Skip to content

Harvest of Grievance

December 11, 2016

Kutuzovsky Cannons.JPG

Slavophiles, Westernizers and the roots of Russian propaganda

A communications proverb for the age, or perhaps the ages, is that propaganda grows best in the soil of grievance. Skilled propagandists are not entirely cynical—they understand what it means to feel put upon; they nurture the feeling and harvest it within themselves. And when the time is right, they have an empath’s gift for identifying, nurturing and canalizing grievance in their targets. This helps us understand the verve with which the Russian Federation—and before it the Soviet Union, and before that the Russian Empire—has used polemics, information and disinformation to tease, tickle, torment and otherwise upset both the West itself and its own would-be Westernizers.

For centuries, the Russian intelligentsia and governing class have known what it feels like to be defined from the outside in, looked upon as the most peculiar sort of Other—a population neither conquered nor co-opted, but also never accepted—a nation feared in the worst of times and, in the best of times, viewed as a junior partner and cultural hinterland with occasional veins of mad genius. But if the West, in its race to material plenty, political democracy, social individualism and spiritual disinheritance, saw Russia as backward, many Russians determined that the West was simply looking at the world from the wrong end. And as early as the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, with the propagandistic moniker of “Holy Alliance” applied to postwar despotism under the triumphant gaze of Alexander I (the erstwhile Westernizing reformer) and Nicholas I (a despot by disposition), Russian leaders knew how to appeal to the sectors of Western society who felt as threatened by the so-called enlightened West as they did.

Separated from Catholic Europe by religion and, for two crucial centuries, the Mongol Yoke, Russia had to follow its own path of development, famously foregoing the Renaissance and undergoing its own artistic, ecclesiastical and political transformations. Later, even when the roads intersected—Peter I wanted to build a “window to Europe”; Catherine II enjoyed an epistolary relationship with Voltaire—Russia saw in the West a wayward and condescending cousin, one who had become adept in the ways of the world, but in troubling ways and for all the wrong reasons. By the 19th century, powerful currents in Russian society looked at Western progress and saw impending decay. The epithet of the age was gniloi zapad—the rotten West. This mood (for disdain for the spiritually dead West was not merely an opinion but a way of life, complete with its own fashion do’s and don’ts) was not limited to the generally conservative Slavophiles; Westernized socialists, too, such as the populist narodniki and later the Socialist Revolutionaries, saw hope emanating not from the salons of Paris—with which they were quite familiar—but from the peasant communes of the Russian heartland.

The polemic literature of the Slavophiles—seen most prominently in the writings of Alexei Khomiakov, Ivan Kireevsky and Konstantin Aksakov, as well as in the later work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky—ranged from spiritual and sweetly wounded to outright chauvinistic, but it almost always identified the harsh and seemingly dehumanizing elements of rationalist, early-industrial Western life. If Western individualism, even before Darwin boarded the Beagle, meant survival of the fittest, Russian social life meant sobornost, a nuanced model of unity-in-diversity in which, to use Aksakov’s metaphor, every individual was part of a great choir, singing in his own voice but subservient to and subsumed by the common music. (Riazanovksy, 1965) The propaganda of this age was practiced internally, part of the epochal, brotherly battle between rival (and sometimes overlapping) camps of the intelligentsia, the Slavophiles and Westernizers, in a pitched battle for one another’s hearts and minds, and the right to someday transform a people and a nation.

To a worker or displaced peasant or even an intellectual thrown loose from his former life by industrial technology and rampaging early capitalism, sobornost is a vision of socio-spiritual warmth and support, in which each man plays his part, stands shoulder to shoulder with his peers, and is never forsaken—a place where he may not be fully individual, but at least is not fully disposable. The Soviet Union, in classic syncretic fashion, made sobornost a tactical part of its secular-spiritual practice, and the promise of a community of solidarity was indispensable in the Soviet message to the disaffected workers of the West and the colonized nations of the Third World. Russia also benefitted from its centuries-old air of mystery—it was, after all, the Other, neither West nor East, the in-between, the lovely unknown, undertaking a never-before-attempted experiment upon which the hopeful dreams of an aggrieved world could be projected.

Early Soviet communication policy was aimed at speaking to the aggrieved—sometimes the messaging was unsuccessful (avant-garde filmmakers were flummoxed to find that workers had bourgeois cinematic tastes and liked an old-school narrative arc as much as their bosses), but the targeting had focus and purpose, and many workers and disaffected members of the Western intelligentsia responded, from California to Berlin. Their concerns were very different from Lenin’s—Steinbeck’s Reverend Casey, “lousy with the spirit” and utterly devoted to the workingman, hardly saw religion as an opiate—but the Soviet siren song, for a man like Steinbeck himself, had deep within it a chime of hope. Such hopes would be dashed by the late 1930s with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but would be reborn with Russia’s extraordinary suffering during World War II and its postwar appeal to the peoples of the Third World. Grievances were skillfully identified, and the message was sent: We understand you. We, too, think their “progress” is a ruse. We, too, have suffered in search of a better way.

How does the exploitation of grievance, played out in movies and radio broadcasts and broadsheets in a 20th-century ideological struggle, come to the stage in the 21st-century battle for hearts and minds? Lazarsfeld and Merton (1948) pointed out—by way of correcting the old notion that propaganda was a hypodermic needle injecting irresistible medicine beneath society’s delicate skin—that core beliefs were not so easily revised, but that existing beliefs could be subtly revised, or “canalized,” by well-aimed applications of the right media concoction. The growth of the Internet during the post-Soviet age was a spectacular gift for anyone seeking to identify niche audiences and canalize existing tastes, habits of mind, or grievances. Suddenly it was possible to reach entire subcultures instantaneously.

But the real breakthrough came with social media, when it was possible to start a conversation within a niche group and then watch it spread within the group, like a virus within a new host organism. The disaffected niche did not necessarily need to be approving of, or even interested in, Russia. It just had to share a sense of grievance toward the Western Establishment. The goal for the new Russian propagandists was easier than it had been for the Soviets: Soviet canalization was intended to lead the canalized ultimately to an embrace of Soviet Communism. Contemporary Russian canalization has only to further sour audiences on institutions they already disdain, intensifying their disaffection with globalism, human rights and the rest of the hooey that poses as anti-authoritarianism but constantly imposes unwelcome cultural and institutional “innovations” upon every sector of life.

This propaganda longs for tradition, for deep-rooted notions of power and patriarchy, for brotherhood defined not by law but by blood and custom, for leaders who speak plain and work swiftly. It does not dismiss freedom, but favors the ancient Russian volya—an interior freedom, a will to live according to one’sGBM-The Grievance Harvest-List.png lights—over the newer, more abstract and socially-tinged svoboda, which, as Daphne Skillen (2016) points out, acquired the stain of the Enlightenment—the idea that freedom is not only “freedom to” but “freedom from.” The volya/svoboda relationship is fuzzy at the edges, and the notions overlap, but conceptually it is kin to the rhetorical-political clash between “freedom” and “rights” in the American heartland. Russian propaganda—as in its anti-LGBT rhetoric and policies in advance of the 2014 Sochi Olympics—identifies with those who are exhausted with the Enlightenment rhetoric of the rights of others and consider it an imposition on their own freedom. Russian propaganda draws on its own experience of grievance to challenge the West and domestic Westernizers and to encourage those disaffected by the modern Western synthesis to harden their resistance. It seeks to disempower the neoliberal order and substitute for it a peculiar blend of organic individualism and corporatist brotherhood.

– Greg Blake Miller

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Pam Martin permalink
    February 25, 2022 12:24 am

    Thank you for this insightful article. It raises real concerns about the future of Russia and NATO.


  1. From the Archives: Russia, Ukraine and the Battle of Yesterday | Reentry Shock
  2. Diplomacy’s Final Exam | Reentry Shock

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: