Anna Ochkina
Real Russia in the real world
Myths, conflicts and provocations

Counter-NATO Conference
Washington, DC
April 2019

Western perception of Russia is distorted by propaganda, traditional myths and stereotypes. The same can be said about Russian perception of the West. The difference, however, is that in Russia considerable section of society doesn’t take official propaganda seriously and stereotypes are very much undermined by practical experience given the fact that millions of Russians travel abroad, many lived abroad and many people have relatives living abroad. Moreover Russian people have no specific habits, behaviour models or values, that would be considered as non-Western. Sometimes people like to repeat stereotypes taken from media about aggressive and immoral spirit of the West, but nobody takes such sorts of things into account making everyday decisions. Ordinary Russians consider criticism towards USA or EU as a part of usual political games, or as non-objective discussion (small talk), even as a fashion, but never — as principals that are worth standing up for.

On the contrary, in the West many myths and stereotypes about Russia are still shared even by those sections of society that are critical about the ideology and policies of their own establishment in other areas. Liberals and conservatives, even leftists often share the same ideas about Russian history, society and current political reality.

One of the deeply rooted myths represents Russia as a totalitarian or at best authoritarian society no matter who is in power. Often there is a clear inability to see the difference between the Soviet times and current situation (and when speaking about the Soviet past — between Stalin and post-Stalin periods).

In reality current Russian state is a relatively weak one and for that very reason needs some sort of an elite consensus in order to avoid destabilisation at the top. The source of this weaknesses is in the origin of Russian elites. They had never have the real political or economic experience connected with real political struggle or market competition. Russian elite is the result of series of compromises made by individuals and groups, back door deals, etc. For that reason genuine public interests or goals have never stood, even in theory, behind this process.

This permanent process of consensus-building at the top of course doesn’t involve any public debate and is organised in such a way that it should look from outside as a monolithic unity of the ruling class. This process is moderated and its results are publicly announced by president Vladimir Putin and in this respect his figure is quite important. But it has very little to do with the image of all-powerful autocratic ruler presented by Western media. This logic of permanent consensus-building also has its weaknesses — decisions are made very slowly and changing political line even tactically is very difficult because it can undermine stability.

This system of government has very little to do with democracy but neither it fits the image of a demonic dictatorship which you discover in Western media.

Of course, Russian government does not like opposition and can be very cruel against it. Actually this cruelty is not consistent but impulsive and stochastic. Authorities can put singing girls behind the bars, but at the same time they can easily make concessions to protestors when don’t see this protest as politically motivated. At the same time when protestors challenge economic decisions of federal government it is often seen as dangerous politics.

Myths about Russian social system are also quite numerous. Pro-western liberals think that there is too much state in Russian economy repeating the thesis about 70% of the economy being state controlled or owned. There was never any evidence presented to prove this thesis. The assets controlled by the state are no more than 15% and the share of the state (including local authorities) in investment is about 16% and the share of the state in GDP redistribution is about 30% which is less than in many Western countries.

At the same time many on the Left complain that there is not enough state intervention and that our government is cutting social spending. In fact, social spending is quite impressive as well as state intervention. The problem is that this state intervention is practiced in the interests of biggest corporations and social spending is often oriented towards supporting neo-liberal strategy of dismantling of welfare state.

Since 2007 social spending in Russia had increased very significantly — approximately 20 times. At the same time social infrastructure have been disorganised. The numbers of schools, hospitals, outpatient hospital and etc. have decreased, the functioning of Welfare State institutes have undermined. The main recipient of increasing social spending turned out to be bureaucracy.

Another myth is about Russian people. Westernised liberals in Russia are the only voices heard in the West. And they are very negative about their own people. They think that most Russians support the current government. And the reason for that is that most Russians are uneducated and stupid unlike smart liberal minds of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Pro-Kremlin conservatives on the contrary have an image of a society divided between a pro-Western minority and a patriotic majority which by definition supports the government. The Left thinks that people are just fooled («zombified») by the propaganda but in reality there is a growing social protest which simply isn’t politicised (yet).

Here we have to come back to consensus-building process and discover that it is developing not only at the top. It involves state, business and society, when citizens are ready to accept the role of population or recipients of welfare and social benefits. However “population and recipients of welfare and social benefits” are themselves divided into different groups with specific different interests. Many of so called “recipients” are in fact important contributors to the development of our country. In fact, social spending is not just a way to help the weak, as neo-liberal experts tell us, but an important factor of growth creating new opportunities for many skilled workers and professionals.

Russians are ready to respond quickly to violations of their social and labour rights. Liberal intelligentsia does not notice the protest activity of Russian citizens (or does not recognize its political significance) because this protest is “wrong” from the point of view of liberals. («Wrong bees make wrong honey»). First of all, Russians are extremely reluctant to support liberal protests organised in support of political prisoners, freedom of speech and other political slogans. Russians are ready to protest for reasons that are very specific and directly related to the level and quality of life, household’s income, access to education or medical care, etc.

Secondly, the protest of Russian citizens, even as significant as was the protest against raising the retirement age, does not create effective political organizations or social movements. However, this weakness of self-organization is not some mystical “Russian mentality”, but a reasonable reaction to the current state of Russian political life. In modern Russia there are no political parties that enjoy the trust of citizens. People do not believe in the success of a consistent organised protest against the system, preferring to fight against specific decisions of Federal or regional authorities, anticipating specific deterioration of their situation, without putting forward strategic requirements. Even if during the protests we hear demands for the resignation of the government, it is often not a political demand, just an expression of discontent and irritation. Russians have believed for too long that their problems are created by specific decisions, specific steps of the Government, not by the system as such.

That was quite fair until now, or rather until explosion of “pension protest” in Summer-Autumn 2018. This protest was some sort of the red line and have crossed it Russian people have lost the trust that current system would be corrected without radical changes.

The Kremlin had to modify proposed legislation somewhat but didn’t accept public criticisms of the legislation as a whole. This led to a dramatic collapse of Putin’s ratings among general public and may be a prelude to even more protests. However these outbursts of people’s anger usually have little or nothing to do with the protests of pro-Western liberal opposition and for that reason are neglected by Western media.

As far as I know the most recognisable politician in the West is Alexei Navalny. He is a very successful organiser of very impressive political shows. But despite that fact that he has quite a sense of his own importance, he has not a national political celebrity in Russia. It is irony, but Russian authorities share the misconceptions of Western media about his importance and sincerely hate him. Of course, Navalny is the enemy of the current Russian State, but he is not the enemy of the system.

Unfortunately contemporary Russian society does not have leader that is capable to express and protect its essential , vital and strategic interests and needs. And worse, Russian society does not have today goals, that could be able to force people neglect individual interests for common future sake. Sociological pols show that there are not today in Russian society values, that are strong and speed enough to consolidate significant social groups.

The conflict with Ukraine and the West created a so-called Crimea-effect of patriotic enthusiasm which mostly expired after the pension reform in 2018. And anti-Western propaganda seems for Russian authorities to be some sort of answer to emerging political crisis. Pro-Kremlin media and politicians are trying to turn the energy of popular discontent with the system into anti-Western attitudes. This looked like working five years ago. Authorities called population to rally around a leader. But today this strategy is much more difficult to implement than five years ago. The social reforms of recent years, as well as the economic turmoil, gave rise to strong doubts among Russians about the reliability and correctness of existing political system. A pension reform has become a real exposure of the true strategy of social policy of the Russian state. It was an unpleasant discovery, a shock for many citizens. Russians may dislike the West for many reasons, but they are hardly ready to consider it their biggest problem.

Russian society of course has its own mythology about the West. In the 1980s and 1990s it was a very positive one but later situation changed. Kremlin ideologists represent the West as corrupt, morally decadent and by definition aggressive. In neither case you should ask what is the reason for this aggressiveness. The other side is just aggressive by nature and doesn’t need any special reasons. Or reasons are presented as ideological, religious or cultural.

Official image of Russian society as presented in the media is also an extremely conservative one leaving no space for public expressions of feminism, LGBT culture and activism and so far. This is also not correct, because the society is quite modern and emancipated at the level of daily practices and popular culture. But again the story is not as simple as it may seem. While conservative propaganda of Christian traditions and family values achieves very little effect or support among general public, neither are Western feminist ideology and concepts. The society tends to reject both seeing them as extreme versions of repressive and intolerant views. In that sense Russian popular culture can be seen as spontaneously seeking a third way between liberal feminism and family-oriented traditionalism.
Actually, the Western propaganda against Russia and Russian propaganda against West are very similar, like mirrors image of each other. They both ignore real life of real people and try to force them to forget about their vital interests for false fights and goals.

Once the influence of both propagandas is used up is used up both Russian and Western authorities will lose the ability to manipulate of their people.

Current political struggle, including international confrontation and attempts to reinvent the cold war is not continuing the conflict of the previous period. It is not representing a competition between two different systems as it used to be during the period of 1950s to 1980s. On both sides it is linked to a fierce attack on the Welfare state in its various national forms. It is a way for neo-liberal elites to justify these policies detracting public attention from domestic agenda to an international one, creating enemy image and attempting thus to generate support to the policies which otherwise have no chance of getting accepted by the citizens.

Attack on the Welfare state is global and resistance to it is local, it is also split into specific struggles at the national, social and cultural level. Even when we have big international events like World Social Forum they often are disconnected from the struggles on the ground even when claiming to represent them. These events don’t deliver any practical support, they don’t create value for the resistance activities, more they often push away many people resisting neo-liberal policies because these people don’t fit cultural criteria of the progressive liberal Left.

There is an objective need to internationalise social struggles and welfare campaigns as a real grass-roots alternative to the so called New Cold War. The idea of social rights is global and universal but we must work hard to bring together movements existing at the national level.

Reinstatement of Welfare state after years of global neo-liberalism can only be achieved at the national level but it doesn’t mean that we have to become nationalists. On the contrary, we should see attacks on national sovereignty not as issue of geopolitics or international relations but as an element of general neo-liberal strategy which is realised at the global level.

These tendencies we see now in case of Ukraine which is now stuck in conflict with Russia at the same time losing what remains of its welfare system (with Russian government actually carrying out the same policies as their colleagues/adversaries in Kiev, though sometimes in a more modest version). It is quite telling that current sociological research done both in Ukraine and Russia shows that animosity at the level of public opinion on both sides is gradually decreasing simultaneously with the growing anger against their own national governments. We see a similar problem in Venezuela where the main question now should be formulated not as who is going to be at the top, Maduro or Guaydo, but what will happen to Venezuela society and economy after the crisis. At this point neither side is offering a way forward to an impoverished society while the government speaks about the need to fight back against Western intervention and opposition claiming to defend human rights.

We need to redefine politics making people’s welfare our top priority and reunite internationally all forces that are ready to fight for it. If we achieve that we will soon make the New Cold War a thing of the past just as the old one.