Bearr Trust annual lecture: Russia – the power of a narrative – Arkady Ostrovsky 

There are no thoughts from me in the talk /Q&A section below, just notes of his lecture and discussion. I don’t agree with his views on Putin and Kremlin narrative but I’m not Russian, however I hear more positive thinking. I was disappointed and this perpetual negativity is beyond irritating,  but it is their fundraiser so they probably want someone to tell British people what they think the British people in audience might like to hear. Politics is a hot topic.

I would be more interested in visionary speaker who has worked extensively in Russian health but perhaps more applicable for conference. So I didn’t stay for reception.

He did make the point about global convergence of views (I would add based on who shouts loudest and therefore not representative). His viewd are very similar to other Putin critics I have read.

He is very pro Navalny and doesn’t like Putin as in the below. Names may be incorrect due to lack of knowledge and phone typing.

I thought he seemed uncomfortable at times and modified what he was saying after thinking. There may have been people in the audience working in voluntary programmes who do not share his opinions.

I didn’t think his strong views are necessarily in the spirit of how Bearr Trust work but he met the founders when they were in Moscow, so this could be incorrect. 

Unfortunately didn’t get opportunity to hear about health projects other than ony tiny chat but they are not really focused too much on public health. 

Talk and discussion:

2013 – 2015 propaganda narrative by the Kremlin. Writing that Russia in a world of it’s own. Now making Russia ‘great again, raise Russia from its knees’

Symbols and narrative – there was a big demonstration on 12th June – like pageant, almost crude – opposition leader Navalny calling opposition to come out on streets. He escalated to Tverskaya. Navalny’s line is authorities stopped his routes. Tverskaya theatrical events in all centuries – reconstructionists. Then 16/17 yr olds with Russia flags on faces shouted Russia without Putin.

Symbols – Putin powers – reconstructionists, people demanding vision of future, both trying to claim Russian flag. Navalny also rehashes Yeltsin messages. Don’t give money to the centre.

Events of June 1991 also a fight with symbols. KGB with Soviet flag, Russian flag symbol of freedom and liberty. When coup ended, very clear narrative that drove people to defend Yeltsin. Narrative more important than reality.

Kommersant modelled on capitalist newspapers e.g. nyt Russia did not have the businesses, stock exchange. Kommersant 1917 – 1991 not published. Set out to program new country and Moscow intelligentsia loved it. It matters that it lies confidently and beautifully.

Not relevant to impoverished economy in 1990s. Picture created by media was different to Yeltsin’s health. Doesn’t think was a rigged election. Was a battle of narratives. Oligarchs no responsibility for country, controlling media, fighting for power. Financial crisis 1998. Yeltsin unable to rule country and NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

Started to turn more anti-American. New narrative – Putin constructed by media as macho sober figure using popular culture. Projected his own image – film character? Russian James Bond. German speaking, secretive was ideal match.

Film released in Russia – Brat – told story of patriotic, charismatic Russian who returns to criminalise St Petersburg with his own justice. Set out to clear ST P of Chechan mafia. language mimic’d by Putin.

Sequel Brat2, travelled to American to settle scores with dodgy Amerucan businessman who killed his friends. Message of film – very simple message – Russians right, truthful because they were Russian.

Russia’s biggest rock star – obscene euphoria from early 2000s, improving economy. Now alienation from politics, nihilism.

As Russian economy overheat 2007 the global crisis 2008-9. People wanted a new narrative, visible when Putin said coming back. Cool bars turned against Putin, protests in 2011.

P ruled using television. Used some targeted repression, used ideology and narrative to quell protests. Values of nationalism, traditional values peaked alongside Crimea, Ukraine. Television more powerful than reality.

Empowering Eastern Ukraine uprising.

2015 – produced scenes in Moscow, increasingly reminiscent of 1930s Germany. Saw marches in Moscow. Film that caught Russia’s imagination in last few years was story of Russian girl dressing for date, trying to seduce Western manager, trying to dress in Western clothes and imitate a poster. film ends, girl falls on face due to nail varnish, she gets up sees a light.

Mass culture can tell us more than opinion polls. Girl is a metaphor, is Russia herself, hoping for date with West, copying West then falling on her face.

Talks about 12th June again. When young people came out, demanding new narrative. What happens next will depend on who gets new narrative.

Q Do Russians believe or wanted to believe the narratives?

In middle of Ukraine war, Putin speeches of nationalism, moral staples. Does Putin believe in this – not relevant – what’s relevant is public rhetoric. 

New propoganda more subtle, ignores facts, Russia not so different from other countries going through populism.

Q current narrative run out of steam. So if young ppl don’t use TV but have Internet, so next one will need more depth.

Real incomes and investment down 15%, people from small towns struggling. Young ppl not necessarily more interested in facts, more interested in narrative. YouTube more powerful than text.

Q hearing more and more – is it Putin’s narrative or is it more small group formulating where Putin is face of group. We don’t know how decisions happen, first in Russian history true celebrity politician. There is a group who are constructing it, ppl running media. A man in charge of Russia’s biggest TV channel is Hollywood crazed movie producer. Completely switched onto media industry. I spoke to him and asked him, you know this was not true, he said yes probably not true, can you prove it.

Another on sanctions list – Started Russia’s NTV channel. Not Soviet, uses marketing to achieve political goals.

Q Are sanctions a good idea?

Depends on what sanctions trying to achieve. Doubtful that sanctions prevented violence in Ukraine. 

They have impact on Russian economy, makes it toxic for investment. People don’t invest because of uncertainty.

Q what narrative used next for young people used for them?

Narrative not dissimilar to populace world over. Nationalist and isolationist from Navalny. Clearly anti-immigrant. Let’s put borders up, visa regimes, taking jobs etc

When country has no institutions, we should forget about empire because can’t afford it. Gets most resonance – not penny, not rouble for debt forgiveness. Proposes civil nationalism.

Kremlin trying to find new narrative. Respect, justice but problem is they have undermined themselves. Risk is that’s what left is force.

Q why are they behind the curve now?

Generational shift,  young people risking more, more radical.

Q in collapse,  Russia wanted Western state, what do Russians want now? More Westernised? 

West has changed. More tied to values and doing the right thing. Was about freedom and consunmption. Right to buy food and not to waste time queuing up.

Navalny not saying we need to become the West, he says we are the West, he is trying to say, yes we also can. Not that Russia aspires to be something. Says Russians are white Europeans.

Q Russia not only one with narrative with fall of Soviet, West narrative – we won the cold war, humiliated Russians.

Agree up to a point. Has Russia felt humiliated?  no, not those who claim to be the case – not the privileged. Financial crises in 1990s were of Russia’s own making.

Yes, West did have narrative of war and winning. Did create sense that history is over, nothing to fight for. West lost narrative and linetslism veered towards technocracy. May have helped in construction of nationalist narrative.

Q official narrative tired – can’t create an exciting alternative. Is there anything left or can they bring in creative media to create one?

Tired because Putin’s regime was restoration. Probably since 2004 is backward looking, looking for legitimacy in the past.

Believes Navalny who says I’m the new Putin. Believes Putin approaching 70s cannot say I’m the future of Russia.

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