When the embarrassing truth gets too big to sweep under the rug, the Russian state switches its tactics and tries to exaggerate instead of minimalising. But this is not producing the intended result, Aleksandar Đokić writes.
On 30 July and then again on 1 August, Ukrainian drones flew over Moscow’s “Moskva City” late at night, when all the life seeps away from the busy luxurious business centre, and managed to fly into the daunting skyscrapers twice.
The damage, deemed to have been minimal, was contained to one floor being demolished. Yet, in the online world of Russia’s rich and powerful, only cheerful information about river trams starting to operate on the Moskva River got through.
On the real estate website for the business centre's OKO Tower, once the tallest building in Russia and Europe, where wealthy Russians can still purchase apartments, there were no news about the drone attacks.
Nobody said anything about any drones, at least not officially; unofficially, everything was clear and obvious to every Muscovite.
At first, nothing happened
On the morning of the first strike, however, Russian journalists scrambled to interview some of the residents of OKO, knowing very well that fear is still a potent clickbait, even in the in-your-face autocracy that Russia has become since the invasion.
One unnamed member of Russia’s financial elite described his experience during the drone attack like this: “I woke up from the tremors in the apartment on my floor in the OKO Tower, approximately in the middle of the tower. They vibrations were substantial, to be honest."
"I had to pack my things; my documents had already been assorted. I went down to the first floor, and the concierge said that this was not the first explosion. I then went down further to the parking lot, got into the car and left the complex in a hurry,” the anonymous man said.
Judging by the photographs taken by eyewitnesses on the scene, the pavement around the buildings was littered with scattered debris as well as government documents — one of the struck towers hosts the departments of the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Ministry of Digital Development.
Russian media buried the news about the attack at first. Then, the Russian Ministry of Defence came out with a statement saying that control over all renegade drones was taken over, forcing them to land by using military electronic jamming equipment.
Then, it was 'the new 9/11'
This is the usual behaviour of the Russian media and security authorities: ignore the humiliating attack as much as possible and minimise its effects on delegitimising the autocratic Kremlin regime. This is then followed by a triumphant statement from the Ministry of Defence, in essence turning shame into victory.
This kind of alchemy can hardly work on anyone capable of rational thinking, but those citizens who fervently follow Russian TV programs aren’t known for being fully rational actors.
The aggressive and threatening statements from the powers that be came only after the second drone attack struck the same spot within Moscow’s inner city ring.
On 1 August, the infamous Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova compared the drone attacks on “Moskva City” with the 9/11 terror attacks in New York.
Her statement, already blown way out of proportion, is even more cynical considering waves of deadly drone attacks Russia has launched against Ukraine over the past year and a half, whose indiscriminate nature has caused numerous civilian casualties.
This, however, illustrates a much bigger propaganda strategy at play in Vladimir Putin's Russia today.
When the truth gets out, it's better to blow it out of proportion
When the embarrassing truth gets too big to sweep under the rug, even for the proverbial babushkas following the news, the Russian state switches its tactics and tries to exaggerate instead of minimalising.
Yet, these two media or propaganda strategies aren’t accidental or a product of confusion or incompetence.
They represent two distinct signals that the Russian establishment is trying to send to its citizens.
The first comes down to the desire to make the society docile, obedient, and passive: “Nothing is happening, our security services firmly control the situation, our army is winning on all fronts”.
The second strategy is its opposite. It's meant to get the society more involved in the war effort, and portray the war as an existential struggle in which total participation is necessary.
Russia has no political scientists, only 'political technologists'
Why are both strategies employed by flicking them on and off intermittently like light switches?
Contrary to popular belief, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine does not rely on loud-mouth TV show anchors or editors like Vladimir Solovyov or Margarita Simonyan to shape its message.
The duo are just loudspeakers with deep pockets. Real Russian propaganda comes from its behind-the-scenes technocrats.
In Russia, there are no political scientists. They are called “political technologists” and, methodologically, rightly so.
They are not meant to objectively study the socio-political processes; their main purpose for the state is to frame the message and outline the general signals sent to society.
These technocrats loosely follow the teachings of a little-known Soviet propaganda guru Georgy Shchedrovitsky.
Contemporary technocrats simplified Shchedrovitsky's political and economic managerial techniques into transmitting topically selected keywords mean to stimulate public opinion and collective emotions.
Putin’s managers of thought actually believe that society can be almost freely engineered, while its political orientation can be swayed at the right moment and by the right message.
The messaging has failed
Russian state media operate in line with this teaching. They send one message, awaiting the appropriate result. When a different outcome is desired, they start transmitting a completely different message.
Naturally, human beings do not actually function one-dimensionally as Russian propaganda technocrats believe. Yet, it is why they think this is true.
First of all, it is the rigid hierarchy of Russian society the top commands — the bottom obeys — which shapes these beliefs.
Secondly, their worldview is skewed. Humans, in their mind, are simplified to the level of machines. Insert the right input, and receive the desired output.
It is not the success of this technocratic propaganda school of thought which keeps Russian society docile. It is the lack of democratic political culture which produces the effect.
On the other hand, a positive outcome — for the democratic world — is that this passivity of the Russian society also makes waging total war in Ukraine impossible in the long term.
Russians may not rebel, but they won’t fight or work 12-hour shifts in weapons factories en masse either.
This is why the followers of Shchedrovitsky's teachings have failed. They did not manage to flick on the total war switch in Russian society, and their messages fell on deaf, disinterested ears.
Aleksandar Đokić is a Serbian political scientist and analyst with bylines in Novaya Gazeta. He was formerly a lecturer at RUDN University in Moscow.
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