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The Russian state propaganda and conspiracy theories in its service

In the last twenty years, Russian state propaganda gained much success both at home and abroad. Despite economic hardship and widespread corruption, state-controlled media provided some solid grounds for stable re-election of Putin and his ruling party as well as conquered audiences abroad. 

Prior to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the state propaganda managed to persuade millions of Russians that Ukraine is ruled by “neo-Nazi regime”. Or at the very least, the propaganda message sowed the seeds of doubts in mass consciousness declaring that “everything is not that simple” with this war of aggression, discouraging Russians from anti-war protesting. There is no doubt that it is not only the propaganda that allows Putin and his allies to stay in power for so long and carry out aggressive wars with impunity, it is rather a combination of police oppressions against anti-Putin critics, lack of experience of political self-organisation for average Russians and stable revenues from the sell of hydrocarbons abroad that helps the Russian state to suppress the dissent and keep afloat. Nevertheless, state propaganda is one of the key pillars of this system and it is in many ways based on the routine mobilisation of conspiracy theories to serve its purposes. 

What is propaganda? Information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions. Often, emotionally loaded language is used for example when distributed by governments. In daily life, in some countries people perceive the  term as strongly negative, such as in Germany and Ukraine.

Soviet Union’s “stab in the back”

Conspiracy theories always exist, at least somewhere in the outskirts of the political discourse. The collapse of the Soviet Union became an inspirational event for many conspirologists to appear and present their theories of various sorts of conspiracies that ruined the world’s second superpower. This was a time of the benefice of Soviet-nostalgic nationalists who believed there were liberals, jews, masons and Western elites behind the collapse of the USSR, that Soviet Union had never lost the Cold War and could not disintegrate for some natural reasons, such as decay of socialist economic system. This range of conspiracy theories has much in common with the Stab-in-the-back myth that helped the Nazis to ascend to power in Germany. According to it, German army had not lost the First World War in the battlefield, but was defeated by the internal enemy at home, namely by the jews, socialists, democratic politicians who stood behind the labor strikes and social unrest in the country, which subsequently lead to the military defeat and November revolution in 1918.

“Stab-in-the-back” rhetoric is still surprisingly alive in political rhetoric. On 27 June 2022 on the parliamentary hearing on higher education, the speaker of the Russian State Duma stated the following:
“пускай… в первую очередь уйдут [уволятся] те [преподаватели университетов], кто берет и всаживает нож своими разговорами предательскими в спину отчизны.”

Back in the 1920s, the advocates of the Stab-in-the-back conspiracy theory called the creators of the young democratic Weimar Republic in Germany “November criminals”. Similarly,  from the beginning of the 1990s the democratic politicians of post-Soviet Russia were portrayed as traitors, American puppets anddermocrats” (a word play, consisting of two words in Russian, shit and democrats, used with a negative connotation for democrats). Throughout the 1990s people who generated and shared this range of conspiracy theories were not in power yet, at least not at the national level. This was a rather marginal community of far-right (or, as they are frequently called, “red-brown”) activists, columnists and politicians, that had some political representation on the level of governors and MPs. Similar to the Weimar Republic, the democratic Russia of the 1990s was poor and financially unstable. External debts and the economic transformation led to a strong economic decline, which meant extreme hardship for the population. The creation of an oligarchy and state capture preventing democratisation were further developments. Millions of Russians suddenly found themselves being minorities in the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union. The idea that Russia is somehow entitled to govern the countries of the ex Soviet Union, but was unfairly deprived of this “right”, mainly as a result of international conspiracy against it, was actively circulating within the country throughout the 1990s.

Conspiracy theory as a peace deal for the post-Soviet Russian elites

Putin’s ascendance to power since late 1990s gradually legitimized this conspiracy narrative taking it from the margins of the political spectrum to the center of the state ideology. There is evidence that Putin and his companions perceived the “color revolutions”, such as the “Revolution of the Roses” in Georgia and especially “Orange revolution” in Ukraine, as their existential threat. A conspiracy theory was a response to that: according to it, those protesting at the main squares of Tbilisi and Kyiv were not independent individuals united by a common cause, but rather the puppets secretly led by the mighty Western powers. The conspiracy-theory anti-Western rhetoric firstly gained its firm grounds in Putin’s Munich speech in 2006 and became more severe in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and then again in 2022 with Russia’s full-scale military invasion into Ukraine.  

These new conspiracy theories not only explained the current events, but also the past. According to it, for a long time the West has been conspiring against Russia to diminish its power, no matter which ideology the Western elites were using to undermine Russia. Thus, the Decembrist revolt in 1825 was merely a British-masonic conspiracy and Lenin was “undoubtedly” a German spy bringing the mountains of German cash in his famous plumbed wagon, otherwise the October revolution would never have taken place. Professional historians have long warned (in vain!) that the history section bookshelves in the Russian bookstores were full of pseudo-scientific conspiracy fairy-tales. This conspiracy framework of the event interpretation appeared to be a convenient discovery for the Russian post-Soviet elites. It contributed to some kind of peace deal between those nostalgic of the Russian empire under the Tsar and those who just wanted to take a ride in a time machine and be back in the Soviet Union. One could expect that these two groups, politically right- and left-leaning, would be existing in a state of a permanent conflict as one could witness in the 1990s. Here, conspiracy-theory thinking gave a helping hand to provide a much-needed explanation: it was always the same Russia, whether under the rule of Tsar, under the rule of the Soviets or under the rule of post-Soviet Putin. Thus, Russia is being betrayed from time to time by some developing set of “foreign agents” who disturb public tranquility but are quickly neutralized by the glorious secret services, so the country always returns back to its imperial order. This way of thinking managed to normalize a seemingly schizophrenic picture very common in today’s Russia: a communist holding a church candle defending “traditional (i.e. conservative) values”

Russia turning into an echo chamber of conspiracy-theory-propaganda

An echo chamber is an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own, currently especially developing virtually in social networks. Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective so they have difficulty considering opposing viewpoints and discussing complicated topics. They’re fueled in part by confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favor info that reinforces existing beliefs.

It is difficult not to be exposed to this set of conspiracy theories once you are surrounded by them, if you live in Russia and consume the news mainly from the state-controlled media. After the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine, the Russian government blocked the majority of the independent and critical media online within the country. These media produced alternative narratives and, at least some of them, did thorough fact-checking. This new censorship online enforced the walls of the already pre-existing echo chamber in Russia, making wide use of conspiracy theories, constantly forming them and even creating many new ones. Whether you watch the news on Russia’s First TV channel or watch a political talk-show or read the newsfeed on Yandex or sometimes speak with a random person on the street, the set of conspiracy ideas – the-West-against-Russia – is always around. Of course, it would be over-simplistic to say that all Russians think the same way. Similar to many countries, the differences between the age groups, location, profession, education, gender etc. shape the views of millions of Russians. Still, the propaganda manages to push its message through this diversity. 

In post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s the media were not entirely free and often depended on the decisions of powerful Russian tycoons. Newly created Russian media were also not free from conspiracy theories and used some dirty PR methods to destroy political opponents, especially when it came to election campaigns. Even though the Russian media of the 1990s lacked thorough fact-checking and strong ethics, they did represent a wide range of political views and nearly no topics were prohibited for media coverage. Putin’s ascendance to power was marred by his crackdown on independent media, or the media that represented alternative views and published news unwelcome by the Kremlin. The state censorship of the decade of 2000s was far from being total, a few independent media like Novaya Gazeta survived through the early Putin’s era. Even the mainstream media had some space for the critical coverage of certain state policies but there were some topics prohibited for coverage. The rise of online media in Russia undermined the state media monopoly in the late 2000s and coincided with the so-called “Medvedev’s thaw”, when Putin’s Russia experienced some kind of political liberalization. That did not last for long. The state started tightening the screws in 2012. The authorities destroyed independent editorial offices, normally through imposing the new owners loyal to the Kremlin to purge the dissident media from the journalists who “crossed the line” in their criticism. In 2017 Russian legislators went further and introduced the “foreign agent” media law starting labeling critical media and individual media workers as “foreign agents”. Here state-orchestrated conspiracy theory played again. The idea behind the “foreign agent” law was that a journalist cannot come up with the criticism of the state on their own, that it is always some kind of hidden power that orders the journalist or otherwise pushes them to produce a critical news report. Prior to the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine in February 2022 more and more critical media were labeled as “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations”. Some of them were blocked online or otherwise persecuted. The Russian state was making an effort to reduce the access of the critical media to the wider audience, to isolate the critical media and thus to enforce its propagandist echo chamber. The effort was quite successful, but never complete. 

Living in a media environment saturated with Kremlin’s conspiracy theories may be toxic. On the one hand, for years it has been effectively discouraging Russian society from active political participation. What is the matter to go to the street and hold a poster protesting against police torture or online censorship, if every political action in this world is being pre-orchestrated by some hidden powers and it is a mysterious figure of Soros staying behind every protestor? In the pre-Covid times when single pickets were still largely allowed in Russia, this was a regular feedback the street protestors received from their compatriots. And the other impact this toxic conspiracy-theory environment has on some anti-Putin minds is that Kremlin critics start largely believing in opposition conspiracy theories. For instance, there is a popular theory that the Soviet Union has never collapsed, but rather Perestroika and Soviet disintegration in 1991 was a part of a special operation to transfer power and legendary “Communist party’s gold” to the KGB leadership. Thus, according to this anti-Kremlin theory, the KGB was always in control of literally everything and ordinary Russians were just pawns in someone’s bigger game. Thus, according to this view, when military junta known as GKCHP (State Committee on the State of Emergency) tried to re-established Soviet dictatorship in August 1991 and dozens of thousands of moscovites resisted and built barricades in the center of Moscow, it was just a very well set-up show to transfer money and power within elit, not a street struggle for democracy. Conspiracy theories find fertile grounds for their breeding in the restricted media environment and when the process of government’s decision making is hidden from the public eyes. In this situation the temptation is always here to come up with various theories about what kind of hidden and mysterious forces stay behind the decision in the closed Kremlin’s cabinets. 

Conspiracy theories for export

As this chapter covers the issue of disinformation campaigns, we find it useful to provide one definition of disinformation: It is false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth,  spreading uncertainty and distrust. One characteristic is also the high amount of information being spread. 

But if the Russian state media echo chamber is functioning well, at least for now, how is the Russian propaganda still managing to spread its messages abroad, even in some very competitive media environments? This may seem a mystery given that the pictures of Russian war atrocities in Ukraine bring Russia’s international image to a historic low and it has been a long time since the international community has been alerted about Russia’s activities both at home and abroad. The studies of Stasi archives shed light on this matter. They reveal the aims the Soviet propaganda was trying to achieve in the latest stage of its existence. At this point, the Soviet propaganda largely gave up the efforts to offer a positive image of the USSR and the international Soviet-style socialism as this task was increasingly difficult to fulfill in the early 1980s with the brutal and internationally condemned Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Still, spreading conspiracy theories about the West to undermine Western democracies and mar its image in the eyes of the Global South was totally feasible. 

In the 1980s, Soviet propaganda launched an international disinformation campaign to persuade various audiences that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) – the disease caused by an infection with the human immunedeficiency virus (HIV) – originated in the USA and its origin was affiliated with the US government. Scientists at the time knew very little about AIDS and HIV, even less knew the general population, although it was already clear that the world was dealing with a new, dangerous and deadly disease. This provided a space for speculation. At first, the made-up story of the origin of AIDS appeared in some marginal media, then it was gradually brought-up through cross-references and loyal experts to mainstream media – this kind of distribution was a strategic decision to spread disinformation without exposing the authors. Soviet propaganda was sophisticated enough to tailor its message for different audiences: In African states, it stated that the scientific finding that AIDS originated from this continent was purely a product of American racism. For the anti-war movement in the West it sold the idea that AIDS may be the by-product of US biological weapons. The fathers of this disinformation campaign were happy every time it penetrated the pages of any quality media, even when the Western media only mentioned this conspiracy theory to fact-check and debunk it. The archives of Russian secret services, Russia Today and similar institutions are out of reach for now, but one can see the same pattern in the way the Kremlin-affiliated media are circulating the most bizarre conspiracy theories in Europe, US and across the world in order to undermine people’s trust in democratic institutions. Similar to AIDS in the 1980s, the Covid pandemic became a heyday for Russian propaganda abroad.

Russian disinformation campaigns abroad also have sometimes a very limited impact. For instance, for years, since 2014 the Russian propaganda machine circulated the message about “fascists in Kyiv” targeting among others the audiences in Eastern Ukraine. The message was intended to disseminate distrust in Kyiv’s central government. It had some success in the beginning, but, as research shows, it failed to construct the “in-group identities” such as “we, the people in Donbas” or “we, the Eastern Ukrainians”. When Russia started its full-scale invasion into Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the warmongers expected “bread-and-salt welcome” for the Russian troops but faced fierce resistance from the population of Eastern Ukraine. 

Interestingly enough, many people are involved in spreading Russian propagandist messages while they have no connection to Russia Today, Sputnik and similar sources of disinformation. It is very often the case that the unconscious multipliers of the message cannot even suspect their involvement in this sophisticated propaganda chain. It is a good achievement for the disinformation campaign, if a public figure shares its message or otherwise comments on it or if a respected media contributes to its spread. Next to forcing their own disinformation campaigns – something that the editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan herself called an “information war” – Russia Today and similar Kremlin-controlled media give a platform and necessary resources for the local conspirologists to express themselves and to undermine people’s belief in existing democratic institutions (as described in the book ”Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories. People, Power and Politics on RT” by Ilya Yablokov and Precious N Chatterje-Doody). It is up to historians of the future to find out the exact amount of Russian disinformation campaigns’ contribution to the events like Brexit in the UK or Trump’s election in the USA in 2016.

“Their morals and ours” 

The work of the media in democratic countries is based on rights protected by the constitution such as freedom of speech and they are bound by ethics and reputation that (at least ideally) prevent them from spreading lies. In the past, the Soviet leadership declared that the capitalist media are only serving their masters and there is no such thing as independent journalism, that journalists provide news coverage always reflecting their class position, that spreading disinformation in the name of the working class is good as long as it serves its purpose. The current Russian leadership, the Kremlin-affiliated editors and media managers are no longer working-class revolutionaries. However, from the Soviet times they adopted the idea that there is no universal truth, that there is always, in the words of Trotskiy, “their morals and ours”, and now it is the West against Russia. There is a long way to go to challenge this worldview, developing an understanding for democracy, the diversity of media and pluralism. Especially in the last ten years, rather the opposite was developed, with the result of a Russian state today extensively using propaganda towards all aspects of life and through multiple channels. The fight for the universal right for freedom of speech and independent media needs to continue.

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