James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution and ever since Eisenstein immortalised it in film in 1927, the West has become fascinated with the art of Russian propaganda.
This has become more intense since Russia was implicated by US intelligence in activities said to have helped Donald Trump into power. So, how good is Russian propaganda?
Russia excels at two things. Firstly, at the tactical level, Russia has demonstrated expertise in hard-edged diplomacy and intelligence. Secondly, at the strategic level, Russia has come to excel in in the straightforward denial of Western moral superiority.
Vladimir Putin has been consistent in public comments that, for all Western claims to be operating for a higher purpose, they have caused the main problems in the world. In an article in the New York Times in 2013, he wrote: “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’”
A recent FT article suggested the Russian satellite channel RT takes a similar approach: “Where Russia’s domestic TV wildly twists the news, RT draws instead on an old Soviet device known as ‘what-aboutism’ — as in, Russia is not so bad, you see, because western countries have committed misdeeds too, so why aren’t we talking about those?
It’s not hard to see where Russian expertise in the first area comes from. Technology changes but Russia has long prioritised intelligence operations, and the secret state has been part of Russian Government since before the October Revolution. But where does Russian expertise in the second come from?
Some wrongly believe Russia has always been a master of propaganda. Despite the mythology, Russian propaganda has been wildly overrated since the Second World War. While it’s unlikely the USSR wanted to convert the world to communism, they did want to secure their own country’s future by tying their near-neighbours into a Soviet orbit. Here, they failed spectacularly.
But there was a time when Russia led the world at propaganda – and this period gives us a window into what Vladimir Putin might be thinking. This was the roughly twenty years between the October Revolution and the outbreak of the Second World War.
Led by the great German propagandist Willi Munzenberg and supported by East and Central Europeans like Karl Radek and Otto Katz, Munzenberg ran a massive network of supposedly independent, third party groups whose job was to raise questions about the morality of the West and to soft-sell the benefits of the USSR.
While Russia has not deployed third party groups in such a way, the narrative they have been pushing is ultimately the same as Munzenberg’s: “you’re no better than the rest of us – you’re probably worse.”