Today, I want to tell you about how Putin’s government controls the Russian people. I don’t think I appreciated the true extent of it myself until these past few days. The below is by no means exhaustive (I’m not even touching on the government’s social media tactics), but meant to give a big-picture view of the situation ordinary Russians are living in.
Russia’s government wields a carrot and a stick.
The carrot is that most media outlets tell stories that makes Russia look like the good guy. There’s no war, it’s a “special military operation” that’s only happening in Eastern Ukraine. Anyone who says otherwise is spreading misinformation. Only official Russian sources must be used if one wants the truth. There are no stories about deaths of Ukrainian civilians or shelling of Ukrainian cities. Russia isn’t fighting Ukrainian troops, it’s fighting neo-Nazis. Ukraine is the one that started this conflict, 8 years ago. Ukraine is committing genocide. Russia is saving oppressed Russians in Ukraine and peace-loving Ukrainians. The West hates Russia because Russia doesn’t conform to their values. NATO is fueling this war. And so on. As one of my friends who lives in the US and traveled to Russia in 2014 said to me recently, “I listened to Russian news for half an hour and almost started believing what they were saying. And I knew the truth and how the Russian media really works.”
Some independent media outlets exist in Russia. Unsurprisingly, they find it much harder to operate and are not “mainstream”. Those that use the terms “war” or “aggression” are forced to remove that content. Many outlets that report truthfully have long been labeled “foreign agents” and are required to display a disclaimer about that on their websites. Many that are labeled “foreign agents” are only accepting donations from Russian citizens but are still forced to display the label. Russia is also good at cutting off Facebook, Twitter, or any other news sources that it deems too threatening. Moral equivalence and whataboutism are everywhere. It can be subtle, based on the kind of stories you cover about Europe and the US and on how you frame them.
So if you’re a Russian living in Russia, who do you believe? The mainstream news media saying that Russia is responding to Ukrainian genocide and war or the less-popular outlets labeled “foreign agents”? As a result, far from all Russians living in Russia are against this war (which they consider a limited military operation against Ukrainian aggression and not a war). We shouldn’t blame them, but we need to help them.
I’ve been emailing Russian academics in the past few days, asking them to help stop the war in Ukraine. I’ve gotten a few positive responses, but I’ve also gotten some blaming Ukraine for the situation and calling my email “propaganda”. These are PhDs who have published in English-language academic journals. They are not idiots. They simply do not have information that would allow them to figure out the truth.
Now the stick. Some of my friends from Russia WHO HAVE LIVED IN THE US FOR 15+ YEARS AND ARE US CITIZENS are afraid to speak out too publicly against the war because of fear that the Russian government could go after their families in Russia. On February 27, Russia warned that any form of aid (financial or otherwise) to a foreign government deemed to go against the “safety” of the Russian Federation could be deemed treason, with jail sentences of up to 20 years (https://www.interfax.ru/russia/824934). Protest leaders are routinely beaten and arrested. And, of course, police arrest some ordinary protestors as well to stoke fear into the general population. Once arrested, if Russia wants to jail you, you will be jailed.
Of course, if a large enough share of Russians rise up at the same time, Putin is unlikely to have the will or means to beat them back. I have no idea how to make that happen but I hope it happens.
I used to think that the carrots and the sticks mainly harmed the Russian people themselves, but the past week has made it abundantly clear that Russia’s control of storylines can have severe repercussions across the world. It’s hard to imagine dismantling this system, but how else can Russia ever hope to be a functional society?
To be clear, there are many Russians who are risking their freedom, their economic well-being, and in some cases their lives to stand up for the truth. They should be applauded and helped. It isn’t easy. But too many are living in the dark about what’s going on.
I’m sorry if you signed up to get blog posts about academia and other fun topics in research and economics. I promise I will go back to that soon. But in the meantime, I need to do everything I can to help my motherland.