Cynicism: The essence and weakness of Putinism
The world is shocked and terrified by the invasion of Russian troops on Ukrainian land. Ukrainian people consolidated and stand against the…
The world is shocked and terrified by the invasion of Russian troops on Ukrainian land. Ukrainian people consolidated and stand against the unprovoked, unjustified and unlawful aggression of Putin’s regime. The whole world is now coloured in the Ukrainian national yellow and blue. This signifies universal support for Ukraine, while the aggressor is condemned, quickly falling to become an international pariah. Western leaders used to use the common phrases pointing that the brutal aggression against the innocent country is the sole responsibility of Putin’s regime, not the Russian people. Some, however, have noticed the sad fact that quite many Russians seem to show sincere support for this so called “special operation.” Even though Russia’s official numbers of nearly 70% support (VTSIOM polls) may be suspicious, the support for the war seems to remain rather widespread. As the Russian troops are getting stuck with unsuccessful blitzkrieg, their military tactics have intensified to become really devastating and now increasingly hit civilians. However, there is still no universal opposition to the war from within Russia.
Of course, we see brave protesters on the streets of major Russian cities: there are thousands of them indeed. And Putin’s regime cracks down on the anti-war protests. Just displaying a “NO to WAR” sign peacefully has become a serious risk, it is considered “extremism” in the current Russian political reality. People are fired from their jobs just for displaying such signs or for social media posts. It is natural to explain the citizens’ conformity with the war by oppression by Putin’s police state. But it is not true that mass public protests are never successful in Putin’s Russia: mass discontent recently allowed to cancel repressive qr code policies. The sad fact, nonetheless, remains that most people in Russia are much more concerned about the dollar or euro exchange rate than about rising up to stop Putin’s military gamble, the principal cause of their imminent economic risks. How could this be explained?
Putin’s regime is typically described as authoritarian. But unlike many other authoritarian regimes, there is no compulsory ideological narrative. Putinism is essentially a kleptocracy . Unlike the totalitarian ideologies of the past that aimed to mobilize and motivate people, its main way of operation has become the opposite: to demotivate and demobilize . Putin’s regime had come to power by harnessing people’s fear of insecurity and instability. Since then, its main modus operandi became anxiety, uncertainty and doubt (see Appendix) through massive flow of misinformation, contradictory messages, narratives and facts, lies and crude propaganda to manipulate the country’s audience for short-term goals . This created an irrational Orwellian world view where “nothing is true and everything is possible” . This is best illustrated by Putin’s historian Vladimir Medinsky who holds that every myth, however false, should be accepted as “historical truth” whenever it is practically useful to promote the narrative of “greatness.” Historical “greatness” has in fact become the main ideological tale of Putinism . The main result of this is a world view characterized by fundamental utilitarianism and cynicism, with nearly total erosion of human values. This could be quite natural for Vladimir Putin himself, who is known to have grown up in economic hardship as a manipulator constantly bullying others . Essentially, empathy and the capacity to see the situation from someone else’s perspective , is greatly eroded. Though, empathy can be used sometimes as a utilitarian tool for short term temporary mobilization.
As a consequence, the public political discourse in modern Russia is characterized by conformism, low interest in fact-checking from multiple independent sources and rationalizing otherwise contradictory and illogical officious narrative. Importantly, Putin’s regime never admits its mistakes in a way described by Hanna Arendt’s concept of “sophistic victory at the expense of reality” .
Cynical beliefs are linked with social distrust, lack of cooperation and heightened neuroticism [e.g. 7]. It is therefore unlikely that public protests in Russia will increase to any large extent even if the war is further escalated bringing about further economic and humanitarian damage on Russians. Another implication is that the there is a strong limit on the motivation of the Russian troops to fight in Ukraine. On the other hand, the cynical and valueless nature of the regime will certainly use the situation of war to further increase its pressure on the civil society by an array of oppressive and absurd laws. As the military operation is getting stuck, the regime may be tempted to solve it in an asymmetrical way to save face, even if for internal use. False flag provocations with huge collateral damage as a means to help exit the Ukrainian dead-end may also be expected. The usual tool of Putin’s regime involves diverting public attention away. I am afraid it might even result in such actions as damaging a nuclear plant by alleged Ukrainian saboteurs to shift public focus from war to a disaster. News on fire on Zaporozhye nuclear plant have already appeared at the time of this writing. Sadly, nearly anything is allowed in absence of values. This has a strong potential to make the crisis even broader and more dangerous as Putin’s aggression comes to a dead-end.
We need to express strong support to the Russian civil society, although any practical help is going to be even more difficult. It became twice as hard to be a protester in the modern Russia. You must be very brave to stand for your country against a superior enemy, you must be very brave to continue the essential everyday activity like driving a truck or working in a grocery under cluster bombs. But you must also be very brave to go to protest alone, knowing that there is actually little hope, when your best friends, relatives, parents or children try to convince you that it is silly and ineffective, you have no hope, it is just destructive to yourself, “do you need more than everyone else or pretend to be a hero?”
1. Dawisha, K. (2015) Putin’s kleptocracy. Who owns Russia, Simon & Schuster.
2. Schulman, E. (2020) Practical politology, AST.
3. Herpen, M.H. van (2016) Putin’s propaganda machine. Soft power and Russian foreign policy, Rowman & Littlefield.
4. Pomerantsev, P. (2014) Nothing is true and everything is possible. The surreal heart of the new Russia, PublicAffairs.
5. Langdon, K.C. and Tismaneanu, V. (2020) Putin’s totalitarian democracy, Palgrave Macmillan.
6. Baron-Cohen, S. (2012) The science of evil. On empathy and the origins of cruelty, Basic Books.
7. Stavrova, O. and Ehlebracht, D. (2016) Cynical beliefs about human nature and income: Longitudinal and cross-cultural analyses. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 110, 116–132.
Appendix: Some excerpts from personal emails from my friends in Russia illustrating the point
Поэтому люди говорят одно , а думают и делают другое.
Я скоро себе перестану верить.
Translated: “Therefore people say something but think and do different.
I will soon not believe even myself.”
Я больше ничего не хочу знать( каждый день пью нейромедин ,т.к.
Нервная система сбоила даже без «событий».
Translated: “I do not like to know anything anymore (taking neuromidin every day because my nervous system malfunctioned even before the ‘events’)”