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The Kremlin's Propaganda Campaign and Russia's Regression

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Kremlin is addressing Russia’s economic problems by dusting off Soviet-era propaganda and policies. The resulting paranoia and intolerance are bound to yield a toxic harvest when the regime falters or loses control outright.

The 2008–09 financial crisis demonstrated that gas and oil exports could no longer serve as Russia’s engine of economic progress. Russia needed to dramatically change its investment climate through deep institutional reforms that would boost economic liberty, expand the rule of law and property rights, diminish corruption, and create more political choices for its citizens. Such reforms are all the more urgent now that Russia’s economy is slowing to a crawl. Yet the Kremlin has chosen to address these challenges with authoritarian consolidation, buying short-term stability at the expense of the country’s longer-term prosperity and progress. Elements of the Kremlin’s massive propaganda campaign include militarized patriotism and patriotic education; a selective recovery of Soviet symbols and ideals; the ultraconservative Russian Orthodox Church as the moral foundation of the regime; the promotion of a culture of subservience; and the intimidation, stigmatization, and repression of civil society and its vanguard, nongovernmental organizations. Leading independent Russian experts have called this strategy a “conservative turn” and a “reactionary wave.” Yet instead of producing the consolidation and unity expected by the Kremlin, this campaign may yield polarization, radicalism, and violence that will prevent the country’s peaceful and inclusive transition to a more dignified version of citizenship.

Patriotism, Spirituality, and the Culture Wars

As in the Soviet Union before it, the current regime equates a love of Russia with a devotion to the regime and has made patriotism synonymous with political loyalty. Patriotism and spirituality were leitmotifs of Putin’s December 12, 2012, annual address to the Federal Assembly. According to the Russian president, the country badly needs “spiritual staples” to consolidate society in the face of vaguely outlined internal and external threats. Putin has urged “patriotic education” of Russia’s youth as necessary to “shape a system of values among young people [and provide the] moral foundation” on which to build political culture.

A new agency was created within the presidential administration to promote and strengthen the ‘spiritual and moral foundations’ of Russian society.

In the fall of 2012, a new agency, the Directorate for Social Projects, was created within the presidential administration to promote and strengthen the “spiritual and moral foundations” of Russian society and to improve government policies in the field of “patriotic upbringing.” The Duma followed up with a series of ultraconservative, bordering on xenophobic, legislative recommendations. The proposed laws would strictly limit marriages between government employees and foreigners, ban anyone with foreign citizenship from criticizing the Russian government on television, bar the children of officials from studying abroad, and require that movie theaters screen Russian-made films at least 20 percent of the time.

As a political culture of citizenship emerges in Russia — a culture characterized by the resentment of and protest against despotism — the regime is betting on its opposite: the traditional culture of subservience. The campaign is aimed at the political mobilization of the more conservative and paternalistic segments of the electorate. According to Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, Russia’s oldest and most authoritative independent polling organization, the Kremlin’s goal, at least initially, may not have been to establish a permanent traditional and religious consciousness. Instead, the Kremlin seeks to discredit civil society and its liberal and democratic values, including the idea of inalienable rights, personal dignity, and the desacralized notion of a state — that is, the state as an instrument of society set up with the consent of the citizen, rather than “an unchallengeable entity from God.”

The Unique Civilization and Soviet Ideological Tropes

Just as the Soviet Union declared itself the world’s trailblazer on the road to Communist paradise, Russia is now professing to be a unique civilization with exclusive predestination. Such a definition implies the abandonment of the “European choice,” a strategic direction for the country which, until now, the post-Soviet Russian leaders, including Putin, repeatedly affirmed. The Kremlin has moved from mimicking democracy to outright rejecting Western values; anti-Westernism has thus become a pillar of the new reactionary political culture.

Although no one advocates a return to the state’s complete ownership of the economy or to totalitarian politics (at least not yet), the political sociologist Alexei Makarkin sees a return to “an amended and corrected USSR” where ideology, culture, and society are concerned. One of the Soviet ideological tropes the regime has reached for is what Professor Igor Klyamkin, dean of the Russian political sociologists, called “militarized patriotism in peacetime.” Putin ordered the reintroduction of the Ready for Labor and Defense (of the USSR) fitness program for schoolchildren, complete with the silver- and gold-colored badges for those who passed the tests. Another recovery from the Soviet era has been the Hero of Labor medal: except for the two-headed eagle in place of the hammer-and-sickle embossment, the five-point gold star is identical with the Hero of Socialist Labor badge, the Soviet Union’s highest civilian award.

The Whitewashing of the Soviet Past

The search for symbols of authority and national strength that help validate the newly authoritarian political order has produced another element of the conservative Russian ideology: the whitewashing of the Soviet past. In February 2013, Putin called for a single and mandatory history textbook that would be “free of internal contradictions and confusing interpretations” and filled with “respect for all the pages of our past.”

Among the values that the regime seeks to inculcate, there is another Soviet ideologeme: portraying the country as a fortress besieged by virulent enemies.

Finely attuned to the president’s wishes, the United Russia majority in the Duma has eagerly taken up the cause of creating a “canonic” history. To protect the uplifting harmony of the official Soviet past from inconvenient facts, the Duma has also contemplated passing a bill that would impose fines of up to $15,000 and a prison term of up to five years for the dissemination of deliberately false information about the Red Army’s role and behavior in World War II, the victory that was perhaps the key legitimizing symbol of the Soviet regime. The creeping rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin, which started shortly after Putin’s election in 2000, has also been gathering speed. Conforming to the pre–Mikhail Gorbachev Soviet stereotype, Stalin has been increasingly identified with such successes as the WWII victory, nuclear superpower status, and national unity.

This past June, Putin suggested Stalin’s moral superiority over U.S. leadership. According to Putin, Stalin would not have used a nuclear bomb against Germany in 1945. Putin went on to compare Stalin’s and America’s morality: “they [the U.S.] dropped the bomb on Japan, a country that was a non-nuclear state and was very close to defeat. So there are big differences between us.”

The Besieged Fortress and America the Enemy

Among the values that the regime seeks to inculcate is another Soviet ideologeme: portraying the country as a fortress besieged by virulent enemies. The deployment of this ideological stereotype of the Cold War era has several objectives: to rally around the flag in the face of the potential loss of sovereignty and to soften the blow in advance of severe economic complications by enabling Russian leadership to point a finger at foreign malfeasants. Perhaps most important, however, is that the alleged external hostility perpetuates the pretense of an endangered society that only Putin’s skillful and courageous leadership can protect.

As the Soviet Union’s enemy number one, the United States was a logical choice to cast as the prime target of the propaganda campaign. A signal for a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign was given from the top in 2011 when Putin accused the U.S. Department of State of playing the lead in organizing the first protests against the falsification of the Duma election results. This was followed by media attacks on and harassment of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul. Then, in fall 2012, the Kremlin ordered the expulsion of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

After the death of an adopted Russian boy in Texas in early 2013 (an autopsy later proved the death was accidental), another propaganda campaign portrayed Russian orphans adopted by American parents as subjected to all manner of abuse and even murder. The Duma rushed to pass a law banning all U.S. adoptions.

As in the Soviet Union before it, the current regime equates a love of Russia with a devotion to the regime and has made patriotism synonymous with political loyalty.

Alexei Pushkov, another notorious anti-American propagandist, has been rewarded with a seat in the Duma and the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Reacting to last month’s shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., Pushkov tweeted: “Yet another shooting at the US Navy Headquarters. A lone gunman and seven [sic] dead bodies. No one is surprised. Clear evidence of the ‘American exceptionalism.’”

Political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya concludes: “The conservative wave [inside Russia] is now negatively affecting not just the symbolic reset, but also the actual content of Russian-American relations.” With Russia becoming more isolationist and anti-American, the regime is willing to risk aggravating U.S.-Russian relations to boost domestic support.

Enlisting the Church

In a bid to consolidate its conservative electorate by positioning itself as a defender and promoter of traditional values, the Kremlin has increasingly identified itself with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Headed by Kirill (a very conservative patriarch even by the ROC’s standards) since 2009, the ROC hierarchy has been vocal in both its increasingly antimodernist stance and its unreserved support of the regime. (When Putin campaigned for reelection in February 2012, Kirill called Putin’s first two terms in office a “miracle from God”).

In a sign of its newfound allegiance to the ROC, the Kremlin meted out the widely disproportionate sentence of two years in labor camps to two members of the Pussy Riot punk band, who were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” following an anti-Putin protest at the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior in early 2012. Their trial and sentence have apparently inspired what became known as the “blasphemy bill” that was signed by Putin this past June. The law stipulates prison sentences of up to three years, additional fines, and compulsory correctional labor as punishment for public actions that offend religious feelings.

Another law, enacted at the same time and also designed to curry favor with the ROC, prohibited “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.” Although the law has caused a highly negative reaction abroad, including calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Kremlin seems to have found the damage to Russia’s international image an acceptable price to pay for bolstering loyalty to the regime at home and rewarding a key ally in the moral struggle against opponents of the regime.

Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth

The Russian government seems to be taking a page from one of the most reactionary tsars, Alexander III (1881–94), whose ideological motto was “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality.” Yet despite Alexander’s zealous implementation of this policy, his attempt to stave off political and cultural modernity by repression and censorship proved worse than futile. Instead, these measures further radicalized and polarized Russian politics: the first revolution broke out 11 years after Alexander’s death and was followed by the Bolshevik takeover 12 years later.

Putin ordered the reintroduction of the Ready for Labor and Defense (of the USSR) fitness program for schoolchildren, complete with the silver- and gold-colored badges for those who passed the tests.

The Putin regime’s systematic assault on civil society seeks to stigmatize, demoralize, and marginalize its vanguard: the urban middle class, nongovernmental organizations, and their leaders. Yet, as it was with Alexander’s campaign, this effort may turn out to be the self-fulfillment of the worst prophecy as these policies take aim at precisely the segment of Russian society most open to nonviolent change, dialogue, and compromise. The Kremlin’s campaign is likely to only further erode the liberal values of conciliation and responsibility and narrow the already severely constricted channels of communication between the opposition and the regime.

At some point, the authorities themselves might be scared by what they have allowed to “crawl up through the floorboards: the clerical, the nationalist, the jingoist,” says Boris Makarenko, a professor at Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics and the chairman of the board of the Center for Political Technologies. But by then, they may not be able to reverse the process. Assiduously sown by the Kremlin, the dragon’s teeth of demagoguery, paranoia, xenophobia, anti-Westernism, intolerance, and obscurantism are bound to yield a toxic harvest when the regime falters or loses control outright. In the worst case, as in the ancient Greek legend of the Golden Fleece, the campaign may yield massive violence that will be an enormous setback for a peaceful and inclusive transition to a more dignified version of Russian citizenship.

Leon Aron is a resident scholar and the director of Russian Studies at AEI. He is grateful to research assistant Katie Earle, Russian Studies intern Matt Andrews, and editor Hilary Waterman for their assistance with the Outlook from which this article is adapted.

FURTHER READING: Aron also writes “Putin's Petro State Approaching Empty,” “Vladimir Putin's Iranian Gambit,” “America, Syria, and the World,” and “The U.S. Stance on Russia Is a Major Factor of Domestic Legitimization of the Regime.” Ambassador Richard S. Williamson says it’s “Time to Reset Obama's Reset Policy,” Jon Kyl discusses “Putting Russia on the Right Path,” and Daniel Vajdic explains “What Obama Needs to Do about Russia.” AEI’s Foreign and Defense Policy team contributes the “Top 10 Ways Vladimir Putin Can Keep Helping Barack Obama.” Stephan Burklin writes “Autocracy for Dummies” while James Pethokoukis asks “Was Stalinism Necessary for Soviet Russia's Economic Development?

Photo by: S.Borisov / Shutterstock

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