Mykhaylo Savva: “Modern technologies of influence on public opinion, actually, make it possible to take a person “from nowhere” and create a leader”

Interview with the Chairman of the Board of the Expert Group “SOVA”


— Recently, at one of the round tables at the Center for Russian Studies, in your report “From Simulative Democracy to Neo-Totalitarianism” you pointed out 17 features of a modern authoritarian regime. Is this from the experience of modern Russia or did you mean historical events in a broader, world-wide context?

— The features I mentioned are the result of research by many scientists from different countries. The fact that authoritarian regimes are characteristic not only for our time, they were in the historical past, and probably and unfortunately, will be in the future too. Their characteristics have been traced at all stages of historical development, if at all it is authoritarianism. But the emphasis in such studies, of course, is on the present day…

— Concentration of power in the hands of one person or group of individuals — this is inherent in almost all state formations, not necessarily totalitarian. But why, if we speak about Russia, we as a must hear about its “special path” of historical development? Is its totalitarianism special?

— The regime of modern Russia is not totalitarian. Fortunately, Putin has not brought his country to such a regime. Perhaps he even is not going to. After all, totalitarianism is dangerous, including for the country elite, because under its conditions nobody, even those who are at the highest levels of power, are not guaranteed from anything.

…The current Russia’s regime is authoritarian, under which there is no democracy either. True, democracy is a curtain to mask the essence of the regime, namely, the fact that the power belongs to a group of people. In the case of current Russia, not Putin alone. A very serious mistake, which then creates a problem for scientific analysis and forecast, is to attribute the concentration of all power in Russia to Putin alone…

There is a certain ruling group in Russia, which includes not more than twenty people. Almost all of them, with a few exceptions, come from special services. And sometimes they have so bad relationships that it interferes with communication. Putin is a communication center for them, he connects them together. He alone does not make any decision, but he is the center of communication, and at the same time the public face of the group.

…If Putin is withdrawn from it, the system will collapse through the manifestation of internal conflicts… His second consecutive constitutional presidential term is running to its end. And what’s next? To change the constitution? This is one of the options that is currently worked on. It is quite complex and is worth a separate conversation. The second option is to find a heir. But how can this be done if there is no compromise among the members of the aforementioned group over this issue? …That is why the year 2024 is becoming a problem, because we are well aware of what regime we are dealing with.

— That is, there is no one who, like the Queen of England, would suit all, and there is nowhere to take him from?

— Modern technologies of influence on public opinion, actually, make it possible to take a person “from nowhere” and create a leader. Incidentally, this once happened to Putin himself, and he remembers this personal lesson well and understands that it is possible. But at the same time, we have no right to forget what the price was paid for this: the second Chechen full-scale war! This is one of the mechanisms by which he was brought to power. Another such mechanism was the terrorist attacks in the Russian Federation. For the Russian society, these are quite great risks, so today the Russians have to think about the price for coming to power of Putin’s successor.

— You mean a method of a “lesser evil”?

— One way or the other, but they will have to pay this price. Only the Russian elite will not pay. But! This should be remembered by Russia’s neighbors too. After all, known is a general scenario of war, when on a wave of mobilization, on a wave of patriotism an absolutely unknown person turns up and is made a leader. And such a war is not necessarily internal — it may be external.

— To eliminate all possible contradictions?

— Absolutely true! This mechanism has already been tested. Tell me, with whom will Russia war to ensure the transfer of power? Most unlikely that with China!

— China will prevent it, I’m sure of it!

— And sure as heck (laughs), not with the NATO bloc. That is, the selection of the target is rather limited. Those will be the states of the South Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan. Not many, but Ukraine is among them. Incidentally, such a scenario has already been resorted to, and the Russian society is very much disappointed with it, as witnessed by the survey. Therefore, the mobilization potential of the war has already been exhausted, Russians are worrying about their internal problems. This is great! Because this is good for them, and for their neighbors. But the question arises: is the Russian regime ready to take into account the moods of its people?

— Are the moods being studied?

— Fortunately, sociology in Russia has not been banned yet. An illustrative example is the recent survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, the results of which caused a scandal… Putin’s rating of trust has fallen to a historic minimum. That is, since 2006, this indicator has never been that low. Lower it was only in 2000, immediately after Putin’s election, when the submarine “Kursk” sank… So, 32 % of Russian voters trust the President. The figure, at first glance, is catastrophic. And it was accepted as such at the Kremlin, because Putin’s spokesman demanded explanations from sociologists. After all, according to their studies, Putin’s electoral support is growing. You see, people in the Kremlin do not understand that it all is about different questions and different answers to them. The trust rating is one thing, but electoral support is a whole lot different. For example, when a person is answering the question “Do you trust this politician?”, he/she is guided by personal feelings: “I do not trust him!” But the same person, to the question “Will you vote for him?” can answer: “Yes, I will vote”. Because there is nobody else to vote for.

— You have just said that the Russian authorities could provoke a war to restore trust of their people. Can the trust be restored not by war, but by making peace, for example, with Ukraine? They say, for so many years, to put it mildly, there was a long confrontation, and I eliminated it peacefully!

— If this happens, we can conclude that Ukraine as the main goal of a possible victorious war has been put aside. Fortunately for Ukraine. Let me explain: if Putin goes to a large-scale reconciliation (with Ukraine — ed.), it will mean that he has chosen another potential target for a small victorious war… Because Putin’s regime believes that a small victorious war is a perfect way to mobilize the Russian society. Behind such “scenes” he can actually have any decision made, because such is now the social mood of Russians.

— Could we call it not a mood, but a social habit?

— This is a great, deep social and psychological trauma, which can be called imperial. Do you know the difference between any other political nation (that is in the post-Soviet space) and Russians? They can quite easily say (and they do say!) that we were conquered, we were a colony, but now we are free. The Russians cannot say that, because the center was either in St. Petersburg or in Moscow. Another thing is that the Russians got rid of the Soviet regime, its power. True, it is much more difficult for them to get rid of their imperial past…  Russia was the center of this empire.

— I will try to supplement you, because recently, while reading Hetman Skoropadskyi’s diary, I came across the following: the White Guard Generals Denikin, Kolchak, Krasnov and others were not against creation of Ukrainian regiments to fight Bolshevik forces, which nobody mentioned. And now I agree with you that it is very difficult to separate historical facts concerning the historical past from the Russians’ perception of events of century ago, let alone of the present.

— It is always difficult, because there are historical facts, but there is their interpretation that is always very different… That is, the national idea is used when there is a danger. When it is gone, the national idea is perceived as dangerous, and national military formations are eliminated.

— Do you think we cannot observe this in Ukraine now?

— Yes, of course, we can, there are many examples that demonstrate the existence of such a strategy of building a nation-oriented state in Ukraine. But under the current conditions, such a strategy is not the most effective, because the world has gone much further in its development, and globalization shows that ethnic boundaries very often hinder this development. At the same time, globalization, albeit paradoxically, has led to ethnicity having become more in demand. There was even such a concept as the ethnic Renaissance of the present…

— Looking through history textbooks, which Russian schoolchildren and students study today and through which their consciousness is formed, we find much that does not correspond to historical reality. I have at least 50 distorted facts, among which, in particular, are: “The proclamation in 1918 of Ukraine’s independence was “a manifestation of separatism”, and “did not meet the interests” of the Ukrainian people, “did not get people’s support”; in Ukraine, in 1918–1929, a “civil war” began, which ended in the “natural” victory of the Soviet power over the “traitors” of the Ukrainian people — “nationalists”; Ukrainian nationalists under the command of the “holder of a German medal” Shukhevych destroyed the Belarusian village Khatyn; UPA was created “with the help of the German occupation authorities”, which “provided nationalists” with weapons and instructors; an independent Ukraine is “an unnatural state entity, doomed to death,” and so on… Being a Russian and an historian by education, what do you think about such “historical conclusions” in Russian textbooks?

— Reading all this list, I see that there are facts that, of course, contradict reality, and there are those interpreted one-sidedly… Generally speaking, a history textbook is one of the tools of a state’s influence on citizens.

— Yes, especially now, such books give the interpretation of Russia’s actions to capture Crimea and the illegality of the post-Maidan Ukrainian government. One of these books was written by my Russian colleague, using the invoice given to him by his bosses. Clearly, the author view depends on the task posed to him, but if he respected his Ukrainian origin, he would not have engaged in such “creativity”.

— …We should deal with facts. The moment we move to working with information flows, that is, to propaganda, scientific objectivity loses its meaning. We can get an effect in the form of an influence on the consciousness of people, but we lose the opportunity to predict. One cannot lie to oneself. Therefore, it is always necessary to separate the scientific analysis from propaganda. In my opinion, both, in Russia and in Ukraine there are many cases when these two incompatible things are mixed up.

— And as an example of what you have said, I can come up with events after the First World War, when the governments of the Entente countries refused to support Western Ukraine, and made it part of the newly formed Poland.

— Yes, those events are extremely interesting and instructive, especially where it comes to Carpathian Rus.

— As well as the facts relating to the same time, but with regard to the events in the Kuban, which on some maps was depicted as part of Ukraine, and pro-Ukrainian-minded people in the Kuban was were not fewer than Russians today in Crimea.

— …There they recall and remember this. I come from the Kuban, and I repeatedly participated in scientific discussions of the 1990s, when the active Cossack movement was reviving, trying to choose its own ideology. That is, people wanted to find out: who they were originally? What their ideology and self-awareness should be? There are many historical evidence, but let’s turn to facts. In the western part of the Kuban, the local population from the moment of colonization at the end of the 18th century spoke a Ukrainian-language dialect — the “Kuban subdialect”. In the eastern part of the Kuban, where the Linear Cossacks lived, the local population spoke Russian with Ukrainian incorporation. In fact, the Kuban was divided into eastern and western zones.

— It was a natural separation.

— Sure. This division was also observed in politics. From 1918 to 1920 first there was the Kuban People’s Republic, and then there was the region with its supreme body, the Kuban Rada, where two political camps, so-called samostiynyks (independists — transl.) (descendants of Zaporizhzhyan Cossacks) and descendants of Linear Cossacks who were under the so-called autonomy within the Russian Empire, were competing fiercely. And Denikin in his diaries complained that his “White Army” had little support. Clearly, it had little support, because its slogan was “For one and indivisible Russia!”. Part of the local population is the people from the territory of modern Ukraine who communicate in Ukrainian. Therefore, the Soviet government for 20 years had to decide — who lives there, what schools to open there, what culture should be there. Originally, the Kuban belonged to the zone with Ukrainian schools. For example, my father’s elder brother studied at a Ukrainian school, and my father later studied at the same school, but in Russian. In the early 1930s, the Soviet authorities began to dwell on this and concluded that schoolchildren should be taught in Russian… But! I think that it is not the matter of the language, but of self-identity. And this is much more complicated… In order to bring people to one or another political nation, the language alone IS NOT ENOUGH.

— So, no matter how hard they are trying to impose Hebrew on migrants from Russia, the latter are far from true citizens of Israel?

— Many Ukrainians who have Ukrainian roots, live in Canada, speak Ukrainian, but none of them draws Ukrainian borders in the Canadian territory!

— It does not occur to anybody there to think about conducting this poll, as well as in the Russian Yamal, where today several hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who came to develop mining industry in the 1990’s and without whom it cannot exist today. However, it is very difficult to communicate with them today.

— Because they live in a different information environment. Where their self-identity was formed.

— …Let me ask, at first glance, a somewhat unexpected question: Have you seen V. Shukshin’s movie “The Red Guelder-Rose”? If so, what did the movie director tried to bring to the viewer through a characteristic episode, the content of which was caught by few, namely: the main hero’s working as a prosecutor driver immediately after his release from prison?

— What do you mean?

— At that time, evident were already signs of state structures’ (such as prosecutor’s office for one) merging with organized crime, which created the rust that ruined the state — the USSR. This is an example of the “self-identity” that you referred to, which was the reason for the loosening of statehood as such. The Ministry of Internal Affairs tried to resist such a double-headed snake, but it was in vain. Later, the “grab-it-isation” of production resources began, so-called elites from organized criminal and new state leadership were legalized. The authorities, as before, concentrated in Moscow, the borders of the new states were not a barrier. After some time, when production facilities began to become obsolete due to the “leadership”’s not understanding the need for its updating, the role of science in the development of technology, dependence on the West (which we used to call rotten) began to increase rapidly. It is to this that Mark Galeotti dedicated his book “The Vory: Russia’s super mafia” …In your opinion, how true is it today about the struggle of the groups around Putin?

— The question is interesting, but I disagree with you. The point is that the state’s policy can be influenced only by the organized crime, which has penetrated into power. In Soviet times, the criminal could not do this. I will give a vivid example of the Italian Mafia, for which, for all the years of its existence, the Mussolini dictatorship was the most difficult test. And when the Americans landed in Sicily in 1943, Italian partisans were mostly Italian Mafiosis there, who acted as guides, assistants, scouts and saboteurs. You may ask: why? Because dictatorship is not tolerant to competitors, including crime, which has more opportunities for development in a democracy.

— But the Italian Mafia arose and developed not like our crime. Do not forget that we also developed criminal self-identity due to the large number of prisoners in the GULAGs, and this eventually could not help manifesting itself. Our organized crime is special, “badly infected with corruption”! That’s with what we are trying to struggle against in Ukraine, that’s what makes people go to the Maidan!

— I agree, our organized crime is more rigid, and the school of its “self-affirmation” is “cooler” than anywhere else in the West. Crime in the Soviet era was not part of the government system at any of its levels. But in the 1990s it got a chance and used it. Over time, the fate of criminal groups evolved differently. Those who were associated with high-ranking Russian officials (I will talk about Russia), got legalized, changed raspberry jackets to Italian costumes and became so-called businessmen. The rest were killed, the power in Russia became stronger and more rigid. It did not become totalitarian, but authoritarian regimes have enough tools to neutralize the crime they do not want. Therefore, it is inappropriate to speak about organized crime’s influence on state power.

— I agree with you, but can add that this has already happened, and the organized crime has reached a completely different level of its existence with certain impact on the society, when it has become part of state structures and feels legal.

— That’s exactly how it has seemingly changed, and is seemingly not criminal in nature. It is through business very closely connected with the authorities.

— …Sometimes their presence is beneficial because it can be used. I do not want to draw a parallel with the PMC “Wagner”, but they do create something like that?

— The mentioned “Wagner” is one of the private military companies, which very actively began to be created at the beginning of this century. First abroad, then it became obvious that it would come to post-Soviet territories. Such companies are quite convenient for a state.

— To make busy the guys who got the taste of combat actions?

— This is one of the conditions why such companies have such a resource base. The reason for their formation is different. So, they arose originally abroad, in developed democracies, because they set a lot of legal restrictions for officials and special services, constantly impose on them new and new prohibitions, and as a consequence, there is a situation where the officials from special services come to a simple thought: “We cannot achieve our goal in a lawful way. So, we need to create a parallel structure that will act in our interests, but not in our name — to fight”. In 2004, in Moscow, I participated in a conference devoted to military companies, where we tried to understand the reasons for this problem and predict the further direction of its development.

— Another question, which is often heard from TV screens, in disputes and round tables on current political events. This is the West’s naivety regarding Russia’s policy. Can we formulate the problem this way?

— If I had to express the West’s attitude to Russia in one phrase, I would agree that the West is naive. This is a great simplification, but it cannot be considered a lie. There are really naive politicians in developed democracies… But there is one more point — the interests. Pay attention to the United States and Europe’s approaches to Russia. They are obvious: the USA is much tougher, because it has no economic interest, it does not buy anything from Russia. Europe from since 1970s has depended on Russian energy carriers.

— Is it not for this reason that Europe does not support any talk about the collapse of Russia? Is this its geopolitical reasoning?

— Let’s say this: this is not beneficial for main players. There are groups that consider the collapse of Russia possible, concede it, but now they can only be considered to be marginal.

— It is often believed that Russia threatens the world order. But is it just because it has nuclear weapons? Personally I am not inclined to think so, because the threat from it is different: if Russia comes to us or to any other country, then what exactly, besides its “law or order”, can it offer? New technologies or renewed culture?

— It does threaten the world order, but not because it has nuclear weapons, — here I agree with you. I somehow try to avoid talking about Putin’s regime, and to mention Russia where it comes to politics. Because it is not the country, the Russian people that does so — this is done by its political regime. Putin’s political regime threatens the world order with knowing weaknesses in it and trying to put pressure on them in view of his interests. Nobody had done this before… But Putin came and saw that it was possible to “strike” on it. And if the world order begins to collapse, then on this one can make, as they say in Odesa, one’s gesheft. Putin continues to do so. For example, nobody had tried to make any direct annexation. At the same time, the world order allowed to create new sovereign states, such as Kosovo. I think this case was very traumatic personally for Putin and the Russian elite in general, who claim that injustice was committed against their ally — Yugoslavia. They understand that Kosovo was not annexed by Albania, it was not an annexation on the part of Albania. From the point of view of international law, it was something completely different. But Putin’s regime sees it as an exception, a weak spot in the world order, and moves on, goes on to direct annexation. This path has not been gone along to the end, Putin’s regime is still ready to ruin the world order.

— I have to agree with you. Although in the 1990s, while on an official trip in the Balkans and watching the events there, I caught myself on the thought: God forbid Ukraine to go through this. But it was clear already then that we would have the same. At least our military, who had with what to compare, for example with events in Nagorno-Karabakh, Trans-Dniester region, or later — Georgia.

— By the way, we talked about these 17 features. I would say that now I have the idea to expand them, because in recent years a lot has changed in our political environment. There are additional factors concerning Russia, where so-called situational protests of the last two months, when citizens of a small city or settlement protest against something specific, become politically colored. Half a year ago, people, coming out to such protests, deliberately avoided politics. When interviewed, they would say, “We are for Putin, but our local officials here have not worked hard, so we are protesting”. Today, the situation in Russia has changed radically. The protesters frankly say that they are opposed to the political regime… In all these cases situational protests are getting politicized. And even more so, analysis shows that participants in such protests act with slogans of autonomy. For example, in the photo I saw young people with white-green-black flags in their hands. Those are the flags of the self-proclaimed Ural Republic of 1993, which existed for several months under Governor Rossel. A few months later, it de jure was liquidated by B. Yeltsin’s decree, but it significantly influenced the creation of the Constitution of Russia, where the status of subjects of the federation (republics and those who were not republics — the territories and regions) was aligned. They became equal, while before that the status of republics was higher.

And now it turns out that the idea of autonomy has been combined in time with situational protests, as young people born in the 1990s proclaim it and take over the flag of the Ural Republic, and this also needs to be studied.

There is such a thing as cumulative process, when the movement is accompanied by an increase in speed. And while originally the process was slow, we had time to study it, now it accelerates, and we do not have time to realize it because of the accumulated speed. Approximately this is happening now with protest moods in Russia.

— In our country not all understand the true reason for the protests in the Maidan. Some people want to see the “hand of the West” because it justifies the unworthiness of the state leadership.

— This is a relative deprivation, universal laws that simply were not taken into account, including in P. Poroshenko’s campaign they were almost ignored. I watched his election campaign. I believe that the man, who theoretically had a chance to win, lost the election precisely because his strategy completely ignored the objective thing about deprivation.

— Thank you for answering my questions.

Interview recorded by Oleh Makhno


Mykhaylo Savva — Doctor of Political Science. He is known as the organizer of a number of conferences, seminars, trainings. He was the director of the grant programs of the non-profit organization — the Southern Regional Resource Center. As a result of persecution in Russia he had to seek political asylum abroad, where he received refugee status. In addition to scientific work, he is engaged in human rights work.

Photos by Volodymyr Rayevskyi

The full interview you can read in the “BINTEL” Geopolitical Analytics Journal, Issue 2, 2019


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