Moscow sociologist: Putin’s power resembles a witch doctor’s

Vladimir Putin: 1952–?

Vladimir Putin: 1952–? 

International, More

Totalitarianism can emerge in any society if conditions are created to promote the restoration of “social and cultural archaism” as a result of “a lack of choice in politics” and the promotion of “irrationalism in mass consciousness,” according to Moscow sociologist Emil Pain.

Exactly that dynamic, one that promoted “barbarism” as opposed to the triumph of rationality that Max Weber saw as the hallmark of modernity, is on view in contemporary Russia and helps to explain both what Vladimir Putin is doing and why his ratings are so astronomically high.

Over the last two years – and Pain insists that the events in Ukraine have been the occasion rather than the cause of this – such archaism, including the desecularizaiton of society, the expansion of zones of the sacred which cannot be criticized by anyone, and hostility to the surrounding world, has been Putin’s policy and has boosted his standing.

After the annexation of Crimea, Pain writes, mass consciousness in Russia increasingly acquired a messianic aspect: the notion “Great Russia is called upon to defend the Russian world from any enemies: fascists, liberals and the West” and the related notion that Stalin and any real leader – and by implication, Putin — is justified in taking any actions if he does so.

To understand this, Pain suggests, one should consider the ideas of English anthropologist E. Evans-Pritchard who argued 60 years ago that the study of witch doctors in Africa helps to explain “the nature of totalitarianism” and its leader cults. Now, it is clear why that is so.

“The cult of a leader of the nation for life and that of the witch doctor are based on one and the same thing – recognition of the unachievable and mystical power of a particular individual in whom resides a magical and supernatural force or ability” without which the nation or the tribe would die, the Moscow sociologist writes.

According to Pain, “the witch doctor and the leader use similar mechanisms of subordinating the masses to themselves, appealing not to the reason of the latter but to the emotions of a pre-cultural stratum and above all to fears and phobias.” That is exactly what Putin is doing now.

The totalitarian leader just like the witch doctor is able to give comfort and eliminate fears “again by the same mystical path, above all by the elimination of an impure force on which all attacks depend. Such mystical comfort is best of all demonstrated by contemporary Russian propaganda.”


That propaganda creates “the image of the horrific enemy who with the help of magic is capable of calling forth ‘color revolutions’ in any country but then comforts its audience by showing that it is not difficult to convert this enemy into ‘nuclear ash’ (somehow without a return threat to one’s own country).”

Indeed, Pain argues, statements by Russian military experts about the use of nuclear weapons “recall the incantations of shamans” more than any other kind of analysis. Nonetheless, they can help consolidate Russian society around Putin, although such “negative consolidation” is something that is very narrow and likely short-lived.

“For positive consolidation,” one would need goals that elevated people rather than drove them back to atavistic positions, but there are no such goals on offer or even currently available in Russia, Pain says.

Internationally, Russians now know who their enemies are but not their friends. Economically, they are in the position of someone who is happy only when his neighbor’s cow dies. And culturally, they are told they should come out in defense of traditional values. But there is the problem: most Russians may protest the new but no longer support the old.

As Pain notes, “classical totalitarian regimes guaranteed social support for themselves by advancing global goals: ‘world revolutions,’ ‘the thousand-year Reich,’ the universal Islamic khalifate,’ and so on.” But Putin’s Russia is “positioning itself as an outsider, fighting not ‘for’ anything, but only ‘against.’”

Maintaining this is a problem given that the enemies or obstacles keep changing, Pain says, although promoting the idea is “one of the simplest tasks for propaganda.” But when the country can’t attack others or cannot achieve economic growth and when the leader doesn’t offer anything else, his backing will fall.

The magic of the leader like the magic of the witch doctors around him allows for the manipulation of public opinion for a time. “For the time being, it guarantees the self-preservation of power but this magic is not total or firm.” Indeed, “the current ‘incomplete (and perhaps unachievable) totalitarianism’” is closer to its end than its beginning.

“Historically,” he says, “all processes are accelerating, and as a result, the lifetime of mobilizational regimes is now measured not in decades but in years.”

Edited by: A. N.

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  1. Avatar Stefan Wegner says:

    Putin and the “Separatists” want a new Great-Russia or a new USSR. In Vice-News, the head of the so called “Peoples Republik” says (Minute 5.00) : the USSR must be brought back.Putins picture is on the wall.

    1. Avatar Michel Cloarec says:

      What did URSS achieved in 100 years ?
      Why can´t they accept it is a complete organized failure !
      Nostalgia of what ? Stalin ? Gulags ? Medals of Wars ?
      SORRY RUSSIA and its followers you are on the wrong track !
      Communism cant´prevail ! It is only a form of capitalism for a few !
      China has understood that !

      1. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

        The demented dwarf seems to believe that Peking will treat Russia as an equal partner. Peking won’t oblige, however- and why should it? China is an economical giant, Russia a midget. Russia can look forward to an existence as a source of cheap resources, with Peking determining the prices- nothing more.
        Furthermore, China lost territory to Russian expansionism in 1856 and 1860. You can bet your last ruble on Peking wanting those territories back. After all, if Russia has “historical rights” to the Crimea as the dwarf claims, then surely China has “historical rights” to those territories: sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander and all that. Ever wondered why China abstained when the UN voted on Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of the Crimea? China doesn’t even have to send its “green men”, all it has to do is wait patiently while Great Putinstan slowly implodes.

        1. Avatar Michel Cloarec says:

          I am waiting for the moves from China !

          “Today, talking on the issue of Crimea, Premier Li Keqiang said there were lots of difficulties. But the peninsula should be returned to Ukraine through diplomatic dialogue and negotiations”

          I wrote this some months ago !

          The Chinese would never share power with Russia, not even in the role of an “elder” brother. Putin would be nothing more than a puppet. The Chinese middle classes would buy every last scrap of real estate and every dacha with a wood floor and a roof – leaving the Russian peasant class living in dirt-floor hovels throughout the Siberian wastelands

        2. Avatar Brent says:

          Agreed! 140 million Russians won’t stand a chance against 1.4 billion resource and land hungry Chinese. Yet Putin and his followers think they’ll be an equal partner with China. These two nations can’t even agree on who will be the lead and host nation for their trumpeted BRICS partnership.

          I’ve even read that China is quietly sending migrant workers into Siberia to get the ethnic mix of the region more favorable for a future ‘protect Chinese speakers’ mission of their own. Apparently the local Russian population is starting to get nervous. Now wouldn’t be be a nice big fat Karma sandwich!!!

          1. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

            Peking has been sending quietly its citizens across the border- legally or illegally- for years. At the same time Russians have been abandoning Siberia and moving to European Russia in search of better jobs. Dozens of villages are empty, or nearly so. To counter this the dwarf is sending Donbass refugees to the Russian Far East- Yakutia, Magadan and other “pleasue resorts”: one-way ticket, papers confiscated as reported by the Frankfurter Allgemeine last year. But even if the dwarf sends every single Donbass refugee in Russia there, it won’t be enough to compensate for all the Russians who have already left.

    2. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

      And how will the demented dwarf achieve that? With what? He simply doesn’t have the military strength,nor allies who will help him. Even his closest allies, Nazarbaev and Lukashenko, are slowly distancing themselves from Russia, especially Lukashenko. The FSU countries have had self-government for 25 years, they won’t give that up easily. I don’t see the people of Belarus actively resisting a Russian invasion like the Ukrainians, but Kazakhstan may well be an entirely different matter.

      1. Avatar Brent says:

        You want to see demented? Take a look at this photo of Russian troops kissing Putin’s picture. Seriously WTF is up with that? Can you see any civilized country’s soldiers doing this? North Korea maybe…but I did say ‘civilized!!!

        1. Avatar Dagwood Bumstead says:

          They are merely kising an icon of Russia’s newest “saint”, Vladimir the Great. Still, I suppose they are only too grateful they don’t have to kiss the dwarf’s behind.
          And who said Great Putinstan is civilized?????

  2. Avatar Dean Venture says:

    “Internationally, Russians now know who their enemies are but not their friends. ”

    They don’t have any friends save the half dozen other pariah states in the world. They’ve alienated and betrayed everyone who wanted to befriend them. They accuse them of russophobia even as they continue to slap them in the face. A phobia is an irrational fear. Fear of Russia is entirely rational.

    I’m wondering how long those bitten will remember this. I suspect Russia is wondering how much money it’s going to take to catalyze forgetfulness.