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In Russia, Seeing Traitors At Every Turn

In St. Petersburg, a supporter of the "Other Russia" party
In St. Petersburg, a supporter of the "Other Russia" party
Viktor Loshak


MOSCOW — Patriotic hysterics between Ukraine and Russia have given birth to a host of scathing labels — terms such a "fifth column" and "friends of the junta" — that state-owned television channels and some newspapers are employing with increasing zeal to identify Russia's many "internal enemies."

The number of people targeted with these terms is only growing. We may not have reached the point of actually putting marks on people's doors, but the current climate isn't that far from it. People can go from being acceptable to blacklisted in the blink of an eye, and it's not always possible to explain why.

The experience of Russian singer Diana Arbenina is a case in point. "On July 3, I played a concert in Kiev for my 40th birthday," she says. "The people at the concert looked normal. They weren't fascists. They're totally innocent. But then this blacklist appeared, and I'm something like number 45 or 46. And now it seems my concerts in Russia are starting to be canceled."

Other musicians have been singled out for the same reason — for daring to perform in Ukraine. But is that really such an act of subversion? Is a rock fan attending one of Arbenina's concerts in Kiev really an enemy of Russia? Maybe those fans are actually friends of Russia. After all, they went to a Russian concert despite the anti-Russian hysteria in Ukraine.

Usually cultural events either elude sanctions or are the last to be restricted. Why are we targeting them now? The hunt against these musicians is the surest sign that there is something wrong in Russia.

"Full of the fifth column"

"Traitors" are always useful for unifying a society during difficult times. The supposed threat they pose helps push real problems to the back burner. Those "internal enemies," we are told, are what prevent everyone else from building a beautiful tomorrow. And so dealing with them needs to be a top priority.

It is little surprise, then, that the number of "friends of the junta" is growing, because you can never have just a few enemies. The writer Dmitri Byikov said it well: "I think that in six months time we'll be watching films about the "365 friends of the junta," because if the propaganda doesn't keep increasing, people stop paying attention."

The propaganda machine is clearly getting more aggressive. We know how this process works from historical examples. They're not happy stories.

Another writer, Aleksandr Prokhanov, has always been a reliable Stalinist. His first hour of fame was during the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, and now he's all over television talking about how Russia is "full of the fifth column, who are prepared to stab Putin in the back, to destroy the country and its president for the benefit of some small, dissatisfied people." It seems the now-elderly Prokhanov is in his element when boys in military uniforms die overseas, fighting for unclear reasons.

Except that anonymous enemies aren't very interesting for propaganda. That's why the machine needs more and more people to accuse. Those targets also need to be increasingly popular and well known. Ever-stronger language helps too. Words such as "war" and "traitor" have become so commonplace that some people on television have taken to talking about "those who dream of dismembering, suffocating and devouring Russia."

Fearing what the future holds

Sociologists say there is a common pattern to these situations. "You can either blame problems on the past or on enemies, " the famous sociologist and publicist Boris Dubin wrote not long ago. "Either way, you are freed of the responsibility to act or make changes. If you blame the enemy, there is a feeling of danger, and that is fundamental to Russian public opinion."

I don't think the sociologist's diagnosis would change much if he were to study Ukrainian as opposed to Russian society. There, generals who lose battles are labeled "enemies." So are refugees, specifically those from Donbas, where the war in Ukraine began. The press in Kiev has reported cases of people shooting at refugees from that area. "There is a strong temptation to hate refugees from Donbas," Focus, a Kiev-based magazine, explained. "But if, out of principle, you won't give refugees housing, won't hire them and consider them scum, then be consistent. For example, take that "One Country" sticker off your car."

The search for internal enemies only divides society further and raises the general level of anxiety. On the surface, there are cries of "Crimea is ours!" But dig deeper, and what is evident is a fear about the future of the country and of our children. Regardless of what people say, our society will never be as unified as it was under the Soviet system, although some aspects of that world are returning surprisingly quickly. People, for example, are again able to look at themselves and their situation with irony, to look at the fact that people who thought they were free and who don't always sing in unison with the government have once again become "enemies."

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