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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“The post-imperial syndrome will pass sooner or later”

Why Dr. Aleksandr Konkov was fired as lecturer at Sakhalin State University; the way Kremlin is manipulating public opinion
10 April, 2014 - 10:02
Aleksandr Konkov

Professor Aleksandr Konkov, head of Sakhalin State University’s Sociology Department, was dismissed in late March for a critical attitude to the Russian government’s actions in Crimea.

In a commentary to Sakh.info, he described the referendum in and the further annexation of Crimea as follows: “It is just a suitable pretext to seize a compact territory while Ukraine is weak.” Besides, Mr. Konkov criticized the Russian media. “I did not see such a tense propaganda even during the Georgia war. I think it is on the example of Ukraine that we should teach students the principles of propaganda and counterpropaganda and the actual difference between information and propaganda,” he said.

The management of Sakhalin State University has explained that the professor was dismissal as his contract had expired, but the Russian online community views this conflict as “punishment for dissent.”

Konkov himself told The Day that he had been fired as department head, but he still holds a professorship as a second job.

He confessed that he regretted emergence of the circumstances that complicated his life. But, as before, the professor is not going to withdraw his words. Although he is fed up with journalists’ calls, Mr. Konkov agreed to grant an interview to a Ukrainian publication.


Too few Russians have openly criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine. You are one of them. Were you afraid to make a comment like this?

“I cannot agree that there were very few people in Russia, who chose to criticize the Russian leadership actions in Crimea. Among them are quite well-known people, such as Andrei Makarevich, Andrei Illarionov, Mikhail Weller, Dmitry Bykov, Sergei Yursky, Yury Shevchuk, Ludmila Uglitskaya, and many others. The point is that the voices of critics and even those who simply doubt are clearly in the minority – it is the question of how the Russian media function and to what extent they are controlled by the government or resort to self-censorship. If we cast a look at the Internet media, rather than at federal radio and television channels, we will see a far greater multiplicity of opinions, we’ll see that the Russians are not so unanimous in their conclusions. Luckily, the thinking individuals can choose the media to gain information from – there are lots of Internet resources for this, many have a possibility to watch alternative TV channels, such as Dozhd, watch foreign channels, read both Russian and foreign publications. Naturally, such a target-oriented search for varied information requires efforts and certain skills. Not all have time and willingness to sort out complicated facts and contradictory assessments. Sociological surveys show that federal TV channels are the main source of information about international events for 70 percent of the Russians.

“As for my commentary, it was rather a spontaneous statement (I commented off the cuff during a break between lectures), but the assessments themselves rightly mirror my vision of what is going on. I was not afraid, for I am used to saying what I think. And the very genre of commentary calls for expressing an opinion – in my view, it is absurd to try to call an individual to some kind of account for his or her opinion.”

How could it happen that 80 percent of the Russians (polled by the All-Russian Public Opinion Survey Center) are ready to accept the annexation of Crimea at the cost of a war against a “fraternal nation”? And Putin has more than once pointed out this fraternity…

“I don’t think it is a very correct interpretation of the poll results. As far as I remember, the question the survey center asked sounded approximately as follows: ‘Should a military conflict occur between Ukraine and Russia, will you support the Russian leadership?’ Overall 74 percent of the polled Russians gave a positive answer. The very wording of the question says nothing about a war. Nor does it say that the ‘price’ of Crimea calls for this kind of war. Let us imagine now the way the average respondent perceives this question during a massive information attack on the populace. I think they do it more or less as follows: ‘Ukrainian nationalists threaten ethnic Russian and resort to provocations. If Russia chooses to stand up for Russians and this triggers a conflict (a clash between the Russian military and ‘Banderite’ nationalists), which side will I be on? Naturally, on the side of ours!’ In my view, it is the direct effect of public opinion manipulation. I am sure that when a mass-scale anti-Ukrainian campaign in the Russian media dies out, the same respondents will say in the next poll that Ukrainians are the people who, together with Belarusians, win their deepest affection.”

Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD, Russia

Whenever you read news from Russia nowadays, you often think of the “misplacement of ideas,” that is, as Orwell warned, falsification of history, the hiding of true facts, etc. At the same time, we are living in the Internet era, when there are a lot of alternative sources of information. Then what do you think hinders Russian society from resisting the “misplacement of ideas”?

“The attempt to ‘manage history’ is one of the oldest occupations, which dates back to the Ancient Egyptians who used to rewrite inscriptions on the tombstones of their previous rulers. But the current all-out politicization of history (and geography) is really extraordinary. I will say it again that federal electronic media are playing a very important role in present-day Russian society – they have in fact become a branch of the executive power. In my view, it is too early to claim that the era of television is over and the Internet is about to ‘kill’ it. So far, the Internet cannot show a footage of the same quality and professionalism (a professional will remain a professional even if he is engaged in propaganda) as television can. The Internet’s news resources are fast reading rather than visual perception. Reading presupposes, above all, appealing to the logic of the text, not to emotions. Television has an edge in this case – it places any piece of news into an emotional video footage and can apply a host of techniques to affect the consciousness and subconsciousness of audiences. As we can see, these techniques are very effective in the 21st century, too: which of us could foresee three months ago that Ukraine would be perhaps the main foreign political adversary of Russia?”

What is the role of journalists, who are supposed to furnish unbiased and objective information, in this?

“As we know very well, there is no real pluralism of opinions in the Russian media. It seems to me that the official media are mostly staffed with the following type of journalists: more or less talented (or untalented) transmitters and propagandists of the official viewpoint, Dmitry Kiselev being an illustrative example. There is also Mr. Aleksei Pushkov [author and presenter of an analytical program, Postscriptum, on the TB Center channel. – Ed.].

“Journalists seem to be deliberately opting for nonpolitical subjects, i.e., for apoliticism and conformism. A lesser part, i.e., people who have alternative views on political process, are shifting to what may be called ‘sanctuaries’ of the freedom of speech, such as Echo of Moscow radio station, Dozhd TV channel, and Novaya gazeta. But the audience of these media is beyond any numerical comparison with that of federal TV channels.”


Many experts note that the Kremlin’s latest decisions mean a return to the USSR. This includes resuscitation of GTO physical fitness standards, restoration of the ITAR-TASS agency’s Soviet name, and a number of other laws. “Whoever does not regret the collapse of the USSR has no heart, and whoever wants it to be restored in its former shape has no brains,” said Putin in 2004. And where do you think present-day Russia is moving?

“It is the pivotal question. In my view, we are witnessing the launching of a major national project, and I cannot say I fully understand its logic. Some sides of it are more or less obvious. I do not think it is restoration of the Soviet mentality and ideological platform. The Soviet model was based on internationalism from the very outset. The now emerging official Russian ideology rather gravitates to the reconstruction of traditional ‘Russianness,’ where emphasis is put on such values as conservatism, Orthodoxy, and national interests in the world. In spite of this, such very Western values as cult of enrichment and consumption are being overtly propagated. Add to this the attempt to position Russia as a country that competes on a par with the West which is said to have always been Russia’s geopolitical enemy. All these elements run counter to reality – the country is closely integrated into the world economy and cannot, for example, lessen its dependence on oil and gas exports, let alone challenge the US and the European Union, whose GDP is about 14 times as high as that of Russia. The Russian nation is multiethnic and multi-denominational, any attempt to integrate it on the basis of Orthodox values cannot possibly be approved by all.

“There is a psychological disorder known as posttraumatic syndrome, which means that an individual often relives a traumatizing experience he or she once had in their life. Something of the kind can be spotted in the Russian societal consciousness, at least in a considerable part of Russians. The fact that the USSR was a great power to be reckoned with all over the world (as some used to say, ‘they respected us because they feared us’) did not vanish without a trace. A new Russian state has risen from the remnants of the USSR – economically weakened, bereft of many attributes of a great power, one that has to turn for help to the West which won the Cold War (suffice to recall the 1990s). All this looked humiliating for many people and hurt their feeling of pride for their country. So when, in the 2000s, our political discourse regained the idea of the restoration of Russia’s lost positions in the world and of renewed respect for this country (first of all, on the part of the West), the seeds of this rhetoric fell on quite a fertile ground. The nations that have never created empires or seen their downfall cannot have a feeling like this. Incidentally, the claim that Russia is striving to restore an empire is, in my view, an erroneous perception of the Russian policy. There are no economic, military or ideological resources for restoring an empire. What really matters are actions of a symbolic nature. It seems to me that the wars over South Ossetia in 2008 and over Crimea in 2014 were improvisations rather than elements of a well-thought-out strategy towards the restoration of an empire. In both cases, the media painted the situation as a triumph of justice, as Russia’s bold resistance to the entire West, which ended in a convincing victory. Of course, this perception of the situation flatters very much the national self-esteem of many people. The post-imperial syndrome will pass sooner or later (let us recall that Austria and Britain experienced something like this in the 20th century), but I would like Russian politicians to offer people ways of creative self-realization, instead of trying to play on bygone traumas.”

By Ihor SAMOKYSH, The Day