Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Dearth of Information

Can it really be that the main result of freedom of speech is simply useless "information clutter"? Does this information clutter contribute anything to the creation of democracy in Russia? Democracy, as everyone knows, is both simple in principle and complex and delicate in reality. Like freedom, equality, justice and other fundamental moral-political categories, democracy can be defined and interpreted in many different ways. But it is safe to say that democracy presupposes the existence of at least two factors: general access to reliable and socially significant information by all citizens and the existence of a citizenry with a certain level of education and political culture to understand at least the basic principles and mechanisms of democracy. The second factor is too complex to be discussed here. I will simply remark that the majority of Russians -- for many historical reasons -- have highly distorted ideas about freedom and democracy that often manifest themselves in the absence of those voluntary limitations that are primarily connected with a respect for the freedom, rights, interests and opinions of others. The word "compromise," which is one of the buzzwords of post-communist society, for most Russians usually merely signifies yielding to whoever happens to be stronger at the moment. Let us return to the first condition of democracy: accessible information. During the Soviet period, this problem was easily solved. Everything that was deemed necessary by the party and the government was widely available in newspapers from Pravda to Soviet Sport, and it was thereby firmly implanted in the minds of Soviet citizens. The citizenry either took into consideration the conditionality and ideological context of the information or understood that it was a complete deception. With some success, they sought out their own, more reliable sources of information, usually Western radio broadcasts. Now the situation is completely different and there are many sources of information. A huge number of publications and radio and television broadcasts are striving to inform the Russian citizen about the most varied topics, all without the limitations of censorship or ideological taboos. It would seem that everything is as it should be. However, in reality nothing is so simple. The information situation is far from what people hoped it would become during Gorbachev's glasnost. Behind the flood of facts, opinions, interpretations and predictions there lurks a paucity of information about many vital questions. What, for example, is Russian-style privatization? A remarkable program that is making every Russian an actual owner of formerly state property, as Anatoly Chubais says, or a deception of the country and its citizens by a group of political adventurists acting on orders from western security organizations, as Yuri Luzhkov recently claimed? How come the Russian government today does not have enough space in buildings that once housed both the all-union state and party structures and the Russian government organizations? What does the president do all day? We only hear about certain fragments of his day, such as his weekly meetings with the prime minister, which are reported even more vacuously than weekly Politburo meetings were once covered. Is the president in outstanding physical condition, or are the rumors true that he has been adversely affected by his predilection for certain drinks? Who selects the constantly changing composition of the president's advisory council and what actual authority does that body have? What is the meaning of the phrase that was heard on news broadcasts recently to the effect that the multi-billion ruble amount needed to prop up the defense industry "was found"? This phrase was used without additional explanation as to where it was found or whose account it came from. Anyone living in this country could come up with hundreds of such questions. But I cannot find the answers to any of them. Moreover, I am beginning to get the impression that we are being intentionally starved of information -- that is to say, of basic political, economic and social information -- despite the appearance of free speech, a pluralism of opinions, the enormous number of new "political analysts" and public opinion services. Formerly, we were isolated from information, though the principles by which Soviet society functioned were generally understood. Now, we are deafened by "the din of pluralistic information," but the sense and content of what is going on is, in many regards, unknown. What is worse is that these things also, most likely, remain unclear to those who are in power and who bear responsibility for what is happening. Under these circumstances, how can I figure things out and become a citizen in the proper sense of the word? One is forced to rely in part on one's own experience and common sense. But these things tell me that, for example, if I receive $30 a year for the stock that I bought with my privatization voucher, it is unlikely that I will ever be able to buy even a foreign car during my lifetime. In other words, neither real life nor what the authorities are trying to convey to me through the mass media are developing in me a sense of citizenship or rational optimism. Rather, they develop an ever-increasing skepticism and a mistrust of the authorities. And since I can by no means be considered an exception (the majority of my friends, who work in the sciences and the humanities, feel the same way), it follows that this situation should be taken very seriously by those who are interested in the creation and long-term success of democracy in Russia. Konstantin Zuyev is a senior researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.