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28 September 2015

The psychology behind Russia’s propaganda onslaught

Russian propaganda imperils the future by distorting the past 

Amidst signs that Russia’s propaganda war against Ukraine is abating, the consequences from leveraging a nation’s collective trauma for the sake of waging war may entail profound psychological consequences for a populace seemingly being held hostage by its own leadership.

Following a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine on September 1st, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the abeyance in hostilities  “heartening.”

The BBC recently reported on the waning intensity of propaganda directed Kyiv’s way as Moscow shifts its attention, media and otherwise, towards Syria.

It is yet to be determined if Russia’s perceived Syrian pivot is merely a feint.

But even if Moscow is ready to freeze a war that has left 8,000 dead indefinitely, the damage caused to Ukrainians, who suffered actual conflict, and Russians, who were subjected to what Moscow-based family psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya called “propaganda carpet bombing and mass emotional rape”, is difficult to quantify. One thing remains certain: national healing is a long way off.

‘Hate thy brother’

Generating true enmity towards Ukraine, which has long been viewed as a “fraternal nation,” was not an easy task.

Moscow’s domestic propaganda effort thus relied on a two-pronged approach, one of which focused on a trauma whose resultant fruit was national pride — the other national humiliation. Both are arguably responsible for large swaths of the population suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cathy Young called the first prong “the official Great Patriotic War cult”. In short, Moscow appropriated the Soviet battle against nazism —which affected nearly every Russian family — for its own political expediency.

Myths and storytelling

When former Ukrainian President President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February 2014 following the Euromaidan revolution, Russian media was quick to conceptualize the interim government as a “fascist junta.”

The  Kremlin further had to up the propaganda ante once the decisions to annex the Crimean Peninsula and clandestinely spark a war in eastern Ukraine were implemented.

Kyiv had become the successor state to the Third Reich; a dark, NATO proxy intent on destroying Russia itself.

It did not matter when actual Ukrainian far-right nationalist parties, Svoboda and Right Sector, together managed less than two percent of the vote during the May 2014 presidential poll.

The propaganda narrative was too enticing. Many Russians do not understood what fascism really meant anymore, nor did they care.

Amidst sleekly edited, high octane news reports regularly depicting that civilians were being slaughtered and children crucified at the hands of Ukrainian neo-nazis, Russians had entered what Peter Pomerantsev called a world of “myths and story-telling”.

Any Russian who dared question the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine was no longer talking about politics, they were attempting to tear apart a deeply emotional, self-satisfying world view that helped Russians vicariously relive their grandparents struggle against evil. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned school children against disunity, claiming it would open them up to “powerful and traitorous enemies.”

The enormous social pressure to conform, coupled with state television reports making differences in opinion a matter of treason, has put incredible strain on Russian families. Russians themselves had become collateral damage in their own propaganda campaign. 

‘We are great, we are ashamed’

In a country gripped by anomie — a society characterized by communal breakdown and lack of moral guidance — the Soviet struggle against fascism is one of Russia’s few remaining shared experiences viewed with pride. It also contrasts strongly with the deep sense of national humiliation sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Exploiting this “geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”  has been the second prong in the Kremlin’s propaganda arsenal. 

The inability to assimilate the fall of the Soviet Union has led many Russians to project feelings of hatred onto the West, and more specifically America. The Kremlin has successfully channeled that hate to its own ends.

Ironically, in a country obsessed with power, it is actually everyday interactions with the state which fuel feelings of powerlessness and emasculation.

With chronic mismanagement decimating Russia’s economy, educational system and capacity for scientific innovation, militarism is the only means through which Russia can express itself perceived greatness. In the words of Russian expert Lilia Shevtsova, “The more Russia slides into crisis, the more the Russian elite will need to discuss Russia’s “humiliation” with the world.”

The burden of cognitive dissonance, between projecting superiority amidst a seething inferiority complex, is psychologically deleterious. The problem is, the state would rather seize on these psychological issues for leverage rather than heal them. The reasons are obvious. To either empower citizens through the promotion of democratic inclusiveness would weaken the elites grip on power. Instead, the citizens have been stripped of the power to shape their own society, and thus rely on the state to provide them a sense of self-worth. Rather than making Russia great, the propaganda apparatus rather makes people feel great. Only they are not free to take part in their own greatness in any tangible sense. This process has created something akin to nationwide Stockholm Syndrome.

“Others were worse”

An honest assessment of one’s own history would go a long way towards helping Russians find a more secure place in the modern world.

Instead, the government has chosen a self-serving historical whitewashing that will not allow the sacrifices of one’s family members to coexist with an admission of state repressions which left long-lasting scars on society.

In the words of Pavel Aptekar, Moscow’s interpretation of history downplays the crimes of the past, in part, so that it can avoid taking responsibility for crimes of the current regime.

Ironically, not looking honestly at one’s own history has itself been turned into a proxy through which one expresses national pride. Putin himself once lashed out at those allegedly trying to make Russia feel guilty for the Stalinist purges, arguing  “…in other countries, it has been said, it was more terrible.”

It does not matter whether Putin is right in his whataboutist attempt to quantify whether actions committed by other states were worse than episodes in Russian history. The question is not who is worse; the question is whether or not Russians have assimilated their own past.

Germans did not get over the horrors of Nazism by bringing up the firebombing of Dresden any more than South Africa could successfully come to terms with the sins of Apartheid by bringing up slavery and segregation in the United States. If a society does not take ownership of its tragedies, it will forever be possessed by them. And Russia in many ways is possessed.

Anger, then depression

Can Russia ever come to terms with its history? In line with the Kübler-Ross model, Petranovskaya believes that Russians lived for two decades in a state of denial regarding its imperial loss, and now have moved onto the second stage: anger. This anger has been projected both onto Ukraine, and seeped into many Russian families. She further argues that Russians, once they reach the state of depression, will face an uptick in drinking, suicide, and overall decline in health.

The latest data shows that this process might already be underway, sparking ominous warnings from the head of Russia's Institute for Demography, Migration and Regional Development.

If Russia survives this depression, perhaps acceptance might follow.

While the current leadership is not responsible for the PTSD being experienced en masse, it has sadly decided to exploit this weakness rather than reconcile Russia to its present condition so that a better future can be built. Moscow could have chosen truth and reconciliation. Instead, it has chosen anger. Ukraine was not the first nation to pay the price for Russia’s unresolved trauma. Sadly, it will unlikely be the last. 

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