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Weissman writes: "Whether in Russia, the United States, or Timbuktu, most of us would object in principle to suppressing speech and opinion, no matter how vile. But Putin’s new law is part of a much broader effort to distort history and justify a newly assertive Russian nationalism built on autocracy, authoritarianism, and supposedly 'Christian values.'"

Vladimir Putin. (photo: Alexei Nikolsky/AP)
Vladimir Putin. (photo: Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

Why Do People Buy Putin's Propaganda?

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

26 May 14


n my last outing, I discussed two areas – Ukraine and the surveillance state – where US Intelligence looks like an oxymoronic contradiction in terms. Russia’s pro-Kremlin news site Pravda, which means Truth, published the entire article. I wonder if they will publish this one, which I had already begun writing.

In Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has claimed that Russia is primarily fighting a fascist junta in Kiev. Many friends and colleagues have repeated his propaganda as if it were true. Why such wide-eyed naïveté? Why such eagerness to cheerlead for either side?

The questions take us far beyond I.F. Stone's warning that "all governments lie." Why do so many people believe Putin’s particular pack of lies? And why do his lies pose such danger?

The beginning of an answer appeared recently in “Russia Revisits Its History to Nail Down Its Future” by Neil MacFarquhar, of The New York Times. Though I do not generally share MacFarquhar's view of the world, he described a new law signed by Putin that makes it a serious crime to rehabilitate Nazism or denigrate Russia’s record during World War II. Conviction would bring heavy fines and up to five years in jail.

Whether in Russia, the United States, or Timbuktu, most of us would object in principle to suppressing speech and opinion, no matter how vile. But Putin’s new law is part of a much broader effort to distort history and justify a newly assertive Russian nationalism built on autocracy, authoritarianism, and supposedly “Christian values.”

Most historians in Russia and the West agree that the Soviet Union’s military defeat of Hitler marked the turning point in the Second World War, as MacFarquhar notes. But, he argues, Putin and his supporters are making that hard-won victory over Nazi Germany the centerpiece of their nationalist campaign.

“The Kremlin has long enshrined the history of the war against Hitler as a heroic, collective victory,” writes MacFarquhar. “But skeptics argue that the victory itself is too often used to promote what they consider an excessive obsession with fascism abroad — vividly played out over the past two months in lurid coverage on Russian state television of the Ukraine crisis.” These are the TV broadcasts that Russian-speakers in the east and south of Ukraine regularly watch.

MacFarquhar cites a recent dustup between two Russian opinionators, Andrei Zubov and Andranik Migranyan. No one appears balanced on these issues, and most of the commentators and the journals in which they write are on someone’s political payroll, whether the Kremlin’s or Washington’s through its National Endowment for Democracy or other supposedly pro-democratic fronts.

Andrei Zubov, a critic of Putin and a widely respected historian, started the fracas by famously drawing a direct parallel between Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Adolph Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria and annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland and the Germanic Memel (or Klaipedia) area of Lithuania in 1938-39. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton have delighted in repeating the argument, never mentioning Washington’s own ambition to gain hegemony over the heartland of Eurasia. The pro-Putinistas responded with an op-ed by Andranik Migranyan, currently director of the New York office of Russia’s Institute for Democracy and Cooperation. To widespread amazement, Migranyan embraced Zudov’s parallel, but with a shocking twist.

“We should distinguish between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939, and separate chaff from grain,” he writes. “The fact is that while Hitler was gathering German lands … without a single drop of blood, Germany with Austria, Sudetenland with Germany, Memel with Germany, in effect achieving what Bismarck could not; and if Hitler stopped at that, he would be remembered in his country’s history as a politician of the highest order.”

Endorsing “a good Hitler,” Migranyan was signifying the kind of blood and soil nationalism Putin and his followers want Russia to pursue, the kind of nationalism that led Marine Le Pen and others on Europe’s hard right to turn their back on Ukraine’s neo-Fascist Svoboda Party and back Putin’s annexation of Crimea. France’s Front National and the others were, in fact, “international monitors” at the hastily-called Crimean referendum that mirrored Hitler’s use of plebiscites to claim popular support.

In other words, Putin plays a Russian version of the good, properly nationalist Hitler, and justifies it by celebrating Russia’s victory over the bad Hitler, “one of the greatest evildoers in history,” as Migranyan later clarified.

This is rich. In the eyes of many Russian historians, Putin shapes and sells much of his foreign policy to resemble the fall of the Third Reich. “No matter what the conflict,” writes MacFarquhar, “Mr. Putin’s government links itself to that 1945 victory by proclaiming that the defeat of fascism is Russia’s raison d’être.”

Now bolstered by the new law, this approach inhibits an honest discussion of one of Stalin’s most sinister acts, his August 1939 deal with Hitler to carve up between them Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. A foreseeable response to the rabid anti-communism of Western leaders like Winston Churchill, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a direct precursor of the current crisis in Ukraine. It also sounded the death knell of the anti-Fascist Republicans in Spain, whom Moscow would no long support, and it badly scarred left-wing politics in Europe and the United States.

Anyone who buys into Putin’s unending crusade against fascism needs to understand where it came from, what it hides, and where it is leading Europe’s right-wing nationalists. Defenders of Putin also need to prepare themselves for how quickly he will now make peace with “the fascist junta” in Kiev and their chocolate-flavored oligarch, Petro Poroshenko, a hero of the putsch who won election as Ukraine’s president.

Finally, we all need be more careful in how we use the word “fascist.” The right-wing nationalists and neo-liberals whom the West backed in Kiev have more fascists in government than any country in Europe and are eager to use fascist paramilitaries to terrorize their opponents. But the thugs are not the ones making the decisions. The oligarchs and their toadies run the show, along with their friends in the West, and we will make a more persuasive case against them if we acknowledge the distinction.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

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