Russia retains Soviet propaganda tools in its war against Ukraine
Some of the greatest crimes against humanity of the 20th century – Josef Stalin’s Holodomor and deportation of the Crimean Tatars, as well as Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust – wouldn’t be possible without powerful propaganda.
Propaganda is how totalitarian regimes mobilize their societies to commit and justify mass murder.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war against Ukraine would likewise not be possible without dehumanizing Kremlin propaganda that paints Ukraine and its Western allies as enemies. Russia’s modern-day propaganda is similar to Soviet propaganda as President Vladimir Putin recycles similar rhetoric and symbols for today’s war.
These were some of the main themes brought forward by speakers at a conference entitled “The Seduction of Propaganda: Mass Violence in Ukraine in the 20th and 21st Centuries.” It was held on June 2-3 in Kyiv and June 4 in Lviv, organized by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, which seeks to promote understanding between the two peoples.
According to Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory, Russian propaganda resembles the Soviet World War II variety.
“Why? Because the Soviet myths about the war were crucial in forming Soviet identity, and they’ve lasted even after the Soviet Union collapsed,” Viatrovych told the Kyiv Post. “For modern Russia, which has openly said it wanted to recreate something like the Soviet Union, the Soviet myths have again become the ideological platform.”
Vladyslav Hrynevych, a political scientist who specializes in the history of World War II, also said that there is a lot of the Soviet mentality in Russian propaganda. To illustrate the similarity, he showed several leaflets and banners designed by Russians and Kremlin-backed separatists that resemble their Soviet predecessors. They include swastikas and other Nazi symbols in Ukrainian yellow-and-blue colors to describe Ukrainian leaders as “fascist bastards.”
Meanwhile, Russia is symbolized by bears, Soviet emblems, images of Red Army soldiers and allusions to Christian Orthodoxy – traditional symbols of “Russkiy Mir,” or the Russian world. Russians are illustrated as heroes helping southeastern Ukrainians to rise up and defeat the Kyiv-based “monsters,” who are not even human.
And that is another old trick – dehumanization, Hrynevych said. “To kill another person, one needs to hate them first,” he said.
Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-director of its Ukraine in Europe initiative, told the Kyiv Post that the symbols of dehumanization have always been used “to make them seem less human, and therefore more worthy of attack. Their use of anti-Semitism, attacks against Ukraine for being fascist, attacks for having Jewish presence in the Ukrainian leadership, both real and fictional, western influence, foreign agents – these are all the themes of Stalin’s propaganda,” Karatnycky said.
Peter Pomerantsev, a London-based television producer and author of a book on the Russian weaponization of information, said that Russians don’t really believe there are fascists in Ukraine.
“They might say it, because that’s what you have t-o say in order to play a role in society,” he added. The main point of current Kremlin propaganda is to “make you passive and with the sense that the state is everywhere,” he said.
Yevgeny Kiselyov is a former Russian journalist who has been working for Ukrainian television for about seven years. In his words, most of Russia’s media adopt methods from the textbook on “special propaganda,” a Sovietera military discipline. He vividly recalls the blue book and sees examples of it on Russian television.
One example he gives is Russia’s coverage of the downing of flight MH-17 on July 17. All 298 people on board were killed, the majority Dutch nationals.
Russian media offered many conflicting versions of the disaster in order to confuse audiences and shroud the most obvious account, according to Kiselyov. Western investigations have shown that the plane was downed using a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile in separatist-held territory.
Ukraine so far has avoided using propaganda, Karatnycky said.
“Ukrainians are the victims in this war. This is foreign-backed aggression, constructed by the Russian state and implemented with its resources, so it’s almost natural to be tempted to react with anger to the other side,” he told the Kyiv Post. “But I think it’s important to detach the deep emotion that is associated with this life-and-death situation, and to retain your humanity and understand that not everyone on the other side or in another country shares the views of its leadership.”
Viatrovych said that propaganda campaigns are unlikely in Ukraine, because totalitarian control of society – including state control of the media – is required.
“We can’t build an authoritarian Ukraine that will defeat Russian propaganda, because then, after killing the dragon, we will turn into a dragon ourselves,” he said.