Putin and the Art of Political Fantasy

How does the Kremlin exploit Russia’s long tradition of absurd conspiracy theories to control public opinion? By confabulation

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A woman holds a portrait of Putin during the annual "Slavic Unity" march organised by Russian nationalists in St Petersburg, November 2014 (photo: Yuri Kochetko/EPA/Corbis)

For some considerable time the element of fantasy in Russian political discourse has been strong (and growing stronger), not only at the popular level but in official statements. It has grown in intensity and quantity since the spring of 2014 with the events in Crimea and Ukraine. How to explain this? Where did it originate and how important is it in the general context of the new “Russian doctrine”? Extreme, even fanatical statements directed against the “enemy” can be found at almost all times in many countries — there is nothing specifically Russian about it. But there are limits even to absurdity and if these limits are disregarded, how to explain it?

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda and an accomplished practitioner in this genre, is a prime example of the deliberate fabrication of falsehoods. The police chief in Berlin in the years just before the Nazi takeover was a Jew named Bernhard Weiss, a former army officer and a career official with moderate views. Goebbels launched an all-out campaign against him, turning him into a demonic figure, highly dangerous, incredibly cunning and devious, aiming to destroy everything in his way. When friends pointed out to Goebbels that Weiss (whom he had nicknamed Isidor) was a perfectly harmless bureaucrat, he laughed and said: “Do you think I am not aware of this?”

This is a typical example of the cynical approach. But not all statements, ideas and theories which are manifestly absurd are deliberately fabricated and cynically exploited as part of a wider propaganda campaign. Some, as in contemporary Russia, are genuinely believed for reasons that have been insufficiently investigated. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were a product of deliberate fabrication and the same is true of the “doctors’ plot” in Stalin’s final year. But both the Protocols and the story of the Jewish “killer doctors” were believed by many, and the question of why they were so widely believed is not easy to answer.

There is a widespread tendency (again not specifically Russian and not invented there) to believe in occult, hidden forces which are the real shakers and movers in world politics, whereas those about whom we read and hear in the media are merely their puppets. Some Russian ideologues believe (or pretend to believe) that the real struggle in world politics is between two parties — the Rothschild party and the followers of the Rockefellers. Believers in contemporary conspiracy theories generally have only a dim idea of where the real big money is found. According to the more learned followers of Lyndon LaRouche, for instance, it is a bitter fight between factions on a higher philosophical level — the Aristotelians and the Neo-Platonists. But it is not made clear where they keep their money — certainly not in present-day Greece. There has been in recent years a close cooperation between the Russian extreme Right and the LaRouchans; a recent example is Sergei Glazyev’s “On Eurofascism” in Executive Intelligence Review, a LaRouche organ.

This belief in the hidden hand and the forces of evil tends to be particularly strong in times of great upheaval. The Protocols were not really influential during the first two decades of their existence. But after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, events of world historical importance which could not easily be explained, the Protocols were widely read and often believed because they seemed to offer a key to otherwise inexplicable events.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union was a similar event with enormous consequences. How could it possibly be explained that a great power which had been established forever — naveki, as the then Russian anthem said — and which seemed invincible, had suddenly collapsed? The obvious approach for investigating this issue would have been to look for internal, domestic reasons — obviously something must have been wrong with the very foundations of the system. But this would have been too easy — and also too painful, because many had believed in the system and had been convinced that its foundations were solid. Hence, the overwhelming temptation to look behind the obvious, to look for hidden forces, the secret machinations by occult, outside forces intending to destroy the Soviet system.

This search for the real culprits took various forms. One was the search for a masterplan, the so-called Dulles doctrine. This was the  CIA strategy allegedly devised by Allen Dulles in 1945 which  aimed at destroying the Soviet Union. The strategy was simple but ingenious. It did not envisage a war or warlike action, but the destruction of the country, the state, and the nation from within by undermining and corrupting the cultural heritage of the Soviet Union and the moral values of the Soviet nation. Soviet writers, actors and film-makers were to be influenced to spread violence, depravity, alcoholism, drug addiction, shamelessness, cosmopolitan views, corruption, hatred between nationalities and general distrust, to mention but a few factors.

It should have been clear from the beginning that there was something suspect about the “Dulles masterplan”. In 1945, there was no CIA and no Cold War. Dulles was located in Switzerland, directing American espionage against Nazi Germany. He was not in a leading position and, as he was not a Russian expert, no one would have expected from him a grand strategy paper on what to do about the Soviet Union. Soviet cultural life was not his field of specialisation. Furthermore, Soviet cultural life was strictly regimented by Stalin and Zhdanov and under various forms of strict censorship. They would not have permitted Boris Pasternak to peddle drugs and Anna Akhmatova to advocate pornography and alcoholism and preach violence. To anyone even vaguely familiar with Soviet cultural life, the whole scheme must have appeared preposterous.

Some students of the Soviet scene have tried to trace the origins of this document. Certain phrases seem to have been taken from Dostoevsky (The Possessed): “We shall make use of slander, drunkenness, we shall corrupt the young, etc.” The alleged masterplan appeared in the 1960s and ’70s in political novels by some minor Soviet writers — Nikolai Yakovlev, Dold Mikhailik and Anatoli Ivanov. But in its present form it got its start only in 1993 when the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Ioan of  St Petersburg and Ladoga in a message entitled Bitva za Rossii (“The Battle for Russia”) gave it his blessing (perhaps even helped to author it). This Metropolitan was also a sponsor of a reprint of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He quoted Dulles (and even promoted him to the rank of General):

By sowing chaos in Russia we imperceptibly replace their values with false ones, which will force them to believe. How? We’ll find our accomplices, helpers and allies in Russia herself. In a series of episodes, a tragedy, grandiose in scale, will be played out: the demise of the last unbroken nation on earth, the final irrevocable extinguishment of their national self-consciousness. From art and literature, for example, we’ll gradually exterminate the social element. We’ll retrain artists, discourage in them the desire to depict the world and examine those processes taking place in the masses of the people. Literature, the theatre and the cinema will all proclaim the basest of human feelings. We shall use all our means to support and promote those so-called creators who will hammer into the people’s consciousness the cult of sex, violence, sadism, and betrayal, in a word — immorality.

In brief, the triumph of Satan. The late Metropolitan continued in this vein: “We shall create chaos and confusion in the workings of the government.” He dealt in considerable detail with the Protocols, noting that some historians do not believe in their authenticity or that of the Dulles Plan. He also attacked the Catholic West, which succumbed to “vanity and false glory of worldly greatness” and fell away from the universal fullness of the True Orthodox. He refers to the cynicism of “enlightened Europe”, which is simply beyond words. He notes that not only the Learned Elders of Zion worked for the downfall of Russia; in 1564 a German named Heinrich Staden, having lived there for 13 years, worked out a plan for the seizure and destruction of the country. But he always returns to the Protocols. While admitting that their history is rather murky and that he is far from qualified to judge whether they are a forgery or not, he does not shrink from fully endorsing their message, because all that happened during the 80 years that have passed since they first appeared confirms this message.

The Dulles document appears therefore as a modernised version of the Protocols. It has been endorsed and/or quoted with approval by a whole array of prominent Russian citizens, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal-Democratic party (LDPR); Nikita Mikhailov, one of Russia’s most distinguished film-makers; Sergei Kara Murza, professor of chemistry and political commentator; and Sergei Glazyev, another well-known political figure. There is, however, a very important difference between the Dostoevsky version and the one set out by the Metropolitan and his followers. In Dostoevsky’s novel, the person announcing the conspiracy (the younger Verkhovensky) is a liar: there is no conspiracy, as it is a figment of his imagination, whereas the contemporary announcers talk about it as if it were a horrible, immediate reality, a danger just around the corner.

Since Allen Dulles has been dead for almost five decades, his “doctrine” had to be reinforced and updated by some more recent super secret plans, such as the often-quoted Brzezinski-Albright design for engineering the disintegration of Russia, invoked for instance by Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian National Security Council, in an interview this past October. However, since Zbigniew Brzezinski too has been out of office for a long time (since the Carter Administration of the 1970s, in fact), a more recent hostile cabal will probably have to be discovered soon.

The Dulles masterplan is by no means the most extreme case of political conspiracy theory; there have been many more in recent years. It has been adduced here in some detail because it helps to explain the readiness with which forgeries have been accepted as gospel truth by many in contemporary Russia, first by extremists only but subsequently also by sections of the establishment. A Russian citizen watching television in the evening will be exposed to the historical programme of Nikolai Starikov (to mention but one representative of this genre) which “prove” in convincing detail that the Russian revolutions of 1917 were engineered by the British secret service (the question of whether Somerset Maugham played the decisive role in this context is left open), and that Hitler too was an agent of MI5 or MI6 but did not really want to attack the Soviet Union. He was egged on, however, by Churchill and Roosevelt.

This will be followed by a documentary demonstrating that Trotsky was the father of German Nazism (this also happens to be the title of the series). If the viewer still has an appetite for sensational revelations, he can switch to yet another series dealing with the connection of the “German patriot Martin Heidegger” and the Balfour Declaration. Retiring to bed with a good book he may well chose the immensely popular Maxim Kalashnikov (no relation of the weapon designer) maintaining that while the present Russian generation is pretty hopeless, a new generation of heroes could be produced in record time, following the pioneering work done by the SS Ahnenerbe in the study of the Aryan race which will put right everything that is wrong or imperfect in contemporary Russia.

The Stalinist system came to Russia 90 years ago and with it the frequent belief in manifestly untrue assertions. This practice has been more pronounced in some periods than in others. It has been denounced on various occasions by experts, but it has by no means been rejected. If in recent years there has been increased sympathy, even a certain longing, for the Stalin period in Russian history, it should not be surprising that this includes the readiness to believe manifestly untrue assertions. President Putin himself argued not long ago that Stalin was no worse than Oliver Cromwell.

According to ISIOM and other leading Russian public opinion polls, almost 50 per cent of Russians took a positive view of Stalin in 2008/9, and their number has certainly not gone down since. This does not mean that that all aspects of Stalin’s rule are considered desirable, but an excess of anti-Stalinism is frowned upon by the authorities and the schoolbooks have been adjusted accordingly. It does mean, however, that certain psychological attitudes which were prevalent in the Stalin era have again become acceptable, even desirable.

This includes the belief in conspiracies, perhaps even a predilection for this genre, in order to explain past and present events. But this mindset alone cannot account for the present trends. How to explain the fact that quite often deliberate falsehoods are sincerely believed?

This fascinating phenomenon has been observed and described by neurologists, psychiatrists and psychologists for a long time. It is known as clinical confabulation. It was first described in 1889 in amnesic patients by a leading Russian psychiatrist, Sergei Korsakoff (1854-1900), and is known in contemporary medicine as the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Korsakoff graduated from school with a gold medal, the highest distinction in Russian schools, and studied medicine in Moscow and Vienna. He observed what some call “invented memory”; others have used the term “honest liars” with regard to some of their patients.

This issue has been intensively studied in recent decades, when medicine and psychology have become increasingly interested in problems of memory. To give a recent clinical example: On a Monday morning in a home for the elderly, a nurse in Cologne, Germany, asked 73-year-old Mr K about his weekend. “Oh, my wife and I flew to Hungary and we had a wonderful time,” he replied. The nurse paused, for Mr K’s wife had died five years earlier and he had not left the home in months. Was he trying to impress her? More likely Mr K was confabulating, a phenomenon in which people describe and even act upon false notions they believe to be true. (Maria Dorothea Heidler, “Is your brain lying to you?”, American Scientist, March 2014.)

Research on clinical confabulation has shown that there are various types of the phenomenon, that those who suffer from it present their stories in great detail, usually with absolute conviction, and will not reconsider their narrative even if faced with rational argument. Those engaged in confabulation research also found that it was frequently caused by some form of brain damage resulting in the deficiency of vitamin B1. (Korsakoff first thought that alcoholism was the most frequent cause.) But on the whole there has been no unanimity with regard to the causes of this condition, probably because it has appeared as the result not of one specific injury or disease but through a variety of causes.

The medical literature about confabulation is extensive but not of much help in accounting for the many cases of political confabulation. It is very unlikely that the late Metropolitan of St Petersburg and Ladoga and the many others peddling the Dulles doctrine and similar conspiracy theories were suffering from vitamin B1 insufficiency. Some undoubtedly did know better but regarded their specific narrative as a useful tool with which to disseminate their ideas. Others may believe that while not everything about their theories or doctrines may be true, they may be partly correct, enough in any case to circulate them widely. Or they may believe that while there is no proof at all that the theories are true, they could be true, or something quite similar could be true.

In any case, there is a striking similarity between clinical and political confabulation: the deep conviction of the confabulators that they are speaking the truth, the elimination of doubt where doubt is called for. It is, to repeat, by no means a specific Russian phenomenon. But it has become particularly widespread in Russia, where it has been embraced not just by the more gullible and less educated section of society but by sections of the intelligentsia, trained not to engage in blind belief but to use a critical approach.

Political confabulation in Russia was first described by the great theologian Vladimir Solovyov more than 100 years ago:

Let us imagine a person healthy in body and strong, talented and not unkind — for such is quite justly the general view of the Russian people. We know that this person (or people) is now in a very sorry state. If we want to help him, we have first to understand what is wrong with him. Thus we learn that he is not really mad; his mind is merely afflicted to a considerable extent by false ideas approaching folie de grandeur and a hostility towards everyone and everything. Indifferent to his real advantage, indifferent to damage likely to be caused, he imagines dangers that do not exist, and builds upon them the most absurd propositions. It seems to him that all his neighbours offend him, that they insufficiently bow to his greatness and in every way want to harm him. He accuses everyone in his family of damaging and deserting him, of crossing over to the enemy camp. He imagines that his neighbours want to undermine his house and even to launch an armed attack. Therefore he will spend enormous sums on the purchase of arms, revolvers and iron locks. If he has any time left, he will turn against his family. We shall not, of course, give him money, even though we are eager to help him, but will try to persuade him that his ideas are wrong and unjustified. If he will still not be convinced and if he perseveres in his mania, neither money nor drugs will help.

Even Solovyov could not offer an explanation, but his amazingly accurate description, written in 1893, seems to be just as valid today. And this will doubtless be investigated for a long time to come.