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Vladimir Putin visits the Russia Today television studio
MOSCOW, RUSSIA—June 11, 2013. Vladimir Putin visits the new Russia Today broadcasting center.

BY FEDOR KRASHENINNIKOV

The use of social media and various deceptive discourse production methods allows Vladimir Putin’s regime to address different segments of Russian society and foreign audiences with misaligned messages. Russia’s state-run media create multiple information bubbles in which Putin's image, his war’s causes and objectives, grudges against the West, and economic data look different. This approach disorients external observers and explains the difficulties in countering Russia’s propaganda.

Unlike the 20th century dictatorial regimes, Putin's regime is not bound by any clear ideological framework. Putin's own statements may contradict each other and the facts, but this does not undermine his system. For example, on the eve of the war with Ukraine, Putin publicly criticized the founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, and his policies, accusing him of ruining Russia and “creating” Ukraine. At the same time, monuments to Lenin in Russia are carefully preserved. Russia’s officials make a point of restoring similar monuments in the occupied territories of Ukraine.

If Putin's regime were ideological, this inconsistency should have caused criticism and disappointment among communists and anti-communists alike. In reality, however, Putin is supported by two opposing segments of society at once: one sees him as an ersatz tsar who is reviving the Russian Empire, while the other sees him as the heir to the Soviet leaders and the USSR.

Putin does not present himself as an unprincipled populist. Some of his supporters are elderly people for whom everything that has to do with the USSR is sacred. That is why Putin routinely resorts to familiar Soviet symbols and slogans, replacing their meaning with whatever is expedient at the moment.

For example, he has made Soviet victory in World War II the cornerstone of his propaganda; he is high priest of a quasi-religious cult of victory over Nazism. While in Soviet times the defeat of Nazism was perceived as proof of the correctness of Lenin’s teachings and the communist party leadership, under Putin it has been recast as history’s most important event for the world and for Russia. Since the Soviet Union was the “good guy” of history, its successor has the right to define who the “Nazis” are of the modern world and what states should exist within which borders. The Russian state and its media effectively treat any criticism of Putin or his foreign and domestic policies as attempts to revise the results of World War II.

Anti-Western rhetoric was inherent in the Soviet regime and therefore is quite familiar to Putin’s audience. But under the Soviet Union, it was the Marxist-Leninist theory that made Soviet approaches to government exceptional and superior to other political orders. Putin, on the other hand, has turned hatred of the West and an oppositional stance toward it into the basic value of his regime. Putin’s propagandists have reduced a lot of possible narratives to a simple chauvinistic and xenophobic formula: while Russia is always good, moral, and just, the West is always evil, immoral, and unjust. For proof, fill in the blanks: use Marxist arguments if you are a communist; nationalist arguments if you are a nationalist; religious creeds if you are a believer; and so on.

The Soviets wanted to convince the populace that the West was keen on destroying its regime for ideological and economic reasons in order to prevent Russia from achieving communism. Here, too, Putin has kept the first part of the message while dispensing with the rest of it. He keeps asking his audiences at home to take it as axiomatic that the West is keen on destroying Russia and for this reason keeps plotting against the country’s leadership. Fitting conspiracy theories are offered to the occupants of various information bubbles, and many end up buying Putin’s protean narratives rather than following those who expose him.

But can all these contradictions, lies, and manipulations be brought to light? Theoretically they can. But there is an important component of Putinism as practical policy that prevents many from seeing clearly, that turns all those mutually exclusive slogans, theories, and statements into a working means of communication. This component is hatred.

Some hate America, some hate Israel, Ukraine, Germany, or Poland. Others hate homosexuals or feminists. Putin has legitimized hatred as such, inviting his adherents to hate anyone they choose, anyone but themselves. Through political talk shows on state television, through his own smirky remarks, through the aggressive rhetoric of his entourage, Putin has made hatred a worthy and encouraged expression.

Due to its Christian roots, Western civilization has preserved love, understanding, and acceptance as legitimate forms of rhetoric. Putin, on the other hand, has effectively declared the right to hate a “traditional value,” an idea that finds eager buyers the world over. Nazism used racial reasons to justify hatred. Bolshevism used social class. Putin simply encourages everyone to hate all those who could be seen as “other,” without bothering to find excuses for hatred.

The fact that the Putin regime has no ideology in the traditional sense leads us to a practical conclusion: those subject to Putinist propaganda cannot be changed simply by providing them with truthful information or by pointing out all the falsehoods or internal contradictions in the statements of Putin or his ministers, generals, and propagandists. Each of the many Putinist information bubbles has its own truth and its own reality. Conspiracy is not refutable logically, and hatred prevents one from even listening to another’s opinion, makes any discussion impossible, and isolates the information bubbles from within.

Putin’s regime cannot be brought to a moral dead-end because it has no morals. It cannot be caught in a lie because it allows itself to lie and considers lying a legitimate combat practice. No tactical defeat in Ukraine will lead Putin's regime to a crisis, because any situation can easily be declared planned, or even victorious. Putin and his supporters have no pity for Ukrainians or Russians, so it is naive to hope that the huge losses or the gory evidence of crimes committed will overturn the regime. Even the collapse of Russia's economy under the pressure of war and sanctions does not guarantee political change. Modern history offers examples of dictators retaining power long after the collapse of their national economies.

The Putin regime will only collapse because of an obvious, clear, and crushing defeat on the battlefields of Ukraine. If the West helps Ukraine to push back the aggressor and produce such a defeat, all the hatred accumulated in Russia will turn against Putin and his regime and all the information bubbles of Putin's propaganda will pop at once.

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

Fedor Krasheninnikov

Fedor Krasheninnikov

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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