(translated by George Shriver)
The mass anti-government demonstrations that took place all across Russia on February 4 showed that discontent in the country is not dying down in spite of the winter cold and the government’s energetic propaganda campaign. The success of the mass mobilizations was especially noteworthy in light of the obvious failure of official events held to try and counteract the pro-democracy demonstrations. A rally in support of Vladimir Putin was held in Moscow at Poklonnaya Gora (a patriotic site overlooking the terrain where the Battle of Borodino was fought in 1812, a battle in which the Russian army nearly brought Napoleon’s march on Moscow to a halt). The government authorities went to great lengths to make people attend the rally, putting pressure on workers with threats of job loss and promises of bonuses. Young people and pensioners were offered 500 rubles each to spend an hour in the freezing cold. The upshot was that after the rally a noisy and shameful scene erupted, with people cursing and shoving, demanding their money.
The marches in provincial cities were less impressive than the demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but they were far more massive than had been expected. These events should make it clear to the authorities that their propaganda campaign is not all-powerful. It may be possible to make people believe that the mass demonstrations in Egypt, Italy or Ukraine were the result of some sort of manipulation or bribery. But they can’t convince people that their own discontent is the result of some conspiracy by outsiders. A person may believe that others go out to protest in return for money, but he won’t believe that about himself—because he knows no one is paying him.
The government sees that its propaganda isn’t working anymore, but it still thinks that it’s only a matter of finding specific, effective propaganda techniques. It thinks it’s losing because the other side’s propaganda is better, not because what it stands for itself is doomed by history.
The officials believe in their own lies and are taken in by myths of their own making. They sincerely assume that no one is capable of conscious, rational action, that no real society exists, and that the only reality is mindless mobs that can be manipulated. And they respond to the protests not with political reforms but with further attempts at manipulation. They drag unwilling people out to demonstrate support for the government, forcing them to stand around in freezing weather, cursing the government that has made this mockery of them. The officials do not realize that in this way they are only piling up new enemies for themselves—enemies who will be much more aggressive than those who now march through the streets under anti-government banners.
The government has forgotten how to count. To be sure, it does have a superior advantage many times over in terms of resources that can be spent on propaganda and manipulation. No matter how much money Russian neoliberals and their foreign backers may spend on oppositional activity, the government of Russia spends not ten times but a hundred times more—if not a thousand times more. And it should not be thought that the government’s PR men and other propagandists are worse. The fact is that the very same people are involved, constantly crossing over from one side to the other, to whichever side pays better. If the government is losing the war of information, it is not because it doesn’t know how to wage such a war.