One of the main elements of collective consciousness in post-Soviet Russia is a belief that this consciousness can be manipulated in the most unlikely ways. The Hollywood film Wag the Dog, a satirical comedy set in the Clinton era, has frequently been shown on prime time Russian TV; and a whole generation of people in media and political PR see it not as a parody but as a key practical guideline for their work (the film’s plot centres on a war fabricated by spin-doctors to cover up a presidential sex scandal).
Another, equally important example of cinema moulding Russian political thinking is the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy: Russian political advisers and commentators like to think that the entire reality of life in their country is no more than a virtual space controlled by an all-embracing and all-powerful computer programme. And a third crucial influence on public perception is the work of the writer Viktor Pelevin, whose books have been topping the bestseller lists for the last 15 years. Every year, Pelevin brings out a novel whose premise is that everything shown on the TV news is a lie, and that behind it there is nothing but a vast mystification dreamed up by the forces of evil.
The main proof of the existence of the Russian Matrix is Vladimir Putin.
Belief in this big lie is shared by both the manipulators and the manipulated, especially since the main proof of the existence of the Russian Matrix is Vladimir Putin himself, a man who appeared in political life from literally nowhere (a year before he came to power Russian voters had never heard of him); and owes his present status as national hero, father of his people etc etc solely to television. This fact may indeed explain many of the secrets of today’s Russia: Putin’s own experience convinced him of the immense power wielded by the media, so it was logical that now, in power, he should be the one to control the matrix and create the virtual space that, thanks to TV, millions of Russians take for reality.
Viktor Pelevin's books have influenced public perception in Russia. Photo CC: Playing FuturesNow, many months into the Ukrainian crisis, it is clear that this crisis represents the pinnacle of the Kremlin’s manipulative art. From the start of the political standoff in Kyiv, the Kremlin-controlled Russian media created a dramatic image for the public, of the diabolical triumph of Ukrainian neo-Fascism, and the direct threat it posed not only to Ukraine, with its large Russian minority, but also to Russia itself. The overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych was presented to Russians as a Nazi coup; the new Kyiv government a junta; the annexation of Crimea a rescue operation to prevent inevitable ethnic pogroms; and pro-Russian separatism in the Donetsk region a popular anti-Nazi revolt.
It gets harder with each episode to tell what is real and what is animated propaganda.
This all brings to mind another Hollywood movie, admittedly less popular in Russia than Wag the Dog or The Matrix. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was remarkable for the way it combined live actors with cartoon characters, something we can see again today in Ukraine, where real people with real guns in their hands have suddenly appeared alongside the cartoon neo-Nazis, pogrom threats, and popular uprisings created by the Russian propaganda machine. The guns fire real bullets and people die for real; and it gets harder with each episode to tell what is real and what is animated propaganda.
Ukraine sets a very high value on its independence, distinctiveness, language, culture, and so on. But today, Ukraine and Russia are closer, both culturally and politically, than Ukraine’s patriots would like. Paradoxically, in some ways they even became closer after the breakup of the USSR: Russian TV channels vied with Ukrainian ones to attract Ukrainian viewers; Ukrainian and Russian show business remained closely integrated; Russian journalists flooded into Kyiv to work in the local media; and during every Ukrainian election, political parties and candidates all hired dozens, hundreds even, of Russian spin doctors, PR experts, pollsters, and specialists in other related professions.
This cultural affinity may indeed provide the answer to the question why a semi-virtual Matrix (in which Ukraine has been at war with Russia for the last six months) should also have taken control over Ukraine’s media. The first documentary proof that Russian troops were involved in armed clashes on Ukrainian territory only came at the end of August, when funerals were held for Russian soldiers who had been killed in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Even Russian state TV, which tried to hush up the funerals by ignoring them, nevertheless broadcast reports a week later where viewers were told that the dead commandos had taken leave, but without informing their commanding officers or even their families; and had gone to fight alongside the Donetsk separatists.
In Russia the news of the funerals caused a sensation (if that is the word for a piece of news only reported by a few independent media outlets); in Ukraine, on the other hand, it surprised no one, as Ukrainian viewers had long since been convinced that Russia had invaded Ukraine back in March; and was fighting a real war with their country. It was obviously an unusual war – one in which transport links between the warring sides continued to function normally; embassies worked as usual in both capitals; and the two presidents had friendly phone conversations every few days… But the Ukrainian media came up with the same response to all questions: it was ‘a new type of war;’ ‘a hybrid war;’ ‘a proxy war.’ The more vague the language used, the more readily the viewers believed it.
The more vague the language used, the more readily the viewers believed it.
Two virtual realities
The gap between these two virtual realities is such that now, when a relative ceasefire has been established in eastern Ukraine, and the Kyiv government is discussing special status for the two regions in crisis, the events of the last few months look so different from each side of the border that it is difficult to believe that people are talking about the same thing. From Kyiv, it appears that Ukraine has just gained a respite in a war with its enormous and powerful neighbour; that it has managed to assert its independence; that Kyiv has not fallen – only two regions have been occupied, and not even completely; and considering the relative strengths of the two armies it cannot be called a defeat; in other words, that things could be much worse. Monuments will be raised to the fallen heroes; those who fought will probably emerge as a new political force (almost all parties’ candidate lists for the parliamentary elections to be held on 26 October contain the names of battalion commanders who fought in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions). There is the expectation of a further war, and the possibility of reclaiming territory, including Crimea (President Petro Poroshenko has repeatedly said that he still considers the peninsula part of Ukraine), will loom large in the public imagination for many years to come. That is what the end of the war looks like from Ukraine.
Russian and Ukrainian reports of the conflict differ starkly. Photo CC: Vitaly V Kuzmin
As for what really happened, no one on either side of the border really cares, because they have all seen The Matrix.
If, however, you look from Russia, there is nothing to see, because there was no Russo-Ukrainian war; what there was, rather, was a successful Nazi uprising; a junta; a voluntary reunification of Crimea with Russia; and a popular revolt in the Donbas. Russia’s role in all this was restricted to supplying humanitarian aid; and the participation in the conflict of a relatively few (compared to the local fighters) Russian volunteers could be put down to their answering the call of their hearts, and joining the fight against Fascism. That is what the events of the last few months look like from Russia.
As for what really happened, no one on either side of the border really cares, because they have all seen The Matrix, and read Pelevin; and they believe that reality is whatever you see on TV.
Standfirst image: danielle_blue
Get our weekly email