Is The Putin Propaganda Bubble About To Burst?
In the mid-1920s, the Soviet government embarked on a campaign to “engineer human souls”. How? It unleashed the full power of the state machine to fundamentally alter the behaviour and values of Soviet citizens. Never had there been, as Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz put it, “such enslavement through consciousness” as the mastery over human minds was almost obsessive inside the Kremlin.
But the human mind was never truly “enslaved”. It was numbed. It was made less aware, more suppressed, but not oblivious. One of the greatest failures of Bolshevik social engineering was the enlarging rift between the Party and the people. This resulted in an increased need to engineer more souls, but also meant that the engineering was increasingly flawed and more difficult to engrain. A similar problem is presently apparent in Putin’s Russia.
Being a convincing Kremlin propagandist today is becoming an ever more challenging profession. Explaining the shutdown of independent media, the blatant large-scale corruption, the huge rise of presidential powers and the targeting of those who think differently in a way that is appealing to Russians is increasingly difficult.
For the communists, “man must be made to understand for then he will accept” was the general thinking behind leading the masses to socialism. But the difficulty of doing so proved to be a great frustration for the Bolsheviks. Finding the right people to “engineer” was the initial problem. It was all very well to build socialism by constructing factories and installing state farms, but how does one build socialism in the minds of the people? Force may have been used to build the White Sea Canal but, to quote Miłosz again, “the pressure of the state machine is nothing compared to the pressure of a convincing argument”.
Finding the appropriate personnel for their propaganda is not an easy task for the Putinists either, for it is exactly these “convincing arguments” they are lacking. Not everyone is capable of twisting the Ukrainian protests into a “Swedish-Polish revenge for the Battle of Poltava in 1709” like Dmitry Kiselev, the newest addition to the hawks of Kremlin propagandists. Neither can the average Joe so easily warn viewers of a “meteorite danger if we don’t rid Russia of sodomite gays” like TV presenter Arkady Mamontov. No, these are positions that increasingly rely on rare talent as Putinist propaganda – like its Soviet predecessor – slips even further into the realm of the absurd.
Russia is approaching the dangerous scenario that inevitably led to the fall of the Soviet Union, whereby citizens lived a sort of “double life”. Historian Stephen Kotkin theorised that in Stalinist Russia, a person could “speak Bolshevik” (publically expressing loyalty to the regime) one moment, and “innocent peasant” the next. People began reading texts not for what they stated but for what they implied, or even for what they omitted. Readers became insensitive to the norm. The process gave rise to the “hidden counter cannon”, which included the literature of Bulgakov and Akhmatova.
It would seem that Russia is in desperate need of a powerful literary roar. But the tradition of dissident literature has died around the world, and instead many find their answers online. Still, an increasing number of Russians are once again leading a double life, listening to reports not for what they say but for what they do not say. They, too, are gradually becoming bilingual, “speaking Putin” one moment and Russian the next. George Orwell would have warned: “The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
Ola Cichowlas is a British-Polish freelance journalist living between London, Warsaw and Perm. She covers Russian regional politics and the arts in provincial Russia.