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"Soviet book syndrome": Why Russian propaganda works

A pro-Kremlin activist standing by his mock Russian missile reading "Let's program it again to target Washington", in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, April 14, 2023
A pro-Kremlin activist standing by his mock Russian missile reading "Let's program it again to target Washington", in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, April 14, 2023 Copyright Dmitri Lovetsky/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Dmitri Lovetsky/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Euronews
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'Soviet Book Syndrome' - How the Kremlin is playing on the past to exploit citizens' fears and sell its justification for the invasion of Ukraine

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In the West, the war in Ukraine is perceived as aggressive, invasive and accompanied by numerous crimes against humanity and initially, some Russians openly shared similar sentiments.

Anti-war protests in the country were relatively prominent in the first months after the full-scale invasion began but then died down rather quickly. Many citizens see what is happening as a just war against the 'collective West' which is exactly what Putin wants them to think.

"The Soviet era played a huge role in 'unteaching' people how to think for themselves and be critical," explained Evgeniya Pyatovskaya, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida. "So people didn't have time to learn how to be critical thinkers, how to be independent thinkers. They didn't have time to realise that you can question those in power and that this is normal."

In addition, contemporary Russian propaganda is strikingly different from Soviet propaganda. Although it uses much of the same traditional ideology, the technical approach is completely different - so even if there is experience of countering Soviet propaganda, it doesn't necessarily work against the current Kremlin narrative.

"Modern propaganda in Russia is in many ways more effective than Soviet propaganda," Anton Shirikov, a Political Scientist at Columbia University told Euronews. "Among other things, it takes into account that people can get information from different sources, and it tries to present a picture, not the one that would necessarily benefit the authorities, but the one that the citizens themselves would like to see."

The Soviet era played a huge role in 'unteaching' people how to think for themselves and be critical
Evgeniya Pyatovskaya doctoral student at the University of South Florida
Doctoral student at the University of South Florida

According to experts Euronews spoke to, it's possible many Russians don't fall for the state propaganda, they simply fear to express their position because they're scared of repercussions and persecution.

But it is not only fear that is preventing Russian citizens from speaking out. It's also disappointment and apathy. Disillusionment with the Soviet regime as well as the so-called democracy in the 1990s has shaped Russia's apoliticism, especially as many think the war doesn't affect them.

"The situation appears to be that a significant part of the citizens - majority or not, it's hard to say - don't want war," explained Shirikov. 

"But at the same time, they don't care enough about the war that they actively oppose it."

Soviet Book Syndrome

The 1990s were a huge disappointment for the citizens of Russia (as well as many other former Soviet republics). Many found themselves on the brink of poverty, while a few openly demonstrated wealth and status in society.

This is where the 'Soviet Book Syndrome' manifested itself: Russian citizens, who had until recently been Soviet, saw in their surroundings the real embodiment of the image of 'decadent capitalism' that Soviet propaganda had been presenting to them for decades, something they had read about in Soviet books and newspapers: 'unscrupulous businessmen', 'corrupt police', 'corrupt media', 'stolen wealth', the enormous gap between the rich and the poor - all clichés that people had only recently stopped believing, considering them Soviet fabrications, suddenly became, in their minds, harsh realities.

when people keep repeating this to each other for years, hearing it from each other, then, of course, they start to believe it themselves
Anton Shirikov Political Scientist at Columbia University
Political Scientist at Columbia University

Do the Russian leaders themselves believe what the propaganda is so actively ingraining in the minds of their citizens? Experts say that, at least for now, they do: years of repeating the same ideologies could not go unnoticed.

"It's hard to imagine that a man who served in the KGB and fought against the West and capitalism, didn't take anything out of it," says Shirikov. "It seems to me that other people close to Putin had similar ideas as well,” he continued.

 “But, of course, initially, when Putin's reign began, they had a very pragmatic approach, and these ideas, if there were any, were not on the surface. But gradually, when people keep repeating this to each other for years, hearing it from each other, then, of course, they start to believe it themselves."

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