December 21, 2020

Soft Power and “Positive Propaganda”: How Russia Uses Cultural and Historical Stereotypes to Increase Political Influence

Yunarmiya [Young Army] cadets attend a ceremony to unveil the Rzhev Memorial to the Soviet Soldier near the village of Khoroshevo. A construction project initiated by war veterans and funded by donations, the war memorial commemorates Soviet soldiers killed in the Battles of Rzhev in World War II.
Yunarmiya [Young Army] cadets attend a ceremony to unveil the Rzhev Memorial to the Soviet Soldier near the village of Khoroshevo. A construction project initiated by war veterans and funded by donations, the war memorial commemorates Soviet soldiers killed in the Battles of Rzhev in World War II.

This summer, Russian pro-government media, referring to the methodological materials of the Ministry of Finance, reported that the government had for the first time allocated funds from the federal budget for the so-called “programme to counter falsifications and distortions of the history of World War II.” The three-year programme (from 2021 to 2023 inclusive) will be supported by specialised subsidies to promote the Russian version of World War II for both domestic and foreign audiences.

In September, the authorities went even further, and created under the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (IC) “a headquarters for archival and research work in the fight against the falsification of history and the rehabilitation of Nazism.” IC chairman Alexander Bastrykin said he intended to “prevent the distortion of the historical truth, including by means of criminal law measures”.

Weapon of Information War

It is important to note that the Russian authorities have previously paid close attention to promoting their heavily distorted interpretation of events in World War II, exalting and whitewashing the role of the Soviet Union, including in the periods before the war and after it. For example, from 2009 to 2012, there was a Commission to counter attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests. The activities of the Russian authorities in promoting “history in the interests of the homeland” have grown to become one of the key priorities of Russia’s agenda abroad.

To understand why the Kremlin pays such close attention to the dissemination of historical narratives, one should consider the specifics of Russian propaganda and soft power. The fact is that all large states, including Russia, engage in propaganda in the “positive” sense of the word, that is, the promotion of a positive image of one’s country abroad. However, along with this activity, so-called “information operations” of a destructive nature are also an invariable part of Russian propaganda. These include lying, denigrating opponents, creating conspiracy theories, and using the slightest contradictions that exist in Western societies to weaken and divide these societies, destabilise the situation in other countries and discredit the concepts of democracy and legality, and other basic Western values.

The main problem is that it is often very difficult to determine the boundary between “positive propaganda” and “information operations”. These two forms of Russian soft power occupy the same space, sometimes combining and flowing into one another, which gives the Kremlin the opportunity to use even the most innocent images associated with Russian history and culture in the general system of “active measures”. The cult of the Great Patriotic War and the associated image of the Soviet Union hold a key place in the system of these images.

This idea was quite openly formulated in 2015 by the president of the Academy of Military Sciences, Army General Mahmut Gareev, who noted that Russia needed the cult of Victory not only for the patriotic education of younger generations, but also for to advance its present-day interests abroad. Gareev argued that

Now the reactionary forces in the world, led by the USA, have steered a course towards gaining dominance in the world, they openly call our country an enemy, they strive to deprive us of the glory of victory in the past war. Hence, the main place in the information war launched against us is the falsification of the history of the Great Patriotic War.[1]

He emphasised that “securing Victory politically and economically” is one of the ways to improve Russian “soft power”. Thus, General Gareev explicitly confirms the importance of promoting certain historical narratives for the political strengthening of modern Russia.

Against this background it is not surprising that, in an official statement in May 2020, the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia condemned Russia for misrepresenting historical events leading up to World War II, calling Russian revisionism “a regrettable effort to falsify history and question the very foundation of the contemporary international rules-based order”.

The Battle of Good and Evil

There are two main characteristics of the cult of Victory created by “positive propaganda” in Moscow’s soft power. First, the creation of an image of the Soviet Union and Russia as the only victor and defender of Europe against Nazism is intended not only to create a sense of gratitude in the citizens of other countries towards Moscow, but also to force them to turn to Russia as their only defender and “security provider” today.

Aleksander Olech, an expert at the Warsaw-based Institute of New Europe, notes that “[i]n the alternative historical facts, Russia is presented as a defender not aggressor, and Poland as a country ruled by an incompetent anti-Russian government and responsible for the outbreak of WWII”.[2] Accordingly, any criticism of the Russian government by the Polish authorities in this context is perceived as ingratitude at best, and at worst a “dark legacy” and “fascist remnants” of the past.

This leads logically to the second goal of propaganda based on military topics: to justify Russia’s current foreign policy. Realising that the concepts of “fascism” and, consequently, “victors over fascism” are perceived in the same way by the entire civilised world and carry emotion-charged images of “absolute evil” and “absolute good”, Russian propaganda skilfully replaces the content of these terms, transferring feelings and images from the past to new objects in the present. This is how the Kremlin justified its aggression against Ukraine, labelling the Ukrainians “fascists” and using the symbols of Victory extensively during the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbass. No less active are the Russian media, which broadcast a narrative about the revival of Nazism in the Baltic states.

In addition to its aggressive policy towards post-Soviet countries, Moscow uses pseudo-historical constructs to justify anti-Western sentiment in general. For example, since the end of 2019, the website Military Review, which is close to the Russian Ministry of Defence, has been publishing a series of articles on the new version of the history of World War II unleashed, according to the authors, by the US “against the whole world in order to achieve world domination”.

In this context, it is essential to note the way negative images from the past (and the feelings they create) are transferred to modern realities. For example, in another article on the same topic, Military Review describes the Hitlerite coalition as “the European Union”. Consequently, Russia’s struggle with the West is portrayed as a natural continuation of the USSR’s struggle against fascist Germany, that is, the clash of “absolute good” with “absolute evil”.

“Anti-fascist Brotherhood” and Serbian Radicals

A separate direction within the framework of the second goal is the intensification of contradictions within Western societies with the aim of destabilising them and using the resulting split to Moscow’s advantage. This is how Dr Hikmet Karčic, a scholar in genocide and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, describes Russia’s efforts to promote a distorted version of World War II in Bosnia and Herzegovina:

These soft power activities aim to portray Russia as the savior of the Balkans from the Nazis – and by extension, savior of the Balkans today. By framing themselves and their local partners as the bulwark of the anti-fascist movement then and now, they solicit the logical conclusion that everyone else, those who are not with them, are the fascists. This sort of rhetoric is particularly dangerous in the Balkans, as it sows further division in already polarized societies.[3]

Karčic claims that Russia, on the one hand, uses this approach to create additional boundaries and divisions between “us” and “them” and, on the other, tries to block—as much as possible—any progress towards integration of the Balkan states with the EU and NATO. “Bosnian Serb nationalists consistently block any progress towards integration with the EU and NATO, cosy up to Putin, and continually attempt to create political havoc in the country,” notes Karčic. Moscow’s main ally in this direction is the Serbian president, Milorad Dodik, who consistently promotes pro-Russian policies in the Balkans.

It is worth adding that Dodik is closely connected not only with Russian politicians but also with structures close to Russian intelligence. For example, in July 2015 the website of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS)—part of the Presidential Administration and previously part of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)—reported that the then director of the institute, Leonid Reshetnikov, had been awarded the prestigious Order of Petrović Njegoš, personally presented to him by Dodik.

By the way, it was Serbian radicals (though not from among Bosnian Serbs but, rather, citizens of Serbia) who were used by Moscow to organise the failed coup in Montenegro and, according to sources close to the militant leaders, also participated in the annexation of Crimea on the instructions of the Russian Ministry of Defence. It is therefore clear that, at least for some of the Kremlin’s allies abroad, the “fight against modern fascism” is coming to be embodied not in words but in deeds, expressed not only in soft but also in hard power.

Robber Cossacks

The use of images created by “positive propaganda” to promote the present-day Russian agenda, including its most aggressive manifestations, concerns not only the cult of Victory but also various elements of Russian history and culture. The most difficult thing here is to distinguish where “innocent” events dedicated to the popularisation of Russian literature, language, a commemoration of dates from the common history of nations, and so on end – and destructive “information operations” begin.

Moscow actively takes advantage of this uncertainty, calling any attempt to oppose “positive” forms of soft power “Russophobia” and ridiculing the attempts of some Western researchers to identify dangerous moments in cartoons or poetry competitions. In reality, the danger lies not in the images themselves, but in how they can be used in the future. However, in some cases, it is impossible to predict such use accurately.

For example, in 2017, Ruslan Gurzhiy, editor-in-chief of the California-based Russian-language website Slavic Sacramento, was attracted by children’s Cossack camps organised by a former Soviet special forces soldier in California’s capital city. In particular, he drew attention to the military training of children as cultivating in American youth camps a positive image of Soviet and Russian special forces and airborne troops, Soviet tanks, St George’s crosses and other attributes of Russian “military honour”.

“What is this: an innocent game, or the preparation of future saboteurs from the local population?” Gurzhiy asks. At the same time, although he admits that outwardly such an activity resembles the “creation of a cluster of loyal agents of influence in the territory of the alleged enemy” described in the manuals of the Soviet special services, he could not find any evidence of planning possible “sabotage operations”. Situations like this create an intractable conflict. It is clear that the upbringing and military training of children in the spirit of loyalty to the army of an unfriendly state creates a potential threat to security. On the other hand, formally, this activity does not go beyond children’s play, the encroachment on which can be perceived as a violation of basic human rights.

“White Guards” Against Sanctions

In some cases, the flow of culture into politics is more obvious. A perfect example is the 2018 letter from the Congress of Russian Americans (CRA) to president Donald Trump asking for sanctions against Russian to be lifted. The group was created in 1973 as an organisation of the descendants of White Guard émigrés and Russian dissidents, and over the decades of its existence it has indeed accumulated many merits. “Our members have contributed to enriching this nation, and the CRA Hall of Fame includes a Nobel laureate alongside many Russian-American innovators, artists, and leaders in humanities, arts, and sciences,” notes the letter. However, from the text of the appeal it is clear that all the achievements of this previously anti-Soviet organisation are now used only to stop “the new Cold War”, lift sanctions and resume dialogue with Russia.

The examples above show that the most effective fight against Russian influence abroad would be systematic work to distinguish between the natural manifestations of cultural and national identity and propaganda clichés and false links to contemporary politics, artificially superimposed on them. It is against these anchors, false associations, and attempts at political lobbying that the main struggle should be launched. It is also important to encourage the creation of cultural and educational initiatives independent of the Kremlin in Russian diasporas abroad. The emergence of an “alternative culture” created in Russia, but free from the influence of propaganda, is the Russian authorities’ greatest fear.

[1] (author’s translation).

[2] Aleksander Olech and Sylwia Gliwa, “Polish-Czech relations and Russian disinformation attempts to disturb them”, Instytut Nowej Europy/Institute of New Europe, 21 February 2020.

[3] Hikmet Karčic, “Russia’s Campaign to Rewrite WWII History Is Dividing the Balkans. Just as Putin Intended”, Haaretz, 7 September 2020.

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