He was tense, and rightly so. A few days ago Lev Shlozberg, member of the council of the Pskov region, stood up and addressed a silent audience. They all listened in awe. He attacked the prevailing mood in Russia, comparing the attacks on “people’s traitors” and the mass patriotic hysteria with the atmosphere in the 1930s under Stalin. And if that was not enough, he continued to expose the corruption in the governor’s office, the deal and tricks that allowed the ruling class to enrich itself and keep the rest of the population in poverty. “These are the real people’s traitors,” he said, “these are the people that ruin our country.”
This amazing clip found its way on Internet and was disseminated like wildfire, people flabbergasted by the man’s courage. Yet only few Western media outlets covered the event, just like hardly any of them covered the flash-mob by the Odesa Philharmonic Orchestra a week ago, on Saturday March 22, when at the well-known Odesa “Privoz” fish market the musicians played the “Ode of Joy” of Beethoven as a show of pro-Europeanism, the hymn generally regarded as the anthem of the European Union. And again, today there are hardly any reports on the big demonstrations in Odesa and Zaporizhzhia, all in favor of a unified Ukraine and supporting linking up with Europe rather than with Putin’s Customs Union. And no news-outlet reported on the courageous demonstration in favor of Ukraine at the University of Simferopol, also this week. All very important events, but already considered “no news” for the Western media outlets.
Having spent again a few days in The Netherlands I am again dismayed, upset, worried. The same journalist, who reported earlier that the referendum on the Crimea was a “joyful event” and that there were no irregularities, now reported that there is no proof Russian troops have amassed at the Ukrainian border. Life goes on, Ukraine is old news, and in general it is better to find a compromise with Putin because our economy is too weak. That is the prevailing attitude.
I wonder: what needs to happen before people really wake up? And how is it possible to Putin’s propaganda barrage has made such an impact on the way events in Ukraine are viewed? It is not only that crucial events are not covered, but it is also that very few reporters and analysts seem to be able to separate provocations and propaganda from the actual reality.
For weeks there were mass demonstrations in Eastern Ukrainian towns, with mobs demanding “self-rule”, forcing themselves into government or municipal buildings and hoisting Russian flags. Until the Ukrainian border closed, and busloads of hired “self-defending Russians” could no longer cross the border to create trouble. Before, photos appeared on facebook of Russian demonstrators who appeared in one city after the other, sometimes with a wig to alter the color of their hair, but every time “indignant” about the violation of their rights as Russians. But I never saw a report in a Western newspaper explaining that these demonstrations were staged, and that it is now incredibly quiet and that somehow the indignant masses have disappeared from the face of the earth. I never saw reports that 123% of the population of Simferopol voted for accession to Russia, and that according to official figures even 75% of the Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars should have voted in favor in order to reach the official outcomes – a complete impossibility. Or that since the annexation only 20,000 Crimeans decided to apply for Russian citizenship, a joke in all respects. Yes, a lot of information comes later, sometimes hours, sometimes days, but why is there no analysis and a correction of what was reported earlier?
I think few people in the West realize to what level a national hysteria has been created in Russia proper. Rock musician Makarevich, who dared to take a stance against the occupation of the Crimea, is now a “people’s traitor” and might loose all his awards and prizes as a result. A professor at Moscow University was fired for criticizing the occupation, and the colleague who defended him was dismissed as well. Elena Tkach, a deputy in the Moscow city council, has called upon the authorities to take away Russian citizenship from all “people’s traitors” with the words: “People who hate Russia are not entitled to be its citizen. Everybody knows that it is time to punish those who have issued anti-Russian statements in the press and internet… […] Insulting Russia and its people should be completely wiped out…”
This is an atmosphere that is worse than during Brezhnev years. It is worse, because then people didn’t believe in what they said and knew it was a collective theatre-play, but now they actually believe, just like they did in the 1930s under Stalin, another “great leader”. People truly believe the things they are brainwashed with; they trust the message that is filtered into their heads 24 hours a day. They believe Russia is under threat by Western pedophiles and homosexuals, and some are even sure they have a mission and are a chosen people. Mass hysteria can do funny things, as we have seen in Nazi Germany or Iran during the initial years of Khomeini rule.
But these times are different; this is a major nuclear power. To be honest, in a global context Russia is in fact an economic midget, yet one that pretends it can do whatever it takes. Or, as Obama rightfully said, it is a nation that is weak, and sees no other alternative than to go of the offense, just to prevent the inevitable demise.
And come to think of it, Putin did not only mess up his countries economics, with an enormous capital loss due to inflation and funds being siphoned out of the country as soon as possible. He really did the worst service to his country already earlier, when started blending Sovietism with Russian Tsarist imperialism, and when he re-introduced the Soviet hymn as the national hymn. This is a hymn that among his neighbors evokes so much anger, so much hate and so much fear, that by doing this he disadvantaged his country enormously. Maybe many Russians do not understand this now, but there will be a day that they will come to realize that the sounds of this song have the same emotion as “Deutschland über Alles” after the Second World War. And actually, if anybody is an enemy of the Russian people, it is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself.
Robert van Voren is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and Ilia State University in Tbilisi,