Even Russians who fled abroad to seek freedom overwhelming support Vladimir Putin and the far from democratic system he has put in place, a pattern that the Kremlin seeks to promote and one that many in the West fear means that the Russian diaspora constitutes a kind of “fifth column” and thus a threat to their societies, Kseniya Kirillova says.
Russian propaganda toward the diaspora is far more effective than its Soviet predecessor, the US-based Russian journalist says, in large measure because it is based on “the exploitation of the feeling of guilt” that many Russians living abroad have about their advantages abroad and their apparent betrayal of their homeland ( ).
Playing on that is “especially effective” because in Russian history, the state always seeks to subordinate the country to it. In Russia where there is no inviolable private property and independent court system and the individual feels completely defenseless against arbitrary actions, loyalty to the state is often the only means of feeling a sense of having a defense.”
“For many Russians, except those who consciously choose to become dissidents,” Kirillova says, there is a continuing “trauma” of having broken with the state by leaving and a desire to resolve that subconscious feeling of dread by maintaining or restoring some contact with the Russian authorities.
That is why Moscow promotes so many organizations abroad and why it gives its consulates a particular role in them. That makes Russians abroad in many cases feel still part of Russia even though they are living elsewhere because life is better for them there than in the homeland of their birth. Moscow plays up this conflict and then exploits it.
The Russian authorities are able to do so, she continues, because of the extraordinarily weak development of horizontal ties among emigres. Even where such organizations do arise, Moscow works hard to take them under its wing or to undercut their operations by funding nominally similar groups. That is especially true in the Russian-language media.
Moscow also plays up the image of the enemy and in ways far more sophisticated than did the Soviets. Current Russian propaganda doesn’t deny the obvious, that life in the West is better than in Russia, but rather it suggests that the West doesn’t deserve what it has and therefore Russians should take it one way or another, by emigration or even war.
In place of the Marxist theory of “class war,” Kirillova says, “Russian propagandists operate today on misty discussions of geopolitics, the essence of which in their treatment reduces to the postulate that ‘the end justifies the means,’” a notion that allows some in the diaspora to see no conflict between taking advantage of the West and wanting it destroyed.
The frequent suggestions that this kind of thinking works only with those in the diaspora who have failed to find their place in the West; but such notions are true only in part. Yes, Kirillova argues, failures do look to this attitude to justify themselves; but many successful emigres accept this idea as well.
“The ideology of cynicism is at times attractive for successful people because cynicism itself is often associated by them with success. The desire ‘to sit on two stools’ and ‘to deceive the enemy’ in combination with the principle that ‘in war one must fight with all means’ does not depend on social status, education, or the standard of living of the individual.”
Kremlin ideologists understand this even if many in the West do not, and their willingness to send various messages to various groups gives them the flexibility to win over far more than they should. If the West is to respond effectively, it must begin by understanding that the world of the diasporas is far more complicated than many are inclined to think.