As Vladimir Putin gets his country involved in ever more wars, a subtle but significant change has come over Kremlin propaganda: Russian-government media are no longer attacking specific regimes but rather whole peoples, much as happened in World War II when Moscow shifted from attacking Nazis to attacking Germans as such.
Even as he has launched his war in Syria, Putin in no way has cut back his propagandistic attacks in any way against Ukraine, Russian commentator Igor Yakovenko says, but there has been a major shift in that propaganda, one that does not bode well for the future of either Russia or Ukraine.
“If earlier the target of Russian propaganda was the leadership of Ukraine, with Moscow constantly stressing that Russia has nothing against ‘the fraternal Ukrainian people’ and that the whole case was about ‘fascists among the Ukrainian authorities,’” he argues, “now, the target has turned out to be the entire Ukrainian people.”
Emblematic of this shift, Yakovenko continues, is the coverage “Komsomolskaya Pravda” gave on September 30 to the question of ethnic crime in Moscow. Not only did it talk about “gypsies” from Ukraine, but it quoted Russian police commanders to the effect that the influx of people from Ukraine had pushed crime up in the Russian capital.
“Not a word about criminals from other countries and representatives of other peoples,” just about Ukraine and Ukrainians. The deed has been done, “the anti-Ukrainian shell has been prepared, and it can be shot into the brains of millions of Russian. [And] xenophobic filth goes to press.”
Yakovenko points out that beginning journalism students are taught “professional ethnics” and told that “crime does not have a nationality.” Talking about the ethnic background of those involved in crimes is acceptable only if one is conducting “a special analytic investigation about ethnic groups” and that in the mass media it is “impermissible.”
“It is obvious,” the Russian commentator says, that the “Komsomolskaya Pravda” writer was told to find something “against the Ukrainian people” so that no one in Russia would have any doubts about “the justice of the war. If Ukrainians are so bad, then war with them is the right thing, and Putin acted correctly in taking Crimea away from them.”
The editors of the paper certainly should have known better, and those in charge of the Ukrainian edition of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” didn’t run this “filth.” Yakovenko says he hopes that the Ukrainian authorities won’t close the paper down but rather put the following notice on its masthead:
“Be warned! This publication uses the brand of the xenophobic Russian newspaper ‘Komsomolskaya Pravda.’ The content can contain at any moment anti-Ukrainian propaganda.”
Yakovenko says that “it is necessary to somehow show the Putinist Nazis a measure of responsibility,” especially since “what happened at the jubilee session of the UN General Assembly shows that a tribunal over them in the near future is not very probable.”
Illusions about that must be dispelled, he argues, as much illusions that the worsening of economic conditions will lead Russians to oppose their government. “In present-day Russia,” he writes, “optimism and loyalty not only are not falling along with the standard of living but on the contrary are growing. The poorer life in Russia becomes, the happier people are.”
At least part of the explanation for that is to be found in the regime’s use of xenophobic propaganda. Given this situation, “the winter in Russia will be a long one,” and that is something that it would be desirable for both the Russians themselves and their immediate neighbors to take into consideration.
This latest outburst of xenophobia is the third major one in Russia in the last century. During the Russo-Polish war of 1920, Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinovyev was so racist in his comments about the Poles that other party leaders complained to Lenin about it. Lenin agreed but demonstrated his own xenophobia by ordering on the same day a new dictionary of “the great living Russian language.”
Then in World War II, Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg echoed the racism of the Nazis in his propagandistic articles about the Germans, an approach that was at odds with what Soviet propagandists said the war was about but one that for a time enjoyed the support of the Kremlin leader of that time and afterwards when he directed the same venom against Soviet Jews.
And then in the 1990s, both to distract the attention of Russians and to prepare the way for a war against Chechnya, the Russian government promoted the racist idea of the evil nature of “persons of Caucasus nationality,” an ugly echo of Stalin’s “persons of Jewish nationality” in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The re-appearance of such state-sponsored xenophobic viciousness must be condemned even by those who feel they cannot stop it, for as Nadezhda Mandelshtam pointed out, “happy is the country in which the despicable will at least be despised.” On that standard, Russia is not a happy country, and the West, to the extent it fails to speak out, isn’t either.
And there is a particular reason to speak out now: such anger directed at one people can easily be transferred to another, especially because propagandists often link groups together. Thus, today, an article in Moscow appeared suggesting that ISIS and the Maidan were “brothers in arms.”