It is the United States’ intrigues against Russia that appear to be a common denominator of the revolution of Poland’s Solidarity, the Ukrainian Maidan, and Belarusian protests, Kremlin propagandists believe. According to them, no one thinks for themselves in this paranoid world; everyone is a puppet.
One may laugh over the expressive photos of the recent meeting of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin in Sochi. They show a servile and even begging pose of Lukashenka; he starkly contrasts with Putin slouching in his armchair and looking at the guest with a mixture of pity and contempt. However, if one looks Putin in the eye, genuine understanding may be spotted behind the disenchantment with his Belarusian counterpart. In addition, he turns out to share the assessment of the situation in Belarus and the definition of what needs to be done, i.e. stifling the ongoing protest.
There might be the obvious satisfaction with the weakening of Lukashenka who has often been impetinent to the Kremlin and the obvious benefits that Putin will derive from squeezing the Belarusian leader against the wall, but what is happening to his western neighbour is a deadly threat to him too. Like Lukashenka, Putin considers the protests as part of a Western plot against Russia. Like many of his predecessors (Nicholas I who suppressed liberation uprisings in Europe, Alexander II, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, even Gorbachev), Putin stands guard on the imaginary stability of the system.
The Russian authorities made a religion of this stability; for its Kremlin ‘priests’, any resistance to the government is not an expression of the citizens’ free will, but a sign of outside political influence. Putin and Lukashenka have fallen for their own propaganda. They do believe that Belarusians, just like Russians (and earlier Ukrainians, Chechens, Lithuanians, Georgians, Poles, Czechs, and Germans), could not start protesting out of thin air, just because they are willing to live in a free country. There is no free will in such pattern of thinking, there are pure conspiracy theories.
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Alyaksandr Lukashenka tried to find foreign scent in the protests of Belarusians. Interestingly, he repeatedly suggested that the masterminds behind the operation against his authority were in … the East; the demonisation rhetoric was ramped up when the so-called Wagnerovites were detained in Belarus. Lukashenka has not directly blamed Putin even once, which leaves him room for maneuver, but he publicly stated that ‘some’ forces from Russia were meddling in Belarusian affairs. By keeping eloquent silence, Moscow contributed to the information chaos and the wave of guesswork. Then, a number of Western experts said that the Kremlin was going to overthrow Lukashenka.
After the election, the Belarusian president veered away from his rhetoric. Russia disappeared from the list of those accused of prying into Belarus’ business. Instead, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, the USA, and the broadly defined West were added to it. And the timeworn story about the CIA’s being behind the protests in Belarus was not slow to come from Russia. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was the first Kremlin-related politician to come forward with the allegation. On August 23, at the Army-2020 military exhibition, he said that the protests were staged by adherers of the ‘New Republic’ backed by the US secret services. A few days later, in an unannounced interview with TV station Rossiya, Putin admitted that he had promised Alyaksandr Lukashenka to form a reserve of law enforcement officers ready to intervene in the situation in Belarus and provide ‘brotherly help’.
“We have agreed that the reserve will not be used until the extremist elements in Belarus, under the guise of political slogans, cross the border, start to simply rob people, start burning cars, houses, banks, try to seize administrative buildings and so on,” Putin said.
‘Extremist elements’ is a key word combination; Soviet propaganda used it to label, inter alia, the Polish Solidarity movement. In the former KGB’s archives declassified by Ukraine’s Security Service, there are thousands of written messages from field agents. They show that all Poles visiting the USSR in the 1980s were ‘extremists’ by default. For example, in 1981, when the Soviet government increased the price of vodka, the following saying (also recorded by the KGB) became popular: “And if the price is higher, we will walk Poland’s footsteps’. Security service informers reported that Soviet workers and employees were secretly discussing what was happening in Poland.
The reports that the Polish revival had its bearing on Soviet citizens’ minds even across ‘armour-plated’ borders troubled Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov. The feasibility of strikes and any independent movement was nothing but a nightmarish vision for the both. Hence, right from the beginning, Soviet propaganda portrayed the Polish (as well as Czech and East German) opposition as organisations that were set up, sponsored and inspired by Western secret services. Similar schemes had been used before in order to tarnish the Soviet dissident movement.
Novocherkassk, a city in southern Russia, was founded as a Cossack stanitsa guarding the fringes of the tsarist empire. It has a rather modest museum of the history of the Cossacks. Here, apart from Cossack arms and maps, there is a small ‘caricature and propaganda’ corner with tsarist propaganda drawings dating back to the First World War; they depict Bolsheviks inciting peasants and Cossacks to rebellion. Behind the Bolsheviks, one can see Germans wearing characteristic Prussian pickelhaubes. There are also Bolshevik caricatures of fat bourgeoisie, tsarist officers and ‘white’ Cossacks poached by ‘imperialist agents’, i.e. nasty-looking American financiers, Polish nobles and British officers dressed in colonial uniforms.
In the same museum, one can find a small memorial room of the Novocherkassk massacre, but it is usually locked. In the summer of 1962, Nikita Khrushchev sent forces to quell the protests in the city. A few weeks earlier, local workers who were discontent with low salaries and a hike in meat prices started a strike at the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Building Factory.
During the two-day massacre, chekists and military shot down at least several dozen people in the streets of the city. Among other points, they were firing at people from the building of the present-day museum. Later, some participants were sentenced to death; hundreds got heavy prison terms and spent many years in labour camps. Then Khrushchev said that the protest against the government was arranged by the CIA.
“Every fall leads to chaos, which was clearly seen after the collapse of the USSR and what it led to,” Andrey Konchalovsky, the director of Dear Comrades, a film about the tragic events in Novocherkassk, told the BBC.
Even Konchalovsky who shows the workers’ revolt committed to oblivion by the Communist authorities in his film keeps using cliches from Soviet and Russian propaganda. In these cliches, the world is based on ‘good vs. evil’, a simple Manichean division: good is order and power, evil is chaos and rebellion; citizens are compliant by nature’ they face chaos only when they are provoked by enemies.
This is exactly as Vladimir Putin saw it in 1989, when he protected the KGB headquarters in Angelika Strasse in Dresden from a crowd of East German protesters demanding the departure of the Soviets and the reunification of Germany. Later, Putin frankly said in biographical interviews that his homeland, the Soviet empire, had collapsed because it had not responded quickly enough to ‘centrifugal forces’ and protests backed from outside. After getting into power, he became convinced that he would not let ‘enemies’ win, that every protest would be put down and treated as a subversive action against Russia. Of course, Putin’s Russia did not come to such a scenario at once, or at least it did not have the strength to implement the conclusions for long.
Moscow did nothing during the Serbian revolution in 2000, when Slobodan Milošević fell from power. Similarly, it was staying on the sidelines during the Rose Revolution in Georgia, when Mikheil Saakashvili took office. He was the person whom Russian propaganda later called an American puppet; they still regard him as the Kremlin’s personal enemy. However, in the course of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Russians began to act against pro-European presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Then they developed the framework of a concept which they used against Ukraine a decade later: they called favourers of Europe, reforms and democracy ‘Banderovites’ and ‘CIA agents’. They played on the assumed division of Ukraine, overhyping a putative Nazi threat in the east and south of the country. But at that moment, they were still too weak. Russia’s state-run mass media were not so strong as they are now. They were just starting to use the Internet as a mass propaganda tool. On the back of the Orange Revolution, Russian services and think tanks turned up their sleeves; as a result, numerous works on the threat of ‘colour revolutions’ appeared.
Finally, the shadow of protests reached the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin, Bolotnaya Square, where the largest anti-Putin demonstrations took place in 2011-2012. After the crackdown, the president launched a counter-offensive and stated that Russia’s historical role was to stop the wave of protests. At that time, state-controlled TV station NTV aired The Anatomy of Protest; the authors of the two-part series routinely described the protests in Russia as inspired by ‘US puppets’ from Georgia while all other rallies were labelled as foreign services’ hostile operation aiming at ‘stability’. A year later, Valery Gerasimov, Chief of Russia’s General Staff. stressed that the so-called hybrid and information warfare is as much important as conventional military operations. This doctrine provided Russian propaganda machine with the stock in trade in its attacking Ukraine.
Shortly after the outbreak of the protests against Viktor Yanukovych, new Russian divisions trained in advance started their activity on the invisible front line: Russia Today television, Sputnik radio and news websites, TV station Rossiya 24, troll factories and millions of bots on social networks. What were their objectives? Driving a wedge between the Ukrainians and making eastern Ukraine believe that the western part is full of ‘US-led Nazis’. When a war broke out in Donbas, they regularly spread ‘proofs’ of aliens’ being in power in Kyiv. For example, Polish uniforms were shown and interviewees confirmed that they had heard Polish in Ukrainian trenches, claiming that Poland was meddling in Ukraine’s affairs.
A year ago, Valery Gerasimov updated his doctrine. Now it rather bears the imprint of the Cold War. It is about the war and aggressors from the West as well as about Russia’s facing a ‘precisely defined threat’, e.g. protests fuelled by the fifth column. It is obvious that, according to the modified doctrine, all social protests are treated simply as part of a war against Russia or an attack on its interests.
During a recent discussion held by the Ministry of Defence, experts linked to the Russian army argued that merely opposing the ‘colour revolutions’ was not enough anymore; in their opinion, Russia should go on the offensive and start stirring up its own colour revolutions. If Belarus was expected to be a testing ground for such activities, something probably went wrong. The scale of the protests in the neighbouring disturbed the Kremlin so much that Russian propaganda has returned to the well-trodden path of accusing the West of backing the ‘Belarusian summer’.
However, fossilised thinking does backfire on Russian strategists. Six years ago, Yevgeny Fedorov, an MP for United Russia, revealed that the KGB ‘had evidence” that the CIA had written songs to Viktor Tsoy, the frontman of the legendary rock band Kino, in order to get the Soviet youth rebelled and destroy the USSR; the special focus being on the iconic composition ‘Peremen!’ (We Long For Change) which has become the anthem of Belarusian protests. In light of this, it is not ruled out that Russian media will soon drop a bombshell that the preparations for the protests in Belarus were being made in the days of Ronald Reagan.
Michał Kacewicz/MS, belsat.eu