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Manipulating yesterday Political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova on how Putin’s elite — and not the ‘mentality of the Russian people’ — laid the groundwork for war

Source: Meduza
Evgeny Feldman

As the war in Ukraine drags on, the number of casualties, including Russian troops, keeps growing, and support for Vladimir Putin is still on the rise, in spite of it all. The war itself also seems to be pretty popular in Russia. Meanwhile, the political situation feels more and more grim, taking on the features of totalitarianism. Meduza spoke with political scientist Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, a professor at King’s College London, about how the Russian authorities deliberately prepared the public for the war. 

Gulnaz Sharafutdinova

I’d like to start by asking you about the title of your latest book, The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity. What exactly gets reflected in “The Red Mirror”?

This book was written to explain Russia in the context of the surge of optimism we saw following the annexation of Crimea. The gulf between Russia and the West has been growing since 2006, when [then presidential advisor Vladislav] Surkov said that Russian democracy wasn’t going to last forever. At that same time, Freedom House made a statement that Russian democracy was curdling and everything was slipping toward authoritarianism. All this contributed to the growing misunderstanding between Russia and the West. After 2014, that gulf became huge. The entire West began looking toward Russia with fear and incomprehension, while happiness indexes and improvement in social self-assessment and other such measures surged in Russia. This all seemed very hard to make sense of; it felt like Russia was in another world.

My new book is my attempt to build the crucial analytical bridge that will make understanding that world possible. Its thesis is that public opinion in Russia can be understood through the lens of the politics of collective identity. This identity became a kind of engine for the surge in social well-being and for Putin’s post-2014 popularity. The metaphor of the red mirror captures the essence of the concept of identity. When we look in the mirror, we see a reflection that may radiate joy, happiness, beauty, but also, depending on the situation, may reveal age, wrinkles, and dissatisfaction. Even if the person looking in the mirror remains unchanged.

The same goes for collective identity. Society sees its reflection in some mirror, but that mirror isn’t a constant thing, it changes. Moreover, the government, or even various social groups, might put forth or promote various mirrors. In the ’90s, after the Soviet mirror had disappeared, at first, there was nothing to take its place. There was no collective mirror that would allow Russians to see their collective belonging to the Russian nation. Then, in the twenty-first century, the Kremlin has finally put forth a new collective mirror. I call it “red” because since 2012, the consolidation of power had been operating on the same mechanisms and ideas that were employed in the Soviet Union.

What are these mechanisms and ideas? 

Soviet identity had two foundational pillars. The first was the feeling of Soviet exceptionalism that allowed every Soviet citizen to feel like they belonged to a unique state. The second one was the threat of the ever-present external enemy. You may recall (if you went to Soviet school) the history lessons, where history textbook chapters would open with phrases like “The young Soviet republic was surrounded by a dense ring of enemies”? Or “The war on foreign intervention and internal counterrevolution…”? After the first phase of the establishment of the Soviet state came the war on fascist invaders, then the Cold War, when the enemy surrounding us became the imperialist West. The feeling that the Soviet Union was always surrounded by enemies was basically one of the permanent mechanisms working toward societal consolidation. The sense of collective exceptionalism was also deeply foundational for Soviet society. Remember the story of Petukhov the Technologist; “And our ballet is also the best on the planet.” 

It’s not surprising that the same mechanisms that worked in Soviet times are still functional today. In my book, I am trying to demonstrate how both of these mechanisms are actively implemented by the state-run media. 

The concept of Russian exceptionalism began to be promoted very intentionally beginning around 2012. And the idea that Russia was surrounded by enemies — from without and within — is a feeling that began to be insinuated into the public consciousness with special intensity after 2014. As we can see today as we look on in horror, this is what led to the war. 

Evgeny Feldman

In 2014, when Russia first saw itself in the red mirror, it was painfully familiar, beloved and recognizable to itself. Of course, the ideas and symbols seen in the mirror were not equally familiar to all Russians; they were more resonant for those who had lived in Soviet times. But we need to emphasize that the government also promoted these ideas among the younger generation, who grew up believing that their motherland had been very powerful in the past, and had fallen, but was now getting back on its feet. No wonder the infamous documentary that millions of Russians watched was called Crimea: The Way Home. They attempted to make those ideas and symbols attractive even to people who hadn’t already gone down that road during Soviet times.  

What makes your argument different from the idea of there being a “special Soviet mentality” that will never be extricated from the Russian mind? 

I am against deterministic explanations in history, the search for some “cultural code” or “historical matrix” intrinsic to a country or culture. These kinds of accounts preclude the possibility of societal transformation and distract researchers from social changes while keeping them riveted to the unchangeable. To a certain extent, these explanations are probably simpler, especially today, while Russia conducts this criminal war in Ukraine and its future is murkier than ever. However, for me, arguments founded on a “special culture,” “special kind of person,” or some “well-worn path” or “matrix” miss the roles played by primary guilty parties and the primary source of the problem: the Russian political elite and Russia’s leader. 

It’s crucial to understand that the cognitive structures inherited from Soviet times lay dormant alongside other ideas and frameworks that have the power to make another path forward possible. This is precisely why I emphasize the issue of political leadership in my book. The politicians in the Kremlin and the media they control cherry-pick the elements of the past that serve their ends and allow them to stay in power. In my book, I demonstrate how the political leadership and elite are the ones responsible for how history and its hot spots are used. 

In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin was president of the same country that exists today. But he placed his bets on reform, transformation, a reinterpretation of the Russian past and a new vision of Russia’s future. Yeltsin focused on what Russia might become, while today, the Kremlin puts its money on what Russia was. This isn’t an attempt to return to the past, either. It’s an attempt to consolidate power today using the psychological methods of manipulating what happened yesterday.  

My argument is that the political leadership and the elites are responsible for manipulating history as well as promoting particular policies of creating collective identity. These are the politics that that have put today’s Russian society in a state of aggressive anti-Western consolidation. 

Do you mean that they are behind creating the frameworks for how people view their real-life experiences? 

Yes, because it would also be possible to put forth a completely different interpretation of what happened in the ’90s. You could say that Russia went through extremely difficult times but we knew where it was going and why; that it would become a strong nation through investing in human capital — art, culture, diversity and so on — instead of military power and annexing other territories. 

But how free are the elites in choosing from the selection of ideas at their disposal? 

In order for propaganda to work, it has to contain some grain of truth. It can’t be entirely built on lies. There are things that are obviously fake news, but even disinformation can fit into acceptable frameworks for interpreting reality. Successful propaganda has to have some truth in it and in this sense, the Kremlin’s propaganda is very successful. 

The nineties were indeed a period of extreme economic and social loss and, most importantly, symbolic loss for a lot of people. Not everybody, of course. But many people truly lost their concept of the country that they were living in, what collective identity they belonged to. People lost their careers, their jobs, and so on. I was living in Kazan at the beginning of the nineties and I can recall how vulnerable I felt coming home at night from the tram station. 

But Russia isn’t the only place that’s gone through this, it’s true of practically every post-Soviet state. So it’s very interesting to compare the way that these governments in particular make sense of what happened to them in the nineties today. For instance, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, which are now part of the EU, this period is viewed through a lens of transformation. Even if what happened was very painful, it was necessary for creating their own independent national states that went on to choose to align themselves with Europe. This is how they understand those reforms now, they know what they were for. 

In Russia, the original significance of the reforms has been lost. And this is what the elites are responsible for, this loss of meaning. By the end of the nineties, Yeltsin understood that it had been a hard decade, and you can clearly hear this in his final speech. But he knew and believed in the choice that he’d made. Putin didn’t have that confidence, or rather, he thought the opposite. The Kremlin saw an opportunity to use the national mood for its own ends. Without the significance of the initial reforms [the reforms of the 1990s], this decade may have been seen as nothing other than traumatic, with Russia and Russians as the victims of somebody’s evil machinations. 

Vladimir Rodionov and Sergey Velichkin / TASS

This was the most powerful effort of the Kremlin media machine — to play on the nineties and create the public opinion that they were the most difficult period in the modern history of Russia. This framework proposes that this trying era ended with the coming of Putin, when the more patriotic elites came to power and the economy began to grow. Meanwhile, radically different articulations of what happened in the nineties were just as possible. For instance: “We went through some hard times, a period of loss, but now, the economy is growing, and life in our country is improving because of those reforms.” Nobody talks about how the economy started growing precisely because of those controversial reforms. 

Incidentally, the postwar history of both Germany and Japan include this phenomenon of the “economic miracle.” This positive social and political construction was used to legitimize postwar reforms in order to make it possible for the Germans and Japanese to explain to themselves that, “Yes, we went through a period of de-fascistization, but now, we are a successful society, quickly recovering and moving forward.” After the difficult period of the liberal reforms in Russia, we also saw economic growth which wouldn’t have happened if not for those reforms. But instead of construing this as a “Russian economic miracle” which would have justified the pain of the post-Soviet transition, the Kremlin decided to not just nullify the nineties, but also to turn them into nothing but a dark stain on our history, to mix them in with the mud. This allowed the Russian president to look like a knight in shining armor, chasing the darkness from the land. 

The elites are responsible for how society answers that famous question from the movie Brat 2 [Brother 2], “Where’s the power, brother?” Putin’s answer is that it lies in Russia’s military capabilities, in Russia as a nation that commands fear and respect. But for the majority of Russians, another answer may have been just as alluring, an answer that would have included economic development, the development of human potential, the “knowledge economy,” the creation of cultural, financial, and technological products that could have sparked international interest. That’s where our power may have lied. However, for that, we would have needed different political institutions, independent courts, and protections for private property. Unfortunately, the development of Russia’s political system and institutions went in a totally different direction. I wrote about this in my first book, Political Consequences of Crony Capitalism Inside Russia.

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Is Russia unique in its use of collective trauma for the purposes of legitimizing the regime? 

Absolutely not. I interpret and demonstrate this through the prism of the theory of social identity. Through it, the question of leadership is examined as a process, the development of the relationship between the leader and their successors. As a result, the successors see the leader as someone who promotes the interests of their group in particular, who represents a kind of prototype of that group, and makes it more significant in others’ eyes and in their own. Most importantly, the sense of belonging to the group is intensified during this process. 

This theory helps us see the importance of the fact that many Russians see Putin as someone who promotes the interests of the nation, makes Russia more important on the world stage; in him, they see the symbol of a strong Russia. An absolutely universal observation in social psychology is that every individual wants to belong to a group that is better than others. There’s even a group discrimination effect: people always perceive the group they belong to as being better than others; people use every cognitive opportunity to prove that their group is the best. 

For Russians, this bias was confirmed with the annexation of Crimea, when their sense of belonging to the Russian nation came to be connected to a certain pride and generally positive feelings. And for this reason, many Russians naturally came to see Putin as a strong leader. 

Putin isn’t the only one who employs these mechanisms. [Former U.S. President Donald] Trump, for instance, despite the fact that he is a millionaire and a businessman, he appealed to groups of Americans who felt lost and cast out of the economy and society as a result of globalization, people who’d lost their jobs with corporations’ departures to China, Mexico, or Brazil. 

A house in Pennsylvania that was turned into a gathering place for Trump supporters ahead of the 2016 presidential election
Evgeny Feldman

This caused many American cities to decline, and, in the absence of a social safety net that might have kept them afloat, many people became more marginalized. Trump played on the emotions of this group of people, their sense of loss, trauma, and lack of self-worth. In appealing to them, he tried to give them some kind of hope and representation in the halls of power. All of this is to say that the strategy that relies on realizing collective identity is not unique to Russia. 

Your book was published in English. It is primarily directed at readers in the West. Are there plans for it to be translated? And if so, will it be adapted for Russian readers? How would you do that? 

This is an extremely important question. I have thought about this a lot. In the introduction to the current edition, I wrote that if I were to have written the book for a Russian audience, it would have probably turned out totally different. Right now, its main message is, “We need to understand what happened to Russia and what role the elites played in it, and how that corresponds to the role played by regular Russian citizens, and who is to blame.” In the West, people often talk about how certain cultural and historical paths have led to the perpetual reincarnation of Russian authoritarianism. I demonstrate the role the elites and the leader have played in creating the situation we find ourselves in today. The implication is that other elites may come and take the place of the ones we have now, with different ideas and different ideological tenets, capable of leading society in a different direction. 

If I were writing for Russian society, the main message of the book would have been, “If you are drowning, sink or swim.” I even allude to this saying in the book. Why didn’t I write this book for the Russian audience then? Well, there’s an ethical reason at play. Who am I, as a person who lives abroad and looks at Russia from the outside to take on the responsibility of telling Russians it’s all up to them? That’s too big a responsibility. I wouldn’t feel right saying something like that from London. 

I can tell the West, “Guys, you don’t get Russia, let’s look at it like this,” but I couldn’t look Russians in the eye and say, “Come on, guys, you’re not doing it right, you have to do this or that instead.” Not living in Russia, I don’t think I have the right to do that. 

Of course I’d like to believe that if people in Russia will read my book with a certain level of openness to my ideas, it will be useful. In today’s Russia, collective emotions are very effectively manipulated through the public sphere and the application of various frameworks onto reality. I attempt to reveal these emotional factors. Psychologists believe that talking through feelings helps people deal with them. To a certain extent, the book tries to talk through these collective emotions, creating the possibility for societal transformation. 

When will Russian society be ready for transformation?

The war that the Russian government started in Ukraine has foreclosed on the possibilities of talking through these collective emotions and for a commensurate reaction from civil society. Many people in Russia have taken aggressively defensive positions, justifying and defending the criminal decision of the Russian president. I don’t see how Russia can possibly win this unjust war and can only hope that it ends as soon as possible. 

Of course, Russia has been in a state of societal transformation for the past 10 or 15 years. We have seen the growth of local activism, there were advancements in civic consciousness and the engagement of younger Russians in collective activity. It’s not for nothing that repressions have also increased over the past two years. However, societal transformation is usually based in a country’s economic development. In order for people to develop their civic-mindedness, they need some minimal level of economic well-being. The poorer people are, the steeper the fight for survival, the more difficult it is for them to think about how to change their country’s institutions. Survival always comes first. The economic conditions had been improving in Russia up until 2013. After ten years of development, we saw the protests of 2011-201 that, as I see it, became a reflection of how economic development translated into social and political development. 

Then, after 2013, the economy stagnated. Among everything else, the invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that the Kremlin wants to keep Russia poor. That way, the militarized state can easily keep society on its knees without the threat of political mobilization and the growth of the opposition. In principle, this situation can hold for a very long time. Many states live in this kind of depressed state for many years. 

What will happen to Russian public opinion in the next year? You often hear people say, like, “We survived the nineties, we’ll live through this, too, and actually, this is going to stimulate our economy and lead to its rebirth.” 

The angle that helped me understand the post-Crimean reaction allows me to predict that many Russians will respond to this war from within the framework of patriotic consolidation. I’m afraid that there will be no mass anti-war movement and the Russians who look upon what is happening with pain and horror make up the minority. Moreover, they will be met with increasing aggression. So the internal fracturing in Russia will only get worse, and its consequences much harsher. How long all this continues depends on how quickly the political system stagnates. It can hold one for a while, but the fact that it doesn’t work for the good of Russian society or future will become increasingly clear to more and more people as time goes on. Future transformation is inevitable. 

Then, all the questions associated with Russian national identity will be under discussion again. These future conversations will not be founded on the perception of Russia as victim, but as an aggressor. The establishment of a new Russian society, if we allow ourselves to imagine a positive scenario for the future, can only come out of the acceptance of responsibility for what the country has done. 

But I don’t see anything bright in the near future. Sometimes, it feels like this war has taken away the last of our hope. However, hope is the last thing to go. So I am just waiting for the war to end. 

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Translation by Bela Shayevich