VLADIMIR JUSHKIN Aggression as the essence of Russia’s social cosmos

Vladimir Jushkin
, director of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies
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Director of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies Vladimir Jushkin.
Director of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies Vladimir Jushkin. Photo: Sander Ilvest
  • Putin reflects the way of thinking of Russians.
  • Several markers of aggression can be observed in the population.
  • There are two forces at war in Russian culture.

Putin's strategic ambitions and phobias coincide with the instincts of Russia's ruling class and mass consciousness, Vladimir Jushkin, director of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies, writes.

The Russian threat is usually associated with Putin’s person. Putin and many people around him are indeed the main driving force behind Russian aggression. But the secret to his long stay in power and the lack of significant opposition movements and oppositional sentiment is the fact that Putin's strategic ambitions and phobias coincide with the instincts of Russia's ruling class and mass consciousness. This means that the content and style of Putin's thinking, his declared values, geopolitical perspectives, even humor, coincide with the way of thinking of 80-85 percent of Russians.

Boris Dubin, the leading analyst of the Levada Center, has written: «I want to underline: it is not at all about ‘selling it’ to the masses or the notorious ‘manipulation’ of the mass consciousness, its ‘zombification’ in the mass media and by experts-political scientists, but about the additional symbolic strengthening of the moods and stereotypes already in existence among the masses, but in an uncondensed, confusing, inarticulate form.» In other words, propaganda freed, legitimized the aggressive, militaristic and revanchist mental and emotional state of the mass consciousness, gave it a more or less final definite verbal form and reinforced the political stereotypes that initially existed in it.

It works simply: facts that contradict the established vision of what is happening are either simply ignored or interpreted in the desired direction. This is a well-known phenomenon called the «paralogical type of thinking». The phenomenon is characteristic of the Russian mass consciousness that has developed over the centuries. But especially important were the Soviet years, when total indoctrination was supported by equally total terror. An idea took firmly root in the consciousness of Homo Sovieticus that it is possible to avoid the Gulag and even to survive if one not only declares loyalty to the leaders, but also accepts their imposed way of thinking and believes what the authorities instill in their subjects.

Facts that contradict the established vision of what is happening are either simply ignored or interpreted in the desired direction.

Russian philosopher Igor Klyamkin looks for the origin of the militarized culture of Russian society in the type of statehood that arose as a result of the long existence of the Principality of Moscow as part of the Golden Horde. The state of Moscow was built on the model of a «great army».

«The statehood and culture of post-Mongol Muscovy initially developed as a militaristic type of statehood and culture,» Klyamkin writes. «We are talking about militarization not only in the sense that most resources are spent for military purposes, but also about the way the state is organized, as well as the state's relations with the population. Militarization, which also extended to peacetime, blurred the boundaries between war and peace in people's minds. As a result, it inevitably had an impact on the type of culture that was gaining a foothold in Muscovy.»

The entrenchment of militaristic attitudes in Russian society is also associated with the spread of the sadomasochistic personality type. Erich Fromm has written: «There are, so to speak, two genders for the authoritarian character: the strong and the weak. Power automatically evokes in him love and a willingness to surrender, regardless of who displayed it. Power appeals to him not because of the values behind it, but as a thing in itself, because it is – power. And just as power automatically evokes ‘love’ in him, weak people or organizations automatically evoke contempt in him. Simply seeing a weak person makes him want to attack, suppress, humiliate him. [---] An authoritarian personality feels the greater rage the more helpless his victim is.»

In other words, a person who is best adapted to life in an authoritarian or totalitarian society derives a kind of pleasure from submitting to superiors and at the same time overcomes the feeling of inferiority caused by submission by subjugating and humiliating those who are weaker than him or on the lower rungs of the social ladder. This mechanism largely explains the origin of modern Russian society's aggressiveness towards Ukraine and Ukrainians, for example.

The entrenchment of militaristic attitudes in Russian society is also associated with the spread of the sadomasochistic personality type.

Anatoliy Vishnevskiy, demographer and head of the Center for Human Demography and Ecology, notes: «I think that the aggressiveness that now interests us is a sign of a marginalized society, a marginal culture. In our case, it has historical roots – in rapid urbanization, rapid upheaval and transition from one type of culture to another. At the same time, people find themselves in a foreign environment and, fearing its hostility, issue a warning to this hostility with such aggressiveness. This means that it is precisely for this reason, in such an intermediate state of cultural condition, that our society is very aggressive.»

Sociologists observe several markers of aggression in the population.

First, aggression in slang increases – the language of Russians becomes aggressive, the criminalization of language occurs, Russians start to draw the shell of the criminal world around language (to «beat up in the crapper» those who do not agree with us). In other words, the criminal subculture has overflowed and is now becoming the culture of everyday life.

Secondly, against the background of the uncertainty of tomorrow and today, Russians have not a long, but a short perspective on time. When the communists promised that in 20 years there will be communism in the country, they presented certain values. Or one can promise that after so and so many years, either the apocalypse or paradise will arrive. However, people are not used to living in conditions of diversity. What is aggression? It's a loss of diversity. Therefore, aggression goes hand in hand with xenophobia.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the situation was completely different. Hopes still existed then. Society was very tired of the Soviet Union and indeed very dissatisfied. There were powerful and very simple hopes for change, for life to become more humane, more dignified, more satisfying, etc. There were great positive expectations, no enemies were sought. Sociologists then asked about it, and the most popular answer was: «Why look for enemies when we ourselves are to blame for our troubles?» By the mid-1990s, this had ended and xenophobia, the rejection of «others» began. But as the infiltration of «others», immigrants, migrants, etc. takes place, so does the strong increase in ethnic xenophobia, which is at the same time combined with the strong growth of Orthodox identity.

It has been observed that in Russia the transition from verbal aggression to physical aggression is very quick.

It has been observed that in Russia the transition from verbal aggression to physical aggression is very quick. The question arises – is this some kind of original boorishness, the aggressiveness of Russian culture, in which power, violence, confiscation of property, war, militaristic argumentation and military status played an important role?

When answering this question, we must remember Juri Lotman, who very clearly distinguishes two forces fighting in Russian culture – the contract archetype and the self-surrender archetype. He quotes a 16th-century monk's letter to the ruler, where he talks about the danger of the contract archetype, agreements in a broader sense: «Ruler, be afraid of the Duma, because cunning Duma members may lead you into temptation.» With this, he says that the possibility of agreement and the possibility of communication are limited. But how to tame aggression? It is tamed if someone is present who says: «I know what is necessary». This is the self-surrender archetype. Aggression is tamed if a strong leader is thrown into the cultural, semantic space of communication in one way or another.

Russian political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov writes: «Russia entered the 21st century as a technically educated country with a blind, in the humanitarian sense unenlightened population that is in the clutches of medieval social myths. Moreover, this concerns not only the inhabitants of dying villages, but also many members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as folk artists and intellectuals, whose opinions about society have remained ignorant. One can be an outstanding IT engineer, a real cosmonautic genius, an excellent surgeon, a world-class professional with a great capital letter, and still remain in society in terms of one’s convictions, but in terms of one’s habits, absolutely in the stone age. Enlightenment in the most original, Renaissance sense of the word is a task that Russia has not yet begun to solve. I am afraid that without solving it, Russia will not be able to solve any other problem either.»

An important conclusion can be drawn at this point.

In the event that Putin and his entourage are replaced at the top of Russian power and the propaganda strategy is changed, there is no reason to believe that this will lead to a change in the basic imperialist and revanchist attitudes that are deeply rooted in the consciousness of the average Russian.

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