"On March 16 we choose."
JRT: Timothy Snyder is the author of the monumental Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. He explains that while Putin's propaganda may seem absurd, it is in fact an old Soviet tactic to rewrite the future in its own image.
Timothy Snyder writing in the New York Review of Books:
...In view of its patent absurdity, why is this propaganda so important to Putin’s regime? Most obviously, propaganda serves the technical purpose of preparing the way for war. An excellent propaganda apparatus, such as the Russian one, can find ways to repeat its message over and over again in slightly different ways and formats. Plenty of people in the West now spread Russian propaganda, sometimes for money, sometimes from ignorance, and sometimes for reasons best known to themselves. Those who repeat the Russian propaganda conceits do not need to convince everyone, only to set the terms of debate. If people in free societies have their discussions framed for them by rulers of unfree societies, then they will not notice the history unfolding around them (a revolution just happened in Europe!) or sense the urgency of formulating policy in a desperate situation (a European country has just invaded another!). Propaganda can serve this technical purpose no matter how absurd it is.
But propaganda has a deeper and more important function. Propaganda, at least in the old Soviet Union, was not an edited version of reality, but rather a crucial part of the endeavor to create a different reality. When we refute propaganda with facts and arguments, and even when we discuss its social function, we are inhabiting a certain mental world; we accept the constraints of observation and reason at the outset and seek to change our situation on the basis of what we think we can see and understand. But this is not the only possible psychic reality. In the Soviet Union, the assumption among many who believed in the promise of communism was that the future was as real if not more real than the present. Soviet propaganda was not a version of the world in which we live but rather a representation of the world to come. When we see Russia’s current propaganda in this way, we understand why its authors are utterly untroubled by what might appear to be factual errors and contradictions.
Take the idea of Jewish Nazis, which must be taken on if the current Kremlin propaganda about the revolution in Kiev is to have any logical basis. The claim is that Nazis made a coup; the observable reality is that some of the people now in power are Jews. And then we evince our skepticism that Jews are Nazis or that a Nazi coup would put Jews at the top of the Ukrainian state apparatus.
But in the ideology of the Soviet Union and its communist allies, the identification of Jews with Nazis was convenient for those who were in power, and so Jewish Nazis became a propaganda reality. In the years before Stalin’s death Israel became part of an international plot that was directed by fascists in the capitalist West. After the Six-Day War the Soviets presented Israeli soldiers and citizens as imitators of the Wehrmacht and the SS. This propaganda was followed by the expulsion of Jews from communist Poland. The fact that Jews left Poland for Israel and the US was presented as evidence that they were fascists all along. The regimes found it politically useful for their own future to target Jews, and therefore Jews, so to speak, were made to become Nazis.
Propaganda is thus not a flawed description, but a script for action. If we consider Putin’s propaganda in these Soviet terms, we see that the invasion of Crimea was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would erupt that would change the world. Propaganda is part of the action it is meant to justify. From this standpoint, an invasion from Russia would lead to a Ukrainian nationalist backlash that would make the Russian story about fascists, so to speak, retrospectively true. If Ukraine is unable to hold elections, it looks less like a democracy. Elections are scheduled, but cannot be held in regions occupied by a foreign power. In this way, military action can make propaganda seem true. Even the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe is unable to fulfill an observation mission...
We might not see the new reality that the Russian propaganda is preparing the ground for, but it seems likely that Putin, at least at times, is already inhabiting it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel—an East German and a Russian speaker who knows a thing or two about communism—has remarked that Putin was living “in another world.” But what if the propaganda, as effective as it has been in dulling the sensibilities of Westerners, fails to bring that world into being?
As Putin sat slouched in his chair at his press conference, shifting between clever one-liners and contradictory constructions, he seemed to be struggling to reconcile tactics and ideology. On the one hand, he has been an extremely good tactician, far more nimble and ruthless than almost anyone with whom he deals. He carried off his plan in Crimea with panache. He broke all the rules in an act of violence that should have opened a space for the true world, the world he wants, the glorious Russian gathering of Russian lands and peoples.
Yet dramatic action did not summon the envisioned new reality to life. Ukraine did not reveal itself to be a Russian land unhappily and temporarily ruled by a few fascists whose coup could be undone. It looks instead like a place where the revolutionary mood has been consolidated by a foreign invasion. As the chief rabbi of Ukraine put it a few days ago: “There were many differences of opinion throughout the revolution, but today all that is gone.” He continued: “We’re faced by an outside threat called Russia. It’s brought everyone together.”
Read the article in its entirety at the New York Review of Books.