Former Soviet political prisoner Russian journalist Aleksandr Podrabinek analyzes the power of Kremlin propaganda that very much resembles George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth from the novel 1984 and regrets the weakness of Western reactions to this far-from-new phenomenon.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has once again demonstrated the importance of information and the power of propaganda. Everyone has seen the brainwashed Russian soldiers convinced they had come to free Ukrainians from oppression. Some of the invaders even expected they would be greeted with flowers.
Two other propaganda clichés are no less absurd. One comes from the very top, from President Putin: Russia invaded Ukraine to denazify the country and expel the Nazis. Another cliché was born back in Soviet times and has now been given a second life on Russia’s federal TV channels: all those Ukrainians who do not see Russia as their friend and ally on the road to the future are Banderite-nationalists.
The effectiveness of propaganda flows not from the cogency of the arguments employed, but from the beauty of the wording. In essence, propaganda may be unadulterated nonsense but if packaged in an easy-to-understand formula then a significant number of people will consider this nonsense to be true.
Other prerequisites for successful propaganda are repetition, persistence, mass scale, and monopoly status. Russian state propaganda also meets these criteria well. Those few independent media outlets that remain in the country lack the resources to compete with state propaganda. The authorities can even leave them as democratic decorations, rather than wiping them out as in Soviet times.
Propaganda to build support for aggression against Ukraine is not a peculiarly Russian know-how. Tyrannical regimes have always used the tools of propaganda to brainwash people and as a screen for political repression or foreign expansion. Some of these propagandists have even been held to account in a court of law for their activities. The Nazi propagandists Julius Streicher in Germany and William Brooke Joyce in England were both sentenced to death by hanging after the war. The activities of Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines [Free Radio and Television of the Thousand Hills] in Rwanda were recognized by a UN Special Tribunal as contributing to genocide. Former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, who controlled the radio station, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998 on charges of crimes against humanity in part for this.
During the dramatic events in Rwanda in 1993-1994, some diplomats from influential Western countries based in the country spoke out against any restrictions on radio broadcasting in Rwanda. Their claims that freedom of speech should be protected were persuasive. But the verdict of the UN tribunal on the radio’s role in the genocide was no less convincing. It seems everyone kept their own opinion. No universal solution was found.
Indeed, freedom of speech should not be restricted, yet a government monopoly on propaganda can lead to crimes against humanity. What should be done? Western democracies have found a peculiar solution to this question: do nothing and merely watch how, in despotic regimes, political authorities concentrate all media resources in their hands, destroy independent media, introduce censorship and crack down on journalists. And then “unexpectedly” there comes the discovery of genocide in Rwanda or war against Ukraine. And when thousands of people have already died, emergency measures have to be taken: the creation of special courts, the supply of weapons to the victims of aggression and the imposition of international sanctions against the aggressor.
One might think humanity has already had enough experience with dictatorships: their formation, development and possible consequences. Why not, in the interests of peace and democracy, act somewhat ahead of the curve? For example, introduce economic sanctions — not after the outbreak of war or mass repressions, but when the despotic regime is still immature and just beginning to restrict civil liberties? When the first steps towards crimes against humanity have been taken — the suppression of freedom of speech and the creation of instruments of mass government propaganda?
Russia would be a very different country today if the reason for the current international sanctions had not been the war against Ukraine, but the takeover of NTV and the suppression of freedom of speech in the early 2000s. Authoritarianism would not have been able to develop and gather strength if the international community had taken its first signs seriously.
There is one other important aspect of government propaganda: its influence on Western public opinion. This should not be underestimated. Authoritarian governments spend billions of dollars on propaganda abroad and to a certain extent are successful in achieving their goals. Just one example: Kremlin-controlled polling organisations seek to create the impression, within Russia and beyond its borders, of unanimous support for Putin’s policies. In Russia, this is important because when people take the numbers provided by these polls in good faith, they become fearful of expressing their opinions and are loathe to appear to be in a very small minority. Figures of 86 percent support for Putin or 73 percent approval for the war against Ukraine make normal people feel marginalized, keep quiet and remain politically passive. Beyond Russia’s borders, this lie is important to the Kremlin because it demonstrates a sham cohesion of Russian society — something tht may look like a threat to the free world. Public opinion polling under tyrannical regimes is an instrument of political manipulation and not academic research into public opinion.
I have always been surprised, even amused, by the readiness of Western politicians, journalists, statesmen and women, political scientists, and experts to so readily swallow the Kremlin’s bait and base their analyses and forecasts on the fake figures they have been handed. On the other hand, one can understand Russian political emigrants who cite these figures with mournful triumph. For them, it is proof they made the right choice: Russia is a lost cause and should have been given up on long ago, there is nothing to be done here and everyone who can must flee the country. They need to believe this to justify themselves, and that’s understandable. But why do people in the West need to believe it? After all, strictly speaking, by agreeing with the Kremlin’s assessments, people unwittingly play into the hands of the Kremlin. Though, it needs to be said, not always unwittingly. Sometimes quite consciously.
No one knows the real figures for public support or disapproval of the authorities in Russia. There is no “free and fair” public opinion polling in the country, just as there are no free and fair elections. Opposition political parties and independent media are so restricted in their activities they cannot even reliably estimate the number of their own supporters. All assessments of the state of public opinion are extremely subjective and emotional — and in many respects are themselves strongly influenced by government propaganda. Unfortunately, we have to admit the world is ruled not only by those who possess information, but also by those who are skilful in the manipulation of disinformation.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove