CW: war, state violence
Boris Johnson was wrong when he said Vladimir Putin was in a “total panic” about revolution at home. Olaf Scholz was also wrong in saying that the war was about ‘individuals,’ that the war was ‘Putin’s war’, and his alone. These are fantasies, encouraged by the complacency of democracy and a stubborn misunderstanding of the Russian state. Their words imply that the war in Ukraine has been launched against the true wishes of the Russian people who were, hitherto, cowed by state repression into backing the war. This robs them of the only agency that remains to them in Putin’s wartime Russia – the choice of what to think. In Russia, we are now seeing the population deciding to align with state propaganda. The mass of the population is standing with Putin and becoming more firm in their anti-Western viewpoints. The success of Putinism in this regard relies on Russians’ lost faith in democracy and capitalism dating from three decades ago. Putin’s kleptocracy becomes the best of two bad options. Failure to recognise this when the war ends condemns the West to commit the same mistakes it made thirty years ago when the USSR fell, which have led us to where we are today.
The threshold of responsibility
All available polling in Russia suggests at least passive support for the “special military operation”. Nowhere is it called a war, and any such reference incurs the wrath of the state. Russian police in February even arrested one woman from Nizhnii Novgorod for standing with a blank placard. The effect of this repression – and the influence of state propaganda – further submerges the Russian people into catatonic political passivity. State-run polls find strong support from ordinary Russians, as high as 80%. Of course these organisations are set up to produce results in support of government policy. Historically, they have done this by asking loaded questions, altering the figures (for example by including “neutral” respondents in “positive” or “negative” categories depending on if this supports the official line). But polls conducted last month by the Levada Centre (the last among Russia’s independent pollsters) also found similar results. 60% blamed the US and NATO for any escalation. Another poll by Savanta ComRes, a British firm, found that half the Russian population thought it right to intervene militarily in the ex-Soviet states or against Ukraine to pre-empt the threat from NATO.
Some commentators have turned on Russians as categorically complicit in the war. “Russian communities around the world are as dangerous as ISIS”, writes Ukraine’s former Deputy Minister of Culture. “Good Russians do not exist”. The 15,000 arrests for anti-war demonstrating gives the lie to this claim. Furthermore, limited access to social media in Russia means it has become easier to consolidate the line that there is no general “invasion” of Ukraine, but a war in defence of Russians in the East against a proclaimed Nazi enemy. It is harder to decry an entire people as complicit in a criminal war of aggression if they do not believe they are fighting one.
But Russians, as post-Soviet citizens, know as well as any people the lies that are told during wartime. Government perfidy was fundamental to the Soviet-Afghan War, where news coverage remained euphemistically doctrinaire eight years into the war. After 1987, glasnost exposed the disparity between government narratives and the war’s reality, contributing to the demise of the Communist Party’s credibility in the popular eye, and thus the efficacy of using force to defend it. Despite tepid support for the wars in Chechnya, the government was able to maintain sufficient support by describing it as a necessary sacrifice against terrorism, rather than a brutal resolution to a civil conflict. Casualties were also covered up by the government. Moscow has cravenly lied to the Russian people in every war it has waged. The Russian people – not just Petersburg and Muscovite intelligentsia, but the mothers of killed rural conscripts – know this. At some point, every person makes the choice to swallow the newest war propaganda whole. At its most tragic, this has led Russians to ignore their cognitive dissonance and reject the accounts of their Russian-speaking relatives suffering in Ukraine. Marina Ovsyannikova (the Channel One editor who demonstrated with an anti-war sign during live broadcast) has described the Russian populace as “zombified.” But this is not just a passive process – Russian people have played a role in their own political self-neutralisation.
The outcome of this state of affairs is both farce and genocide. As has been successfully argued elsewhere, silent assent allows the continued butchering of civilians in Ukraine. This is doomer politics.
The “doomer” subculture was born as an American climate-apocalypse-prepper thread on 4chan in 2018. It was then later adopted on some Russian social media, where it took on an even more nihilistic character. Fatalism melded with post-Soviet dereliction aesthetics and punk, as predominantly young men frequented online threads to cope with lives they felt were stymied by failure or lack of opportunity. Doomers lament lack of choice in their own lives, and a reality which is otherwise unbearable.
Most Russians are not familiar with “doomer culture”. Nevertheless, it serves as an epitome for their current state. Key to reluctant support for Putin, apathy in opposition as a population, and decision to believe state propaganda is a persistent narrative that there is no better option. “The post-modern authoritarian”, writes Professor Mark Galeotti, “knows that love can be fickle and fear destructive, such that apathy is better than both.”
Surely, once the benighted Russian public is freed from the propaganda, they will come round to our way of viewing things? In short, no. The current system brings repression and economic stagnation, but the alternative – Western capitalism – is remembered by the average Russian as one of corruption, poverty and humiliation. 1990s ‘shock therapy’ brought an inefficient but more stable Soviet system crashing down. Between 1990 and 2003, the Russian suicide rate doubled. By 1999, the life expectancy of Russian men had fallen to 58. ‘Gangster capitalism’ saw businessmen and journalists killed in their homes in front of their families, and high-ranking mobsters afforded lavish public funerals in full view of ordinary people eking out meagre livelihoods. Russians witnessed the true glory of liberal democracy in the murky 1996 general election, the result of which – Yeltsin’s re-election against a resurgent Communist Party – many contest to this day. Even by the early 2000s, this era was labelled the ‘Dark Past’.
The absence of hope for change breeds apathy and inaction. Tellingly, 56% of Russians surveyed in February declared they were not really following events in Ukraine. The tragic vacuum of hope for credible alternatives breed in submission to the official narrative. Putin’s 21st February “Century of Betrayal” speech epitomises this kind of thinking.
Belarussian author and dissident Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the post-Soviet era, Secondhand Time, provides a heart-rending and insightful look at the lived experience of doomer politics. The account of one woman, Marina Tikhonova Isaichik, the neighbour of Aleksandr Porfirievich Sharpilo, a 63-year-old retiree who succumbed to suicide, epitomises the sentiment so well it is worth repeating in full.
“On the radio, they’d said that after the war was over, we would all be happy, and Khrushchev, I remember, promised… he said that communism would soon be upon us. Gorbachev swore it, too, and he spoke so beautifully… Now Yeltsin’s making the same promises… I waited and waited for the good life to come. When I was little, I waited for it… and then when I got a little older… Now I’m old. To make a long story short, everyone lied and things only ever got worse. Wait and see, wait and suffer… Our Sashka… He waited and waited and then he couldn’t take it any longer… People have started believing in God again because there is no other hope… [We] defeated Hitler!… But what am I today? Who are we now?… I watch TV, I never miss the news… we’re the electorate now. Our job is to go and vote for the right candidate and then call it a day. I was sick one time and didn’t make it to the polling station, so they drove over here themselves. With a red box. That’s the one day they actually remember us… Sashka made the decision to stop living… Returned his ticket back to God himself.”
When asked in 2021, half of the Russian population surveyed declared they were against democracy. So, few will risk death or imprisonment trying to replace the current system for something they could not guarantee would be any better.
The death spiral
Doomer politics has ensured that the kids of the perestroika years and the 1990s are permanently lost to the West. Can the Russian youth arrest this process? This demographic is the country’s most-democratically minded and Western-facing. One survey by the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2017 found that the share of those under 25 who support human rights is almost twice as high as the share of supporters of the priority of state interests. Among those 61 and older, that ratio was the reverse. However, those surveyed were predominantly educated urbanites who are now fleeing Russia in droves. Denis Volkov, Navalny’s campaign manager, is not so optimistic. Volkov concedes that his boss’s campaign had to compete with the fact that most Russians under 25 remain loyal to the regime (including the many young soldiers dying in Ukraine). In “deep Russia”, the small towns and villages far away from Moscow or St Petersburg, the usage of television – and thus reach of state propaganda – is demonstrably higher than in the larger cities. Those with democratic or anti-Putin inclinations are now mainly imprisoned, emigrating, or living in self-imposed silence.
It may already be too late. For those who stay, the suffering of war will leave ample chance for doomer politics to capture the youth as well. The apathy that empowers Putin and resentment that governs Russian attitudes toward the West and fuel the war in Ukraine take root in a generation which looked like it might be the first to buck the trend. The new generation morphs into its predecessors.
The Russian public is closing ranks with the government and hunkering down for the sacrifices the country requires of them. Already, in view of food shortages, people are fatalistically discussing a return to Soviet conditions. Comprehensive trade embargos designed to truly explode the Russian economy will first impact the poor and disadvantaged who constitute Putin’s most reliable constituencies, pushing the two closer together. Putin’s extensive purges, mass arrests, and crackdown on independent media are foreboding signs of an impending spiral of violence in Russia if the war continues as badly as it currently is. Russian civil society is figuratively and literally entering into a death spiral.
Potentially, there is a breaking point where the populace rejects the government line in view of rising casualties and an imploding economy. It happened in the First World War. Like in 2022, 1914 saw mass support for war and expressions of Russian nationalism. Huge casualties and military failure intensified public opposition, and the Tsar was ousted in the February Revolution of 1917. But the First World War is not the only parallel. More recent Russian history reveals a different pattern. The true narratives about the Soviet War in Afghanistan proliferated when they were eventually allowed to by the government. Equally, as historians acknowledge, the fall of the Soviet empire and demise of the Communist Party was not forced by internal opposition, but by the decisions of Mikhail Gorbachev and his aides to abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine (military repression of internal dissent) and their move toward open expression. There is no indication the Putin regime will do anything similar. Moreover, the dissent of 1917 and 1989 reached its apogee when desirable political alternatives presented themselves. Doomer politics may preclude this happening now.
The end of doomer politics will require the ideal scenario of regime change, and then that the West actually demonstrate to Russians that there is a workable alternative to the way their country is run. Democracy here is not the first answer: the first answer is eliminating institutionalised corruption, the only issue which truly unites ordinary Russians in political opposition. Only by eliminating corruption can any government in turn show that liberal democracy can accommodate political pluralism, and crucially, that it will reflect their input, as many believe it failed to do in 1996 and thereafter. Russians will have to be persuaded that their nation does not benefit from the anti-intellectual, unconditional nationalism they currently espouse; and that economic change will not force ordinary citizens to choose again between the zombifying repression of the forever powerful or the cut-throat chaos of the newly wealthy. It is hard to see how Russian civil society will achieve this itself, considering its post-Soviet experience. It is even more difficult to imagine acceptance of foreign involvement in bringing this about, since in present-day Russia any unrest is readily denounced as a foreign plot.
The Biden Administration shows foresight in committing to an Anti-Corruption Strategy in the years ahead. Yet eliminating corruption is a task incomplete even in our own country, and an extremely difficult one in the Russian klepto-state, which perpetuates an age-old culture of corruption that would require decades of work – at minimum – to eradicate. It is hard to imagine the Ukrainians will have the forgiveness for any such scheme. Meanwhile, the EU is already straining politically under the internal pressure of Orban’s pro-Putin illiberalism and the threat of a far-right government in France. Washington is preparing to square up against a rising China and possibly even a resurgent Trump in 2024. These would probably be higher priorities. Even if Russia lost the war completely, Putin fell from power and was replaced by a more benign leadership, and the Ukrainians acquiesced to a conciliatory post-war settlement, there is no guarantee Western leaders would possess the attention, patience or consistency to see such a project to its conclusion.
I, and the Russians whom I know, hope that there will be some turn in the Russian population against the war and the genocidal aggression they are led to support by the state. Sadly, they do not represent the general sentiment back home. Putin’s war-mongering is as much the fuel behind the death spiral as the hopeless acquiescence of a nation of Marina Isaichiks. To Johnson and Scholz, I say that it is better to see things as they are rather than how we would want them to be.
Meanwhile, Russian civil society continues on its death spiral.
Image credit: Artwork by Ben Beechener