2012: the year the Kremlin lost control of the script

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Throughout the Putin heyday, Russian political discourse was invented, manipulated and owned by a handful of Kremlin spin doctors. Over the last year, that changed. Though they failed to make real policy headway, the opposition did something potentially just as significant: they began to win the war of imagination.

Peter Pomerantsev
28 December 2012

‘We own the field of ideas’ Ilya Tsentsiper told me this June as we sat in Strelka, his bar-cum-institute on the edge of the Moskva river, ‘and at the end of the day it is ideas that create revolutions’. 2012 was the year when Russia’s new dissidents completely transformed the way the country thinks about itself. Though the policy achievements of the protests are almost zero the walls of Kremlin thinking have been breached: ‘The revolution in our hearts has already happened’ said a poster at the protests this summer, ‘we want to stay and live in Russia.’ But the real battle is just beginning - and the Empire is striking back.

Defining the language of protest

The noughties in Russia were defined by the wiles and subtleties of ‘managed democracy’. The Kremlin didn’t let any opposition develop because it owned all the narratives, both setting up human rights councils while sponsoring neo-fascists, celebrating ‘reforms’, ‘modernisation’ and ‘democracy’ while clamping down on all of them. The challenge the protest movement has faced this year was how to find a political language that wasn’t already occupied by the Kremlin. The language of 1989 wouldn’t do: terms like ‘democracy’, ‘open society’ and even ‘human rights’ have become damaged goods in Russia.

‘The challenge was finding a political language that wasn’t already occupied by the Kremlin. The language of 1989 wouldn’t do: ‘democracy’, ‘open society’ and even ‘human rights’ are all damaged goods in Russia.’

This search has taken many forms. Alexey Navalny, the closest the protests have to a leader, avoids ‘big’ terms and focuses on facts and figures, the amounts actually stolen by corrupt politicians, and adorns this with a language of playground outrage: calling United Russia the party of ‘meanies and robbers’ taps into a sense of child-like justice, standing up to the bullies at school. The pupils of Ekaterina Dyogot at the Rodchenko School for Photography use 1960s French theory to deconstruct the Putin system. Wondering about the protest camp around Occupy Abai this summer I heard earnest Russian youth debating Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ deep in to the night, the language ideally suited to criticize the virtual reality of managed democracy with its pseudo-elections, pseudo-news, pseudo-enemies: ‘all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,’ writes Debord. The Art and Architecture Institute ‘Strelka’ and Bolshoi gorod magazine have been developing a language that seems to focus on architecture and urban design but actually explores far deeper political themes: ’civic space’, ‘agents of change’ have been among the terms they have introduced into Moscow discourse. ‘Give us back our city’ became one of the clarion calls of the protests, the battle to save small Moscow courtyards from being destroyed and replaced with neo-Stalinist architecture a metaphor for the larger political conflict.

‘One of the cute moments of 2012 was Ksenia Sobchak’s pilgrimage to visit the yoda of the dissident movement, Vladimir Bukovsky. Sobchak’s journey from socialite bimbo to committed political activist is one of the revelations of the year.’

At the same time the connection with the dissidents of the 1970s and 80s has been re-forged. Soviet 1970s dissidents had been completely ignored during the noughties. I remember when the hit German film ‘The Lives of Others’, about 1970s East German dissidents, was released in Russia in 2007. I had thought it would inspire a debate in the country about the past. It was simply ignored, as if its exploration of communist-era conformism had nothing to do with Russia: everyone was too busy partying on the Moscow oil boom to introspect about morality. One of the cute moments of 2012 was the former reality-show presenter Ksenia Sobchak’s pilgrimage to visit the yoda of the dissident movement, Vladimir Bukovsky, at his home in Cambridge. Sobchak’s journey from noughties socialite bimbo writing books about ‘how to marry a millionaire’ to committed political activist is one of the revelations of the year. I saw Sobchak the other day at a conference in London and she was peppering her language with until recently forgotten 1970s terms like ‘dostoiny’ (dignity), ‘sovest’ (conscience).


One-time symbol of Russian glamour Ksenia Sobchak has moved from hosting popular reality shows to conducting political debates and interviews. (Photo: samefacts.com).

Public figures like Sobchak now face a choice: are they with the Kremlin or with the opposition? In the noughties you could do both, now there are much clearer dividing lines.

Loyalty in the dock

All these strands were in evidence at the most high-profile event of the year, the Pussy Riot trial, which clearly forced many to decide who was ‘loyal’ to the Kremlin and who wasn’t. Frequently compared to trials of dissidents like Sinyavsky in the 1960s, the Pussy Riot girls referenced Joseph Brodsky in their closing statements. "Even though we are behind bars, we are freer than those people’, said Nadja Tolkonnikova looking at the prosecution, ‘We can say what we want, while they can only say what political censorship allows.’ But the closing statements were also imbued with a newer (for Russia) language straight out of the 1960s French hand-book of psycho-geography and situationism: ‘The Christ the Saviour Cathedral has become a significant symbol in the political strategy of the authorities’ said Ekaterina Samutsevich (a student of the Rodchenko School), ‘our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral with the song ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Out’ violated the integrity of the media image the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining and revealed its falsity’. In this mix of Bukowsky and Debord, with lashings of hard facts, a new dissident narrative in Russia has been born.

Whatever the practical policy achievements of the protest movement it suddenly means that for the first time in a decade the Kremlin is not defining and thus controlling the script. As a consequence the Kremlin has been forced to define itself vis-à-vis the protests, already a sign of weakness as it is not setting the ideological agenda but reacting to it. Its attempts to spin the protest movement and improvise counter-narratives are interesting.

‘Whatever the practical policy achievements of the protest movement it suddenly means that for the first time in a decade the Kremlin is not defining and thus controlling the script.’

On the back of the Pussy Riot trial we saw the emergence of a 21st century version of the tsarist motto “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationhood”. ‘Liberalism will lead to the Apocalypse’, said head of the Church Patriarch Kirill; Putin’s rule, however, ‘is a miracle’. A black-cassocked parade of priests enjoyed their moments of media fame. ‘One needs to remember that the first revolutionary was Satan’ argued Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, putting anti-Putin protests in theological context. ‘The puppets are having their strings pulled’ wrote top selling daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, speculating the ‘Pussies’ were following American orders and that the State Department’s support of LGBT rights were a ruse to undermine Russia’s spiritual foundations. Western criticism of the Pussy Riot trial was evidence, said Russia’s Foreign Ministry, that Russia espouses ‘Christian values’ forgotten in the ‘post-modern west’.

One of Putin’s first photo-ops after becoming President (again) was with the Night Wolves, Orthodox Bikers. The Night Wolves anthem is the Folk-Metal track ‘Slavic Skies’:

‘We are being assaulted by the seed of the Mongol Horde,
Attacked by the yoke of the infidels

goes the song, the music video intercutting rockers in tight jeans shorts and crosses with Russian knights fighting invaders,

‘But the sky of the Slavs boils in our veins...
Russian speech rings like chain-mail in the ears of the foreigners,
And the white host rises from the coppice to the stars.’

Putin visited the Night Wolves at their fest in Sevastopol, Crimea, a symbol of Russian might before it became part of Ukraine after 1989. Senior Russian Orthodox priests also attended the bike-fest, exhorting ‘Shining Rus not to give up Sevastopol’ (and chiding the bikers for hanging out with topless girls). For their part the bikers staged a mass drive through Moscow after the Pussy Riot case, to show they were ready to defend the Church.


Vladimir Putin meeting the Night Wolves, Orthodox Bikers in Sevastopol. (Photo: Sergey Anashkevitch).

But, as Georgi Mitrofanov, one of the few liberal priests in the Orthodox church pointed out, there was something a little unreal about this mix of medieval theology, Soviet-conspiracy theories and folk-metal: ‘Before we had people shouting they were building Communism, but they were just using slogans that gave them opportunities. Now a new lot, and indeed some of the old one, shout about ‘Holy Russia’. The words mean nothing’ said Mitrofanov. The stats support this: for all the Russian-Orthodox cross-kissing, only 10% of those who say they are Orthodox in Russia actually attend church and 30% of those who say they are Orthodox also say they are atheist. As soon as the Pussy Riot story began to fade all the religious warriors were packed away by the Kremlin from TV. They had, however, done their job, redirecting the protesters’ potentially universal calls for an end to corruption into a bizarre, and utterly pointless conflict between Religious Russia and a Godless West. The new-dissident media spent months battling the threat of Russia turning into a Christian Iran instead of focusing, for example, on why the government hadn’t investigated electoral fraud as they had promised. Though it finally swung international opinion against Putin’s regime, the Pussy Riot affair turned out a God-send for the Kremlin inside the country.

The Edinoros discourse

More pervasive than the grotesquerie of the new militant Orthodox is the ‘Edinoros Discourse’, which pits Russia against the west in Soviet postures but with a 21st century sensibility. Such are the new laws labelling Human Rights NGOs foreign ‘agents’, the new law on ‘treason’ which now includes not just working for foreign security agencies but potentially consulting any international organisation. In this peach of a quote from Duma Deputy Svetlana Goracheva about why Russian orphans shouldn’t be adopted by the US, we find a very new Kremlin mish-mash of gothic fantasy, Chomsky-esque political theory, echoes of blood-libel: ‘The US starts one war after another. That’s how the ‘golden billion’ achieves its aims. But they need people to wage wars. So the US created a national body for international adoptions. At the same time lobby groups appeared abroad to help make adoption for American easier… 60 000 orphans were taken from Russia. And if one tenth die because their organs are used for transplants or to satisfy sexual needs the remaining 50 000 are still enough to conscript into the army and wage war- even against Russia.’ (The ‘golden billion’ is an early 1990s theory by Russian political economists claiming that the US, EU, Canada, Australia and Japan make up a billion people who go out of their way to keep other countries, mainly Russia, underdeveloped so they can control global resources and rule the world.)

This is the sort of language you also increasingly hear from a new generation of Kremlin attack-dogs, the creatures nurtured in the nationalist Kremlin youth groups of the noughties. They were originally intended as experiments, puppets to be wheeled out to scare liberals. But now they have grown up and are taking over themselves. This is a generation that is equally at home in cyber-space as in the Duma, that has no personal memory of the USSR but has learnt the KGB’s lessons of manipulation and cynicism. They holiday in Tuscany, know their wine, have MBAs, are, to use the terms from a leaked Kremlin document, ‘loyal’, ‘active’ and ‘merciless to the enemy’ and we will no doubt be seeing a lot more of them in 2013.

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