Putin’s Orwellian/Huxleian Dream
George Orwell’s 1984 is often brought up when discussing the freedom of speech in contemporary culture. When specifically looking at the (lack of) media we are collectively quick to point to North Korea as the closest parallel to the dystopian novel that exists today. This may indeed be true, but just as Winston Smith and Julia knew of, and rebelled against, their suppression so too are the people of North Korea.
With ever increased exposure to the world outside of North Korea’s borders, North Koreans are wanting, and finding ways to have, more freedom than ever before.
This coupled with the pressure of the outside world on North Korea to lessen its totalitarian ways will surely lead to vast (media) changes at some point in Kim Jong-un’s reign. However what has, and still is, taking place in Russia is far more worrying. Putin knows that he cannot be seen to suppress his populace in the same manner as North Korea, thus he has conjured and constricted the media in a certain way as to assure that his ‘people will come to love their oppression’ , as Neil Postman, wrote in Amusing Ourselves To Death.
Russia’s history is littered with suppression, from Tsar Nicholas II’s reign to Stalin and his successors in the Cold War, all the way up to Putin today. Certainly ‘the task of the media in the Soviet Union was clear: to create an artificial, ideologically clean environment’ – ‘Kulenovic’, within which ‘much like the Orwellian characters in 1984, the Soviet population needed doublethink’ in order to comprehend the paradoxical success of Stalin’s ‘Five-year plans’ with the ever deteriorating supply of food and basic goods, as Nelly Ogyanova, the Bulgarian Media lawyer has written. Additionally there was a war waged against capitalist ideology, all of which was being done so through the suppression of traditional media. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the introduction of the policies of glasnost and perestroika it appeared that Russia was headed towards a more open and unrestricted society.
However, fast-forward to 1999 and ‘in the first years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the government’s political control over national TV networks was fully restored’ with the result that ‘all large national TV networks in Russia are currently governed by the Kremlin’; Ogyanova again. Whilst television may seem like an almost ‘outdated’ technology today, it still carries great weight with the Russian population: ‘according to a recent poll by the Levada Center, 90 percent of Russians say they get their information about Russia and the world from television’ – Wilder.
However Putin also realised with the burgeoning growth of the internet, that there was a new media environment being opened to the public, one which he couldn’t control. Indeed the promise of the web, according to those who believe in its democratic abilities, is that ‘in countries with restrictive media environments, web services can provide a way of circumventing official information channels’ – ‘Ogyanova’.
The capabilities of technologies are harnessed and determined by those in power. In Russia this meant that those in power had to teach ‘the audience that online content is unreliable, biased and dangerous’ – ‘Ogyanova’, which in turn severely restricts the capabilities of the web. The idea that the internet is a dangerous space occupied by the enemies of Russia ensures that the less curiously inclined citizens will not roam its endless boundaries. Furthermore if those in positions of power such as Jury Luzhkov, Mayor of Moscow in 2004, reinforce this message by stating: “the Internet is gradually being settled by unconcealed terrorists who turn the web … into a real, underground, military infrastructure” ‘Ogyanova’, you can end up in a position where the populace actually want more state control. ‘A survey conducted in November 2012 by the Levada Center suggests that Russians would also like to see tighter state control over the Internet’ ‘Ogyanova’, which is not surprising when you consider the propaganda they are consuming regarding the web.
With genuine backing from those you govern it becomes easier to pass legislative bills into government that increase the government’s ability to suppress. An example of this can be seen when ‘Russia’s Parliament passed a preliminary bill… that would limit foreign ownership of Russian media outlets to 20 percent’ – ‘Roth’. ‘The first reading of the bill was passed by a near-unanimous vote … as lawmakers charged that the West was using the news media to attack the Russian government’ ‘Roth’. The proposed bill has since been passed, strengthening Putin’s grip on public opinion further. Putin has achieved this cultural stranglehold by utilising the created climate of fear and suspicion regarding media originating from outside the state.
The result of the above is two-fold; Outside of Russian borders the limited media is of great concern, secondly those in Russia are using new media in a state provided cocoon, crucially however it is a cocoon that they like. Referring to the initial point Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization, creates a World Press Freedom Index which ranks countries based on the freedom of journalists, the press, and news provided by the state. In the 2014 index Russia was listed 148th out of 180; for context, North Korea is listed 179th and the UK is ranked 33rd. As the ranking reflects ‘Reporters Without Borders… has declared Russia as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists’ ‘Kulenovic’. A specific example of why Russia is rated is so low would be the case of Ana Politkovskaya. Anna Politkovskaya was a ‘recognized humanitarian and winner of numerous awards for journalistic professionalism’ ‘Kulenovic’ who was murdered in 2006. The murder sparked international outcry and stunk of state involvement: in 2004 Politkovskaya had written a scathing account of Putin in the entitled book Putin’s Russia, furthermore despite five men being sent to prison for her killing it has never been resolved as to who paid for the contract killing.
This however is perhaps the less alarming of the two-fold nature aforementioned as it is an obvious Orwellian suppression of free speech and cannot be sustained in the contemporary culture of globalisation. What is less easy to identify, but debatably more perturbing is the state’s shaping, and framing, of the internet as not only untrustworthy, but as a technology of entertainment.
Indeed it was Huxley’s concern that our available mediums would be turned into that of leisure devices, and that we would never realise a medium’s potential capacity to circumvent an authoritarian regime. How much directional prodding towards entertainment the state needed is debatable, however what cannot be debated is that ‘from the government’s perspective, it’s far better to keep young Russians away from politics altogether, having them consume funny videos’ writes Yvgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion.
In order to achieve this the Russian state funds and produces an abundance of frivolous (or artistically deplorable) internet shows, such as ‘Show Us Your Tits’ ‘Morozov’, in order to keep their population entertained. Whilst this appears to be a very simplistic premise, it does not stop it from being an effective one. In fact overall there is a tendency within scholarship to overvalue the public’s desire for information and underestimate there want of entertainment ‘Morozov': many people are simply apathetic regarding politics.
Overall, Putin has capitalised on the aforementioned in a very sophisticated manner. This has been achieved primarily and initially by ‘defining the Internet as a national security concern’ ‘Ogyanova’, which then allows state control which, crucially, the population welcome, and secondly by reducing the internet to a one-dimensional medium, one for entertainment. This technological suppression, or more aptly stated manipulation, of technology is more frightening than that of North Korea: it is harder to expose and demonstrate that a medium is being used to coerce a populace than it is to demonstrate that a medium is being completely denied. Putin, it would appear, has been able to bind together Orwell’s and Huxley’s respective dystopias to the end that those who seek to expose the suppression of the system are made to vanish, just as those in 1984 did, whilst the majority of the population happily consume a pseudo internet that suppresses their critical autonomy, just as those in Brave New World were happy to take soma.