The New Observer Media Comment Sophisticated propaganda

Sophisticated propaganda

This is a kind of sophisticated propaganda I see sometimes in the US media. It is effective because a) it appears reasonably balanced; it includes, for example, an interview with someone who supports the Russian position and b) it appears to be ‘thought-out’, explaining, for example, what nationalism is.

I think it is perfectly possible that the author is deluded; he may not consciously be writing propaganda. There are just some blocks in these people’s minds that limit the scope of their rationality. They can be rational up to a point, but when they come to the fundamental points – for example the need to believe that Russia is irrational and aggressive and cannot possibly have a rational basis for their military actions, unreason and ‘faith’ takes over.

Ironically this is a kind of religious fundamentalism. Ironically, because it is a theme of the article to accuse Putin of some kind of irrational mysticism.

It also strikes me as a waste. The author has been to Russia to write this and wastes the opportunity. I have limited time so just a few extracts and obvious comments. (I wanted to write them in the New York Times comments section to tell people they are being manipulated – but you have to pay for that and I don’t want to pay for propaganda).

In a time of terror, the great mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating or cowed. A few brave people, by contrast, move to an inner compass.

As so often with this kind of propaganda the author presents any Russian who is critical of the war as being normal, rational, humane and anyone who is supportive of the Russian war effort as living in the past and being deluded by Kremlin propaganda. This is a fundamental tenant of Western liberalism; people who don’t think like us are backward and deluded. Here we see this precisely. Those who the author interviewed who understand the Russian position very well; ‘”I fight out of duty to the motherland,” he said. “Our grandfathers went all the way to Berlin in 1945 to ensure we not have an enemy country next door. We won’t allow America to install that”‘ are “cowed”. Those who ask “why do all these people have to die” are “moved by an inner compass”.

He [Putin] has always used war — in Chechnya, in Georgia and in Ukraine — to unite Russians in the simplistic myths of nationalism and to usher them to the simplistic conclusion that his increasingly repressive rule is so essential that it must be eternal.

The narrative here is that “Putin” started all these wars for domestic political reasons. This is part of the myth. It falls apart when you learn that it was Georgia who started the 2008 Russo-Georgia war. [1] Notice that this also assumes that the war in Ukraine was started by Russia for domestic political reasons too. The Russian concerns are de facto deleted – the security threat from NATO in Ukraine (equivalent to say China and Mexico forming an alliance and China getting ready to place missiles in Mexico which we know 100% would not be acceptable to the US), and the non-fulfilment of the Minsk agreements. The deletion or simple vanishing of these points is interesting. If the US has an answer to them, then let’s discuss them, surely? The blanking shows that the authors of this narrative know, at some level, where the real irrationality lies.

In Moscow, a world away from Ulan-Ude, Western sanctions appear to have had little effect beyond stores like Dior that have signs saying, “Closed for technical reasons,” and the comical renaming of departed Western businesses, like “Stars,” for Starbucks.

By necessity the author has to mock. Maybe there really is a sign saying “closed for technical reasons” on a Dior shop in Moscow. In general the withdrawal of some Western consumer businesses has been handled quite smoothly though.

The truth speakers — Mr. Navalny, the outspoken Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, the war critic Ilya Yashin, the theater director Yevgeniya Berkovich, the playwright Svetlana Petriychuk and countless other writers and poets — are all in prison.

The author of this NYT piece presumably regards “truth-speaker” as anyone who shares the Western view of this war. It is a war of “unprovoked aggression”. In the Vietnam war were Americans who criticised the American position truth-speakers or traitors? My point is that there is an easy assumption in the Western media that any one who falls foul of the Russian authorities is a “truth-speaker”. Are they truth-speakers though just because they are expressing the Western liberal position? Does ‘truth’ simply mean “they are on-message with what we believe”?

This anti-Western ideology is based around the Orthodox Church, the fatherland, the family and the “priority of the spiritual over the material,” as laid out in Mr. Putin’s decree on spiritual and moral values issued in November.

They can only see developments in Russia through the lens of their own hubris. There is a certain development of a ideology which has become more pronounced since the war. But do people in Russia who hold to Conservative values and adhere to the Orthodox religion do so because it is “anti-Western”. Are they motivated only by being against the West? I doubt it. And indeed, most serious historians point to Putin as having been open to the West in the first years of his Presidency. What is lacking here is any sense of how, by pushing Russia down, the West has contributed to a certain strictness in the Russian position.

By insisting, against all evidence, that Ukraine is a nation run by Fascists and Nazis, and by suggesting that the West wants Ukraine to be another home of gender-transitioning moral decay, Mr. Putin has successfully turned a war of aggression into a defensive war, essential to save Russia from those intent on ripping apart its physical and moral fabric.

Sometimes even sophisticated propaganda has to tell crude lies. Such as denying any “Nazism” in Ukraine. Nonetheless, (to take just one example), it was the Azov battalion – deemed too unsavoury by the US Congress to receive funds [2], which blocked the one serious attempt to resolve the Donbas conflict in 2018. [3] Personally, I think the point about “Nazism” is stretched too far, but it has validity and has played a key part in this disaster. It would be better to be frank about it.

Children are indoctrinated through lessons and extracurricular activities built around military themes.

There is some degree of this but it is not universal.

Mr. Muratov, 61, sits in an office featuring a photograph of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the leader now reviled by many Russians, who rejected Communism in favor of free speech, free enterprise and open borders.

Mr Muratov is a newspaper editor of the closed New Gazette. Just a small historical correction is necessary here; Gorbachev did not support “free enterprise”. For example; “Gorbachev and his comrades were determined to carry out changes within the system;” [4] They were trying to establish some kind of reformed and open socialism. The “free enterprise” came later with Yeltsin. In the view of many Russians (the ones the author thinks are passive dupes of Kremlin propaganda) this was a disaster for Russia, and a disaster which Putin rescued them from.

This article is a classic example of a Western liberal writing on Russia. There are, in fact, some interesting ideas. But it is entirely one-sided – with hubris they cannot see that, for example, the Kremlin and with them, many Russians, see NATO setting up shop in Ukraine as an unacceptable provocation. They can only see Russian Conservatism and liking for traditions as some kind of Kremlin propaganda plot. Only Western leaning liberals in Russia (and of course there are people like this) are seen as being “independent”, telling the truth, not “cowed”. The journalist arrived in Russia with his ideological framework and he wrote a story to fit it. What a waste of time and effort.


  3. “More menacingly, several Ukrainian nationalist militias, including the Azov Battalion that was then fighting in the Luhansk region of Donbas, compromises necessary … they preferred to fight than give one centimetre.’57 The threat of a nationalist Maidan implacably opposed to any kind of compromise with the Kremlin had destroyed Zelensky’s attempt to bring peace in 2019 – and would remain a major threat to any future negotiated peace in the endgame of the 2022 war”. Matthews, Owen. Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin and Russia’s War Against Ukraine (p. 149). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  4. Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to its Legacy (p. 249). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.