Today's Russia may be a wealthier, more open nation than the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, but President Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine is working hard on restoring the stifling moral climate of 30 years ago.
The Sochi Olympics, Putin's pet project meant to boost patriotic sentiment, has presented the propagandists with a chance to take a giant leap in that direction.
The late years of Leonid Brezhnev's 18-year rule, and the brief interlude between his death in 1982 and Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, were marked by a peak in Cold War rhetoric against the U.S. and a dogged if not particularly cruel persecution of dissidents, who were universally condemned by patriotic Soviet citizens freely expressing their strong opinions in state-controlled media. It was clear who the enemies were: The hostile West and the fifth column within the Soviet Union, supposedly doing the bidding of its Western masters.
The Brezhnev-era government tended to overreact to the slightest suggestions that there could be something wrong with the Soviet Union or that the West could be getting something right. To people who remember those days, as I do, living in Russia in 2014 is a lot like time travel, and the time machine bears the Sochi 2014 logo.
On Feb. 10, satirist Viktor Shenderovich published a column on the anti-Putin site, ej.ru, wondering whether a Putin opponent could root for Team Russia, or, indeed, for 15-year-old figure skating champion Yulia Lipnitskaya, without feeling pangs of guilt. "I really like this girl on ice skates," Shenderovich wrote. "I really do! But if you only knew how Berliners, in the summer of 1936, liked shot putter Hans Woellke, the first German track-and-field champion, a smiling, handsome guy symbolizing new Germany's youth!"
Woellke went on to serve in the Waffen SS and was killed by Soviet guerrillas near a Belarussian village wiped out completely by a punitive SS operation. Shenderovich's parallel was deliberately provocative, but the backlash was disproportionate by any standards.
Vladimir Vasilyev, head of the United Russian faction in parliament, called Shenderovich's article "fascist." Svetlana Zhurova, a lawmaker and former speed skating champion, said this: "He offended a great number of people, and he should apologize."
The Russia 1 TV station took aim at the columnist, airing bits of an old video showing him in bed with a woman not his wife.
"I have no doubt that orders to flatten Shenderovich came from the very top," TV journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza wrote on sobesednik.ru. And indeed, the campaign's excessive firepower suggests the explanation.
The same is true of Olympic attacks on the other enemy, the supposedly Russia-hating West. On Feb. 15, Russia played the U.S. in a first-round hockey game at the Sochi Olympics. The referee, Brad Meier, an American, disallowed a Russian goal less than five minutes from the end of regulation time. The game went to a shootout, and Russia lost by one goal. The controversy quickly turned political. "How can a U.S. referee ref a Team USA game? The puck was in the goal!! How disgusting! Cheating as the whole world watched!" senior pro-Putin legislator Alexei Pushkov tweeted.
Vesti Nedeli's Kiselyov, whom Putin recently appointed head of a large news agency called Russia Today, had much to say about Meier's decision, which Russian Hockey Federation head Vladislav Tretyak, once a famed goalie, described as correct. "When Americans make the rules, they will always favor themselves," Kiselyov preached.
In the early 1980s, several dozen people a year were arrested for "anti-Soviet propaganda." That is not happening under Putin, but it's easy to believe it might, yet. The thinly veiled threat is there, in the words of Putin's favorite mouthpiece, Kiselyov: "Shenderovich's every line strengthens Putin's image as a tolerant and truly liberal man. Under Putin, Shenderovich can ... keep spouting whatever he wants, not only using the freedom of speech that exists under the president he hates, but abusing it."
Shenderovich feels the threat as the propaganda machine keeps beating up on him. "This is Putin's 15th year in power," he wrote in yet another ej.ru column. "Enough has been done in his name to understand what's going to happen next. Those who want to hide their heads in the sand - welcome."
In his previous terms in power, Putin was more subtle and, perhaps, somewhat less confident. Now, he is unabashedly restoring the order to which he was used at the top of his KGB career. To him, it is clearly a matter of not letting the fifth column give up Russia to a predatory U.S., and the war will be waged by any means he deems necessary.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for Bloomberg View's World View blog.
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