The Destruction of the Soul in Putin’s Russia

In no Russian regime has propaganda held such a large place as it does in the Putin regime. Propaganda was very visible during the Soviet period, but it had not penetrated the soul and minds as it does today. Propaganda now replaces diplomacy and often harms it. Why this evolution?

The weakness of the opposition in Russia today can be explained less by repression than by the hold of this propaganda, that has been largely internalized by Russian society. Dissent was powerful in the Soviet era, despite its small numbers, because it had preserved something of the humanist heritage: Dissidents defended the truth (the “refusal of lies” as Solzhenitsyn put it), the rule of law, self-determination of small nations, freedom of conscience, the idea of a community of interests within mankind. All this has been destroyed by Putin’s propaganda based on the cult of force. One can count on the fingers of one hand those who have had the courage to publicly disapprove of the annexation of Crimea: they are fewer in number than the dissidents who demonstrated in 1968 in Red Square against the intervention in Czechoslovakia. For 20 years Russia has experienced an unprecedented moral catastrophe, for which official propaganda is both the instrument and the expression. Let’s see from recent examples what levers this propaganda uses, what passions it feeds on to acquire this formidable efficiency, and not only in Russia, but in the rest of the world where it is tirelessly distilled by the Kremlin networks.

Take Dmitry Medvedev’s article, published on October 11, entitled “Why contacts with the current Ukrainian leadership make no sense”. This opus breathes hatred for the neighboring country, especially for its leaders. President Zelenski is a double traitor: he is “someone with certain ethnic roots (sic), who has spoken Russian all his life. In addition, he has worked in Russia and has received substantial funds from Russian sources.” Now this Jew has gone over to the side of the Ukrainian “Nazis”! “It is as if members of the Jewish intelligentsia in Nazi Germany, for ideological reasons, had volunteered to serve in the SS,” claims Medvedev, choking with indignation. And not out of conviction, of course, but because the ruling elite is afraid of a new “Maidan”. Zelensky is howling with the wolves, passing “stupid” laws because otherwise “he would be smashed on a wall”, says Medvedev. Thus it is useless to enter into negotiations with “the Ukrainian leaders of the current generation” because they “are absolutely dependent people”. For “the country is under direct foreign control.” But U.S. support “is extremely fragile and will eventually crumble.” “Hopes for NATO and EU membership are also fleeting for obvious reasons. […] There will be no fools to fight for Ukraine. And it makes no sense for us to deal with vassals. It is with the suzerain that we must deal. At the head of Ukraine are weak people who only want to fill their pockets. Preferably through a foreign offshore.” Conclusion: Russia must “wait for the emergence of a healthy leadership in Ukraine, which does not aim at a total confrontation with Russia. […] Only with such a leadership in Ukraine is it worthwhile to enter into talks. Russia knows how to wait. We are patient people.”

This opus tells a great deal about the mentality of the men in the Kremlin. First of all, the equivocal reference to Zelenski’s Jewish origins, a discreet appeal to the anti-Semitism still present in Russian ruling circles, and at the same time an indication of a desire to manipulate this factor in order to sow division in Ukraine and to use it in the West to discredit Ukraine. Noteworthy is also the idea that someone who has received Russian money must serve Russia for the rest of his life. And finally the fundamental assumption in Putin’s entourage that people do not act out of conviction, but either out of fear or because they are bought. For Medvedev there are no patriots among the Ukrainian leaders, only corrupt ones. The will to demoralize is clear: Ukrainians of course, to whom it is suggested that sooner or later, dropped by their Western protectors, they will fall back into the Russian clutches; but also to Russians, for whom it is insinuated that the Putin system is universal. All are rotten, all are liars, wherever they are. The ideal of a “revolution of dignity”, which was the ideal of the Maidan, for which Ukrainians shed their blood, is being canceled.

This anti-Ukrainian symphony reached new heights before Victoria Nuland’s visit to Moscow. The website Svobosnaya Pressa, for example, headlines: “Crushing the bugs: Nuland came to give the exasperating Ukraine back to Putin”. Since the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Kremlin propagandists have been telling Ukrainians that they too will be abandoned by the Americans, after being sold out by the Europeans. The article insinuates that Nuland, being of Jewish origin, can only hate Ukrainian “Nazis”: “She did not come to Russia to negotiate a ‘rescue of Zelensky’, although her [ethnic] origin is the same as Nuland’s. She came to seek a consensus with Russia on the Ukrainian problem, which would allow the United States both to get rid of this ‘ball and chain’ of Kiev and to save its face on the international stage […] These ultra-radical, Holocaust-denying nationalist bugs creeping out Soviet carpets are simply dangerous to the United States, according to Nuland, so it would be appropriate to scald them politically.” The article concludes by recommending the dismemberment of Ukraine, allowing Russia to annex the East and the South. One cannot but be struck by the coarse vocabulary of this opus, unfortunately frequent in the Russian media. We are reminded of the “filthy snakes” of Stalinist prosecutor Vychinsky.

The case of Ukraine illuminates one of the most powerful engines of Putin’s propaganda, hatred. Ukraine is not the only one to attract piles of garbage. Macron and France have been high on the Kremlin’s “hit parade” for some time, so to speak. The Russtrat Institute openly mocks Emmanuel Macron: “How much a bad president “costs” a state — today everyone can see it with the example of Emmanuel Macron. It is under him, or rather as a result of his action, that the visible collapse of the vestiges of the international greatness of the Fifth Republic begins.” The Kremlin’s propaganda does not shun contradictions. While hypocritically pretending to deplore France’s loss of status, it contributes powerfully to it through intrigues in Africa against France and by denouncing French “neo-colonialism” there. And as the article concludes: “We are on the eve of a massive arrival of Russians in North Africa. And we would advise the French to replace their president.”

In another interview, Roman Romanov [a political journalist], called Macron “a political corpse for refusing to admit France’s failure in Mali.” It reads, “The best thing Macron could have done was to show the world what happens to leaders who value economic benefits over respect for the sovereignty of other states.” This is not just about President Macron. Thus our eyes are drawn to this headline in RIA Novosti of October 13: “France has learned the truth about itself: its elites raped children”, summarizing the recent pedophilia cases that have hit the headlines in France but presenting things as if the French elites had only one dream, to hand over their offspring to fashionable pedophiles or to practice pedophilia themselves.

In addition to hatred, the Kremlin’s propaganda draws on a whole range of feelings that feed on the lower passions of humanity.

First of all, the intoxication of power, the will to humiliate the other.

Let’s see how the “red-brown” writer Alexander Prokhanov, nicknamed the “nightingale of the General Staff”, celebrates the gas empire: “Putin is the patriarch of gas. It is by his will that the great gas civilization of Russia has been created. He extends his pipes from the Atlantic to the Pacific. All he has to do is raise one eyebrow — gas prices soar and European factories shut down. He frowns with the other eyebrow — and the prices go down, and Europe thanks God for the mercy of the Russian patriarch.” And now some eloquent headlines taken here and there from the Russian press in recent days: “Europe has fallen into the Kremlin’s gas trap”. “Europe is preparing to freeze. In any case, the coming winter will force the EU’s Russophobes to come to Moscow as supplicants. “The Chinese are full of admiration for Putin’s latest warning to Europe. Ukraine will have to crawl to Moscow” to get gas. “Ukraine has become afraid of the clear signal of the Kremlin. In the Rada they recognize that the capitulation to the Kremlin is inevitable.” “Gazprom is pushing Moldova to turn away from Ukraine.” Moldovans are asked to freeze: Moscow is not against it”.

Ecstasy in front of the misfortune of others.

What a gloating spills over in the Russian media with the idea that the Germans risk freezing in winter this year for lack of gas, like the Wehrmacht in front of Moscow in December 1941! The press reports with great delight that hospitals in Ukraine are not heated! President Putin is in unison: he joked subtly that the Europeans will have to replace fuel with ice skates, that soon the Dutch will have to visit each other on skates to keep warm. And what a treat it is to hear about the EU’s quarrel with Warsaw: “Poland is becoming the ‘gravedigger’ of the European Union,” triumphs Russtrat!

We have given a small glimpse of the output of the Kremlin’s propagandists. But this is only in the print media; television is much worse. This propaganda, as we can see, is essentially for internal use. If Westerners were to follow the Russian media more closely, the number of Putin fans in the West would drop rapidly. Besides, it often happens that the strutting of the court propagandists plays a trick on the Kremlin’s strategists and hits them back like a boomerang: thus, Russian media have been boasting for several months about how Gazprom will reduce the Europeans to gritting their teeth this winter and to submitting to Russia. This swaggering propaganda has finally become known in Europe and the Kremlin now must mobilize “friendly” foreign experts to explain that Putin has nothing to do with this situation! Russian diplomats make a point of adopting the Kremlin’s foul language and rudeness, just to show that Russia is powerful enough to get away with anything. Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, nearly put Russia at odds with Serbia, by mocking in her inimitable style on her Facebook the meeting of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic with American President Donald Trump. She published a collage in which the upper part was a photo of the meeting of the two presidents, and underneath was a snapshot of the famous scene from the film Basic Instinct where Sharon Stone seduces her interlocutor by showing her crossed legs. In 2008, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov elegantly challenged in English Davis Milliband, his British counterpart, after a remark by the latter on the invasion of Georgia: “Who are you to fucking lecture me?” In 2015, asked to comment on the possibility of a return of the Iron Curtain in Europe, Lavrov replied, “If they [the West] bring down an iron curtain on us, they might get something stuck . In 2016 he insulted a Reuters cameraman by calling him a “moron”.

If this propaganda is detrimental to Russia’s real interests and if it compromises the efforts of its diplomats forced to adopt the thuggish idiom of the Kremlin’s bosses, why does it continue to flourish? The answer is distressing: it is because it allows the regime to be preserved, and society to be controlled. But only in the sense of destruction. It will be observed that the Russian population refuses massively to be vaccinated against Covid, in spite of the wishes of the authorities. Because the Kremlin’s propaganda can only aim at negative objectives. It doesn’t work if it has to serve the public good. Channeled evil passions are a factor for stability that no dictatorship can ignore. Socrates said that the criterion for defining a good ruler is that he leaves his countrymen better human beings after his time in power than he found them. If we apply to Putin this criterion that has lost none of its topicality, even if it is unfortunately forgotten, the final assessment is calamitous.

She has a degree in classical literature and spent 4 years in the USSR from 1973 to 1978. She is an agrégée in Russian and teaches Soviet history and international relations at Paris Sorbonne.

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