The Sad, Unintended Irony of Russian Propaganda
In 1999, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., hosted an exhibit most would consider obscure even in the rare air of the art world. Called “Propaganda & Dreams,” it compared photographs taken in the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1930s. The former includes some of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, including Dorothea Lang, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans, shooting for the Depression Relief Farm Security Administration. The Soviets fielded their best photographers as well, including Max Alpert and Alexander Rodchenko.
Each endeavour had political ends; in other words, it was propaganda. In the United States, the photos documented the lives of the poor and wage labourers during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl to generate support for the New Deal. In the USSR, the photos portrayed the advances of the heroic socialist republic while ignoring Ukraine’s Holodomor, the Red Terror, and Joseph Stalin’s rapid expansion of the Gulag.
So, it was disorienting for exhibition visitors like me to find pictures so similar to one another in subject and composition despite being taken on opposite sides of the globe. Michael Dobbs shared my confusion in the Washington Post. “[I]t can be difficult to tell if the weather-beaten peasant or grimy-faced child in these grainy, black-and-white pictures is American or Russian,” he wrote. “Factories look much the same, whether they are capitalist factories or communist factories. A drunk is a drunk, [whether] in America or [in] Russia.” Was this unfurnished plank house the home of a poor migrant family? Or was it the collective homestead in the workers’ paradise? You would have to read the notes to separate one from the other.
Propaganda is not a fertile ground for irony, but sometimes it reveals more than the propagandists ever intended. Propaganda can expose more than it obscures or mythologizes. Those kitchen scenes are one example. Two more from the exhibition caught my eye. One shows Uzbek kolkhozniks (“volunteer” collectivized farmers closely watched by the NKVD) in full heroic labour mode digging the 270 km Fergana Canal in about six weeks using 180,000 men wielding only shovels and ketmeny hand-held backhoes. The other is a similar scene of dozens of workers excavating a gigantic smelter pit in Magnitogorsk entirely without mechanization. It is horrifying to see human labour as it must have been during the time of the pyramids, especially in a purportedly avant-garde industrial economy.
There is, of course, a long Russian tradition of political deceit and manipulation dating back at least as far as Grigory Potemkin in the 18th century. “Active measures,” dezinformatsiya, kompromat, the Internet Research Agency (run by the notorious Wagner Group founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin), state broadcasters, phishing, “useful idiots”—all are key facets of Russia’s unique and until recently highly effective propaganda machine.
The strategic stumble into Ukraine presents the first serious challenge to Putin’s propaganda during his rule. His narrative about Ukraine was disrupted by the innovative U.S. and UK practice of “radical transparency” with intelligence declassified and shared with allies warning of Russia’s war plans and revealing combat catastrophes on the battlefield. This information is regularly confirmed by open sources or by Russia’s own actions. The ubiquity of social media provides open-source operational intelligence and amateur analysis in near-real time, collapsing the narrative cycle so that Russia could never get ahead of the story others were telling about its appalling military inadequacies. Caught on the back foot for the first time and losing control of the narrative to Western countries, the Kremlin’s information warfare machine never really recovered.
Russia has defaulted to aiming its propaganda gunfights at home. Even though most Russians support the “special military operation” in Ukraine, Moscow appears paranoid about a social tremor that all have seen, and everyone has felt after the short jaunt to Kyiv turned into a horrifying slog. Bodies are coming home and buried after whole regiments were decimated. Tanks and armoured vehicles are being destroyed by the hundreds. Targets are being attacked inside Russia. Soldiers are told to buy their own gear. Calling home, they complain of inadequate training, broken weapons, and inept leadership.
Unable to win with more than 150,000 soldiers in Ukraine, Russia raised more troops. There was no way to hide even a “partial” mobilization—the last occurred during World War II, the founding mythology of the modern Russian state—and the implications were obvious even to the brain-washed. This provoked an Exodus in two directions: some 300,000 activated reservists left their homes to report for duty while the same amount immediately left the country for the ex-Soviet “near abroad” and even farther afield. Neither bode well for Russia’s adventure in Ukraine.
Much has been made about Wagner Group’s recruitment in Russia’s penal colony system and the near-certain death those convicts face assaulting strategically worthless real estate in Donbass. Wagner unintentionally revealed the very real problems of raising troops in wartime. As a result, Moscow had to get creative, and real, to attract men to service in a perilous moment.
Walking that knife’s edge may explain the peculiar tone of its wartime propaganda. In one video, for example, a proper young man announces he is leaving for Georgia (the country) “for good” and is driven off in a fancy car. Two teenage boys see an old woman struggling with her groceries and step in to help. Two other women observe this and remark approvingly, “the boys have left but the men have stayed.”
The video acknowledges the mass exit of educated Russians while side-stepping the horrifying implication that these two teenagers are now available for conscription. These boys will not be men for much longer.
It’s not as though we don’t have our own problems with recruitment. There was some criticism of a recent U.S. Army recruitment video featuring a young woman with two moms committed to queer activism. Critics contrasted this “woke” approach to a Russian Army recruitment video that was more individualistic and traditionally masculine—a Russian iteration on the U.S. Army’s since-abandoned “Army of One” campaign.
But a much more relevant contrast to this older Russian bid is not the more recent U.S. pitch but a contemporaneous Ukrainian Army recruitment video. The Russian and Ukrainian videos were released about the same time as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbass—the opening salvo of an eight-year war culminating in Vladimir Putin’s attempt to decapitate the Ukrainian government in February 2022. Neither side probably knew it at the time, but they were recruiting for the long term.
The Ukrainian video is striking for its egalitarian tone. It recognizes everyday citizens with diverse backgrounds who are all serving their country. Although nearly 10 years old, it feels very contemporary in addressing the immediate threat to Ukraine’s nationhood. Its communal ethos is a bracing antidote to the Russian video’s stark focus on the individual rather than a common good or goal. It is easier to identify with Ukrainian citizen soldiers who could very well be your neighbour, co-worker, or friend. More subtly, the video argues that every Ukrainian has a place—and an obligation—to defend their country.
Russian recruitment videos exclusively target men. The 2014 spot is a traditional appeal to machismo most commonly associated with masculine military culture. While aggressive, it has a positive central message: join up and improve yourself as a man. As stark as that pitch was, more recent videos exploit masculine insecurities such as ineffectuality, emasculation, poverty, and shame. See for example this clutch of social media products, all of which prey on men’s fears and anxieties. In one spot, a woman reconsiders an ex she dumped who has since joined the army and established himself. In another, a young man joins the army and shows off the car he bought with his signing bonus.
In case the evocation of shame isn’t clear, in this next video, a father appropriates his daughter’s piggy bank, which she uses to save for a new smartphone, after explaining to her that his paycheck was late again. He then lingers, eavesdropping on her daughter’s conversation with her friend about his prior military service. He reenlists and returns with a new smartphone. It is staggering to consider the real-life implications of men willing to risk their lives for a phone or car as a matter of pride.
Money, shame, and family honour are persistent themes in these spots. They unintentionally reveal the rot at the core of post-Soviet Russian life. People are poor. They have lost their livelihood. They have lost their sense of mission and purpose in life that Communism for all its faults gave them. Military service is offered as a solution to all these troubles. The government’s broader implications are frightening and deeply sad: signing onto Vladimir Putin’s folly is the only way to redeem yourself, your family, and your country.
This next video follows an old man as he discovers his rubles don’t go as far as they used to. Hard up, he enlists his tech-savvy grandson to help him sell his Soviet-era Lada for 60,000 rubles. (This is less than $800. Ironically, if he sold his car in the United States as a curio he could expect two to four times the average annual Russian household income.) Just before he is about to take an offer of half that, his grandson shows up and announces that because of his army signing bonus, his grandfather can keep his car. This is a lot of social commentaries to absorb. One could almost imagine, as with the paralleling photographs from the 1930s, upending this message to spotlight the terrifying Catch-22 facing the families depicted in these videos.
The Kremlin is convincing no one outside of Russia. But that obscures the fact that Putin’s war of choice has benefited one man immeasurably: Putin himself. Russians broadly support the “special military operation” and, despite overwhelming propaganda artificially inflating his popularity, much of that approval appears to be genuine. Putin has consolidated political control by publicly humiliating his entire national security apparatus and implicating them in his crimes. They are now utterly dependent on him for their jobs and livelihood. His Mafia patronage puts Russian industry squarely in his pocket. The only vocal opposition comes from his right, demanding escalation, and improved combat effectiveness. But those hawks are under no illusions about the Russian army’s battlefield performance and are unlikely to challenge Putin for control of this debacle.
Propaganda, especially clumsy efforts like those examined here, can cut both ways. It can communicate, unintentionally, much more than the political masters who direct it would like to reveal. Whether it is a massive earthworks project hand-built by hundreds of thousands of press-ganged labourers, or the accidental admission that elders cannot afford the basics of life, the irony of propaganda reminds us that not everything can be controlled, messaged, or manipulated. Sometimes reality cannot be suppressed.