Opinion: In Russia, it is much easier to believe fiction

Journalists of Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta work at the independent media outlet’s editorial office in Moscow, on March 24, 2021.NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Anna Arutunyan is a Russian-American writer and currently a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. She is the author of The Media in Russia and The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia’s Power Cult and was formerly a senior Russia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

On March 1, just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, its media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, took Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), Russia’s oldest independent radio station known for opinionated criticism of the government, off the air. After years of increasing pressure on journalists had cleared the field of much independent reporting, Ekho and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta were the only major outlets where direct criticism of the government was permitted. Three weeks later, a warning from the Prosecutor-General’s Office in effect forced Novaya Gazeta to cease operations as well. The last two independent and critical outlets in Russia – which had reported even through the most repressive periods of Vladimir Putin’s 20-year tenure – were silenced. It was the clearest admission yet that the Kremlin knows what it is doing in Ukraine is wrong – and that its tolerance for dissent had now become zero.

For years, Mr. Putin’s government has had a strange relationship with its media. Ekho Moskvy, for instance, was controlled by Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the state gas monopoly, Gazprom. The radio station, in effect, was funded by the Kremlin. And while its editor in chief, Alexei Venediktov, had been warned by law enforcement before, he had always managed to navigate the pressures in such a way as to keep independent reporting alive. The Kremlin, too, felt it gained more credibility by allowing an oppositionist radio station. For more than two decades, despite its repressions and allegations of authoritarianism, the Kremlin could always say: But look, we have independent media.

All this has changed, and it’s not just a worrying sign. It’s a transformation of the very nature of the relationship between the government and the governed in Russia. Mr. Putin has called for the “self-detoxification of society” from “scum and traitors.” If, in the past, the choice for most Russian journalists, policy analysts and public figures was more about what to say and not say in public, now it’s become an existential choice about what to think.

That isn’t to say that Russians are not defying their government. According to OVD Info, an independent human-rights media project that provides legal aid to political, more than 15,000 people have been detained during anti-war protests across Russia since the launch of the invasion on Feb. 24 – a fraction, although a big one, of the number of people protesting. The very fact that OVD Info is operating, despite the obvious dangers to its staff of lawyers and human-rights experts, demonstrates that Russians are still choosing to oppose the government and, despite quickly diminishing possibilities, are still finding ways to do so. And the very fact that lawyers and activists are working with Russian laws to defend political details serves a much longer-term goal of bolstering Russian civil society – something that is sure to outlast Mr. Putin. Meanwhile, policy makers still post their opinions on social media and disagree with the official line, lesser-known bloggers, and journalists are still risking their lives to tell the truth.

But after Feb. 24, this has become exceedingly difficult, and a majority of Russians who cannot afford to risk their lives or careers, who rely on their jobs to feed their families, are faced with a cognitive dilemma: continue working and functioning under a government that you know is bombing Russians and Ukrainians in a neighboring state, or succumb to the myriad rationalizations provided by government propaganda, or make the gut-wrenching choice of leaving the country (as many as 200,000 have done so, according to one estimate) . With the closing of independent media outlets such as Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta, other outlets such as Kommersant (which was forbidden from running an interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky) will self-censor their coverage of the war, and many more people will be fed the sanitized Kremlin fiction that Russia is liberating the Ukrainian people from violent nationalists and Nazis. When the alternative is accepting that your own government is bombing what is, by its own definition, a brotherly people – and when that reality is systematically erased from the news that most people consume – it is much easier to believe fiction.

This is a coping mechanism for cognitive dissonance, and it explains why opinion polls show a relatively high proportion of Russians supporting the war. According to VTsIOM, the official pollster, those figures were consistently higher than 60 per cent. But look closer and there are a lot of reasons for that: For one thing, Russians aren’t being asked whether they support the war. They are either being asked whether they support a “military operation” or whether they believe the “decision to launch a military operation” is “right.” Cut off from any objective reporting, many simply don’t know what is going on and truly see it as a limited operation to prevent genocide in Donbas. Another important context for these polls is that in the days after Russia’s invasion, authorities made “falsifying” government news about the “military operation” – ie calling it a war or an invasion – punishable by up to 15 years in jail. When the opposition politician Alexei Miniailo conducted research on these wartime opinion surveys, he found the longer a respondent talked to the interviewer, the likelier he or she was to give a socially acceptable response. Fear, in other words, skewed these chickens further.

The Kremlin may not be about to back down, but its unprecedented repression, whitewashing of Russia’s information space and cognitive manipulation is evidence that it doesn’t trust its own people to support the war, and it may have its own mounting doubts about the course it has taken. There won’t be any solution any time soon. Western countries have united with a barrage of economic sanctions against the Kremlin in order to push it to end the war. This is clearly necessary, but there are also calls for Russia’s wholesale isolation. This is counterproductive. When Western firms self-sanction and depart Russia, their safety and logistics concerns are understandable – but not the ethical reasons that they often cite. The Kremlin is already working hard to isolate the Russian people from the outside world, precisely so that it can keep them in the dark and continue fighting what it knows to be an unjust war.

During the Soviet Union, it was the Kremlin, and not the West, trying to keep foreign culture out of Russia, while Western states did all they could to engage with the people. Today, it is crucial for Western states and corporations to maintain that engagement if they really want to help put a stop to Kremlin aggression. To do that, they must first stop playing into the Kremlin’s own propaganda by conflating the Russian government with the Russian people.

As for Novaya Gazeta, it made it clear that it would resume operating once the war ends. It would be good if more voices in the West had a modicum of its courage and sent the same message.

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