Recently, I was driving a car towards the center of Moscow, heading out to eat with some friends, and listening to the popular, independent radio station Silver Rain FM. Between the continuous selection of excellent American musical fare, from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Draft Punk, the DJ told a joke. “In America, you have your American dream,” he laughed. “In Russia, our dream is that your dream doesn’t come true.” And that my friends, sums up the current Russian public’s attitude towards the United States.
Of course, this isn’t everyone in Russia. Over ten thousand people demonstrated openly in Moscow in March against the Crimean invasion. However, the opposition has slowly become less effective in garnering support among the electorate.
Where does this anti-Western view come from? It comes from centuries of mistrust and jealousy of the West. From the Polish invasions of the Middle Ages, Napoleon, and the Germans, Russians have not had a good experience with their Western neighbors. This is ingrained in their DNA. During Soviet times, Russians yearned for the Western lifestyle and all of the comforts they dreamed it would bring, all the while being pummeled with anti-Western propaganda. After the fall of the Soviet Union and their first experience with freedom and capitalism, Russia suffered a decade of crisis, corruption, and humiliation as their national power and stature were crushed. Most Americans don’t understand that the Soviet Union lasted only seventy years, a small slice of the Russian Empire which really began in Kiev around the turn of the first millenium. Russians yearn for the return of their perceived place in the world as a great people and a powerful country, deserving of respect and fear. They see the West as the aggressor in Ukraine, stirring up opposition to Moscow and encircling Russia with NATO membership for former Soviet republics.
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So that brings us to the current crisis. The Kremlin has been very effective over the last few years stifling opposition and restricting free speech and independent media outlets. Opposition leaders have been placed in prison or had charges filed against them. The most popular charge is one of “extremism.” The main opposition leader in Moscow, Navalny, is currently under house arrest awaiting trial on trumped-up charges, and the West is well aware of the Pussy Riot saga. Recently, the TV counterpart to Silver Rain Radio, Dosht (Rain) TV, has come under fire by a stealth Kremlin campaign to destroy its revenue base by having cable distributors stop carrying the channel. The Kremlin has also been shutting down opposition websites in a long campaign to remove any political threat.
The most striking example of the Kremlin propaganda campaign has been the constant, vicious campaign against the West on state television. Outlandish claims of America and the EU supporting Ukrainian nationalist, neo-nazi elements have been burned into the Russian public’ mind. Remember, Russia lost twenty million people to the Nazi invasion in the Great Patriotic War, as they call WWII. Comparisons to Hitler are still very effective in stirring nationalist sentiment in Moscow and the countryside, and the Kremlin knows it. Another disturbing but expected development is the announcement by the Education Ministry that after the upcoming spring holiday, “educational” materials will be provided to Russian schools to “help Russian children understand” what is happening in Crimea. All of these tactics are very reminiscent of Soviet times.
At the end of the day however, Russians want desperately to believe they did not invade Crimea but simply are there to protect the ethnic, Russian speaking population. Normally intellectually honest Russian friends of mine in-country have become zombies regurgitating Kremlin propaganda, and fiercely evangelizing that it’s all America’s fault and we are the aggressor. They look you in the eye and say that there are no Russian troops in Crimea and that the unmarked gunmen are simply pro Russian militia. They tell you with a straight face that thousands of ethnic Russians were being killed in Crim (as Russian’s call it), and they had to intervene. When you mention that on one hand they are saying there are no Russian troops in Crimea, and on the other hand they are saying they had to intervene, they get angry and walk away. Of course, the argument that the United States has invaded many countries over the last several decades always provides them with a modicum of self-satisfaction.
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The Kremlin’s propaganda campaign has been devastatingly effective in shaping Russian public opinion and playing upon Russian psychology. Putin’s popularity is skyrocketing above seventy percent. Russians are willingly suspending disbelief and swallowing the Kremlin line because they desperately want to believe what they are being told. The alternative is too hard to accept.
I had a nice dinner with my friends in Moscow that evening, although the conversation became quite heated at times. Perhaps the most prescient comment came from a very wise Russian woman at the table who said, “Russians are happy now, but I don’t think they are looking to the future.” It will be interesting to see how public opinion changes over the next year, as the Russian economy slows and Russian freedom is further restricted.
L. Todd Wood is a contributor to The Moscow Times. His thriller novel, “Currency”, deals with overwhelming sovereign debt and national security. His website is LToddWood.com
Photo credit: World Economic Forum (Flickr)
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