international analysis and commentary

A state of mind: how conspiracy theories became the Kremlin’s ideology

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Does Vladimir Putin believe in a Western conspiracy to destroy Russia? Does he think, as he recently declared, that “NATO is like Nazism” and that “German tanks are once more threatening Russia”?

If Putin’s mind remains a mystery, we know that most Russians hold these assertions to be true. Anti-Western propaganda has been around for a while. According to the US-based Pew Research Center, between 2008 and 2015, the number of Russians with a positive opinion of Germany dropped from 77% to 35%. Russian public opinion analysis center VZIOM reveals that the proportion of Russians harboring anti-American feelings rose from 32% in 2012 to 71% in 2022. The number of Russians supporting the “special military operation” in Ukraine is estimated at 70% to 80%, even if these numbers should be taken with a dose of skepticism, as in all illiberal regimes.[1]

This is how Putin presented the challenge facing Russia about one year after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine: They have one goal: to destroy the former Soviet Union and its main component, the Russian Federation. They will eventually accept us into their so-called “club of developed nations”, but only divided into bits […]  to subjugate all these parts […] and take control over them […] I don’t even know if Russians as an ethnic group will continue to exist […]. All this has been planned […], everything has been written on paper… (Vladimir Putin, 27 February 2023)

 

How were such fear and hatred for the West generated?

One partial answer might come from another May 2022 VZIOM survey showing that more than one in three Russians believe in conspiracy theories – the most popular being those involving the negative influence of the West. The percentage grows to one in two amongst people older than 65 (49%) and those who actively watch television (48%).

Conspiracy theories exist all over the world, but Russia is a particular case. According to researcher Ilya Yablokov,[2] the difference is related to Russia’s autocratic structure. If conspiracy theories in the West develop from the bottom and express a generic mistrust for the ruling elites, in Putin’s Russia they are imposed on the population by the ruling elites and become an instrument to impose the Kremlin’s narrative.

 

The golden billion

The concept of the “golden billion” originated in the USSR in the 1970s, as a Malthusian theory on the risks of Earth’s overpopulation: the world had resources for no more than one billion people. In the 1990s, taking advantage of people’s resentment towards the shocking effects of liberalism on the Russian economy, the writer Anatoly Tsikunov[3] and the nationalist thinker Sergey Kara-Murza reinterpreted it as a liberal global conspiracy against Russia.[4] The golden billion was associated with the wealthy Western elites, eager to put their hands on Russia’s immense natural resources. According to this narrative, the new “colonialism” was being allowed and encouraged by the Russian liberal politicians of the 1990s.

Forgotten for a while, the theory made a comeback during Putin’s second term, when a fake quote from former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was popularized, according to which Siberia’s natural resources should not belong to Russia. According to Novaya Gazeta, the quote has been popular since 2007, when Major General Boris Ratnikov claimed that he “stole” this thought from Albright’s subconscious. This did not stop Russian elites from repeatedly referring to it, allowing it to spread on social networks.

After the latest invasion of Ukraine, the “golden billion” has often been quoted by Russian top officials. In an interview with the daily newspaper Argumenty i fakty published in May 2022, the Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev said that “[b]y hiding behind words such as the struggle for human rights, freedom and democracy, they are actually applying the doctrine of the ‘golden billion’, which assumes that only a limited number of people can prosper in this world.”

At the June 2022 economic forum in St. Petersburg, Putin said that “the countries that are part of the so-called golden billion consider all the rest as their periphery (…) as before, they look at other countries as colonies, and consider other people as second-class people.”

In September 2022, Sergei Lavrov, in turn, referred to the “extreme political and economic pressure, even to the point of outright blackmail” on those who would rebel against the plans of the golden billion.

After personally benefiting from two decades of revenues generated by the export of Russian natural resources to the West, Russian elites blame the West for wanting Russia’s resources.

 

American bio-laboratories in Ukraine

A few days after the invasion, the Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson Igor Konachenkov reported the existence of a number of secret American bio-laboratories in Ukraine. “The purpose of this and other Pentagon-funded biological research in Ukraine was to create a mechanism for the clandestine spread of deadly pathogens,” including COVID-19.

New virus, usual plot: from 1945 to 1991, the Soviet Union launched 13 disinformation campaigns,[5] denouncing the existence of several American biological laboratories, where Washington allegedly created bacteriological weapons to attack the communist world, through infected insects or other animals.  Back in 1949,  Soviet authorities declared that the Americans dropped from military airplanes the Colorado beetle onto the Warsaw Pact’s countries. This harmful striped insect was the perfect weapon as the US wanted to destroy agriculture and starve the population in communist countries.

“A mission from the White House”. The Colorado Beetle is seen next to the President of the USA, also represented as a beetle (1950) © Борис Ефимов / propagandahistory.ru

 

At the time of the Korean War (1950-1953), Moscow joined the Chinese propaganda in accusing Washington of having used a bacteriological bomb with infected mosquitoes created in a laboratory. In the 1980s, Russian propaganda accused the Americans of dangerous AIDS experiments in Pakistan through the Indian press. With the end of the Cold War, the theory had almost disappeared: Only 31 articles on bio-laboratories were written in 1995. As tensions with the West increased, so did the attention on the subject: During the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, Russia claimed that American biolabs were operating in Georgia. In 2022, the number of publications on the subject was 92,000.

 

The promise of NATO non-expansion

Another “proof” of the West’s plans to destroy Russia holds that Western leaders promised Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand eastward. Among others, the Paris-based Conspiracy Watch reported Gorbachev’s words denying that such a promise ever took place, even if he lamented that little attention was devoted to Russia’s interests. That said, the very concept of “promise” is rather naïve in the world of international relations, especially since the USSR no longer exists and the geopolitical situation has changed radically since 1991.

If there is a broken “promise”, that is the Budapest Memorandum, guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, signed, among others, by the Russian Federation in 1994. In fact, during his first term, Putin spoke of NATO’s enlargement as a secondary fact, even in the Ukrainian case. In 2002, he declared, “I am absolutely convinced that Ukraine will not shy away from the processes of expanding interaction with NATO and the Western allies as a whole. Ukraine has its own relations with NATO; there is the Ukraine-NATO Council. At the end of the day the decision [on Ukraine joining NATO] is to be made by NATO and Ukraine. It is a matter for those two partners.”[6]

The point was, instead, that growing internal repression over the years implied the redirection of public opinion towards an external enemy: NATO became the symbol of a rapacious and decadent West, whose objective was to harm Russia. This narrative was uncritically embraced by global anti-American and anti-liberal political forces, particularly far-left and far-right parties in Europe.[7] The idea that NATO is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine is recurring in all public and private debate about the war. The West’s responsibilities in not being able to contain Russia will have to be assessed by historians, but something is already evident: NATO is not a threat to Russia, but to Russian imperialism.

 

Old themes, new means

Moscow’s anti-Western propaganda dusted off Soviet conspiracy theories, adapting them to current events. Social networks give the Kremlin the power to rapidly influence world public opinion, something that Soviet propagandists could only dream of. The global reach of the Wagner Group’s disinformation campaign has only recently been discovered.

Russian state media and fake accounts have systematically disinformed key countries in the West and the Global South, fostering anti-Western feelings and promoting Russian narrative on contested issues. State funded global news channel Russia Today (RT) used COVID -19 to divide Western societies by deliberately ignoring scientific results: While criticizing those who refused to be vaccinated inside Russia, RT  encouraged the anti-vaccine front in European countries.

Given the variety of conspiracy theories, it is difficult to determine their impact on peoples’ minds. No matter how one feels about them, they can activate skepticism about any information, including what is real. The idea that facts are not accessible because a group of people is deliberately hiding reality from the masses, generates apathy and creates the perfect soil for Russian propaganda to work. The truth is easily distorted, the aggressor becomes the victim, people hate the West and support the Kremlin as Russia’s survival as a civilization is at stake.

An old Soviet joke comes to mind:

“You know, they built a memorial to George Orwell in Russia.”

“Where?”

“Pretty much everywhere.”

 

 


Footnotes:

[1] Results from Levada Center, published on 23 December 2022, data available at https://www.levada.ru/2022/12/23/konflikt-s-ukrainoj-otsenki-dekabrya-2022-goda/

[2] Author of “Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in Post-Soviet Russia”, Polity Press (2018)

[3] Author of “The Plot of World Government: Russia and the Golden Billion” Zagovor mirovogo pravitel’stva: Rossiia i “zolotoi milliard”, (1994)

[4] For more information on Soviet and post-Soviet conspiracy theories, see Borenstein, E. “Plots Against Russia Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism”, Cornell University Press (2019)

[5] According to Russian folklore expert Alexandra Arkhipova, interview available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=b4b1BxJSn6A

[6] From the Kremlin’s Official Website: http://www.en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/21598

[7] A. Klapsis, “An Unholy Alliance: The European Far Right and Putin’s Russia”, European View, Vol. 14, June 2015, p. 137 and Raimondo Lanza, “Putin’s Friends? The Complex Balance Inside Italy’s Far-Right Government Coalition”, Briefings de l’Ifri, Ifri, 28 November 2022.