This Is Your Brain on Russia

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“I had always thought better of you.” Graffiti on Vasilyevsky Island, Petersburg, July 24, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

More people need to listen to Peter Pomerantsev:

The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. Take Novorossiya, the name Vladimir Putin has given to the huge wedge of southeastern Ukraine he might, or might not, consider annexing. The term is plucked from tsarist history, when it represented a different geographical space. Nobody who lives in that part of the world today ever thought of themselves as living in Novorossiya and bearing allegiance to it—at least until several months ago. Now, Novorossiya is being imagined into being: Russian media are showing maps of its ‘geography,’ while Kremlin-backed politicians are writing its ‘history’ into school textbooks. There’s a flag and even a news agency (in English and Russian). There are several Twitterfeeds. It’s like something out of a Borges story—except for the very real casualties of the war conducted in its name.

[…]

“If previous authoritarian regimes were three parts violence and one part propaganda,” argues Igor Yakovenko, a professor of journalism at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, “this one is virtually all propaganda and relatively little violence. Putin only needs to make a few arrests—and then amplify the message through his total control of television.”

[…]

Ultimately, many people in Russia and around the world understand that Russian political parties are hollow and Russian news outlets are churning out fantasies. But insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible. We are left with the sense that we don’t know what Putin will do next—that he’s unpredictable and thus dangerous. We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.

Peter Pomerantsev, “Russia and the Menace of Unreality: How Vladimir Putin is Revolutionizing Information Warfare,” The Atlantic, September 9, 2014

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Here is a tiny illustration of how reality really is up for grabs in the Kremlin’s increasingly hot “cold civil war” against Russian society and, now, the rest of the world:

As I stand in the courtyard of a Moscow arts and craft center, a dark-haired, 20-something woman turns to me and asks: “Is this the venue for the ‘Is Vladimir Putin God?’ lecture?”

She smiles nervously, seemingly worried that I’ll think she’s crazy.

She’s not. The title of the lecture is actually “Will Putin Become God by Divine Grace?” but I decide not to correct her. Instead, I nod and show her the way to one of the oddest events in the Russian capital this year.

The lecture took place on Sunday and was first advertised by well-known radical Russian Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo on VK, the Russian version of Facebook. In the post, Enteo promised to reveal the answers to the following questions:

“Is it possible to bow down to Vladimir Putin as God on earth?

“Will Vladimir Putin’s will fuse with the will of God?”

“Will Vladimir Putin receive endless pleasure through the completeness of the knowledge gifted to him by God?”

Not surprisingly, the lecture stirred up controversy online, as some Internet users accused Enteo of blasphemy, while others suggested he’d lost his mind.

“Let’s get this straight, Dmitry,” one VK user wrote. “Do you believe Putin will sit at the right-hand side of God’s throne when he dies?”

“Possibly,” replied Enteo.

The lecture kicks off with a hip-hop track by an African rap duo now based in Russia. The title: “I Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin.” When the song ends, Enteo fiddles with his laptop until Putin’s face appears on the screen behind him.

The Orthodox activist then addresses the audience of roughly 80 or so Muscovites, an apparent mixture of curious hipsters and true believers. (There’s also a middle-aged man in a suit that a fellow journalist immediately suspects of being an agent of the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency.)

“I’ll keep it brief, in the style of the subject of today’s lecture,” Enteo says.

At times his voice is barely audible, but when he quotes Putin, he makes sure to speak louder.

The hipsters behind me erupt in ironic applause. Enteo presses a button on his laptop, and the photo of Putin is replaced by swirling psychedelic images and low-volume break-beats. He proceeds to read a poem by Vladislav Surkov, the mysterious Kremlin ideologue. The overall effect is an atmosphere reminiscent of a secret cult meeting held at a nightclub.

Enteo then takes us through the history of Putin’s apparent transformation from hard-nosed KGB officer to Orthodox Christian believer. “Putin realized that his goal in life was God, and the Almighty entered into the body of Vladimir Putin,” Enteo says. “Then Vladimir Putin began to do good deeds, like break up opposition meetings.”

At one point, the activist curiously declares: “We disappoint Vladimir Putin. While he tearfully prays for us at night, we smoke hashish.”

The lecture lasts about an hour, before Enteo builds on a final riff in which he determines that, yes, Putin will transform into a godlike being, and like all good Orthodox believers, eventually grow a beard.

After a brief Q&A, the crowd files out. “That was creepy,” says one attendee.

Others seem puzzled by the whole affair.

“It’s a response, in many ways an ironic one, to Putin’s de facto domination of everything from the economy to the media,” says Anna Arutunyan, author of The Putin Mystique, who attended the lecture.

“Most of it, of course, is just Enteo publicizing himself, but some of it is also taking what we see around us to its grotesque logical conclusion.”

Russians have a long history of venerating their leaders, from the reverence of the czars to the terrifying cult of personality that developed around Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. While Enteo didn’t directly say that Putin was God, he felt comfortable posing the question, which shows just how powerful the Russian president has become.

Not everyone, of course, sees the hand of God in Putin’s politics. In Ukraine, where a Kremlin-backed separatist movement is slowly tearing the ex-Soviet state apart, the country’s spiritual leader, Patriarch Filaret, recently suggested the Russian leader was possessed by the devil.

“Like Judas, Satan has entered into him,” Filaret declared, as he accused Putin of turning the two Slavic countries against each other. “Like the first brother-killer, Cain, he has fallen under a demonic influence.”

Regardless of which side you take in the “Putin: God or Satan?” debate, it’s a remarkable development in the life of this former, low-ranking KGB operative. From serving the officially atheist Soviet state in Cold War-era East Germany to being compared to God and the devil, it’s been a long, strange road for Vladimir Putin. And it’s not over yet.

—Marc Bennet, “Do Some Russians Think Vladimir Putin Is God?” Vocativ, September 8, 2014

__________

Dmitry Enteo, a Russian Orthodox activist known for his controversial and sometimes violent public stunts, will hold a lecture and roundtable Sunday in Moscow about President Vladimir Putin and his connection to God.

“You will understand the secret of secrets, after which your life will never be the same. You will receive direct answers to questions that face Russia today,” reads an advertisement for the event posted on the VKontakte social networking website.

One of the questions due to be addressed in the lecture is whether Putin will become God “by grace.”

As of Tuesday evening, 1,429 people had signed up for the event, according to the website.

Enteo is head of the God’s Will movement, which has earned notoriety for its public campaigns targeting what it sees as blasphemy against the Russian Orthodox Church.

In November, Enteo and a female accomplice disrupted a performance of a contemporary play based on Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” at the prestigious Chekhov Moscow Art Theater. In an outburst that many audience members believed was part of the performance, they shouted that the play “mocks our faith” and admonished the audience for not protesting.

Enteo’s group has also previously assaulted LGBT activists and Pussy Riot supporters. They have never been charged by law enforcement agencies.

—”Radical Russian Activist to Lecture on Whether Vladimir Putin Will Become God,” The Moscow Times, September 2, 2014

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