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Arbitrary Rule and Violence Start as Speech

Maxim Trudolyubov
Russian nationalists wearing pro-war "Z" shirts at a rally
Russian nationalists wearing pro-war "Z" shirts at a rally in March 2022

The effectiveness of Russian war propaganda over the past two years is a complex issue that goes beyond its direct impact. While it may not have directly swayed public opinion, given the ready availability of alternative information sources such as international online platforms and independent channels on messaging apps for most Russians, its relative effectiveness lies in the fact that it is not just speech. 

Russian propaganda, wielded by the Kremlin, serves not merely as a set of narratives but also as a testing ground for repressive laws and policies. What starts as speech often ends up as coercion. 

Unconvinced but Silent

The war against Ukraine—or against the West, as it is sometimes framed in Russia—enjoys relatively wide, if declining, support. According to a new independent study, the share of those who said that they “supported the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine” averaged 63 percent in the spring of 2022, at the start of the war. However, this figure declined over the course of 2023, averaging 53 percent for most of the year.

We know that most of those who oppose the war do not talk to pollsters. Speaking out against the war can lead to social pressure and persecution for those who dissent. That is why it is important to pay attention to those who do talk to pollsters but do not take a clear stance.

When we combine those who do not support the war with those who avoid giving a direct answer, we find a large group of the public that, essentially, does not express loyalty to the Kremlin’s main project. At the beginning of 2023, this group (“evaders” plus open opponents of the war) constituted 40 percent of those polled. At the end of 2023 it reached 48 percent.

This indicates that almost half of the population is not convinced by the propaganda about the war being a necessary national cause. It seems the Kremlin's propaganda machine may not even require this level of convincing. It is doing a different job. 

Testing Ground for Persecution

For years, Russian propagandists, led by the propagandist-in-chief, Vladimir Putin, have been constructing an alternative reality that blends speech with violence. Both components play pivotal roles in this project. If anyone doubts the tangible impact of words, one need only look at Russia's official public discourse.

Certain groups of people in the country are labeled “foreign influenced,” leading to the enactment of laws that transform verbal criticism into official labels of “foreign agents” and, sometimes, to criminal charges. Countries are branded “unfriendly,” and as a result of Kremlin actions, they later genuinely become hostile. Discussions about Russia's lack of recognition by the West and the sense of foreignness have manifested in reality, with Russia and often its people now perceived as dangerous aliens in the West.

For a long time, the Russian authorities' attempts to shape their own narrative and establish a distinctly “Russian” context for all events were often dismissed as clumsy. Independent media could challenge the propaganda with alternative perspectives.

However, as the decision to invade Ukraine became a reality and the information landscape narrowed, particularly for those in positions of authority, it became evident that phrases like “we can do it again” were strategic tools employed by the authorities to prepare the public for the Kremlin’s actions in real world. 

The slogan “We can do it again” had circulated for years before 2022. It was meant as a proud declaration that Russia will respond to a new possible aggression as forcefully as it did during World War II. These words may not sound dangerous, but they meant a reversal of a decades-long stance of peaceful intentions in favor of the threat of the use of force.

The expulsion of most independent media from Russia in March 2022 significantly intensified the distortion and toxicity of the Russian information environment. 

Embracing the Big Lie

Judging from my conversations with those officials and with intellectuals who have stayed in Russia, many of them have even adopted the inverted logic of the authorities, a logic in which Russia is not the aggressor but the victim of aggression. “It was they who started the war, and we used and are using force to stop it," Putin and his propagandists repeat in different ways. 

When looking from the outside, it seems impossible to take this logic seriously. Its detachment from reality is too obvious. It is a real big lie, necessary for its authors to justify the cruelty of their own actions. It is also effective in making their threats to use the nuclear arsenal sound more convincing because the atomic bomb is a weapon of response, not attack. 

For many of those who continue to work in Russia’s civil service, in large state or quasi-state businesses, this formula proves acceptable. “In February 2022, I experienced a shock. But as soon as I realized how intense the West’s support for Ukraine had become, Russia ceased to be an aggressor for me and became, in fact, a victim of attempts to weaken and even destroy us,” says one of my interlocutors.

In this simplest of ways an unjust war becomes a just war—in the consciousness of a particular person. He no longer suffers from the fact that he has to support the forces of evil. On the contrary, in his own eyes, he becomes a patriot defending the independence of his homeland. 

It is hard to say to what extent the Kremlin’s media managers realize this, but they give people ready-made self-justification mechanisms that act like blue pills from the movie The Matrix. In that movie, taking the red pill represented the willingness to learn a painful and life-changing truth, while taking the blue pill entrenched the person’s conformist attitude to reality.

It turns out that people may feel the need to invert logic, if they feel that straightforward adherence to facts puts them at a disadvantage, including in their own eyes. It is not, therefore, a lack of independent sources of information that is making people take “the blue pill” of Russian propaganda. It is their own fears and needs for moral self-justification. 

The threat of arbitrary use of Russia’s repressive legislation changes people’s inner state. The elites are particularly prone to that because they live under constant threat of persecution. I have seen how a person may decide that since they cannot effect change in real life, they will reframe their inner perception of events. 

A person can mentally rename themselves and their country as a victim, because in this case he or she will instantly attain a moral high ground. They will no longer support the rapist, they will now support the victim. That is why many in Russia prefer to reconcile themselves internally with the circumstances. They decide for themselves that circumstances have been created by someone else, not them. They change the terms of the contract with themselves and accept the deception that may seem wildly unacceptable to people outside Russia.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more