Valery Dymshits: After the Fight

DSCN4942Poster: “March 18, 2018. Russian Presidential Election. Russian Central Election Commission.” || Graffiti: “This is not an election.” Dixie grocery store, Central District, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Valery Dymshits
Facebook
March 20, 2018

After the Fight

I wrote so often about the election or, rather, the non-election, that it is time to sum up.

I admit I had hoped for a qualitative decrease in turnout, but it is true we did not manage to achieve this.

Of course, the feverish ideas (I heard them voiced more than once, alas) that if it were not for the boycott, the “forces of good” either would have returned a mystical 10% of the vote tally (whatever for?) or made it into the second round (yes, yes, I read such claims with my own eyes) have nothing to do with reality. The fact the turnout was a few percentage points less, and Putin got a few percentage points more, makes no difference at all to anyone.

Nevertheless, I continue to regard the boycott as the right choice. Here is the reason for my stubbornness.

It is self-evident the election—not the day of March 18, but the process—was god knows what, only it was not an election.

Accordingly, the feeling of disgust kept many people from voting. Disgust is a worthy emotion. But that is not my point here.

In so-called normal countries, candidates and parties fight over half a percentage point, and a threepercent difference is deemed a crushing victory or crushing defeat. In our archaic autocracy, the regime and the populace communicate with each other in a language of symbols. As soon as it transpired the Kremlin was planning to fight for a 70% turnout and 70% of the total vote tally, I immediately realized the Kremlin wanted fifty percent of all possible voters, plus or minus one percent, to come out and vote for Putin and—voilà!—a 65% turnout and a 75% share of votes cast is exactly 50% of all potential voters. Meaning the Kremlin’s statement was purely symbolic and qualitative. Qualitative, symbolic collective action was, likewise, the only possible counterargument. It largely did not come off, but there were no other gestures of resistance except the boycott. The attempt to talk back to the regime quantitatively—for example, Yabloko’s responding to the argument “we have half of all voters” with the rejoinder “but we have 10% of everyone who voted” (i.e., “you have 50%, but we have a whole 5%”)—was ridiculous. Now, if it had been possible to counter the claim “we are robustly supported by half of the populace” with the countargument “ha-ha, you have the support of no more than a third of the populace,” but, alas, it proved impossible.

It is clear the numerous violations, committed here and there by zealots who were not thinking straight, generated a certain stench on election day, but I don’t imagine they had a serious impact on the outcome. It was the outcome that sincerely floored me.

The issue of voter turnout, so hysterically raised by the regime, had nothing to do with a fear of Navalny and the boycott, but with the fact that in the absence of real suspense and real rivals, Russians would be reluctant to go out and vote for Putin, who would be elected anyway. After Navalny was not allowed to run, it was impossible to generate any suspense, so the regime combined the carrot and the stick. Russians were driven and dragged to polling stations by the gazillions.

I would like to make a slight digression. First of all, you can make people who are subordinate and dependent—state employees and employees of state corporations—vote by forcing them or threatening them. The state’s share in the economy has been growing continuously: in 2005, the state controlled 35% of the Russian economy, while it now controls around 70%. That means the numbers of dependent Russians have also been growing.

The Kremlin felt it was vital to drag lazy Russians to the polls whatever the cost. As for voting as they should, they would do that all on their lonesome. The Kremlin knew they would do it, but I didn’t. I thought more or less that people would feel their weekend had been ruined. They had been forced to go somewhere and then forced to report back to their superiors. How swinish! So these people would do something spiteful: vote for Grudinin, vote for Sobchak, vote for Yavlinsky, vote for a four-letter word.

No, since they were dragged all the way to the polling stations anyway, enticed with carrots and prodded with sticks, they voted for Putin.

This is an important albeit gloomy outcome. It means the regime relies on a not terribly active but quite considerable majority. It means the regime can do whatever it likes with whomever it likes, and will be able to do so for a long time to come.  Previously, it could do a lot of things, but not everything. Now, however, it can do anything. Strictly speaking, things have been this way for several years, but now it has been proven in a large-scale, expensive experiment. It is like in the Arabian tales: destroy a city, build a palace, jail a director, close a university, etc., just for the heck of it, just for the fun of it. This does not mean the regime will immediately start throwing its bulks around in all directions, but it can. A clear awareness of this circumstance should make us feel bleak.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Spiral of Silence

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Greg Yudin
Facebook
April 3, 2015

Let me tell you a story about opinion polls.

The so-called spiral of silence has often been recalled recently in Russia in connection with public opinion polls. The idea behind the spiral of silence is simple. As soon as an opinion is conveyed either in the media or those selfsame surveys as having support from the majority, the minority, out of fear, prefers either to keep silent or join the majority. The idea has been used to explain where unanimous opinions, 86% ratings, total approval, etc., come from. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the “godmother” of public opinion polling in post-war Germany, coined the term “spiral of silence” in 1980. And so in Russia, it is usually argued that the spiral of silence is an inherent feature of public opinion, because it was discovered in Germany, a proper bourgeois country.

We know that Noelle-Neumann was a Nazi. She did not join the party per se, but she did head a branch of a party student organization, made a considerable stir in the US by actively promoting Nazism, and later worked for two years at Goebbels’s weekly newspaper Das Reich.

But that is not so important. Many people suffered from Nazi fever, including social scientists. What is more interesting is that while many of those people somehow reflected on their Nazi experiences, trying in different ways to explain what had led them to do the things they did, Noelle-Neumann went into total denial. All her life, she maintained that she had done nothing extraordinary, that Hitler was a charming man, and that she had just been forced to denounce Jews, and in fact, she had secretly opposed the regime. It is easy to see how she opposed it if you take a gander at the articles she wrote for Das Reich. It is as if a columnist for the current incarnation of Izvestia would say that he had secretly been fighting for peace and harmony in Russia.

Subsequently, the spiral of silence theory was repeatedly tested, and it turned out that it works poorly in multipolar societies. If it explains anything at all, however, it explains the personal experience of Noelle-Neumann herself. It is her own fear that she identifies with the intimidated majority. She tries to justify this fear by arguing that the spiral of silence is something ordinary and inevitable. But this is a bad excuse, because, in order to save her conscience, she justifies political repression, not only past repression but future repression. It is one thing to recognize that no normal person is immune from becoming a beast, and quite another thing to say it is a normal thing when people turn into animals.

In fact, as far back as her 1940 dissertation (which simultaneously functioned as a report to Goebbels’s office on American attitudes to Germany), she writes directly about the difference between the US and the Third Reich.

“In Germany, public opinion figures like the body of the people, which receives orders from the head and ensures their implementation. […] In one case, public opinion holds sway. In others, it is guided.”

All this came to mind after the stunning lecture last week by my colleague Grigory Kertman from the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM). Kertman spoke about the fear of respondents during interviews. It cannot be measured directly. You cannot ask respondents, “Are you afraid of me right now?” But Kertman cleverly got around this by collecting information from the interviewers who conduct the polls. He discovered that they are used to the fact that respondents are afraid: this is the most common cause of insincere responses. A significant part of the interview takes place in circumstances where the respondent’s fear is so strong that it is palpable to the interviewers.

This silence of the lambs is abnormal, and it has nothing to do with the “nature of public opinion.” The insatiable desire to pass human beings off as naturally cowardly creatures and justify those who systematically bully them always comes from those who themselves have been victims of violence. Nothing good will come of it. We definitely do not want to go where this spiral would lead us.

Greg Yudin is a research fellow and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader. See my previous posts on Russia’s pollocracy. Image courtesy of masscommunicationtalk.com

Fish Fingers All in a Line

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To all the Crimea-is-oursians out there and their fellow travelers in the “we won’t give back Crimea even after Putin goes” camp (e.g., Navalny and other members of the opposition) and their apologists in “the West,” just read the article I have linked to, below, as an April Fool’s joke.

It couldn’t be real, could it? I mean, because after the “return to home port” was accomplished, everything in Crimea has been just PEACHY! Hasn’t it?

And entre nous, the “Crimean Tatars,” who are they anyway? They sound like something you would slather on your fish fingers, not a real people with real rights.

Sorry for the interruption: you can go back to feeling smug about being real white people.

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Anton Shekhovtsov
March 29, 2015

Speaking about the motives of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the author [of the article “Why did we ‘surrender’ Crimea?”; here, in Russian] makes a common mistake: she deems the Putin regime ideological, as indicated by the fact she mentions ideas of the “Russian world” as a motivation for annexing Crimea and the subsequent aggression.

In reality, however, the Putin regime is a right-wing authoritarian kleptocracy. By default, its kleptocratic essence already presumes the absence of any underlying ideology. This is not to say that the regime’s elite does not espouse any ideas. It does. These ideas include anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, and anti-liberalism. However, all these ideas are negative (anti-), and even in their totality they do not produce anything that could be called an ideology, i.e., a positive system of beliefs.

However, the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime already highlights the fact that the regime may utilize discrete ideological elements in those cases when it is necessary to consolidate power. The regime instrumetnalizes elements of conservatism and Russian nationalism (the “Russian world”) and antagonistic imperialisms and plants them in Russian society to mobilize it and consolidate the kleptocracy. But these elements of real ideologies are not directly related to the nature of the regime. In other words, “Russian worlds,” “traditional values,” and “our grandfathers fought fascism” are fairy tales for the poor.

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Vasya Lozhkin, “We’ll Bring It All Back!”

However many Ukrainophobes there are in Russia and among the Putinist elite, the destruction of Ukraine as a state is not an end in itself for the Putin regime. The Russian kleptocracy needs the Russian-Ukrainian war only to maintain its hold on power in Russia.

Source: Facebook. Translated by the Russian Reader. Cartoon courtesy of Vasya Lozhkin’s LiveJournal blog

Oleg Dorman: The One Hundred and Two Point Seven Percent

This comment on his Facebook page by film director Oleg Dorman suffers from many of the clichés and falls into many well-worn tropes of recent Russian “intelligentsia vs. ordinary people” discourse (including the suspiciously popular device of getting the skinny on what “ordinary people” think from taxi drivers). Unfortunately, his explanation of why Putin has been enjoying sky-high ratings sounds more plausible, given our own experience discussing politics (with lots of people who are not taxi drivers) than many others out there, and that is why we felt like translating and publishing it here. And in reality, Dorman’s remarks apply equally or even more so to the so-called intelligentsia, middle classes, and creative classes, something he probably doesn’t need us to tell him, given his wonderful film about renowned translator Liliana Lungina.

Thanks to Comrade ASK for the heads-up.

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Oleg Dorman

A little more philistinism.

Eighty percent support, ninety percent support, one hundred two point seven percent support. This means one thing: mass man has understood that the authorities have him by the apple again. When a Gelendzhik cabbie explained to me that “under Putin” salaries were paid punctually, “and if they don’t pay you for two months, you can go to your boss and threaten to sue,” he thus unconsciously meant his salary depends on Putin. Gelendzhik is an ugly city, like most newish Russian cities, that is, everything manmade is ugly, the houses first of all, despite the fact they are private homes. I think the reason is simple: everyone knows that your home is not yours. They can take it away at any time. They can take away everything. To fuss over the beauty of your lawn, you must be sure your great-grandchildren will inherit it. Otherwise, everything is temporary, accidental: a piece of gray slate, propped up by a rusty headboard. A clear understanding—or rather, animal instinct—that your life is totally dependent on the authorities is what makes mass man watch television continuously. He is not “fooled” at all; on the contrary, he knows that his salary, pension, and the lives of his children and grandchildren depend on what Dmitry Kiselyov says on the tube. And today’s overheated airwaves, which cause the thinking person to rage and protest, evoke a correct understanding in mass man: dangerous times have come again. If you mouth off, you’re a goner. That is why he fiercely replies “Yes, yes, yes!” to a question that essentially should be worded, “Do you support the TV?” It is the fury of a cornered, disenfranchised, scared and soundly beaten person. There is nothing else to the ninety percent approval ratings. Nobody will lift a finger “for Putin” when they come to stuff him back in his bottle. No one will defend the current “state of affairs,” because people defend their executioners only while the executioners are in power. No one cares the slightest about Ukraine, the Crimea, the Americans. It’s even sad in its own way, but it’s true. There is pity for the victims, but this makes TV viewers even more scared for their own children, who are helpless before the authorities. “Nationwide support” is a fatal symptom. Now, like an animal tamer at the circus, the authorities would be wise not to turn their backs on their charges.

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