Russia-watching has been a cottage industry for at least a century, but as you can imagine, recent events have kicked it into high gear.
As a long-time amateur in this lively field, I’ve been spending a lot of time tracking down Russian journalism, reduced as it is to a sad oxymoron. Respected, world-class journalists have had little choice but to leave Russia if they wish to continue writing about it. Far removed from their troubled subject matter, they’ve joined the waves of Russians now fleeing their country.
This is not a new development in Russian history. Previous waves of driven-out emigres have settled in the West by the many millions, ever since the days of the Tsar. They’ve brought with them a dazzling array of talent — intellectual, scientific, artistic, athletic — and made major contributions to western culture. Russia’s losses have always been our gain.
My best sources these days are, in fact, the American children of Russian emigres. Many are bilingual journalists — notably Julia Ioffe and Masha Gessen — who move easily between their two cultures, and who have a good handle on American naivete when it comes to Russian politics.
They have long cast a more jaundiced eye on events than our homegrown pundits have, and they’re usually the first to say “Not so fast” when our imaginations get ahead of us. What they’re getting from their sources in Russia, and from recent Russian polls, is not encouraging.
They are warning us that the Russian people, far from demanding the removal of Putin, are evidently rallying behind him. Some right-wing hate groups — Russian versions of the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers — are even protesting that he’s been too soft on Ukraine, that Kyiv should be a parking lot by now.
Apparently, even the oligarchs are falling in line. They’re taking their considerable losses more-or-less in stride — yachts, soccer teams, mansions and all — and resigning themselves to a long spell of cold weather.
Russians have been here before. They understand — even expect — hardship. Some have been through much worse in their lifetimes, and they’re more than willing to put up with a decade or two of privation, if the right buttons are pushed.
Which is where Putin’s propaganda juggernaut comes in. To the older generation, mostly TV watchers, Putin is the only voice in the room. He’s the staunch defender of conservative Christian values. He stands up to the decadent West. He speaks of Russia’s rightful place in the pantheon of great nations. He shakes his fist at all those feminists, homosexuals, and immigrants who would undermine Russian morality. And his audience eats it up.
This audience is totally familiar to us. When you see them flying their “Z” flags, just think “Make Russia Great Again.”
A grain of salt is required here. The Russia-watchers are quick to point out that poll numbers in Russia are wildly unreliable. Poll respondents tend to say anything the regime wants them to say, regardless of their true feelings. For obvious reasons.
Furthermore, the longer-term effects of sanctions have not yet begun to truly bite. Much of Russia’s industrial base is overwhelmingly dependent on western goods, services, and technologies, but the holes in those supply chains won’t be fully felt for months. Much pain is on the horizon.
Still, while we now know Putin is not exactly the evil genius we — or he — thought he was, he has reasons to see his glass as half full. While this may not be the road he would’ve chosen, it’s not clear that he minds where it’s going.
To be sure, the downsides of this ill-advised invasion have been massive. He has exposed gaping vulnerabilities in both his military and his economy, and he’s willing to impoverish his country to pay for it. He has bonded NATO more tightly together than it’s ever been. He has single-handedly ensured that no country — or company — will trust Russia on any level, for at least the next few decades. He has made Russia an implacable enemy of the Ukrainian people, in perpetuity. And he knows that any land grabs or annexations he still has in mind will only come at huge cost, not so much in human life — which moves him not at all — but in power and prestige, which moves him more than anything.
So that’s a lot of downsides for five weeks’ work, and he can’t be thrilled about it. But nor does he seem overly troubled. If you assume, as you must, that his concern for human life is nil — that he couldn’t care less how many people die in the name of his warped ambitions — then there are, at least in his mind, a few blessings he can count.
For one thing, he has forced his domestic enemies — of whom there are many millions — either out of Russia or off the playing field. Besides journalism, which has been decimated, people in all fields are fleeing what they know will be bleak times ahead, both politically and economically.
But Putin seems to see this brain drain as a positive. He’s content to see all those weak and whiny intellectuals go elsewhere. Less work for his police.
Then there are the huge problems he’s created for the West. Rebuilding Ukraine will not be his burden, let alone his concern. Nor will the millions of refugees needing resettlement in countries that can ill afford them. Nor will the hundreds of millions, all over the world, who were facing chronic food shortages before this war, and will now surely face starvation for want of Ukrainian grain. To Putin, anything that weakens the West is an upside.
But the biggest upside is his propaganda machine, now thoroughly cleansed of any semblance of free thought or integrity. He is now the proud owner of a nearly-airtight media bubble, with all public sources of news and events — especially TV — given over full-time to propaganda. Even Kim Jong-Un would be impressed.
This is the Fox News model taken to its logical conclusion, where control over messaging is total, and where no unapproved narratives can exist.
It’s a model that ensures Putin’s “base” will be kept ignorant, angry, and aggrieved well into the future. They’ll be kept completely in the dark about the how and why of their country’s activities — not to mention its atrocities. And they’ll be required to have their brains regularly washed — or at least pretend to.
It’s a model that all right-wing authoritarian movements can aspire to and build on. A population fully programmed to embrace institutional lies, ignore all inconvenient truths, excuse any apparent malfeasance, and accept instantly any new messaging, no matter how contradictory.
If we, in this country, weren’t hearing enough alarms already — if we weren’t so awash in right-wing power grabs coming at us from all directions — we might notice how Putin is, perversely, doing us a favor.
He’s showing us, quite clearly, the slippery slope our own society is currently on. And there’s no reason to think we’re as resilient as the Russians.