Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the chimerical image of Russia in the eyes of outsiders. I suppose that’s apt, given that his blog is dedicated to correcting misconceptions about Russia, but lately I’ve been devoting more time to considering the big picture. Lately I hit a sort of epiphany. It’s not that I realized something new, but rather that I finally found a simplistic way to put into words that which I had known for so long but could not adequately express to those not in the know. Consider the following.
-Many leftists, now more than ever, are under the impression that Russia is somehow progressive, opposed to NATO, neo-liberal economics, imperialism, and fascism. Radical types, many of them calling themselves Communists, believe that Russia is somehow a quasi-socialist or at least socially oriented state.
-Libertarians love Russia’s state-run RT network, and see Vladimir Putin as a check on American militarism.
-Paleoconservatives and hardcore reactionaries believe that Russia has rejected socialism and embraced “traditional values”, and thus it represents a check on liberal “Cultural Marxism” and the like. The most recent example of this is Pat Buchanan’s article about Putin, but this viewpoint is quite old and in some ways pre-dates the fall of the Soviet Union.
Since populism tends to affect all three of those broad groups, it’s natural that one can find significant overlap, but this should be enough to show us that something is seriously wrong. How is it that various groups who are in many cases diametrically opposed to each other manage to come to the same conclusion, that Russia is somehow favorable to their beliefs if not representative of them? How does the radical leftist see Russia as a new Soviet Union while a hardcore rightist or even neo-Nazi believes Russia is a traditional ethno-state? The answer is that Russia, through its various forms of media, is basically telling various groups what they want to hear.
Before we can explore this though, I must address some caveats. The first objection might be that this is not the only example of a phenomenon with radically divergent groups of supporters. Euromaidan also had its share of cheerleaders from every stop along the political spectrum, from CATO libertarians opposed to Russia’s protectionist economics, to Trotskyites swearing that this was a genuine workers’ uprising, to right-wing nationalists hailing the destruction of Communist monuments in Ukraine. Right-wing Cold Warriors rubbed their hands with glee at the destruction of Lenin statues and Soviet flags while NPR-loving liberals were told about a solid alliance of creative types, students, and LGBT groups. I do concede that many movements, especially in this era of social media and PR, deliberately try to court people from all over the political spectrum. However, looking at Maidan I would say it is merely par for the course in former Soviet Union politics. In other words, Maidan’s supporters were basically doing the same thing the Kremlin has been doing, which I intend to explain here.
The second objection, which I myself acknowledge, is that different groups can support things for different reasons, something which always seems to be lost on many people when discussing Russian politics. Someone could read an anti-Maidan article on this blog and say, “I heard RT saying the same thing,” while another person could read an article critical of Russian policy and say that it’s similar to something they read by a neo-liberal hack. This is similar to the fallacious argument, “Cows have four legs. Tables have four leg. Ergo cows are tables.” Radical leftists see in Russia a check on imperialism and believe this to be good because their ideology holds domination of other countries to be a negative thing. Paleoconservatives believe their country is degenerate, and spreading its degeneracy via its foreign policy, ergo they like the idea that Russia is opposing this. Though we can talk about different motivations behind certain positions on certain issues, one thing above all stands out. There is an obvious presence of groups with divergent, diametrically opposed ideologies which believe that they have found a champion in Russia.
With that out of the way, the explanation for this is quite simple. On one hand it is the simplistic principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Therefore any group or individual deeply opposed to the policies of his or her government is likely to look favorably on any nation which appears to be opposed to that government. This alone can’t explain it, however, for we rarely see the same across the spectrum enthusiasm for countries like Iran, China or Venezuela. Of the latter two, they do have their strong partisans in the West, but these tend to be strictly left-leaning people. They don’t enjoy the same across-the-spectrum status as Russia. The real reason for this, in fact, is because Russia’s foreign-audience media actively promotes these ideas. They have got something for everyone.
Westerners are really at a loss here because they don’t understand the kind of alliance politics which dominate the former Soviet Union. An American Communist cannot believe that Russian Communists condemning fascism in Ukraine might be in open association with Russian fascists. A leftist who opposes imperialism cannot imagine that a great deal of influence in the Russian foreign press is wielded by supporters of right-wing ideologue Alexander Dugin, a man who openly calls for a Russian empire and the destruction of Ukraine. Conservatives cannot imagine religious fundamentalists marching with a nominally “Communist” party. In other developed countries, political ideologies are taken seriously. Anarchists don’t march with the Tea Party, Tea Partiers don’t attend Occupy. It is only populists who swim in both seas. Both the Russian protests of 2011-2012 and Maidan easily demonstrate how different things are over here. Just as Maidan had supporters from different political factions speaking to their receptive audiences abroad, venues like Voice of Russia and RT seem to combine this into one megaphone broadcasting to the world. Different audiences somehow filter out that which contradicts their ideological values and focus on what appeals to them.
This might seem advantageous to Russia, but I would argue otherwise. Russia’s message isn’t attracting any true solidarity in the world because it is incoherent and seeks opportunistic, short term gains. It is also internally inconsistent, which further detracts from any coherent message they might get out. Lastly, it only flies in inverse proportion to how much the audience actually knows about Russia. The more they speak the language, observe the Russian internet, and spend time actually living in Russia, the more they realize that the picture Russian foreign media painted is nothing but a joke, regardless of what their views are. Leftists will be appalled by the way the state has let reactionaries run wild in recent years. Conservatives will be disappointed to find that this isn’t the land of “traditional family values.” Both will be shocked to see rampant “consumerism.” Of course many of these romantics solve this contradiction by going into denial and carefully tailoring their life in Russia so as to minimize the cognitive dissonance which comes with living in a fantasy world. But then again, many others won’t. I became a romantic after my first encounter with Russia. I ditched that quick after I returned, this time as an adult.
Over the next few weeks, I will begin tackling the various myths that Russia’s foreign media and its allies have been selling to different political tendencies around the world. The inspiration came from this article. I would like to expand on that author’s ideas by fleshing out what he described quite accurately, albeit briefly. Read that link and stay tuned.