What Not to Wear: Discarding the Emperor’s New Clothes

As in the 1990s, the content-free ideology of bare sovereignty did not put an end to the culture of conspiracy.  To the contrary, philosophers, pundits, and novelists continued to spin their tales of a Russia besieged by the West in general and America in particular.  But the government, while tightening control on broadcast media,  still kept its distance from the larger cultural sphere.  To be sure, nationalist, anti-liberal youth groups such as “Idushchie vmeste” (“Moving Together”) and “Nashi” (“Ours”) were rightly seen as Kremlin confections; they wanted to be perceived as a grass-roots movement, but were easily dismissed as astroturf.  Yet even astroturf is an attempt to manipulate civil society rather than reject it.  And in keeping with the corrosive cynicism so commonly associated with Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov and his projects, astroturf also cultivates a useful habit of suspicion:  the fraudulence of “Nashi” ultimately reinforces the message that any group’s claims to non-governmental initiative are most likely a sham.  By the time Putin is elected to his third term, media figures had developed a reflexive response to any apparent manifestation of anti-government sentiment:  “Кто за этим стоит?” (“Who is (really) behind this?).  We are back to the logic of deferral so essential to allegorical and conspiratorial thought. 

Surkov is notorious for dismissing facts and viewing reality as an easily-manipulated media construct, for weaponizing postmodern theory as propaganda.  The messages that such a simulacrum were to convey may or may not have reached their target audience, but it was the meta-message that met with great success: we are all subject to media manipulation, and every expressed motive probably hides the hidden, real one.  

By this logic, the Surkov era should have produced a nation of unusually savvy media consumers, who could therefore be expected to have developed a rugged immunity to the stories told to them on television.  Yet this is clearly not the case in Putin’s third term.  Poll after poll attests to a high level of trust in the state media, and a widespread commitment to the narrative reinforced every night on the news.  The reasons for this are complex, and will be discussed in more detail in Chapter Five.  But the answer inevitably involves conspiracy.  Not so much conspiracy on the part of the government or the media, but rather the wholeheartedly commitment to the kind of conspiratorial thinking that had been developing in the wider culture for decades.  Sovereign democracy and increasingly tight media controls had already created a set of structures that would be the ideal vehicles for conspiratorial thought: the emphasis on the primacy of the state, the reinforcement of the sense that Russia has always been besieged by hostile powers, the reflexive distrust of civil society, and the habit of seeking hidden motivations and secret puppeteers.  In response to the 2012-2013 street protests, the media now clearly endorsed a quasi-Euriasianist, quasi-nationalist narrative that ascribed all of Russia’s ills to hostile, alien forces, whether they be Maidan activists, resurgent Ukrainian fascists, American and NATO schemers, or the “fifth column” of “national traitors” so famously invoked by Putin (only once, but once was enough for these words to gain currency in the contemporary media vocabulary).[1]

Adopting conspiracy has entailed a fascinating compression of historical time.  If, as we shall see, so many of the prominent post-Soviet conspiracy theories detail a long history of Western betrayal, now the media declare new treachery on the part of NATO and the US while simultaneously invoking that very conspiratorial history with which the audience might not have been entirely familiar, reinforcing it as a set of facts people area already supposed to know.   Just as Ukrainian nationalists must always be described in terms of the fascist WWII-era Ukrainian resistance army, so too must the West’s alleged undermining of Russia in its “near abroad” be seen as simply one in a long list of similar underhanded actions by Europe and the United States.  

Concluding the Introduction: Mischief Managed


[1] Irina Prokhorova sees these phenomena as the component parts of a Putinist "imperial vision." (https://tvrain.ru/teleshow/lectures_on_the_rain/irina_prokhorova-395348/)