The Revenge of the Sovok

The Russian Duma has passed the second and third reading of a new law that would limit foreign ownership of a media to 20 percent. The law goes into effect on 1 January 2016, but companies have until 1 February 2017 to divest their foreign holdings. The bill had tri-partisan support from the get go. Vadim Dengin (LDPR), Vladimir Parakhin (Just Russia), and Denis Voronenkov (KPRF) sponsored the bill. Every Duma deputy voted for its passage except three. Just Russia’s Dmitry Gudkov and Sergei Petrov voted against, while Valerii Zubov abstained. Given how these things go the bill will likely skate through the Senate and be signed by Putin sometime next week.

The vast majority of media affected by this law are cooking, lifestyle, fashion, health, and entertainment magazines. But the real targets are the few last bastions of Russia’s independent press: Vedomosti, which is owned in partnership with the Finnish media group Sanoma Independent, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and Forbes Russia, owned by the German firm Axel Springer. Both Vedomosi and Forbes are often critical of Putin and the government.

Russia’s fortress mentality where Russia’s venerable politicians perceive the country as besieged by internal and external enemies prevails once again.

But how to explain this mentality?  Andrei Sinitsyn’s editorial, “The Psychological Justification of Isolation,” in Vedomosti explained things thus:

In the discussion of the [law on the media] in the Duma it was possible to hear from deputies that social networks result in disorderly sexual relations, glossy magazines work as a “fifth column,” and Russian journalists would not resent censorship.

This besieged fortress and moralizing rhetoric—the rhetoric of a Soviet teachers meeting—now accompanies many of the government’s decisions. The West is soulless, Russian orphans are tormented in America, the CIA controls internet, NGOs “work off grants,” the State Department is organizing rallies. And accordingly, Russia has risen from its knees; the state is most important, etc.

Curiously enough is whether the quasi-Soviet rhetoric is simply a political instrument or part of a more general and objective phenomena that can be called the revenge of the “sovok.” Perhaps both. Dividing the rhetoric of society is beneficial for maintaining power. Concrete decisions that accompany it may carry a specific economic benefit to interested groups. But they also reflect decision-makers’ misunderstanding of the tenets of a post-industrial economy and an open society. Perhaps here we see the effects of the conscious (and the accumulated) lag behind the progress.

. . .

Returning to the words and actions of the times of the president’s Komsomol youth can be explained by many factors. Perhaps the reason for the vitality of the psychology of the “sovok” is that a radical restructuring of the consciousness of society did not occur over the last thirty years. This correlates with the incompleteness of political and economic reforms. The European Social Survey’s study of Russians’ value system consistently shows that, in comparison to people in other countries, Russians’ conservative adherence to security and tradition (“the conservation of values”) outweighs the willingness to take risks and change, and the aspiration for power and wealth are by far stronger than goodwill and the respect for others.

The same fear of the new and the desire at all costs to hold on to the steering wheel characterizes the ruling elite.

There is a more complex explanation for the revenge of the “sovok.” Each manager is forced to choose between the loyalty and the competence of his subordinates. For a long time, Putin kept for himself the possibility of choosing the competent and the loyal, and supported initiatives of both. But at some point, it became necessary to choose the loyal to maintain power. The “conservation of values” again took over the willingness to change. At the same time, however, it was necessary to cut off contact with the complex outside world, which for sure arose as a project of the CIA, “and so it develops.”