Russian world-views

A couple of years ago I was pretty unkind about a report about Russia published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This report was the product of a workshop CSIS had held on the subject. I wasn’t invited to the workshop, nor was I to another one which CSIS held recently, also on the subject of Russia. But I have been sent a copy of the report, entitled Russian World-Views: Domestic Power Play and Foreign Behaviour. You can read it online here.  It’s better than the last one, but I still have a few issues with it.

The report is a summary of the views expressed at the most recent workshop by four anonymous experts from Europe and North America (though, based on what they wrote, I’m pretty sure who some of them are). Because of this one shouldn’t read this document as representing CSIS’s official opinion, nor as that of the Government of Canada. It’s just what a bunch of people told CSIS. Still, it’s interesting in the sense that it gives one a flavour of the type of analysis that government officials receive.

The first of the four chapters is titled ‘Russians’ view of the world and the role of the state.’ I’m going to hazard a well-informed guess and say that the author is Arkady Ostrovsky, whose book on the Russian media I reviewed here. The text fits with what he has written and even uses some of the same language. If it’s not Ostrovsky it’s somebody doing a very good job of sounding like him. The chapter begins by admitting that due to a lack of reliable sociological data, ‘most of the analysis will therefore be based on anecdotal evidence … most importantly on [the author’s] understanding of the role of the state media propaganda in shaping the worldview of the Russian public.’ Full points here for honesty, but it does mean that we are dealing with a purely subjective opinion here. I have a different ‘understanding of the role of the state media propaganda’. So who’s right here? We have no way of telling.

The author notes that Putin views Russia first and foremost as a state, and that the governing ideology is ‘gosudarstvennichestvo, the primacy of the state.’ I agree with that. So far, so good. The chapter then goes on to explain that the role of the state in the economy has increased under Putin, and that ‘The vast public sector is one of the main pillars of Putin’s support’. It claims, however, that ‘The vast majority of Russians do not trust most state institutions, including courts and the police.’ There is some truth to this, but in light of what comes next it’s worth pointing out that polling data from the Levada Centre suggests that Russians regard the media (including TV and radio) as just as untrustworthy as the courts and the police. (63% regard the press as ‘not fully credible’ or ‘not at all credible’, compared with 62% for the courts and 65% for the police).

And this is where it gets interesting. Ostrovsky (for it is surely he) finishes off his piece with a long rant about Russian television. ‘The majority of population simply internalises the message provided by television,’ he says, adding:

Support for Putin’s regime depends on television’s ability to draw the public away from their everyday experiences and into its news agenda. … Television … is what holds Russia together. … In the first few years of Putin’s power, television worked as a tranquiliser, projecting an illusion of stability. …Today television works as a steroid, a doping and psychoactive agent that creates an artificial sense of strength of the state.

This is all very odd. How can it be that the population ‘simply internalises the message provided by television’ when surveys suggest that two-thirds of the population doesn’t trust television? And are the Russian people really that dumb and easy to manipulate that television can turn them on and off again just like that, with TV one day being a ‘tranquilliser’ and the next a ‘steroid’? Could it not be that the views expressed on television in some way express public opinion as much as shape it? The author finishes by making some comments about ‘a new generation of young, urbanised, educated Russians who live their lives separately from the state.’ Putin will not be able to manipulate the youth, the author seems to imply. Yet, as I have pointed out elsewhere, young Russians are even more pro-Putin than older ones, and the less they watch TV the more ‘pro-regime’ they seem to become. The argument proposed in this report doesn’t hold up very well.

Chapter two is entitled ‘The recent elite reshuffling and the crisis-driven transformation of Putin’s regime.’ This bears all the hallmarks of Mark Galleotti, though I’m not as confident with that call as with Ostrovsky [Update: Mark says it isn’t him – see comments]. The chapter analyzes what it claims is a ‘purge’ of senior officials in Russia, part of a ‘radical cadre policy.’ The reports alleges that the motivation for this purge is

quite possibly, [Putin’s] desire to get rid of old comrades who remember the early years of his unremarkable state service and may see him as somewhat less than an almighty leader. … The most powerful driver for dismissing key figures is … the reduction of cash flows inside the state system, creating fierce competition among the actors controlling these sources of income.

This is classic Kremlinology, and suffers from that genre’s usual weakness – a lack of confirmable evidence. Changes of personnel are perfectly normal in any government. Where’s the data to show that the turnover in the Russian state is abnormally high? If it isn’t, then there isn’t really a story here. And why use the term ‘purge’, with its Stalinist overtones? Firing and hiring is, I repeat, quite usual. And where is the evidence to justify the claims about the motives behind the ‘purge’? This may all be 100% true, but there is just no way of knowing. It might just as easily be 100% false.

The author of chapter three is surely either Ed Lucas or Peter Pomerantsev, or somebody closely associated with them, as the chapter bears a striking similarity to their 2016 report Winning the Information War, which I critiqued here. It echoes Ostrovsky in saying that, ‘Many Russian speakers live in a reality dictated by Kremlin propaganda’, which makes them, for instance, believe that the death of 40 people in Odessa in May 2014 was murder, rather than, as it really was (according to this report) an ‘accidental fire.’ After the fire, the chapter claims, ‘support for remaining in Ukraine surged as it became equated with security and prosperity.’ (A phrase which has to be added to the ‘you gotta laugh’ category.) The chapter goes on to claim that Russia is waging a ‘war on information rather than information warfare,’ and repeats all the recommendations of the Lucas/Pomerantsev report, including the rather odd one of creating a group of psychologists to help treat Russian-speakers’ ‘historical trauma’, so that they can better understand that not everybody who fought against Stalin was a Nazi. The criticisms I made when these suggestions first came out still hold firm.

Finally, chapter four discusses ‘Russian Foreign Policy: Potential Future Scenarios’. It says that it is based on a ‘foresight exercise conducted by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.’ I haven’t been able to find this exercise on the Institute’s website, so for once I am stumped as to exactly who this author might be. He or she outlines various alternative futures. Having done such exercises myself, I should comment that these are not meant to be predictions. They are just things which could happen. Still, they give an idea of what the scenario creators think is possible, and thus of their general outlook.

The various futures are: a) Russia responds with ‘a show of force’ when Kazakhstan and Belarus start showing a bit too much independence. For instance, ‘Russia could allege a NATO threat to justify a prolonged stay of part of its troops in Belarus’, following joint Russian-Belarusian exercises. This strikes me as a rather bizarre scenario, too implausible to be worth considering, and suggestive of a slightly paranoid mindset. b) Russia interferes in European election campaigns. ‘Proof already exists of such intrusive behaviour’, we are told. But does it? Senior intelligence officials in Germany and France have denied it. I’m not convinced. c) Washington and Moscow de-escalate tensions and start cooperating in fighting terrorism. We can but wish! I certainly consider this more likely than scenario a), but I’m not holding my breath. And d) Russia becomes increasingly dependent on China. Not unlikely, I think, but the distribution of Russia’s population and its economic infrastructure will continue to direct most of its attentions westwards, I imagine.

Overall, the problem with this report is that it’s written for the most part by ‘the usual suspects’. I’ve no objection to listening to Ostrovsky, Pomerantsev, and the like. They all have something to say. In fact, I even recommended Pomerantsev to the organizers of the forthcoming annual symposium of the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies. But, I took care to suggest a bunch of other people with very different views as well, so as to provide balance, and they obviously didn’t get an invite. And that’s a problem. For if the first set of people are all you get, you end up with a rather one-sided view of things, and it’s a point of view which already gets quite a lot of publicity. If Canadian officials want to have a deeper understanding of Russia, they should listen to a wider set of opinions. And for that, they don’t have to invite people all the way from Europe. If CSIS were to phone me up this second and ask me to come round to speak, I could be showing my ID at the pass office 15 minutes from now. Come on, guys. What gives?


11 thoughts on “Russian world-views”

  1. “Television … is what holds Russia together. … In the first few years of Putin’s power, television worked as a tranquiliser, projecting an illusion of stability. …Today television works as a steroid, a doping and psychoactive agent that creates an artificial sense of strength of the state”.

    If we substitute “the USA” (or, for all I know, “Canada”) for Russia and whoever is the elected figurehead de l’annee for “Putin”, this proves to be very accurate. With regard to Russia I have no personal knowledge, but I beg leave to doubt if it is so true. One of the few things I believe about Russians is that they tend to be sceptical individualists.


  2. “‘Many Russian speakers live in a reality dictated by Kremlin propaganda’, which makes them, for instance, believe that the death of 40 people in Odessa in May 2014 was murder, rather than, as it really was (according to this report) an ‘accidental fire.’”

    After which the survivors were accidentally bludgeoned to death, as I recall… while the police accidentally looked on.

    When I read accounts like that I cannot help imagining Josef Goebbels smiling broadly and rubbing his hands.


    1. Thanks for the clarification. Couldn’t email you and ask, because if you said yes it was you, then I couldn’t really say so, given this was under Chatham House rules!


    2. Mr. Galeotti, Sir! I’d like to use this opportunity and ask – how does it feel to be proven thoroughly worng… and yet insist in your bizzare bahaviour?


  3. I’d much prefer to read such a review written by you, or with your participation, Paul. Because this report just sounds like projection – again. Who are they really talking about when they say the population is hypnotized and controlled by state TV? Why was the recent implosion of CNN so significant?

    It’s long been a maxim of mine that if the west wants to deliberately misunderstand and miscast Russia, so be it. If the west – and particularly Washington – wishes to imagine they are a bunch of drunken hoodlums who can’t make anything, whose economy is in tatters and who suck up state propaganda all long like zombies, it will only contribute to Russia moving on without the west. And since the west has perhaps never had a partner it hasn’t betrayed sooner or later, that’s in Russia’s best interests.

    I think you would agree with me that Canada is not at all interested in staking out a foreign-policy position on Russia – instead, it is interested in echoing American policy on Russia, and being seen to support it. Canada knows which side its bread is buttered on. Witness the vitriolic pile-on by Canada in the ‘state doping scandal’ kicked off by Canadian Richard McLaren, Canadian ‘firebrand for clean sport’ Beckie Scott grating out “this is an outrage ” to tumultuous applause, all of it now ashes whirling aloft on the updrafts of stupidity as WADA’s case embarrassingly falls apart. Canada is in it to support the United States. Their country right or wrong.


  4. I’ll just repeat my usual comment: Russian TV and media in general are much more pluralistic than their western counterparts.

    If there’s any detectable suppression, it’s of the ethno-nationalist segment; all the rest: pro-Kiev, pro-western, anti-Syrian war, and even openly russophobic (e.g.: everything is terrible in Russia, and it’s because we, the Russians, are savages) are present and extremely active in the mainstream media.

    What’s different (as compaired to the west) is that the pro-Russian goverment point of view is present also – and it wins. Because it makes most sense. If it was allowed to be presented in the west, it would’ve won here too.


  5. My own, also very anecdotic take, on Russians perception on propaganda is the following:

    1: Russian internal propaganda is different from Russian external propaganda. Internally, they are not very different from western propaganda in terms of techniques etc. they employ. Externally, they are effectively running a asymmetric campaign aimed at exploiting peculiarities of the western PR approach.
    2: From the tea leaves, Russians are very obviously aware that they are doing major propaganda efforts themselves. Opinion on the actual efficiency is naturally mixed, with some offering the interesting observation that “you see A., our PR is bad by design. We do not want to make the same mistake as our western partners and end up believing our own bullshit.”
    3: In some key cases, I need to drink more booze before I could consider uncritically accepting the western pov. then I would need to uncritically accept the Russian one. Ukraine and Syria being key parts here.
    4: A major appeal of Russian PR is that they do not pretend to be “holier than thou”.

    Other then that, Russians are massively better in reading between the lines then most westerners without Warsaw pact experience are.


  6. “If Canadian officials want to have a deeper understanding of Russia, they should listen to a wider set of opinions. ”

    Clearly, it would serve Canadian interests if officials had a deeper understanding of Russia. However, in the present political environment, there are career risks in so doing. No enterprising young official with a future wants the term ‘Putin apologist’ hung on them.

    Thus it falls to older officials who have reached their peak to run the very real risks involved in being the voice of reason and restraint.


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