A live broadcast of the 16th annual end-of-year news conference by Russia's President Vladimir Putin at a studio of the RT (Russian Today) television network. Picture Credit: Alexander Shcherbak/TASS via Getty Images

Study RT as propaganda — don’t ban it

Putin’s information war won’t be defeated by censorship

Artillery Row

Everyone knows about the Kremlin-funded TV channel RT, but few in the west have ever heard of the fifty-two foot statue of Prince Vladimir the Great that looms above the vehicle entrance of the Kremlin itself. Unveiled in autumn 2016 and resembling an enlarged Warhammer miniature, it makes a forceful impression if you come upon it lit up on a snowy night. According to legend, the prince founded Russian Orthodoxy when he smashed the pagan idols of Kyiv and baptised the Rus’ at sword-point in the Dnieper in 988.

When I first came upon the statue in 2018, the history of Russian Orthodoxy, and of the Soviet propaganda mission to extirpate all religion in favour of Marxism-Leninism, was to the fore of my mind. Working on an illustrated history of the subject, I would spend my days in the Russian State Library — more commonly known by its old name, the Lenin Library — a magnificent, high-ceilinged, wood panelled, chandeliered temple to Soviet literacy, with portraits of an erudite, fatherly Lenin in almost every vast, draughty room.

The Kyivan origins of the Russian faith were now something to be pined for

I was after Soviet anti-religious magazines of the 1920s and 30s, which had appeared around the time of Lenin’s illness and death in 1923-4, and offered a surreal prism through which to view Russian history, as well as the history of the west. There were cartoons and articles about British imperialism (all done in the name of Christ), lynchings in America by the Ku Klux Klan (the cross was “a symbol of fascism”), the Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee, and the use of the electric chair (“an accomplishment of Christian culture”).

The Marxist-Leninist take on Russian Orthodoxy was that the tsars had used it to deceive the people. More than one edition of the illustrated workers’ magazine “Godless at the Machine” hacked at the very foundation of the faith nearly a thousand years earlier. One cover showed Jesus sailing the Black Sea from Constantinople to Kyiv and bore the sarcastic caption,

A thousand years ago Rus’ received the light from Greece. It brought the gifts of Christ ‘to exchange for furs and girls’.

This was a commentary on the trade in pelts and slaves that, according to many histories, motivated Prince Vladimir to pursue his trade relationship with the Byzantine Empire, and to shore it up by enforcing the Byzantine faith. Another issue carried cartoons of Vladimir’s men raping and pillaging their way up and down the Dnieper, and told of how “God-protected Byzantine power” had inspired the holy trappings of Russian monarchy.

RT gives western viewers insights into what Russian audiences are being told

Walking under Putin’s enormous statue of Vladimir in the evenings (it was not far from the library), it was clear that Soviets’ anti-religious ideology had done a dramatic post-Soviet 180, so that the Kyivan origins of the Russian faith were now something to be pined for, rather than lampooned, in Moscow’s propaganda. Indeed, in the first few minutes of his February address claiming the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin twitchily referred to Ukraine as an inherent part of Russia’s “spiritual space”.

Putin has said a great many wacky things over the years, some of them to do with religion. When I began to sense that RT would soon have its videos pulled from YouTube, I made a point of salvaging an old interview Putin had done at a long table full of servile non-journalists in June 2013. Holding court, he remarked on the supposed differences between American and Russian culture:

Take Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind for instance. She says ‘I’ll never be hungry again’. This is the most important thing for her. Russians have different, far loftier ambitions, more of a spiritual kind. It’s more about your relationship with God.

Now, you could take this as a bit of mere sophistry — Putin is full of it — but it does seem to reveal something about the mind of the man who just hanged his country’s economy to murder thousands of innocent strangers in Prince Vladimir’s “spiritual space”. Indeed, one of the uses of RT for a journalist was as a go-to source for long-format interviews with Kremlin people, who, even while being pitched easy questions, would say the damnedest things.

This is why the removal of RT sits ill with me. While I sympathise with those such as the British-Syrian author Robin Yassin-Kassab, who argue that RT doesn’t deserve free speech protection because it has spread conspiracy theories that launder Putin’s mass murder of Syrians (among other crimes), there is a case to be made quite apart from RT’s notional “rights”. As the veteran BBC and Reuters Moscow journo James Rodgers has argued, RT gives western viewers insights into what Russian audiences are being told.

To consume RT’s content passively would be contemptible, but the study of propaganda is a worthy pursuit. Part of what I valued about the Lenin Library — paradoxically given it name — was that, for all the authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia, a form of glasnost obtained there: a foreigner could turn up, get a library card, and order teetering stacks of Stalin-era propaganda that showed how the expropriation of the kulaks and the massacres of the clergy had been laundered in the name of protecting the USSR from its enemies.

George Orwell, whose quite reasonably-sized statue stands outside the BBC, was a great examiner of political pamphlets of all kinds, and had a gut-level sense of how propaganda worked. In 1940, he reviewed a translation of Mein Kampf, and proved well-equipped to paraphrase Hitler’s appeal. Hitler presented himself as a Christ-Prometheus, put-upon and aggrieved, “the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse, he would make it seem like a dragon”.

If Ukraine’s allies are to understand how Russia’s crimes against the country will be laundered for Russians, a long, dreary trawl through RT’s now-memory-holed archive might have put them, for once, ahead of the curve.

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