Ukrainian nationals like to say that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and stoking of unrest in eastern Ukraine in 2014 contributed more toward creating a national identity than Ukrainian institutions had in twenty-five years of independence. The same could be said of the Russian authorities in regard to Russian identity: having encouraged the public to have an opinion on international politics three years ago, the powers that be are now helpless in the face of the relentless politicization of society.

The tactical outcomes of the sort of mass propaganda that accompanied Russia’s actions in Ukraine are predictable (aggression, outbursts of irrationality, neurotization of the population), but the strategic results could not be foreseen. Who could have guessed that three years after they cheered on the annexation of Crimea, the same loyalist generation who have lived their whole lives under Putin would be attending mass rallies against corruption? The investigations of opposition activist Alexei Navalny are a factor, but what’s more important is that a psychological line has been crossed. This is the most unexpected result of 2014: politics has become normalized in the mass consciousness, and the reverberations are being felt today.

Propaganda has awakened political instincts in the average Russian in several ways. In painting a dismal picture of Russia’s enemies, the propaganda machine was forced to familiarize viewers with details of the U.S., Ukrainian, and French political systems. The emphasis on fierce opposition and diverse groups of influence suddenly revealed the complexity of an authentic political system to ordinary Russians.

In addition, by parroting the propagandistic cliches bombarding them from the media, ordinary people feel that they are players on the geopolitical stage. That is the goal of propaganda: to inform each person that they are no longer a mere witness, but a creator of history. “We’ll show America, we showed Europe,” and so on.

In 2014, ordinary people were called upon to be active and create history. But you can’t be active on the geopolitical stage while remaining passive in domestic politics. People are starting to apply their newly found political activity to the home agenda.

The state did not expect this outcome: it longs for an indifferent public. But the unification of the nation in 2014 was not possible without the activation of the political instinct, and once it’s been activated, that instinct is hard to suppress. With time, the loyalist euphoria faded, while the political activity remained. In this way, the Kremlin was responsible for politicizing the very people it would like to remain passive.

Now there is no more totality. There is no more agreement about any item on the public agenda—even on how to celebrate the Victory Day public holiday, when Russia marks its victory in World War II. In the context of a supposedly growing consensus, totality is no longer the norm—and it is no longer possible to hide that.

Where does this backfiring come from? Why does the Kremlin only strengthen what it opposes? It’s the rule of gaps and cracks at work. There is a discrepancy between today’s real practices—the authoritarian modus operandi—and the formally democratic society established by the Constitution. This gap is the real source of politics in modern Russia. 

“The state can repeat that someone is a criminal as often as it wants, making him ineligible for elections, but it can’t forbid him [Navalny] to be a politician. That would diverge from the regime’s identity,” writes the political scientist Grigorii Golosov.

Official democratic institutions have been reduced to a formality, but politics exists in the gaps and cracks, and the depoliticization of any one crevice immediately creates a burst of political activity in a different spot. We may posit that the final goal of a hybrid regime is the subconscious (to use a Freudian term) acquisition of the political. What is taboo and banished subconsciously becomes the most passionate desire of the hybrid. Is this history’s cyclical method of eradicating the totalitarian trauma? Perhaps politicization is actually hardwired into the foundation of the current system, as something it either tries to fight or does not acknowledge. But if that’s the case, it’s fighting against its own nature.

We’ve turned into bigger conspiracy theorists than the Kremlin. The political analysts Oleg Kashin, Konstantin Gaaze, and Gleb Pavlovsky express a paradoxical idea: politicization is happening because that’s exactly what the regime needs right now. The state itself is the beneficiary of politicization. Why not? Let’s examine this theory.

The main objective of the Kremlin in 2018, we can assume, is to extend the power of President Vladimir Putin for another six-year term while maintaining norms and maximal legitimacy. Everything is being done to achieve this. The state can offer no ideas or projects for unifying the nation, like in 2014, nor can financial promises be made.

What is the regime going to sell as the symbolic intrigue, the bonus at the elections? One of the options is politicization. The electorate will be offered political activity as the bonus. They will vote not as cogs in the wheel but as full-fledged creators of history in the context of a geopolitical struggle with the West.

So, politicization is being offered in exchange for a referendum on trust. The regime is using the strength of its opponent, judo-style. Voter turnout can’t be increased without politicization, so the electorate is offered political activity. The bet this time around is being placed not on passiveness but on activeness—in controlled amounts. But we’ve already seen that when it comes to values—and politics is a value—they can quickly get out of control.

The state always underestimates the connection between politics and feelings. In reality, politics brings people to something beyond values, and it’s not that easy to return. This is reminiscent of 1986, when, lacking other resources, the Soviet regime under Mikhail Gorbachev offered the public politicization.

It could be said that clientelism still safeguards the system better than any official mechanism, and there are no real prerequisites for political activity in the provinces. But that is just the view from outside. What is happening in the mass consciousness is outside the purview of sociology. We can assume that mass political activity is increasing as post-Soviet people become cognizant of themselves as players, even shareholders, in the political stock.

Does that change anything substantial? Yes. It changes everything. The Soviet “person of the masses” no longer exists. It has shattered into a million people, each with their own interests, which now include political interests, whatever people understand by that word. The regime itself has caused this to happen, in spite of its wishes and perhaps because of its nature. We are dealing with political activity, and that means a totally different country and people. Politicization in Russia is unavoidable, and it is this that will define the historic near future.

  • Andrey Arkhangelskiy