By Kseniya Kirillova, for GEO’
Many researchers both in Russia and abroad note a high level of support for present-day Russian politics and Vladimir Putin personally among émigré community. There are no exact sociological studies on this subject, since it’s rather difficult to define the very concept of “diaspora”. In particular, some emigrants from Russia or the former Soviet Union are so assimilated in the new country that they practically do not maintain ties with the Russian-speaking community, and therefore their attitude is not taken into account when trying to determine political preferences of the diaspora.
Most children of immigrants who have grown up abroad are even more assimilated.
On the other hand, some of the Russian-speaking emigrants who came here not from Russia, but from other republics of the-then USSR or from new post-Soviet countries, can have pro-Russian views and be active members of the Russian-speaking community, although formally they are not among the emigrants from Russia.
In addition, the level of support for Kremlin policies varies widely depending on the wave and type of emigration. For example, emigrants who left during Soviet times or in the 90s on the wave of family reunification or economic emigration are more inclined to support today’s Moscow than businessmen or IT specialists who left Russia in the last 10 years. However, with all these nuances, a high level of “pro-Russian” sentiments in the diaspora is noted both by the emigrants themselves and by outside observers.
For example, the 85% with which Vladimir Putin won the 2018 presidential election among Russians living abroad far exceeded his results in Russia and even The Washington Post drew attention to this phenomenon. It was also a topic of discussion on Radio Liberty.
Of course, the election results are not an absolute indicator, since, as already mentioned, some emigrants do not participate in processes related to Russia, including voting, and often do not even update their Russian passports, and some opposition-minded
Russians choose a strategy of boycotting elections.
Nevertheless, the well-known publicist and analyst of Russian propaganda Igor Yakovenko also describes the support for the Kremlin’s course among Russian-speaking people abroad as a mass phenomenon and even introduces a special term for it, “ur servility”.
The Ukrainian author Yevgeny Yakunov, in turn, describes in detail the methods which the Third Reich agent network employed abroad, clearly comparing them to the activities of today’s pro-Russian organizations in the West.
A similar trend is noted by the emigrants themselves. At the beginning of November of last year, the largest British media outlets reported that half of the Russian diaspora in the UK are informers for the special services (SVR, GRU, and even the FSB). This “sensation” was based on the misinterpretation of the report from the British think tank Henry Jackson Society about the scale of Russian espionage.
In fact, the report, citing sources in the intelligence community, gives more modest numbers: about 500 agents led by 200 curators.
However, the Russian émigrés themselves, who spoke with the author of the report, Professor Andrew Foxall, suspect that every second compatriot could potentially turn out to be a “stool pigeon” for the Russian special services. Such suspicion of each other among Russian emigrants is explained primarily by the number of pro-Russian organizations operating abroad, and the evident pro-Kremlin mindset of many immigrant compatriots.
Let us try to understand the reasons that encourage Russians who have long lived outside their homeland, to approve with such zeal the foreign and domestic policies of the country they left behind. In addition to active Russian propaganda operating abroad and various forms of “soft power” used in outreach to the diaspora, I would like to highlight social and psychological reasons that make the Russian diaspora so susceptible to the propaganda tactics.
Connection with the homeland
The first group includes specific reasons arising from the Soviet and post-Soviet mentality, and in many respects also formed by propaganda.
1. First is the exploitation of guilt feelings. It’s a fact that the perception of emigrants as traitors to their homeland was being instilled in Russia in the last decade with practically the same zeal as in Soviet times. The idea “emigrated means betrayed” is deeply ingrained in the Russians’ subconscious, even if they do not share it on a conscious level. As a result, for many people wishing to leave the country, common sense and personal motives take over and they still choose to emigrate, but the feeling of guilt that remains in the subconscious continues to create a situation of psychological discomfort.
This manipulation is especially effective, because in Russian history the state always seeks to supplant the country. In Russia, where there are no property rights and no independent courts, and a person feels completely defenseless against despotism, loyalty to the state is often the only way to feel protected.
For many Russians, with the exception of those who deliberately embarked on the path of opposition, awareness of their conflict with the state is traumatic. For such people, moving abroad was prompted only by the desire to enjoy the benefits of the civilized world and earn more money, but they were completely unprepared to be labeled as “traitors”.
As if specifically, to resolve this artificially created dilemma, the Kremlin creates numerous associations, forums and congresses of Russian-speaking compatriots who openly declare the goal of reestablishing communication with the “great motherland”. At the same time, even if such
organizations formally position themselves as cultural, in practice joining them takes place on the basis of political, rather than cultural factors, and the very fact of participation in their events implies agreement with the Russian foreign policy.
Unfortunately, a significant number of the representatives of the diaspora is happy to see the creation of such associations. For them, participation in the lives of such organizations becomes a visible and practically official restoration of communication with the former homeland and a basis for confidence that now no one can call them traitors. For this type of emigrants, it is especially important to see the connection of organizations that are close to them in spirit with the Russian consulates, that is, in fact, with the state itself.
Thus, their internal dilemma is resolved. They have the opportunity to enjoy all the benefits of the “free world” and at the same time feel that they are “forgiven” by Russia. At the same time, such people do not even stop to consider that this dilemma is itself created artificially, and if it weren’t for the efforts of the state so loved by them, it would not have arisen in the first place.
2. Along with the abundance of organizations created by the Kremlin, one can note the weak development of horizontal ties between immigrants and the unwillingness to create informal associations independent of Moscow. If such associations do arise, Moscow, in turn, tries to bring them under its control and generously offers financial assistance to any local initiatives. Even if the independent organizations and media are preserved, their numbers are far surpassed by the “official” form of association of emigrants. The result of these processes is the substitution of self-identification, when the feeling of being a part of Russian culture becomes for the emigrants inseparable from the political component.
3. The specifics of creating an image of the enemy in modern Russian propaganda deserve a special mention. Exploitation of hatred and fear existed in Soviet times, but communist propaganda differed from modern propaganda in at least two important aspects:
– in the late Soviet period, propaganda was not as cynical, and clearly differentiated the hatred of the “capitalists” from the pity for the “oppressed workers”. Yes, this propaganda was false and utopian, but it did not rise to the level of cruelty that is present today;
– Soviet propaganda was based on easily refuted theses, the awareness of the falsity of which caused a cognitive dissonance in people’s minds. For example, the high standard of living in Western countries inevitably contrasted with the postulates of “decaying capitalism” and it was impossible to overcome this contradiction.
Today’s propaganda is much more sophisticated. It does not deny the high standard of living in Western countries, while persuading that those countries are absolutely hostile to Russia. At the same time, the ideology of hatred forced on the viewers can be defined as “ideological cynicism”. On the one hand, people who succumb to such propaganda firmly believe in the necessity of the war with the West in order to survive, on the other hand, they treat their artificially created “enemies” with extreme cynicism. Instead of the “class struggle” theory, Russian propagandists today operate with vague discourses on geopolitics, the essence of which, in their presentation, is reduced to the postulate “the end justifies the means”.
As a result, such people do not feel any dissonance between life in the West and sincere hatred for their country of residence. They regard the use of Western benefits as a form of “struggle,” and continue to live in the United States or Great Britain, since “it benefits them”, while directing their
patriotic impulses at participation in Kremlin projects. Sometimes this “patriotism” leads to working against their new homeland, which neatly fits into modern Russian ideology.
In addition, the psychological causes inherent in emigrants of all nationalities cannot be ignored. Often emigrants connect with pro-Russian compatriots not for “ideological”, but for personal reasons. Among those emigrants are not only people who, as they say, “did not find themselves in exile,” that is, they have not overcome the language barrier and have not found a decent, well-paid job. According to psychologists, almost all emigrants go through a stage of rejection, and sometimes even hatred towards a new country – including those who now live comfortably in that country.
Back in 1954, the American researcher Kalervo Oberg deduced the theory of the U-curve of adaptation, which, with some controversy, is nevertheless proved in most cases. According to this theory, an emigrant goes through several cycles in a new country: from “tourist” euphoria and first falling in love to disappointment, often reaching a state of aggression and total rejection of the new country, and then to adaptation and integration.
Depending on many personal factors, the stage of disappointment can be relatively short and shallow but also can last quite a long time and develop into a real depression. There are also cases of getting “stuck” at this stage, when an emigrant cannot withstand psychological stress and returns to his homeland.
Another form of such a “stagnation” may be immersion in the Russian-speaking environment, moreover, that part of it that isolates itself from the local population, watches Russian television, most often supports Kremlin’s policies and is hostile to the host country. This form of behavior is also a kind of break with the new country, “internal emigration” in the process of emigration.
It is generally accepted that the speed with which a person overcomes the “crisis” phase and returns to the normal process of integration into the new environment depends primarily on the individual characteristics, that is the level of education, psychological stability, adequacy of expectations, and
so on. However, the acute feelings of disappointment can be experienced not only by those with clearly unrealistic expectations for life in emigration.
A person may experience deception, being taken advantage of as an emigrant, cruelty or outright betrayal. Of course, no one is safe from such things even at home; however, in their own country people mostly experience such things quite differently than abroad.
In ordinary life, things and events are most often perceived in fragments: home yard, school, family, neighbors, friends, beloved girl (or boy) friend, coworkers. Therefore, an adult does not perceive the insult inflicted by a particular person as a blow from the whole “world”, “universe” or “country”.
A person clearly understands that he (she) was betrayed by a specific individual, whose act is absolutely not worth leaving the country, especially if the offender is not a government official.
However, in emigration, especially at its first stage, each offense can be subconsciously perceived as a rejection by the entire country. This is especially true for people of the “patriotic” character who sincerely want to find a new homeland in emigration. Such people, in principle, tend to
personify their relationship with the new country as a whole, filling it with categories that characterize interpersonal relationships (love, loyalty, and so on).
Moreover, emigration itself is stressful, and any “blows” adding to this stress and the natural insecurity that emigrant experiences only increase vulnerability. Based on this, the problems that arise in a new country can be perceived as much harder and deeper, which can lead to a retaliatory
“internal exile” from the country as such.
In this stage of rejection, it’s important for a person to find te support of friends and like-minded people, which is a natural need in a crisis.
However, the peculiarities of the mindset of most of the Russian diaspora mean that a person who is disappointed in the new country and is critical of it is likely to find unconditional support for his psychological state only in the pro-Kremlin part of the diaspora. And here it is important to
single out a third group of reasons related to the mentality of the diaspora as such.
Friends and strangers
The search for solidarity, as already mentioned, is the natural psychological need of any person, especially experiencing a state of crisis. However, many members of the diaspora, in particular in the US complain about the unwillingness of members of the Russian-speaking community to help each other and even about the prevalence of fraud and an openly negative attitude towards their compatriots.
However, this picture is not entirely true. In fact, mutual help among Russian Americans is present, with the only difference that the concept of “their own” in this case is determined not by nationality or citizenship, but by belonging to a particular group. In other words, the ultimate ideological
separation inherent in modern Russia has “migrated” abroad.
At the same time, intolerance to opposing views naturally leads to polarization and the absence of compromise. If we add to this the lack of respect for other people’s experience and disregard of personal boundaries inherent in post-Soviet culture, it becomes clear why it’s difficult for a person with a negative attitude to the host country (even dictated by the most valid reasons) to find support among “pro-American” Russians.
The former compatriots may perceive any criticism from him as “Russian propaganda”, and instead of support, such a person will face an additional negative reaction. Of course, such a tendency does not appear everywhere, and yet in a modern divided world it will be easier for such a person to find support among people whose views at the moment correspond to his psychological state.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that not only moral, but also practical assistance is most often carried out within the framework of the corresponding group. For example, groups of Russian-speaking Americans on social networks are very different in their views. Among them there are
pronounced pro-Soviet or, conversely, dissident associations. Emigrants who have long lived in the United States and are more focused on American realities are also prone to find friends according to their political convictions.
There are groups of ardent Russian-speaking Republicans and no less active opponents of Donald Trump. Members of these communities are often hostile towards the opposite camp but build very strong friendships and genuinely help each other within their own groups.
Of course, in some cases, this separation is blurred. For example, there are so-called “girls” and parents groups; pages about work, rental properties, free classified ads or just information on cities where emigrants live, whether it’s San Francisco, Sacramento or Washington. The help within professional community should not be overlooked, with representatives of the same professional sphere usually helping their compatriots at least by sharing experience.
However, at the level of informal friendly contacts, ideological separation is still one of the key factors in building ties, and a number of people choose pro-Kremlin associations only because, according to them, they find more empathy and humanity in them.
Another factor “inherited” from Russia may be routine nationalism, which also helps isolate the part of the diaspora that harbors it. This isolation is exacerbated by almost complete absence of content that runs counter to Kremlin propaganda in the Russian-speaking US media. If we do not take into account large online publications, Russian-language newspapers distributed in places of compact community living (in Russian-speaking churches, shops, etc.) are often either indirectly influenced by pro-Kremlin structures, or at best choose a commercial focus and do not touch political issues.
At the same time, even independent publications are forced to tailor their content to the tastes of the Russian-speaking majority, which means they may unwittingly become agents of Kremlin ideology.
At the same time, if it’s currently not possible to control Russian propaganda itself and its availability in the US, then the influence on the processes at the “grassroots” level in the diaspora is quite realistic.
For example, representatives of the Russian-speaking community could try to create human rights organizations independent of the state and consulates, following the example of some Latin American movements. By the way, such attempts are already being made, but so far, they have not reached serious level of recognition.
Given certain funding, it is possible to publish Russian-language American media independent of the preferences of the “pro-Putin majority”. And, of course, an increase in empathy and a desire to help compatriots in the diaspora itself could also become for someone an alternative to the pro-Kremlin “internal emigration”.
By Kseniya Kirillova, for GEO’
About Kseniya “Kassie” Kirillova
“Ksenia Kirillova was born in 1984 in the city of Kamensk-Uralsky, Sverdlovsk region (Russia). In 2001 she graduated from school with a silver medal. In 2006 she graduated from the Faculty of Law of The Liberal Arts University with a degree in jurisprudence with honors. Twice awarded the governor’s scholarship of the Sverdlovsk region. Lives in the US since April 2014.
An investigative journalist and analyst focused on analyzing Russian society, mentality, the mechanism of action of Russian propaganda (including in the US), “soft power,” “active measures” and foreign policy. Author of several hundred articles, including researches on Russian propaganda and soft power for the Atlantic Council, the Jamestown Foundation, British Institute for Statecraft (The Integrity Initiative project), Homeland Security Today (US), EU Today, British-Canadian security project Defense Report, Ukrainian English-language media Kyiv Post and Euromaidan Press, StopFake, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), etc.
While living in Russia, worked as a journalist in the largest Ural media holding Ural Worker (2008-2010) and the Ural branch of Novaya Gazeta (2011-2013). The main specialization was covering social problems in the region and exposing corruption, including corruption in the FSB.
In the United States, cooperated with the Associated Press, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, ABC7, Newsy, and other media. Expert of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, Kyiv (since May 2015). Corresponding Member of the International Youth Human Rights Movement (since 2012).”