Will Russia Become a ‘Complete Dystopia?’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 72

Russian singer Shaman via Lenta.ru

Russian propaganda continues to promote the patriotic mobilization of its population, sometimes resorting to quite surrealistic methods. Thus, a singer who uses the pseudonym “Shaman” produced a music video eloquently titled “We.” In the video a group of children dressed in black uniforms march in formation, and the singer himself looks like a member of the Hitler Youth (YouTube, April 12). It is revealing that even some who support the war against Ukraine accused the singer of covert fascist propaganda (Тelegraf.com.ua, April 21). However, the main state TV channel ignored the criticism and ran the video on air, declaring that “the pronoun ‘we’ is the future… then there will be no ‘I,’ the individual will be no more” (YouTube, April 17).

With these words the Channel One hosts almost literally quoted the slogan of the “brave new world” found within the novels of well-known dystopian authors, such as Soviet writer Yevgeniy Zamyatin (“We”) and the American Ayn Rand (“Anthem”). Both books show a world in which individual names have been replaced by the collective self-identification of “we,” wherein no one can deviate from prescribed rules.

Clearly, the Kremlin wishes for this kind of unity. Throughout the past year propagandists and bureaucrats at all levels have not hidden the fact that their goal is the consolidation of society around the war (Ugra-news.ru, October 20, 2022). Today, various “experts” report that Russian society has already “united,” instead emphasizing the importance of preserving and strengthening this effect (Publico.ru, February 22).

At first glance it may seem that the Kremlin’s propaganda is achieving its goal. According to the latest poll of the Levada Center, an independent sociological agency, at the end of April: 83 percent of Russians approve of Vladimir Putin’s actions, 69 percent expressed approval of the Russian government, and the State Duma garnered 59 percent approval (Levada Сenter, April 26). But it would be a mistake to conclude that these figures indicate “social unification” for two reasons.

First, aside from fear of repression, the ostentatious unanimity of the responses may be explained by conformism, which Levada Center director Lev Gudkov has referred to as “the basis of the Putin regime” (VoA–Russian Service, April 5, 2021). Sociologist Grigoriy Yudin also suggests that one’s aggressive rejection of the truth and justification of the war becomes the means by which individuals “somehow preserve a fragile inner peace” (Currenttime.tv, April 6, 2022).

Seven years ago, I noted that the reaction of the majority of Russians to any degradation of their lives is to adapt to the new conditions (Svoboda.org, February 22, 2016). Today, the basic strategies for such adaptation might be termed the illusion of unity, the rationalization of the “necessity” for the war, and the delegation of the sole right to determine national policy to the government (Svoboda.org, September 12, 2022). Accordingly, the passive part of society will be ready to adapt in the same way to any government policies that might be implemented.

Second, we have already seen the high potential for conflict in Russian society, one measure of which is the growth of denunciations (see EDM, April 11). Over the past few weeks, journalists and human rights activists have begun to talk about denunciations as a real epidemic. During the first half of the war alone Russians wrote nearly 145,000 complaints to Roskomnadzor, the main censorship agency. 63,500 of them concerned “illegal information,” including “fake news” about the Russian army (Interfax.ru, August 25, 2022).

People denounce their neighbors, colleagues, teachers, students and even old friends. There are “serial denouncers,” such as Kseniya Krotova, who regularly monitors the internet and denounces experts providing commentary as “[media of] foreign agents.” Krotova bragged that she has written 922 denunciations and has no intention of stopping. In her words, her interest is “purely material” because she does not want her tax money to go for reparations to Ukraine if Russia loses (Zona.media, April 14).

The number of denunciations became so great that Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, was forced to comment. He called denunciations “a disgusting practice” (Interfax.ru, April 24). The question of why people write denunciations also appeared on the website of the Russian expert portal for socio-political debates. While the opinion of the experts was divided equally, two said that non-anonymous reports are necessary, useful for restoring justice and should not be called denunciations at all. The remaining two, on the contrary, believe that people mainly report others out of envy, aggression and revenge—and that such a thing is disgusting in any case (Publico.ru, April 25).

However, even setting aside selfish motives, one may conclude that the growth of denunciations is another form of adaptation to the new reality. As is evident from the case of Krotova, the authors of complaints hope to insulate themselves and the country from future retribution for war crimes. In addition, those who write denunciations get the feeling that they can somehow influence or at minimum establish a relationship with the authorities, which also provides an illusion of safety. At the same time, even pro-Kremlin commentators recognize that denunciations do not unite people but drive them apart. As Russian publicist Pavel Pryanikov explained: “More and more people in such times begin to self-censor and do not trust even once close friends—they become atomized. Atomized, intimidated people are not dangerous for the system” (T.me, April 29).

It is obvious that Russian authorities have not managed to create an ideal dystopia in which all of society uniformly believes in a common ideology. However, they have succeeded quite well in creating a typical dictatorship populated by passive, intimidated and distrustful people. So far, the only force challenging the general atmosphere of intimidation is, oddly enough, the active pro-military minority, comprised primarily of the military and military correspondents. For example, the authors of the Military Review website—who are close to the Ministry of Defense—regularly make claims about the “danger of discrediting the army” and “enemy propaganda.” Even these pro-war individuals, however, note that current legislation makes “healthy criticism” of army problems impossible (Topwar.ru, April 28).

Earlier, the same site criticized the new law on electronic draft notices, arguing that it involves a presumption of guilt of a person who, for objective reasons, did not receive a notice (Topwar.ru, April 14). It is natural that people who risk their lives for the Putin regime are starting to fight for their rights more actively, and by relying on these people to maintain power, the Kremlin thereby creates an additional threat to itself.