ONE of the biggest shocks for many external observers of Russia has been the apparent effectiveness of President Putin’s propaganda campaign to win support inside Russia for what is going on in Ukraine.
The message that is being rammed home is that this is not a war, but a “special operation” to protect the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine from a “fascist” government in Kyiv, which is backed by the military might of NATO; and that any claims of Russian atrocities are fabrications designed to mask the brutality of Ukrainian forces towards their own citizens.
It is a mind-boggling inversion of what most people in Ukraine and the West think is the truth. What is particularly disturbing is that a broad swath of ordinary people inside Russia appear to believe it.
Russians living abroad report that, when they phone home, family members dismiss the horrors in Ukraine, and tell them that they must have been brainwashed by Western propaganda. Younger people inside Russia with access to external social-media channels report the same extraordinary gaping gulf when they talk to older relatives.
SO, HOW has this come about?
Certainly, for years, Russian state television has delivered a steady drip-drip of hostile reporting against Ukraine and the West. State television is where most older Russians get their news. Since Russia launched its invasion, a relentless anti-Western drumbeat is now all they hear.
Anyone who dares say otherwise risks being sent to prison. Even minor individual expressions of dissent are stifled. A protester holding up a blank sheet of paper in a city square is bundled off by the police. Police stop people in the street to scrutinise social-media searches on their iPhones. A new law makes it a crime to repeat “fake news” about the war. This is a level of intimidation and control not seen in Russia for decades.
When the war began, many young Russians opposed to the Putin regime rushed to leave. Hundreds of thousands of Russia’s best-educated and informed young people exited Russia, possibly for good.
Far from trying to stop this exodus, President Putin says that he wants Russia to “spit out its scum and its traitors, like spitting out a midge that accidentally flies into your mouth”. He wants them gone, so that only what he considers “true patriots” will be left.
And, if he changes the official narrative to argue that Russia itself is now in danger from hostile NATO forces, he will hope to fuel that nationalist fervour even more.
But perhaps we should refrain from assuming the worst.
How many Russians, in their heart of hearts, really buy the official line? Could some be self-censoring themselves on international phone calls, for fear that the security services might be listening in? For older citizens, the old Soviet habit of expressing loyalty in public while keeping misgivings private is a deeply entrenched instinct: keep your head down and your mouth shut to avoid trouble.
Some Russians may be reluctant to admit that their country started a senseless war and that their political leaders are covering up horrific war crimes. It is easier to parrot artificial propaganda than broach an unpalatable truth. But hidden doubts may lurk.
And what if it becomes impossible to stop the reality of what is happening in Ukraine from filtering through? Will Russians continue to stand by their government?
There are already hints of unease: anti-war street protests and petitions reflected some internal dissent until they were shut down; a few Russian politicians have dared voice concerns; rumours suggest that some senior officials were arrested, that the governor of the Central Bank asked to resign, and that the Defence Minister was hospitalised — although he since seems to have recovered, appearing a couple of times on television.
And, on social media, there are glimmers of grass-roots discontent: a surreptitiously filmed meeting of soldiers’ mothers berating a Siberian governor about the unknown fate of their sons; an iPhone recording of angry young conscripts in a military vehicle complaining that they had been thrown into Russia’s fight like cannon fodder.
Could this disquiet grow if the war goes on? The Kremlin will remember the corrosive effect of casualties from the Soviet war in Afghanistan. It was a significant factor in the mounting public anger against the government, which eventually led to the Soviet Union’s demise.
IT IS hard to feel much optimism at the moment. But perhaps we should not lose hope.
In the early 1980s, the assumption was that the Soviet Communist Party had too firm a grip on power ever to be dislodged, and that the Soviet people were too subservient to change the system from within. But, when the lid was lifted, it was as though the whole country woke up, threw off the shackles of fear, and seized the chance to have a say in their future.
Authoritarian states have a way of collapsing suddenly. Maybe this crisis will turn out to be a risk too far for Vladimir Putin and bring his presidency to an end. And that might offer Russia a chance of a better future for itself and its neighbours.
Bridget Kendall is the Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and a former BBC Moscow and diplomatic correspondent.
This is an edited excerpt from a lecture delivered in Durham Cathedral on 11 April. A video of the whole lecture can be watched here.