This was the driving force when writer and publisher Bernhard Mohr went to Russia to speak with people. – I have been in love with Russia throughout my adult life, however, I could no longer understand how old colleagues were thinking, he says.
His first visit to Russia took place in January 1999. In 2006, Mohr moved to Moscow to be a part of the establishing of the newspaper ‘Moj rajon’, owned by the Norwegian Schibsted Corporation. A newspaper following western principles that was to work according to the Media Code of Good Conduct and defend democratic values.
Several of Mohr’s Russian colleagues had traveled much in the West, they wanted Russia to be better integrated with Europe – and they were usually critical of the Putin regime. When Mohr discovered a decade later that many of his old ideas had ‘switched sides’, the idea of a book was conceived: ‘Why do Russians vote for Putin?’
In his book, Mohr interviews more than twenty urban Russians of the middle class, people with higher education.
- These are Russians with a consumption pattern that resembles ours, however, with quite different political preferences. For me, the hunt was about finding out why these people support the Putin regime, Mohr says.
A lot has changed since the author lived in Russia himself. When Putin returned as president in 2012, following four years as Prime Minister, he introduced a series of new laws that limit the freedom of assembly, speech and movement for citizens. Paradoxically, the President’s popularity has increased since then.
- A main reason why Putin is more popular than ever, is the patriotic and nationalistic rhetoric from the Kremlin following the Crimea annexation, which appears to please the entire population. It is about Russia being something other and more genuine than the West, which in its tur is characterized more by moral decay, Mohr says. His interviewees kept stating that ‘the western model does not fit Russia’, ‘we are right between Asia and Europe’ and ‘we have a different ruling tradition that is more Eastern than Western, and autocracy suits us best’.
- Another recurrent argument is the one that spreading power too wide will lead to chaos. Many refer to the Ukraine, which has had two revolutions in the 2000s and also had a weaker economic development than Russia, Mohr says.
The writer also points out that news broadcast through state-owned media have become more characterized by ideology during the past six years and according to him, these channels no longer operate on journalistic terms – they rather repeat the Kremlin’s set view on the world.
- Having my background from the media industry, I have closely followed the enormous manipulation that goes on in Russian media. It is a conscious strategy to deceive its own inhabitants, the writer says.
He also argues that the relationship between Russia and Europe suffers from ‘chronic under-reporting’ in western media of what goes on in Russia. That contributes to creating a skewed image of what is actually going on.
- What appears in our media is mainly significant political news or the more curious cases, such as poor roads in Siberia. I miss life stories about what characterizes life in Russia, he says.
Understands some support reasons
It is important for Mohr not to cover the fact that there is a reason why Russia’s defined image of the world resonates with people there.
- People who grew up in the Soviet Union lived in one out of the two superpowers in the world. And people like the story of Russia being grand and strong. Russians have sort of received their revenge.
In addition, the support for Putin is about Russia’s immediate history, about a country that lost nearly everything during the democratization process in the 1990s, when people lost their jobs overnight and the country went through an extensive economic crisis.
- I can understand that people vote for Putin with security and stability in mind. When Putin assumed power, the country entered into a significant growth phase – and today, the president is linked with stability. In addition, there are not alternatives – the State Duma opposition is not really an opposition, the writer says.
What Mohr struggles the most with in this respect, is to understand why well-educated and well informed Russians do not stand up against the manipulation in the media.
- I do not understand the fact that people are not annoyed by the manipulation, that they accept the widespread corruption in the country. The answer they would often give me, is that that is how it has always been, the writer says.
He also finds it hard to see that people he worked with in the ‘Moj rajon’ newspaper have given up their shared values.
- Maybe I was hoping for other answers than the ones I got. Nevertheless, right now the Russian middle class does not require much participation in politics and community-building processes. I believe it is also about how decreasing incomes have put people in a sort of survival modus, where self-realisation and political influence are less prominent, Mohr says.
While also being critical of the Putin regime, Mohr in his book repeats much of the criticism that both Russia and western ‘Russia experts’ bring against the West. He also discusses Norway’s immediate support of the US and EU sanctions against Russia following the annexation of the Crimea.
- Norway has a long and peaceful history with Russia, and would it not be natural to shape our own policy? It is obviously important to react to the breaches of public international law such as the annexation of the Crimea, however, in a phase like the current one it is important that we cooperate as much as possible with Russia, Mohr says.
He argues that there is a clear difference in how Norwegians in the south and in the north view Russia.
Last year, two simultaneal polls showed that while 45 % of the Norwegian population perceive Russia and Putin as a genuine security threat, three out of four people in North Norway believe that the government should to more to improve relations with Russia. In southern Norway, ‘Russians’ are someone who speak with a strict voice in the Kremlin. In the north, ‘the Russians’ are the sport coach or the grocery shop owner, Mohr says. He hopes for closer cultural cooperation between Norway and Russia.
- In addition to good people-to-people cooperations across our shared border in the north, I would love to see closer cooperation between our urban centers, between Norway’s largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, Mohr says.
He argues that Norway has no reason to fear traditional military threats from Russia, however, we should nevertheless be alert towards digital ‘attacks’.
- For the past years, Russia has tried to interfere with other countries’ public media through disinformation campaigns, spreading fake news and using online trolls in social media. We have to take that seriously, Mohr says.