Apart from numerous drawbacks that affected the countries to the east of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War had one indisputable advantage: it ensured peace and stability in Europe. The Soviet Union and the West – primarily the United States – were playing battles, sending weapons, advisers and even armies to the outskirts. But the both knew that any attack on the enemy in Europe could end in a nuclear holocaust.
The collapse of the USSR has not changed the situation. Before the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas a war in Europe seemed to be a bad dream. Putin’s Russia began to act in the international arena as a bully with mass destruction weapons. The Russian President and his minions have repeatedly hinted that they may use it. Why Russia, which is weaker than the Soviet Union, is more dangerous?
After the death of Stalin, the Soviet leaders made attempts to put the tin lid on the cult of personality: it could result in another purging of the Soviet party elite.The secretary general still remained the highest authority, but he lost his ‘divine’ status that generalissimo Stalin once enjoyed. The Politburo could refuse the first secretary, and his election was the result of a collision of interests of different groups – directors of large factories, generals, local leaders, etc.
Nikita Khrushchev got an acute feel of his powerlessness when he listened to the report at the October plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1964. He was accused of spinning out of the party’s control, trying to get unlimited power and adventurism in the international field. “For many times our country was drawn into one or another situation, when the danger of war became real,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Polyansky chided the first secretary. He named the Suez, Berlin and Cuban missile crises and blamed Khrushchev for escalation. As a result, Nikita Sergeyevich lost his position.
I asked Russian experts, politicians or members of the Russian elite, and one and all stress that Putin makes important decisions, e.g. the annexation of the Crimea, practically on his own. One can only guess how they are made and how rational they are. Dmitry Trenin, one of the most prominent Russian analysts and head of Carnegie Center in Moscow, has been long trying to show what Putin has in his head:
“At the end of four-year premiership, Putin is likely to believe in his God-given historical mission. The man known for his pragmatism, who considers himself a servant of society and its manager, has transformed into a messenger of higher forces. Not only had Putin started to act like God in his public speeches, but he behaved like a man, doing things ‘ordered’ by God. Later, during the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, it allowed him to stay cool and persisted in the belief that God is on his side – the side of Russia – in this new sharp conflict with the US.”
Putin does not need to beware of the Politburo, or any political party. He appoints advisors so that they could affirm his ‘divinity’. Russia goes a completely different way than neighboring China, where a leader is changed every few years in spite of authoritarian rule. And such a leader does not even have time to come to the conclusion that he is an irreplaceable messenger of Heaven.
It lends itself to comparing Putin to a certain leader of Germany. Fortunately, unlike Hitler, Putin has children, which might stop him from ideas like ‘after me the deluge’ – or rather, atomic ash.
Lots of experts and independent journalists in Russia are convinced that the Russian state propaganda is much stronger and more effective than that of the Soviet Union. Lev Gudkov, an employee of Levada Center, highlights that 90 % of Russians stand the chance to watch TV programs were available only to 40 % of Soviet citizens. Thus, nearly all Russians fall within the sphere of influence of TV channels like NTV – the one belonging to Gazprom. And their propaganda is much more sophisticated and effective than in the USSR, he says.
According to Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin’s former adviser, the Kremlin itself has become trapped in their media machine, believing sincerely in deceptive picture of the world produced in Ostankino.
However, the Russian media is not just purely state-run media that can be controlled in someway, but also hundreds or thousands of local titles and news portals financed by structures that are not directly dependent on the state. There are factories of online trolls who are agitating in social networks. If compared to the Soviet Union, the situation is unimaginable. Then it was possible to cause mass hysteria, but it was easy to quickly mute social emotions. Every article or program scenario was passed through the hands of a censor, and the media policy was controlled during the sessions of the Politburo. But now the propaganda machine is practically unstoppable.
Whoever the Soviet Union attacked, it did it in the name of peace. Peace-defending rhetoric put down new roots in Soviet society that remembered the horrors of the Second World War. Even today the slogan ‘Anything rather than war’ is popular among Belarusians. However, Russian society has forgotten about the war, on the contrary, people subconsciously want it – 64 % of Russians are convinced of the inevitability of conflict with the West.Over the decade a regular Russian is bombarded with series and movies that present armed forces in uniquely bright colours, there is a cult of power and uniform. In the course of the main news show chief Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov does not hesitate to threaten the U.S.with atomic destruction. Until recently incitements to war and killing Ukrainians have been reserved for radical fanatics – but today it has become the media mainstream in Russia.
The fervor with which the Kremlin is fighting against the liberal and democratic opposition and the green light to radical warmongers show that the government wants to prepare the public for a conflict.
The USSR had a glorious legend of victory in the Great Patriotic War. According to its president, Russia is sort of unwanted child of ‘the greatest geopolitical disaster, i.e. the collapse of the Soviet Union. However much the glory of the past is praised, a Russian always thinks – ‘ What a country was ruined!” This loss is compared to the defeat of Germany in the First World War , when the German Empire capitulated, but the spirit of German militarism was preserved. The similar situation is seen in Russia: Communism collapsed, but no one has squared accounts with it yet.
And when Putin came to power, the process of creating a ‘hybrid Russia’ started. In the ideological sense, it scoops up from both imperial pre-revolutionary Russia and even more imperial post-revolutionary Russia. From this perspective, Stalin was cruel because he killed so many people, but if it had been not for him, there would have been be no industrialization and victory in the Great Patriotic War, thus, in general, he was not so bad, they say .
After the fall of Communism Russia followed a different path than West Germany in 1945 or Turkey after the defeat in the First World War. Their losses became a point to build a new better state based on entirely different principles, whereas, in contrast, Russia still returns to its imperial past and its worst sides, e.g. the belief that neighbors must submit to their will. Moreover, according to Dmitry Trenin, Putin wants to prove that Russia must be at least equal to the US in the international arena.
As a result, instead of starting afresh like Weimar Germany, Russia is still feeding on resentment. Had it not been for the treachery of some fifth column, the USSR could further exist, they say. According to this version, Russia was promised to retain its influence in Central Europe, but it was cheated – NATO expanded into the east instead. The Kremlin still lulls its imperial aspirations and spends billions of dollars to support their political vassals like Belarusian president Lukashenka, pays for the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas.
Despite the dominance of ethnic Russians, there was a kind of Soviet internationalism in the USSR. The official propaganda stressed the similarities and common destiny of the nations, even at the cost of tearing some pages out of their history. Of course, it was a bit hypocritical, but the strict prohibition on inciting ethnic hatred downplayed conflicts. Some of them, which were were frozen before, burst again, or was artificially sparked by the Russian authorities as it was in Abkhazia or Transnistria. However, in the Soviet era, no one could name representatives of other nations ‘animals’ or ‘cattle’. Internationalism really was the official ideology of the state.
But this is a tale that is already told. The Russian government has shown its extraordinary skills to manipulate public opinion. Thanks to several months of propaganda, in the minds of Russians the Ukrainian nation, that was long regarded as ‘brothers’, has become the nation of murderers and enemies that should be wiped off the face of the earth. Desecrating the memory of millions of victims of Nazism, the Kremlin was not slow to descend to comparing Ukrainians to Nazis.
The problem is that such situation would not be possible in any other European country: firstly, there are independent media that would respond to such propaganda, as well as citizens – after they realize that dust is being thrown in their eyes. Unfortunately, any lie may be sold to Russians. In addition, there is absolutely smooth category of defending ‘Russian World’, a mythical area that sometimes refers only to Russian-speaking paeole or, in its maximum version presented by Patriarch of All Russia, stretches from the Carpathian Mountains to Vladivostok – in every place where Orthodox Christianity is confessed.
Russian historian Andrei Zubov easily found similarities between the annexation of Crimea, and Anschluss of Austria by Germany in 1938. The both cases are based on the hazy idea of protecting ‘compatriots’.
Chauvinism is deeply seated in the minds of Russians, because it is much more difficult to eradicate it in comparison to the abstract Marxism-Leninism, which the Soviet Union put down its expansion to.