Cute, but fictional: opposition vs. the Russian state

The jury is still out on who won the information war over Ukraine. The actual battleground seems to have been Europe, as America, predictably, won in America, Russia won in Russia and the rest of the world didn’t care either way. I admit to having fought on the side of Russia, and in no small measure these thoughts are an extension of that fight.

Looking back, now that the tensions aren’t running as high, I see from the things I wrote that what I actually wanted all along was for everyone to stop lying. Because of course, not all EuroMaidan activists are neo-Nazis, but nor was it a democratic revolution that altered status quo in Kiev this past February.

The information war saw its most violent verbal clashes play out in Western online newspapers’ comment threads. I personally must have ploughed through thousands of posts on American as well as European websites and my overall impression is that a lot of hateful trolling was done on the former, while the latter featured a significant number of reasonably sensible commenters. English speaking Russians seemingly preferred to engage with Europeans rather than US ‘exceptionals’. And I don’t blame them – makes for an easier fight.

Here is my takeaway though: the majority of anti-Russian commenters would retreat when countered with a drama-free argument backed by video evidence or links to credible independent sources. As it turned out, ever since the country opted for a President this unpalatable for advanced democracies, Western mass media have been doing an astonishingly bad job of equipping their readers with objective information about Russia, tirelessly painting a picture of a state that, in actuality, does not exist. Nearly seven decades ago George Kennan warned against the dangers of distortion:

We must see that our public is educated to realities of Russian situation. I cannot over-emphasize importance of this. Press cannot do this alone. It must be done mainly by Government, which is necessarily more experienced and better informed on practical problems involved… I am convinced that there would be far less hysterical anti-Sovietism in our country today if realities of this situation were better understood by our people.

Not much appears to have changed since then – hysterical anti-Sovietism gradually transformed itself into equally hysterical Russophobia, and it is both comical and sad that the Western press still struggles with questions like: “Who is Putin?”, “What is Putin thinking?”, “What does Putin want?”, “What do we do about Putin?”. Putin, Putin, Putin – good grief… The man makes perfect sense to the majority of Russian population. If, after 14 (!) years, you don’t understand him – you don’t understand Russia.

The myths and half-truths constantly repeated, most of the time unchallenged, are manifold, but the one I find irreparably hampers any meaningful discussion is that Russia is, effectively, a dictatorship. If you believe that the only perspective available to the Russian public through mass media is that of the Kremlin – you are going to automatically discount any comment made by a local resident. The rationale becomes: “You can not possibly know the real state of affairs because you have no access to an alternative viewpoint.” This is an absolutely disastrous angle:

a)    because you cut yourself off from the most credible source of information about any country – its citizens; and

b)   because it is a lie…

…an absolute untruth you believe because your newspapers regularly tell you that the Kremlin is choking the voices of opposition. If so, the Kremlin’s efforts are failing spectacularly – because every time I go into a bookstore, the pile of books with the collective title “Putin sucks!” grows ever taller, and no, the people writing them aren’t doing so from inside a Gulag.

Sometime later tonight I am going to dig into this week’s Profile.ru magazine. In this issue Mikhail Loginov, chief editor, is concerned with Russia’s double standards in its evaluation of upcoming Presidential elections in Kiev and Damascus. He is visibly upset: Syria, according to Mikhail, is a ‘nobody’ to us – we do not share history, language, religion or a border and he isn’t happy with us writing off Syrian debt. Under the patronage of Der Spiegel Profile.ru maintains:

Russian foreign policy isn’t guided by common sense or pragmatic rationale; it lives instead in accordance with day-before-yesterday convictions of global conflict between “two systems”. We still believe that someone wants to conquer and destroy us.

Last week Mr. Loginov was equally distraught that the total price of acquiring Crimea is proving to be too high: loss of Ukraine, serious long-term conflict with the West and the deep split in Russian society. According to popular Western belief – Mr. Loginov’s anti-Kremlin take on things isn’t supposed to be available to me. But it is. Right here on my desk.

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And it’s not as though I am the only person reading him either – according to Медиалогия Profile.ru was the 6th most cited magazine in the country in March 2014 – right when Russia was annexing places. As a matter of fact, if you just linger on that page a while, you will be surprised to discover that Snob.ru, the liberal enclave which hates the Kremlin with a passion, ranks 5th that month and Forbes.ru, which has the audacity to publish a piece by Andrei Kolesnikov where Federation Council’s decision from March 1st is referred to as Prague-1968, ranks 1st.

But let’s put magazines aside, since people tend to purchase them less often than, say, newspapers: Kommersant, Izvestia and Vedomosti make the top 3. Izvestia is definitely pro-Kremlin. Kommersant isn’t ‘in-your-face’ pro-anything: it’s a business publication and there isn’t much opinion on their pages – there are numbers, currencies exchange rates, business deals and opinions of various experts on said deals. Vedomosti, on the other hand, is published under the watchful eye of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. Incidentally, it was this very newspaper that carried Mr. Zubov’s article in which Crimea was Austria of 1938. Moving further along, NG.ru and novayagazeta.ru are among the top 10 – and neither source ever wholeheartedly embraced the Kremlin’s policies.

They say one never gets to witness opposition on TV. But with my own eyes on ТВЦ’s “Right to Know” I’ve watched a journalist from Ukraine accuse Dmitry Peskov, the President’s press secretary, of stealing Crimea. Vladimir Soloviev invites opposition representatives to every single one of his programs – aired on Rossiya 1 channel (read ‘state’) his political talk shows usually have some of the highest ratings. What’s more, practically every satellite TV provider carries EuroNews, DW and France 24 and I don’t recall them being affectionate towards the Kremlin. Again, EuroNews is in the top 10 this past March, and so is the much-maligned Rain TV. Last, but not least, and we’ll drop the subject of ratings, Ekho Moskvi, which is easily more anti-Russian than the Guardian, ranks 1st on the list of most cited radio stations…

Isn’t this somewhat peculiar? That even though what I’ve relayed is indisputably factual – Europeans as well as Americans insist, and will continue to insist, that the Kremlin stifles alternative voices?

Cute, but fictional” said George Carlin were the concepts of free press, freedom of choice, human rights: “They fucking made it up, folks. It’s make-believe!” The truth is – the only difference between Russia and the US is that here major media outlets are owned by the state, there – by corporations. And I’m not sure I can tell which is the lesser of two evils. But here is something I can tell – opposition in Russia today isn’t in conflict with the State; it’s in conflict with the Russian society. Why? Because it’s not authentic. It’s a foreign object, implanted from the West. People don’t relate to it because it’s not homegrown. Look through their publications – there is no original thought – whatever the Guardian or the Wall Street Journal have already written, Russian opposition will simply repeat, and that’s just sad. What Russia really needs is an opposition that comes from the Silent Majority, aims not to model Russia in the image of some other country but rather improve and re-build what already is, and is willing to constructively engage with those in power. That would make for a genuinely authentic elite, as well as vibrant discussion of policies and directions. Haven’t heard of Russia’s Silent Majority? Mark Ames has more on it here.

Featured image borrowed from davejunia.com

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