For the past two decades, the Russian state has diligently discouraged citizens from taking an interest in public life. The economic growth of the early 2000s and ensuing relative political stability (including, most importantly, everyday security) put the recent past into exhilarating relief. The tumultuous 1990s began to be regarded as a cautionary tale. With the financial crises of the late 2000s not yet on the horizon, the country had begun to rise from its knees. In essence, the state offered the Russians a deal: satiety, affordable consumption, and freedom in private life in exchange for political neutrality.
Russians quickly agreed to consider politics as pure drudgery best left to those in the Kremlin’s corridors of power, and collectively decided that it was better not to get involved. They might listen to talk about it on TV, but understood that it had nothing to do with their own personal lives. Meanwhile, everyday life had become better, more fun. It soon began to seem evident that perhaps the bosses did indeed know better.
Sentiments such as these would become the bones of support for the authoritarian regime. Authoritarianism depends on the civilians’ disinterest in politics. All that is required is official apathy. You can think whatever you want, you can say whatever you want, but also you can do nothing about it. So now, when the state is trying to mobilize its sons and daughters to fight the enemy, they are met with a pointed lack of enthusiasm. Russian society has become accustomed to meeting the state’s demand for passivity and inaction; any further requirements from the citizenry by the state are met with incomprehension by the former.
Citizens whose capacity for civic participation has atrophied for 20 years are not prepared to take action to support the Russian army. For the three months that have passed since the beginning of the invasion, not a single large-scale rally supporting the so-called special operation has taken place. The sole exception was the upsurge of patriotic hysteria in Luzhniki (as seen on television). But even this was little more than a platform for state employees to demonstrate their loyalty to their paymasters. Out on the streets, just try to count the number of placards or stickers bearing the letter Z on cars or non-state buildings. In the present moment, the staunch civic passivity of most Russians may be regarded as a virtue. Indifference itself can become an attitude; to paraphrase Pushkin, the law may not be mute, but the people certainly are.
The horror will begin when citizens begin to fill Luzhniki voluntarily. For now, the authorities, whatever their stated war aims, are not really ready for the politicization of their citizens. The political structure they have built still rests on the broad non-participation of citizens in public life, with all forms of civic participation strictly regulated. This is the main difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Authoritarian power relies on the passivity of its citizens and acts on society only when necessary. The totalitarian regime, on the contrary, requires the permanent mobilization of society, and the control of all public activity, all of private life, and even of the innermost thoughts of every citizen.
It is impossible to revive the interest of citizens in politics overnight, or even in three months. Already, we see that the Russians have become less devoted to following current affairs. Interest in the news has collapsed, with television viewership in general now seen as tiresome. Totalitarianism does not seem to be possible in the present circumstances (even so, it is important to understand the fine line between totalitarianism and the current regime, if only to recognize the so-called “red flags” as they appear.)
But the passivity of citizens is a problem not only for the current government, but also for those who seek change. When a society moves from dictatorship to democracy, it must contend with not only purely political problems such as broken institutions, public apathy, and repressive legislation, but also with the heavy burden of collective trauma.
After the fall of the regime, a society will be split. Supporters of the former government do not simply disappear, and their victims refuse to be recognized as victims. It is not enough to restore the political structure and punish those responsible for crimes. It is necessary to restore the dignity of the victims and to build trust between the opposing groups. In historical conflicts, the personal dimension is of great importance. A study conducted by the Women’s Initiatives for Peace in Donbass project has demonstrated the persistent interdependence of politics and the private sector after the events of 2013-2014. Personal experience cannot but influence the formation of political sentiments, with a high degree of polarization as a possible result.
Those seeking to mend such a split may refer to decades of accumulated experience: post-war Germany and Japan, post-communist states of Eastern Europe, and post-militarist countries of Latin America. In South Africa, for example, after the apartheid regime, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created. Up to that point, the country had teetered on the brink of open civil war; society needed to obtain the consent of all of its contending factions. The means used to achieve this could be summarized as “buying the truth in exchange for justice,” and it was this principle that formed the basis of the work of the Commission. Its goal was not to punish the perpetrators, but to discover the truth about the crimes, to listen to the victims, and to give them the opportunity to call the criminals to testify. Moreover, the truth could now be told from all sides of the conflict.
Such mechanisms are part of transitional justice reform. We must recognize that a change in the direction of a society does not mean starting from scratch, but that the past leaves a special imprint on the future. We require faith in public order, and faith in the ability and the duty of citizens to influence the life of their society through conscious, responsible actions. This has been destroyed but must be restored, because without this no institutions, no laws, and no society can function.
"We require faith in public order, and faith in the ability and the duty of citizens to influence the life of their society through conscious, responsible actions." -- Indeed. Something sadly lacking over here (America) as well as elsewhere. Although everything is politicized, almost no one thinks they can affect the development and course of the polity. So in spite of the noise, there is an apathy on one side and nihilism, another form of apathy, on the other.
I am an ignorant Westerner, but I do not see an "apolitical" Russia. You are a highly educated and successful culture these days. There is a freshness of thought never expressed in the past 40 years...and believe me, many people in my country are stuck there. They still believe you are "Soviets". They believe you are genocidal imperialists that wish to usurp the West, and only eat blini and sour cream. Your President and his staff may be of a different culture, but they do love Mother Russia. Our leaders only love power, wealth and notoriety. When the realization hits that your currency is now very valuable and that your leaders are seeking a multipolar, equitable world, Russians will take pride in what they have sacrificed for and successfully built. Thank you for your thought and contribution. Much success in the future!