Blurring of moral norms in Russia opens doors for amoral behavior of authorities

Painting by Vasya Lozhkin

Painting by Vasya Lozhkin 

2015/10/09 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

Editor’s note. Though this article is about Russia, much of the trends that are discussed, and the consequences from them, are relevant for Ukrainian society, which inherited moral ambiguity from the times of the USSR, when what was proclaimed at party meetings radically differed from what was said in the kitchen.

In recent years, blurring of moral principles and norms has become a key feature for many, if not most, Russians. Almost everyone who has tried to show the supporters of Vladimir Putin that’s illegal and immoral to incite war, seize foreign territory, support militants, murders, and corruption etc. has encountered this phenomenon. Experience shows that even in the case when such Russians were unable to deny the obvious, they began to adhere to the principles that “the end justifies the means” and “in times of war…”: they were prepared to recognize that any methods are permitted in order to achieve a goal.

Such disregard for moral and legal norms has developed gradually, and has been incorporated into public consciousness at a minimum over the past few years through a variety of trends, each leading to a desirable result for the Russian authorities. I will outline only the most striking examples of these different trends and the consequences that they have led to:

  1. Tolerance for the phenomenon of corruption. The paradox is that Kremlin propaganda has not particularly tried to hide the extent to which the vertical power structure built by Putin is riddled with theft and lawlessness. However, the propagandists have focused on the idea that representatives of the liberal opposition are just as likely to tend towards corruption. In this way, the Kremlin-controlled media has managed to convince the population that there is no reason to “trade one set of thieves for another,” and that stealing is the norm for Russia, so that any person who comes to power will invariably steal. What is more, the idea has taken root in Russian consciousness not only that “everyone steals”, but also that members of Putin’s elite are “just thieves,” while their opponents are thieves and “foreign agents” who will not only steal and deplete the state coffers, but will also knowingly “ruin Russia on the orders of overseas masters.” As a result, the average person is convinced that theft cannot be avoided, but that those who steal for their own personal needs at least leave something for the country, while those who steal both for themselves and following orders from abroad will rob Russia even faster. Unfortunately, a majority of Russians are simply unable to believe that there exist countries with an extremely low level of corruption.
  2. Discrediting democratic values. In addition to the fact that, through the efforts of propagandists, Russians began to associate democratic values with poverty, stealing and “foreigners robbing our country,” Putin has done everything possible so that the very terms “liberalism” and “democracy” produce a kind of conditioned reflex in Russian society: phobias and associations with coups, violent revolutions, rampant crime, bloodshed, death and anarchy. In this way, propaganda has succeeded on the one hand in entirely discrediting and debunking the values of lawfulness and freedom, and on the other hand, it has created in the Russian consciousness an irrational fear of people with democratic views both at home and abroad.
  3. Discrediting the truth as such. Back in December of 2014, The New York Times published an op-ed entitled “Russia’s Ideology: There Is No Truth.” The author points out that when people with a Soviet mentality who were accustomed to “doublethink and dual faith” came to power, they created a society in which pretense triumphed, with fake elections, a fake free press, fake free markets and fake justice.

The author of the op-ed, Peter Pomerantsev, described how on the one hand, Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov supported human rights organizations comprised of former dissidents, while on the other hand, he organized pro-Kremlin youth movements like Nashi. “Everything is PR,” Pomerantsev is told by his “Moscow peers.” According to Pomerantsev,

This cynicism is useful to the state: When people stopped trusting any institutions or having any values, they could easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world.” He continued, “At the core of this strategy is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. This notion allows the Kremlin to replace facts with disinformation.”

Gradually, as a result, over the 15 years of Putin’s rule, Russian society has reached the limit of its moral decay. Russians are firmly convinced that everyone steals, but that some do so for themselves, while others do so for “foreign clients:” they believe that freedom and democracy are just a cover for organizing revolution, which will unfailingly be followed by devastation and poverty, and that objective truth does not exist in principle. It is precisely this moral relativism and irrational fear that have provided the basis for the imposition of the contemporary Crimea is Ours movement and for hybrid war in the Donbas.

In a world devoid of moral norms and absolute values, in which totalitarianism, lies and stealing can be justified, anything else can be justified as well.

It is worth noting that there is no study on the moral and ethical characteristics of the average Russian, or on the moral category of “norms.” The main creative forces in Russian culture, the people who set the moral tone for national ethics and the creators of the most powerful literary works and ideas were persecuted: some were subjected to forced labor and exile, and others, in the 20th century, experienced the inhumane conditions of torture and labor camps. These people truly went through hell and were not broken by it. Their experience is a feat that could not be repeated by the average person.

As a result, the only people able to repeat that heroic exploit are similarly persecuted seekers of truth who inevitably appear in Russia in every era. Russian culture, having provided models of high morality, has paid very little attention to the standards of behavior of ordinary people.

There has been no development of the understanding of norms in the Russian mentality.

The understanding of holiness has been very clearly developed in the Russian mentality – it is the inheritance of a special minority, which trods a well-worn path in an admirable succession of generations. However, no model of behavior has been developed for the ordinary, law-abiding inhabitant: its absence has created the conditions for the extreme blurring of moral reference points for the majority of the Russian population.

The consequences are manifold.  On the one hand, there is a certain apoliticism on the part of most of the population relating to issues of domestic policy. Russians are convinced that “politics are a dirty business” and for this reason one must avoid politics: they are convinced that “everyone steals” and that that is just the way it is, so that any attempts to achieve change are senseless, since fair judges and honest bureaucrats and policemen simply do not exist. This attitude is at the origin of the characteristic Russian lack of trust in the opposition, which is labeled as “the same kind of thieves who want to get their hands on the money.” It also explains the high degree of infantilism among Russians in matters relating to the fate of their native city, or even their own fate.

On the other hand, people who think in this way are characterized by the acceptance as norms of behavior of any and all forms of amoral behavior by the authorities. Depending on the situation, such behavior may be interpreted as a necessary evil or even as a courageous act required to “protect their own interests.” Many Russians are sincerely convinced that the governments of other countries act in the same way, and that if they don’t, it is only because the Russian authorities have cleverly “outplayed” them.

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