The power of propaganda
The war in Ukraine shows how propaganda is back with a vengeance, the latest incarnation of a something that goes from Mayakovski’s poems to today's influencers. It reflects a dilemma best embodied by Dostoevsky when he wrote: “Even if someone were to prove to me that the truth lay outside Christ, I should choose to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”
Putin's war in Ukraine did not start on 24 February of this year, nor on 18 March 2014 when Crimea was annexed. Putin’s war goes way back to 1999 when he came to power as a young prime minister, plucked from nowhere in an unexpected move.
One of the first things he died was to issue threatening ukase (proclamations) against the Chechens who refused to submit to Moscow’s central control, warning that Islamic terrorism in the Caucasus was a threat to the whole world. The attacks on the Twin Towers came soon after, seemingly proving him right, and the once-obscure KGB man, was now president, promising universal peace and stability.
Putin did not invent the power of propaganda, nor did any of his ideologues, either today’s trendiest or those from the early, uncertain post-Soviet years.
Since the revolution by factory councils (the “soviets” acclaimed by firebrand Lenin and organised by the more ideologically inclined Trotsky), propaganda was one of the basic traits of the Soviet Union even though the revolution was carried out by peasants and hungry women who, with their husbands at the front, overthrew Nicholas II, the last, disastrous incarnation of tsardom. While riots and rallies raged across Russia, the meek and devoted heir to the Romanov dynasty wrote in his diary that "all is well, I drink tea and say evening prayers."
Instead of waging counterpropaganda to defend what Putin now calls "traditional values", the tsar and his dysfunctional family were swept away by events, while the Bolsheviks (from the Russian большинство́, bol'shinstvó, 'majority’),[*] praised the rhetoric of the revolution, through poems and slogans, like those of Vladimir Mayakovsky, one of history’s greatest propagandists, and Alexander Blok, whose poem "The Twelve" compared the revolution to a second coming of Christ.
The capture of the Winter Palace, which began with the Imperial Navy cruiser Aurora firing the first shot, was actually little more than an exchange of greetings between the failed government of Alexander Kerensky, another firebrand who believed too much in his own oratory skills, and the Red Guards who had seized power thanks to the utter ineptitude of their opponents.
Three months later, Lenin finally convened the Constituent Assembly, which was supposed to establish a democratic regime in Russia after the riots of February 1917, something never tried before. Instead, the leader of the "majoritarians", the Bolsheviks, with only 20 per cent of the vote, decided that the elected body was not worth its name, and so dissolved it, imposing the dictatorship of the party.
After two years of civil war between the Whites and the Reds, the Communist Party’s shrewd general secretary, Joseph Stalin, imposed the new regime, exterminating the peasants who had just started to enjoy the fruits of their labour, and starved Ukraine, where the peasantry was concentrated.
Stalinism was a true apotheosis of propaganda, so much so that it became known for its "cult of personality" and the "revolution in one country", a land destined to bring proletarian justice to the world, its apogee reached with the "cult of Victory" in the Great Patriotic War, to which Putin himself appeals today.
After 1945, the 50-year “Cold War" was also an age of propaganda, characterised by the Soviet Union’s epic "struggle” for peace against the imperialism of the “free world” of the West.
Supporting left-wing parties, regimes, and intellectuals around the world was a primary objective of the Soviet system, so much so that it even restored the Orthodox Church, enlisting it for domestic propaganda.
To do this, it had to convince old women (Babushkas, grandmothers) who still wanted to go to church about the infallibility of the atheist regime, but also the outside world that the USSR was the kingdom of the true religion of modern man.
For this reason, the Politburo, in a surprise move, allowed Russian metropolitans to take part in the Second Vatican Council, provided that its documents restrained from condemning communism, as Vatican “propaganda" had done for years.
We could list at length the names and circumstances in which the propaganda nature of the Russian and Soviet state was expressed, going further back in time.
All this makes it even clearer how much the ongoing war is but the umpteenth version in an artfully constructed project, to show to the world the "need" to defeat evil and impose a new vision of the universal good.
An article by Daria Provotorova on the website of Radio Liberty (Радио Свобода, Radio Svoboda) summarises what has been done during the months of war, showing the effectiveness of pro-Russia propagandists in the West despite apparent censorship designed to deny Russia access to world media.
With the first wave of sanctions, the European Union banned Russian TV networks like RT and Sputnik; Russian state media have also been blocked on social media.
The international community by and large rejected Russia’s attempt to define the Ukrainian government as neo-Nazi; yet this has not discouraged the Kremlin from pursuing its infowar.
The number of websites that spread Russian-aligned propaganda has continued to grow, often hiding behind independent and neutral names and identities, while Russian embassy accounts have become very active, giving diplomats a primary role in defending Moscow's arguments, echoing agitprop in Stalin's time.
Texts and videos with millions of hits cast doubt on the massacres in Bucha and Mariupol, insinuating that the dead in the streets were "Ukrainian actors", while holding Kyiv responsible for the deaths of unarmed civilians.
Likewise, Ukraine is blamed for the "grain crisis", while corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs are accused of diverting weapons generously supplied by the West to sell to third countries.
Undoubtedly, the opposition in many countries in sending weapons to Ukraine is one of the greatest successes of Russian propaganda, which constantly hammers the topics most likely to divide Western public opinion.
Moscow’s propaganda uses the classic methods of Soviet disinformation, knowing that it can count on long-standing friends, heirs of 20th century left-wing parties, and more recent allies, the supporters of the various forms of populism and sovereigntism of the last decade, remixed in the new cybernetic space, a new virgin frontier to be tilled with the tools of the past.
In Serbia, Russia's sister country, the tabloid Informer has long claimed that Ukraine attacked Russia, following its recent “genocide” in the Donbass, rekindling not only Serbia’s traditional Russophilia, but also fuelling "putinophilia" in Belgrade and elsewhere.
Russian politicians regularly express their "sympathy" for southern Slavs, renewing with a propaganda project that dates back to the 19th century, that "Pan-Slavism" condemned recently even by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
The Mediterranean Basin lies not far from Serbia, a region well stocked with traditional Russian allies, starting with Italy, which used to boast of having the “largest communist party in the West”, but also home to “Putin’s greatest friend”, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s, who has become the human, social and political role model for every Russian oligarch since the 1990s.
Various polls show that more than half of Italians accuse Russians of the aggression in Ukraine, but that is the lowest percentage of all European countries, and Russia’s connections with some Italian political parties still influences decisions about sending weapons to Ukraine, support for sanctions, even solidarity with Pope Francis's appeals for peace, which in turn have been conditioned by the historical relationship with the Moscow patriarchate, Putin’s main propaganda machine.
Given this background, Russian historian Anatoly Strelyany looked at the evolution of the term "propaganda" in the past 400 years. Initially, the word propaganda carried special spiritual value, but overtime it acquired negative connotations.
Indeed, this year also marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide by Pope Gregory XV with the bull Inscrutabili Divinae on 22 June 1622. Today it is known by the somewhat infelicitous name of Dicastery for Evangelisation, following the latest reform of the Roman Curia, but is still headquartered in the Palazzo di Propaganda Fide.
In 1967 Pope Paul VI ordered the change to the now-maligned name, replacing it with "evangelisation of peoples". Now even “peoples” has disappeared to avoid charges of religious imperialism, from which Moscow Patriarch Kirill has not shied away.
Propaganda is back in full swing, not only acclaiming religious or ideological "values”, but also and above all, material and commercial interests, promoted by the incessant work of "influencers" of all sorts.
For Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, the "power of propaganda" is incarnated by one of the minor characters in his novel “Crime and Punishment”, the demonic gambler Arkady Svidrigailov, the "cellar rat" who has evil designs on the sister of the novel’s protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, who wants instead to become a Übermensch and is dragged into the abyss of murder and guilt.
The propaganda of conquest of innocent women is the prophecy of the new war of conquest, meant to impose a new faith on Ukraine, Europe and the world led astray by “false values”.
Dostoevsky and his great novels reflect the dilemma of choosing between the "truth of values" and the person of Christ, which the writer explains in a letter to Natalia Fonvizina in 1854: “it is the belief that there is nothing finer, profounder, more attractive, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ, and not only is there not, but I tell myself with jealous love that there cannot be. Even if someone were to prove to me that the truth lay outside Christ, I should choose to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”
[*] Lenin’s group within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party became the largest faction and so was referred as the majoritarians, i.e. Bolsheviks.