David Remnick recently spoke to Gleb Pavlovsky, a onetime Soviet dissident who was later rehabilitated and became a spin doctor for Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. On The New Yorker's website, Remnick recounts their conversation, which focused on Putin's rabble-rousing and its consequences. As you read this excerpt, think about America's right-wing rabble-rousers -- they're not the propaganda wing of a dictatorship, but, in many ways, the messages they send resemble what's transmitted in the Putin-controlled media.
When I met Pavlovsky in Moscow a couple of weeks ago, he seemed especially concerned about the lack of strategic thinking by Putin, and about the consequences of the feverish anti-Ukrainian, anti-American, and generally xenophobic programming on state television, from which nearly all Russians derive their news and their sense of what is going on in the world....Think of Fox News, talk radio, the Alex Jones media empire, or the speeches of Wayne LaPierre. Does what Pavlovsky describes sound familiar? Propaganda declaring that a "healthy majority" is being oppressed by a "pathological minority"? (In America, perhaps the specific number is 47%.) The focus on one set of Enemies of the People after another?
Since returning to the Presidency, Pavlovsky said, Putin has "created an artificial situation in which a 'pathological minority' -- the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal 'pedophiles' -- is held up in contrast to a 'healthy majority.' Every time this happens, his ratings go up." The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian "fascists" and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced "spectacle," he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.
"Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed," Pavlovsky said. The news programs have "overheated" public opinion and the collective political imagination.
"How can Putin really manage this?" Pavlovsky went on. "You'd need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can't quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can't just say, 'Calm down.' It's a dangerous moment. Today, forty per cent of Russia wants real war with Ukraine. Putin himself doesn't want war with Ukraine. But people are responding to this media machine. Putin needs to lower the temperature."
There are huge differences between Russia and America, of course. We don't have a one-party Putinite government. We have free speech, so this kind of propaganda genuinely competes with other messages. Circumstances would have to change dramatically for America to become like Putin's Russia.
However, in a few pockets of angry red America, where the right really does seem to dominate the transmission of news, you get hints of what Putin has created. You get the armed standoff at the Bundy ranch. You get mobs blocking buses full of immigrant mothers and children in Murrieta, California.
America is too ideologically diverse to be like Putin's Russia. But we seem to have a state within a state that is Putinesque -- one in which, as Remnick writes, "The news programs have 'overheated' public opinion and the collective political imagination," and the anger of the populace has become unquenchable. Here, at least, that just means those people won't coexist or compromise with the rest of us. It's better than what's going on in Russia, but it's absolutely not healthy.