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The return of 1980s rhetoric in Russia

by Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg

Today’s Russia may be a wealthier, more open nation than the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, but President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine is working hard on restoring the stifling moral climate of 30 years ago. The Sochi Olympics, Putin’s pet project meant to boost patriotic sentiment, presented the propagandists with a chance to take a giant leap in that direction.

The late years of Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year rule, and the brief interlude between Brezhnev’s death in 1982 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, were marked by a peak in Cold War rhetoric against the U.S. and a dogged if not particularly cruel persecution of dissidents, who were universally condemned by patriotic Soviet citizens freely expressing their strong opinions in state-controlled media. It was clear who the enemies were: The hostile West and the fifth column within the Soviet Union, supposedly doing the bidding of its Western masters.

The Brezhnev-era government tended to overreact to the slightest suggestions that there could be something wrong with the Soviet Union or that the West could be getting something right. To people who remember those days, as I do, living in Russia in 2014 is a lot like time travel, and the time machine bears the Sochi 2014 logo.

On Feb. 10, satirist Viktor Shenderovich published a column on the anti-Putin site, ej.ru, wondering whether a Putin opponent could root for Team Russia, or, indeed, for the stunning 15-year-old figure skating champion Yulia Lipnitskaya, without feeling pangs of guilt.

“I really like this girl on ice skates,” Shenderovich wrote in the piece, read by about 300,000 people in the following week. “I really do! But if you only knew how Berliners, in the summer of 1936, liked shot putter Hans Woellke, the first German track-and-field champion, a smiling, handsome guy symbolizing new Germany’s youth!”

Woellke went on to serve in the Waffen SS and was killed by Soviet guerrillas near a Belarussian village, which was then wiped out completely by a punitive SS operation. Shenderovich’s parallel was deliberately provocative, but the force of the backlash was disproportionate by any standards.

The ruling United Russia party and a number of well-known Russian athletes waxed indignant with Shenderovich for likening the Sochi Olympics to Hitler’s 1936 effort. Vladimir Vasilyev, head of the United Russian faction in parliament, called Shenderovich’s article “fascist,” and Svetlana Zhurova, a lawmaker and former speed skating champion, said this: “Shenderovich’s post fits in with the campaign Western media are waging against the Olympics. He offended a great number of people, and he should apologize.”

Shenderovich is Jewish, so, according to the Soviet canon, his own people must have a hand in condemning him. “In his angry sulk, Shenderovich is using quite an immoral and uncalled-for trick,” Alexander Boroda, head of the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities, was quoted as saying by Lenta.ru. Other Jewish activists weighed in, reminding Shenderovich that it was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz.

Finally, the heavy artillery was brought in. The Russia 1 TV station, watched by almost the entire Russian population — an audience that by far exceeds that of ej.ru — took aim at the columnist, airing bits of an old video showing him in bed with a woman not his wife.

On its weekly news analysis show Vesti Nedeli, a photo of Shenderovich was tagged “Scumbag?” and host Dmitri Kiselyov smashed him as someone who is “fighting against the nation.”

“I have no doubt that orders to flatten Shenderovich came from the very top,” TV journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza wrote on sobesednik.ru. And indeed, the campaign’s excessive firepower suggests the explanation.

The same is true of Olympic attacks on the other enemy, the supposedly Russia-hating West. On Feb. 15, Russia played the U.S. in a first-round hockey game at the Sochi Olympics. The referee, Brad Meier, an American, disallowed a Russian goal less than five minutes from the end of regulation time. The game went to a shootout, and Russia lost by one goal. The controversy quickly turned political. “How can a U.S. referee ref a Team U.S.A. game? The puck was in the goal!! How disgusting! Cheating as the whole world watched!” senior pro-Putin legislator Alexei Pushkov tweeted.

U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul replied heatedly, “What’s distasteful is claims of cheating by Americans.”

Vesti Nedeli’s Kiselyov, whom Putin recently appointed head of a large government news agency called Russia Today, had much to say about Meier’s decision, which Russian Hockey Federation head Vladislav Tretyak, once a famed goalie, described as correct.

“When Americans make the rules, they will always favor themselves,” Kiselyov preached. “They will not compromise, in politics or in sports. … The game went according to American political rules that say the U.S. must win even if they actually lose on goals scored.”

In the early 1980s, several dozen people a year were arrested for “anti-Soviet propaganda.” That is not happening under Putin, but it’s easy to believe it might, yet. The thinly veiled threat is there, in the words of Putin’s favorite mouthpiece, Kiselyov: “Shenderovich’s every line strengthens Putin’s image as a tolerant and truly liberal man. Under Putin, Shenderovich can … keep spouting whatever he wants, not only using the freedom of speech that exists under the president he hates, but abusing it.”

Shenderovich feels the threat as the propaganda machine keeps beating him up. “This is Putin’s 15th year in power,” he wrote in yet another ej.ru column. “Enough has been done in his name to understand what happens next. Those who want to hide their heads in the sand — welcome.”

The Soviet-style orchestration of hate campaigns such as the one against Shenderovich and the way even hockey is used to stoke hostility toward the West are new phenomena. In his previous terms in power, Putin was more subtle and, perhaps, somewhat less confident. Now, he is unabashedly restoring the order to which he was used at the top of his KGB career. To him, it is clearly a matter of not letting the fifth column give up Russia to a predatory U.S., and the war will be waged by any means he deems necessary.

Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View.