Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine share a common feature: the similar reactions of some of the population of the two countries, often contradicting the facts. As leaders, how did Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin manage to get these people on their side?
Get people to like you
The most obvious difference between Johnson and Putin is that Johnson often smiles for the cameras whereas Putin rarely does. That superficial difference hides important similarities. Johnson has cultivated a matey persona that appeals to many voters and makes them want to have a drink with him. Just as Johnson is known as BoJo, Putin is known as Uncle Vova and many Russians think of him as an uncle figure who is on their side.
I discovered this when reading Shura Burtin’s article about Russians’ reactions to the Ukraine war as part of my efforts to learn Russian. Burtin spoke to people in the street who were willing to talk, and they provided an insight into the thoughts of many Russians.
Whereas Putin can be portrayed here as a cold hearted, ruthless tyrant, many Russians think of him as a benevolent person defending Russian interests. Putin has also cultivated a friendly persona: you can see children singing the Uncle Vova song on YouTube.
Disseminate lies and propaganda
How do leaders like Johnson and Putin achieve this popularity? Both leaders are very effective propagandists and are convincing liars which has impacted the views of their populations. The Vote Leave campaign with its infamous bus persuaded many that Brexit was desirable.
In Russia, a carefully constructed version of reasons for the invasion was presented across the media. The threat of the eastward expansion of NATO and the ‘de-nazification’ of Ukraine persuaded many citizens, in the absence of any other views, that Putin was right.
As I read Burtin’s article I had a strange sensation of deja vu. The pro-invasion (or ‘special operation’) arguments reminded me of similar views during and after the Brexit referendum in the UK. I had expected the Russians’ opinions to be alien to me, but they sounded familiar.
Burtin’s article describes a woman haranguing him when he said had demonstrated against the invasion: she “sat down across from me and suddenly, out of nowhere, started cursing out ‘traitors’”. I was reminded of an older man telling me in Chesterfield market, leafleting for a second referendum: “You’re a traitor and should be swept off the earth.”
Emphasise the greatness of the country
The Meduza article shows that some Russians believe that Russia is an extremely good, kind-hearted country that other countries take advantage of: “You know why they don’t like us? It’s because of our kindness. We trust everyone so they can pull the wool over our eyes, lie to us, and we forgive everything. The Russian soul is way too kind.” I was reminded of Johnson boasting about how kind we had been to the Afghans, and how generous we had been to the Ukrainian refugees despite taking in far fewer than most other European countries.
Both Putin and Johnson have also stoked up memories of a glorious past, particularly in World War II, Johnson referring to the EU as following in the path of Hitler, and Putin claiming that there were Nazis in Ukraine. During the referendum some Brexiters were furious that a Germany who had been defeated was now bossing us around.
Burtin’s article referred to Russia’s greatness: “Russia has been afflicted with a mythical image of itself as the vanquisher of forces of evil and chaos for a very long time now; it triumphed over the 1990s, terrorism and the West.”
Johnson’s rhetoric constantly referred to the greatness of the UK, and I couldn’t help thinking of a woman in Manchester Piccadilly train station. I was gazing disconsolately at the front pages of the newspapers the day after the Brexit referendum result was announced. I looked up at her on the verge of tears and she looked at me perplexed. “Give over love, you’re British.” Her voice was full of joy; now the country was going to reclaim its glorious past and enter a glorious future.
Exploit the people’s discontent
It was clear that many of the Russians interviewed by Burtin were suffering from a profound discontent with their lives and haunted by memories of the terrible economic collapse in 1998: “The general feeling of ruin and catastrophe from the 1990s has been coloured with ‘national humiliation’.”
They were under the impression that things could not get any worse: “Our lives are going to get worse now? Well, our lives were already bad”, and that the special operation had been necessary to make sure that the future gave them hope.
It is not so different from many of the pro-Brexit voters who were also discontented, this time with the EU. When leafleting in Bakewell on the day of the referendum the young man leafleting with me said that the angrier and more miserable a person looked, the more likely they were to be pro-Brexit. He claimed to have a 90% success rate with his predictions.
Suppress all opposition
Irrational opinions in a population can come with a certain personality cult which means it is not acceptable to question the leader. In Russia, this principle is taken to extremes: many of the Russians interviewed for the Burtin article seemed to think there was no alternative to the policies pursued by Putin.
There was an irrational unquestioning acceptance of government actions: “We shouldn’t discuss what the president does while my country is fighting! If the Russian people don’t agree with my president, my country will lose, and I can’t allow that to happen.” And people who object suffer the consequences; Marina Ovsyannikova, a journalist, protesting against the war on Russian state television, was put under house arrest.
This could not happen in the UK at present. However, with the current government, there are policies to suppress freedom of speech and the right to protest. They also want to replace the Human Rights Act, and ministers try to evade public scrutiny by using private e-mails and WhatsApp messages.
We might like to think the UK is very different and even superior to Russia in the way we go about our lives, but Russia just presents a more extreme example of what happens when the public is manipulated and misinformed by the state.
In the UK, we are manipulated by the mainstream media. The current situation presents us with a warning to fight for freedom of speech, the right to protest and to fight against manipulation by the media.