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The End Of Russia's Mass Hallucination

  • Brian Whitmore

Protecting the Kremlin's propaganda hub -- barbed wire around Ostankino. (Cartoon by Sergei Elkin)

Protecting the Kremlin's propaganda hub -- barbed wire around Ostankino. (Cartoon by Sergei Elkin)

Fresh barbed-wire fencing around the nation's main TV tower isn't exactly a sign of a confident regime.

In addition to reinforcing its perimeter, Moscow's state-run Ostankino television center also upgraded its security detail, replacing regular police officers with elite Interior Ministry forces.

"These are normal security measures that are connected to the alarming situation in Moscow, in Russia, and in the world," Denis Nazarov, a spokesman for Ostankino, told Novaya Gazeta.

Beefing up security at Ostankino -- the epicenter of the Kremlin's propaganda machine -- is just one sign that the Kremlin is getting increasingly concerned about civic unrest as 2015 draws to a close.

Russia's security services have also increased their stocks of crowd-control weapons -- including grenade launchers -- fivefold.

The State Duma, meanwhile, has passed legislation allowing the Federal Security Service to fire its weapons into crowds and lawmakers are considering a bill that would make discrediting the Russian Federation a federal crime.

But wait a minute! Why all this paranoia? Isn't this regime wildly popular? Isn't Vladimir Putin's popularity close to 90 percent?

Well, yes. But the Kremlin understands all too well that the sky-high public support is largely based on a collective hallucination -- a euphoric patriotic purple haze resulting from the annexation of Crimea and the illusion that Russia is again a superpower.

And they understand that once everybody comes down from this television-induced acid trip and hungover Russians have a clear view of their new reality, there's gonna be hell to pay.

"To ordinary people, the fruit of Putin's foreign policy is bitter," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg View.

"All that Russians have gotten from Putin's international activity is a boost to their pride, delivered by the Kremlin's propaganda channels -- not a tangible benefit as the economy continues to buckle under the weight of falling commodity prices."

Television, The Drug Of The Nation

Over the last year, inflation has soared, real incomes have plummeted, and purchasing power has evaporated. With oil prices at historic lows with no recovery in sight and Western sanctions remaining in place, there is little chance things will get better soon.

And if television is the drug of the nation, it may finally be losing its potency.

According to a new poll by the independent Levada Center, Russians' trust in the TV news has declined precipitously, from 79 percent back in 2009 to just 41 percent today.

Likewise, a recent report by the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology concluded that although three-quarters of Russians still blame the West for their economic woes, the Kremlin has a window of approximately one year to 18 months before they begin to blame their own rulers.

From the recent nationwide truckers protest to striking doctors and teachers in Siberia, the signs are increasing that the scales are indeed beginning to fall from people's eyes.

Mindful of the risk, Putin has reportedly tasked the Federal Guard Service, the Kremlin's Praetorian Guard, to spearhead a task force to monitor the potential for labor uprisings in Russia's far-flung provinces.

They even have a color-coded scheme that classifies regions as green, yellow, or red depending on the risk of civil unrest.

Stockholm Syndrome

In addition to fears of civic unrest, there are also signs that the business elite is getting increasingly restless.

Speaking at the Moscow Economic Forum, Dmitry Potapenko, a partner at the Management Development Group who runs a chain of supermarkets, shocked the audience by laying into the authorities.

It's not Western sanctions but the actions of Russia's rulers that are damaging its economy, he said. "It's not Barack Obama who's responsible for our prohibitively high interest rates."

A video of his rant attracted more than 1.6 million views on YouTube.

"There is obvious fear among the elite," Valery Solovei, a professor at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told Obzor.press.

"There are growing concerns about the future. All this is due to the unpredictability and irrationality of the president's actions. But at the same time, the elite feels hostage to the president. It's a typical case of Stockholm Syndrome."

If 2014 was the year Moscow went rogue, then 2015 can be described as the year that the costs of that course became manifest for Russians.

And next year should be when we learn whether Vladimir Putin's regime will be able to bear those costs -- and what lengths he will go to should they become prohibitive.

"Putin faces a harsh dilemma. He could try to make Russia more competitive by carefully retreating in Ukraine, getting Western sanctions lifted, and liberalizing the domestic economic climate. That would mean dismantling the backbone of his regime," Bershidsky wrote.

"Or Putin could drop the remaining pretense of democracy and rule openly by force, ordering mass reprisals against opponents both real and imagined. The system Putin has created is pushing him toward the second option."

The barbed wire around Ostankino is symbolic -- and it is probably just the beginning.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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