Editor’s note: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had tragic consequences for the Ukrainian people, and the wider ramifications of the conflict are only beginning to be understood. As the West imposes economic sanctions on Russia, the country is facing a period of isolation unseen since the Cold War. Here, acclaimed Russian novelist and journalist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of the sci-fi novel series Metro 2033, writes about how Russian propaganda has taken hold of his fellow countrymen. He is based in Europe. The column is translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz.
Russia’s state-controlled media would have you believe that its army is conducting a special operation to de-Nazify Ukraine, liberating Kharkov, Mariupol, and Nikolaev from Nazi battalions. The operation is going according to plan, they say, and would already have been brought to a victorious conclusion had the Nazi fighters not taken civilians hostage. These Nazi fighters are blowing up apartment buildings and hospitals, along with Ukrainian women and children, so that they can blame the Russian troops for everything — because otherwise the flow of money and arms into the country from the West will stop.
And by the way, Russia did not attack Ukraine but was forced to make a preemptive strike because, six hours later, Ukraine would have attacked first. Additionally, Kyiv was developing an atomic bomb to use against Moscow, and in secret laboratories in Ukraine, Americans were creating weaponized coronavirus strains that would only affect Russians and be spread by migratory birds. And generally, Ukraine is nothing but a battlefield between Russia and the U.S. where the fate of the future world order is being decided.
How can anyone believe drivel that completely distorts reality, passing black off as white? How can anyone call the obvious aggressor a peacemaker when there is overwhelming evidence of the aggression?
Nonetheless, these are exactly the ravings that constitute Russia’s official position. And yes, many in Russia believe them.
A deep divide runs through millions of families. The older generation accepts what looks like a photographic negative of the world, arguing until they’re hoarse with their young relatives for whom the lying is obvious.
Putin’s propaganda has proven incredibly effective, so how do we explain this? Is it down to the gullibility of the Russian TV viewer? It’s not like Russia doesn’t have the Internet, where anyone can find the truth about the war in Ukraine and anyone who wants to can look the truth in the eye.
To admit that Russian troops are bombing Ukrainian cities and destroying hospitals and schools is to admit that ordinary Russians are complicit
But the truth about the war is being eradicated by every means possible. If you search for news about Ukraine in Russia, you won’t see the word “war” at all. Publishing those three simple letters has become a punishable act, with a maximum 15 years in prison for “spreading information that impugns the actions of the Russian army.” Even Novaya Gazeta, which was just awarded the Nobel Peace Price for its honesty and steadfastness, has been forced to strike the word “war” from its headlines, while other critical outlets that don’t fall under state control have simply been banned or blocked. Russian citizens are increasingly being sealed in a hermetic environment with no access to the truth.
This is not the only problem. Videos of bombings and photographs of the wounded and dead are seeping through the censorship membrane, but the facts, photos and witness videos turn out not to matter. It turns out they can be ignored, doubt can be cast on them, or they can be given another explanation—by being placed in a diametrically opposed narrative.
My country hasn’t had a triumph since the victory in the Great Patriotic War (as we call that part of World War II that affected the Soviet Union) and Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space. People have had no reason to take pride in their homeland.
“Ideologues And PR Men”
Horrific sacrifices were made during that Great Patriotic victory, at least 20 million people perished, and there were victims in literally every family. Putin’s ideologues and PR men have decided to turn this into the source of their legitimacy.
The absolute majority of Russians have been stripped of rights and are helpless in the face of the state, and so they have been inculcated with the consciousness not of a citizen but of a loyal subject. People have a tremendous need for elementary self-respect, for a sense of their own worth, but the Putin regime rests precisely on suppressing human worth, on political apathy and a sense of learned helplessness. Instead, they foist on people imperial chauvinism, which they pass off as patriotism.
The regime is incapable of improving the life of Russians, which has been deteriorating for many years, and the people are unhappy and embittered, poor and scared.
Yet now, people’s lives have a sense of purpose. Moreover, propaganda is making the West’s consolidated response to the Russian invasion appear out of context and serving it up as aggression by the U.S. and its allies.
Russian citizens are increasingly being sealed up in a hermetic environment with no access to the truth.
Attempting to change the minds of people who have decided to believe in the truth of the “special operation” in Ukraine is incredibly difficult. After all, in order to admit that Russian troops are bombing Ukrainian cities and destroying hospitals and schools, that Ukrainian women and children are perishing at their hands, is to admit that ordinary Russians are complicit. It means losing nearly the only buttress keeping you from falling wholly into existential darkness, from losing yourself. Admitting the reality means losing the confidence that you are a good person and accepting guilt and responsibility for complicity in an unjust war. It requires courage of a completely different level, because it either pushes you out of your home into a desperate and most likely doomed struggle, or forces you to admit your own cowardice.
Putin’s propaganda has lured us into a dreadful trap. Having snagged us on the hook of resentment and imperial nostalgia, having given us a sense of participation in a great historic mission, that propaganda is in fact making my people complicit in war crimes. And the more the blood flows, the more difficult it will be for people to believe the truth without losing themselves completely.
Nonetheless, I am confident that a different moment will come and this is what the Kremlin fears.
In the modern world, you can’t block the truth. Sooner or later, the thousands of Russian soldiers killed in the Ukrainian war will return home in zinc coffins. Tens of thousands will arrive from the front and tell their families that they weren’t fighting Nazis, they were fighting a people we once called our brothers. One day, millions of Ukrainians who have fled their homes and those who have lost loved ones will call their relatives in Russia and tell them how it all was.
A terrible price for simply believing the reality. But I want to believe that one day we will find the strength in ourselves to look the truth in the eye.
Dmitry Glukhovsky is a journalist andauthor of the sci-fi novel series Metro 2033. He has worked for a number of publications including Russian state-controlled news channel RT. Of his time at RT, he told Deadline: “This was 17 years ago – and long before RT, together with all other Russian TV, turned into the blunt propaganda that it is now.”
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