In Putin’s Russia the Public Sphere has Suffered the Biggest Damage

Political oppression in Russia has led to an eroded public arena and the country is being drained of well-educated innovative cosmopolitans. Alexander Etkind, history professor with a focus on Russian/European relations, paints the picture of a country with an imploded meritocracy.

 
September 17 2016 Text: Alexander Etkind
The “White Nights” in St. Petersburg has always been a tourist season. In 2016, however, Russian visitors have come there in unprecedented numbers since Putin’s administration has banned many relatively highly paid professionals such as military officers, policemen, and state officials from going abroad and so they instead spend their vacations in the former capital of the former empire.
 
In late June I flew home to the city that I had left ten years earlier but that I still visit frequently; I was invited to take part in a public forum at the city library named after the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The event was essentially meant to be a conversation between the political scientist Ekaterina Shulman and myself and we were planning to discuss the repercussions of recent events such as the Crimean crisis, the Russian-Ukrainian war, the nationalist resurgence in Europe, and, finally and unavoidably, the referendum about Brexit.
 
Nikolai Solodovnikov, journalist and librarian, initiated and organized the event—one in a long series of public dialogues that he has been running for three years—and he was prepared to facilitate what was essentially a routine, well-publicized meeting with the readers. At our first meeting however he informed us that the library had recently been visited by the FSB, the State Security Service. On behalf of the Department for Unconstitutional Activities and the Fight against Terrorism the uniformed men had searched Nikolai’s office, interrogated him, and ordered that he discontinue the forum.
 
He was suspected of accepting money from foreign sources and misusing the library funds. He denied the allegations but regards his case as a lost one; father of five, he is now planning to emigrate to Latvia. Despite the unfavorable economic situation in Europe and the world at large the political pressure in the country is recently causing a brain drain. People like Nikolai—well educated, skillful, cosmopolitan—are leaving Russia. In a situation that I would describe as the collapse of a meritocracy the positions of the best are taken by the worst: the lazy, the corrupt, and the unproductive. 
 
President Putin’s rule has destroyed many sectors of national life. I admit though that it is the public sphere, the traditional domain in which Russia was historically strong and respected, even glorious among nations, that has suffered the most. Although uneven this deterioration of the Russian public sphere has been purposefully and skillfully engineered.
 
Throughout Putin’s reign this transformation of content has largely been determined by changes concerning media ownership: the TV-channels and the newspapers that were privatized right after 1991 have been re-nationalized and now they belong either to the state or to the companies that trade with natural resources such as Gazprom. The former owners of these media, who in many cases created them from scratch, have been pressured to emigrate, which suits some of them but is murderous for others.
 
Putin’s victory over these people has probably been the main story of his reign. Though largely unprofitable and therefore subsidized by the state these paper media depend largely on advertising. However, the main sponsors of these ads are big companies that are controlled by the Kremlin and that comply with its policies. Although the level of political control in Putin’s Russia is not much different from what was typical for the late Soviet period the means of this control have changed entirely.
 
Although there is a variation between different cultural genres, for those institutions of public life with the largest political reach and relevance the decay has been the deepest, such as for television and the major newspapers. Their decline since the 1990s has been dramatic, even tragic. From the slow, highbrow mode of functioning that was culturally rich, ironic, and even snobbish the TV channels with their news, reality shows, and contests have all been turned into more highly paced, over-sexualized standards of presentation. Technically sophisticated certainly; and, even though it was once the model for Russian TV they make even Berlusconi’s TV in Italy look sluggish.
 
Despite the fact that the visual tropes and technical equipment that are used in all these shows look unmistakably Western—indeed they are the worst examples of the fully commodified, ultra-capitalist culture one could imagine—the current message is universally anti-American, anti-European, and in fact anti-modern. The ban against Russian officials spending their vacations abroad is just a minor manifestation of the anti-modern policies of Putin’s Kremlin.
 
Despite the fact that the major newspapers in Russia do not have the broad geographical circulation that is the privilege of the TV and radio channels, a complex transformation of the press has nevertheless taken place. Throughout the Putin era, a sharp divide has developed between the newspapers that claim a national reach and those that cultivate specific niches solely within the Russian capitals Moscow and St. Petersburg.
 
The Kremlin and its various countenances closely control the nation-wide newspapers; characteristically, they still carry their old Soviet names such as Izvestiia and Komsomolskaia Pravda. The niche papers articulate a broad range of political positions from the ultra-nationalist to the liberal. So far, these niche newspapers, some of them explicitly anti-Putinist such as Novaia Gazeta, have not been closed down; who supports them is rarely disclosed although there are examples of relatively large newspapers such as Vedomosti that are still free-minded and pro-Western; however, they are also partially owned by Western corporations and therefore would become easy victims of the newest legislation that forbids foreign agents to invest in the Russian press and the NGOs.
 
In this respect, the situation of the Russian newspapers is somewhat similar to the situation of the universities. The large, traditionally prestigious institutions such as the Moscow State University and the St. Petersburg State University have been intellectually devastated. In every discipline a few strong professors have emigrated while many others have retired, and those who are staying on are struggling with an enormous, traditionally rigid bureaucracy and an ever-increasing political control. But there are several institutions—some of them relatively large such as the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and some small and vigorous such as the European University of St. Petersburg—that are still booming.
 
In this situation, the Internet plays the crucial role of being the public sphere that articulates opinions, debates controversies, and seeks resolutions—a role that becomes ever more important in a time of crisis. The reach of the Internet in Russia is enormous. Judging by the number of users Russia is now the leading nation in Europe and the sixth nation in the world; judging by the percentage of users it is on the level of Poland and Portugal. Internal platforms such as VKontakte and global platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are all very successful in Russia. There are few scholars or students who do not use Wikipedia in its Russian language version. Moreover, the infamous “troll factories” have been created here and are paid for by the state; these fake individuals jam online communication by spreading stupid, obscene, or random comments.
 
More importantly, there are ceaseless discussions among the officials about the necessity of censoring the Internet and/or banning foreign social media such as Facebook.
 
During the two long post-Soviet decades, Russia has had an excellent opportunity to reshape itself into a peaceful, law-abiding, and hard-working country—something that would have been hugely beneficial for Russia’s people, for Europe, and the world. If Russia is still “post-Soviet” (a euphemism that both insiders and observers of Putinism are using to conceal its novelty) it is due to a concerted effort of a narrow group of people who have been actively preventing Russia from becoming a productive, law-abiding, European-like country.
 
This group has secured Russia’s oil and gas, on whose rising prices the development of Putinism has depended entirely. The massive security apparatus and the corrupt irrational bureaucracy that has developed combine to recycle the wealth that is being produced as if it has been produced by God’s will, oozing up from holes in the earth rather than by the work of the people.
 
This massive and greedy group that gets almost all its lifeblood from the trade in oil and gas regard the populace as redundant. Moreover, at times—and particularly in times of crisis—this large and ambitious populace becomes a nuisance and potentially a danger. For example, students and intellectuals dominated the anti-Putin protest movement in Moscow in 2011-2012 as they did the democratic movement in Ukraine.
 
Even though the distance between the intelligentsia (who use the Internet for their debates) and the masses (who watch television) has proven to be larger in Russia than in Ukraine, this situation might change at any moment. Revolutions tend to occur in capital cities and this has historically been true even in such a vast country as Russia.
 
The particularly Russian combination of resource dependency and a large population defines the pathetic situation of Putin’s public. Deconstructing meritocracy; separating human capital from the wealth of the nation; creating the outlandish riches that have nothing to do with the labour or talent of the owners—this situation has revised some basic intuitions about modernity. It has convinced Putin’s public that work and education have no correlation with success whatsoever. Russia suffers from the oil curse but the Kremlin enjoys a political blessing: all this time it has had enough money to feed both the parasitic so-called elite and the unproductive population. For all parties in this game—the rulers, the elite, and the populace—success is severed from work. Putin’s public though are living precariously: as long as the petrodollars continue to flow there is a guaranteed utopian space.
 
It is an astounding irony of history that this socialist dream has been implemented and managed by deeply conservative right-wing rulers. But it is also a bitter lesson. We know that the quality of the public sphere relies on deeper liberties and the creation of these liberties. If there is no freedom there is no public dialogue; the example of the St. Petersburg library illustrates this all too well.
 
However, the decline of Putin’s public shows another and probably a deeper truth: the quality of the public sphere depends on the work of the people. The library functions better when—and only when—the librarians work better. While, on the other hand, if it does not matter how the librarians do their work, the library functions badly; moreover, it deteriorates and collapses. Meritocracy is a unique mechanism that is commonly found in the economic machinery of the modern state, in its political governance, and in its public sphere. A rule of merit is a foundation of modernity and its destruction leads to a far-going de-modernization. Putin’s public know this all too well.