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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
10 June 2023: Compare and contrast, plus texts and tunes
As Ukraine’s summer offensive has gradually rolled into gear, Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan went on TV to suggest — now that Ukraine has the capability to cause significant damage to Russia itself — that it might be time to stop fighting. That, in turn, provoked me into a bit of a tweet storm, explaining what I thought she was trying to achieve. Hint: it’s not to tell us what the Kremlin is actually thinking. Check out the thread for more.
What I’m thinking about
Thirty-seven counts. Thirty-honest-to-goodness-seven felony counts, documented in the finest detail, of malfeasance very nearly of the highest order imaginable from a former president of the United States.
Unless, of course, it’s thirty-down-in-the-much-seven instances of the weaponization of America’s criminal justice system against the man — the one man — who was willing to stand up for the little guy, as just about every Republican politician of note has claimed.
Yes, I know this is a newsletter about Russia. And no, I’m not here to argue that Trump took all those state secrets — really astounding state secrets — in order to give them to Moscow. Neither do I have much patience for the argument that the GOP is shilling for Putin. But I’m absolutely convinced that Russia is profoundly and urgently relevant to what’s about to go down in America.
Back in April, I wrote in this newsletter about a a workshop I attended at Columbia about media censorship, manipulation, disinformation and public opinion in and involving wartime Russia. At that workshop, I gave a talk titled “Manufacturing Compliance”, drawing on research I had done earlier in Russia and Belarus about how authoritarian media environments work. (For some, though not all, of the underlying research, see here. The rest isn’t published yet.) The argument I made, in a nutshell, was as follows:
News consumption is primarily a social activity. People read, watch or listen to the news mostly because they need they material they get to be able to converse about the world with their friends, family members, colleagues and neighbors.
As a result, people tend to consume the media outlets that are most popular in their social surroundings. If most of a person’s social circle gets most of their news from Source X, that person is most likely to read Source X, rather than Source Y. The more distance there is, in terms of slant, ideology or agenda, between Sources X and Y, the less likely a person is to want to turn to Source Y, if all of their interlocutors are consuming Source X.
The more a state increases the level of repression and censorship, the more polarized the media landscape becomes; in other words, the distance between government-controlled Source X and independent Source Y grows, in terms of the news they cover and the ways in which they cover it. And as that distance grows, the tendency of media consumers to cross the border from Source X to Source Y (or vice versa) decreases.
As a result, repression and censorship create polarized camps of media consumers who see the world very differently and who are bound to those differing visions by the bonds of socialization. See, for example, everything I’ve written in this newsletter over the past 16 months about the gap between people in Russia who do and do not support the war. Asking a war supporter to switch sides requires more than them just accepting a different view of the facts: they have to be willing to break with their social circles. That’s a much higher bar to clear.
When I was done saying all of this, complete with charts and all, one of the participants at Columbia asked the question that has been on my mind for years, and never more than over the last 48 hours: how is this different from the US?
On the face of it, the answer is “not very”. While I haven’t had the opportunity to run my Russian and Belarusian surveys in the US, my strong presumption is that I would find the same basic patterns of socialization and media consumption. If most of my American friends get their news from NPR, I’m not likely to chime in at the dinner party with word of the latest exposé by Tucker Carlson — at least, not if I want to get invited back. The obverse is also true: NPR and the New York Times don’t break through in Fox-land not because their messages would cause cognitive dissonance, but because their messages would cause social dissonance.
It is for this reason that I am nervous about attempts to write off these phenomena in the US as simply another iteration of the “paranoid style in American politics” (as the Financial Times wrote about Carlson, and the New York Times wrote about RFK Jr). That kind of diagnosis suggests that the antidote to delusion — the kind of delusion that allows people to ignore what appears to me to be the reality of Trump’s culpability — is facts. The reality is that facts will always break on the rocks of the social relationships that bind communities together.
There are, however, differences between the US and Russia — the most significant being that the polarization in American media and audiences is not the result of repression and censorship. As a result, it is within the power of American citizens to make things better, but actively bridging the chasms that have opened in the the political landscape. To be clear, I’m not calling for hippie-kumbaya-handholding; it didn’t really work in summer camp, and it’s not likely to get Black Lives Matter and the Proud Boys on the same page. My suggestion is much more radical than that.
My suggestion is that those of us who actually believe in democracy and the value of our institutions — including, however flawed, our criminal justice system and the rule of law — recognize that the reality our opponents perceive is every bit as real to them as the reality we perceive is to us. Stay with me for a moment, because this isn’t a call for relativism. We need to understand that the prosecution of Trump is likely to deepen the polarization and alienation in American society, and to provoke the consolidation of potentially violent opposition to the core of our democratic institutions.
Treating the idea that the indictment of Trump is a political witch hunt launched by the Global Woke-Marxist Cabal in order to cancel Christmas (or whatever) as merely disinformation isn’t good enough. As fantastical as that world is in fact, it is the only reality perceived by the sizable portion of Americans who believe it, and that reality is reinforced daily not simply by right-wing media, but by the sum total of people’s social interactions. We don’t have to accept that this view of the world is real, but we do have to accept that it is very real indeed to the other side.
That leaves us, I think, with three imperatives:
First, have the courage of our convictions. To say that perception is reality is only to say that people’s behaviors are shaped by the reality that they perceive, whether that reality is real or not; it is not to say that there is no such thing as reality. If we believe that the reality we perceive as real, we should be committed to it and act accordingly, pushing ahead — in accordance with our values and principles — with the policies that we believe to be justified. Heaven knows, the other side will.
Second, do no harm. Even as we push ahead in the pursuit of our convictions, we need to be careful not to reinforce the perceptions and grievances that fuel the other side’s sense of alienation. Again, I’m not calling for kumbaya. But because we know that the other side believes that Trump’s prosecutors are weaponizing the law, they must be careful — as I believe they are, as it happens — to ensure that their case is water-tight and 100% above board. Whatever happens, we cannot be goaded or tempted into making their reality actually true. This is less because we hope the truth will undermine their reality, but because we don’t want the maintenance of falsehoods to undermine our reality and risk a loss of solidarity.
Third, be patient. There will be no easy solution to polarization and alienation. Indeed, in one amount or another there have always been people wedded to alternative realities (and here, the “paranoid style” argument is valid). But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to ever-greater dysfunction. Take, for example, Belarus, where the need for reliable information about the state of the economy, and then about Covid-19, drove people away from regime-controlled media, until, when Alexander Lukashenka claimed a resounding victory in the 2020 presidential elections, no one believed him. Given enough time, reality tends to crowd out unreality, rebalancing the scales of public opinion in sometimes spectacular ways.
What I’m reading
If you thought last week’s double issue of the newsletter had a lot of reading material, think again. There is so much great stuff that came out in the past seven days that I’m going to have to do this week’s portion in bullet points. Here goes:
Who says there’s no rule of law in Russia? Meduza had a fascinating little report last Saturday (just after last week’s newsletter went to bed) on a court case that forced Moscow’s metro to re-hire 42 employees who had been dismissed for participating in pro-Navalny rallies in 2021. As I wrote (toot) in Moscow in Movement back in 2014, it was possible for much of Putin’s time in office to challenge parts of the system in court and win; I’ll admit that I was surprised, though, that this is still possible.
Sticking with the rule of law, Kristina Safonova and Svetlana Reiter had a massive — and massively important — long read in Meduza on Monday on the Kremlin’s rampaging repression against few remaining defense lawyers representing political defendants. Clearly, there hasn’t been much due process in Russia for years, but the system at least nodded at the constitutional principal of adversarial justice. No longer.
I’m not sure whether the partisan invasion of Belgorodskaya oblast bore any military fruit, but it yielded some interesting reporting. On Monday, Republic ran a collection of stories of refugees from Shebekino and Novaya Tavolzhanka, the two towns that have seen the most fighting, as did Mediazona. And on Tuesday, Kommersant had a piece doing more or less the same thing. Whatever it is, it isn’t pretty for the Kremlin, and I see little evidence of this turning into galvanized pro-war sentiment.
Back on Saturday, Neil McFarguhar and Milana Mazaeva had a fascinating piece in the New York Times on the Russian state’s efforts to push militarism through schools and kindergartens, and the subtle — if largely passive and mostly ineffective — resistance they’re meeting from ordinary teachers.
Also on Saturday, Vladimir Sevrinovsky had a long report in Verstka from Kalmykia, a predominantly Buddhist republic in southwestern Russia. One of the country’s poorest regions, where pacifist religion combines with a history of highly authoritarian local politics, Kalmykia has turned into a hotbed of support for the war — putting paid to the notion that Russian imperialism is a purely Slavic phenomenon.
On Wednesday, Lyudi Baikala published an excellent long-read by Margarita Ivanova profiling Ruslan Zinin, a 25-year-old man in the town of Ust-Ilimsk who shot up a military recruiting station in September 2022. It’s about more than that, though: like Sevrinovsky’s piece, it’s a portrait of the unpredictable consequences of poverty, desperation and powerlessness in Russia.
On Tuesday, iStories ran an investigation by Svetlana Reiter, Maria Zholobova and Anastasia Korotkova on the Internet Research Institute, a government-funded NGO that has become the primary financial conduit for online political propaganda in Russia. We’ve seen bits and pieces of this before, but what emerges is a picture of a well-oiled and spectacularly well-funded machine.
On Thursday, Meduza brought us another piece of depressing-but-inevitable news, namely reports that someone has started removing plaques memorializing victims of Soviet terror from apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere. These plaques were put there by Final Address, an independent civic initiative dedicated to protecting the memory of Stalin’s crimes — a memory the Kremlin would, for obvious reasons, rather erase.
Finally, last week I featured an article in the Financial Times about patronage networks in Turkey that felt troublingly reminiscent of the structures that helped make Vladimir Putin powerful. This week, the FT has another piece, this time on how Poland’s energy giant Orlen has become a tool of political control for the ruling PiS party; students of Russia will find that familiar, too.
Thats enough, no?
What I’m listening to
All this wallowing in the mire of our present predicaments has me nostalgic for happier times. Times like this one: