23rd March 2012,
Since 2000, Russia has increasingly come to be governed by the use of propaganda as a method for ensuring the legitimation of the regime and keeping the population in check. A series of half-truths, exaggerations and myths have been created to this end, each of which bears the none too subtle whiff of the work of political technologists; that Russia’s elections are “more or less” democratic; that the country only suffers from “civilized” levels of corruption; that Skolkovo will make Russia’s economy a globally competitive center of innovation within a few years; that the Duma is an institution that dutifully scrutinizes legislation on behalf of the electorate; that political and economic reform is ”just around the corner…”
But perhaps the overarching legitimation myth of Putinism is idea of the “Colour Revolution,” the notion that the processes of revolt and democratization which have taken place in the near abroad and (more recently) middle East over the past decade are part of some all-powerful, hydra-headed American conspiracy, aimed at “destroying Russia” (and incidentally, world domination). Indeed, according to this narrative we are to believe that those perfidious Americans work day and night to confound otherwise perfectly content populations into overthrowing such beloved (and, of course, free and fairly elected) leaders as Milosevic, Yanukovich, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad.
The rationale behind the promotion of such theories is an unwillingness to accept the growing appeal of democratic governance to people in autocratic states generally, and of the applicability of the democratic model to Russia specifically. The need for the continued promotion of such a view of the world is dictated by the elite’s unwillingness to relax their grip on power domestically, or allow themselves to be put to the test of a genuinely fair election (regardless of how popular the opinion polls say they are). It is far easier to ascribe an unwarranted role in these revolts to the CIA, George Soros, the Bilderburg group or whoever, than to accept that the autocratic model of governance, while currently popular in Russia, has a very limited shelf life in the absence of high oil revenues, and has been rejected by the populations of at least a dozen countries over the last decade.
In terms of the implications of this we might expect for Russia’s domestic political development over the coming years, the continued employment of conspiracy theory as a means of control does not bode well. It is unlikely that the government will allow any genuine political alternatives to emerge to the current system whilst it also tars them, at the same time, as agents of foreign influence. This makes an eventual peaceful transition of power less likely.
A related problem is that Russian history already has several examples which demonstrate that where conspiracy is given prominence, there is a strong tendency that eventually even the leadership and security organs will come to believe their own inventions.
In Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History (2009) the British author David Aaronovich gives the example of the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion; a forged document supposedly describing how senior representatives of the Jewish community were plotting to achieve world domination, which was in fact cooked-up by the Okhrana in the early 1900′s as a weapon to bolster tsarist autocracy against reformism (many reformist politicians were Jews).
Another example of the NKVD’s (as it was by then called) handiwork can be seen in the Moscow “show trials” of the late 1930′s. During these trials several senior party members were coerced into implicating themselves in a complex series of conspiracies apparently intended to derail Soviet industrialization and overthrow Stalin in favour of the exiled Leon Trotsky. Needless to say (as was later admitted), no such plots ever existed; they were invented by the NKVD in order to consolidate Stalin’s grip on power, provide excuses for the numerous shortcomings of the first 5-year plan, and pander to the leader’s own deep personal paranoia. As Robert Conquest has described in The Great Terror (1968/1991), many millions died in the subsequent purges.
What is important in both cases is that eventually those in power in Russia came to believe the fictions they had created were true: In The Mitrokhin Archive (a document whose veracity and accuracy never been officially denied, more than a decade after publication), Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin recount that many among the KGB senior ranks still fully believed in the existence of Zionist plots well into the 1960′s and 1970′s. Similarly, many in the nomenklatura genuinely believed in the truth of the “show trials,” and supported the purges up until Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956.
Therefore we should perhaps not be too surprised at the anger in Prime Minister Putin’s voice, and the tears which streamed down his face during his otherwise carefully choreographed acceptance speech on the Manezhka earlier this month. His invocation of outside forces trying to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs may seem contrived to the foreign observer, especially after what the OSCE described as a poll which was “clearly skewed in favour of one of the contestants.” But, old chekist that he is, the possibility remains that Russia’s old-new President has come to genuinely believe in the myths that have been invented over the years by his colleagues in order to ensure he retains his grip on power.
Additional note: I have just added a link for the Wikipedia page for The Mitrokhin Archive. Oddly enough, there is no Russian translation of this page. I wonder why?