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Putin’s Illusion of Reform

MOSCOW – Last November, when the performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky set fire to the central door of Moscow’s Lubyanka – the headquarters of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and formerly of the Soviet Union’s security service, the KGB – the state accused him of destroying its “cultural heritage.” Apparently, the brutal interrogation of world-renowned artists, from the poet Osip Mandelstam to the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, amounts to a patrimony worthy of the state’s strongest protection.

Of course, the reality is that the Lubyanka has been an instrument of the destruction of Russia’s cultural heritage. But, under President Vladimir Putin – himself an alumnus of the KGB – Russia’s government is not interested in reality. It prefers Orwellian doublespeak, which, attesting to the regime’s propaganda skills, is more perverse even than that practiced in Soviet times – and produces a terrifying doublethink among Russia’s citizens.

Under Joseph Stalin, genuine achievements – including industrialization and victory in World War II – were played up in the ideological battle against capitalism, even as Mandelstam, Meyerhold, and millions of others perished at the hands of the secret police. But Putin lacks any such victories. The hollow victory that was the annexation of Crimea, while popular, pales in comparison to his predecessors’ greatest feats, so he has been forced to move beyond distraction to blatant distortion, claiming that the West is deliberately impeding Russia’s success.

Putin’s success in convincing the Russian public of everything from his own aptitude for ice hockey to the existence of anti-Russian Western plots reflects his real talent: like any good KGB operative, he is a master of façades. Most obvious, because the Kremlin controls all major news sources, Russians hear the version of events – whether the revolution in Ukraine, opposition protests in Moscow, or the military campaign in Syria – that Putin wants them to hear.