If our world’s vanity boils down to the conflict between good and evil, then propaganda takes advantage of both sides. Otherwise it turns into banal slander.
It would be wrong to think that people in war can only be killed with bullets, shell splinters, or terrible radiation. They can also be affected by another invisible invention of the human mind – the poison of tendentious information, public awareness manipulation, and psychological pressure. The number of those hit by the arrows of Russian-Soviet agitprop in the Russian-Ukrainian war is in the thousands. This heavy toll worries our society which demands that resolute actions be taken in the East-West information battles. But, before responding to the foreign salvos of lies, let us look into the very essence.
Military propaganda is thousands of years old, but it gained the status of a major weapon precisely 100 years ago on the front lines of World War One, where placards, leaflets, and newspaper cartoons helped to mobilize and demoralize. Since then, any saber-rattling has been accompanied by the rustling of newspapers and crackling in the air. The first thing the so much cited Adolf Hitler would do in the morning during his annexations and aggressions was to watch newsreels from all over the world. Sometimes he kept his generals waiting before they could report to him on the hostilities in order to watch a “war movie” like an actor would the recording of his performance. Watching newsreels, he pondered on where it was better to intensify expressiveness, remove unnecessary words, or change a pose. All aggressors are almost the same from this angle. A demonstration of their war must either enrapture or suppress the viewer – otherwise the show has no sense. I do not think it is mere chance that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict coincided with the Sochi Olympics. The overall staging concept envisaged two acts. In the first act, worldwide audiences were to be imbued with affection for the organizers, which was supposed to ease indignation towards the same organizers in the second one. But there was no zero option.
Today’s Russia possesses not only a large army, but also a huge propaganda machine which was inherited from the USSR and fits in with the current political context. This machine includes specialized military institutes to train personnel for an invisible, albeit audible, battlefield; military sections in the state-run media; military political colleges, including, above all, the Moscow-based Russian Armed Forces Military University (formerly, the Lenin Academy), which have been refurbished to meet the new ideological standards; agent training centers and special units as part of intelligence and counterintelligence services; and many other things. The history of building a powerful ideological propaganda machine dates back to the times when the Red Army soldier was poorly clad and ill-shoed in the literal sense of the word. In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin personally supervised the project of a flying fortress – the ANT-20 “Maksim Gorky” airplane – which was equipped with a print shop, a radio station, loudspeakers, and other agitprop instruments. The enormous money went down the drain, for the airplane never made at least one flight according to its intended purpose. This case illustrates the priority-placing policy. The country’s military and political leadership had always been generously paying disinformation bills even if there was no need in them. When I was young, every Soviet Army formation was equipped with hundreds of wheeled print shops and radio stations which were supposed, in case military actions began, to issue newspapers and radio programs for friendly and hostile individuals. They remained unneeded. As the nature and the ways of war changed in a digital age, this junk of linotypes and tube transceivers on dozens of thousands of trucks was scrapped. But this did not change approaches to funding this sector. A few years ago Western analysts began to speak about the revival of Soviet propaganda cliches and goals by the Kremlin. As before, this propaganda has affected all the spheres of public life. This envisaged wide-scale campaigns to rewrite history schoolbooks in line with political objectives as well as making documentary and feature films about fighting the enemies of Russia, such as Western spies and Ukrainian nationalists. Writers and filmmakers, priests and teachers were urged to help outline an exclusively Russian road in the history of humankind. Only one man shows this way, and the cult of his personality became a fundamental spiritual value of the country.
In 2010 the government of Russia earmarked 1.4 billion dollars for advertising Putin’s achievements on the international scale. The Russia Today (RT) agency, specially set up to criticize Western values, has been broadcasting in the English, Spanish, and Arabic languages since 2005 in an inadmissible tone of hostility and untruth. Bloomberg’s financial analyst Felix Gillette, who recently visited RT, was stunned by the degree of information distortion in this source and wrote ironically in his article “On the Kremlin’s Overseas Propaganda News Channel, Putin Really Rules”: “Herein, several things I learned from RT’s coverage: Putin is a force for peace. The Western media is hysterical. Russia’s economic clout would make sanctions difficult to enforce. Residents of the Crimean peninsula are super-duper excited about the arrival of pro-Russian forces. John Kerry is a hypocrite” (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-03-04/putin-rules-on-rt-russia...).
These and many other instances of information sabotage is a classical demonstration of Hitler-, Stalin-, and Brezhnev-era propaganda techniques. The Nazis would demand that the population of the occupied territories surrender their radio sets. The Russian occupiers are disconnecting television. The Nazis would urge Red Army soldiers and officers to voluntarily side with the Wehrmacht in exchange for money and food. The Russian invaders are promising the same to Ukrainian officers. If you open special books and websites on propaganda, you will see that each of their chapters can be illustrated with the living examples of March 2014. For instance, the letter from 100 Russian “culture figures” is a graphic illustration of the cognitive dissonance tactic. The point is as follows: people tend to be consistent in their preferences and if they like an actor who adores cornflakes, they will, in all probability, also like cornflakes. Otherwise, they will have to stop loving the actor and break the chain of emotional continuity. In this case it is a war instead of cornflakes. Or take fears associated with the inevitability of victory and having to join the stronger one... These fears are being aroused by the fake maps of Ukraine’s seizure, the photos of Russian airfields filled with aircraft by means of the Photoshop “cloning” option, commentaries by Russian political scientists on the inevitable defeat of Ukraine and the West. The idea is to force us to resign ourselves to the inevitable, choose the lesser of the evils, and accept the suggested scenario allegedly supported by the majority of the population. Russia carries out propagandistic manipulation not only by means of her own media. Here is a cartoon in the popular German weekly Der Spiegel, which supposedly criticizes the West’s indecisiveness about Ukraine but in fact exaggerates the role of Putin, as if the authors were in the RT office rather than in Hamburg. Indeed, how can the leader of a country which has a raw-material-based economy, fully depends on Western markets, and imports 75 percent of the food it consumes, be dictating his will to the world’s largest states which have expelled Putin from the G8? It looks like the weekly, founded by a former Wehrmacht radioman, still cherishes the traditions of Propagandakompanie – special units of journalists and photographers, which showed the world the grandeur of the Third Reich leaders.
According to Freedom House, Russia has one of the world’s largest numbers of pro-governmental commentators, the so-called Web teams, only second to those of China and Bahrain.
Why then does this armada of Web, media and home-spun disinformers not dominate in Europe and Ukraine, embracing only the south-eastern regions of our country and the territory of Russia? Why is nobody repeating the absurd allegations of Russian leaders and media?
In my view, there are two things that explain why the psychological war machine is stalling. The first is the methods. By copying the basic techniques on the Third Reich and the USSR, Russian specialists have departed from the main principle of successful propaganda, the so-called selective truth. The term was introduced by Richard Crossman (http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Crossman), a unique British politician who organized a system of countering the Hitlerite ideological sabotage in the years of World War Two. “It is a complete delusion to think of the brilliant propagandist as being a professional liar. The brilliant propagandist is the man who tells the truth, or that selection of the truth which is requisite for his purpose,” he used to say. The mistake of the Russian propaganda is that it has betted on professional liars whose lies were immediately noticed by people who use different sources of information.
The second stumbling block for the Russian propaganda is the Ukrainian language. The air and the digital space were full of Russian-speaking canards. Nobody turned out to be able to offer a Ukrainian-language content that could rival the ones in Arabic or English. The contempt for the language of a neighbor, which the Russian establishment has always displayed, has played into our hands.
But let us not hasten with success reports. The war, especially in propaganda, is still on and, alas, it will last for a long time. Therefore, we must learn to neutralize its ruinous effect on the brain and psyche as fast as we used to learn to put on gas masks in no time.
* Propagandakompanie is the name of the Third Reich’s special propaganda war units