The Kremlin has created a new “agitation and propaganda” (agitprop) administration, which will focus on the elderly, whom the regime hopes to influence or at least keep in its corner now, and the young whom it can only hope to affect over the long term. It will not be reaching out to “the generation in the middle,” which was “formed in the difficult period of the collapse of the Soviet Union,” a source in the Russian presidential administration has said—an indication that Vladimir Putin and those around him have decided they will have little luck in promoting their version of patriotism among that middle-aged group (www.og.ru/articles/2012/10/22/33291.shtml).
On October 20, Putin signed a decree creating a new bureaucracy within his presidential administration: an office for special projects explicitly intended to “work on the strengthening of patriotic education and the spiritual-moral foundations of Russian society.” To be headed by Pavel Zenkovich, who has been responsible for information policy and work with social organizations for the president, it will have a fulltime staff of 30 to 35 people and seek to promote traditionalist patriotic values such as “respect for the state, family values and law-abidingness.”
These ideas and the creation of the new bureaucracy are clearly close to Putin’s heart, “Obshchaya gazeta” observed. In September, the Russian president told a special conference in Krasnodar on patriotic education that “cultural self-consciousness, spiritual and moral values, [as well as] value codes are a sphere of sharp competition” (www.og.ru/articles/2012/10/22/33291.shtml). He added that “the distortion of the national historical and moral consciousness has led entire states to catastrophe” and that Russia today must use “the best experience of education and enlightenment in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union”—although he said that “nothing must be idealized and nothing repeated in the form in which it existed in former times.”
But despite that disclaimer, most Moscow commentators have viewed what Putin is trying to do with this new entity as yet another indication that he is drawing on Soviet models for defining and promoting patriotism. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for example, even entitled its summary of reaction to this latest step, “Kremlin Agitprop” (www.ng.ru/politics/2012-10-22/1_agitprop.html), and suggested that this new Kremlin “support group” would, just as its Soviet predecessors often did, interfere with the carrying out of any new reforms, at least in the short term.
While the Moscow newspaper did not say so, there are at least two other consequences that arise from the creation of this type of institution. On the one hand, the new group suggests that Putin wants to have total control over the ideological space of the country, no longer trusting the various groups he has created in the past, believing that only a CPSU Central Committee–style bureaucracy will work. And on the other hand, the group’s creation suggests that the Russian president hopes to impose a particular ideological strain on the population, something that was possible in the Soviet past but that almost certainly will prove impossible now, given the greater openness of the country and the impact of the Internet.
Because this group is thus likely to fail, Putin may disband it as he has some of the previous institutional innovations he has come up with. Or far more likely, given his past practice, he may allow it to continue to function without any hope that it will somehow achieve anything positive. But regardless of which course he takes, the new group is beyond doubt more significant as an indication of where Putin wants to go than as an innovation that will take him or his country in that direction.
Nikolay Petrov of Moscow’s Carnegie Center told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Putin’s latest creation represented a shift away from “the de-ideologization” of society that the Russian president had promoted. The new agitprop administration would instead “create for the Kremlin an ideologically conservative support group,” one that the Kremlin can set in opposition to “the protesting minority.” But such an approach is likely to backfire, Petrov suggested, because “it forms a certain apathetic paternalistic majority, not so much pro-Putin as one seeking to preserve the status quo” (www.ng.ru/politics/2012-10-22/1_agitprop.html). That will have the effect of tying Putin’s hands if he wants to take on new initiatives, and such a failure to act will further erode his legitimacy and support among many Russians.
Gleb Pavlovsky of the Effective Politics Foundation added that Putin may have created an even larger problem for himself: his new agency is charged with conducting an internally contradictory policy, supposedly reaching out to more groups in society but only in the role of “a pedagogue,” and such “a paternalistic position excludes the [possibility of] communication” that Putin and his supporters say they want (www.ng.ru/politics/2012-10-22/1_agitprop.html).
Even some of the president’s backers, like Duma deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov, have now acknowledged that “the opposition will conceive the establishment of such an administration as an attempt to “unleash the whip.” But he said that in his view, such notions “do not have any relationship to reality” (www.mk.ru/politics/article/2012/10/22/764121-putin-nauchit-rossiyan-lyubit-rodinu.html).
The new administration is unlikely to have the impact that either its supporters or detractors hope, but the fact that Putin has apparently told it to ignore the large group of Russians whose values were formed during the period of the collapse of the Soviet Union says a great deal. It shows that Putin no longer hopes to win back the Russians in the middle but believes he can rely on the elderly, whose nostalgia for Soviet times he almost certainly overrates, and on the rising generation, whose support he believes against all evidence he can win by articulating a paternalistic and conservative message.