How the Depoliticization of Russian Society Led to Dictatorship and War
July 8, 2024
  • Anna Nemzer

    Journalist, cofounder of the Russian Independent Media Archive (RIMA)
  • Rustam Alexander

    Journalist, historian, cofounder of the Russian Independent Media Archive
Journalist Anna Nemzer and historian Ilya Venyavkin, who are creating an archive of Russian independent media to help rethink the country’s post-Soviet history, discuss how Russian society allowed a dictatorship to emerge and failed to see the impending war.
The original text in Russian was Anna Nemzer and Ilya Venyavkin’s interview to the Strana i mir YouTube channel, later published as an article in the Moscow Times. We publish it here with Nemzerand Venyavkin’s permission.

Reading the Russian media in retrospect evokes complex feelings – a lot was foreseen a long time ago. Many people saw how the country was sliding toward the abyss, yet this knowledge did not turn into a different quality, did not lead toaction of resistance – or the action that it did proved insufficient.

Some tried not to pay attention. For others, the signs of an impending catastrophe did not seem significant. Still others saw the trend of resistance and growth of civil society as some guarantee against the worst-case scenario.
The guarantee did not work. The authorities, for their part, also spent a long time insuring themselves: they deliberately depoliticized society, destroying both the actors and the very idea of protest. Their efforts turned out to be more effective than the resistance efforts.

An archive for the future

Post-Soviet history can be studied in different ways. We chose to do it through the media. We cannot work in other archives – like the state or FSB archives – and we do not know when we will be able to. Moreover, the media is the most detailed chronicle of events and opinions, a recorder of the Zeitgeist, moods and meanings.

A historical media archive allows recent history to be preserved and studied. When we started, one of your authors sought to record historical events during the Khodorkovsky case – we put down the names of the judges so as not to forget them. Since then, we have been trying to record a lot more.
Soon after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, most Russian nongovernmental media relocated abroad. TV Rain (pictured) has been broadcasting from the Netherlands since 2023. Source: YouTube
In addition, this choice was dictated by technical circumstances. One of us (Anna) works in media. The was cast on March 1, 2022, when it became clear that independent media would not be able to continue working in Russia – they would have to either cease their activities or, in accordance with censorship rules, not call the war a war and read out reports from the Russian Ministry of Defense during broadcasts.

Media began to be blocked one after another, labeled as “foreign agents,” designated “undesirable” organizations – these processes began even before February 2022 and, as we now understand, were part of the preparation for the war.

When media are targeted, their archives are forgotten – when journalists must worry about survival or fleeing their country, when they are trying to start working again, they simply do not have the opportunity to save archives.

There are also financial issues: if media begin to have problems with money, then, of course, journalists will be focused on continuing to work in the here-and-now, not on saving archives. That is where they need help.

The fate of many institutions in Putin’s Russia is a very sad story. It is one of strangulation, death or failure. But independent media are at any rate, with some caveats, a success story.
“Neither government pressure nor censorship managed to completely destroy the free press.”
Somehow, despite the odds, Russian journalists do their job well.

A trail of well-documented events

The war also demonstrated this. Russian society clearly did not do enough to prevent it, with enlightenment, education and civil initiatives – peaceful protest – failing. But journalism did its job. It continued to talk about the important things and convey information to readers and viewers. The most significant texts that are now published in the Russian language are written by journalists.

In the last 15-20 years, it was the media that recorded the most important things and gave valuable meaning to them.

The working methods of historians and journalists overlap. Often, they do the same things but at different speeds. For example, the investigation of The New York Times into the Bucha massacre used methods to establish the truth identical to those of historians. When we describe events and establish facts, the tools of history and journalism are very similar.

Then there is the question of [providing] a theoretical framework, a description of the context and interpretation, which is where the tools diverge: journalists rarely engage in broad generalizations, leaving that to pundits. In contrast, historians are tasked with looking at a large amount of material and offering an interpretation. They need time. But when we are dealing with war, neither historians nor journalists have time. We must work with what we have as quickly as possible.

Tracing recent events often leads to shock from the knowledge that everything has already been said. Reporting the catastrophe has not produced any results.

It is hard to describe this doublethink: awareness and ignorance at the same time. Or, despite the awareness, continuing to live in a country approaching disaster.
“Some, hearing the alarm bells grow louder and louder, decided to stay out of politics (in this case, the authorities achieved exactly what they wanted). Others – erroneously – counted on resistance and the potential of civil society.”
One of your authors (Ilya) is now writing a book that aims to trace the origins of Putin’s dictatorship and the war, telling how they became possible. Where does this readiness among the public to turn a blind eye come from? After all, this is true of the entire intellectual class – journalists, historians, thinkers. It is probably a phenomenon of double – social and cultural – life.

On the one hand, we gauged, analyzed and understood what was happening. On the other, we lived a life parallel to our analysis, as if the conclusions did not matter. As if all the signs and symptoms of the impending catastrophe existed not in this reality, but in some parallel one. At the same time, many had the illusion that it was the alternative reality that would prevail and resist the official political line.

We discussed the increasing complexity of ethical issues. We thought about how education should be properly organized. It was as if we did not understand that education would soon end altogether. We tried to develop and fill the space that we had left with meaning. We understood that it was constantly shrinking, but for some reason we did not take this into account. Or we did, but lacking the possibility to change the political system, we tried to change landscape around it.

Another possible reason for this doublethink – or how we could see everything and keep on living as we had before – is the belief in the inevitability of historical progress and development that took shape and was maintained after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our humor is based on it. We always laughed at Putin’s elites were considered freakshows, characters from a comedy.

Our generation’s mistake

Some of us probably believed that all this absurdity would miraculously end, because it simply could not be any other way; it had to fade away. This is the critical mistake of our generation, or [at least] one of its groups. We really believed that Russia would be a normal country. We believed that was inevitable. At the end of the day, we all witnessed the collapse of the USSR as an unviable system; we knew the logic of “everything was forever until it was no more” and unwittingly projected it onto the current situation.
In 2001, the Kremlin moved to destroy the largest privately owned media holding, Media Most. Pictured is a January 2001 meeting between Vladimir Putin and journalists from Media Most's TV company, NTV, which was taken over by a government surrogate soon after. Source: Wiki Commons
The destruction of free media, along with the marginalization of serious political analysis, was carried out by the authorities rather systematically. The start of this completely deliberate, active policy was the closure of NTV, the newspaper Segodnya and the magazine Itogi at the very beginning of Putin’s tenure.

It was the reluctance to go to the barricades, bring back dissident rhetoric and come to terms with its own vulnerability that stopped society from immediately and radically reacting to these illegal moves. It was much easier to call the conflict around NTV a dispute between economic actors, a business squabble to stay out of. Oddly enough, this allowed some to maintain a sense of agency and independence, the feeling that this was not “they did something to us,” but rather purely business, nothing personal.

The authorities’ depoliticization efforts were quite successful. The demand for quality journalism and serious political analysis was quite strong in society at one point, but then Russian people began to prefer the yellow press and entertainment shows. When a TV channel disloyal to the regime is closed and no one sees this as an encroachment on the institution of freedom of speech and independent journalism, then why not switch to [the game show] KVN?

Social history is always a combination of many factors, and often we cannot say which of them is the most significant. But we can record them. In particular, by the 2000s the nature of the media had changed greatly compared to the late Soviet era and early post-Soviet years.

It is likely the case that the reputation and moral authority of perestroika-era Russian journalism organically emerged from the general atmosphere of that time, from the demand for freedom and truth. Liberal publications, like Novy Mir, Ogonyok, the TV program Vzglyad, reached a very wide audience and found themselves in the mainstream.

For various reasons, however, they were unable to keep their attention. This happened even before the regime began to bump them off.
“One of the main reasons is depoliticization. Its grip on society got tighter and tighter. People with democratic and liberal views who continued to be interested in and engage in politics were painted as ‘demschiza’, short for ‘democratic schizophrenics’.”
The reluctance of a significant part of society to associate with these people turned out stronger than other civic motivations.

This can be explained by the sense of agency that emerged in the 1990s: political strategists (polittekhnologi) liked to be cynical and feel like they themselves made politicians; other people tended their gardens and built their own startups, trying with all their might not to acknowledge their own disempowerment. This is just one of many possible explanations for the depoliticization, with the mechanisms working differently for different people.

One way or another, in the 2000s politics began to be seen as boring, and social and political media as reading for a small group of people. Look, a report from Chechnya – everything there is scary and hopeless. Why should we read that? Or the clowns in the Duma fought again.

Many felt the same way about the protest movement: they are making noise again, what do they need? Meanwhile, “normal people,” uninterested in politics, were building a “normal Russia”: developing business, building cultural spaces. No one was interfering in private life, and things were gradually improving. But politics seemed to have nothing to do with it.

It was precisely such attitudes that ultimately led us and Russia to war.
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