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Patrick Luciani: For Russians, the comfort of security outweighs the desire for truth

Commentary

When countries criticize each other, they always make a distinction between the people and their government. It’s not the people they attack but the country’s rulers. In the case of Russia, this thinking is changing with the invasion of Ukraine. 

A recent survey conducted by RIWI, a Canadian research firm, found that 48 percent of Russians believe that people should support their country even if they know their nation’s actions are wrong.Half of Russians Believe That People Should Support Their Country Even If Its Actions Are Wrong, According to RIWI’s New Cold War II Index https://www.newsfilecorp.com/release/121083 This support compares with 35 percent in China and 32 percent in the United States. After the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, public support for a total invasion of Ukraine went to 75 percent. Putin took note of his success in rousing public support and was confident he had the people behind him.

Russians can be forgiven for not answering surveys truthfully, given the threat of long prison terms if anyone criticizes the war in Ukraine. But support for the war seems intuitively true. Some put the support for the war at 80 percent.Putin’s war will destroy Russia https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-putins-war-will-destroy-russia/

Russians believe the West intends to destroy their country and a fascist government runs Ukraine, thanks to a steady beat of anti-American propaganda by state-controlled media.  Russians feel they are the victims of fake Western news and believe the war—or special military operation—was provoked by Ukrainian Nazis killing innocent Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The atrocities in Bucha and the sinking of their great battleship Moskva destroyed by Ukrainian drone missiles are fabrications by the West. Russians don’t even believe their Ukrainian relatives about the horrific crimes committed by Russian soldiers.

In our post-truth world, facts are malleable, and Putin took advantage with a vengeance. How has Putin’s Big Lie worked while the people’s voices remained muffled and mute?

One reason is that lies proliferate in a system that stifles the media. Joshua Yaffa, a correspondent in Moscow for The New Yorker, explains the deep denial of many Russians in his book, Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia. The citizen accommodates himself to the realities of the state’s power and manages to get along where bravery takes the form of passive resistance. The book helps to explain how the Kremlin maintains control and how talented Russians are making their way in Putinland. Between Two Fires begins with the work of Yuri Levada, a respected Russian sociologist who calls this new accommodating citizen the “wily man.” 

Levada hoped that a new citizen would emerge with the gradual decline of a totalitarian state. Perestroika—reform of the economic and political system—gave some hope that communism hadn’t destroyed the capacity to resist state controls; that dream was short-lived with the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Under Putin, the “wily man” continues to tolerate deception with the desire to be deceived. 

Instead of reform, people reverted to their old fears and subservience to the state. It was a step too far for a people subjected to communist rule for over 70 years. Even though there was a desire for many Soviet citizens for freedom, the comfort of security won out. When communism collapsed, the average citizen was now caught between the world of Stalin and Steve Jobs. Putin came along and brought the state back under the direct control of a strongman “responsive to his whims,” controlling the economy, civil society, the law, and the legislature. He even has the support of Moscow’s Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church for a war that has already taken tens of thousands of lives with soldiers marauding and killing at will.Russian Orthodox leader backs war in Ukraine, divides faith https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/18/russian-orthodox-church-ukraine-war/ 

And yet the Patriarch remains silent while Russians act perplexed about why they can’t take vacations in the south of France. Many shrug their shoulders and instead head for the beaches in Turkey, where they still welcome Russian tourists. For most, this feels more like the return of order where the Russian people have rid themselves of the responsibility to govern.  

Second, Putin had the good fortune to govern when high energy prices brought billions for himself and tripled average incomes. This happy coincidence kept Putin’s security forces busy killing and stifling his political and media critics, consolidating his power while citizens shopped. The economy was good, and citizens weren’t going to start asking too many questions. Besides, they liked a leader showing the world that Russia was punching back at the arrogant and decadent West.

Citizens long forgot the days when Solzhenitsyn’s book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich shocked the conscience of the average Russian. Twenty-five years after the collapse of the USSR, Russians no longer feel guilty about their country. Here Yaffa quotes Lev Gudkov, Levada’s successor: “the personality type born in that period has proven remarkably stable—a system of consciousness easy to manipulate, yet difficult to change.”  

Putin was now in complete control, interested in only power and profit, trapping 145 million in a “cage welded shut by propaganda and repression.” What surprised Yaffa was how many intelligent ordinary Russians acquiesced and accepted their situation as neither good nor bad. Russians tolerated even the unbelievable corruption by Putin and his oligarchs. When the Moskva warship sank, it was a $750 million (USD) loss to Russia, almost the exact cost of Putin’s private yacht now docked in Italy.Moskva Warship’s Sinking a $750 Million Loss for Russian Military: Report https://www.newsweek.com/moskva-warships-sinking-750-million-loss-russian-military-report-1698163 

The third explanation is Russian reverence for their military. May 9 is a sacred day for Russians when they remember the deaths of 27 million Soviets killed fighting in WWII. The Russian army is deeply beloved and held in the highest esteem throughout the country, and any criticism is taken as a harsh betrayal. Even the great scientist and Nobel Peace winner Andrei Sakharov was attacked for daring to criticize the army’s war crimes in Afghanistan. Russians can’t imagine their soldiers other than heroic. Putin is now usurping and betraying love for Russia’s military to justify his war of aggression, claiming victory will be ours as in 1945. 

Where were the defenders of democracy of August 1991 when millions of Soviet and Russian citizens took to the streets to denounce and stifle the right-wing coup led by the KGB? Where are the people now when the country needs them? This is not the nation of Chekhov or Tolstoy. This war in Ukraine is damaging Russia’s reputation. Its culture and image are at stake, sweeping up brave Russians against the war and isolating its artists, athletes, businesses, and students. Russians must stop believing that Putin will save world Christianity, or Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s outrageous claim that Hitler had Jewish blood insinuates Ukraine’s president can be both a Jew and a Nazi. 

Putin is responsible for the war in Ukraine. But the longer the war continues, the Russians can no longer make excuses for a leader ruining their economy and international rank as a great country. They must see the truth or be as guilty as their leader. 

Rahim Mohamed: What South Korea can teach Canada about soft power

Commentary

“Defund the CBC.”

It’s the one line that never fails to elicit applause in a room full of Conservative voters. And, for all the discord that’s marked the Conservative Party leadership race so far, it’s one thing that the contenders seem to agree on.

Pierre Poilievre regularly leads “defund the CBC” chants in his packed rallies; Leslyn Lewis has called CBC an “arm of the Liberal government”; and in the leadership debate Roman Baber went so far as to compare the national broadcaster to Soviet newspaper Pravda. Former party leader Andrew Scheer later riffed on Twitter that “[at least] Pravda never pretended to be independent”. 

Of course, these attacks refer to CBC News, just one of the national broadcaster’s many divisions, and its perceived pro-Liberal editorial bias. Nevertheless, by attempting to delegitimize one of Canada’s most venerable cultural institutions, leading Conservatives are turning a blind eye to the important historical role the CBC has played as a shaper of Canadian popular culture, an outlet for Canadian stories, and an incubator of some of the world’s most elite musical, theatrical, and behind-the-camera talent.

Thanks in no small part to the CBC and other publicly funded cultural organization, Canadians punch above their weight in virtually every facet of the entertainment industry. Three of the top ten most-streamed recording artists of the 2010s were Canadians.Canadian Invasion: Why Drake, The Weeknd And Justin Bieber Rule The Streaming World https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2017/06/14/canadian-invasion-drake-the-weeknd-and-justin-bieber-rule-the-streaming-world/?sh=648354d92408 CBC-produced sitcom Schitt’s Creek steadily grew into a global phenomenon over its six-season run, sweeping the comedy category at the 2020 Emmy Awards. Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who cut his teeth in Quebec’s heavily subsidized francophone film industry, landed one of Hollywood’s most sought-after projects when he was tapped to direct the latest adaptation of the classic science fiction novel Dune. The first installment of Villeneuve’s Dune saga, released last year, was one of the year’s biggest commercial and critical successes, despite the unwieldiness of its source material (some of Hollywood’s biggest directors have tried, and failed, to bring author Frank Herbert’s vision to the big screen over the years). These are just a few examples of how Canadians can be found at the highest echelons of global popular culture. 

Canadians love to rattle off the names of famous people who hail from the Great White North (just ask my long-suffering friends down here in the states), but we are less supportive of the cultural institutions that create opportunities for Canadian artists in the first place. A good number of Canada’s biggest global celebrities would still be toiling in obscurity in a world without the CBC

Insulated from the quarter-to-quarter financial pressures that face commercial broadcasters, the CBC can support projects that would never see the light of day in a free market. Again, take Schitt’s Creek, for example. What other television network would have green-lit an ostensible Arrested Development clone anchored by Eugene Levy, a sixty-something C-lister best known to American audiences as the dad who walked in on Jason Biggs violating the titular pastry in the 1999 teen sex romp American Pie? The series also took a few seasons to find its footing—time it likely would not have been granted from a commercial network.  

Of course, there’s no intrinsic reason for Canadians to care about the international success of Canadian entertainers and made-in-Canada TV shows, especially when their global visibility has no discernible effect on how Canada is perceived by other countries. Drake and Justin Bieber may be household names all over the world, but this doesn’t change the fact that Canada is less globally relevant today than its been at any point since the end of World War II. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is regularly greeted by half-empty rooms at the United Nations and is openly ignored by other world leaders. Canada badly lost its bid for a UN Security Council seat in 2020, despite shelling out more than $10 million in a futile attempt to buy votes. Just last year, Canada was left on the sidelines of a blockbuster security deal signed by the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Once a widely respected middle power, Canada has been reduced to a minnow in the global food chain. 

We have more than just national pride at stake; a Canada that’s out of sight on the world stage is also one that is out of mind. This is not a great place for us to be in an increasingly dangerous world. Russia has shown unequivocally (and violently) in recent years that it has no regard for the territorial integrity of its neighbouring countries. Putin’s next major play could be in the Arctic, a region where Russia has a number of unresolved territorial disputes with Canada. Even our “best friend” the United States will eventually look to the north once it starts to exhaust domestic reserves of oil, potable water, and other critical natural resources. Without a substantial reservoir of goodwill at its disposal, Canada will struggle to rally the global community to its side in a time of crisis. 

Fortunately, Canada can look to another country for guidance on how to use our abundant creative talent to raise our global profile: South Korea.

South Korea and Canada are similar in many respects. The two countries have comparable populations and almost identical GDPs.Country comparison Canada vs South Korea https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/canada/south-korea Much like Canada, South Korea is sandwiched between two Great Powers—it sits precariously between China and Japan and has a fraught history with both countries. Like Canada, South Korea would be badly outmanned and outgunned in the event of a conflict with one or both of its larger neighbors. 

But South Korea has one crucial advantage over Canada: it’s pound-for-pound the world’s biggest exporter of popular culture today.

K-Pop, a uniquely infectious mishmash of EDM, hip hop, and R&B, among other musical genres, is enjoyed by over 150 million listeners worldwide. Dystopian Korean drama Squid Game was the single most streamed series on Netflix last year. The equally bleak Parasite took home four awards at the 2020 Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture (it was the first non-English language film ever to win in the category). Korean popular culture is now a truly global phenomenon. 

And there’s a lot more to the story than the superficial glitz and glamour. South Korea has channeled the popularity of its cultural products into abundant soft power, which it now exerts at both a regional and global level. For instance, in the fall of 2020, Chinese state media unsuccessfully attempted to “cancel” Korean boy band BTS over the group’s omission of China’s contribution to World War II in a speech they made to the New York City-based Korea Society. The campaign was abandoned after only a few days, once it became clear that state propagandists were no match for the Mainland China division of the BTS ARMY (note to readers: the acronym ARMY, which officially stands for Adorable Representatives for M.C. Youth, refers to BTS’ global fanbase). This was a nontrivial setback for a state media apparatus that’s accustomed to exerting its will against major global brands like the NBA. (BTS accompanied South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the UN General Assembly this past fall). 

The so-called Korean Wave (Hallyu)“The Korean Wave (Hallyu) refers to the global popularity of South Korea’s cultural economy exporting pop culture, entertainment, music, TV dramas and movies. Hallyu is a Chinese term which, when translated, literally means ‘Korean Wave’. It is a collective term used to refer to the phenomenal growth of Korean culture and popular culture encompassing everything from music, movies, drama to online games and Korean cuisine just to name a few.” https://martinroll.com/resources/articles/asia/korean-wave-hallyu-the-rise-of-koreas-cultural-economy-pop-culture/#:~:text=The%20Korean%20Wave%20(Hallyu)%20refers,literally%20means%20%E2%80%9CKorean%20Wave%E2%80%9D. that’s now sweeping the world did not happen overnight, nor was it the product of spontaneous coordination among private market actors. On the contrary, Hallyu is the culmination of a decades-long strategic initiative to cultivate global influence through the appeal of South Korean popular culture. The state has played an important facilitating role in this process by making substantial investments in the promotion of culture in the arts. In 2020, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism received just under $5 billion USD from the government, a sum that amounted to nearly 10 percent of the annual budget.South Korea gets record-breaking culture budget https://www.internationalartsmanager.com/news/arts/south-korea-gets-record-breaking-culture-budget.html The Ministry houses a specialized Cultural Content Office, which oversees the development of K-Pop, fashion, televised entertainment, and other key cultural products.

By comparison, the $1.4 Billion that the CBC receives from Ottawa each year (0.3 percent of the last federal budget) is small potatoes. The Department of Canadian Heritage, which oversees the promotion of “Canadian identity and values” via the arts, claimed just over 1 percent of the federal budget last year. The Heritage portfolio has not been helped by a series of bumbling ministers who have repeatedly bungled important files like the regulation of internet content (under the Trudeau Government, the only two qualifications needed to become Heritage Minister appear to be a seat in Quebec and great hair).

By failing to adequately support our cultural institutions, we are squandering one of our best assets—the dominance of Canadian performers on the stage and screen (and in the recording studio). The rise of streaming services has greatly reduced barriers to the global dissemination of Canadian content. Audiences in the United States and beyond have shown a massive appetite for lighthearted Canadian sitcoms and Toronto’s Caribbean-infused brand of hip hop and R&B. South Korea provides us with a blueprint for how to parlay the appeal of these Canadian cultural products into global influence.

The first step is to change the conversation surrounding the CBC and other publicly funded cultural organizations. Rather than dismissing these entities as a waste of taxpayer dollars, we should acknowledge them as critical incubators of soft power—a currency that’s more powerful than ever before in a global landscape dominated by social media and streaming platforms. 

Rather than defunding the CBC, Canada should double down on supporting its cultural industries. We already have the creative talent to follow in South Korea’s footsteps; all that’s needed is stronger and more strategic support from the CBC, Heritage Canada, and other cultural agencies. Opening the public purse to channel the widespread appeal of Canadian cultural products into soft power would be one of the smartest and most cost-effective investments we could make in securing our place in the world.