The Mobilisation of the Demobilised

Neither society nor the political system are ready for ideological indoctrination

Ekaterina Schulmann
Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin
The current Russian regime is not based on any ideology as such, rather, it has been attempting to transform its own propaganda cliches into an ideological platform. As soon as these experiments are presented to the Russian society in the form of a mandatory doctrine, they are met with out-right resistance. The underlying ideas of sacrifice and the cult of death clash with the policies of the last twenty years, which were defined by a gradual humanization of the social norms. The cult of personal success and consumption, coupled with social hypocrisy (which the regime itself instilled in the society), has created an unfavourable environment for attempting to mobilise the masses and promote any form of collective sacrifice. This environment with its characteristic low levels of trust nonetheless turned out to be a fertile ground for the government’s somewhat sluggish anti-Western rhetoric, as well as for isolationism. However, Russia’s regime has now run into a brick wall: having been based on demobilisation, it now seeks to solve its next goal by something entirely opposite — mobilisation.    

From Opportunism to Indoctrination

The current Russian political regime has never viewed history, current events, or, most importantly, the future through any particular ideological lens. There is no single system to generate or provide basis for the regime’s public rhetoric (i.e. its propaganda points).

On the contrary, propaganda itself is used to retroactively form or attempt to form an ideological platform, on which it should have been based to begin with, while actually being situational, opportunistic and ad hoc.   

One might say that the regime’s ideology is currently being formed or even figured out. In order for this yet undefined ideology to take shape two things are required. 

First is information monopoly, namely the information space needs to be closed off enough to ensure almost complete control over it. 

The second one is time. That is, the existing order of things, generally understood as a "regime", must last — and while doing so appear strong and effective — long enough for practices to become habits, chance occurrences to become the norm, and propaganda to morph into an ideology, or to produce it.

How much time is required? One could estimate it as “a lifespan of a generation”, one or two; alternatively one could speak of “formative” years of a single generation. One can assume that in order to “brainwash” a generation, a timeframe close to that of basic school years is needed.     

Thus, if you have ten to fifteen years, then this is, on the whole, a suitable period in which to provide for a somewhat stable ideological indoctrination for one, perhaps one and a half demographic strata (those born during a single five-year period). 

Having instinctively realised this, the political system is feverishly trying to change its approach to education, both to higher education, and, most importantly, to secondary education. Pedagogical indoctrination is one of the most important aspects of a regime trying to transition from a semi-open informational autocracy to a political model far more totalitarian in nature. 

The Cult of Death vs the Cult of Children

As we are currently at the very beginning of the process, we can see that there have been some teething problems along the way. What kind of problems are we talking about? Not exactly a protest, but most definitely a quiet sabotage and even rejection from two categories of people whose loyalty are extremely important to the regime: educators (teachers and school administrators) and parents.

Parents who have school age children were themselves brought up and shaped as individuals over the past fifteen to twenty years, during a time of relative informational openness, the second demographic transition and emerging values of humanization that seeped into both the Russian culture space and later into everyday routine. 

These are the people with fewer children, for whom parenthood is a conscious choice and children are valued. Of course, not all parents in this age group exhibit these qualities (not all parents whose children go to school), but this kind of attitude and behaviour has become a social norm. A social norm is not something that everyone fully complies with, as one is allowed to deviate from the norm (indeed, if no one deviated, there would be no point in defining it in the first place), but it is something that everyone — openly or not — recognizes as correct, as something generally "good". This is how you should treat children; if you behave differently, you should either hide the fact or have to explain or justify yourself. 

It must be noted that people of all ages have children. In general, however, parents of schoolchildren in urban Russia are between 30–50 years old. Public opinion polls suggest that there is a direct correlation between a person’s age and their support for the war and any other kind of misanthropic tendencies and policies. Support for war is highest in the 55+ age group. A negative attitude towards Ukraine and the outside world in general is also typical for people aged 55+. Other things that are typical for them? Support for the President. Watching TV. People in this age group also have schoolchildren, but as an exception, not a widespread phenomenon. 

It was predominantly people under 50 y.o. who voiced their muffled dissatisfaction over the infamous “Conversations on important issues” (patriotic education classes) that were introduced into school programs in 2022. This critical attitude turned out to be effective enough to lead if not to the program getting fully cancelled (which is all but impossible within the current political system), but heavily updated.   

Now, let's take a closer look at what they were dissatisfied with. They did not like the way in which their children would be talked to about “important issues” in these new weekly lessons. If I were to strip the discontent’s semantic core from its rhetorical cover, I could even go so far as to say: they simply did not like the cult of death on offer. To put it even clearer: these parents were unhappy that death, murdr and other forms of destructive behaviours were being preached to their children. 

I believe this is important because, for one thing, it confirms my point on the humanization of society. Secondly, it gives us an answer regarding the issue of ideology raised earlier in this piece. When you attempt to describe the ideology that would be fitting for the Russian political regime in its current shape, what comes to mind is the cult of power and the cult of victory, that are backed by the cult of death.   

The Cult of Consumption, Opportunism and Imitation Against Totalitarianism

This is an interesting point. Of course, many religions preach the joys of the afterlife and many dictatorships exploit the patriotic act of sacrificing oneself for the sake of the collective, the life of a person for the good of the state. Almost any authority will preach to the taxable estate various forms of self-sacrifice; most often economic, but also physical. This is a simple way to appropriate human labour and resources for free. If giving away things for free is to be seen as  a worthy, virtuous act.

The problem is, propaganda of all these forms of self-sacrifice cannot be superimposed on the values ​​of the Russian society. It does not work very well on mass level. It  may be a suitable ideology for the Order of the Assassins or the Templars, but for a society built around the family unit, rather than  a military unit, it does not work. The authorities themselves, as a social strata, are not very keen on the idea of sweet death with a weapon in their hands in some strange version of the Viking code, or in various other necrophilic cults of rebirth through self-immolation.

This whole idea clashes fiercely with the traditional values of Russian society. Among them, the most important one is individual well-being and the well-being of one’s family. Russian society is conformist, atomized, incapable (more precisely, barely capable) of solidarity, with a low level of institutional and interpersonal trust. We often lament this fact, rightly considering these values ​​to be an obstacle in our development. At the moment, however, we see that these same values have stopped Russia’s transformation into a totalitarian state. Opportunism, toadyism, the cults of personal success and personal consumption, all kinds of “hedonism of the poor” (what the exploiting classes usually call “laziness”) and the behavioural practices inherent to these values: evasion, hypocrisy, imitation and sabotage, stand in the way of the fascisation of the  Russian society.

The aforementioned sabotage of “Conversations on important issues” can be compared to other acts of scattered resistance, for example, the resistance seen during COVID to the introduction of legislation about distance learning. We are reminded of how this dispersed parental resistance ended up stopping the distance learning bill. Parents perceived the bill as an attempt to legalise what had been emergency procedures and make them permanent. The bill was not passed, and the President spoke publicly on the topic, saying that no, nothing of the sort would happen, all students would return to school. And indeed, that is exactly what happened.

Another example of such resistance were the QR codes protests of 2021. They were an interesting example of a protest taking place despite a total ban on protests. These practices of resistance — collective appeals, citizens turning up at regional legislative assemblies, mass comments being posted to the Telegram channel of the speaker of the State Duma — were successful. The law on QR codes has been postponed and, apparently, will not be considered in the near future.

Resistance to the law on domestic violence is of the same type.. Of course, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and the conservative inclinations of the elderly senior officials played a decisive role in its rejection, but in this case, the Russian Orthodox Church and the radical conservative (no matter how paradoxical this wording sounds) media resources had in this case a rather wide public support. That happened because the law against domestic violence was perceived as a new tool with which the state would be able to control families.

Not coincidentally one of the Telegram channels that helped organise various protest campaigns against that law  was called "Leave us alone." That’s just an  amazing slogan, which, in my opinion, should simply be written on the coat of arms of the Russian Federation. This is what the citizens want. Of course, any aggressive, imperialist policy and, in general, any sort of activity, clashes with this idea. Perhaps this is why all sorts of proactive, expansionist, imperialist actions, both externally and internally, have failed. Russian society, in the shape it took in early 2020s, simply cannot fathom any of it.  

The Trenches Lie

It is rather difficult for an ageing political regime to reimagine or redesign its ideology without changing politically or reshuffling its team. It is then left with the only ideology that worked — that of depoliticization, social atomization and demobilisation, that was the backbone of the regime for over twenty years. Therefore, the regime hit a wall when being set up around demobilisation it attempted to use mobilisation to answer its immediate needs. It turned out it did not have any of the means or any of the tools. And that’s how the problem of a non-existent Russian ideology can be summed up.  

What remains, and what most citizens seem to agree on  is a very vague and very generalised anti-Westernism or isolationism. The feeling that we are not like the rest of the world; the world is generally hostile to us; no one needs us; no one wishes us well. This corresponds to the way Russian citizens feel themselves inside Russia as well.  It also corresponds to the low level of interpersonal trust, not to mention the widespread post-Soviet cynicism that is considered here a sign of wisdom. 

Such a worldview, a Hobbesian Natural condition of mankind —  “War of all Against All.” This war is as eternal as it is sluggish, defensive:no one wishes anyone good; no one really helps anyone; transactions are more of a zero-sum game than a win-win. Post-Soviet people believe that "this is how the world works", both in terms of interpersonal relations and also in regards to international relations. It is here, perhaps, that the authorities and their subordinates, or the population (as they call them), will finally see eye to eye.

At this point, the process of searching for an ideology is still at a fairly early stage. Perhaps the situation will soon change, and the state will find some active social group that has previously flown under the radar. We don't know where they are, we don't know if they exist, and I personally don't think they do. But maybe they will come out of the woodwork and sweep away the current order of things. Perhaps they will create something that actually resembles an ideology, and it will stand in stark contrast to the lazy attempts by those in power to come up with something. Remember, these people have been imposing (albeit with  popular consent) their ideas on society for 15 or 20 years. Ideas based on statements such as "there is no such thing as the truth ", “we will never know the truth”, “everyone lies”, “yes, we are lying, but others are no better”, “honestly, it’s better to stay away from all of this murky business”.

The same media group (broadly speaking) that preached what, in fact, can be considered an anti-ideology, is now trying (unsuccessfully) to churn out a sort of unambiguous ideological truth, the one in which we need to not only believe, but also sacrifice ourselves for. This road seems to be going nowhere. 

If a certain ideology is nevertheless formed and is successful, then it will be passed down to today’s schoolchildren. Ten years from now, provided that the screws are tightened on information more than they are now, and everything is under control, today’s seven to ten year olds will enter adult life brought up in this particular way. The lesson they will learn is this: it does not matter whether you believe in this ideology, you are brought up in the world where it’s a social norm —  stay in class, even if you know the teacher hates it and your classmates do too, do not object, stay quiet, submit.  

That is almost exactly the type of attitude toward ideology that the collapsing Soviet state left its students as it let them into the world. In late 1980s and early 1990s they publicly behaved accordingly, as they were long taught. 

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