Russian children in a patriotic youth organization watch President Vladimir Putin on TV. Photo by Reuters
Putin’s New Totalitarianism Relies on ‘Targeted Repression and Mass Manipulation,’ Gudkov Says
Staunton, VA, August 21, 2016 – Unlike classical totalitarian rulers who relied on “total terror and mass repressions,” Lev Gudkov says, Vladimir Putin relies on a “new technology of rule,” one based on the assumption that “targeted prophylactic repressions and the manipulation of mass consciousness” are all he needs.
The Levada Center director draws that conclusion on the basis of his work as a pollster who has found that the Putin regime doesn’t manipulate the population so much by direct propaganda as by creating “an atmosphere of indefiniteness … discrediting other points of view and only then giving its own interpretation” via television.
The reason the Kremlin leader can do so, Gudkov continues, is that Russians rely on television for their views on issues beyond their immediate experience and are not inclined to turn to alternative channels of information like the Internet for alternative points of view. The regime via television provides what answers they think they need.
In Russia’s situation, the Internet never had the chance to become an alternative source because “unlike the structured audience of television, the Internet does not do this and cannot do this.” It is multiple rather than single both in audience and in views. But more important, he says, the Kremlin has “learned to work on the net both through a system of trolls and through its own sites.”
These “simulacra,” in fact GONGOs (“government-organized non-governmental organizations”), consistently “discredit channels of information and sources of authority which are independent from the powers that be by presenting them as the opinion of a minority, extremists, ‘a fifth column,’ national traitors and renegades.”
In Moscow, Gudkov says, there are “approximately 15 to 18 sources of information” individuals can turn to, while “in small cities and villages there are only two or three.” But only federal television can “create political reality because local channels treat [only] local events, while world and political news comes from the propaganda machine.”
Gudkov says that what Putin is doing constitutes “a new technology of rule. Unlike classical forms of totalitarianism, total terror and mass repressions are not required. Instead, targeted prophylactic repressions and the manipulation of consciousness are quite enough.”
The sociologist continues with the observation that “many political analysts and journalists draw the false conclusion that people in general have their own opinion but they are afraid to express it.” In fact, their conformism reflects only fear but not “the existence of dissent or the presence of other ideas.”
Such alternative ideas, he says, “can appear only in the presence of other channels of information and institutions of socialization, of other unofficial mechanisms of world view and the formation of personal identity.” The Soviet system largely wiped these out, and Russians have not yet recovered from that experience. One generation is not enough.
What one sees in Russia today, he says, is “a mechanism of mass consciousness characteristic of a repressive state.” People have learned not to have their own opinions and consequently the collective opinion presented by television becomes their point of view by default.
In the course of the interview, Gudkov makes three other important points: First, he says, there are no elites in Russia. Instead, there are those in power and those without; but the difference between them in terms of ideas is small or even non-existent, as research by Valeria Kasamara of the Higher School of Economics has found.
Second, there is a very low level of trust among Russians, something that precludes the kind of formation of solidarity necessary for the autonomous functioning of society and that makes Russians more susceptible to influence by television and to being manipulated in their opinions by it.
And third, while morality and patriotism are similar in their structures, they are in fact antipodes because the former requires “subjective motivation,” something that can’t be ordered from above however much people say, while the latter is a phenomenon the state can organize and use as the basis for its own power.