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Not Just Putin
The ideology behind the Ukraine War lies deep in Russian society.
Nobody who devotes their life to studying a country ever wants to write about how the same culture and history that fascinates them are also crucial elements of public support for a genocidal war of conquest. But understanding how Russians view the war is crucial to understanding why and how the war is being waged, what might end it (and what won’t), and what conditions may well remain in Russia should the war end.
There has been an attempt, not least among policymakers, to regard the war as “Putin’s War” rather than as “Russia’s,” but this misses the essentially compliant nature of how propaganda is consumed in today’s Russia. Opposition media was officially banned only in March 2022, and yet few chose to follow it before then. Though state-directed, most television channels rely on advertising revenue. Russia’s 40 million Telegram users can access almost any news they want—including foreign and opposition—yet, the overwhelming majority of the most popular political channels are pro-war.
Propaganda in the 21st century is very different from in the 20th. Putin’s Russia isn’t the Soviet Union. In a contemporary state, no matter how authoritarian, it is very difficult and costly to completely eliminate critical sources. Instead, the system is discreetly rigged. The preponderance of information is state-directed. Limited access to criticism exists but can actually be beneficial to the propaganda system as a whole—providing a sense of legitimacy and media plurality without challenging the cumulative effects of pro-Kremlin narratives. And, although Russian news can appear confusing and contradictory, outlets are often working in concert and it is easy to identify consistent master narratives: the West is using Ukraine to destroy Russia; Ukraine is not a real country; Russia is a great power defending itself and the world from nefarious actors.
The worldviews that inform these arguments depend on assertions of Russian greatness and Western perfidy. Such myths predate Putin’s era, but the state has created greater supply of, and demand for, them through its use of propaganda, youth indoctrination efforts, and appropriation of popular culture.
The first pivotal “emotion” in Russian socio-political culture is a sense of aggrieved victimhood from the depredations and degradations experienced during the 1990s, after the United States purportedly destroyed the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has skilfully blended traumatic personal experiences of poverty, diminished social status, and disillusionment with a broader narrative of national humiliation and insecurity. This is how sanctions on Russia in 2014 come to be perceived not as a reaction to Russian aggression against Ukraine but rather as evidence that the West, fuelled by a reckless and baseless Russophobia, was trying to destroy Russia yet again.
The second core emotion is one of betrayal, closely connected to a fear of Ukrainian identity. In Russian popular culture, there are two types of Ukrainians: Russian-speaking cheeky sidekicks and bad Ukrainian-speakers who hate anything Russian. The latter stereotype is increasingly used to denote anyone who wants their country to exist independently of Russia.
Such presentations mine historical reference points, including Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s decision to side with Sweden over Russia in the 1709 Battle of Poltava. Since 2014, Russian media has traced Ukraine’s “betrayal” of big brother Russia to Mazepa, with one 2022 headline casting the current war as the “Ukraine of Mazepa versus the Ukraine of Pushkin.”
Another popular historical reference is Nazi collaborationism among some anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalists during WWII. Patriotic Ukrainians are frequently derided as “banderovtsy,” or followers of wartime nationalist Stepan Bandera, in the media, on television, even in specially-created soap operas. In the early days of the invasion, a senior Russian military commander even claimed the “enemy is using so-called Banderomobiles” for transport. The absurdity of the claim and the term launched a thousand memes and even more “banderomobile” bumper stickers in Ukraine. While Ukrainians’ ability to maintain a sense of humor is laudable, there is little funny about these excessive and incorrect analogies. In the Kremlin’s language, denazification means nothing less than the destruction of Ukrainian-ness, as Kremlin propagandists have made clear.
Russia’s need to control and/or destroy Ukraine is also fuelled by a third sentiment: self-regarding insecurity. Under Boris Yeltsin, post-Soviet Russia struggled, without success, to articulate a coherent vision of Russian identity shorn of great power status. In the last decade under Putin, historical myth has fulfilled this function, with particular care given to curating a Russified rendition of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War (the USSR’s fight against Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945).
Organizations like the Russian Historical Society, whose president is the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, and the Russian Military Historical Society have set up country-wide networks of WWII-focused children’s clubs and summer camps that instill the “correct” interpretation of the Soviet victory. These entities, along with the government, are also preoccupied with presenting Russia as the sole heir to the ancient polity of Kyivan Rus—even going so far as to remove references to Kyiv from history textbooks. Ukraine’s insistence on contradicting Russian cultural memory by writing its own national autobiography undermines the historical narratives the Russian state and society have woven to legitimize autocracy and imperialism.
The deployment of narratives that feed on, and feed, popular senses of victimhood, of insecure innate greatness, and of betrayal ensure much of the Russian population’s acquiescence to, if not especially enthusiastic support for, the war. They also make it hard to visualize an end to Russian designs on Ukraine. Informed by the same stereotypes he seeks to perpetuate, Putin’s sense of historical justice convinces him he has the right to Ukraine, that the morally decadent and hypocritical West lacks his strategic patience, and that Ukrainians, who have no real agency, can be quelled into submission.
But Vladimir Putin is not the only one to express this type of worldview. He is, in many ways, a product of Russian mythmaking as much as he is the instigator of it. After all, polling over three decades shows that Russians profess an aggressive form of patriotism, Soviet nostalgia, and pride in the past. For instance, a Levada Center poll in 2017 found that 58% of surveyed Russians “regretted the collapse” of the Soviet Union while only 26% did not. And, in another poll of Russians from the same year, Josef Stalin was named “the most outstanding person in world history,” narrowly eclipsing Vladimir Lenin, Peter the Great, and Putin himself.
These emotions and preferences will likely outlive Putin. Many variations of these war-fuelling myths can be found even among those Russians who opposed the war or don’t support it. Such Russocentric stances draw on a widespread insistence of the primacy of Russian victimhood.
This need ties into narratives abounding on Russian social media that ordinary Russians are the victims of an out-of-touch elite who—depending on whom you read—have launched a disastrous state-weakening war or whose luxurious privileges render them incapable of successfully prosecuting the war. As Russia’s war falters, “patriotic” variations on such arguments have become more prevalent as a way of explaining the Russian army’s military shortcomings in Ukraine.
Increasingly, the tendency to treat Russia as an eternal victim results in an attempt to save Russia’s reputation from itself. If or when Russians are left to confront the burden of the many heinous atrocities committed in their country’s name, it is easy to envisage a scenario where an enduring sense of victimhood, a natural desire to “externalize” atrocities, and a need for something, anything, to feel proud about ends up leading to a less-than-total reckoning.
If we only look at the Kremlin’s lies, and not why people want to believe them, we will fail to identify the sources of propaganda’s emotive power—and of other, future, types of political messaging, in Russia and beyond. At the very least, we need to acknowledge the demand, without pandering to it, because the need for comforting stories won’t simply cease to exist, even when Putin does.
Jade McGlynn is a research fellow in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. She is the author of Russia’s War, released earlier this year.
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