Updated: Jan 5, 2021
This piece was originally published in The Integrity Initiative & subsequently in DemWritePress.
January 21, 2019
The Russian-speaking diaspora abroad is quite numerous in many Western countries and is made up of many different waves of emigration – from descendants of White Russian émigrés to those who are arriving today. However, all these waves are characterized by a fairly high level of support for Vladimir Putin. It’s especially surprising to see such sentiments amongst people who emigrated in Soviet times, not so much for economic reasons but rather in search of freedom. However, even among them, support is quite high for a president who is far from democratic and rules a Russia that is far from free.
This leads some Western experts to wonder if Russian speakers are a potential “fifth column” – people who, even if they are not conscious agents of the Kremlin, can easily be manipulated into promoting Russian policies and influence operations abroad. And it should be recognized that the Kremlin is making great efforts to try and turn the diaspora into just such an arm of foreign policy. The main tool used is, of course, Kremlin propaganda, with Russian state TV available in many countries. The propaganda is reinforced by the constant efforts of the consulates and related organizations set up for ex-pat Russians. Several mechanisms are used.
First is the exploitation of feelings of guilt. A perception of emigrants as traitors to their homeland has been propagated in Russia in the last decade with almost the same determination as in Soviet times. This idea is deeply instilled in the Russian subconscious, even if they do not subscribe to it on a conscious level. As a result, even people who do choose to leave for whatever reason retain a subconscious feeling of guilt. This manipulation is especially effective because, throughout Russian history, the state has always sought to make itself synonymous with the country. In Russia, where there are no property rights and no independent courts and people can feel completely defenseless against despotism, loyalty to the state is often the only way to feel protected. For many Russians, with the exception of those who deliberately embarked on the path of opposition, awareness of their conflict with the state is traumatic. For such people, moving abroad was prompted only by the desire to enjoy the benefits of the developed world and earn more money, but they were completely unprepared to be labeled “traitors”. As if specifically to resolve this artificially created dilemma, the Kremlin creates numerous associations, forums and congresses of Russian-speaking compatriots which state that their goal is to facilitate a re-connection with the “great motherland.” At the same time, even if such organizations formally position themselves as cultural bodies, in practice they fully support Kremlin policy, and dissidents would not be allowed to join.
Unfortunately, quite a significant number of diaspora members are happy to see these organisations being created. For them, joining represents a visible and almost official restoration of the connection with their former homeland and a reason to be confident that now no one can call them traitors. For this type of emigrant, it is especially important to see that the organizations are close to Russian consulates – representing the state itself. This resolves their internal dilemma. They have the opportunity to enjoy all the benefits of the “free world” and at the same time feel that they have been “forgiven” by Russia. At the same time, they do not even stop to consider that this “dilemma” was created artificially by the state.
While there is an abundance of organizations created by the Kremlin, there is weak development of horizontal ties between immigrants and an unwillingness to create informal associations independent of Moscow. If they do arise, Moscow tries to bring them under its control and generously offers financial assistance. The number of independent organizations and media are far surpassed by the “official” ones. The result of these processes is the substitution of self-identification, when the feeling of being part of Russian culture becomes inseparable from the politics of the Russian state.
A major element of modern Russian propaganda is creating the image of “the enemy”. The Soviet Union exploited hatred and fear, but communist propaganda differed from modern propaganda in at least two important aspects: – in the late Soviet period, propaganda was not as cynical, and clearly differentiated hatred of “capitalists” from pity for the “oppressed workers”. Yes, this propaganda was false and utopian, but it did not sink to the level of cruelty that is present today; – Soviet propaganda was based on easily refuted theses, the awareness of the falsity of which caused cognitive dissonance in people’s minds. For example, the high standard of living in Western countries stood in stark contrast with postulates of “decaying capitalism” and it was impossible to overcome this contradiction.
Today’s propaganda is much more sophisticated. It does not deny the high standard of living in Western countries but instead focuses on trying to persuade Russians that those countries are absolutely hostile to Russia. At the same time, the ideology of hatred can be defined as “ideological cynicism”. On the one hand, people who succumb to such propaganda firmly believe in the need for conflict with the West in order to survive; on the other hand, they treat their artificially created “enemies” with extreme cynicism. Propaganda suggests that lies, murder, the seizure of foreign territories, war, slander and even the destruction of the whole world are justified, because “it benefits us”. Instead of the “class struggle” theory, Russian propagandists today operate with vague discourses on geopolitics, the essence of which, in their presentation, is reduced to the concept that “the end justifies the means”. As a result, such people do not feel any dissonance between enjoying life in the West and while bearing sincere contempt or hatred for their country of residence. They regard accepting the benefits of the West as a form of “struggle”, and continue to live in the US or the UK, since “it’s profitable for them”, while directing their patriotic impulses towards participation in Kremlin projects. Banal envy contributes to the formation of such an attitude toward their country of residence. As an attribute of a dysfunctional society, it is indeed inherent in many Russians, and, worst of all, it does not disappear with the acquisition of material well-being. A joke that has recently been widely shared ends with the punchline: “How could Americans get such a clean, rich, well-taken-care-of country like America?”.
Unfortunately, this is precisely how American Putinists think. Even owning their own home and maintaining a seemingly quite American way of life does not eliminate this feeling of resentment, as they remember childhoods spent in a much worse environment.
One theory is that support for the Kremlin by emigrants combined with a negative attitude toward their new country is the mark of “losers” – people who have not managed to achieve success after leaving Russia. In this case, it is said, the cult of power represented by today’s Russia is attractive for such people, and the feeling of belonging to this powerful force helps to overcome the inferiority complex.However, this explanation is only partly true. The ideology of cynicism is sometimes attractive to successful people, since cynicism itself is often associated with success. The desire to deceive “the enemy” in combination with the principle “war justifies everything” does not depend on a person’s social status, education or income level. These things lie, rather, in the field of morality. It is paradoxical that poorly educated people can sincerely believe the wildest forms of Kremlin propaganda, like the “crucified Ukrainian boy”, while educated cynics know it is a ridiculous lie but believe it is justified for the sake of the “greatness of Russia”.
It should be recognized that the Kremlin is quite successfully working with diasporas abroad, trying to turn natural nostalgia and cultural identity into a tool for manipulating the consciousness of former compatriots.