How Watching Game of Thrones Will Help You Understand What Putin's Doing in Ukraine


The rape scene in the latest episode of Game of Thrones triggered in widespread outrage — and an almost equal amount of thoughtful analysis. Fans were divided — ("Why disrupt a well-liked character's entire arc?" "Why is everyone upset with this rape and not the other rapes on this rape-y show?") — and the show's creators were forced to defend their decision to introduce more sexual violence to an already disturbing story.

Imagine, though, that this controversy resulted in collective letters to the government, broadcasts cut off by cable providers, HBO employees fearing for their jobs and, finally, President Barack Obama riding in on a white horse and telling a reporter, "This isn’t the McCarthy era! That rape scene was offensive — but HBO has good things going for it!"

Imagine HBO's problems stopping as soon as Obama uttered those words.

Imagine all that, and you may begin to understand just how much the media, the arts and, indeed, the whole of Russian society depend on Russian President Vladimir Putin playing the role of tsar.

And you may also understand how it is that the demands of that role that have greatly impacted the Ukraine crisis — arguably the worst European crisis in years.

Image Credit: AP. A masked pro-Russian gunman in Slovyansk, Ukraine.

As unrest in Ukraine continues — with Russia saying it really, really doesn't want to invade, but leaving its options open — the mood in Russia has taken a reactionary turn.

The patriotic fervor surrounding Russia's annexation of Crimea, combined with international sanctions and widespread belief that the Ukrainian revolution was a fascist uprising on Russia's doorstep, have contributed to a tense atmosphere in both politics and culture, in which practically anyone can be labeled a traitor.

But while many observers are eager to blame Putin personally, both for the crisis in Ukraine and the hounding of dissenters in Russia, a recent Q&A session with him demonstrated how the current situation borne of much deeper issues.

Image Credit: AP. Russian president Vladimir Putin during a televised Q&A

The problems Russia has when it comes to dealing with any kind of nonconformism (both within the country and within Russia's sphere of influence) are particularly obvious with regard to Dozhd TV, the only independent news channel in Russia.

Unlike state-owned channels, Dozhd is liberal-leaning, has provided a lot of coverage of protests in Ukraine (without condemning all of the protesters as fascists) and is considered a thorn in the side of Russia's ruling conservatives.  

In January, Dozhd faced annihilation after a poorly worded and inappropriate WWII-related poll on its website caused an outcry. Cable providers swiftly dropped the channel and advertisers fled. The condemnation of Dozhd was severe, and people didn't stop kicking when Dozhd was already down.

Image Credit: AP. A protest in Moscow against Dozhd's closing.

The channel was on the brink of shuttering, when Putin was caught by a Dozhd reporter after the main Q&A broadcast had concluded. Putin told him that Dozhd is "rather interesting channel with a nice, young team." He then essentially promised that Dozhd would no longer be hounded.

Voilà. Dozhd is back in the game — to the delight of many.

But what was going through the heads of communications officials as they announced that they were suddenly ready to help the channel? Earlier, the same people had categorically stated that they would not investigate why Dozhd was dropped by providers.

Officials reversed course swiftly and with no apologies because they don't believe it's their responsibility to know when they are, indeed, going too far. That's for the Kremlin to decide, if it so chooses.

Moreover, at the Q&A session, Putin played the role of a reasonable arbiter forced to prevent his acolytes from tearing his ideological opponents apart.

"Nobody's grabbing [cultural dissenters] and throwing them in prison, sticking them in camps, as it happened in 1937," Putin told Irina Prokhorova, head of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, when she politely but bluntly pointed out that culture was being forced to become a "handmaiden of ideology."

We are living in the 21st century, but Putin must still remind a multi-million audience that it's not, and we are not, in the midst of Stalin's Great Terror.

Putin declaring so-called mini-thaws to ease domestic tension is not a bad thing. It's the fact that he has to declare them at all that's disturbing.

As the late author Sergei Dovlatov wrote, "We constantly curse comrade Stalin — and, obviously, rightfully so. And yet I still want to ask: Who was it that wrote four million denouncements?" Ordinary Soviet people, that's who.

While I hate idiotic Putin-Stalin comparisons, I believe that Dovlatov's warning about the zealotry with which millions of people in Russia respond to both official policies and dog whistles is still relevant.

Image Credit: AP. A protester in Warsaw carries a banner likening Putin to Stalin.

This zealotry also plays a crucial role in relations between Russia and Ukraine today.

There is a powerful alchemy that occurs between the state and society with the aid of both official propaganda and behavior learned and adopted in Soviet times — the end result is that public opinion inevitably becomes more extreme than the propaganda itself.

A month ago, for example, a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine seemed unthinkable. Now, people are already ranting about "taking Kiev" (which is in central Ukraine) on social media like it's no thing.

Image Credit: AP. A pro-Russian soldier in eastern Ukraine.

Once again, the notion of going too far doesn't register. Laypeople depend on the Kremlin to decide where the limits are.

Same deal with Putin himself. His role as a benevolent tsar is not enough for many people anymore. They want to go hardcore. They want Putin the Terrible. They want Tywin Lannister. How else to show Ukraine and the West that Russia means business?

The reason why we can't imagine Obama being forced to save Game of Thrones has a lot to do with the fact that Americans are not living in a Game of Thrones-like society to begin with.

Russians are, though. And their great — and frankly terrifying — expectations of their leaders reflect this.