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By John Helmer, Moscow 

“Vladimir Putin is not the president of my choice”.

This is how the daughter of a powerful apparatchik in Tatarstan begins the book she has just written from London, at a think-tank leading the propaganda war against Russia. The problem for Gulnaz Sharafutdinova (lead image, right),  inside her mind, is “the gap between how many of my schoolmates, friends and family back home perceive Putin’s leadership, and how I perceive it.”   The problem outside Sharafutdinova’s mind is that she is on the other side in the war against Russia, and she doesn’t want to admit it.   

So she has produced the book her employers at King’s College Russia Institute and the Oxford University Press require.  Could it be any other way? Could Sharafutdinova keep her job and publishing contract if she explained current anti-Western, in particular anti-American and anti-British sentiment in Russia, as the outcome of the war those two states and the NATO alliance launched against Moscow since 2014?

If, instead,  her book had come to the conclusion that all Russians from President Vladimir Putin on down believe everyone would be better off if the Anglo-American warmakers left Russia to evolve on its own, Sharafutdinova, her institute,  and her printing press would be impoverished — out of jobs, out of power,  out of money. That’s not a judgement they can afford.    

The watershed year, Sharafutdinova acknowledges, was 2014. But she blames Putin, not only for having instigated the war against the West, but for expanding and exploiting it for his own schemes of domestic re-election, compensation for his own insecurities,  enrichment of his supporters, and “to forge the new Russian collective identity and his own image as a great leader of the Russian nation.”

War is mentioned 123 times by Sharafutdinova in “The Red Mirror: Putin’s Leadership and Russia’s Insecure Identity”. Most of the references are to World War II or the Cold War; the  latter, she claims, was an invention of Stalin’s “to unite the Soviet people against a new enemy”. She refers to only four recent wars – the Chechen war, the Georgian war of August 2008, the war on terror, and “hybrid war”; the last of these, according to Sharafutdinova, is an experiment of the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov. Each of these wars, including Russian engagements in Syria, Ukraine and Libya  is, Sharafutdinova concludes, an invention of the Russian president. “Putin’s government has long realized the legitimizing potential of war and has built on that potential”.  

Sharafutdinova came to her convictions from a bitter family history, US university training and employment, and a husband who served for years in the Latvian Foreign Ministry. “Without his moral and intellectual support,” she has written about Jevgenijs Steinbuks, “this book would not have been written.”  

They have had parallel careers at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and Miami University in Ohio. He went on to the World Bank, she went to London. She adds she “still keeps tight connections to her homeland”.

“People like simple explanations”, Sharafutdinova begins her book on page one. But she and her family are the exception – what happened to them was simple, she says.  They “experienced the state terror of Soviet times and the lawlessness of the 1990s. My great-grandfather died of hunger, jailed as a kulak… in the early 1930s. My grandfather was jailed in 1943…My aunt — one of the most generous and people I know — was unfortunate to be involved in the shuttle trade of the 1990s. She was made responsible for lost cargo, and hence the money borrowed to pay for the goods, and was sent to jail in 1997-98.”

Sharafutdinova believes this to be the truth, not the “Kremlin-propagated victimhood” and “chosen trauma” which Sharafutdinova says she has discovered among the majority of Russian people who aren’t her kin. Victimhood and trauma for them, she says, are a Kremlin fabrication —  “one of the crucial pillars of Vladimir Putin’ new legitimation strategy. This potent tool allowed the Russian leadership to revive the national consolidation mechanisms used by the Soviet state. It allowed the Kremlin to harness collective emotions and to build a powerful image of the leadership securing Russia’s insecure collective identity. Undertaking such a political strategy required massive communication resources”.

Putin calculation, plus state media spend,  rubbed into a national inferiority complex is the formula for a scheme of warmaking against the innocent Anglo-Americans and the NATO alliance (including Latvia),  in order to make Russians feel good under the influence of  “the mythologization of Stalin’s figure…who built the Soviet Union and led it to the ‘holy victory’ more than a half century ago”; and of the “image of Vladimir Putin who is credited with saving Russia from the chaos and fragmentation of the 1990s… Specifically, I refer to the sense of Soviet exceptionalism and the role played by external conflict and the image of an enemy in consolidating the Soviet nation… Vladimir Putin’s leadership phenomenon derives from the resuscitation of these ideas… a cynical exploitation of the old emotional sore spots – societal vulnerabilities, domestic and global – to defend the political system he constructed… (continues in the same vein for pages)”.

Except that Sharafutdinova’s family isn’t the evidence for this she claims. Her father, for example, was “a product of Soviet mobility of the 1960s who moved from a poor rural background to a position of political and social dominance in one of the regions in the Republic of Tatarstan”. He, it turns out, “respects Putin’s foreign policy”, while his son, Sharafutdinova’s brother, “voted for him fearing instability and not seeing any viable alternative.”  This is straightforward, rational class interest recognised by the American sociologists whom Sharafutdinova studied, as her mobility took her up the Anglo-American career ladder.

Left: Damir Raufovich Sharafutdinov (1940-2014); centre, Gasyrlar Avazy-Echo of Centuries, one of the Tatar heritage and historical publications Sharafutdinov directed; right, Mintimer Shamiev, president of the Tatar republic between 1991 and 2010, when Sharafutdinov directed the state archives. Sharafutdinova's father, he was born in Kazan but brought up during World War II in his father's village. He was a champion wrestler as well as a journalist in Tatar media, before graduating from a Communist Party school to become an administrator of media and propaganda in the Tatar republic's party administration. After 1991 he rose to become chief archivist of the Tatar republic, and researcher on Tatar culture. In 1996 he negotiated an agreement between the republic archive researchers and the Genealogical Society of Utah in the US.

What evidence does Sharafutdinova present in her book about the rest of the Russians?

A handful of opinion polls gathered by the Levada Centre in Moscow; two small-group interviews Sharafutdinova conducted herself in Samara and Kazan;  three Russian television talk shows she has watched;  and extensive quotes and interpretations she has collected from her trans-Atlantic academic colleagues. She references them; they reference her. Her book footnotes, list of references, index, and personal acknowledgements reveal they comprise a group of less than a baker’s dozen at the universities where she has been employed in Washington, DC, Ohio, and London. The group is entirely Anglo-American. The only publication or reference to Sharafutdinova that can be found in Russian appeared in a publication called Riddle; that  is financed by the Kennan Institute and Wilson Centre, two US-government think tanks in Washington, DC.

The Google scholar citation index shows that this self-referencing, self-reinforcing group began its takeoff from 40 to 60 with the start of war in the Ukraine in 2014; the group appears to have reached its limit at 150.

Source: https://scholar.google.com/ 
List of articles included in the citation list.

Tiny as this Anglo-American group is, they don’t suffer from Group Think. Group Think, according to Sharafutdinova and her group, is what Russians suffer on account of their “insecure collective identity [which] pushes Russian citizens toward nationalist politicians, reflecting their sensitivity and a high degree of manipulability.”

Sharafutdinova doesn’t say how she selected her “focus groups” in Samara and Kazan; what age, education, employment,  and ethnic background they had; or how those whom Sharafutdinova interviewed understood what was expected of them at the session, and for what reward. All that Sharafutdinova reports are chestnuts like these: “there was a clear consensus on the positive role of Putin”; “group members criticized Yeltsin not only for his personal vices, such as drinking and coarse manners, but also for his carelessness toward the country’s strategic interests”; “weekly shootings in the local market is one of my brightest memories of the 1990s. Then shuttle-trading. The first who got into it got rich; those who came after them lost their apartments; and  “two older ladies…[who said they] wanted world peace”.

 This was Russian Group Think, Sharafutdinova diagnosed.  The women’s comment about world peace was “the familiar cliché from Soviet times…signaling the lasting effect of Soviet internationalist propaganda and rhetoric”.  

How could a Russian under the constant pressure of Putin’s “new authoritarianism”, as Sharefutdinova calls it, think otherwise? She claims she tested this by inserting two questions into a nationwide survey conducted by the Levada polling organisation in November 2017. She composed her questions to test “the respondents’ sense of collective (national) identity”.     

Sharafutdinova’s hypothesis was that Russians would suffer such pangs of insecurity when confronted with the greater ease of travel to Europe for Ukrainians and foreign hostility towards the Russian Olympic team that they would express their complex by supporting Putin with greater personal approval, and with stronger determination to vote for him at the following year’s presidential election.

But the research experiment failed. According to Sharafutdinova,”Putin’s approval ratings were not affected…Putin’s approval levels do not change with the manipulation of collective identity (while people’s voting preferences shift) reveals, arguably, the political significance of the widesopread sense that there are no real political alternatives to Putin.”  

Undaunted, Sharafutdinova claims that that among those  Levada’s poll found were thinking of voting against Putin in favour of the Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov or Vladimir Zhirinovsky were those whose answers on the Ukraine visa and Olympic Games ban issues revealed “inter-group bias discrimination along with in-group glorification (i.e., result in more nationalist orientations)”.  What exactly were the answers in the poll on her two litmus tests Sharafutdinova doesn’t report at all. The Group Think is in Sharafutdinova’s conclusions;   the evidence of the Russians is missing.

Sharafutdinova then turned to the Russian state media for her evidence of the “key tools of the Kremlin-waged information war against the West”. The source of this evidence is no longer what Russians think but what the New York Times reports.  

Source quoted by Sharafutdinova:  https://www.nytimes.com/
 Sharafutdinova reports her opinion that compared to the Russian media and Russian journalists, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a model of objectivity:  “[Russian] journalists could not distance themselves from the events, the way BBC journalists would and are expected to by the BBC.”  BBC reporting of the Pussy Riot affair of 2012 is accepted by Sharafutdinova, not only as the truth of what had happened, but also as the start of the Kremlin’s “new value-based discourse that was highly moralistic and symbolic… a response to the new political reality of the loss of the acclaimed ‘Putin majority’ of Putin’s first and second terms”.  For the BBC fabrication of the Pussy Riot case, read this

Nationally televised talk-shows are Sharafutdinova’s final source of evidence for the power of the Kremlin’s exploitation of Russian gullibility. “The more the political system relies on the ongoing mass media-based ideological messaging, the more prominent the role of those who deliver these messages. The extent to which the [Russian] audiences trust them determines the propagandistic impact of the media machine.”

Left to right: Vladimir Solovyev; Sergei Kurginyan; Nikita Mikhalkov; Dmitry Kiselev. No audience data are presented by  Sharafutdinova, only her interpretations of what these media figures say on the broadcasts she has selected. The weight she gives to them is her own:  Solovyev is cited 95 times; Kurginyan 31; Mikhalkov 22;  Kiselev 4. Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, scored zero.

Source: https://www.levada.ru/
For Levada’s report, click to open.
For analysis, read this. Comparing this measurement of Russian distrust of media with American sentiments, it is clear Russians are less trusting, more skeptical. Comparing European country measures of trust in media, Russians are by far the most distrustful of their media; read this.

This 2019 poll wasn’t Levada’s first disclosure of the deep-seated  Russian distrust of the media. Between 2012 and 2016, three polls were conducted, asking the question: Does it happen that when you are watching TV shows, listening to the radio, or reading newspapers, you get the impression that you are being deceived or knowingly given false information?

Source: https://www.levada.ru/

The media evidence presented by Sharafutdinova turns out to be false; she believes what the talk-show hosts say, but the Russian audience does not. Calculated omissions of the book like these are evidence of something very different:  this is that Sharafutdinova trusts her side in the war against Russia, while Russians are more sceptical of both sides. Either Sharafutdinova is suffering from an inferiority complex, or out of insecurity she is writing what she is paid to write.

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