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Russian disinformation

Putin’s Politics of Propaganda

Millions of Russians live in a world of make-believe, hoodwinked by state propaganda. Alternative realities are the opium of the people and allow the elites to hold on to power, as shown by a look at history with Slavonic studies scholar Sylvia Sasse and historian Jeronim Perović.
Thomas Gull; translation by Gemma Brown
Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin: two Russian tyrants known for using disinformation for political ends. Here in a double image at a demonstration against the Ukraine war. (BILDQUELLE?)

Anyone who has been following the reports on the war in Ukraine will have consistently wondered at the diametrically opposed narratives around what is happening there. On the one hand, there are those of most Western media, and on the other, there are Russia’s. From our perspective, Russia’s attack is a heinous act of aggression against a peaceful neighbor, while Russia claims that it has had to strike back against an encroaching West and that it wants to “liberate” and “denazify” Ukraine.

It is also difficult for us to comprehend that many Russians are apparently taken in by the Kremlin’s propaganda and the state-controlled media. Slavonic studies scholar Sylvia Sasse has spent years researching how propaganda and disinformation work, particularly in today’s Russia and in the former Soviet Union. The professor of Slavonic literature at UZH grew up in East Germany and for years has been studying the archives of the former secret services to understand how a repressive state works and how it manipulates its citizens.  “Believing things that are absurd is deeply enshrined in our cultural history. It doesn’t only happen in dictatorships and it doesn’t only happen in Russia, but everywhere. It is also what religions are based on,” she says. So it’s not surprising that so many in Russia believe the government’s disinformation, Sasse argues, as it is also actively spread by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Fake news and anti-Russian criticism

Looked at from this perspective, it is easier to understand why, for example, millions of (often religious) Americans are still convinced that Donald Trump won the last US presidential election, or that a satanic (Democrat) elite is murdering children, as QAnon conspiracy theorists believe.

While some Americans take ludicrous nonsense at face value of their own free will, things are somewhat different in Russia, where state propaganda and disinformation have a long history. Sasse attributes the term disinformation to Lenin, who first used it in 1918 to discredit negative news about the October Revolution. Nowadays, politicians like former US president Donald Trump or Hungarian president Viktor Orbán dismiss any news stories they don’t like as fake news. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin brands any criticism as “anti-Russian”.

Retouched reality

The interesting point about this is that those who discount criticism as politically motivated disinformation or fake news then deliberately lie to vilify their political opponents. “From an early stage, the Soviet Union had an office for disinformation which would fabricate false stories,” says Sasse. After seizing power, Stalin started having photographs retouched to erase his political opponents. Conversely, he had himself painted into history on paintings of events in which he did not participate. The Moscow show trials in the 1930s also created alternative realities so that Stalin could denounce and eliminate his political opponents as masterminds of an alleged conspiracy.

The history of alternative realities in Russia goes back even further, for instance to the proverbial Potemkin villages with which Prince Grigory Potemkin (1739–91) sought to impress his lover Catherine the Great by constructing fake settlements in the recently-conquered New Russia. It is now thought that the legend itself is fake news, spread by Potemkin’s rivals to discredit him. In her book Verkehrungen ins Gegenteil on subversion as a tool of power, Sylvia Sasse recounts how Ivan the Terrible (1530–84) once pretended to be a victim of the Boyars (Russian nobility) to legitimize his power and to crush opponents of the aristocracy.

Subversion from above

Systematically accusing your opponent of what you’re doing yourself is a typical way of exerting and legitimizing control. Sasse says: “Putin claims that Ukraine is a fascist country, that the EU is a dictatorship, that the European press lies, that freedom of opinion is massively restricted in Europe, that Western media is censored, and that the war itself has been staged.” People in Russia are living in this totally distorted reality, in which their country appears as democratic and anti-fascist. By systematically twisting the truth, those in power are sowing cognitive and emotional chaos that “wears people down and breaks their resistance”. This is the premise of Sylvia Sasse’s book.

As Sasse shows using the example of the Russian television program Anti-Fake, the destructive disinformation doesn’t even need to use particularly subtle methods. Anti-Fake is a TV program that claims to expose the propaganda of the West and Ukraine. It shows real footage – for example of Bucha with dead bodies lying in the streets – and reframes it by describing it as staged “theater” and “a gigantic hoax”. “Reality is therefore exposed as banal falsification,” explains Sasse, “it’s explained away as fiction.” The aim of this disinformation is to bring about a reversal of feelings. Compassion for the victims, which could cast doubt on the war, is replaced by anger with the West, which allegedly stages such scenes to turn people against Russia. “In this way, people are emotionally conditioned,” says Sasse, “which assists repression.” Because if the war is just a theater orchestrated by the West, then why revolt?

Fake forensics

The ploy with the Anti-Fake program is that it simulates a matter-of-fact and supposedly scientific analysis of the images presented.  Sasse calls it “fake forensics”. The fake experts and talk show hosts who stir up hatred against the “fascists” in Ukraine are the intellectual stooges of the powerful, who aid them by forging reality. “In Russia, there is an established practice of hiding the truth,” Sasse explains, pointing to the fact that for a long time no one reported on the Gulag (until Alexander Solzhenitsyn did so), or that Socialist Realism completely masked the reality of Stalinist terror, for example, to describe instead flourishing socialist landscapes that didn’t exist.

But the question is do people really believe what they’re told?  And does Putin believe his fairy story about a fascist Ukraine that needs to be liberated? It is often said that the Russian president lives in a reality that he has constructed for himself. There is something in that argument, says Jeronim Perović, director of the Center for Eastern European Studies at UZH: “Putin dreams of a Great Russia that in a sense organically grew into one nation over centuries and was then ripped apart by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.” The Russian president believes evil forces were behind the collapse of the Soviet Empire.  In doing so, says Perović, he is completely ignoring the fact that the people – who were mostly swallowed up by Russia and later the Soviet Union against their will – wanted to go their own way as soon as the chance arose. And that has still not changed. What is particularly painful for Putin as a Russian nationalist is that a country like Ukraine – which to Putin is the heart of the so-called Russian world along with Belarus – is seeking to leave the Russian sphere of influence. He has absolutely no interest in what the Ukrainian people want. In his view, the West is using Ukraine to weaken Russia.

So the answer to the question is that Putin’s claim that Ukraine needs to be liberated from anti-Russian “fascists” is part of the narrative that he has constructed. According to Sasse, he deploys this narrative “strategically to expand his power.” At the same time, referring to the “Great Patriotic War” (the Russians’ defensive operations against Nazi Germany) really resonates with the public. “Putin is keeping memories of the war alive,” says Perović, “in order to appeal for unity. Those who break ranks are the enemy, the new Nazis, who want to destroy Russia.”

And do people believe the propaganda? Sasse says: “Unfortunately, it’s easier to believe the propaganda than to contradict it. Keeping quiet allows you to stay alive. Not many people have the courage to publicly oppose the system and to sacrifice their lives for the truth.” But those who don’t believe the disinformation quickly learn to deal with the contradiction between reality and ideology. Even back in the Soviet Union people referred to this contradiction as doublethink, after George Orwell, Sasse explains. People prefer to keep what they really think to themselves, which is why it is difficult to trust surveys conducted in repressive systems.

A good life with Putin

Jeronim Perović doesn’t believe that the majority of people in Russia support the war. “But most don’t want a defeat. Russian society can’t accept that,” he says. And people have lived under Putin’s regime for 20 years. Many have helped fashion it, in politics, in the military, as civil servants, and have not done badly out of it. “The reality is that many people have prospered during this time,” says Perović. So, whether they like it or not, people are sitting in the same boat and heading into the abyss together.

The Russian Orthodox Church also plays a dubious part – closing the circle on religion and faith – because it supports and justifies Russia’s war of aggression. In Russia, state power and the Orthodox Church have always gone hand in hand, says Perović. In the past, the Tsar was the defender of Orthodoxy, now it’s Putin. “Unlike in say Poland or Croatia, where the Catholic Church opposed the communist regimes, the Russian Orthodox Church has always been in cahoots with the powerful.”

It recently transpired that the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill used to work as an agent for the Soviet KGB in Switzerland in the 1970s. He now supports and amplifies Kremlin propaganda by absolving the soldiers from their sins and claiming that Russia has never attacked another country. Faith is weaponized, as has so often been the case throughout history. (Credulous) believers are sucked into the web of lies of state disinformation.

Will this web of lies ever be torn apart? And will the alternative reality of Putin’s regime ever be exposed like the racist and nationalist megalomania of the Nazis, or the rose-tinted, dilapidated world of Soviet Communism? That would require a radical change of government, says Sylvia Sasse, that not only gets rid of Putin, but also the powerful secret service that controls the state like the Mafia. Jeronim Perović thinks that unlikely at the moment because no bombs are falling in Russia and people fear a revolution. “During the break-up in the 1990s, the western liberal model was an alternative. But in the eyes of many Russians, the democracy experiment has gone wrong.” So for the Russian people this means: who are they supposed to trust in if Putin falls?

This article first appeared in UZH Magazin 1/23.

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