This essay, from our archive, was first published in May 2017.
The triumph of inertia
In Russia, the opposition will not stand in opposition. Citizens will not stand up for civic rights. The Russian people suffer from a victim complex: they believe that nothing depends on them, and by them nothing can be changed.
‘It’s always been so’, they say, signing off on their civic impotence. The economic dislocation of the nineties, the cheerless noughties, and now President Vladimir Putin’s iron rule – with its fake elections, corrupt bureaucracy, monopolization of mass media, political trials and ban on protest – have inculcated a feeling of total helplessness. People do not vote in elections: ‘They’ll choose for us anyway;’ they don’t attend public demonstrations: ‘They’ll be dispersed anyway;’ they don’t fight for their rights: ‘We’re alive, and thank god for that.’
A 140-million-strong population exists in a somnambulistic state, on the verge of losing the last trace of their survival instinct. They hate the authorities, but have a pathological fear of change. They feel injustice, but cannot tolerate activists. They hate bureaucracy, but submit to total state control over all spheres of life. They are afraid of the police, but support the expansion of police control. They know they are constantly being deceived, but believe the lies fed to them on television.
Learned helplessness was first described by the American psychologist Martin Seligman. He exposed two groups of dogs to electric shocks. Dogs in the first group could stop the shocks by pressing a panel with their nose; the second group had no control. The dogs were transferred to a new, shared environment, with a low partition wall. When they were exposed to shocks, the first group jumped the wall and escaped. The second group did nothing. The Russian people have become like that second group of dogs.
My husband and I once spent eighteen months in a village 300 kilometers from Moscow, in the Kaluga province, which is relatively well supplied. The village population was noisy and querulous, they would pick up their knives at the slightest provocation. Every evening we would hear shouts – somebody’s chicken was stolen, somebody’s dog poisoned, someone’s wife seduced, somebody had been beaten and was now chasing his attackers with an axe. These were energetic, proud people.
The village water system was only connected to a few lucky houses, but the majority of villagers had to carry their water in buckets from the street fountains. One cold, gray November day the fountains suddenly dried up. The nearest well was in the ravine whose slopes were slippery at this time of year. The usually boisterous and quarrelsome villagers, always ready to start a fight, trudged meekly into the ravine with their buckets.
When I asked them how long the drought would last, they said: ‘Until spring.’ Assuming that the villagers knew best, we started packing our things to leave, but at the last moment I called the emergency maintenance service to check on the situation. My call was news to them. None of the villagers had informed them of the problem, even though there was a telephone in almost every house. The next day a team of workers arrived, repaired the water tower and restored the water supply. If it were not for my call, the villagers would have waited for water until spring.
Something similar happened with the power supply. The outdated electricity network often went down, leaving the village immersed in darkness. The thing to do was to call the emergency service, but the villagers never would. While I was there, I played the role of a miracle-worker. If the light went out during the night, the villagers had to stay in the dark until I woke up closer to midday. Learned helplessness had engulfed the entire village.
The capital city isn’t much different from that village. When the authorities started closing hospitals and medical programmes – including the national oncological programme – everybody was outraged. It was everybody’s problem, after all. Muscovites started experiencing a shortage of medicines, and quotas for surgery were reduced. ‘Free’ medical service was shrinking while state hospitals were turned into private clinics that few could afford. Over the course of one year 7,000 medical workers were made redundant and twenty-eight medical institutions were closed. The sacked doctors held a demonstration, but they found no support.
My next-door neighbour sold her dacha to pay for her son’s treatment. Each time I met her in the lift she cursed the authorities and the public health reforms. When I suggested that she join the doctors’ protest against hospital closures, she shook her head: ‘What’s the point?’
It was the same reaction from everyone: ‘What’s the point? Nothing will change.’ I asked if anyone had a solution, and again the answer was always the same: ‘The only solution is to get out of the country.’
For most Russians, emigration is just wishful thinking, but many of those who can have actually left. And the first ones out were the oppositionists who participated in protest rallies over the last few years. They left not so much out of fear of persecution, but because of the unbearable feeling of hopelessness that now pervades this nation.
The authorities use all of the resources at their disposal to create a submissive society. Brainwashing has become the main tool for suppressing an already weak civic will, and nipping free-thinking in the bud.
Our mass media is controlled – either through indirect purchase or intimidation – by the government, and can be divided into pro-Kremlin and pseudo-independent branches. Whatever you watch, it’s the same: fake reporting, politicians contradicting one another, the personality cult of the president, disinformation campaigns, words that contradict actions, ridiculous addenda to existing laws, and insane initiatives by Duma deputies – all of this plunges people into a state of constant stress that has become our way of life. Even watching the news occasionally feels like brain trauma – watching TV every day is a voluntary lobotomy.
Russia is a country that lives in contradiction. For example, the president tells us that he is fighting the oligarchs, then awards those same oligarchs with medals ‘For Service to the Country.’ Or the government tells us that prices for consumer goods will not rise, and a month later they double. Or the church teaches us that greed is a sin and ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,’ while the Patriarch rides in a motorcade and befriends the rich and mighty. Or officials tell us that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, while the media talks constantly about Russia’s military successes on the Ukrainian front.
In this atmosphere, people cease to differentiate between the literal and the metaphorical, suspecting intrigue where there is none and, conversely, losing the ability to read between the lines. The acceptance of contradictions is enforced by social pressure: believers are not supposed to criticise priests, tax-payers are not supposed to criticise the government, and criticism of Putin is tantamount to treason.
To offset the more glaring contradictions, a number of deputies, clergy and cultural figures regularly voice deliberately unacceptable statements and propose ridiculous initiatives to shock the public, so that they can be graciously declined by higher powers. Legislative initiatives in this form include proposals to ban abortions, to punish homosexual acts, to make military service obligatory for childless women over the age of twenty-three, to deprive people of Russian citizenship if they marry a foreigner, to sentence mothers who go to beach resorts without their husbands to ten years in prison, to limit bad news on television to ten per cent of broadcast time, to prohibit the teaching of evolution in schools, and so on. Never knowing the real intentions of the authorities, and forever expecting that one of the new insane laws will be passed, the people are left depressed and indifferent to their fate.
Patriotism with a noose around your neck
All that remains for those ashamed of the present and afraid of the future is pride in the past. When there’s no reason to love your country, hate your neighbours. If you are unable to improve your life, ruin someone else’s.
In Russia people are alienated from the affairs of the state, while a narrow ruling class manages the country’s resources as if it were their private property. To soothe the people’s trampled dignity, the government emphasizes national pride. To distract them from the struggle for their human rights, they are offered war. Why have we so easily forgotten that Ukraine is our fraternal nation? Why do we willingly go to ‘establish order’ in another country, when we so badly need to restore order to our own? Russians are always being told who to hate: Americans, Ukrainians, Chinese, Germans. Anger switches our attention from everyday injustices to imperial aspirations.
The ‘mysterious Russian soul’ has been divined by Kremlin PR-men who skillfully combine manipulation and national stereotyping. Russian foreign policy is renowned for its focus on the binaries of ‘friend against foe’: our people against the foreigners, patriots against traitors, Russia against Europe. This formula is the basis for our national ideology, and gives our political elite carte blanche to do away with independent thought.
Another of Russia’s symptoms is displacement activity. Nikolaas Tinbergen introduced the concept as any behaviour that relieves tension without solving the problem. For example, a boss shouts at his subordinate after a quarrel with his wife, and then this subordinate, afraid to talk back, quarrels with his wife at home.
This is an everyday affair for Russians. When, because of our incompetent authorities, prices for consumer goods skyrocket and unemployment grows, and people cannot change the government or hold it to account, they direct their frustration at the US president, or the Ukrainian people. A resident of a small provincial town where the factory, the hospital and the school have been closed down, volunteers to fight in Donbas.
Displacement activity is the only choice for a people bombarded by Kremlin propaganda, which inflames our aggression, dulls sensitivity to xenophobia, distorts reality and provokes verbal and physical violence. The general atmosphere of hysteria is sustained by the media, and presented as nationwide enthusiasm. The main tool of political propaganda is stigmatization – slander, insults, image-damage, and black PR.
But after a highly biased state education, propaganda only reinforces what people already believe. People are limited in their ability to think outside the provided templates. Most take for granted any information that they receive from ‘trusted sources’. And since the Russian media has long ceased to be subject to any public controls, the falsification of news takes place freely. Television broadcasts use actors to play the parts of Ukrainian refugees; pictures of an American town destroyed by a hurricane are presented as a bombed Ukrainian village; Western politicians are quoted as saying things they never said.
And while this goes on every day, people won’t admit the possibility that the news could be fake. Occasionally, lies are exposed online, but only a handful of people find out. And even those that do are confronted with propaganda undermining information received from outside sources (the internet, foreign media, political activists, etc.). All of these fit ready-made into the template of ‘friend against foe’. All facts are seen through the prism of ideological templates – colour filters on the world. Breaking news about billion-dollar fortunes and corruption among Putin’s friends is cast as the ‘insinuations of foreign agents’; appeals to shift Russia’s political orientation are branded as ‘pro-American’; calls to cease the war in Ukraine are seen as ‘anti-Russian’.
Immersed as it is in a national-depressive psychosis, Russia finds an outlet in television, vodka, drugs and war. The country’s mortality rate is the highest in Europe, with only Afghanistan and sixteen African countries ahead of us worldwide. A third of Russia’s male population won’t live long enough to claim a pension, and eight per cent of people live below the poverty level. And this is a country that boasts 131 billionaires and 180,000 millionaires.
But we are not going to hear about any of this on the news. Why would a doomed people want to hear about their fate? The ropes of social mobility have been torn, and a kind of negative selection pushes the scum to the top. Russia’s economy is drowning, but life-jackets have been given only to the banks, state-owned corporations and those closest to the Kremlin. Every year more towns and villages disappear from the map. Young people have no prospects, adults have no jobs and the elderly have no pensions. In the provinces millions of people live without modern conveniences, in the countryside they live in dilapidated homes with wooden outhouses for toilets as it was a hundred years ago. Instead of central heating they have wood stoves; in the ‘oil and gas empire’ many citizens only dream of a gas supply.
But even the most backward regions have achieved one mark of civilization – the satellite dishes that stick out like ears on almost every house. In the evenings, residents of squalid towns and dying villages are glued to their television screens, listening to political analysts, economists and all manner of experts telling them how much the whole world hates us simply for being Russian.
All that remains to these people is the patriotism they see on TV, and the hate they feel for whomever is pointed out to them as an enemy. Without this, they would go mad from despair, horror and anguish.
Aggressive patriotism has become the psychological foundation for a whole nation, and a compensation for the civic inferiority complex. Kremlin propaganda is not only a manipulation of public consciousness, it is psychopathy on a national scale.
Unemployment, economic crisis, poverty? – But we are a great nation! Our economy collapsed under the sanctions? – But the whole world is afraid of us! We take ninety-first place in living standards between Guatemala and Laos? – But Russia has a special path of its own! Our public health system is almost dead and to pay for our children’s treatment we have to send round the beggar’s hat? – But the Russian army is the strongest!
Under Putin’s regime of ‘stability’, Russia has earned 3.5 trillion petrodollars, but nobody knows in whose bank accounts that money has landed. The humiliated nation robbed by its own elite has found psychological compensation in imperial ideology and militaristic rhetoric.
Richard Nixon believed that one dollar invested in propaganda works more effectively than ten dollars invested in armaments, because weapons may remain unused while propaganda works every second. Putin’s proved him right.
The few who remain aware of the state we live in are ‘depressive realists’ – a term that describes individuals who make realistic assessments and are less gullible, and therefore harder to manipulate. It is not easy to be a depressive realist – much easier to be a happy idiot.
What does a depressive realist feel on seeing Putin’s friends’ pour billions into Western banks, their yachts and mansions? Helpless, hopeless indignation, surely. But such feelings only damage the mind and aggravate their suffering. Because of this, they tend towards defensive interpretations, struggling to find a rational basis for this state of affairs.
Average people come to admire the ‘elite’, telling themselves that the enormous wealth possessed by politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats is due to their outstanding qualities. Even if some crook got himself a yacht for a billion dollars while you have no money to pay for surgery, and the minister’s wife rented an entire hotel in Europe while they closed the last maternity ward in your town, you can’t be angry about it all the time. There are limits to human emotion. It’s much simpler, and psychologically far more comfortable, to become reconciled to the situation, and just admit that you are a second-rate person.
If the elite are clever enough to excite the enemy’s hatred, then it helps justify the shameful fact that the salary of a top manager in a state company is larger than a doctor’s lifetime earnings. If our president is so powerful that the whole world trembles before him, there’s nothing shameful in our own slavish state. This is why the modest houses of European politicians have Russians making caustic remarks about their poverty. We are pleased that our elite have bigger houses, larger yachts and younger mistresses. Our poor feel sincerely proud that a top official of their municipality can spend more than a deputy of the European Parliament. This ephemeral affiliation with the elite along national lines corroborates the myth of Russian importance, and helps stem the pain of individual humiliation.
The Russian elite are ‘feasting during the plague’, to quote Pushkin. They are not ashamed to demonstrate their dubious wealth during the economic crisis. Their way of life is not compatible with their patriotic rhetoric. It’s as if they wanted to test how much ordinary people can tolerate. They take a sadistic pleasure in demonstrating their dolce vita to the impoverished masses – it’s not so much a boast as a demonstration of dominance over a caste of untouchables.
But sadomasochistic relationships are enjoyed as much by the masochist partner as the sadist. In Russia, we idealize and seek sacred meaning in our suffering. Patriotic and Orthodox literature is full of such ideas: Russian people are martyrs and passion-bearers, the most patient and meek, protected by the Mother of God – but at the same time, as the Russian Orthodox Church tells us, they are enduring punishment for the sins committed during the seventy years of Soviet rule. Hence their religiosity, even ecstatic piety, and the growing influence of a clergy who preach repentance and humility.
A sadomasochistic society expels dissent from within, forcing dissidents out. It breaks those caught within it, uniting them in bitterness. This is how Russia resists political unrest, in spite of constant economic and cultural crises. This is what ensures that there will be no change or political reform. The nation’s mental complexes are fertile territory for authoritarian regimes, aggressive military campaigns and nationalistic ideas of revenge.
Photograph © Timothy George Kelly