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The enemy within

susana [1]By Susana Torres Prieto, Professor of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School. 

Only a few months ago, almost coinciding with the concession of the Nobel Literary prize to Svetlana Alexievich, the world was remembering once again the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, whose tenth anniversary will be marked this coming year 2016. Rereading one of her last books, Putin’s Russia, which in fact was published in the United Kingdom and in English in 2004, three years before appearing in Russian in Russia, one realizes, in retrospective, a few important factors, and inevitably wonders what she would say of current Russian and European politics.

The first thing that catches the eye is that this almost posthumous book was a warning. At a time, 2004, when the West was enchanted and immensely pleased with the new Russian leader, Politkovskaya, whose assassination, by the way, was committed on Vladimir Putin’s birthday, was already saying that, beneath that enchanting figure, was a cold-hearted secret agent who only knew one way of ruling, imposing silence and fear as any KGB agent was trained to do, someone who would rather be efficacious and effective than remembered for respecting human rights conventions.

The second aspect is that her criticism stems from indignation accumulated at watching Russian people suffering at the hands of their own state, particularly young men in the army. It is an indignation parallel to the one suffered by Chekhov when he visited the penal colony in the island of Sakhalin. An indignation that constantly cries out ‘why does our government care so little for its own people’, those Poor Folk who were granted the rank of protagonists by Dostoyevsky and were satirized by Chekhov himself.

One thing that Politkovskaya was certainly pursuing, and in this she coincides with the Nobel laureate Alexievich, was opening the eyes of Russians and the whole wide world , showing to them that things were being done tremendously wrong by their own authorities, as she has always done in criticizing, among other things, the Second Chechen War. And for doing so they both chose a similar path: giving voice of those that were silenced, hushed, isolated. Our shared concern with free press stems from the firm belief that access to free and contrasted information necessarily contributes to creating an informed public opinion which will held their authorities accountable for their acts. Unfortunately, reality shows, in Russia and elsewhere, that that is not always the case. For someone who never ceased to ask them to open their eyes to the evidence, Politkovskaya might have been surprised to see the current level of acceptance amongst Russians of President Putin’s policies, despite his public requests for economic sacrifices and unpopular measures to come, due mainly, though not solely, to the extremely low price of oil, a crucial fact for a heavily oil-dependent economy like Russia’s. Pilar Bonet, El País correspondent in Moscow, was informing a few days ago [2] that, in the battle between fridges and television sets, as some analysts would put it, television sets were currently on the lead. In a nutshell, Russians prefer to live in worse economic conditions but being assured that they are a great country.

Propaganda is an astonishing tool, more powerful than any numbers of analysts and academics might imagine, and it has little or nothing to do with reason. Maybe the flaw in the argument is that, despite more or less open access to information, availability and accessibility to Internet, at the end of the day, people choose to believe. Those with unlimited confidence in human reason are heart-broken when they see people just decide to ignore, for political, religious or any other reason, what reason tells them, or should be telling them, in exchange of confidence, security or any other unattainable utopia. Per ardua ad astra, the ancients used to say. Indeed.