Moscow TV has Shaped but Not Created Russian Response to Crimea, Levada Center Expert Says

June 7, 2014
Photo by Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

Staunton, June 6 – Many have blamed Moscow’s state-controlled television for whipping up anti-Ukrainian attitudes among Russians, but Aleksey Levinson, a Levada Center sociologist, argues that what the broadcasts have done is not to create something out of whole cloth but rather to shape and exacerbate it.

In an interview with Andrey Lipsky of Novaya Gazeta, Levinson suggests that much deeper forces are at work and that the response of Russians to Ukraine reflects “an echo” of the problems they faced at the end of the Soviet period and in the years since that time.

“Of course,” he acknowledges, “much would be different” if Russians had access to a television channel that presented an alternative vision to that on offer on state television. “But we have what we have” and that is a mass consciousness which reflects “the mental and moral pit” into which Russians have fallen and out of which “it will be very difficult to escape.”

In recent months, Levinson says, Russians at all levels have “allowed themselves to think and act in ways that they would earlier have considered impossible, indecent and impermissible.” The body politic is suffering from a high fever, and to recover, it will need the appearance of someone like Academician Sakharov to speak honestly about what is going on.

When asked about Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the sociologist continues, Russians respond that Russia in this case is acting “’like a great power.’” Only secondarily do they say that Crimea had always been Russian in the past, that Khrushchev “made a mistake,” or that it is part of their world because they had travelled there.

Two years ago, few if any talked about these things, but the events of the last months in Ukraine presented not only a challenge to how Russians see themselves but an opportunity for Moscow to act as it has, and those two factors are inter-related and to a large extent mutually reinforcing.

That explains Putin’s rating which, Levinson says is not so much “an attribute of Putin but a characteristic of society.” It isn’t a measure of his temperature but of society’s. Of course, Russians are reacting to what he has done, but they are doing so because they are reacting to a much deeper condition in their own lives.

Levinson suggests that the events in Georgia and Ukraine are very similar in this sense: In each case, Russians viewed someone else who had been “’ours’ or formerly ‘ours’” as having betrayed Russia by turning to the West, and they concluded that these countries must be “punished” for what they had done.

In short, Russians convinced themselves that what Moscow is doing is a form of justice, not perhaps in the legal court sense but in the deeper moral and political ones. With a different leadership, they might have gone in a different direction, but Russians wanted justice in both cases.

According to Levinson, what is going on reflects “the consequences of long ago events,” events that are hurting the current generation but for which its members are not directly responsible. In this, he says, the political situation is “a close analogy to what is happening in demography.”

Russia is in “a democratic pit,” but it is in one not because of those who are giving or not giving birth now but because of what their parents or even grandparents did. Correcting something like that is far more difficult because changing the behavior of the current generation doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.

Politically, the Levada Center expert says, Russians now are caught in “an echo of the events of 1985-1993,” when Russians saw the collapse of one system and the failure of another to deliver what they expected. That “double failure” has led to widespread distrust among the population.

To be sure, a few communists believe the Soviet system could work again, and the few democrats believe that democracy could work in Russia. But among the vast majority, there is no faith in either. There is “a dark shadow” as on an x-ray plate: “What it is is unclear, but it is always very bad.”

There are many unanswered questions all centered around why did this happen and why was what was promised not delivered, Levinson says. And “then appeared the idea of Russia’s special path,” an idea that involves isolationism, xenophobia, and antagonism to the rest of the world.

Levinson notes that when he asks members of focus groups to draw Russia, “they do not draw a small Russia surrounded by a large antagonist world.” Instead, “they draw an enormous Russia but around it is a petty antagonistic periphery … a cordon.” And the more antagonistic it is, the greater Russians feel themselves to be.

When the Georgian war took place in August 2008, Levinson says, many Russians believed that “at last the third world war had begun and we will win it” because winning was not about what we would conquer. Instead, “the main thing was that we showed THEM,” “them” being everyone else.

Such attitudes sent Putin’s ratings through the roof then, and they are doing the same thing now. Russians once again feel that “the main thing” is that “we showed THEM!”

But in the Ukrainian case, such attitudes are exacerbated by something else that most Russians are unwilling to face, Levinson says. Russians look at what the Ukrainians have been able to do first in 2004 and again now, how they have challenged authoritarian rulers and overturned dishonest elections. And they are asking why can’t Russians do the same?

The anti-Ukrainian attitudes many Russians have now reflect an envy Russians cannot directly acknowledge. “Of course, there are those who believe that there are Nazis, fascists and Banderites” in Ukraine. “But those who do not believe this see that the Ukrainians have done what we have not.” And the bitterness of that reflection explains a great deal.