It was a peaceful and sunny morning. Birds were singing. I was out food shopping when a massive explosion, followed by a shock wave, abruptly deafened my ears. Utter silence was all around, a dead quietness undisturbed by birdsong. But for the buzz of an invisible jet high up in the sky, the world seemed to be frozen in that single, destructive moment. A huge cloud of brownish dust and smoke slowly emerged on the horizon about 300 metres away. I was in the sleepy Georgian town of Gori at around 9:30 a.m. on the 8th of August 2008, and I had just become a witness of a Russian missile attack; part of Russia’s first invasion of a foreign country since the war in Afghanistan in 1979.
Many have recently identified the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 as a dress rehearsal for what is currently happening on a much larger scale in Ukraine. The parallels are indeed striking and disturbing. False claims of genocide of the local Ossetian population were promulgated on the internet months before the invasion, just as claims of Ukrainian genocides of Russian speakers have multiplied. Russia used local proxies to stage a provocation that would necessitate Russian ‘assistance’ in both conflicts and the Russian government has euphemistically dubbed the war in Ukraine a ‘special military operation’, while the invasion in 2008 was a ‘peace enforcement operation’. However, this is where the parallels end. In 2008, Russia agreed to a ceasefire within days and eventually withdrew its troops to the separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. No such quick solution is in sight for Ukraine.
In order to understand the true forces behind Russia’s expansionist aspirations, we must move away from short-term perspectives and simplistic personalized explanations and look more closely at long-term ideological and psychological factors. This includes various ideas legitimizing the tsarist and later Bolshevik states that persist in contemporary political culture in Russia, bolstered by an elevation of imperialist historical narratives and plain myth-making. It also comprises an exploration of how contemporary Russian society draws on Soviet traditions of propaganda and post-Soviet experiences, particularly the collapse of the USSR.
Wars require not only strategic thinking and complex logistical planning (something missing on the Russian side in the current war). They also necessitate ideological preparation to keep up morale and garner patriotic support at home, while making a case for just war to the outside world. For example, when Russia entered World War I in August 1914 there were spontaneous outbursts of patriotism, and the Russian army initially had some spectacular successes. However, within a few weeks the situation had changed dramatically. The Russian army turned out to be ill equipped for such an engagement and started to suffer huge casualties as it gave up vast territories. The initial patriotic support was effectively over by mid-1915, not least because the government of tsar Nicholas II had no understanding of the mechanisms of popular patriotism and, wary of the revolutionary potential of its own people, was unwilling to include civic grassroots initiatives in the war effort.
With no popular support, mass desertions of soldiers at the fronts, and overwhelming economic and social difficulties at home, tsarist rule imploded in February 1917, with the multi-ethnic empire collapsing soon afterwards. There was no ideological glue that could hold it together any longer. Earlier ideologies underpinning the status of the tsarist regime – such as the 16th century notion of Moscow as the third Rome (a claim to succession of the Byzantine empire), or the 19th century concoction of Official Nationality (promoting imperial unity under Orthodox Christianity and the tsar’s absolute authority), or pan-Slavic fantasies of a united Slavic empire under Russian leadership – had lost traction.
Before delving into the glue binding together the current Russian war effort, let us turn to the historical factors underpinning it. More specifically, let’s look at the roots of contemporary Russian propaganda, which date back long before Putin’s rise to power. Unlike the tsars, the Bolsheviks who seized power in October 1917 were masters in the use of ideology, and they adroitly employed it to consolidate their popular support. They began to craft what Peter Kenez has called a ‘propaganda state’, developing numerous new methods of agitation and propaganda meant to educate and win over the largely illiterate masses. These ranged from graphic art and posters to agitational films, so-called agitki, and other media such as trains and river boats which were covered with easy-to-comprehend graffiti. New Bolshevik festivals and socialist holidays were introduced, and mass re-enactments of revolutionary events transformed urban spaces. The young generation, thought to be untainted by former ‘bourgeois’ values, were active in building this ‘new world’. The newly founded Communist Youth League or Komsomol became instrumental in the propaganda effort. It also organized camps that provided paramilitary education and ideological training.
From its early days, the Soviet state put itself in charge of culture. It sponsored and controlled cultural activities and the arts by way of censorship throughout its history. This included the prescription of specific messages and artistic styles. In 1934, Socialist Realism became the leading doctrine. Unlike 19th-century realism, Socialist Realism was meant to depict reality not as it was, but as it was supposed to be. The total art of Stalinism, as Boris Groys called it, was to lead the way into a radiant future, a utopia of happy workers and cheerful kolkhoz (collective farm) labourers. In truth, millions of Soviet citizens were killed in the Holodomor and the Great Terror or sent to the Gulag. Suffice it to say that many generations of Soviet people were brainwashed and fed a virtual reality which had little to do with their daily life experiences. This propaganda state lasted all the way up to Gorbachev, who introduced a policy of glasnost (openness) in the mid-1980s.
The messages conveyed through Soviet mass propaganda and the arts varied over time. Proletarian internationalism and friendship of the people in 1917 soon turned into ‘socialism in one country’, a more isolationist vision that the USSR need not wait for revolutions elsewhere. By the 1930s, ‘Soviet patriotism’ became the main ideology, a synthetic construct based on heroic achievements of recent Soviet history, accompanied by a slow but steady rehabilitation of heroic figures from Russia’s imperial past, which dramatically accelerated during the Second World War. Simultaneously, an increasingly elaborate personality cult of Stalin emerged, reaching its zenith after the war, which Stalin essentially claimed as a personal victory. After his death, the veneration of Stalin was replaced with a cult of the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War was called in the Soviet Union), at the centre of which were Soviet war veterans and the partisan movement. Victory Day (9 May) became a popular holiday, and remains so to this day.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the propaganda state temporarily dissolved into media pluralism, only to be resurrected when Putin came to power. Apart from reining in independent media outlets, one of his first initiatives was the 2001 introduction of a ‘State Programme for the Patriotic Education of the Citizens of the Russian Federation’. This programme was extended several times and its budget increased more than tenfold between 2001 and 2020. It included the production of new schoolbooks, presenting Russian history as an imperial success story and a series of heroic achievements, and the promotion of patriotic content in museums, exhibitions, theatres, films, and music events. Patriotism was taught at youth festivals and military sports camps for children, culminating in the creation of the so-called Iunarmiia or Young Army for schoolchildren in 2016. Holidays referring to a grand imperial past have been newly created or revived: for instance, 4 November, ‘Day of Unity of the People’, commemorates the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612, while Putin has transformed Victory Day from a popular family event into a militaristic show and a celebration of violent chauvinism.
This programme is an alarming déjà vu of the Bolshevik propaganda state, this time propagating an imperial Russian ideology more reminiscent of tsarist times: all available methods of propaganda are employed (now with sophisticated technical possibilities, from TV shows to internet troll farms); near total control of the media has finally been achieved; military youth camps are back; and the personality cult has returned in full force with Putin’s rise to power. In addition, the idea of only one ‘correct’ history of Russia, last seen in Soviet times, has been reintroduced. Last but not least, state-sanctioned terror is back; initially in the form of apartment buildings blown up by Putin’s FSB buddies in 1999 to boost his rise to power and followed by individual killings and poisonings of critics. Now, during the war, this has expanded into open repression, calls for the denunciation of fellow citizens, excessive police brutality, and mass arrests.
The messages that Putin’s propaganda state has very successfully peddled over the last 20 years are wide-ranging, and they appeal to long-held Russian traditions and to more recent experiences. The Putin cult itself, for example, draws on centuries of autocratic rule, a peculiar feature of Russian political culture whereby a distant, paternalistic tsar takes care of his people who entrust politics into his hands (incidentally, Putin’s birthday pictures in 2019 are reminiscent of the good shepherd, walking through a meadow with his staff).
Throughout history, Russians have not had much of an opportunity to practice democratic rule. When they did, democracy was either crushed by brutal force, as was the case with the medieval city republic of Novgorod, or it was cut short in a coup d’état, as in October 1917, or became associated with economic chaos and widespread poverty, as in the 1990s. The fact that Boris Yeltsin, the president during the latter period, was prone to gaffes and came across as ailing and weak, helped Putin to present himself as saviour – as a ‘Russian James Bond’ in the words of Catherine Belton – who would restore just order.
The 1990s generally have been a fertile reference point for Putin’s propaganda. The end of the Soviet Union is still remembered by many Russians as national humiliation, allegedly caused by scheming economic advisors from abroad and inflamed by triumphal claims of Western victory in the Cold War. This feeling of humiliation is easily called upon by the propaganda apparatus, especially as it blends with age-old traditions of xenophobia, nourished over centuries in Russian village culture and the Orthodox Church. It also serves as an easy trigger for a widespread fortress mentality, a ‘digging in’ against a perceived or real hostile situation in times of crisis. This mentality has resulted in a marked distinction between public and private spaces, reflected in the widespread installation of massive steel doors in private flats (a booming business in the 1990s) and the emergence of gated communities encased by high walls for the rich.
The Communist state had provided clear guidance in life for decades, and its collapse led do a profound spiritual void. Many people experienced deep insecurity which helped fuel the revival of the Orthodox Church, often without an understanding of its true essence. There was also a huge increase in self-help and etiquette books, catering to a readership that had to learn how to manoeuvre through new lifestyles, master the ins and outs of consumerism, and adjust to the fact that there was not only one type of cheese in the world. Many people were genuinely insecure about what was right and wrong. Someone with clear and forceful messages, especially about imperial greatness and national pride, could easily take advantage of such a situation.
History is one of the main pillars of Putin’s propaganda. As Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill have convincingly argued, Putin positions himself as a man of history for whom its interpretation and reinterpretation have profound consequences. His recent distortions of history – be it claims of Polish collusion in starting World War II or the negation of the existence of Ukraine – are just the latest ‘invented traditions’ in a long list. They all fit into an imperialist revival centred around the idea of Russian exceptionalism epitomized in the so-called ‘Russian world’ or russkii mir. With its origins in what Kirill, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, described as ‘the great Russian civilization that came from the Kievan baptismal font and spread across the huge expanse of Eurasia’, this world is based on conservative values, with Russia acting as a civilizational pole, a bulwark against the decadent overreach of the West and American hegemony.
Putin’s Russian world takes inspiration from a number of writers and thinkers. One of them, Nikolai Danilevskii, fantasised about different historical-cultural types with Russians presenting the highest level of civilization in his book Russia and Europe (1869). Another favourite of Putin is Ivan Ilin, an anti-revolutionary emigree who, in 1938, developed a constitution for a future post-Soviet Russia. According to Ilin, democracy is harmful to Russia; instead, the country needs to be held together by a strong monarch. The state should be tightly organized and should take its legitimacy from its religion and history. A more recent inspiration is Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This former Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate returned to Russia from exile in 1994 and promoted the idea that Russia, Belarus and Ukraine should be one big Slavic state, led by a philosopher king.
The most notorious representative of such imperialist ideals is Alexander Dugin. He represents the revived Eurasianist movement which holds that Russia should turn against the West and fulfil its destiny in Asia. According to Dugin, ethical and moral limitations should not stand in the way of Russian greatness. One last figure who must be mentioned as one of Putin’s whisperers is Vladimir Medinskii, not truly a thinker or writer by any stretch, but rather a quack historian, who has been proven to have plagiarized his two dissertations. Medinskii was minister of culture from 2012 to 2020 and is also the head of the Russian Military Historical Society. In these roles he ensured that his strongly nationalist views of Russian history and Russian military might were elevated to the level of state policy.
Why do so many Russians believe in this kind of reactionary ideological brew? Apart from the disorienting experiences of the 1990s, one of the key explanations is that there has never been a systematic de-mystification of history. Coming to terms with the past, what Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung, just never happened in Russia. As a consequence, Russians have always lived with a glorious and victorious history. The huge losses and defeats of the First World War were essentially supressed for more than seven decades. Although the Russian empire suffered far more casualties in this war than any other country, there were no cenotaphs, memorials, commemorative events or, for that matter, heated historical discussions like in Western Europe. Instead, the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’ took centre stage as a grandiose, earth-shattering event and the main legitimization of the Soviet state. The atrocities of the ensuing Civil War and the crimes of the Stalin years were swept and largely kept under the rug.
Memorial, a human rights organisation single-handedly engaged in analysing Stalin’s legacy, has been persistently persecuted and was finally closed down a few weeks ago. The message was: we don’t want or need a debate about Stalin’s crimes. This message has fallen on fertile ground over the last years. In April 2019, a Levada centre poll revealed that a record 70% of Russians approved of Stalin’s role in Russia’s past. When history gets detached from historical reality to such an extent, it metamorphoses into a kind of fictional wonderland. As a consequence, it becomes entirely conceivable to tap into the popular myth of the Great Patriotic War and portray the current aggression against Ukraine as an extension of this heroic historic battle; but with Ukrainians rather than Germans in the role of Nazis.
For this genre of outlandish propaganda to take effect, it must resonate with deeper, subconscious needs of the population. There must be an additional emotional receptor beyond abstract imperial myths and national pride. Twenty years of repression and the systematic destruction of independent news, civic organisations, and political opposition have led to a profound atomization of Russian society. It is a society in which people cannot achieve even the most minimal changes in their country or their own lives due to corrupt bureaucrats, politicians, and judges. The result is a deep sense of powerlessness, fear, apathy, resentment, and negativity, paired with a negation of reality and the growth of ideological fiction. This ‘rebellion of the imagination against reality’, in the words of Mikhail Iampolski, automatically leads to an affirmation of lies. The country’s politics are constructed on a foundation of lies and the denial of obvious facts, harkening back to the political culture that Stalin’s propaganda state practiced so successfully. The line between falsehood and reality is intentionally and systematically blurred. Hannah Arendt has called this process ‘defactualization’. Russia’s defactualization is now at a stage where it will most likely lead to the self-destruction of state and society in the real world. All the military, economic, and human costs of war against Ukraine are deemed necessary to save face and to uphold a mirage of unwavering strength and imperial might.
We should not think that Putin is mad, even if his actions look like it. We should also not think that Russians are all helpless victims of the propaganda state. Putin’s reinvention of historical facts, the promotion of murky nationalist-orthodox and imperialist ideologies, the elevation of straightforward lies to a core principle of his rule, and the re-establishment of the propaganda state have been in the making for over twenty years. They chime with traditions of exceptionalism, a strong state and a victorious past that Russians had internalized over many generations, and which only a minority have tried to overcome. Yet attacking Ukraine may have been one step too far. It could be the ultimate reality check that brings about the final collapse of the Russian/Soviet imperial project.
Hubertus Jahn is Professor of the History of Russia and the Caucasus in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge. He is also a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. His research covers much of Russian history, with a focus on social and cultural aspects, as well as the history of Georgia and the South Caucasus. Among his many publications are Patriotic Culture in Russia during World War I, a study of patriotic manifestations in Russian cultural life during the First World War, Armes Russland: Bettler und Notleidende in der russischen Geschichte vom Mittelalter bis in die Gegenwart, an interdisciplinary study of begging and poverty in Russia from the Middle Ages to the present, and Identities and Representations in Georgia from the 19th Century to the Present.