Russia: ideology becomes a mash-up

Evgeny Morozov
5 August 2008

One of the first cartoons to travel across the Russian blogosphere on the day of Solzhenitsyn's death depicts the famed writer swirling in a dirty Soviet toilet. Next to him hangs a roll of toilet paper made of US dollars. "The first circle" reads the caption, alluding to his eponymous novel.

anti-Solzhenitsyn cartoon

Anti-Solzhenitsyn comments accompany posts featuring the cartoon, click here for Russian: "Thanks all! We've done it: almost all the time our opinion's been getting more clicks than the chorus of tearful praise-mongering for Solzhenitsyn organised by the remaining liberals and hard-core Putinists..When a vicious dog dies, the whole street rejoices - isn't that what you'd expect?)"





The cartoon and the Solzhenitsyn-bashing that followed it easily became one of the most discussed posts on the Russian Internet that day; pro-Solzhenitsyn bloggers launched their own campaign to clear his name of accusations. Thousands of comments followed, in what may seem like a great exercise in online deliberation.

Anti-Solzhenitsyn comments have appeared all over the Russian blogosphere: "The official mass media's already crying crocodile ears over the death of ‘the nation's conscience'. But we know how he fought for the US and global capitalism against the Soviet Union!..Have your say now! Let's top the Yandex ratings and show these professional lying bastards!"

Under closer scrutiny, however, most of those comments reveal a nation that is still at pains to define itself. As Russians ponder the complex fate of their controversial writer-and their long history of authoritarianism, they still prefer to oversimplify their past rather than acknowledge it in full.

Did Solzhenitsyn collaborate with the authorities? Did he spy on his camp-mates? Was he on CIA's payroll? Did he sympathize with the Nazis? Is he to blame for the fall of the Soviet system? Did he have any moral right to tell the country what to do, given his own possibly tainted experience in the camps?

Those are all complex questions in need of well-researched and well-considered answers; the thousands of comments on Russian blogs produced very few satisfactory candidates. But not because the commentators haven't tried - they did - but simply because online polemics rarely produce new factual evidence.

The problem with ‘citizen history'

The internet may have given us the infinite world of hyperlinks but only at the cost of well-documented footnotes, which regularly fall through the infinite cracks of online conversations. Yet history without footnotes is a mere black-and-white parody of itself; it's a history without subtlety, great for propaganda but useless for serious inquiry.

Pro-Solzhenitsyn bloggers launched a campaign to clear his name: "We Rate Solzhenitsyn!: It just makes me sad that someone could write such revolting stuff on the day of his death'.....'I beg you - join in the post ‘We Rate Solzhenitsyn!' You can do it like this..."

Yet this may be precisely the kind of therapeutic story-telling that Russians have longed for, as it's only by embracing such do-it-yourself history that they can heal the great traumas of their past. Internet has offered them a good remedy, opening a new-digital- chapter in ‘revision studies' of the Soviet and the post-Soviet histories. As the debates surrounding Solzhenitsyn's legacy reveal, many Russians have taken their online historical quests well too seriously.

Armed with Google and its Russian alternatives, these ‘citizen historians' fear no history, as they adopt a purely quantitative approach to it. They wrongly believe that truth belongs to those who find more facts, as it's usually the quantity of arguments - not their quality - that determines the outcome of most online discussions they engage in. And so they jump over to re-visit archives, re-read books, re-scan documents and proudly flaunt their historical trophies-many of them fake-in online discussions. ‘I have 10 hyperlinks against your 9. I win. History is over'.

In the blogosphere, arguments never end, they only acquire new hyperlinks. To win in most battles that take place in the Russian cyberspace, one simply needs to have access to a bottomless reservoir of statistics and a mastery of italicised fonts: how many people really died in Ukraine's Holodomor, how many wars the US really started, how many Albanians really disappeared in Kosovo, how much money the Yeltsin government really wasted. Maps, budgets, photos, scanned pages of the original manuscripts - it's all out there at your disposal, to help you cook the greatest historical soup of all times: your customized version of world history, downloadable directly to your shiny iPod.

Ambiguous authoritarianism

While each of these ‘citizen historians' may have an audience of fewer than five followers, the network effect makes this peer-to-peer revisionism more influential and disruptive that it appears at first sight. Russia's ruling elites took note of this early on - and suddenly their own methods have become much more subtle-even cryptic at times-especially viewed against the naïve brutality of Putin's early years.

In fact, the best label for today's Russian regime, where everything seems to have a latent dimension, is ‘ambiguous authoritarianism'. Even Yeltsin's rule, by comparison, seems very predictable: the old man was quirky but the vector of his policies was at least discernible. Today it's not even clear who is in charge; who is to blame - even less so.

This only ratchets up the sense of fear and paranoia among the low-ranking bureaucrats. Some of them simply break down under the great pressure of endless and perverse experiments in game theory that policy-making in today's Russia entails. What would Putin say if Medvedev responds in this particular way? How would Medvedev react if Putin doesn't respond? What if both of them respond? Five more years of such ambiguity and all of Russia's best pundits, journalists, and policy-makers would just capitulate and retreat to their dachas, unable to predict anything meaningful.

This tyranny of ambivalence also explains why Kremlin back-pedalled on the creation of the official state ideology; ideology provides easy answers and this is not how this regime advances its dominance. It would rather terrorise everyone by uncertainty than state its real position on issues as plain and simple as the necessity of more foreign direct investment.

This dismantling of ideology couldn't pass unnoticed. Thus, what started as a very enthusiastic and public effort to revise much of the Soviet and post-Soviet history - the debates over the national anthem may have been the highlight of that campaign - gradually faded away. The last big statement on the subject - Putin's characterisation of the fall of the USSR as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of all times' -- dates back to 2005. Even Kremlin's attempts to build a youth movement, Nashi, are on hold now; it didn't produce a generation of apparatchiks because it couldn't do so without a coherent ideology.

Instead, the Kremlin opted for a DIY ideology. Today the base of its supporters could be equally pro-US and anti-US, pro-Stalin and anti-Stalin, pro-USSR and anti-USSR, pro-FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) and anti-FD; this club clearly has an open-door policy. That the state doesn't officially preclude anyone from being part of it explains its popularity; it is ambivalent enough to allow its supporters define their own relation to power in terms of their historical and geopolitical concerns. Russian citizens might eventually click their way to the heart of the matter and discover that their options are actually quite limited, but this is not going to happen anytime soon - particularly with so many pressing online battles for them to engage in.


For now, they fancy themselves as the great investigators of history, confronting the big questions that the state expects them to answer. Was Stalin good? Was Solzhenitsyn good? Was Gorbachev good? Is Europe an enemy? Is China a friend? Those questions produce thousands of online spats on a daily basis, gradually shifting the public consensus to more extreme positions, hyperlink by hyperlink.

Nano-propaganda: supposed facsimile of ‘denunciation' written in camp by Solzhenitsyn under pseudonym Vetrov




Of course, most of those questions are so ultra-sensitive that Kremlin itself wouldn't even attempt to answer them; even having Putin or Medvedev ask them in public might have dire social consequences. So the country's leaders have simply outsourced all this trenchant Q&A warfare to the masses; after all, they have the Internet to test the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable.

User-generated ideology was probably the only shot that the authorities ever had at doing something about the ideological vacuum that was expanding exponentially halfway into Putin's first term- and they used it well. Such a move was badly needed to counter the falling public trust in traditional channels of spreading Kremlin's gospel. So instead they turned to nano-propaganda on the Web: rationed in small portions, to just a few dozen people, and normally through their peers.

The Kremlin has learned a great deal from marketers; now they know how to plant messages with a few hardcore supporters - and wait while they propagate through the new networked public sphere. From there, the messages can travel on their own. True, the rulers may need to subsidise some of the early supporters for a short period - hence rampant speculations about possible Kremlin-funded groups that leave comments on blogs and forums, the so-called ‘G Squad' - but a few of them are enough to create an army of unpaid and very trustworthy believers in the cause.

This is how the modern Russian ideology became the ultimate mash-up: Stalin's strong-hand leadership, Solzhenitsyn's patriotism, Putin's spy-past, Yeltsin's irrationality - they are all part of this new private Lego-ideology, which the Kremlin wants the public to construct in their heads. Everyone can have their own copy; just be creative in using Google. Of course, Kremlin has a sketch of the answers it wants to hear; it's only the insignificant details that are up for grabs. Everyone ends up building the same Lego-like catafalque; it's only the colours that differ.

...In response to the odious Solzhenitsyn cartoon, one commentator recounted the old joke about what Russian encyclopedias would say about Brezhnev in 2080. Not much: only that he was a petty bureaucrat and a contemporary to Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. But this is a very optimistic view of the future. The recent Names of Russia contest - where Russians are asked to cast votes on the most significant Russians of all times - suggest a different scenario.

Names of Russia is a full-blown attempt to revise much of recent history by relying on public efforts alone. That the state opened it up for voting shows its confidence in its methods. After all, Yeltsin or Gorbachev might win the poll. Names of Russia may be Kremlin's first successful attempt to crowd-source revisionism; not surprisingly, Stalin is currently ranked #2 and Lenin #4. Forget updating textbook editions-- this is messy, expensive, and takes time. It's much easier to unleash the creativity of millions into ‘verifying' facts, most of which don't really need much verification. What else can explain an army of Russian teenagers trying to out-compete each other in their fact-finding quests to whitewash Stalin and his heroism during the war and share their findings with their peers on LiveJournal (never mind that Stalin was Georgian, not Russian).

The Kremlin's larger objective in all of this is also beginning to emerge: they want the public to accept the ideology of communism - only without communism. ‘The USSR would have been perfect but for the Communist Party' is Moscow's new logic. It's this very logic that makes Stalin the top Russian of all times: if you throw out the communism and labour camps, he was a great leader. Sometime in the middle of Putin's presidency, Kremlin understood that they wouldn't be able to reconcile the irreconcilable and foist this very controversial set of dubious truths on the masses; the public had to embrace this new great logic by themselves, peacefully and anonymously. So off went the ideology - and in came the Internet.

That Russians have finally started to confront their history matters a great deal. However, the vector of that confrontation - as well as the motivation behind it - matter even more. So far this tainted flirtation with history doesn't promise anything good for Russia and its neighbours; that the state has found a powerful propaganda machine in the new media only makes it more dangerous.



Was Solzhenitsyn good? Two excerpts from the discussions on the Russian blogosphere, translated from Russian by Susan Richards.

Pro: Solzhenitsyn's two most significant works are a story called A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and his massive history of the camps, The Gulag Archipelago. The impact of the story, which was published in November 1992, is well captured here by a blogger who is clearly writing from experience:

Pro: 'Who would have thought it possible: Tvardovsky popped some short story in his journal - a really very short story too - and the whole system was shaken to the core. That sounds improbable, but it's true. Soviet power, incredibly enough, was brought down by the word: by Solzhenitsyn's tiny stories and Brodsky's little poems. What's more it was these works, which contained nothing particularly awful, no terrible revelations. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich might even have been called Ivan Denisovich's Happy Day.

Even so, the happy people of that happy Soviet land read this little story and gasped: wow, so is that all there is to human happiness? That today you weren't shot, you managed to get some food somehow, and you got a little nap before they sent you off to work again? The story wasn't just about a zek in a camp, but about the nightmare of unfreedom, which every Soviet citizen knew, from academicians to cleaning ladies.

Contra: Solzhenitsyn collected the basic material for Gulag Archipelago while still in camp, in a heroic feat of memorisation. The following is an extract from document posted on the Internet which describes how a group of ex-zeks get together to discuss how reliable Solzhenitsyn's material is ie how it matches up against their own camp experience

'Here it says that there was this camp where 40,000 zeks died one winter, building the railway. That the bones of these 40,000 zeks are all down there, under the rail sleepers. Can you believe that?

'Well, perhaps it's true,' responded Romanov.

'OK. So how many would have had to die every 24 hours? 40,000 in 6-7 months - that means more than 6,000 a month, that means more than 200 a day! Oh Aleksandr Isa'ch! You really are a lying sonovabitch! A real Hitler - you're better at it than Goebels!..'

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