by Kristen Blyth
“I think the week Crimea happened is the week I realized it’s impossible to predict what the government will do,” a Russian friend told me last week. “Or, maybe you can predict, but only by choosing the most outrageous option, and then you’ll be correct.”
Since annexing the Crimean peninsula in March, Russia’s international standing has deeply transformed, and with drasticcurrency devaluation, inflation, and capital flight, the country is in a tough spot right now. Russia’s embargo of certain food products— a retaliation against three rounds of Western sanctions—has dealt a blow to Europe, but has hit Russia’s own consumers just as hard. With 0.2 percent growth this year and predictions of 0.5 percent growth the next, Russia’s economy is flatlining.
Amid such clear immediate struggles (and the grim long-term consequences they imply), you might expect the Russian people to question the price the state’s current course is exacting on their future.
But you would be wrong.
Nearly 60 percent of Russians believe sanctions will work to the country’s economic benefit, according to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center. Though the state’s policies certainly have local critics, the majority of Russians think the government has not done enough to renounce the West, with 58 percent saying they would likely support a boycott of allforeign goods.
Part of this blind protectionism comes from Russians’ isolation across a vast country, begetting in turn a (false) sense of insulation. Moscow, a bastion of iPhones and BMWs, does not represent Russia, and it is far easier for a pensioner in Magnitogorsk to theoretically eschew all things foreign than for a young tech consultant in the capital.
But are Russians aware of how deeply the roots of foreign influence are woven into their society? Of the top five most popular cars in Russia, four are foreign. Russia cannot pursue shale and Arctic oil exploration as intended because the technology required is Western. A friend at Sberbank told me the company is researching open-source software options in case of further sanctions, because computer systems at Russia’s largest bank are based on American software.
Patriotism and pride in one’s country are not inherently negative qualities, but it is hard to see the value in rejecting everything outside oneself.
A great deal of the pro-Russia surge is being directed (and funded) by the Kremlin. In conjunction with a prolonged attack on Russia’s independent media that has limited public access to alternative information outlets, the government is dumping vast sums of money into beefing up state-run media agencies RT and Rossiya Segodnya, attempting to shape (at least internally) the narrative of world affairs to its own benefit. RT alone will receive 41 percent more money ($400 million) next year than the state originally planned for 2015.
Russians rely heavily on television for information, but with a uniformly pro-regime agenda driven relentlessly through state TV channels, many viewers simply do not have an accurate understanding of what is happening. More than 40 percent of Russians could not answer why the ruble was falling, a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation discovered this month.
Now, as in the past, control of information allows the Russian government not only to propagandize foreign policy, but also to guide the country’s moral direction, framing laws like a ban on swearing in the arts as a kind of battle against social evil. Russians accept gradual chips at their freedom, telling themselves “it’s probably for the best,” and thus supporting a slew of recent policies limiting sex education in schools and outlawing offending religious believers (among others), even endorsing censorship of their own Internet access.
When I first came to the country in 2010, I saw billboards everywhere in St. Petersburg proclaiming Russia a strana vozmozhnostyei—a country of possibilities. Yes, everything here is possible, but these days, the idea seems more threatening than inspirational. Reinstating Soviet-style exit visas? Cutting off parts of the country’s Internet access? Annexing a neighboring country’s territory?
Yes, it is all possible.
Anna Politkovskaya, an acclaimed Russian journalist murdered in her Moscow apartment building in 2006, once described Russian society as “a collection of windowless, isolated concrete cells.”
“There are thousands who together might add up to be the Russian people, but the walls of our cells are impermeable,” she wrote. “The authorities do everything they can… sowing dissent, inciting some against others, dividing and ruling. And the people fall for it. That is why revolution in Russia, when it comes, is always so extreme. The barrier between the cells collapses only when the negative emotions within them are ungovernable.”
Politkovskaya was writing about the Russia of 2005. Nine years later, it seems the concrete walls are not coming down; instead, Russians are building themselves a new cell to keep the rest of the world out.
About the Author
Kristen Blyth is a freelance journalist and translator working in Moscow. She previously worked as a correspondent at state-run RIA Novosti, Russia’s largest news agency, until its liquidation in March 2014 as part of a countrywide crackdown on independent media outlets. Kristen holds a B.A. in Political Science and Russian from the University of Notre Dame.