Putin’s propaganda machine was laid bare for all to see last month with the return of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny, after recovering from nerve agent poisoning. The Kremlin initially refrained from commenting on the activist, however as his video detailing Putin’s Black Sea palace was released and protests in support of him erupted across Russia, he was quickly depicted as a Western puppet, playing on old fears of Russia’s Cold War rivals. He was later charged with slandering a veteran of the Second World War, more commonly known as the Great Patriotic War in Russia. The defence against Nazi invasion occupies a venerated place in the minds of Russians, dating back to Stalinist propaganda. To slander a veteran would be to slander Russia’s sacrifices in the war as a whole. It is therefore, unsurprising Putin deployed this particular tactic against his adversary.
Throughout Putin’s time in power, he has often deployed a nostalgic form of Russian history to construct a narrative which strengthens his grip on power and maintains his popularity among the Russian public. He attempts to mirror the conditions of Russia in times when it was a global power— mostly through imitating the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. Through this, he stokes a Russian nationalism embarrassed at its nation losing its former ‘glory’ and desperate to regain it. A poll in 2018 showed 66% of Russians regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union and a poll in 2020 showed that 75% of Russians believed the USSR was the greatest time in their country’s history. Rather than facing the bleak reality of decline, Putin’s rule seemingly offers a restoration of former glory and a return to better days. By masquerading Russia as a global power, Putin attempts to distract the public from ongoing economic decline.
This public nostalgia therefore brings the USSR to the forefront of Putin’s propaganda campaign. Russian history textbooks were remade to display the USSR in a positive and idealised light, the Soviet national anthem was reinstated. The Patriotic War was especially capitalised on, the 2020 constitutional changes went so far as to ban ‘belittling’ of Russia’s feats in the Second World War and to ‘protect the historical truth’ of the war, essentially outlawing any narratives of the war contrary to the state-sanctioned line.
Russia’s foreign policy also reflects a desire to return to the days of the USSR. Involvement in Syria harks back to Soviet interference in Afghanistan. Annexation of parts of Crimea and Georgia portray Russia as reclaiming former lands lost since the dissolution of the USSR. The poisoning of dissidents in the UK and apparent interference in US elections are reminiscent of the days of espionage against the West.
Perhaps the most important utilisation of the USSR’s legacy is in rhetoric surrounding the West— the Other, the ever-looming threat during the Cold War. Putin plays on old Cold War mentalities by constantly depicting his adversaries as either Western or in league with the West. A dichotomy is therefore created where Putin is the defender of Russian values and stability against his opponents, who are dangerous Western puppets. Navalny, rather than being an anti-corruption activist, is a Western pawn bent on destabilising Russia. Any criticism of Putin’s regime is quickly deemed Western propaganda, calling into the question the good will of the critics.
In all of these instances, Putin is essentially creating an image of himself which capitalises on nationalistic feelings surrounding Russian history and uses this to target his opponents and perpetuate his rule. Putin cannot be criticised, for doing so would be to criticise the Great Patriotic War, the USSR, and stability itself.
Recently, Putin’s rule has appeared more shaky, especially after his dismal coronavirus response. Moreover, this year will mark 30 years since the USSR fell. A new generation, with no memory of Russia as a global superpower, is less susceptible to Putin’s use of history: the Soviet national anthem brings up no memories, nor does linking Navalny with the West diminish their support of him. A simple look at the make-up of the Navalny campaign shows all that you need to know. Navalny himself is positioned as an opposite to Putin’s authoritarianism, he engages with his audience primarily on social media, where protests and campaigning are also organised. News reports show the protestors as young and eager for change. History is an effective tool for such authoritarians, but insofar as there is any real connection to that history in the present. As the old Soviet generation will soon start to dwindle in number, that connection is lost, and the propaganda of those authoritarians loses appeal.
Jonas Balkus, History in Politics Contributor