Cynicism as a ruling ideology


Is cynicism the glue that keeps Russia's regime from falling apart? Alexei Levinson introduces a new series on openDemocracy Russia. 


Alexei Levinson
22 October 2013

Cynicism is a tried and tested way of manipulating public opinion. In Russia it is no longer the prerogative of a few individuals but has instead become a distinguishing feature of political institutions. The articles in this mini-series will offer an analysis of the phenomenon of cynicism in Russian society today.  

It was Lev Gudkov who first highlighted this extremely important change in Russian society.  His piece is published alongside this introduction. 

Cynicism has now become firmly entrenched in the media’s professional attitude to both the message they communicate to their audience, and the audience itself. This is the subject of an article by Lyubov Borusyak, to be published tomorrow.

Russian culture and literature provide extremely rich material for an analysis of the various links between cynicism and other social phenomena, which go to make up contemporary Russian social and cultural norms. Mark Lipovetsky offers such an analysis in his article, which will conclude the series on Thursday.  

As editor of the series, I asked these three authors, my friends and colleagues, to either agree or disagree with my thesis that cynicism plays a special part in Russian public life today. They all agreed that it does, and this became the rationale for the series. They are familiar with each other’s work, but each one of them is presenting his or her individual research.

At the time I first contacted the authors – quite some time ago – Russian political and societal life was undergoing some very rapid changes, which meant that, to my mind, cynicism was no longer so key, because other political stratagems had taken a greater role. But, relatively recently, events have taken a turn which has put cynicism back on the stage in a new form.

A substitute for terror

Cynicism is a conscious infringement on two levels of the rules of a society: both the rule and the value that underpins that rule. It is not only the breaking of the rule or custom that is malign, but the fact that the person doing it makes it perfectly clear to others that he doesn’t recognize the value which gives it meaning.

The instinctive reaction of other individuals to this rule-breaking is a mixture of outrage and fear. Collective fear instilled from above is a phenomenon designed to weaken the values underpinning society; a cynical action aims to provoke exactly that instinctive reaction. To instil fear is to dominate those who are paralysed by a lack of respect for the values in question. Only someone who is ‘not one of us’, an outsider, could fail to share in our system of values. If that person is actually one of us, then this is a reason for exiling or destroying him; or, if we do not take action against him, then we are implicitly acknowledging that he has some kind of mystical right to behave in this fashion. This power gives the cynic the opportunity to dominate his partner, or any other people involved in the situation. 

Cynicism may be an individual’s strategy to manoeuvre him or herself into the dominant position in a group or a situation, but, in this series, our interest lies in looking at cynicism as a deliberate form of social interaction, that is when cynical actions are an intrinsic part of institutions. In such cases, individual actors or political figures are able to act cynically because they themselves belong to that institution.

The ability to instil in society an inchoate fear, which neither has nor needs an explanation, gives cynicism considerable importance as a political tool.

Firstly, there is the ‘soft’ version of horror as a political tool – deference.  For a politician the deference accorded him can replace charisma, and so avoid the need for legitimacy.

The widespread use of cynicism on the part of government institutions has allowed the Russian authorities to manage for a time without terror and violence manifested on a grand scale. 

Secondly, by instilling fear and paralysis, cynicism can have the same effect as actual terror i.e the use of violence as a punishment visited on people who are not personally at fault. In this way, cynicism can achieve the same goals in politics as terror, but without the use of physical violence.

This fear and paralysis is what our authors found in Russian society today. Its relationship with terror and violence enable cynicism to act as a ‘soft’ equivalent: the widespread use of cynicism on the part of government institutions has allowed the Russian authorities to manage for a time without terror and violence manifested on a grand scale. The central event of this cynical narrative was society’s reaction to the manifestly dishonest actions of the government during the parliamentary elections at the end of 2011. They exemplified cynical actions carried out not only by officials, but a government institution, the Central Election Commission and its regional agencies.


It is no secret that many of the electoral infringements took place in full view of the voters, and were not even particularly carefully concealed. The message of these falsifications was that whomever the government wishes to see win, the campaign would make the winner, regardless of voter opinions.

Cynical actions on the part of government were still very visible, but now they were being magnified and distorted, thus losing the power to intimidate.

This kind of wheeler dealing has been very successful throughout the Putin years. Under him, the elections have effectively become an emasculated ritual, completely controlled by the government. A combination of various forms of administrative pressure and outright falsification made it possible for the government to announce its desired result. More than one research study has demonstrated that the populace, while completely understanding that the elections are dishonest, nevertheless, on the whole, accepted the results as officially declared. The breaking of this ‘rule’ giving a primacy to cynicism was at the heart of the demonstrations, which rocked the Russian political system in Moscow and other Russian cities at the end of the 2011, and afterwards. What might be called anti-cynical tendencies became stronger and more organised. Thousands of people, particularly in Moscow, came forward to be trained and coordinated as independent observers during the elections process. This development was crucial to the change in social and political attitudes; and networking on twitter and facebook was the other important contributing factor. The newly-trained observers picked up on falsifications, filmed them on video and cameras, and posted them on the internet, in almost real time. Yes, cynical actions on the part of government were still very visible, but now they were being magnified and distorted, thus losing the power to intimidate.


The exuberance and earnestness that surrounded post-election protests did seem to indicate that cynicism might no longer be such a key consideration of Russian politiics. Recent events have, however, returned it to central stage. 

‘Give us back free and fair elections!’ was the cry of the mass demonstrations, not only from the people taking part in them, but also from a significant number of people throughout the country. This reaffirmation of the value of honesty, set against the cynicism of the regional and Central election commissions, acted as an antidote, and the poison of cynicism ceased to have any effect. The public was no longer intimidated and cowed by cynical actions; the President’s hapless attempts to communicate with the crowd by means of cynical jokes had the opposite effect – the crowd became superior to him. Here it should be remembered that Yeltsin’s arbitrary decision to appoint Putin as his successor had in effect scorned the importance of democratic elections, as Putin himself did later on, when he appointed Medvedev. That being said, Putin has throughout his rule enjoyed the formal endorsement of upwards of 60% of Russians, and he still does.

At this point the authorities recovered from their brief period of confusion, turning away from cynicism as their main political tool, and moving on to terror and violence, if only to make a show of them as an example. Steps included criminal proceedings against demonstrators; passing laws which drastically increased the severity of penalties for taking part in demonstrations; and handing down sentences under these laws. These government measures were not without an element of cynicism, but intimidation through violence was the new norm enacted by the agencies of state enforcement.

When this transformation happened, it became clear that our attempts in this planned series, to look at a sociological analysis of cynicism as an aspect of social interaction, had lost any civic or political relevance, and were no more than academic research. This was not our intention, and so we decided not to publish. It is only very recent changes in Russia’s political practice that have brought us back to our topic.

A change for the better? 

The event to which I refer was the reinstatement of elections for governors and other heads of constituent parts of the Russian Federation. The Russian Constitution stipulates the election of the heads of the more than eighty constituent elements of the Federation (republics have presidents; regions have governors; and Moscow and St Petersburg have mayors). In 2004 Putin abandoned elections in favour of appointing governors and other administrative leaders, one of his administration’s many measures to cancel out moves towards democracy introduced by Yeltsin.

The liberal political opposition had regularly raised the question of bringing back elections. Under pressure from the mass protests at the end of 2011 and thereafter, the Russian government decided to make some concessions in this direction. Direct elections, though truncated and made more complex, became if not obligatory, then at least possible. Heads of regions were offered the chance to change their status from appointed to elected leaders, though the current hyper-centralised management system allows for very few personal initiatives, and any attempt of this kind can be assumed to have been either organised by central government, or at least agreed in detail with it. There have as yet been insufficient elections for us to be able to assess the results of this change; and the path towards free and fair elections contains one test which presents an enormous political problem – the electoral process itself. An election that the voters know from the outset will not be fair and honest cannot provide the legitimacy that the government hopes to achieve, or even meaningfully distinguish an elected leader from an appointed one. For that to happen, elections would have to be fair, but they effectively disappeared from Russian political life more than ten years ago.

It is in this context that the recently elected mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin (a career politician, unswervingly loyal to Putin) announced his ‘retirement’ in order to fight the mayoral election in Moscow on September 8th.  He made it clear that he wanted the Moscow election to be free and fair, and real steps were taken to confirm the firmness of his resolution. Also taking part in the election was Sobyanin’s strongest opponent, Alexey Navalny, the most charismatic member, if not already leader, of the liberal opposition.

The very fact that the Russian government took the risk of permitting this electoral experiment has to be considered a success for the protest movement. Though Sobyanin stood a good chance of being elected in a fair election, there was always the possibility of failure or a scandal relating to vote rigging. The success of the experiment in Moscow is a significant victory for the liberal cause, even though Sobyanin received the majority vote. The election of a pro-government candidate, standing against a popular member of an effective opposition, can be regarded as a victory for both the government and the opposition, strange as that may seem. Where does that leave cynicism in the political game? Well, you would have to be a real cynic not to be optimistic.

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