What are they thinking?

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how Russia’s biggest thieves and traitors scream the loudest about patriotism. Recently I was reading about a perfect example of this phenomenon, in this case the story of state Duma deputy Dmitry Sablin and his massive, palatial house and its fleet of luxury automobiles. The second part of the investigation deals with Sablin’s denials in regards to not publicly declaring his ownership of the property, but even if he had declared ownership it still wouldn’t explain where he got so much money in the first place, given his working history.

Now none of this is really news until you learn that Sablin is one of the founders of Russia’s latest astroturf movement, “Anti-Maidan.” As the author of the investigation calls him, he’s just another one of Russia’s “professional patriots.” Fully aware of their parasitic nature, they fear the wrath of the people they are exploiting and humiliating. Thus they create these organizations and disseminate propaganda so as to make people think that their enemy is the West, when in fact their enemy is Rublevka and the other elite districts of Russia. Sadly, many people are still on the needle that is jingoism. Why is this? Or an even better question: Why do people join organizations like Anti-Maidan when most of them wouldn’t be remotely surprised to hear about Sablin’s mysterious wealth?

Well first of all, Russians have been severely depoliticized since Putin took over. In the beginning he did stabilize things, but at a cost of cracking down on civil society and transforming Russian politics into theater, or what Peter Pomerantsev calls a kind of reality TV show. This is why if you discussed politics with anyone in Russia, they simply didn’t care. Thus it came as a shock to me after the Duma elections of 2011 when thousands of people suddenly started taking to the streets. It was 180 degrees the opposite of the elections in 2007 and 2008, about which no one seemed to care. Unfortunately not much in terms of useful ideas or a coherent ideology was formed in 2011-2012. In terms of political though, Russia has very little to work with and this has been the case since 1991. The liberals aren’t liberals, the Communists aren’t Communists, and so on.

Without any ideas of what can be done to save Russia, there can be no organized movement for change. If people have ideas, even really bad ones, they will brave police crackdowns and violence to force some kind of change in society. Maidan’s ideas, aside from anti-corruption and pro-civil society, ran the gamut from the naive idea that European integration would be a panacea for Ukraine, to the ridiculous, outdated ideas of the smaller but very vocal far-right. Without making moral judgments, people were able to coalesce around a core of ideas, even if that was only collective rage, and this gave them the determination to stay in the streets come what may. Unfortunately we do not know how far they were willing to go as Mr. Yanukovych decided to rage-quit the game.

Russia tends to lack such simple, coherent ideas because its media has been increasingly blasting the population with bizarre, often contradictory propaganda messages. Lenin is a great Russian leader when thugs in Ukraine topple his statue, but other times he’s an evil foreign-financed beast who murdered the Russian royal family and set Russia back by decades. Josef Stalin is a great leader, but only because they turn him into this Russian nationalist tsar of sorts, and all the negative aspects of the USSR under his tenure are presented in a positive light because this is useful to the rulers of today. Russia is supposedly a bastion of traditional family values, but it’s also a wild land of decadent parties and sexy women. All these contradictory messages occur against a background of corruption, apathy, and utter disregard for society by the authorities. The result is a high level of cynicism and utter hopelessness.

Of course this can only be used as a contributing factor in explaining why Russians don’t stand up to their government. It doesn’t explain why people join movements like Anti-Maidan. One thing the opposition might find difficult to chew on is the fact that for many, the reason can be sincere belief. I believe in an Occam’s razor approach that starts with the assumption that people who join organizations and movements must have some measure of actual belief in the stated cause. I suspect many of these people are young, inexperienced, and immersed in the kind of propaganda and indoctrination that is a feature of public schools around the world. Youth are the shock troops of politics because they are malleable and tend to fanatically support whatever cause they’ve become acquainted with. They also have a strong need for belonging and social approval, hence the readiness to join movements and organizations.

Indeed, it might seem odd that so many people could have genuine feelings of patriotism in a country where the government and ruling elite are so open in their contempt and hatred for the majority of their citizens. However one must remember that patriotism is one of the easiest causes to rally behind. Everyone has a nationality; if you can’t get into any other exclusive clubs, you were born into this one. The rules are easy too. Support your country by defending its government, and wave the flag. Decry Western values, even if you don’t know what they are. Reject Western products, except the ones you really, really need…or want. If someone asks you what values you are for that’s an easy question. Russian values of course! If they ask you what they are, question their patriotism or just flat out label them a traitor.  Patriotism isn’t just the last refuge of scoundrels, it’s also great for lazy people too.

Of course money is involved as well. It’s no secret that the government and approved opposition parties use monetary incentives and intimidation to get students, pensioners, and state employees to attend rallies. This is actually more sinister than people realize, because what it means is that the power structure actually has a negative incentive against not only improving living standards but also against expanding the so-called “middle class.” The more disposable income people have and the better their living conditions, the less likely they are to attend political rallies they don’t care about for paltry sums of money.

Another major factor is that groups like Anti-Maidan are authorized dissent. There’s an old Soviet joke about how and American and Russian are comparing their two countries on the basis of freedom of speech. The American points out that he can stand in Times Square and call the president of the United States a son of a bitch. The Russian tells him that he could just as easily stand in Red Square and call the president of the United States a son of a bitch. Many a truth is said in jest, and in this case it describes movements like Anti-Maidan quite well. Youth like the idea of going to protests and being rebellious, but they aren’t allowed to challenge the system here. Therefore movements like this let them blow off steam at enemies of the regime and other safe targets. Of course that brings up a darker side of movements like Anti-Maidan.

I have written in the past about the role of humiliation in modern Russian culture. Among the youth and even older males there is a lot of pent up rage. These people are angry at their family life, angry about their jobs or lack thereof, angry that their world seems to be crumbling all around them for reasons they cannot understand. They hate the stereotypical “creative class” that has become synonymous with liberalism in Russia, supposedly because they are traitors who would turn Russia into a colony of the United States. In reality, the opposition doesn’t necessarily consist solely of well-to-do hipsters. Nonetheless, this class appears threatening to certain segments of Russian society. They fear a Russia in which they will be forced to learn about an outside world they can’t understand, where they will be forced to defend their ideas without the ability to use the violence of the state to silence opponents. They will have to compete to succeed rather than getting kickbacks by knowing the right people. They fear a Russia where things like talent and innovation are the main currency as opposed to getting handouts for loyalty. Now all you have to do is wave a flag, call yourself a patriot, and accuse others of being traitors. What if that’s all gone one day? So long as these Anti-Maidan people are useful to the government, they’ll be the heroes of the day.

The other side of that coin is that these people know they will be allowed to harass, and possibly assault people with near impunity. If they are stopped by police, they will likely get off easy if they are even charged. In many cases, they won’t be caught at all. When you’re mad at the whole world it’s nice to be allowed to vent your anger on people who you assume have it better than you. In Russia the state and elite are always reminding you of how utterly powerless you are. If it’s not the Duma discussing another thing they want to ban, it’s the luxury cars parked outside ridiculously expensive restaurants in the center. These people know that their elite are dining on foreign cuisine and drinking the finest imported liquor, embargo notwithstanding, and no doubt with foreign business associates who will be fixed up with some of the most beautiful girls beyond the reach of your average Adidas-wearing 18-25 year old Russian male. Post-Soviet Russian society is always shoving this in your face, but you’re not allowed to strike back at the protected. Therefore all the better when those people give you a green light to beat up on people who enjoy Western fashions, listen to different music, and learn English or other foreign languages. You are humiliated so you want to humiliate others.

Indeed it’s all very cynical, but cynicism is the essence of Putin’s Russia. If you tell the members of these astroturf movements that their sponsors are insanely rich and live luxurious lives totally detached from the reality of most Russians, often at their expense, they might get a bit upset but they won’t be surprised. They most likely already know or at least suspect as much. They stick with the Kremlin because they sense this is the winning side and this is the safe option. As people in the movement vie for favor at the top and the handouts which go along with all that, underlings will see that loyalty isn’t always enough. Infighting will lead to splits and more parties and organizations will spring up while the more ideologically strict ones made up of true believers will fall by the wayside due to lack of funding.

As ominous as the rise of such movements may be, this cannot go on forever. In fact the more resources and power are allocated to these groups and movements by the state, the closer to the bitter end we are. This is because these groups have a major flaw in common with the top leadership of the country, namely, they are totally out of touch with reality. This means that they are unwilling to listen to people who present actual solutions to Russia’s concrete problems.

What they want to hear are patriotic speeches about crushing America, not someone telling them that Russia needs to attract foreign capital and support small and medium-sized businesses. This is why Putin became so popular while Medvedev is still pretty much a non-entity even among Kremlin fans. Putin appeals to their adolescent wishes and insecurities. Medvedev gives entire speeches without talking about nuclear missiles, bears, or Russian power.  As a general rule of thumb, you want your leader to talk more or less like those of successful countries with high living standards. If they start babbling about bears in forests or “traditions” it’s usually a bad sign.

No doubt these movements will one day turn against their masters; those people who egged them on, financed them, trained them, and then set them against “national traitors” will one day find themselves labeled traitors, and for once it will be just. Sadly what this means in the mean time is that the state is currently enabling, encouraging, and cultivating the worst elements of Russian society and pitting it against the last hope for this nation to survive in the 21st century. So there is a very real danger that when that day of reckoning does come, there won’t be any educated, intelligent, visionary class of people left to rebuild the nation from the ashes. This is the price of 15 years of cynicism and corruption. Russia’s epitaph will read: “Destroyed by her patriots.”

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