Propaganda is the only thing that Putin’s regime can do well. For a long time, it was extremely successful in its information war against the West, spreading disinformation to create distrust and exploiting the internal tensions in democratic societies (see this excellent book by Nina Jankowicz). Although it is more difficult for the Kremlin to run its propaganda show now, some successes are still booked. There are rumours, for example, that Russia was behind the recent Quran-burning event in Sweden that threatens Sweden’s accession to NATO.
Today I want to discuss how Putin cynically misuses the language of progressive forces for his own purposes. When speaking about his vision of the “multipolar” world (which is not multipolar at all, as I argue here), he presents himself as a champion of diversity and equality, and a fighter against racism and neo-colonialism:
The multipolar world of the 21st century does not have a place for inequality or for discrimination against states and peoples. Therefore, our country speaks for the practical realisation of the pivotal international legal principle of the sovereign equality of states and the right of each state to pursue its own development model.Address to participants of 10th St Petersburg International Legal Forum, June 30 2022. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/68785.
The contrast between this statement and Russia’s internal politics could not be more striking. Under Putin’s rule Russia has become extremely conservative and authoritarian. The LGBT culture has been de facto criminalised. The only diversity that is promoted is the existence of major traditional religions, while others are persecuted. Countries that protect human rights are mocked and ridiculed:
If the Western elites believe they can have their people and their societies embrace what I believe are strange and trendy ideas like dozens of genders or gay pride parades, so be it. Let them do as they please. But they certainly have no right to tell others to follow in their steps.Valdai International Discussion Club meeting, October 27 2022. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69695.
To reconcile his authoritarian politics with diversity and equality, Putin performs one simple trick. He only speaks about equality and diversity at the level of states and nations, not at the level of individuals. For fascist thinking, which subordinates individual interests to the good of the nation, this is perfectly logical. As a result, a sort of macabre “wokeness” emerges, which serves Putin’s political purposes very nicely.
Let us look at more examples. Diversity is good, but only at the level of states:
The loss of biodiversity is one of the most dangerous consequences of disrupting the environmental balance. This brings me to the key point all of us have gathered here for. Is it not equally important to maintain cultural, social, political and civilisational diversity?Valdai International Discussion Club meeting, October 27 2022. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69695.
Diversity in this sense means that all countries should be allowed to live in accordance with their “traditional values”, including Iran, Afghanistan or North Korea. They should be free to maintain their identity. But some identities are more equal than others. The Russian cultural and historical identity is perfectly natural and worth preserving. However, the Ukrainian identity is artificial and created by the forces hostile to Russia:
Prior to World War I, the countries that were preparing to fight Russia began forming the idea of Ukrainian identity. This is natural. By destabilizing its potential enemy, they tried to split it up and take part of it. This idea was embraced and developed. June 7 2019Plenary session of St Petersburg International Economic Forum, June 7 2019. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/60707
Another part of the progressive narrative appropriated by Putin is the neo-colonialism of the West:
Western countries have been saying for centuries that they bring freedom and democracy to other nations. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of bringing democracy they suppressed and exploited, and instead of giving freedom they enslaved and oppressed. The unipolar world is inherently anti-democratic and unfree; it is false and hypocritical through and through.Signing of treaties on accession of Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and Zaporozhye and Kherson regions to Russia, September 30. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69465.
Although there is some truth in this, no one should be mislead to thinking that Putin is interested in other countries’ liberation from the neo-colonial yoke. His actual goal is to justify his imperialist war in Ukraine by pointing at NATO’s sins.
Putin denounces racism, too. Conveniently, any opposition to Russia’s aggression is racism for him:
We have never agreed to and will never agree to such political nationalism and racism. What else, if not racism, is the Russophobia being spread around the world?Signing of treaties on accession of Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and Zaporozhye and Kherson regions to Russia, September 30. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69465.
Putin has no problem with putting this “Russophobia” on an equal footing with anti-Semitism and other forms of xenophobia:
Anglophobia, Francophobia, and Germanophobia are the same forms of racism as Russophobia or anti-Semitism, and, incidentally, xenophobia in all its guises.Valdai International Discussion Club meeting, October 27 2022. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69695.
Notably, Putin uses all these “progressive” words predominantly in international settings. They are seldom heard when he speaks to Russians. It is easy to see why. Diversity and equality in Russia are not encouraged, to put it mildly.
What does he want to achieve on the international stage? First of all, he tries to split the democratic, progressive forces in the West. Perhaps he hopes that some people will react to his anti-colonial narrative positively and will buy the whole package. In fact, many prominent left-wing politicians and thinkers, including Sarah Wagenknecht and Noam Chomsky, are supporting some parts of Putin’s narrative. So he has every reason to continue.
But there is also another, deeper consequence of Putin’s misuse of these words. By pronouncing them, he makes them suspect. They are now tainted with lies and smeared with blood of innocent Ukrainian civilians. He undermines the values incorporated by these words. This is yet another “special informational operation” aimed at weakening the West.