American Propaganda and the Mass Media

From The Committee on Public Information  during WW1

Edward Bernays and the Manipulation of the Public Mind

Edward Bernays was the nephew of pioneering Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. His parents had settled in the U.S. and Bernays grew up American, but came to be deeply influenced by his uncle’s ideas about the unconscious, its role as the repository of repressed sexual and aggressive impulses and its potential use as a means of manipulating the masses. Bernays was also influenced by social psychologist Wilfred Trotter’s theories on crowd psychology and the “herd instinct.”

During WWI, which threw Freud into a deep depression because he saw it as confirmation of his worst fears about human behavior, Bernays was working as a press agent and was asked to assist the war effort by participating in the American government’s committee on public information, known as the Creel Committee. His great contribution was effectively promoting president Woodrow Wilson’s narrative of the war as a fight to spread democracy to Europe. During the Paris Peace Conference, Bernays would see first-hand the success of his propaganda efforts as the Paris crowds greeted Wilson as “a liberator of the people. The man who would create a new world in which the individual would be free.”

Inspired by the achievements of propaganda during wartime, Bernays, looking to make his fortune, set to work on turning Americans from citizens into passive consumers who would be controlled by channeling their unconscious desires into a constant quest for goods and services that they would associate with their deepest yearnings for beauty, freedom and fulfillment. Bernays would come up with tactics to bombard the public with messages that would cement this objective.

One of his first successes involved helping the tobacco industry expand their market by breaking the taboo against women smoking in public. After soliciting the advice of the top psychoanalyst in America who told him that cigarettes were a phallic symbol and represented male sexual power, he realized that if cigarettes could be associated with challenging men’s power, women would respond positively to smoking as it would be connected to the ideas of freedom and rebellion —two of the most common marketing concepts to this day.

At the annual Easter Day Parade in New York City, Bernays staged a memorable event in which a group of “rich debutantes” lit up cigarettes in theatrical fashion at Bernays’ pre-arranged signal. He had tipped off the media that a group of “suffragettes” would be lighting up what they called “torches of freedom.” As Bernays knew, who could argue against freedom in America? By associating cigarettes with freedom to women, Bernays had helped the tobacco companies hit the jackpot.

Bernays and his insights soon became indispensable to corporate America, which was worried that consumer demand for their products would plateau as mass production had been mastered and people at the time tended to buy goods based on need and durability. Only a small group of wealthy people could buy a significant number of luxury items. Consequently, to continue growing their markets, they needed to “transform the way the majority of Americans thought about products” as Paul Mazen, a Leahman Brothers Wall Street banker said. Mazen turned to Bernays for implementation of this transformation.

As Peter Solomon, investment banker for Leahman Brothers, said about Bernays in the documentary film Century of the Self:

Prior to that time there was no American consumer, there was the American worker. And there was the American owner. And they manufactured and they saved and they ate what they had to and the people shopped for what they needed. And while the very rich may have bought things they didn’t need, most people did not. And Mazen envisioned a break with that where you would have things that you didn’t actually need, but you wanted as opposed to needed.

As the New York banks financed the spread of chain department stores across the country to serve as oases of consumerism, Bernays came up with many methods of product promotion that would become pervasive later on, such as linking products with movie stars who were also his clients, adorning those same movie stars in clothes and accessories made by other corporate clients during public events, and prominently placing products in films.

He also paid psychologists to issue reports claiming that certain products and services were good for people’s well-being and celebrities to push the idea that clothes were not merely necessities but a means of self-expression. This became known as the “third party technique” of conferring legitimacy by what appears to be a disinterested party or an authoritative source.

The dramatic growth in consumerism that Bernays actively facilitated contributed to the stock market boom. After it crashed in 1929, however, challenges were presented to the idea that Americans were consumers rather than citizens as the consumer boom could no longer be sustained and Franklin Roosevelt’s administration actively lobbied against it as part of the New Deal program. Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter in a letterto Roosevelt described Bernays and his PR colleagues as “professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism, and self-interest.” Unlike Bernays, Roosevelt and his colleagues believed that people could be trusted to make rational decisions if their fears, desires and insecurities were not manipulated in other directions as reflected in Roosevelt’s famous admonition, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Bernays eventually saw his ideas transferred into the realm of political philosophy as renowned political writer and repentant former socialist Walter Lippmann, who had served with Bernays on the Creel Commission, began to apply Freud’s ideas to a need to control the masses politically, viewing the Russian Revolution as an example of the dark forces of the rabble being unleashed. Bernays was intrigued by Lippmann’s interpretation of his uncle’s ideas — contained in Freud’s books which Bernays professionally promoted in the U.S. Lippmann had begun to openly question the feasibility of democracy:

The lesson is, I think, a fairly clear one. In the absence of institutions and education by which the environment is so successfully reported that the realities of public life stand out sharply against self-centered opinion, the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.

In his 1922 book, The Phantom Public, Lippmann stated plainly: “The public must be put in its place [so that we may] live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.”

In 1930’s Germany, the Nazis were also asserting that democracy was not feasible and Joseph Goebbels, who emerged as the Nazis’ pre-eminent propagandist, had taken note of Bernays methods of public manipulation based on Freudian theory as a way to channel the desires of the population in a particular direction favored by the leaders. Goebbels reportedly admitted putting Bernays’ book Crystallizing Public Opinion to use in the regime’s genocidal campaign against the Jews in terms of creating a public environment of hatred and scapegoating.

Having honed his propaganda skills since WWI, Bernays would once again provide his services on behalf of the martial ambitions of the U.S. government. He served as an advisor to Eisenhower and believed that the best way to deal with Americans’ fear of Communism and the nuclear arms race was to manipulate those fears to support America’s mobilization in the Cold War.

In 1954, Bernays assisted the CIA’s overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected leader, Jacobo Arbenz, a democratic socialist with no ties to the Soviet Union. The CIA had a propaganda program in place called Operation Mockingbird, in which numerous journalists and editors — both paid and unpaid — published and broadcast stories sympathetic to the increasingly aggressive and unaccountable agency. Led by Frank Wisner, Operation Mockingbird was also used to suppress reporting that would expose the agency’s nefarious covert activities or present them in a negative light.

Bernays’ role was to create a narrative that portrayed the coup as the popular overthrow of a Communist dictator and puppet of Moscow whose removal represented the spreading of democracy. In reality, Arbenz’s ouster was to preserve the profits of United Fruit Company, a company that Bernays had worked for in a PR capacity since the 1940’s while the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, had made investments in United Fruit in his earlier years as a lawyer at the Sullivan and Cromwell firm which served as United Fruit’s corporate counsel.

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Deconstructing the Ukraine War: The Players and Their Interests


(image by toivo_xiv)   DMCA

As ominous reports of increased violations of the Minsk 2.0 ceasefire continue to surface and the Kiev government paves the way for martial law, the winds of war appear to be picking up again. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has even gone so far as to publicly state, without providing details, that “someone in the European Union” is sabotaging the ceasefire.

Against this backdrop, the EU-Ukraine Summit last week hailed a neoliberal free trade agreement set to take effect on January 1, 2016, but it was also made clear that any EU membership aspirations for Ukraine are still a distant dream, rendering Ukraine’s relationship with the EU to be a rather lopsided one in terms of who benefits and who suffers.

It seems like a good time to take a look at the parties in the Ukraine war, their interests and what may be expected in the future.

Continue reading the article here.



“Architects of American policy towards Russia and Ukraine are destroying American national security”: Stephen F. Cohen on the truths U.S. media and politicians hide

"Architects of American policy towards Russia and Ukraine are destroying American national security": Stephen F. Cohen on the truths U.S. media and politicians hide

Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev (Credit: AP/Reuters/RIA Novosti/Photo montage by Salon)
April 23, 2015
“Architects of American policy towards Russia and Ukraine are destroying American national security”: Stephen F. Cohen on the truths U.S. media and politicians hide
Myths of American nationalism busted as our interview with noted scholar concludes
By Patrick L. Smith
Patrick Smith is the author of “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century.” He was the International Herald Tribune’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and then Tokyo from 1985 to 1992. During this time he also wrote “Letter from Tokyo” for the New Yorker. He is the author of four previous books and has contributed frequently to the New York Times, the Nation, the Washington Quarterly, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter, @thefloutist.

If there is a lesson in Stephen F. Cohen’s professional fortunes over the past year, it is the peril of advancing a dispassionate reading of our great country’s doings abroad. Cohen’s many pieces in The Nation on the Ukraine crisis and the consequent collapse of U.S.-Russia relations now leave him in something close to a state of siege. “My problem with this begins with the fact that… I don’t have a vested interest in one of the ‘isms,’ or ideologies,” Cohen says in this, the second part of a long interview conducted last month.

The problem lies with the ideologues infesting the waters wherein Cohen swims. Terminally poisoned by Cold War consciousness, they cannot abide disinterested thought. Cohen has been mostly scholar, partly journalist, since the 1970s. His “Sovieticus” column, launched in The Nation in the 1980s, put a magazine traditionally tilted toward domestic issues among the few American publications providing consistent analysis of Russian affairs. At this point, Cohen’s Nation essays are the bedrock scholarly work to which those (few) writing against the orthodoxy turn.

The first half of our exchange, last week on Salon [], began with events during the past year and advanced toward the post-Soviet origins of the current crisis. In part two, Cohen completes his analysis of Vladimir Putin’s inheritance and explains how he came to focus his thinking on “lost alternatives”-outcomes that could have been but were not. Most surprising to me was the real but foregone prospect of reforming the Soviet system such that the suffering that ensued since its demise could have been averted.

Salon: Putin inherited a shambles, then-as he would say, “a catastrophe.”

Stephen F. Cohen: As Russia’s leader, Putin has changed over the years, especially in foreign policy but also at home. His first impulse was toward more free-market reforms, anti-progressive taxes. He enacted a 13 percent flat tax-Steve Forbes would’ve been ecstatic, right? He offers [George W.] Bush what Clinton never really offered Yeltsin: a full partnership. And what does he do? On September 11, 2001, he called George and said, Whatever you want, we’re with you. Bush says, Well, I think we’re going to have to go to war in Afghanistan. And Putin said, I can help you. We’ve got major resources and assets in Afghanistan. I even have an army over there called the Northern Alliance. I’ll give it to you! You want overflight? It’s all yours!

How many American lives did Putin save during our land war in Afghanistan? And do you know what a political price he paid in Russia for that? Because his security people were completely against it.

Q: They were? Please explain.

Oh, yeah. You think they minded seeing America being brought to its knees? They’d been invaded so often; let America get a taste of it! But Putin assumes he’s achieved what Yeltsin couldn’t and that this benefits the Russian state. He has a real strategic partnership with America. Now, remember, he’s already worried about his radical Islamic problem because Russia has nearly 20 million Muslim citizens of its own. Russia sits in the East and in the West; it’s on the front lines.

What does Bush give him in return? He expands NATO again and he unilaterally withdraws the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the bedrock of Russia’s nuclear security- it’s a complete betrayal. Is that how you repay somebody who’s helped you save the lives of your citizens? This is where the word “betrayal” begins to enter into the discourse.

Continued here.


Review of Chris Hedges’ “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
I have read many accounts of the horrors of war, including first person narratives of the Holocaust and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  As part of my research on the war in Ukraine, I viewed footage of civilian bodies — dead and dismembered — including women and children, from artillery shells, bombs, and shrapnel; bloated and blackened bodies of fighters scattered in fields and on the sides of roads.
Yet, I never seem to become inured to it.  I still wince and feel my stomach curdle, not knowing whether to weep for or rage at humanity.
The first six chapters of this book provide a detailed account of Hedges’ experiences as a war correspondent, from the Balkans to the Middle East to Africa.  It is graphic and disturbing in that it’s a reminder of just what depths humans are capable of plumbing.  I don’t know how Hedges functions on a daily basis with the things that he has witnessed.  But he seems to recognize his role as a witness in the highest sense of the word and has not only reported his observations and experiences, but has attempted to make sense of them, not only for his own sake but to provide insight and ultimately a warning about the madness of war and the folly of unleashing its dark forces.
It is in the seventh chapter, “Eros and Thanatos,” where Hedges puts down his best reflections on the horrors of the previous six chapters worth of gratuitous death, destruction and moral-spiritual degradation.
I certainly agree with Hedges that humans seem to have a tendency toward self-destructiveness, both on a personal and collective level.  He cites Freud’s concept of thanatos, the death drive, as an approximate description of humans’ drive for self-destruction.  Hedges asserts that love is its antithesis.  Love representing an empathetic and symbiotic connection with another — typically another human, but I think it’s safe to say that it could include animals, God in some iteration or the natural world, anything that is beyond oneself.  Love is what is needed to balance out or heal the destructive drive that war brings out.
It was a bit disappointing, however, that Hedges pretty much stopped at Freud in terms of psychological thought on this.  Freud’s disaffected student, Carl Jung, went much further in this area of exploration.  Jung and those influenced by his thought have noted that these thanatos-related destructive behaviors, like addiction — whether to drugs, acquisitiveness or the intoxication of the power inherent in martial actions — are warped substitutes for humans’ spiritual drive for meaning and purpose that is often repressed in the modern world.  Jung observed after decades of listening to patients in both the US and Europe that what they all seemed to have in common was a lack of meaning in their lives for which modern western culture — with its scientific materialism and social atomization — appeared deficient in terms of providing.  Hedges touches on this deficiency and how war can consequently serve as a source of meaning and purpose that is missing in many people’s lives, but considering the title of his book, he doesn’t dive as deeply into it as would be expected.
Another area in which I have some trouble with Hedges is the assertion he makes, either implicitly or explicitly, that this destructiveness, which is most acutely reflected in war but also by drug addiction, consumerism, perverted or dehumanizing sexuality (also common in war settings), etc.  has always been part of human history.  It is a common fallacy repeated by many who write about war and the dark aspects of human nature or human habit.
However, there is solid anthropological evidence indicating that organized warfare only cropped up around 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, roughly coinciding with agricultural settlement and its attendant forms of social organization.  That is not to say there was no violence but it mostly took the form of individual homicides.
What are the implications that throughout most of human history humans did not engage in war?  It is a question that begs to be asked no less than the question that Hedges and so many others ask about why humans do engage in war.  During the long period of no war, humans lived in small, relatively egalitarian groups.  In other words, human beings did not evolve to live in large, centralized and hierarchical social structures.  I would assert that they also did not evolve to believe that existence had no meaning and the universe — however narrow or broad they may have perceived it — to be nothing more than a vast machine.  Humans during this period tended to be animists, to believe that all living things were infused with spirit or a sense of the sacred.  This does not mean there was no killing:  humans hunted animals for food and clothing and sometimes even killed other humans, but there were boundaries in place, underpinned by a sense of a connected or spiritual world view, to keep these behaviors from spiraling out of control.  Humans were also dependent upon the tribe or band for survival and the threat of being expelled from the community was usually the equivalent of a death sentence.  Therefore, there was a powerful incentive not to profoundly or repeatedly offend the social boundaries of that community.
Paradoxically, this may provide a partial explanation as to why humans find it so difficult to go against their group, even when that group has become ethically compromised and destructive.
Another psychologist-philosopher that has some insights on this is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton who has spent his career studying war crimes and those who commit them, from Communist Chinese brainwashing to Nazi doctors to Vietnam veterans.  Lifton has described how relatively decent people can become war criminals due to immersion in institutions that socialize such behavior, creating what he calls the “rotten barrel.”  He also describes the psychological phenomena of “doubling” — similar to what most would refer to as compartmentalizing but in an extreme manifestation.  This was how doctors and others who committed or enabled atrocities at concentration camps during the day could go home and be family men at night, even at times being highly cultured individuals.
Hedges describes many of the symptoms of these phenomena throughout his book and his recognition of the seductive, even addictive aspects of war is important. But he could have drawn on more schools of thought on the subject and come up with an even more comprehensive analysis.
Suggested Further Read and Viewing:
1.  Part III of PBS Special “The Wisdom of the Dream.”
2.  The Human Potential for Peace:  An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions About War and Violence by Douglas P. Fry
3.  Becoming Animal:  An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram.


3 Western Media Myths About Russia

From Russia_2488 - They Defeated Napoleon
Russia_2488 – They Defeated Napoleon
(image by archer10 (Dennis) REPOSTING)

Myth #1: Immigrants Don’t Go to Russia and Russians Can’t Wait to Leave

As Mark Adomanis, an expert on Russian demographics, noted in a Forbes article pointing out several basic facts that president Obama got wrong about Russia in his interview with The Economist last summer, Russia is second in the world only to the United States in immigration. Most of the immigrants are from the former Soviet republics, particularly Central Asia, and the influx has created an important political issue: “Several of the most consequential political disagreements in Russian society revolve around the question of how to deal with immigration. Anyone who thinks that Russia isn’t dealing with a significant debate over immigration simply doesn’t know anything about the country.”

Further challenging the typical western narrative that Russia is the armpit of the world and no one in their right mind could possibly want to live there, it should also be noted that a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center found only 10% of Russians thought they might enjoy living abroad while only 5%  regularly thought about leaving.

3 Western Media Myths About Vladimir Putin

From Vladimir Putin

(image by AK Rockefeller)   DMCA


Myth #1:   Putin is an imperialist who wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union.

The most common premise that the West uses to argue that Putin is an imperialist who wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union is a line plucked from a 2005 speech before the Federal Assembly regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This is an example of the West’s well established pattern of taking things Putin says out of context to make it sound like he is saying something he is not.  Below is what Putin actually said, properly translated and in context:

“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.

Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country’s integrity. Oligarchic groups – possessing absolute control over information channels – served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere.

Many thought or seemed to think at the time that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse, the prolonged agony of the Soviet system.

But they were mistaken.

That was precisely the period when the significant developments took place in Russia. Our society was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life. In those difficult years, the people of Russia had to both uphold their state sovereignty and make an unerring choice in selecting a new vector of development in the thousand years of their history. They had to accomplish the most difficult task: how to safeguard their own values, not to squander undeniable achievements, and confirm the viability of Russian democracy. We had to find our own path in order to build a democratic, free and just society and state.

When speaking of justice, I am not of course referring to the notorious “take away and divide by all” formula, but extensive and equal opportunities for everybody to develop. Success for everyone. A better life for all.”

Putin says nothing that can be construed by any sane person as a desire to rebuild an empire or take over other sovereign nations.  He is discussing the conditions in Russia during the 1990’s when a small group of well-connected bureaucrats (who would become the oligarchs) seized control of what had been the Soviet Union’s major resources and industrial sectors for a pittance, taking the billions of dollars they made out of the country while the population lost their life savings, experienced prolonged periods receiving no salaries or pensions, went hungry and suffered due to skyrocketing crime and a major mortality crisis.  He was talking about how the country was gradually getting back on its feet after the decade under Yeltsin’s rule that put Russia literally on the verge of being a failed state.

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3 Western Media Myths About the Ukraine War

Myth #1:  Russia started it.

The European Union, led by Germany, tried to pressure Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to sign an Association agreement.  Upon review of how the agreement would actually affect his country economically – already the poorest in Europe – including austerity measures,  renunciation of their significant trade with Russia and the supplanting of Ukraine’s native oligarchs, Yanukovich balked and opted to go with a Russian deal comprised of a $15 billion loan and reduced gas rates.  As it turns out, the West was not in fact offering Ukraine free trade or even visa-free travel but a self-serving deal that had little to no benefit to Ukraine.  Most people in Yanukovich’s place would have done the same.

Throughout the period of negotiating this association agreement, Russia requested three way talks to avert problems.  Of course, Russia wanted to protect its own economic and trade interests, but it also had an interest in preventing friction or instability on its border.  They were basically told by the West to drop dead.

Myth #2:  Yanukovich fled Ukraine due to a massive peaceful protest representing the majority sentiment in the country.

According to an independent investigation by Germany’s ARD TV into the events surrounding the ouster of the democratically elected president, specifically the violence on the Maidan, found that sniper shots, starting on February 20th, which resulted in almost 100 deaths came primarily from buildings controlled by the Maidan protesters.   A more in-depth forensic investigation was conducted by Ukrainian-Canadian academic Ivan Katchanovski, PhD.  His conclusions supported the ARD report.  This is all consistent with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet’s account to then European High Commissioner Catherine Ashton in an intercepted phone call posted on February 26, 2014, wherein he stated that his sources, including Dr. Olga Bolgomets – who was an ardent supporter of the original Maidan protests – reported evidence that the snipers were Maidan protesters.  Paet also reported that members of the Ukrainian parliament had been beaten and threatened during the period in question.

Prior to the sniper violence and the ouster of Yanukovich, State Department official Victoria Nuland and US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt were caught with their pants down in an intercepted phone call posted on February 6th wherein they are discussing how to “glue this thing” and who will be the best person to lead a post-Yanukovich Ukraine, declaring “Yats is the guy.” She also famously disparaged the EU’s less aggressive approach to engineering a zero-sum position for Ukraine with respect to its relations with the West and Russia.

Thus, there is overwhelming evidence, typically ignored by the western mainstream media, that Yanukovich’s ousting was actually the result of a violent and planned coup.

Myth #3:  The Donbas rebellion is a Russian contrivance with no indigenous support and no legitimate grievances.

American Russia scholar Nicolai Petro, who spent a year in Ukraine and was in country when the upheaval occurred, has cited sociological surveys of Donbas residents from March, April and May of 2014 in which the results show that majorities considered the Right Sector to be dangerous and influential and the Maidan protests to be illegal and representing “an armed overthrow of the government, organized by the opposition, with the assistance of the West.”

Independent video journalist Patrick Lancaster, who has been reporting from the Donbas since spring of 2014, stated that most of the fighters he has encountered on both sides are Ukrainian.

British Russia scholar Paul Robinson has estimated that 90% of the fighters in the Donbas are Ukrainian.  Furthermore, he states that the original rebellion constituted regular citizens who took control of local government buildings in response to the startling events coming out of post-coup Kiev where laws were introduced seeking to delegitimize the Russian language, neo-Nazis were given posts in the Interior and Education departments and many acts of violence were committed against members of the Communist Party and the Party of Regions.

When Robinson asked a Maidan protester why this political protest had led to a more violent and divisive result than the Orange Revolution in 2004, the protester admitted that this time they didn’t care what the Crimeans or the residents of the Donbas wanted.   So the divisiveness was not initiated by Russia or the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine, but by a portion of the Maidan protesters who basically believed a whole segment of their country should – to put it delicately – kiss off.

Although Russia has provided some arms and allowed Russian volunteers to cross the border freely, Robinson points out that Moscow has actually had a moderating influence on the rebels by facilitating the replacement of the original military leaders (Igor Strelkov and Alexander Borodai) that supported a quixotic quest for independence.    An independent Donbas that would be economically unviable and would provide no counterweight to a hostile and extremist government in Kiev is not in Moscow’s interests.

Review of Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

Dying Unneeded:  The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis

“I saw nothing barbarous about these people.  On the contrary their forms have something elegant and gentle which one does not find anywhere else….The character of this people is that they fear neither fatigue nor physical suffering; there is both patience and activity in this nation, gaiety and melancholy.  One sees the most striking contrasts united in them and this presages great things, for ordinarily it is only superior beings who possess opposing qualities; masses are, for the most part, gray.”

-Madame de Stael on her trip to Russia in 1812 (1)

 “Even for her people, Russia refuses to submit.  This is how she charms and this is how she frustrates.  She is never completely known and always retains her ability to surprise, in both pleasant and unpleasant ways.” (Parsons, p. 7)

Though I have read several books over the past year on Russia that have been tremendously informative, ethnographer Michelle Parsons’ Dying Unneeded has achieved something special.  Special in that it provides the reader with an empathetic window into Russian triumphs and struggles post-WWII, especially during the “shock therapy” period of the 1990s.

The book is deeply sad at times, but the reader does not walk away simply feeling sorry for Russians, something this proud people likely wouldn’t want.  In addition to the sadness, one also comes away with a glimpse of what gives the Russian people their character and resilience as well as their mystique.

Geography and history in the form of a harsh climate and constant invasions from all directions have created a people with great stamina and endurance.

It’s no surprise then that Russia has been a source of great literature.  In terms of historical experience and culture, it has all the necessary ingredients for great storytelling:  tragedy, struggle, paradox and a sense of the absurd (i.e. humor).  And most Russians, as cited in the interviews and surveys used for Parsons’ book, seem to be keenly aware of this.

The sense of the absurd involves getting things done within Russia’s still cumbersome bureaucracy and the use of connections, which outsiders often perceive as “corruption” but in actuality has a more complex cultural history.  A harsh bureaucracy to maintain order along with tribute paying and exploitation of connections goes back to the state system imposed by the Mongols in the 13th century.

As one of Parson’s Russian acquaintances stated:  “It is impossible for you Westerners to understand our lives…trying to understand us rationally.  Russian reality is based on absurdisms – economic, social, even scientific.  All our life is based on absurdity, impossibility.  Russian daily life is simply absurd and preposterous. “  (Parsons, p. 7)

Space, Order & Freedom in the Soviet Union & Post-Soviet Russia

The theme of paradox – which seems to underscore most people’s observations of Russia and its people, regardless of the time period – was reflected most in this book by the author’s elaboration of the historical and cultural relationship between space and order and its implications for social connection.

“Older Muscovites were often nostalgic for Soviet order because it ordered social connections.  People’s positions vis-à-vis the Soviet state influenced what people could give to other people – the ways they could be soulful and needed.  Work was the principle means by which Soviet citizens were ordered by the state.  At work, Russians had personal connections and access to resources and services. Someone in the Soviet bureaucracy could arrange permission to build a dacha.  A friendly butcher could set aside a good cut of meat.  A test proctor could help a student pass an entrance examination.  Collectively, people often circumvented the state, but they depended on the state to do that.  Order here refers to both the order of the state and the order of social relations because they are mutually constitutive.” (Parsons, p. 12)

Furthermore, the push back required to circumvent both the material and non-material limits of the state in order to get various needs met – utilizing those essential social connections – produced a sense of freedom.

“The paradox of space and order – the unbound and bound quality of social relations in Soviet society – resolves into the even higher-order concept of freedom.  For these elderly Muscovites, freedom was not always compromised by the Soviet state.  In some cases the constraint of the Soviet state heightened a sense of freedom.  As people using their connections, collectively pushed against the limits of the state, and as those limits bent back or gave way, they experienced a sense of freedom.”  (Parsons, p. 12)

It should be noted that this phenomena of pushing back against the system in small and various ways did not work under the brutality of the Stalin regime and it refers to Soviet life generally after Stalin’s death when the system relaxed in some ways.  Parsons goes on later to explain how the breakdown of this space-order-freedom framework in the 1990s led to social alienation as people seemed to drift off onto their own.  This alienation was exacerbated by the requirements of neoliberal capitalism.

“The people we talked with were eloquent storytellers when asked about their lives and how things had changed in the early 1990s.  They were intent on answering the question, ‘What makes life worth living?’  And what made life worth living was a sense of being needed.” (p. 9)

Some Westerners eschew the idea that Russians have a distinct outlook that is more interested in a sense of meaning and other non-material pursuits – a soulfulness – as alluded to in an earlier quote about social connections and being needed.  Contrary to these naysayers, there does seem to be some merit to this cultural difference, but as with any group of humans it is hardly simple.  As evidenced by surveys Parsons cites, there is a deep cultural interest in a meaningful life and what that means in terms of their social relationships and the consequences of having those relationships torn asunder via the various upheavals of the 20th century, particularly the dissolution of Soviet society in the 1990s.  That dissolution produced a trauma that translated into millions of premature deaths, especially among Russian men who died from accelerated alcoholism, heart attacks, suicides and homicides.  Women were also affected by the mortality crisis but on a smaller scale as well as in a qualitatively different way.

“Men’s sense of neededness centered on being able to adequately provide – a possibility that narrowed substantially in the early 1990s.  Women’s sense of neededness was more diffuse and included, importantly, being able to hold their families together in times of hardship.  In this sense, the early 1990s meant that women were sometimes quite desperately needed.  They were undoubtedly burdened by this responsibility, but they may have also been preserved by it.”  (p. 11)

This is reminiscent of Viktor Frankl’s observation in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that his experience in Nazi concentration camps showed him that those who were able to survive in the horrendous physical and psychological conditions were not necessarily the most physically hardy or stubborn, but those who were able to provide something to their fellow prisoners – comfort, an extra piece of bread or just a dark sense of humor – and who were able to find some larger meaning in suffering, both their own and those around them.

Recent research in social psychology reveals the difference between a meaningful life and a happy one – the difference, in large part, being that meaning derives from what you are able to give and happiness from what you are able to receive.   (2)

It can be argued that without struggle, there is no opportunity for meaning.   This is not to celebrate or be tolerant of systems of gratuitous suffering, but to recognize that the complementary relationship between a sense of meaning and happiness requires both some degree of struggle as well as interdependence among people.

This is also not to suggest that Russians’ strong interest in a meaningful life, as reflected in their impressive tradition in the arts, philosophy and literature, means they are austere, ascetic or masochistic.   As Suzanne Massie, an academic expert on Russian history and culture, once noted with respect to the French conclusion that Russians “love to suffer”:

“Russians do not “love” to suffer, but through their history they have often had to suffer and to endure.  Their experience has bred in them a serene knowledge that there is a limit to what human beings can understand or change, and an acceptance of everything that life has to offer of both joy and tragedy.”   (1)

Among people they know and trust, Russians reportedly tend to be warm and effusive.  They also know how to enjoy the finer things when they have access to them as was demonstrated during the Czarist period when lavish dress and architecture abounded.  Even peasant attire and everyday items had elaborate and decorative designs as pre-Soviet Russian artisans and craftspeople were numerous and renowned.

Russian Social Connections and Social Morality

Along with the importance of a sense of meaning in life there is an interest in the separate but related issue of morality.  From the time of Kiev Rus in the 10th century, when Prince Vladimir chose the Orthodox religion, which has seen a resurgence in post-Soviet Russia, the Russians have put their own unique stamp on Christianity.  As Massie described in her 1980 book on Pre-Soviet Russia, Land of the Firebird:

“[A] calm acceptance of fate and the sympathy for human suffering are perhaps the greatest strengths of the Russian people and the most basic expression of Russian Christianity.”  (1)

Though the church was repressed during the Soviet era, morality as reflected in the value of social connections remained.   As Parsons writes:

“Social connections in Russia remain a way of living a moral life amid circumstances widely regarded as immoral…Russian social connections allow individuals to access a moral space beyond the self and beyond the mundane.  When middle-aged Muscovites lament a loss of sociality [from the Soviet period], they are commenting on a perceived loss of morality.” (Parsons, p. 18)

Parsons describes why one older Russian friend had refused to go into a trendy café in modern day capitalist Moscow, feeling out of place:

“Instead of a space where people’s interactions were framed by the political economy of socialism, the space’s interactions were framed by the political economy of capitalism.  In this way social inequality was written into a space in a way that clearly read social exclusion to older Muscovites, many of whom had never seen such lavish cafes with their trendy clientele and expensive coffee during most of their lifetimes.  These spaces were ‘no longer for everyone but for a certain type of people.’” (Parsons, p. 30)

One interviewee from Moscow, a music teacher, lamented the difference between Soviet times and the current times:  “We had no illusions.  But the human aspect of that time….Everything is sold now.  Before we would have been ashamed.”  (Parsons, p. 39)

Indeed, Moscow is wealthier, more bustling and diverse and also suffers from more inequality than any other part of Russia.  As epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show in their pioneering work on inequality, The Spirit Level, the more social inequality (as reflected in income) there is within a society, the more social problems will flourish, including increased crime, health problems, mental illness, substance abuse and distrust.  Post-Soviet Russia has been no exception.

It is interesting to note throughout the book that none of the interviewees mention political democracy as a factor either way in discussing the good or bad of Soviet life versus post-Soviet life.  It is social security in the form of access to essential goods and the quality of social relationships (or lack thereof) that are most often mentioned.

Similarly, these are the factors that have a strong significant impact on mortality as Wilkinson and Pickett show with their metadata in The Spirit Level.    According to a November 2014 poll conducted by the Levada Center, 61% of Russians favored living in a society that strove for social equality rather than a society that strove for higher individual success.  (3)

This is not to say that political democracy has no appeal at all or that democracies can’t incorporate various mechanisms to decrease the inequalities inherent in capitalist market systems, such as the Scandinavian social democracies, but perhaps our assumptions about the prioritization of political democracy over social equality are confused.  Given the fact that humans are the most social creatures on the planet, it is logical that they are extremely sensitive to perceived social inequities.

  1. Massie, Suzanne. Land of the Firebird:  The Beauty of Old Russia.  Hearttree Press.


Review of “Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft” by Allen Lynch

Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft

This book is a great antidote to the Karen Dawisha/Frontline hysteria that’s been making the rounds.

If you want to know more of my thoughts on the Dawisha and Frontline issues, please see:

I use Lynch’s book, among other sources, to buttress some of my critique of Dawisha and the Frontline program, “Putin’s Way,” which violated several of Frontline’s own stated journalistic guidelines.

Lynch’s political biography of Putin is a sober and scholarly analysis of Putin the man, the current political conditions of the Russian Federation and the relationship between the two.

Lynch’s assessment of Putin is that, in addition to having conservative views on honor and loyalty, he is extremely intelligent and recognizes (and is even open to) many aspects of western democracy on an intellectual level; but Putin also has certain psychological facets to his personality that make him lean toward control, particularly in times of crisis.

I think this is a reasonable assessment. Putin is indeed preoccupied with stability. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and subsequent chaos that enveloped Russia during the 1990’s made an indelible impression on Putin, as it did on most Russians.

I also think it would be fair to say that most leaders would have some of those same tendencies if faced with the challenges that Russia has had in the past two decades, including a lone superpower overrun by neo-Wilsonian and neoconservative thinking that continues to move a hostile military alliance right up to Russia’s borders, funnels money to opposition figures that want to topple the Russian government – even going so far as having an ambassador (Michael McFaul) that actively supported the opposition in violation of diplomatic protocol, and an oligarchy inherited from the previous leadership – some of whom bristled at having any constraints placed on their behavior and continued to collude with hostile powers to cause trouble (Khodorkovsky and the late Berezovsky).

What also has to be kept in mind is that Russia is trying to find its way in the midst of many challenges with no historical experience with democratic institutions prior to Gorbachev’s brief rule.

Contrary to Dawisha’s mishmash of unverified sources and discredited theories, Lynch describes Putin’s relative honesty when he was working as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 90’s:

“For much of this time, given (mayor Anatoliy) Sobchak’s frequent and protracted absences and his preoccupation with national affairs, Putin assumed the functions of acting mayor. He supervised the drafting and implementation of countless international business deals and policy reforms. These transactions did not always go according to plan, and no doubt many profited handsomely from Putin’s admitted inexperience in these matters. During his attempt to establish municipal oversight over a series of casinos, for example, the city was cheated. In another case, the city was fleeced for $120 million for two shipments of cooking oil. Although during this period his mother bought a choice apartment at an exceptionally low price at a city auction, Putin didn’t seem to enrich himself personally. In the one specific public charge of corruption that was brought against him, Putin sued in court for slander and won….”

This assessment is confirmed by other sources as noted in my article on Dawisha and Frontline.

Lynch also details Putin’s career in the KGB and how his actual job, throughout most of it, was as a low-level analyst in Dresden. Disenchanted with the agency, Putin voluntarily quit the KGB in the early 1990’s, not long after passing up a potential promotion to “the headquarters of the KGB’s foreign intelligence operations,” opting to keep his family in St. Petersburg where they had secure housing, which would have been difficult to obtain in Moscow.

In the latter chapters, Lynch sums up that, contrary to the hysterical and propagandistic statements thrown around by many western politicians and pundits, Russia is not presently a dictatorship or an autocracy, but that the governance in that vast country is far more nuanced and complex:

“For all the impressive aura of authority surrounding his presidency, Putin was no dictator. Nor was his affinity for authoritarian rule similar to the unbridled totalitarianism of Soviet days. Substantial sectors of the economy remained in private hands, including scores of billions of dollars in liquid capital in private banks abroad. A considerable public forum existed for debate on public issues, though much more so in the press than on television. Furthermore, Russians had the right to travel abroad pretty much as they pleased; availability of funds, not political considerations, was their main constraint. Religious adherents of Russia’s historical religions of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism were free to practice their faith more or less as they pleased. Putin’s Russia, measured by any Cold War standard, represented impressive progress from the Soviet period. (p. 88)

….In foreign affairs, Russia has no ideologically based conflicts with the outside world and has pursued a mainly pragmatic diplomacy, not always successful, aimed at maximizing Russian revenues and minimizing Russia’s enemies.” (p. 133)

In terms of the legal system, Lynch confirms what I’ve heard from other credible sources – that there is a dual track in some limited circumstances:

“In the overwhelming majority of the millions of legal cases that are handled in Russia each year, the outcomes are decided on the basis of codified law as interpreted by judges and without political pressure.  This situation changes, however, when the political and economic interests of the Kremlin are involved. ” (p. 84)

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book which prevented me from giving it 5 starts. The first is that it would have been useful for Lynch to have provided some analysis and discussion of two historical Russian figures that are known to be influential to Putin’s political thinking: Ivan Ilyn (1) and Pyotr Stolypin (2). Both were anti-Revolutionary reformers and/or political philosophers who were interested in advancing Russia toward a developed nation based on the rule of law via gradual and thoughtful reform.

I suspect the reason that this was not done was due to the tendency to view and judge both Putin and Russia through a Western lens with the implicit assumption that the way the West does things represents the supreme way of doing things, best summed up by Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “There is no alternative (TINA).”

This attitude was even more prominent in Angus Roxburgh’s The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, in which Roxburgh’s Western bias at times bordered on the patronizing. However, he was more even-handed than many others and provided much valuable behind-the-scenes insight of Russia’s relations with the West from 2000 to 2012. I recommend that book, along with this one, for those interested in serious political biographies of Putin.

The other quibble with Lynch’s book was the occasional use of non-credible sources like Freedom House which gets 80% of its funding from the US government via the National Endowment for Democracy and, as I have written elsewhere, has a tendency to assess a country’s level of freedom, not based on consistent and objective criteria, but based on whether the country is an ally of the US and/or receptive to US corporate interests.

1)Ivan Ilyn:

2) Pyotr Stolypin:



Frontline Slings Mud at Putin

From Vladimir Putin

(image by theglobalpanorama)   DMCA


Karen Dawisha is not the most credible source on Russia or its president. Making a documentary program with no other academic or journalistic experts on Russia, government officials or business people is short sighted. Not performing due diligence as to the dubious claims she and the handful of others on Frontline make smacks of propaganda.

For full article, go to:

Note:  I have emailed a copy of the full article to Frontline.   Will update with any response I receive.

Analysis & Book Reviews on U.S. Foreign Policy and Russia

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