Information Sovereignty

Peter Pomerantsev

‘Traditional Russian spiritual-moral and cultural-historical values are under active attack from the USA and its allies, as well as from transnational corporations and foreign NGOs,’ according to the Kremlin’s new National Security Strategy, published this month. It defines ‘Russian values’ as ‘life, dignity, rights, freedoms’ as well as ‘high ethical ideals, a strong family, prioritising the spiritual over the material, humanism, kindness, justice, collectivism and patriotism’.

Ideology is stressed more insistently than in previous years. But what exactly it all means can be hard to pin down. There’s a wink and a nod to 19th-century Slavophiles, with their idea that Russia is defined through sobornost, collective spirituality and communality, rather than individual freedom. There’s even a mention of the need to resist foreign ‘absolutisation of personal freedoms’. But there are also paeans to ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ as somehow fundamental to Russian traditions. Still, whatever Russian values may be, the National Security Strategy is clear they have to be defended with a ‘state information policy’.

This is the place to start making sense of the document. The policy logic does not stem from a coherent set of ideological precepts that require censorship and control to protect them, but the other way round: you want to impose control and censorship, so you invent a sort of ideology in order to justify it. The language of ‘traditional’ values is more useful for this, as it’s easier to justify ‘defending’ something local from outside attacks than something universal.

Igor Ashmanov, one of the first internet entrepreneurs in Russia and now a leading advocate for blocking access to American websites like Google and Twitter, argues that Russia needs ‘information sovereignty’: a de facto Firewall. But to justify it, you need an ideology. As he wrote in the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in 2013,

If your ideology is imported … as with liberalism, then you are always playing to foreign rules, which are always being changed by someone else. You can always be called guilty, breaking the rules of democracy … Ideology should be created inside a country, like operational systems, rockets, insulin and grain. Supported and defended by information sovereignty.

During the Cold War, clashing ideologies led to global competition; we now have global competition leading to the need to create an ideology. An ideology is only ‘good’ or ‘bad’ so far as it serves to support your tactics. ‘Freedom of expression’, Ashmanov argues, is a Western expansionist instrument for attacking Russia.

The underlying conviction that political ideas are not valuable in and of themselves but function primarily as weapons reveals the real ‘values’ and ‘ideology’ of Russia’s rulers more clearly than their contradictory talk about ‘traditions’. Deliberative debate becomes impossible, as the purpose of language is never to enable collaborative communication, but always manipulative.

Conspiracy has replaced ideology, and for the most part that serves the Kremlin very nicely. You can argue back against an ideology through its own logic: Communist leaders could, at least in theory, be accused of failing to create the ideal society they promised. Conspiracy negates all criticism by accusing the critic of being a front for a foreign power. At the same time, conspiratorial thinking, like an ideology, can give people a sense of belonging, an ‘us’ under attack from a shadowy ‘them’. It also makes people passive: if you live in a world of impenetrable conspiracies, how can you ever hope to change anything?

There is, however, a catch. A system based on cynicism and paranoia means people end up distrusting everything. The Kremlin has, by most accounts, produced a decent vaccine for the coronavirus. But the government can’t persuade the Russian people that they need to take it. People fear they are being used as guinea pigs, that there’s something dishonest going on. In the same week the National Security Strategy came out, new figures (though it’s hard to trust the figures) showed Covid-19 rates rising horribly throughout the country. Only 13 per cent are vaccinated, despite Putin’s claim that the Sputnik V is ‘just as reliable as Kalashnikov assault rifles’.