: it’s possible to love a person with whom you have not been in love before, but it’s almost impossible to love again someone with whom you have already fallen out of love. Disappointment is the feeling of growing up, rethinking our experience. It’s a winning argument: “we did this already” and “we already know this”. Disappointment, unlike ideology, is a feeling that also appeals to personal experience, which for any person is perceived as more meaningful and decisive than any logical frame of reference. Moreover, one can argue with a system of views, but not with experience, which, by definition, is something individual and subjective and in principle impossible to argue with.

This phenomenon is especially well illustrated by the example of my generation — ‘children of the 90s’ — whose school years took place in the first post-Soviet decade and who from childhood dreamed of living in the West and idolized its values. For those people, rethinking their childhood experience seems to be a necessary attribute of maturity and even an accomplishment, since it breaks stereotypes that paint us as the ‘lost generation’. My peers who have turned into flag-waving patriots proudly believe that they are the only ones who managed to see through all the lies that they had been fed by the consumerist society for ten years, and against all odds they have become patriots, not ‘liberasts’ (a ruder equivalent of ‘libtards’).

It’s ironic that in their formal renunciation of freedom, the children of the 90s, even in crossing over to the other side of the barricades — where there is no freedom — would not admit to themselves how important freedom is to them. It was important for them to emphasize that they made their choice freely, did not go with the flow and did not make their decisions just because it was trendy or because they were told to. And it’s precisely for this reason that it would be most difficult for them to return to the values they had rejected, since they perceive their disappointment as something very personal and painful.

In fact, in this phenomenon there is a serious substitution of concepts, since it’s almost impossible to become disenchanted with values. Unlike ideology, which may turn out to be unattainably utopian, values exist as long as there are people who embody them in their lives. For example, even if “everyone steals,” a single person who does not steal is enough to show that honesty exists. A single country that has real freedom of speech and where you don’t go to jail for expressing an opinion is enough to understand that freedom of speech exists. One example of fair elections is enough to believe in the existence of democracy. It’s enough to carefully study the facts in order to understand that there is objective truth in the world. And finally, even if all the people around you behave dishonestly, it’s enough to live according to your own values to prove by your own example that these values exist in reality, and not just on paper.

But if we look at values as ideology, that is, a certain universal concept, which must be absolutely true and exist independently of our efforts, then, of course, it can be very easy to give up on them, because you can find many examples of how values are proclaimed, but not followed.

This is exactly what Kremlin propaganda does: it overwhelms with many negative examples, but denies or ignores the positive examples that can be found in most Western countries.

By Kseniya Kirillova, for Integrity Initiative

Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist. She challenged the Putin regime’s false narratives about the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine and now lives in the US. Here she looks at how the Kremlin has convinced many Russians that there can be no alternative to Putin’s corrupt regime.