The Return of the Ministry of Truth
A friend, a Russian woman with strong democratic instincts, recounted a recent unsettling conversation with an acquaintance who comes from a well-off, well-educated Moscow family. “Why is the United States intervening so aggressively in the government of Ukraine?” my friend was asked. Other questions and remarks—from this acquaintance and from other educated Russians—suggest that the information offensive ordered by Vladimir Putin to justify his aggression against Ukraine is meeting with success, even in circles where skepticism about Putin’s authoritarian course is often voiced.
The idea that governments can influence events through propaganda seems ridiculous in the internet age. Developments in Ukraine, however, indicate that we need to reassess propaganda’s role in setting the stage for intervention abroad and repression at home.
According to numerous accounts in the international media, most Russians believe that the Ukrainian government is responsible for massive war crimes, including the crucifixion of small children and the downing of the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet. Many of the wildest assertions have been reinforced by photoshopped images allegedly depicting Ukrainian atrocities but actually showing events in Mexico, Syria, Iraq, and other zones of civil conflict.
Both ordinary Russians and many Ukrainian consumers of Russian media have told foreign journalists of fears that “fascism” has come to power in Ukraine. In this story line, the earnest, reform-minded, and Europe-oriented figures who dominate the country’s current government are little more than front men for the minority of ultranationalists who participated in street fighting with the elite Berkut police unit before corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last winter. Yanukovych’s security forces, of course, are suspected of murdering Euromaidan activists and protesters, but in the world of pro-Russian propaganda they have been hailed as heroes.
The Ukraine conflict has thus awakened the world to the return of propaganda as an instrument of warfare. This is not just political spin or even-tempered public diplomacy, but sheer, raw propaganda, as practiced by Goebbels and warned of by Orwell. Those who produce it are consciously crossing the line between interpretation or emphasis of facts and outright mendacity.
In the dystopian novel 1984, the Ministry of Truth advanced what today would be called a regime narrative, with accounts of never-ending conflict abroad and treasonous enemies within. In similar fashion, though with considerably more finesse and sophistication than was described in Orwell’s masterpiece, Russian media today preach a strident message of external encirclement by Russophobes in Ukraine, the Baltics, Georgia, and elsewhere, and internal fifth-columnists among bloggers, civil society organizations, and advocates of gay rights.
Dmitry Kiselyov, a controversial television presenter and head of Russia Today, a new state media entity meant to enhance Russia’s global image, actually embraces his identity as the Kremlin’s chief propagandist. He argues that “Western” concepts of journalistic neutrality are fraudulent and self-serving. There is, he contends, no difference between his role and the role of a chief editor of Reuters or the Associated Press.
In an interview with RIA Novosti, Kiselyov justifies his position by noting that propaganda is not illegal under international law (he neglects to add that propaganda for war is in fact addressed in international agreements) and equates Western news services with Russia Today’s journalism: “Both are propaganda agencies—they shape the dominant narrative and tell their audiences what and how to think.” He continues: “In today’s world, information—how it is gathered, analyzed, interpreted and processed … pushes a value system, certain views on good and evil, and shapes attitudes to certain events.”
Kiselyov also made clear that Moscow intends to expand its propaganda campaign beyond its borders. “Information wars,” he says, “have already become the main type of warfare. The bombers are now sent in after the information campaign.”
Kiselyov has gained a reputation as a bombastic and polarizing figure, perhaps best known for having said on air that gay people should be banned from donating blood and sperm, and that if they are killed in a car crash, “their hearts should be buried in the ground or burnt as unfit for helping to prolong anyone’s life.” He is, nevertheless, a man of ability, and we can expect stepped-up initiatives to promote the Putin message of “traditional values,” fascist enemies, European decadence, and American double-standards.
Russia’s government is not the only one to gin up a propaganda offensive. But it is the most aggressive in pressing home the dominant theme of the moment, and the most effective in mimicking the idioms of modern commercial media while doing so. Furthermore, as the country faces serious decay in material terms, the Kremlin sees success in the war of information as critical to Russia’s identity as a great power.
Other authoritarian regimes will take note of Russia’s gains, and act accordingly. In past eras, dictators’ instrument of choice was censorship. However, people understood they were being cheated when the authorities banned books and prosecuted those who possessed “unauthorized literature.” Under a modern propaganda regime, alternative perspectives are permitted on a carefully rationed basis. But dissenting opinions are invariably subjected to relentless attack and ridicule, and the dissidents themselves face a unique form of character assassination in which their views are twisted to make them appear foolish, extreme, unpatriotic, or immoral.
To a certain extent, democratic culture has contributed to the rise in modern propaganda. Propositions that there is no such thing as objective truth and that history is nothing more than a contest between competing narratives owe their popularity to radical theorists who have gained a strong foothold in academia and even among some who call themselves journalists. Many outside Russia would not disagree with Kiselyov’s views on the concept of impartial reporting. In meeting the challenge of the propaganda state, a good place to start would be a reaffirmation of the central role occupied by high-quality, traditional journalism in democratic societies.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
The repressive “bloggers law” signed by President Vladimir V. Putin on May 6 says a good deal about the troubling decline of free expression in Russia. But at a time when Putin’s governance system is mutating from a venal, kleptocratic regime into a belligerent, revanchist power, what the Russian authorities do at home has important effects on the media environment in countries on Russia’s borders, and beyond.
Putin has used control of the media in Russia, especially the national television stations, to build up a massive and thoroughly modern propaganda machine.
Ukraine leaders refuse to sign a much-anticipated Association Agreement and trade pact with the EU.