Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. — The Matrix
I don’t know how many Russian soldiers, if any, are in East Ukraine. I have seen news reports, as any other Westerner has, reporting that there are thousands. I have read the report backed by the late Boris Nemtsov and its analysis that hundreds of Russian soldiers have died in the conflict in Novorossiya, as the pro-Russian separatists call it. I have also heard the Kremlin denials that any regular army troops are even in the East. One can make his or her own judgments, based on the information they have access to.
What I can say is that ordinary Russians don’t know what is happening there and don’t want to. They are avoiding this knowledge at all costs. I recently asked some Muscovites about the conflict in the East and they repeated the Kremlin version of events. Of course at the end, they say something like, but it’s our land so why shouldn’t we be there. Or they say, Ukraine is not even a country so it doesn’t matter. So, that makes me wonder what they really believe.
The onslaught of propaganda in the Russian press has been extremely effective in shaping public opinion in the Russian Federation. Combined with a crackdown on the free press and the murders of journalists and politicians, it’s no wonder people tow the party line. Muscovites are much more aware of international events than those living in the heartland, so if Muscovites don’t want to know, then you can be sure the rest of the country is following suit.
Something is happening in Russia. The people are believing what they are told because they want to. Much of it has to do with recapturing global respect after the fall of the Soviet Union. The hyper-marshal Victory Day parade showed a new Russian strength for the world to see. This is natural reaction for a people as proud as the Russian population. But is there something deeper?
I asked a Russian friend at a dinner party recently about the intrusion of Russian military aircraft into the airspace of Baltic and Nordic countries. I also mentioned the close calls with civilian aviation with Russian aircraft that had turned off their transponders. “It must have been a mistake,” they responded. “No one would do such a thing on purpose, especially not Russia.” I truly believe they had not heard of these events but the purposeful denial without knowing the evidence is telling.
I have tried to understand this tendency for Russians to believe what they are told. Some say it is a deep need for an authoritative figure to provide a way forward, no matter where the path takes them. Many say the unrestrained capitalism and corruption that they experienced in the nineties made Russians nostalgic for the order of the Soviet Union. Others say it is a consequence of a thousand years of serfdom. Anton Chekhov famously said, “I gradually squeezed the slavish self out of my system, and woke one fine morning feeling that real human blood flowed through my veins instead of the blood of slaves”
The question for the West is whether or not it matters what the Russian people think and believe. President Vladimir Putin certainly has overwhelming support among the population. He can do as he pleases. The economic problems the country is currently facing will fade over time. As the price of oil continues to increase, the country will gravitate toward Mr. Putin’s leadership more and more.
Unrestrained nationalism is a dangerous thing as the human race found out in the last century. Right now, it seems Russians just want to wake up in their bed and believe what they want to believe.
Here is an interesting take on the Nemtsov Report.