Russia’s war against Ukraine is entering its fifth month, despite the failure of several rounds of peace talks and the imposition of harsh economic sanctions by Western countries against Russia.
The war is not taking place only on Ukrainian soil. President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda is propelling the war in Ukraine through Russian media, while continuing to escalate tensions with the West. This propaganda – whether aired as talking points on TV shows or appearing as the now ubiquitous “Z” symbol – works and will continue to work because it is a proven tactic. repackaged from the complicated history of Russia.
The appeal of Putin’s propaganda is its repetition. It draws on similar types of disinformation used during Russia’s Imperial and Soviet eras that recycle age-old narratives from the evil West. Putin’s popularity is skyrocketing, with 83% of people saying in the latest April 2022 estimates that they support their leader. Most Russians also support the war in Ukraine.
As scholars of critical cultural and international studies, we believe that Putin’s popularity and the widespread impact of his propaganda are not accidental. Putin is giving Russians what they’ve been missing since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991: a boost of national pride.
Appeal to old greatness
Most Russians have long considered themselves patriots, ready to lay down their lives for a greater goal: to liberate Europe from Nazism and the toxic influence of the West, and also to unify the divided countries that were once united. under Imperial Russia from 1721 to 1917.
The Imperial Russian Army sacrificed itself for the larger goal of preserving Mother Russia through many wars of this era. Former Russian Emperor Peter the Great became a national symbol of pride and power in the 17th and early 18th centuries as he waged wars against Sweden and others to expand Russian territory. Putin noted the similarities he shares with Peter the Great.
Political leaders continued to serve as strong figureheads in Russia over the following years. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, for example, Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin became Russia’s new national symbol of strength. Statues of his face and body appeared in every central square in every city, town, and village in the Soviet Union – and many remain intact today.
Joseph Stalin came to power after Lenin’s death in 1924 and became particularly important as a national symbol and leader during World War II. The war became an identity-making experience for Soviet citizens. Some 27 million people in the Soviet Union died during the war, sacrificing themselves for Stalin and the Soviet Union.
A Renaissance man
Decades later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, another political leader emerged as a new national symbol of unity: Vladimir Putin. Putin took office in 2000 as a hypermasculine, decisive and fearless leader who followed and aspired to embody admired former leaders, like Lenin and Stalin. Like his predecessors, Putin was an uncompromising patriot with a historically familiar iron grip on politics.
Yet Putin was also someone Russians could consider “one of us.” Putin plays the role of a strict but caring father towards Russian citizens. While he has cracked down on LGBTQ+ rights and decriminalized domestic violence, Putin has also held annual hotline sessions to meet the urgent needs of citizens.
Poutine also fishes, rides horses and swims with dolphins – all creating an image of him as tough, yet loving and relatable. Today, Putin’s cult of popularity is also tied to the idea of reviving Russia’s past to restore the country’s greatness. This desire to rebuild Russia in the image of its past justifies Putin’s war against Ukraine and the continuation of the country’s political and economic confrontations with the West.
Return to the USSR
Putin remembers Russia’s glorious past from the early days of his presidency. In 2003, he published a modification of the State Anthem of the Soviet Union in the New Russian National Anthem, with only minor changes in the lyrics and the same melody.
In 2005, Putin called the dissolution of the Soviet Union “the major geopolitical disaster of the century”, pointing out that thousands of Russians were stranded outside their home countries. Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union helped him justify various conflicts, such as the 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Putin defended Crimea’s forced annexation to Ukraine in 2014 as reunification with Russia. Similarly, Putin claims that the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine has always been Russian. According to the president’s worldview, the proverbial Russian bear is just retrieving its stray cubs.
Another element of Putin’s appeal to Russians is how he defends the nation against Western powers. Putin boasts that he is immune to criticism from the West and condemns the West, especially the United States, for its support for Ukraine and economic sanctions against Russia.
Tightly controlled Russian media regularly reproduce official government lines, falsely reporting that anti-Russian sanctions are killing the global economy, for example. In turn, Western criticism of Russia is counterproductive, further unifying Russians and strengthening their patriotism.
Narratives in Russia about everything from the war in Ukraine to the state of the economy create a reality very different from that experienced outside the country.
The fusion of nostalgia and state-controlled propaganda in Russia secures popular support for the ongoing war. The call to fight “Nazi Ukraine” replaced the decades-old rallying cries to defeat “Nazi Germany”.
Inspired by the memory of Russia’s fight against Nazism in World War II, Russia is now fighting another holy war – for a world against Nazism, as a banner at a March 2022 event Putin attended .
The letter “Z” is a new symbol of war in Russia that emerged when Russian military machinery was seen rolling through Ukrainian streets in late February.
Since then, Z has grown in popularity – appearing on military and civilian vehicles, Russian administrative buildings, and on walls as graffiti. Some Russians even wear a “Z” on their clothes.
The Russian government has declared that “Z” represents victory, unification and the new wave of Russian patriotism. This spirit of patriotism is strong across generations, including among children and adolescents.
Propelled by powerful propaganda and persuasive historical parallelism, Russia’s propaganda war continues, and it’s not going to stop any time soon.