They call him key counter-propagandist of the Russian-Georgian war. In 2008 Mikhael Saakashvili’s team invited Oleg Panfilov to the National Security Council to protect Georgia from the Kremlin’s information attacks.
Before that, the author, scriptwriter, and political journalist Oleg Panfilov had also been a public activist in Russia.
He visited Ukraine to give a course of lectures at the CAPS school. Seizing the opportunity, The Day invited the well-known expert in information warfare to the editorial office to discuss what arsenal of information weapons is the most effective today against the Kremlin’s propaganda.
“I have a very close relationship with Ukraine. My second wife is a ‘Banderaite’ from Kyiv.
“I have seen a lot of revolutions and even fomented some a little. So, from the day Yanukovych was ‘insidiously’ walking across Vilnius, we watched round the clock from Tbilisi what was going on in Kyiv. When the Maidan face-off intensified, my wife and I slept by turns – we would stand by the TV set and wake up each other if something had happened.
“There are many Ukrainians living in Tbilisi. I once made a film on the history of Ukrainians in Georgia. For example, there is a typical Ukrainian village there, known as downhill ski resort Bakuriani, where Ukrainian country houses are still standing. The local restaurant offers an original menu: a mix of Georgian kharcho and khinkali and Ukrainian borsch and dumplings.
“A total of 18,000 people were brought to Georgia from Ukraine in 1853. I have friends named Shota Martynenko, Givi Ivanko, and Tengiz Gogol. Our current minister of public health, too, is… Sergienko. Naturally, they all consider themselves Georgians, and very few of them know the Ukrainian language.
“Incidentally, a half our Georgian guys who serve today in the Azov and Aidar battalions have Ukrainian mothers or grandmothers. This means the Georgians who are defending Ukraine now are also defending their forefathers’ homeland.”
You are saying “at our place,” “ours…” Are you positioning yourself as a Georgian now?
“No, I am a Tajik. I was born in Tajikistan, I spent my childhood there, and Tajik is my second language. I was brought up in that culture, and perhaps for this reason I found it difficult to move to and understand Russia. There is an entirely different relationship among people there.
“For me, Georgia is now a second homeland of sorts. It closely resembles Tajikistan in terms of climate, nature, and human relationships. Besides, words of Persian origin account for 15 percent of the Georgian vocabulary because Georgia was part of the Persian Empire for a long time.”
What made you move from Russia to Georgia?
“The war. I first came to Georgia in 2002, when Shevardnadze was the president. There were no roads there, but there were electricity outages, rampant corruption, and an awful crime rate. People could be murdered on the street for a pair of sneakers or a cell phone. I was an OSCE expert at the time, and we were holding seminars, workshops, and conferences in Tbilisi. The more I visited Georgia, the stronger impressions that country was making on me.
“But it was always difficult for me in Russia. I was unwilling to stay there long. I worked in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sweden for five years, but then I had to return to Russia because I ran a huge organization there – the Extreme Journalism Center.
“In 2008 my daughter, son-in-law, and I came for a vacation to Georgia, where I had bought some land by that time. A war broke out two days later. I got a call from Georgia’s National Security Council – they requested me to come and help them.
“As early as August 1, I began to work at the National Security Council. My job was to analyze and try to resist the information war. I also conducted training courses for the nongovernmental organizations that dealt with refugees from South Ossetia. The materials with the results of this work are in Strasbourg now.
“After the war I acquired Georgian citizenship. But I had to come back to Moscow. In the very first days after my return to Russia, I was told that I was an enemy, a traitor, and a fascist, for I helped ‘fascists.’ It came to idiocy sometimes. On September 9, 2008, the secretariat of the League of Journalists, of which I had never been a member, although it had awarded me a prize which I, incidentally, sent back later, went into session and ‘held me up to shame.’ One of the secretaries, who kept silent at that session, told me later that this ‘show’ reminded him of 1937. So, I understood I had nothing to do in Russia. Moreover, I had been on the other side and seen what Russia was up to in Georgia, and I did not want to identify myself with that country.
“When I began to receive threats, I bought a one-way ticket and flew to Tbilisi on November 8, 2009.”
INFORMATION WAR AS AN INSTRUMENT TO KEEP PUTIN IN POWER
The information war against Ukraine is on a much fuller scale now.
“I have been studying information wars for more than 20 years and written a lot of materials on this subject. Russia waged a vigorous propaganda campaign in the 1990s in connection with hostilities in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transnistria. But information war as such was conceived in 1999, when Putin became prime minister of Russia. On the second day of his premiership, the second Chechen war broke out from the territory of Dagestan. Journalists were forbidden to enter the territory of Chechnya without being checked. Seven entities were formed to put up all kinds of barriers. These entities had certain ‘talking heads’ which were authorized to speak out on the war, such as Yastrzhembsky, whom Chechens called ‘yastreb zhensky’ (‘female hawk’), General Manilov, and the like. The chief ‘talking head’ was FSB Colonel Shabalkin from the Penza directorate, who would tell journalists all kinds of ‘tall stories’: for example, after the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, the Russian military allegedly found the vessel’s drawing in the caves of Chechen mountains. When terrorists attacked the US on September 11, 2001, Col. Shabalkin said Boeing blueprints had also been found in the Chechen caves.
“In 1999 Russia adopted the law ‘On Combating Extremism,’ under which a large number of journalists began to be put inside. We saw that the number of criminal cases against journalists had increased dozens of times – an annual 50 to 70 cases were opened under this very law. There was also a steep rise in the number of civil suits in defense of honor and dignity. This is nothing but a newspaper-busting scheme. A media person could be accused of extremism for a phrase like ‘the governor is a fool.’
“Besides, the Doctrine of Information Security was approved in September 2000 – it is a policy document that offers guidelines to revive the traditions of Soviet propaganda. It only mentions twice the phrase ‘freedom of speech,’ whereas such expressions as ‘information war’ and ‘information weapons’ occur many times.
“Then an all-out offensive was launched against the media in general, with the law ‘On the Media of Mass Information’ being amended every now and then. Two years later I wrote a big book on this resuscitation of Soviet propaganda.
“In two years, Putin managed to form a single television space, as it was in the USSR, with a single informational view of reality, leaving just a few ‘fresh-air holes,’ such as Radio Echo of Moscow and Dozhd TV channel. But they are within reach of only two to three percent of the population. He has also reduced the quality of independent newspapers to such a low level that Novaya gazeta and sometimes Kommersant are the only more or less good newspapers read in Russia.
“There is no sociological opinion in Russia. I am very skeptical about the results of all kinds of polls. Firstly, because out of the five sociological agencies now operating in Russia only Levada Center is independent, all the rest being state-run. Secondly, it is impossible to carry out sociological surveys in a country where there is no freedom of speech.
“Ninety percent of the Russians receive information from television. So, if you change the TV information policy – do not show Putin for two weeks and then say that he is a criminal who has unleashed several wars, – people will say: yes, we are against Putin.”
“THERE IS A LAW IN GEORGIA, WHICH BANS SOVIET SYMBOLS”
Is Russia trying to “rewrite” the history of Georgia?
“They won’t succeed in Georgia. To rewrite the history of Georgia, you should know the Georgian language.
“Secondly, they will break their necks there because there had been 27 kings in Georgia before the 4th century, when Saint Nina came to spread Christianity. Georgia is such an ancient state with monarchic traditions that it is mindless to rewrite anything in it.
“Similar attempts also failed in the Soviet era. Georgia was the freest Soviet republic.
“There is a law in today’s Georgia, which bans Soviet symbols. So, you will see no Lenin or Stalin statues and the like anywhere. The only thing left is the same as on Khreshchatyk – you can see the hammer and sickle in wrought-iron gratings on some bridges. All the other symbols have been torn down. Monuments began to be
“Yes, but Shevardnadze has nothing to do with this. There were people.
“Georgia differs from many post-Soviet countries. No law can regulate the level of inner human freedom. For this reason, we have no laws that ban public events. If it is a large-scale event, the police must come, cordon off the road, and look on as people are protesting. Nobody can strip Georgians of the right to be free. The law that bans Soviet symbols was adopted four years ago. We were discussing several laws on lustration and Soviet symbols ban. Then we decided to bring them together and adopted the Charter of Freedom. As for the law on lustration, we lost time, as did you. We should have done this as Lithuanians and Poles did.”
“RUSSIA IS AN ARTIFICIAL COUNTRY”
“Russia is an artificial country. It was formed as a result of the wars of conquest. I once wrote an article, where I cited the historical findings of the specialists who assess the number of people who lived in ancient cities. According to this statistics, the Moscow Principality was populated by 1.5 million people in the 15th century, a little more than two million in the 16th century, and 3.5 million in the 17th century, but when Russia came about, it suddenly turned out that 111 million people resided on its territory. When I saw this figure, I thought Viagra must have been invented in the 17th century. An 85-percent population growth is just impossible. But the answer is very simple. Whenever a territory was seized, the people living there were declared as Russians. Therefore, the ethnonym ‘Russian’ is not a noun, like ‘Ukrainian,’ ‘Armenian,’ or ‘Georgian,’ but an adjective. I once wrote jokingly: ‘If the Russians begin to dig into the origin of their surnames, about 30 percent of them will be Tatars again, about 30 percent will be Ukrainians, Poles, Frenchmen, and Dutchmen, and I will be a Greek again.’
“An artificial country, an artificial people… What can unite a Chukchi and a Chechen? Neither history, nor culture, nor traditions, nor climate. This enormous country has no national idea.
“There is one more very good artificial country – the USA. But it has an idea. It is freedom and democracy. But Russia does not have this. A hundred years ago they had ‘faith, tsar, and fatherland,’ they underwent a forcible mental assimilation, when the Volga region’s people – not only the Muslim Tatars and Bashkirs, but also the Mordvins, Komi, and Permyaks, who were shamanists and idolaters, – were forcibly converted to Orthodoxy. For example, Ivan the Terrible began his rule in the 15th century with taking Kazan and forcibly baptizing its residents. They succeeded in it on most of the territories. Things did not exactly go smoothly. A few days ago there was an anniversary of the seven-year Russian-Tungusic war. The Russian-Chukchi war lasted for 150 years in the 17th and 18th centuries, claiming 10,000 Chukchi lives. There was a Caucasian war…”
What do you think is the role of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the demise of the Russian imperial project?
“I am very radical in this matter. I think Russia’s salvation is in its collapse. It is difficult to do this in one fell swoop because people have lived in one state for 200 to 400 years. Yet Russia must be partitioned – at least into a true confederative state. The Siberians should live in their own way. There was an attempt in the early 1990s to speak about the Ural Republic and the Far East. North Caucasus will secede in any case, for it has been literally bubbling in the past 10-15 years. What was done badly cannot exist long.
“I don’t know when this will occur. This will depend on many circumstances, including oil prices.”
We, at Den, are saying that Ukraine is also responsible for this imperial malady of our neighbor. First we gave those people a prince and then the scientists who taught them to read and write, and then we “softly” surrendered our name to Muscovy…
“I explain differently the conception of Muscovy. You know, it happened the way it used to do in medieval towns. The British Empire would send its ‘dissenters’ to Australia or America. The same occurred in the late 14th century. The Mongols went, leaving behind rather a strange community. From then on, the worst people of Kyivan Rus’ went east and formed this ignominious state.
“I visited Mongolia for several years and often heard from my friends there that they were dissatisfied that Russian historiography blamed them for the yoke. The Rus’ tribes, for example, Viatichi, who lived on the Mongol-occupied territory, borrowed all the worst. Incidentally, Russia kept the tradition of quitrent intact until the 18th century – in any case, the tsarist administration levied the quitrent on the Far North peoples. Mongolian traditions persisted there for a very long time, including the Russian foul language which is of Mongolian origin. There are very many Mongolian traces left, for example the proverbial kokoshniki [woman’s headdress in old Russia. – Ed.], but Russian historiography is afraid to say this.”
Mongolian history is not that attractive, as far as its impact on the world is concerned. Yaroslav the Wise – a royal dynasty in France, Kyivan Rus’ – the cradle of Slavic civilization. They occupy a more prominent place in Ukrainian history.
“If only they could prove their Slavic origin… Is Putin really a Slav? He represents a Finno-Ugric tribe.”
Nevertheless, this does not hinder them. We have proclaimed 2015 the Year of Yaroslav the Wise, and Russia says it is the Year of Vladimir the Great…
“A Kyivan prince, incidentally…”
“It is useless to argue with them about something. It is a community of people who never accept anything. I wrote long ago: all that the Russians are proud of is wrong. It is not they who invented the steam locomotive, the airplane, and the radio. But their schoolbooks say: it is all we. Zhiguli is not Fiat, the Kalashnikov assault rifle is not the Schmeisser, etc. This is barbarity. As a historian, I do not want to call Mongols barbarians, for they are representatives of their civilization. Barbarians are those who steal and don’t admit it. The Russian are barbarians. They misappropriate somebody else’s property and never admit this.”
“THINGS IN EUROPE ARE NOT AS BAD AS YOU ARE TOLD”
Speaking of perception abroad, how can small countries, such as Ukraine or Georgia, influence the “footage in the global television”?
“Things in Europe are not as bad as you are told. Don’t forget that information wars employ such techniques as disinformation. The populace mostly reads Russian-language articles on what Europe has said or thought. The bulk of this information has the same source – Moscow. If you want to know the real state of affairs, read in English. Read the EU and Council of Europe documents. Secondly, as I have already said, the West, especially the Americans, has come to grips with Putin seriously. A part of Europe may be hesitating, and a part of Europe may be hoping that Putin will perhaps understand that the Americans have come to grips with him seriously. Stifling by means of sanctions is, unfortunately, a long process. We must wait. There can be no other way out.
“Besides, Ukraine had no army a year ago. I recently saw Ukrainian soldiers on Independence Square. They are plowmen and tractor drivers – they have hands of a peasant. They are not exactly the military – they are the people who have gone to defend their fatherland, for their hearts ache for it. A true Ukrainian army is only in the making now. I think it will be Europe’s most powerful force in five to six years’ time. You will have sophisticated weapons and educated officers. They will not be like Russian colonels who cannot speak without using foul words.”