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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Seeing Is Only Sometimes Believing

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The people of Volgograd elected a new mayor last week, a Communist named Roman Grebennikov who at 31 ywas the youngest speaker of a regional legislature in modern Russian history. Grebennikov edged out both the incumbent, acting Mayor Roland Khrianov, and State Duma Deputy Vasily Galushkin.

With the endorsement of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party in their pocket, Galushkin and his staff were convinced they had the election in the bag. But the support clearly went to Galushkin's head, and he started behaving strangely. He appeared at a pre-arranged meeting with war veterans and just told them he was from United Russia, obviously under the impression that this would be enough to guarantee victory. He arranged meetings with labor unions and then didn't bother to show up. Once United Russia got a look at his opinion poll ratings, the party withdrew its support.

But Galushkin did not pull out, and for good reason. If you borrow a bunch of money to run a campaign but decide to drop out of the race early, people are going to expect their money back.

The turnout in Volgograd was expected to be unusually high, but just before election day, rumors began to circulate. Journalists received tips that there had been an accident at the nuclear power plant near the city. These rumors were apparently designed to scare elderly voters, who turned out to be Grebennikov's strongest constituency.

Scare tactics like these are typical tools for those interested in lowering voter turnout in regional elections. In most cases, however, the threat is more along the lines of a flu epidemic or flash fires racing toward town.

But the rumor of the power plant explosion spread like wildfire, gaining force as it grew. Drug stores quickly sold out of supplies of things like iodine in the ensuing panic. The local communications infrastructure couldn't hold up to the surge in usage, and phones at emergency hotlines were ringing off the hook.

Another example of this phenomenon, in Dagestan, was even worse. An official announcement made to counter earlier rumors of an explosion never reached the 400,000 television viewers at whom it was targeted. It seems the television station had been closed that day for repairs. A short time later, local radio stations reported unusual solar activity and warned listeners to stay indoors. Schoolchildren were treated with iodine as a precautionary measure, and traffic disappeared from the streets of Makhachkala. No cases of radiation poisoning were reported, but there was likely a wave of excessive iodine ingestion.

These are strange times. According to all accounts, President Vladimir Putin's popularity is at record levels, even rivaling that of history's "great leaders." Everyone knows that he strengthened power structures, brought order, and increased the country's international prestige. That's the message conveyed daily on the Channel One and Rossia television, and people end up believing something when they hear it that often.

Ironically, it turns out that the people who are ready to believe in televised conspiracy theories about the United States, or in the efficacy of strong power structures, or even the idea that Putin himself invented nanotechnology and personally liquidated Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, are the same people who refuse to believe that Volgograd's nuclear power station did not in fact blow up, even after seeing footage of it still intact and learning that there couldn't have been an accident because the facility was shut down for repairs.

These people are willing to believe the most ridiculous rumors and eat up the stories told by their drunken neighbors. And they continue believing these far out versions of events in the face of all other evidence. Given how widespread this tendency is, it's amazing that so many people believe what the television and radio tell them about Putin's Russia.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.