Russia’s politics of paranoia

Moscow, Russia (openDemocracy) – For the average consumer of news, there is a rational way to process a media scare: take the statistical probability of the cause of the anxiety actually taking place, and compare it to a slew of equally bad things that are far likelier to happen. For instance, there were 10 cases of Ebola in the United States in 2014, including two deaths, but 32,719 fatalities from car accidents in the previous year.

On the surface, a similar rationalisation could be applied to the atmosphere of fear and paranoia currently brewing in Russia. Despite this growing climate of fear amid a spate of increasingly restrictive laws, the average citizen should—theoretically at least—worry more about seat belts than what his own government could do to him. That is, unless he or she is a political activist. There is growing concern about spymania: new, harsher amendments to treason legislation in wake of the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s worsening relations with the west have resulted in an increase in treason cases, from four in 2013 to 15 in 2014.

More worrying still is the growing list of people who, by many accounts, could be regarded as political prisoners. According to a registry compiled by the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, there are currently 54 people ‘incarcerated for actions that are not violent and not ordinarily criminal in nature, but who have made various statements or participated in the actions of certain groups.᾿ Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of SOVA, conceded that most of these could not be considered political prisoners: many of these cases their criminalised statements did include calls to violence.

Still, according to the Memorial society, there are 40 political prisoners in Russia. This is too many, and the arbitrariness of some of the accusations is terrifying. But put into perspective, this is a mere drop in the ocean of the 1.5 million that, according to many accounts, were detained by the NKVD during 1937-1938.

Amplifying paranoia

Fear is exacerbated by murders of perceived political opponents in which the criminals are rarely, if ever, brought to justice. Here, too, the numbers indicate a lesser danger on an individual level than the amplified message sent by the murders themselves.

Image Source: Dennis Skley, Flickr, Creative Commons freie Gedanken?

Image Source: Dennis Skley, Flickr, Creative Commons
freie Gedanken?

A murky investigation process followed the shooting of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Ten months later, the culprits are yet to be named. Russia is rightly seen as a dangerous place for journalists, with 56 people murdered for their work as journalists since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. While these killings were committed by non-state actors and mostly during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, the fact that so few murder cases are brought to justice sends a powerful message—one which translates into general fear.

In a politically repressive climate, even relatively small numbers of killings such as these are enough to act as repressive mechanisms on their own—regardless of the political regime’s motivations.

A strange thing happens: even though numerically these instances share a statistical likelihood of Ebola, their sheer arbitrariness elevates them into something a lot more immediate. Through traditional and social media, each instance of these so-called precision repressions is amplified and weaponised into a potent source of anxiety: it is scary enough that a single mother is currently on trial for posting anti-Putin pictures on the VKontakte social networking site without going through the numbers and estimating the actual likelihood of it happening to you.

Fifth and sixth columns

But who, exactly, weaponises fear, and how? This is precisely what is misunderstood about repressive regimes, and Russia’s relatively soft repressive regime in particular.

The model of authoritarian governance makes us think that there is a bogeyman in the Kremlin signing off on each of these cases, which could not be further from the truth. Nor do I believe for a moment that someone in the Kremlin is directly ordering the assassination of journalists and politicians in order to instill a climate of fear and keep the rest in line. The weaponisation of fear is not deliberate, and that is precisely what makes it so potent.

We can look at three elements involved in creating and spreading the climate of fear. One comes from the state-controlled media, but the other, quite paradoxically, comes just as easily from the independent media, reflecting the arbitrary realities of the day.

In the first case, bellicose Duma deputies and Kremlin supporters are shown on state media lambasting traitors, foreign agents, and fifth columnists. Their rhetoric could, in fact, translate into the harassment of journalists by local officials, or even violent attacks like that on Boris Nemtsov.

In the second case, the independent media highlights the victims of precision repressions, feeding into the cycle from the other end. This is by no means to suggest they are doing a disservice, merely that—as a side effects of reporting on repressions—the media amplifies their effect. Spokesmen for the political regime may even argue with this reporting and sincerely downplay the scale of the repressions (I am already anticipating inane accusations of being a Kremlin apologist for suggesting that the actual number of repressions is relatively small in the context of Russia’s past) or say that they are not repressions at all. That makes little difference: the fear that is spread is the fear of the regime itself.

But the third, and possibly the most powerful, element is society. This is where a certain sheer unpredictability is exposed: the lack of boundaries in what is permissible and what is not, in what is dangerous and what is safe.

Take the recent case of a man who stabbed his friend to death for claiming—probably in jest—that he was an agent of Obama. Or another man who snitched on his neighbour after stealing his Wi-Fi and using it to access supposedly anti-Russian Internet content. According to this man’s complaint, filed to Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal media agency, his neighbor was an ‘enemy of the people’ because his neighbour’s Wi-Fi gave gave him access to anti-Russian’ content. In closing, the man requested that his neighbour’s apartment should be taken away and given to him instead. In this last case, Roskomnadzor fortunately rebuked the man, telling him that the category of ‘enemy of the people’ no longer legally exists. But cases like it raise tremendously important questions.

A climate of fear

If there are enough people who believe in enemies of the state, foreign agents, and fifth columnists, if they believe they should be neutralised and that their property is fair game, then how many of those people work in law enforcement, with hopes of being promoted? When hearing of the targeted repressions reported in the independent press, how many of them will interpret the instances as a signal that they might be thinking the right thoughts, rather than that their government is committing rights violations?

Russian society already suffers from lack of trust: according to the Levada Center, only 27 per cent of Russian respondents said that they believed other people should be trusted. That figure was 69 per cent in Sweden, 42 per cent in the United States, and an average of 45 per cent among 29 countries surveyed. In this kind of environment, there is little keeping one individual from taking the signals to repression he sees all around him as a call to action.

The effects of this background noise can have restrictive consequences for journalists and professionals. Fear is internalised—it plays an invisible role in how you make decisions. A number of professionals have confessed to me they are living without the ability to make long-term plans (though this is as much a product of the economic crisis as it is of elusive paranoia).

As a freelance journalist, I will inevitably weigh the potential risks of doing a particular story against two purely professional factors: the importance or newsworthiness of the story itself and the advantages in terms of reputation and income. Risk-benefit analysis plays a role in many professions. But when the risk is as unquantifiable as it is here, you sometimes find yourself opting out not because the risk is too great, but because the stress of worrying about possible risk outweighs whatever benefits the job will bring.

For the journalistic community as a whole, the effect can be even greater polarisation. On the one hand, it is clearly less risky and more profitable for a Russian journalist to err in favor of state interests (or whatever you perceive those state interests to be). On the other, internalised fear pushes towards ostracisation, the illusion of irrevocable choices, of the apparent need to determine (for whose sake it is not clear) where your loyalties lie.

It is a complex question exactly how much of this weaponised fear is metabolised into direct support for the Kremlin. Opinion polls cannot dig into the souls of their respondents and psychoanalyse them. But it is unlikely that the two can be separated; moreover, fear can act as a powerful aphrodisiac.

Still, the most dangerous aspect of this fear is precisely the lack of boundaries, and paradoxically, the lack of agency on the part of the Kremlin. Putin’s Russia has already been described as a sort of marketplace for policies, where the man in power rarely gives a direct command. Instead, he merely indicates his approval for certain actions through hints and signals that can be easily misinterpreted amid the competition for his favour.

The weaponisation of fear in this environment can have any number of agents—and not necessarily those under the control of the Kremlin. That the Kremlin seems to lack control over what appears to be its own weapon only feeds into the fear itself.

This report was prepared by ANNA ARUTUNYAN for openDemocracy. 

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About the author

Anna Arutunyan is a Russian-American journalist and the author of The Putin Mystique. She is currently a fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington.