'A piece about propaganda in Russia?' Psychologist Natalia Vershina was amazed when I asked her for a comment. 'It's all around us. Even the tram stop has a poster saying, "Change your football shirt for a patriotic one!" with a picture of Iskander rockets.'
Then and now
Many people in Russia today remember that one year ago, in January 2014, the dollar exchange rate was fluctuating between 30-32 roubles, and the euro between 40-45 roubles; food and other consumer goods were considerably cheaper than they are now. A simple example: in January 2014, I bought a fridge for 18,000 roubles. Now, the exact same fridge costs double (i.e. 36,000 roubles). Many may remember this, but few are dissatisfied with the situation. Putin's January electoral rating, according to the VTsIOM survey, is 73%. A year ago it was 46%, and things were much better then.
I discussed the reasons for the Russian leader's high approval rating (against the backdrop of a huge economic crisis) with professional psychologists. They are sure that a psychological experiment aimed at masking the economic failures is being carried out in Russian society with the help of a wide range of manipulation tools.
'This is what Putin said during the Direct Line TV programme in April 2014,' says Natalia Vershina. ‘"What is at the heart of what makes us so special? I think that a Russian – or someone from the Russian World – thinks first and foremost of man's higher moral destiny. Western values, which is how they measure achievement, are based on personal success. That's not enough for us. I think only we Russians could produce the saying that even death is not frightening when you have your loved ones around you. How can this be? Death is very frightening – but no, when surrounded by love, it is not, with our friends, the Russian people, and our Russian homeland. Of course we're less pragmatic and calculating than other nations, but we have a bigger soul."'
‘Of course we're less pragmatic and calculating than other nations, but we have a bigger soul.’
'Just see how cleverly the president plays on feelings which are an essential part of the makeup of a Russian who believes that the French, English, Americans are all soulless,' continues Vershina. 'In the West, according to Putin, a man is portrayed as being able to sell something for a good price, to be successful in business, but if you ask him for help he will probably refuse because it's not to his advantage. As the president expresses it, Russians are people who will give the last shirt off their back to someone in need. This image works well, because wages and salaries in Russia are catastrophically low: countrywide, the average post-tax salary is some 29,346 roubles, or less than $500. When a Russian hears that people live better in the West, but are apparently immoral and mercantile, he thinks, "I'm better off as I am – in an apartment block where the walls are covered with obscenities, in a town where there's no work, but my conscience is clear." People tend to try and justify their substandard living conditions by regarding themselves as repositories of spirituality.'
People tend to try and justify their substandard living conditions by regarding themselves as repositories of spirituality.
'Can you see how this is redolent of exclusivity?' asks Vershina. 'But according to Putin, it is this very exceptionality, which can lead to tragedy. In an interview with a Serbian newspaper he said: "Unfortunately, the vaccine against the Nazi virus, which was developed at the Nuremberg war trials, is losing its efficacy in some European states … It's important that people in different countries and continents remember what terrible consequences can result from the conviction of one's own exceptionality, and regarding any method as acceptable if it achieves dubious geopolitical aims, while ignoring the elementary rules of the law and morality."'
'Double standards. But this method works, because the Russian people are marked with a plus sign – you are the repository of spiritual values, whereas they [the West] cannot see the error of their ways. This is why 74% of Russians support a potential war with Ukraine, because they will be going into battle to restore the true values, not to kill people.'
The enemy is at the gate
'There is no doubt that it's not enough just to give people the conviction that they are exceptional,' says psychologist Zaur Kokhadze. 'One needs other variables. In Russia, one of the variables is the image of "the enemy". At first the selected enemy was the West, which was very effective. But the West is actually a long way away, and in Russian consciousness it's an ephemeral image. 83% of Russians have never been abroad and don't even have a passport. But Ukraine – well, that's a different matter. The situation there is very advantageous for Putin and his team's domestic rating figures. For most Russians, Ukraine is part of their country, which has simply become a foreign state. At the moment they can't accept that it's another country with its own special character. It's Great Russian chauvinism [Ukraine was known as Little Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries], which comes from its geography: Russia is the biggest country in the world, and Ukraine and Belarus, where Russian is also spoken, are small.'
83% of Russians have never been abroad and don't even have a passport.
'So, while the provisional enemy was far away, Putin's popularity fluctuated. But now, when the "enemy" is Ukraine, the presidential ratings cannot be any lower than it is. It's a legacy from the Soviet Union: "Think first of your motherland and then of yourself." Russians are currently distracted and thinking "of the motherland"; to them, the enemy is at the gates. Unfortunately, however, it could be that when they start thinking about themselves – which means primarily improving their surroundings – it could be too late.'
'Russia is witnessing an undeclared mobilisation of the population. In showing the horrors of the Donbas war, the state is, as it were, saying, "we are against this." We will not pause to reflect that Russia is actually supporting the war in the Donbas. We are talking about manipulation: people are told that Russia is against the killing of civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and yet the reverse effect comes into operation: "so Ukraine, supported by the USA and EU, is in favour of killing?" This is demonstrably, incredible nonsense, but people are taken in by the technical features of Russian propaganda.'
A matter of technique
'There's a saying in
Russia that, "if you tell a man he's a pig a hundred times, he'll start
grunting,' says Zaur Kokhadze. 'This is the experiment that's being carried out
on Russian TV viewers. The TV is the
main weapon of propaganda, and in Russia 70% of the population watch it every
'There's a saying in Russia that, "if you tell a man he's a pig a hundred times, he'll start grunting.'
'The lie is an
important feature of Russian TV propaganda. One has only to remember the story
on Channel 1 of the 3-year-old boy who was crucified by the Ukrainian army in
Slovyansk*. Russians are used to
believing what they see on the TV, which is a hangover from Soviet times: TV is
associated with the government, which can't lie. When the lie is carried to the
limits of absurdity, people's reason cracks and they think, "what
bastards, well you'll see – you too will be crucified on a notice board." Volunteers
then come forward, ready to go to Donbas and fight the "junta".'
'Another important detail is giving one's opponent unpleasant names. In official parlance, Kyiv is the "junta", Ukrainian soldiers are "marauders". Do you know what the association for Russians is here? It goes back to the Second World War; the Einsatzgruppen were paramilitary death squads, which carried out the genocide of civilians, such as the burning of 149 people in the Belorussian village of Khatyn in 1943. A fairly typical presentation of the news on Russian TV runs like this: "Ukrainian marauders are exterminating the inhabitants of Pervomaisk in the Luhansk People's Republic. The world looks on indifferently at the excesses of the Ukrainian junta. Western politicians offer full support to the punitive operations in Donetsk and Luhansk republics, furnishing the marauders with uniforms and military hardware. Civilian deaths will be laid at the door of not only the Ukrainian junta, but of the Western countries and America, which are controlling and supporting this bloodbath." What is a Russian viewer supposed to feel after this? Rage.'
'In the same news
broadcast there must also be positive information about Russian government
actions. To say, for instance, that Vladimir Putin is offering Kyiv help with
sorting things out in a peaceful way. Viewers watch and think that their
government is peace loving. But it isn't even necessary to stress the Ukrainian
theme or Putin. If, straight after the piece about the marauders, there is an
item like, "In the Far East more than 100 military personnel have been
given the keys to new flats", the viewers will consider that the West has
brought destruction and death into Ukraine, but in our country all is peaceful
and we are flourishing.'
'The way information is presented is also important. Pyotr Tolstoy's programme Politika, for example, goes out on the state channel Channel 1. A technique much used in this programme is the switching of meanings. A foreigner is brought into the studio. He doesn't speak Russian very well, and it is a signal to the viewer, "just look – we're giving you an alternative view." But during the conversation, the foreigner, whose Russian is not perfect, has to reflect before he answers the presenter's questions. This happens more than once, as he works out the meaning of what he is being asked. Then the presenter says, "you probably meant this …"; "you wanted to say …". The foreigner is confused, not understanding the presenter, who is talking very fast, and so he agrees.'
'The way information is presented is also important.’
'There are even tougher
methods of influencing the minds of the viewers. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a prominant Duma Deputy, makes use of them.
He goes for the jugular. The viewers are flooded with positive proposals,
which, in essence, are slogans: "we mustn't be under the thumb of the
West"; "we must protect the Donbas people." This stream of emphatic
slogans takes the human mind into a state of ecstasy. And this, as we know,
leads people to lose the capacity for rational thought.'
'Here, a few words about Dmitry Kiselyov, TV propagandist number one, are essential. His main method is gesticulation. When you watch his news programme, you realise that you are not hearing everything he says because for most of the time you are watching his hands. Kiselyov is a master of the hypnotic presentation of the news. He is very skilled in NLP. You are watching his gestures, while he is saying, "Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has returned from a two-week visit to the USA. During that time the Ukrainian army has re-commenced mass shelling of Donetsk Republic towns. A coincidence? I don't think so." The main thought, which Kiselyov doesn't even articulate, is that "the USA ordered Poroshenko to renew the shelling", so the viewer thinks he has come to his own conclusion, and this becomes his position. This is how we develop our domestic "patriots."'
Russian Orthodox Church
'The church occupies a special place in Russian propaganda,' says Zaur Kokhadze. 'Over 60% of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians. The special features of this religion are for another conversation, but I should like to quote an appeal to Russians in connection with the sanctions, from Kirill, the Patriarch of All Moscow and All Russia:
"For Russia, turmoil in hearts and minds is worse than anything else. When the economy is in a bad way, a vast number of people lose sight of the bigger picture, which corresponds to the size of our country. Thus, in order to plant confusion in people's minds, the economic situation has to be made worse. We are currently facing the problem of foreign sanctions. What is their aim? First and foremost to make everyone stop thinking about the wider, national, picture, and concentrate on themselves. The insignificant deterioration in our living standards cannot be a reason for the disintegration of our national consciousness. This what we have to think and pray about at this time."'
Given such eloquent ways of exerting influence over our hearts and minds, how can I be worried that the price of my fridge has doubled?
*Author's note: on 12 July the Russian media (Channel 1) broadcast an item in which a woman, apparently a refugee from Slovyansk, Galina Pyshnyak, recounted how a three-year-old boy had been crucified on a notice board. This crime was apparently committed by Ukrainian soliders, who had driven all the residents of the town out on to Lenin Square. According to Pyshnyak, the boy was murdered because his father was a separatist.
However, it soon became apparent that the story was a fabrication. First of all, there is no Lenin Square in Slovyansk; secondly, not one of the Slovyansk inhabitants, when asked by the journalists in the media, could confirm the information about the crucifixion of the child.
Channel 1 has still not apologised or denied the information broadcast in the news item.