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How new is Putin’s 'atmosphere of hate'?

- April 3, 2015

Flowers are placed outside the Russian Embassy in London on March 3 for slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov.  (Tim Ireland/AP)
The following is a guest post by political scientist J. Paul Goode of the University of Oklahoma.
In the wake of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s murder, many blamed an “atmosphere of hate” cultivated by the Kremlin. This idea suggests that the Krelim has encouraged the demonization of opposition leaders, which not only undermined their support from ordinary citizens but also dehumanized them and made them targets of violence. Examples of such vilification are legion, ranging from threatening posts made by the Kremlin’s army of paid Internet trolls to displaying an art installation with the impaled heads of opposition leaders wearing Nazi hats at the pro-government Seliger youth camp. Those opposing the government’s policies are freely characterized as “traitors” and a “fifth column.” These putative enemies of Russia occupy a curious place in pro-government propaganda as a threatening foil for Western (American) plots to stage a popular uprising at the same time that they are portrayed as insignificant, deluded, mentally ill, corrupt, incompetent or otherwise unworthy of recognition as human beings.
It is easy to see how this “atmosphere of hate” unleashed by the Kremlin could be seen to authorize violence toward political opposition. It is rather more difficult, however, to determine the extent to which this wave of “hateful politics” is really meaningful or even distinctive of Putin’s regime, or is it just politics as usual in Russia?
Out of curiosity, I examined 11 central periodicals in Russia to see how often three terms associated with the “atmosphere of hate” were mentioned on a monthly basis: “treason,” “fifth column” and “patriotism.” Looking first at press coverage for recent years (2011-2014), it is striking that “patriotism” is invoked far more frequently than the other terms, though, the overall volume of references is not significantly greater from the start of the period:

“Treason,” “Fifth Column” and “Patriotism in the Russian Press, 2011-2014 DATA: Integrum “Artefact”; FIGURE: J. Paul Goode

“Treason,” “Fifth Column” and “Patriotism” in the Russian Press, 2011-2014: Number of articles per month mentioning terms across 11 Russian newspapers.
Data: Integrum “Artefact”; Figure: J. Paul Goode

One might even say that the increase in references to patriotism in 2014 are rather modest given Russia’s war with Ukraine and the accompanying crackdown on domestic dissent. Aside from a couple of peaks in 2012 and 2014 (following the Bolotnaya Square arrests and the annexation of Crimea, respectively), “treason” does not appear to have been mentioned with any greater frequency over time and, in fact, tapers off towards the end of 2014. There is a noticeable increase in references to the “fifth column” following Putin’s invocation of the term after Crimea’s annexation in March 2014, and it continues to be used at a higher level throughout the press. This is perhaps the clearest sign of a distinct signal given by the Kremlin that advances through the media. It is worth noting that the changes in the frequency with which each term is mentioned in the press appear to move almost in lockstep — an indication of the extent to which the use of these terms represents a coordinated effort.
In sum, there is a clear increase in references to “patriotism” and “fifth column” in the Russian press since early 2014, but “fifth column” was insignificant prior to that time and “treason” remained roughly constant. The modest increases in reference to “fifth column” and lack of significant increases in “treason” should give one pause in considering the notion that an “atmosphere of hate” was recently unleashed by the Kremlin. Perhaps it was cultivated over the last decade of Putinism and not just the last year? If so, looking at the Yeltsin era provides a more useful comparison.
Turning to the mid-1990s examining the same terms in the same newspapers delivers a surprising result: the middle years of the Yeltsin era saw a rapid and sustained increase in the mentions of both “treason” and “patriotism.”
“Treason,” “Fifth Column” and “Patriotism in the Russian Press, 1994-1997 DATA: Integrum “Artefact”; FIGURE: J. Paul Goode

“Treason,” “Fifth Column” and “Patriotism” in the Russian Press, 1994-1997: Number of articles per month mentioning terms across 11 Russian newspapers.
Data: Integrum “Artefact”; Figure: J. Paul Goode

Between 1995 and 1996, the average number of references to treason each month increases from 13.9 to 33.1 and holds at that level. Similarly, patriotic appeals increased from a monthly average of 15.3 references in 1995 to 36.2 in 1996 and 45.4 in 1997. By contrast, “fifth column” averages less than five references per month for the entire period (this was also the case recently until 2014). In fact, one finds very little difference between 1996-97 and 2011-12 when comparing averages for both periods:
“Treason,” “Fifth Column” and “Patriotism in the Russian Press: Monthly Averages DATA: Integrum “Artefact”; FIGURE: J. Paul Goode

“Treason,” “Fifth Column” and “Patriotism” in the Russian Press: Monthly averages per year mentioning terms across 11 Russian newspapers.
Data: Integrum “Artefact”; Figure: J. Paul Goode

Bearing in mind that the press in 1994-97 was not under state control, what is one to make of this apparent continuity in the politicized media environment from the mid-1990s to the present day? Did Yeltsin lay the groundwork for Putin’s “atmosphere of hate”? It is difficult to ignore the possibility that the decisive turn away from democratization, the vilification of opposition and the rudiments of an “atmosphere of hate” in Russia began not with Putin but with his predecessor. This would be consistent with those who have argued that Yeltsin’s Russia was an electoral authoritarian regime that simply lacked the capacity to repress. One thing seems clear: The central press in the mid-1990s was already elaborating the media repertoires of today’s Russia. What is happening in Russia today is very much public politics as usual, albeit with far greater scrutiny from abroad. The degree to which the central state plays a coordinating role today may be an important difference from the 1990s, though the effect is more evident in the timing of content rather than substance.
Does this mean that Russian public politics is especially “hateful”? Clearly, it is a brand that sells. If newspapers that genuinely competed for market space in the mid-1990s found it profitable to promote themes of treason and patriotism, one should not be surprised if Russia’s government follows the same logic. Much of Russian politics today is neither public nor covered in the central press, accounting (in part) for the yawning gap between Russian and Western media narratives. Indeed, Westerners exposed to Russian media narratives experience the sensation of entering an alternative reality. Now consider the ordinary Russian citizen who perceives continuity in politics while the West accuses Putin of cultivating hatred — all the while that Russia’s media purports to expose the duplicity and double-standards of Western media (and Western media does the same for Russia). On reflection, one hesitates to say that Russians or Russian politics are innately hateful so much as they have never been democratic. However, such a conclusion must await a comparative study of “hateful politics” in other countries’ media.
One must make some important caveats about these observations of press mentions. First, they are blunt instruments that do not reflect ideological tendencies of the outlets, differences in circulation and readership, or varieties of ownership. Second, they do not take into account social media (which did not exist in the 1990s), which clearly plays important roles as both sources for stories and as echo chamber. Third, these are aggregate counts that do not reflect differences in frequency of mention by publication. In processing the data, it was clear that only a few publications in the 1990s accounted for most mentions (and not the same publications each month) while they were more evenly distributed through the more recent period, although I did not document these differences. Finally, television consistently is much more influential than traditional press but also less diverse. The central press potentially provides greater diversity of editorial views (at least during the 1990s) than television.
The central newspapers examined in this study were: AIF-Moskva, Vecherniaia Moskva, Izvestiia, Krasnaia zvezda, Literaturnaia gazeta, Moskovskie novosti, Novaia Gazeta, Obozrevatel’, Sovetskaia Rossii, Trud and Uchitel’skaia gazeta. These were selected since they are well-known periodicals with full-text databases (accessed through Integrum). I excluded other well-known central newspapers (like Kommersant or Gazeta) that were not available for both time periods.
Regarding the choice of terms, “treason” is an obvious term for identifying enemies of the state. The government’s move to ease accusations of treason in 2012 was clearly aimed at those who work with foreign partners and might come under the “foreign agents” law for nongovernmental organizations. More recently, a spate of high-profile treason cases appeared to give substance to the suspicion that the treason law was being used to silence dissent of Russia’s policy toward Ukraine. Mentions of treason in the central press indicate media attention to actual cases of treason, editorial calls for treason cases, or quotes by political actors invoking the accusation of treason. “Fifth column” is a common term for suspected traitors, spies or saboteurs, though it was not commonly found in the press until specifically invoked by Putin in his speech honoring Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Finally, references to “patriotism” can include laudatory as well as critical assessments. Insofar as patriotism relates to the obligation to support one’s government, it may also be related to the suppression of open opposition or dissent.
I chose two time periods covering four years for scrutiny: 1994-1997 and 2011-2014. The 1994-1997 period reflects the period after Yeltsin consolidated power but well before Russia’s media came under the Kremlin’s thumb. This momentous period also saw the “Black Tuesday” crash of the ruble, the onset of war in Chechnya, the infamous “loans for shares” scheme, and the contentious 1995-1996 election cycle. The 2011-2014 period captures the tail end of the Medvedev “spring,” the 2011-2012 elections and protests, the onset of regime crisis in Ukraine, the Sochi Olympics, and the undeclared war in Ukraine beginning with the annexation of Crimea. In other words, these were both turbulent periods with plenty of opportunities for political actors to throw around terms like “traitor,” “fifth column” or “patriot.”

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