The new propagandists who dominated the Russian media were formed by the experience of the trauma of the 1990s and the loss of the certainties of the Soviet past. Their ideology is a fusion of Soviet and imperial Russian ideas. Its chief intellectual weakness is that it must link Russian success to the failure of the West and democracy.For the last two years, propaganda in the Russian media has been much more aggressive and nationalistic. Yet it has failed in its primary objective — changing the outside world. In the West, with its pluralistic social culture, people regard even radical rhetoric as just one of many viewpoints. In Russia, with its state monopoly on the media, the propaganda — largely presented by a group of divided and embittered Soviet-era intellectuals — has made the public neurotic.
Russian media propaganda finally morphed into its current form in March-April 2014, at the height of the Crimea crisis. The new propaganda machine is led by a pack of 40–50 television and radio show hosts and resident experts who drift from one channel to another, constantly raising the degree of tension and promoting their values — or rather anti-values. This propaganda does more to reject “foreign values” than to affirm any of its own.
The people doing this work come from the liberal arts milieu: historians, philosophers, and artists aided by a slew of political analysts representing various organizations with the words “geopolitics,” “studies,” and “analysis” in their names. The popular misconception that they are in it for the money is simply not true. They are united by common indignation at the existing world order.
Judging by the slang-peppered language the ideologists use (“we did them in,” “we told them where to shove it”), their archaic worldview, and rejection of modernity, these people have spent the last twenty years sleeping, totally unaware of global changes. Until 2014, they were in an intellectual vacuum, a Dostoyevskian underground of sorts. This kind of closed environment fosters a utopian consensus and the most delirious worldviews.
Moreover, the Yeltsin era of the 1990s spelled destitution for most Soviet intellectuals, so they were quick to blame Western democracy for the loss of their salaries and social benefits. Even those who have seen life in the West while working, vacationing, or living there don’t accept Western values. This circle is especially intolerant of the word “tolerance.” Perhaps it was tolerance, or rather lack thereof, that prevented them from integrating into Western society.
The old Soviet ideology, which shaped the consciousness of the television experts, was grounded in Marxist-Leninist philosophy. It presented a coherent, self-sufficient, and seamless worldview. Any fact or event — even if it dated back to antiquity — could be neatly interpreted from the standpoint of the class struggle. The language that the system employed was tightly controlled and no ad-libbing was allowed.
The current ideology doesn’t even come close to its Soviet antecedent in terms of coherence, let alone philosophical underpinnings and vision of the future. Its core tenets are sketched in very general terms and concern only current events. The propaganda masters are forced to fill the conceptual void with their own ideas. Today’s propagandists piece together a concoction of disparate and contradictory Soviet and imperial myths, conspiracy theories, and ideas from both extreme right and left.
The lack of a coherent worldview makes the new ideologues emphasize words and emotions rather than meanings. This is why the language they use is so aggressive. Hate speech is the only means of filling ideological voids.
The propagandists fit only one psychological profile, inclining to authoritarianism and the use of force. Having lost the absolutes that the Soviet ideology contained, they instinctively grasped for archaic values and hit upon one reassuring and absolute value: war. But there is no purpose to their vocal saber rattling. Its disseminators have no ideology at all besides the wish to make the world simpler, go back to the past, and “stick it to everybody.”
Interestingly, the same compensatory mechanism is at play with the younger disciples of propaganda in their twenties and thirties, whose formative years were the 1990s. They lack confidence in the present, which makes them look to the past for support. They know little of Soviet reality, which makes it even more appealing. Their perceptions of the Soviet Union come from idealized depictions in movies and TV series.
This all reflects the common trauma these Russians experienced in response to Western superiority after the breakup of the Moscow-led Eastern Bloc and the emergence of the European Union. The propagandists admit that the West may have accomplished something in terms of technology, but they firmly believe that Russia is better adapted for survival and will eventually save the world yet again in the event of a global threat.
So, far from wanting to punish the West, Russia is in fact seeking to save it, thus demonstrating both its own importance to the world and the West’s failure. And in order to get this message across to the world, the propagandists have to artificially foment tensions and constantly talk of war. This will allow them to create this dangerous reality and then “save” the world from it.
In this way, the propaganda machine has gotten itself caught in an intellectual trap by directly linking Russia’s greatness to the failure of the West and of democracy. The talking heads must constantly look for evidence to demonstrate this failure. Terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis, or simply a blizzard in Virginia are labeled as “the beginning of the end of Western civilization.” Democracy is derided as juvenile, humankind’s temporary insanity, since its “weakness” also stands in our way of demonstrating our maturity, courage, and resiliency to the world.
And when they fail to find strong arguments in the present, the propagandists look to the past. History has also become a value. In the 1990s, the myth of pre-revolutionary imperial Russia was contrasted with that of Soviet Russia. More recently, the two myths have fused. Although it’s extremely difficult to combine the two ideologies, the masters of spin found a dialectical solution. They eliminated ethics as a criterion for assessing political regimes. When the regime declares the state rather than the individual to be the highest value, all the casualties are ultimately justified.
As a result, the new cult of Stalin didn’t appear out of the blue. He is the perfect figure to combine the red (Soviet) and the white (imperial) ideas. According to this new construct, Lenin destroyed the old empire, while Stalin restored it as a red empire.
Another major argument the propagandists love to fall back on is that of the “age-old confrontation” between Russia and the West. This idea is grounded in nineteenth-century conservatism and the Soviet model of the “confrontation between two systems,” which gave rise to the idea that “the West has always wanted to destroy us, and we have always been at war with the West.”
After twenty years of the Dostoyevskian underground, this circle of people has missed out on one very important component of the new world: the culture of dialogue, cooperation, and communication. The heated talk show dialogues that the propagandists engage in are mere imitations: the speakers have no intention of talking, even to one another.
Today’s propaganda looks frighteningly archaic. It does not just reject the values of the post-WWII world, but also casts aside all the values of the Renaissance era. Their propaganda can’t even be called an attack. It’s a self-defense mechanism for protection against the outside world. This behavior stems from an aggregation of unresolved ethical problems and a belief system crisis in the post-totalitarian psyche.
At present, Russia’s propagandists are passing on their phobias to us through their endless television shows, which in fact tell us less about America and the West than they reveal the dark alleys of their own consciousness.
Their rhetoric is a subconscious attempt to exorcise their own demons, and our neurotic state is mostly a consequence of their neurotic tendencies. Paradoxically, this makes them — not us — the main victims of propaganda.
By Andrey Arkhangelskiy, Carnegie Moscow Center