The Kremlin's Propaganda Ministry

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Which event in Soviet history marked the beginning of the end for communism? It happened 27 years ago, when Mikhail Suslov, the chief Communist Party ideologist during the 1970s, died in January 1982. Those who subsequently filled his post -- one after another in rapid succession -- increasingly contributed their part to communism's demise. They included Yury Andropov, Vadim Medvedev and Alexander Yakovlev. My sincere thanks to all of them for quickly dismantling -- willfully or not -- the insane totalitarian system that they called "the workers' paradise."

With the emergence of post-Soviet Russia, it was unsuitable to speak about a new "state ideology." Although Boris Yeltsin made many mistakes during his presidency, to his credit he never tried to impose any ideology on society -- not capitalism, socialism, Russian Orthodoxy or anything else. He strictly adhered to Article 13 of the Constitution:

1.The Russian Federation recognizes different ideologies.

2.No ideology can be declared a state or obligatory ideology.

3.The Russian Federation recognizes political diversity and a multiparty system.

But starting in 2000, when Vladimir Putin became president, I started sensing that the government was trying to dupe me once again by forcing a new ideology on me -- the only difference being that this time the state was using a much more modern and subtle PR technology. Television news and documentaries started to characterize the Yeltsin era as one marked by a lack of patriotism, self-deprecation and excessive servility to the West. We were told in many different ways that it is impossible to love your motherland without hating the West, which rejoiced as the Soviet empire fell apart piece by piece from 1989 to 1991, and then relished as the chaos of the '90s brought Russia to its knees.

In the beginning of Putin's era, it seemed like a bad joke, but when pro-Kremlin groups such as Young Guard and Nashi faithfully took to the streets like zombies and when State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov in all earnestness declared that "the Duma is no place for discussion," that is when I understood for good that this seemingly harmless exercise in manipulating the public's collective consciousness was truly dangerous because it had such a powerful impact on millions of Russians. As it turned out, the Kremlin got an excellent return on its investment after spending so much on high-paid political strategists, with Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov -- the modern-day Suslov -- leading the pack.

That propaganda machine, well-oiled by petrodollars, would have continued to roll smoothly onward had the economic crisis not gotten in the way. At first glance, the crisis seemed to support the state's ideological line. State-controlled television enthusiastically reported that the United States was going through its death throes even while Russia remained an "island of stability," thanks to the wise policies of the government.

Now, it is clear that the situation is not quite that rosy. Unemployment is rising, and salaries are dropping. Inflation is climbing, and the gross domestic product is decreasing. After years of budget surpluses, the federal budget is now in deficit. Moreover, Russia's crisis is more severe than in the West, where unemployment is growing at a slower pace and prices have been falling markedly.

The government has to face the harsh reality. Its mythical island of stability was quickly destroyed by the first waves of the global economic tsunami. The Kremlin will be entirely powerless to resist the millions of people who have lost their jobs or whose real incomes have dropped by a devastating combination of pay cuts and inflation. The government needs to speak more with ordinary people and owners of small businesses to get a sense of how bad things really are.

Instead of doing this, Surkov is calling everyone to defend the current political system. There should be an open political debate and discussion in the Duma, on television and elsewhere of what is wrong and what needs to be done to best fight the crisis. But Surkov, in his infinite wisdom, sees it differently. He thinks that any debate he has not personally scripted and staged will threaten his own ability to function as Russia's Suslov.

Officially, Russia doesn't have an propaganda ministry. Nonetheless, we are still seeing a Soviet-like government propaganda machine that manipulates people's consciousness and public opinion.

To put it in economic terms, the government needs to divest itself of its "noncore business": It needs to stop brainwashing the population. Otherwise, it could prove fatal. Although average Russians are quite tolerant of hardships and it takes a lot to force them to protest against government abuses, if the state continuously shoves their faces into the dirt and treats them like cattle, sooner or later they will respond with anger, vengeance and perhaps violence. And the likelihood of that scenario playing out is increasing daily with so many people losing their jobs, incomes and basic faith in the government.

Yevgeny Gontmakher is the director of the Center for Social Policy at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This comment appeared in Vedomosti.