During the first two weeks of fighting in Ukraine, many journalists reported that most Russians believed official propaganda and did not even know their country was at war. Powerfully written accounts of daily life in St. Petersburg documented citizen willingness to parrot state media tropes. For them, the “special military operation” Putin announced was strictly about “good” Russian soldiers engaged in acts of “defense,” “liberation,” and “peacekeeping.” In a BBC piece, one woman told of phoning her family in Russia while trapped in a bombardment in Kyiv, only to be rebuked for hysteria, as her mother assured her that Russian troops would never attack the Ukrainian capital.
However, history and psychology suggest that the issue of “belief” in propaganda is not straightforward, and that the majority of Russian society cannot simply be dismissed as “brainwashed” by the Putin regime. Russian people do not have a record of gullibility, but rather a long tradition of irreverent humor and coded criticism of dictatorial power discernible only by “reading between the lines.” Soviet archives are packed with letters from the 1920s, written by peasants who only a few years earlier had learned to read, challenging the truth of newspaper stories about all manner of topics relating to the condition of the countryside. More recently, the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey conducted in 28 countries, identified Russia as the nation with the lowest level of trust in media, reaching only 29 percent.
Such statistics indicate that Russians might not believe official media, but might also choose—perhaps subconsciously—not to acknowledge the extent to which they allow themselves to be deceived. (It bears mentioning that social media analysts of the 2016 US presidential election noted a similar phenomenon: Citizens can, and often do, choose to believe comfortable falsehoods, instead of admitting to truths that disrupt their desired way of seeing the world.) Looking at Russian television news after the takeover of Crimea in 2014, journalist Maria Lipman concluded that the more extreme and far-fetched the claims of various programs became, the more their audiences grew. “Russian viewers tuned into shows,” she and two colleagues argued in a 2018 essay, “in search of not truth, but emotional gratification.” Viewers wanted to believe wildly distorted media stories that affirmed “national pride and a sense of vindication.”
This situation of willing self-deception, some suggest, starts at the top, and is likely affecting the Russian president. Oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky describes Putin as a man living in a fantasy world, unwilling to use the internet, surrounded by people who tell him only what he wants to hear. According to celebrity novelist and Kremlin critic Boris Akunin, a resident of Moscow until 2014, Putin genuinely expected jubilant Ukrainians to welcome Russian soldiers with flowers, and now cannot accept that he has made a calamitous mistake. [Continue reading…]