Soviet and Post-Soviet Propaganda: Structural and Historical Analysis

ussrPropaganda, being of utmost importance to the Soviet Union (and to its heir, the Russian Federation), had always been a matter of serious research there. It alone made possible controlling the thoughts and behavior of an incomprehensible number of people on a breathtakingly huge territory. This required developing and employing effective new methods of information processing and delivery which, in turn, allowed the authorities a unified education of thought for their people. Naturally, there have been snags and even opposition. These caused the government to improve their techniques of ever more brutal brainwashing, until finally the false-bottom, double-layered complex of practices, functioning much better than the regular unsophisticated system used by other countries, had been discovered. This complex is neither very subtle nor overly rational, but it is effective. And it works even better in our age of information warfare.

It starts with “occupying” the information battlefield with their info-viruses, memes and jargon, utilizing for this the full power of the Soviet propaganda machine plus lots and lots of money. Then, having in this way legitimized the attack on the enemy-designee, they move in for the kill. The main practice for this part of the battle is dragging the enemy into their own info-semantic space, forcing on him with their own terminology, drowning out the reality and replacing it with lies. In the case of Russian-driven attack these could be, for example, “Victory” (over the Nazis), “Ancestral Nobility”, “Fascism” (as a scarecrow), “Saving Europe” (from the fascists, of course), “Common History”, “Justice”, “Spirituality”, “Great Culture” and so on. The opponent is, obviously, found wanting when weighed against all these and is, therefore, declared the Enemy of all that is Human (or, as the Soviet ideologues used to put it, “the enemy of progress”).

This strategy had been applied to many world leaders who didn’t comply with the Soviet plans of bringing their countries into the Communist fold. Pinochet, Stroessner, Somoza, Banzer, Thatcher – they had all been, at one time or another, an enemy of progress, i.e. of the Moscow-loyal forces. Today the situation is not much different; the memes have rotted at the core but, seasoned with enough hot sauce of patriotism, they give out almost no stench.

These methods originate around the end of the 19th century and were extensively used throughout the 20th. In the modern world they should have been completely ineffective, if not for the two significant points. Point the first: the Russian government pours an enormous amount of resources into their propaganda machine, ensuring the smooth turning of the cogs. Point the second: the false-bottom or double-layer of the disinformation defense, which prevents their rivals and opponents from annihilating this Soviet “agitprop”. After the death of the USSR, Yeltzin’s government abandoned the classic Russian empire-building ambitions, and the freedom of speech was abound in the new state – or so it seemed. For but a few short years have passed and we see once more fascist-lookalike politicians running the show, empty-faced TV hosts mindlessly repeating the revanchist mantras of patriotism and empire, the people demanding annexing foreign lands and destroying the neighboring countries. To understand how this happened we must remind ourselves again and again that the Russian propaganda, a worthy heir of its Soviet ancestor, is more complex than the ones the Western world is used to dealing with. Whereas the goal of a regular propaganda machine is improving the image of its country in the eyes of the world, the Russian government sets its sights higher: it must, at the same time, forcibly keep its own people loyal, and ensure the safe self-replication of itself – the repressive, oppressive government structure.

The first layer, that which is easily perceived, is too obvious to be true. It shows the Russian government to act similar to its European, Asian or Latin American counterpart. This starts with liquidation of the “alternative” (i.e. not controlled by the government) media organizations (q.v. the “Media-MOST” group). Then the least loyal members of the opposition are exiled or arrested. This leads directly to the clearing of the semantic battlefield – a slow and patient work of scraping off and scouring out any divergent notions. Some of the most common methods are the unification of the education system, the enforced privilege of the national culture over all the others, the regulation of the peoples’ opinions, the limitation on the incoming cultural sources (literature, etc.) As a result the opposition becomes devoid of ideas and is forced to resort to empty slogans of “Putin = Bad” kind. This, in turn, drives the opposition flanks into beating upon one another, resurrecting the age-old cliched dichotomy of Communism Opposing Nazism. Finally, the information resources become unified and monopolized under the government’s control, and from this point on anything can become The Truth: “American propaganda is all lies”, “Europe is besieged with homos”, “Ukranians are all fascists”, “Estonians are all Nazis”, and so on.

The double-layer effect is achieved as follows. First, the information field is created as described above, its declared purpose to provide “defense” against “unnecessary” or “alien” knowledge. Then, another structure is created, its terminology and ideas seemingly contradicting the mainstream government propaganda, but in reality it functions in tandem with it, creating a second layer of discourse, a counterpart to the traditional Russian political agenda.

To fully realize how it works imaging a fortress with a wall and a moat. You could say that the moat is, in some ways at least, the wall’s opposite: it goes down where the wall goes up, so in terms of geometry they can be viewed as contradicting each other. In reality, of course, they both serve the same purpose, complementing each other instead. They are both parts of the fortress’s defense mechanism: those who manage to overcome the wall fall into the moat and remain within the “general space” of the fortress.

The Soviet propaganda, for example, always appointed as its enemies two types of movements: Nazism (national socialism) and “red anti-sovietism” (a term encompassing all kinds of leftist movements, from Trotskyism to Maoism). The soviet ideologists claimed, of course, that the main enemy of the USSR are “capitalism”, “revisionism” and so on, but these were purely philosophical categories, impossible to touch, smell or understand, they could mean anything or nothing. A soviet citizen, isolated from all outside information on capitalism, had no basis for understanding its meaning. In particular, an inside opponent of the system didn’t know about this alternative. He could know about Trotsky, Mao, the European left-wingers, he could learn about Hitler or Mussolini… Fascist and leftist movements were easily perceived, they could be observed and understood, they had actual faces, historical personages. Thus, they provided a firm basis for soviet oppositionists: it allowed them to overcome the wall… and fall into the moat.

Those who managed to climb over the wall by realizing the wrongness inherent in the system fell prey to the moat prepared by the Machiavellian propaganda machine. With the fall of the USSR all the anti-Soviet opposition was engulfed in it completely. The most popular program was based off the so-called “red-brown synthesis” (i.e. the union of the Communist and Nazi ideas) or off the “third way” (i.e. sovereignty-crazy power-hungry pseudo-anti-Soviet demagogues who were overtly pushed away by the official Soviet ideology and secretly made into a semantic trap for the opposition). Russia was trapped in the moat and could came to neither capitalism nor anti-imperialism. The moat looked like anti-Soviet on the face of it – fascism, nationalism, sovereignty, glorious-pastness and so on – but in reality it ran parallel to Soviet ideology.

This is what I meant by the double-layer of protection, or propaganda with a false bottom: division of own ideology into “good” and “evil” discourse patterns, whereby you keep the “evil” in check and ensure it is no different from “good” in anything that actually matters.

In case of Ukraine the first layer was the “Slav brotherhood” of the two neighboring peoples; and yet when the Ukrainians penetrated this layer, climbed over the wall, and answered “you are no brother of mine”, the Russians and the Russian-loyalist Ukrainians fell directly into the moat. The Ukrainian patriots were declared “followers of Bandera”, i.e. Nazis, whose grandfathers were killing “your” (i.e. the Russian patriots’) grandfathers and who are now killing “our brave lads”; and Ukraine as a separate country was likewise declared illegitimate and virtually non-existent. An attentive viewer familiar with the false-bottom technique will recognize it here at work right away: “the brother nation” and “the illegitimate nation” only seem opposed, but in reality they are the same. The only way to become a “brother” nation to a crazed Empire-building obsessive giant is by forfeiting your own unique ethnicity and culture, and becoming a cog in the empire’s machine, an organ in its body. The empire did not enjoy losing Ukraine; but this feeling was not that of a friend saying good-bye to a friend – it was rather that of a man losing a hand or a kidney. An empire is unable to view the Other as equal to itself, only as a subject or a rival. It will first attempt to disparage (“enemy of progress”) and destroy the Other, as should be done with a rebellious subject; if this fails, it will grudgingly acknowledge its right to exist – as a rival. This is the logic of empire: you are either its part or its enemy. Ukraine did not reach that stage yet, though it’s close. The Russian government still considers it as a revolting (in all senses) part, not an independent entity.

“Brother-nation” and “fascist nation” are one and the same in the Russian political paradigm; this is the false bottom propaganda method in action. Completely opposing on the surface, these sub-strategies are in reality completing parts of the whole, and they serve to mask the real goals and actions of the Russian government. By using the “wall/moat” dual method the Russian propaganda slowly and surely turned the Wall (“brothers who deserve our help”) into the Moat (“fascists who should be destroyed”). Too few Russian citizens were observant enough to ask how this happened and why it was achieved with such ease.

The exact same thing (only in reverse) happened in Russian-Chechen relations. It started with “subhuman murderers, cutthroats, NATO hirelings, Saudi brownnosers, Baltic White-Tights lovers” and so on. Note here the shameless mix of all the Russian enemies, done in the best traditions of governmental paranoia. At some point, however, this changed to “brothers, friends, war allies, the future hope of the Russian empire”. This didn’t happen overnight, but rather unobtrusively. Yesterday’s “state enemies number 1” became a loyal column of the regime – and now we see Kadyrov’s Tonton Macoutes threatening Ukraine, with the background chorus of Russian patriots demanding Chechen “spetsnaz” be sent to Ukraine to “drive fear into the hated enemy”. If this is schizophrenia, it is, at least, of a known root – it was planted into each and every citizen’s head and carefully nurtured. History is abound with conflicts flaring up and subsiding, but I am not familiar with another state changing its relations with its rivals so swiftly from rapport to loathing and back; the only thing that comes to mind is Orwell’s “Eurasia has always been at war with Eastasia”. The Soviet/Russian government achieved a truly spectacular success in the art of fomenting schizophrenic propaganda.

A similar deconstruction (or reconstruction) was performed on the Russian-Chinese relations. The transition from animosity the Russian patriots and anti-Soviet intellectuals felt towards China in the 1990s towards sympathy and even friendship occurred as soon as China showed signs of supporting Russia. Not too long ago the Russians talked about the Chinese threat, the Chinese geopolitical interests, the military provocations on the Chinese-Soviet border. These were not without merit: the economic dependence on China, coupled with its military capabilities, were much more dangerous for Russia than the dependence on the EU or the USA. China, in its turn, is quite interested in such ingratiating behavior: for the last few years it has been expanding its controls in the Latin American countries, in part, by taking control of the Soviet diplomatic and logistic structures. The trust and friendship expressed by Moscow (and the delighted reaction of the Russian people to the news that Eurasia is no longer at war with Eastasia) are just what Beijing needs to strengthen its position as a world power.

My purpose in writing this long article was simple: to show the people who find themselves under information attack by the Russian government that the force that opposes them is neither dumb nor easily thwarted, that it is a smart, sly and effective machine. It is in the interests of the Russian government that its opponents belittle the capabilities of this machine, calling it dumb and primitive. The more people believe propaganda to be “only effective against the rabble” the better it will work on them, switching one face for another, dropping them through false bottoms, mooring them ever deeper. The machine does not rely on the known to all Western analysts nationalist approach, but rather on a schizophrenic empire-building paradigm, whose world view does not include anything but subjects and enemies. The defenses against this information attack should be planned accordingly.

Kitty Sanders, 2014