Ilya Shablinsky: Myths and legends of a united Russia – on the final ban on personal opinions

12 September 2023

by Ilya Shablinsky


Among the most significant developments in the intellectual life of the country in recent months were the publication in Nezavisimaya Gazeta of articles by the director of the Institute of the USA and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ISKRAN), Valery Garbuzov, the reactions to them at opposite ends of the Russian political spectrum, and the near instantaneous dismissal of the author. They were significant because Russian intellectuals in any kind of prominent position have rarely dared, and still rarely dare, to openly express their opposition to state policy. Only two directors of academic institutes like that remain: Valery Garbuzov and Yury Pivovarov (former director of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, RAS). The latter was forced into exile not long ago and is facing several criminal cases. Garbuzov knew about this, of course, just as he knew what he himself was getting into. Also worth mentioning here is a statement by ISKRAN employees in defence of their director, which, no sooner had it appeared on the Nezavisimaya Gazeta website than it promptly vanished.

Valery Garbuzov was born in Pskov and graduated from the department of history in the university there. The subject of his doctoral dissertation is still relevant today, in my opinion: ‘“The Reagan Revolution”: The Theory and Practice of American Conservatism (1981–1988)’. Garbuzov trained in the US, at the University of Tennessee, a fact that is now causing state propagandists extreme irritation. Since 2016, he has served as director of the Institute of the USA and Canada, whose duties have historically included the drafting of analytical papers for government agencies. In Soviet times, these papers would be delivered to the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee and placed on the desk of the general secretary ahead of a meeting with the incoming American president, for instance. The paper had to be sufficiently objective, that is, it had to provide a realistic view of the world. This tradition appears to have been preserved in Russia over the past 30 years. But, of course, the Institute has had far less funding than it did in Brezhnev’s time.

There is no question that for any qualified America expert, today’s confrontation between the Russian authorities and the US and its allies looks contrived and totally unproductive, as far as the country’s interests are concerned. But academics generally do not tend to engage in public debate. It was Garbuzov’s choice to publish his article, and this was not only a political choice, but a moral one, too. He knew that it would inevitably lead to his dismissal, unemployment, and perhaps even having criminal cases brought against him under some economic provision or another of the Criminal Code. The last one is arguably the most serious. It is easy enough to dig up a whole load of dirt against the director of the Institute, whether because they paid bonuses to the wrong people or because the tiles in the toilets were laid in the wrong way, and so on. I mean, they won’t shoot you, as they would have done in the 1930s or 1940s, and for that we can be grateful.

What is the main issue with Garbuzov’s articles? They make no mention of the war or relations with Ukraine. Essentially, they are about the current government’s ideology of choice and how it translates to propaganda. The articles’ main thesis is that in recent years, propaganda has created a myth about the international arena and Russia’s role in it. In particular, this myth tells us how the ‘Anglo-Saxon world’, and with it the West as a whole, is in crisis. It also talks about an anti-American revolution, which Russia should supposedly lead. More recently, propagandists have had a lot to say about a new ‘anti-colonial movement’ and how Russia should head that, too.

Of course, these myths do not correspond to reality. They are largely, if not entirely, a fabrication – a figment of the imagination of speech writers at court, divining the mood of their master. But they do serve to rally the nation around the political leadership. They help specific individuals to stay in power. The propaganda is made all the more effective by the fact that much of the country’s population is experiencing the effects of ‘post-imperial syndrome’; they are suffering from the loss of former greatness of their state. This condition is, incidentally, is a well-known phenomenon in the political life of the UK and France, but such feelings were put to bed there half a century ago.

Essentially, Garbuzov is mustering arguments that have long been discussed or even regarded as universally accepted in political opposition circles. It has, however, been impossible for some time to set them out in media outlets registered in Russia. It is significant that Garbuzov expressed his attitude towards the situation in the country not so much from the point of view of the opposition as, seemingly, in the name of a broad swathe of humanitarian intellectuals. Not only do I have no particular doubts about this, but neither does the large and active band of ultra-patriots, who have bristled in response to the article in Nezavisimaya gazeta. They suspect that a sizeable portion of Russia’s intellectuals, and perhaps of its political elite as well, is irritated by both the war and the confrontation with the Western world but is forced to remain silent. I think that’s true.

It has to be stressed that Garbuzov’s articles have been published in Nezavisimaya gazeta. This newspaper is still alive and being published. Its editor-in-chief, Konstantin Remchukov, also appears to have determined on an act that could become the most important one in his life. Remchukov is someone who has achieved a great deal both in business and in the life of society. Back in the day, he found a way to compromise with the authorities when he was head of the Moscow Public Chamber. It seems that no one who knows him has ever doubted his liberal views. He, however, has clearly set himself a specific task – safeguarding the newspaper. It has not glorified the war, it has not engaged in political sycophancy but nor has it criticised the actions of the powers-that-be. And it has been able to exist while occasionally (infrequently) providing space for the publication of colourful political manifestos. In no way necessarily liberal ones. For example, for courtier V. Surkov’s manifesto ‘Putin’s long state‘, or A. Tsipko’s anti-war article, ‘In the grip of a vague intuition‘, which came out, incidentally, in June 2022 when citizens who dared to use the word “war” were being roundly packed off behind bars. Is such a thing possible in the conditions of an authoritarian state? It transpires that it was, whereas now, it seems, the fate of Nezavisimaya gazeta hangs by a thread. Then again, I think Remchukov knew what he was letting himself in for.

Valery Garbuzov devoted a portion of his reflections to the actual role of the United States in the contemporary world. I think, however, that this specific aspect is of scant importance. It is far more interesting that the author compares the ideologems of Soviet propaganda to the mythologems generated by Putin’s state. 

I too encountered Soviet tenets. I was taught them. They were drummed in in the later years at school and the early years at every university faculty. In particular, we were taught that we had “developed socialism” while they had “a general crisis of capitalism” and imperialism was its main feature. We were taught that the principle force of the our times was the “world socialist system” which, together with the anti-colonial movement, was resisting US imperialism. Sound familiar? Essentially, he is saying – and this is stressed by Garbuzov – that these tenets were false, they did not reflect the real state of affairs. The economy of “real socialism” in the USSR had demonstrated even then that it was completely ineffective by comparison with capitalism. The concept of a “world socialist system” was just emotive gibberish. What existed in actual fact was a community of totalitarian regimes, imposed by Stalin at the end of the 1940s on several small Eastern European countries and primarily maintained thanks to the military support of “Big Brother” – the USSR. Any attempts to reform these regimes were declared “the machinations of imperialism” by Soviet leaders. And in especially trying instances, troops were moved into the territories of the relevant countries.

Ultimately, however, this whole picture of the world collapsed. Deluding the population turned out in the end to be self-delusion, which had to be paid for. While we will long be reminded of invasions of other countries. 

Today, according to the new version of propaganda, the main geopolitical enemy remains the same. And the US State Department turns out to have been to blame for the fact that hordes of protestors, many thousands strong, took to the street in Kyiv in 2014 and for the flight of Yanukovych. Ukraine, meanwhile, is a “failed state” (as, by extension, are Georgia and Moldova). And our troops can take Kyiv within a week (or, alternatively, within three days). 

And once again this fog of propaganda and the creation of yet another myth have turned out to be self-delusion. And, consequently, a catastrophic venture that Russia finds itself embroiled in. Perhaps everyone realised this a long time ago. But the influence of propaganda’s spells is too great to be able to escape their thrall.

Translated by Lindsay Munford and Melanie Moore

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