Inside Russia’s forever war with the West

  • Themes: Russia

Russian media propagates a militaristic vision of national identity at odds with a malicious West: but where does this story come from?

Young people hold portraits of people who died in Ukraine between 2014 and 2022, during the Immortal Regiment march marking the 77th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on Tverskaya street in central Moscow, Russia.
Young people hold portraits of people who died in Ukraine between 2014 and 2022, during the Immortal Regiment march marking the 77th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on Tverskaya street in central Moscow, Russia. Credit: Nikolay Vinokurov/Alamy Live News Contributor: Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo

Subtitled images of shouty Russian television hosts threatening hellfire or Sarmat missiles on the West have become a social media mainstay. The breakneck speed with which claims of killer mosquitoes have replaced bioweapon pigeons has led many (outside and inside Russia) to ridicule pro-Kremlin propaganda as arbitrary nonsense.

Yet while the ‘firehose of falsehood’ model is an undeniable feature of pro-Kremlin television, it can also draw attention away from Russian propaganda’s more consistent and resonant master narratives, namely: Russia needs a strong state; Russia has a special path of development; Russia is a messianic great power; the West wants to destroy Russia; Russians have a superior grasp of their own culture and history.

These core messages do not simply coexist among the chaos, they depend on and are strengthened by the cacophony.

By unleashing so many confusing and confused narratives at once, often in a performatively manipulative way, the Russian media bamboozles people. Capitalising on distrust, the Kremlin and its media assistants persuade audiences that it is not possible to know the truth – about a specific topic or just in general.

When human beings believe nothing can be trusted, though, we will still require supporting criteria through which to parse the world and evaluate events. We create this interpretative framework out of memories and emotions that we understand on an instinctive level, such as national identity. It is easy to feel that this ‘intuitive’ knowledge is safe from manipulation, but that is deceptive. Rather, this is where the state-aligned domestic Russian propaganda excels itself. Since 2012, the Kremlin has funded, co-opted, and coerced a large number of societal, political and cultural organisations with an eye on propagating a militaristic vision of a resurgent messianic Russian identity at odds with the malicious West.

This vision populates the media, political discourse and popular culture – especially films, public history, and television series. Many Russians, as in any country, will approach these ‘softer’ products with a less critical eye; yet, this content helps to reinforce the very cultural tropes on which audiences, disoriented by the cacophonous news, rely on to understand the world around them.

The deceptively propagandistic nature of popular culture is just one of many reasons why Russians who insist they never watch state television still use its motifs, tropes and catchphrases. Another reason is that the resonance of the master-narratives comes from their rootedness in Russian intellectual history and emotional power; the state-aligned ‘creative industries’ draw heavily on the ubiquitous memory of the 1941-1945 Soviet war against Nazism, or Great Patriotic War. Over the last two decades, both Kremlin-funded and grassroots organisations have worked to embed the Great Patriotic War within the everyday fabric of Russian life, spanning popular culture, leisure activities, education, media, even tourism and stationery. This includes Second World War theme parks and ‘preserver of history’ summer camps, where young Russians learn how to wage online information warfare against the falsifiers of (Kremlin-approved) ‘historical truth’.

Such activities were an answer to Vladimir Putin’s 2012 speech where he called on civil society to create ‘living forms of patriotism’. The newly-created projects focused on militaristic notions of patriotism, like the fascistic Yunarmiya (Young Army) and Russia’s great military past.

Organisations like the Russian Historical Society (headed by the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergey Naryshkin) and the Russian Military Historical Society (chaired by former Minister of Culture and committed mythomaniac Vladimir Medinsky) have played a formative role in propagating myths of Russian greatness alongside denigration of Ukraine and the West. Many of their products are aimed at mass audiences, targeted using all manner of Second World War-era murals, Tsarist-themed stationery ranges, blockbuster films, and accessible online history portals.

In just seven years, the Russian Military Historical Society contributed to 600 documentaries and films for state television and general broadcast, the majority of which focused on the Second World War. Some of the television content was written by the politicians directly, as with the First (TV) Channel documentary series Myths about Russia, taken from Medinsky’s book, which claims – at length – that any historical or current reference to Russian drunkenness, cruelty, imperialism and backwardness belongs to a Western plot to malign Russia’s true history and brainwash Russians into hating their own country.

To an outsider, these claims and counterclaims suggest an enervating insecurity. This insecurity may well be part of Russians’ – and all peoples’ – basic human desire to belong to a group, to be part of something bigger and older, that tells an origin story, to feel rooted somewhere in time and in space.

Historical preoccupations are an obsession common to national identity, where the peoples of a nation construct their identity with recourse to the past, using it to plot a tale of who and what they are and how they got here. The Russian state has manipulated this cultural memory, but it did not create the grievances, glories or hopes out of thin air. It worked with media partners and memory makers to adapt pre-existing myths. The Putinist cult of the Great Patriotic War is unthinkable without the Brezhnev era’s neo-Stalinist commemorative rituals. Russia’s special path – the ‘russkii mir’ – use a nineteenth century Slavophile vocabulary.

If we look ahead to a future Russia, perhaps without war, perhaps without Putin, these master narratives, underpinning a sense of group, if not always national, identity, may prove hard to dislodge. Any such effort will need to shift focus from fact-checking apps and ‘disinformation’ to considering identity construction – including the potential for identity reconstruction.

These are important, if slightly impossible, questions to answer. If Russia’s current autobiography has inspired the preponderance of aggression, fatalism, and solipsism that fuels and facilitates its soldiers’ war on Ukraine, then is there another way for Russians to create a more constructive story of who they are and where they come from? One that doesn’t rely on controlling Ukraine or privileging a loose sense of national honour over national interests? How might potential opposition leaders devise a national story into which ordinary Russians wish to inscribe themselves? These same questions plague many, perhaps all, other countries. There is no easy answer, so we might at least start by asking the right questions.


Jade McGlynn