27th February 2011,
Democratist was not especially surprised to hear President Medvedev’s comments in Vladikavkaz last week suggesting that outside forces are plotting a revolution against Russia.
The idea that the US is plotting to unseat the current Russian government (or its allies) in order to get its hands on Russian oil has been making the rounds in the Russian domestic media since at least the 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, and gained intensity after the “Orange Revolution” in late 2004 (indeed, a great deal of such propaganda was promoted domestically within Ukraine at the time as part of Yanukovich’s unsuccessful election campaign; Democratist remembers reading Russian-language articles accusing Yukashenko’s American-born wife of being a “CIA Colonel”). The trend has seen a major renaissance since the recent revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the middle East.
These conspiracy theories continue to circulate despite (or more likely because of) the fact that democracy promotion is has been an openly admitted, and highly successful aspect of US foreign policy for many decades, and has been pursued quite openly by organizations such as NDI and Radio Free Europe, and through international organizations such as the OSCE (of which Russia is a member-state, and as such has agreed to abide by democratic norms such as the holding of free and fair elections by signing the 1990 Copenhagen document).
The rationale behind the promotion of the “Colour Revolution” conspiracy theories (whose central defining motif is to ascribe an unwarranted role in these revolutions to the CIA, George Soros, the Bilderburg group and so on, and to play down the role of popular sentiment and mobilization in the countries concerned) is an unwillingness to accept the appeal of democratic governance for people in autocratic states generally, and of the applicability of the democratic model to Russia specifically. The need for the continued promotion of such a view of the world is dictated by the Russian elite’s unwillingness relax their grip on power, or allow themselves to be put to the test of a fair election (regardless of how popular the opinion polls may claim they are).
So what is the historical background to such conspiracy theories (in the Russian context) and who how do they circulate and gain currency?
As David Aaronovitch recounts in some detail in his excellent Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History (2009), the various incarnations of the Russian secret service have had a lengthy record of both creating and promoting conspiracy theory to influence the world view of the Russian people for their own political ends.
A good early 20th Century example (which we have mentioned before) is the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion; a forged document supposedly describing how senior representatives of the Jewish community were plotting to achieve world domination, which was in fact cooked-up by the Okhrana (secret police) in the early 1900’s as a weapon to bolster tsarist autocracy against reformism (many reformist politicians were Jews). The Protocols later became a favorite of Hitler’s, and were added to the secondary-school curriculum in Germany in the 1930’s, eventually making a contribution to the genocidal mentality that led to the holocaust.
Another example of the NKVD’s (as it was by then called) handiwork can be seen in the Moscow “show trials” of the late 1930’s. At these trials a number of senior Communists were coerced into implicating themselves in a complex series of conspiracies apparently intended to derail Soviet industrialization and overthrow Stalin in favour of the exiled Leon Trotsky. Needless to say (as was later admitted) no such plots ever existed; they were invented by the NKVD in order to consolidate Stalin’s grip on power, provide excuses for the numerous shortcomings of the first 5-year plan, and (significantly) to pander to Stalin’s own deep personal paranoia. As Robert Conquest has described in The Great Terror (1968/1991), many millions died in the subsequent purges.
Other historical examples of the KGB promoting conspiracy theories, both domestically and abroad (e.g. in relation to the Kennedy assassination) abound. Those interested can read The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) for more details.
In contemporary terms, as Democratist has noted before, a considerable proportion of the work of Russia Today seems to be aimed at the promotion of similarly exculpatory or self-serving mythologizing such as the work of Daniel Estulin. Conspiracy theory continues to play an important role within the Russian propaganda pantheon, and has been a central element in official attempts to propagandize the “Colour Revolutions,” and now more recent events in the middle East .
For Democratist, the continuing potential danger of state-promoted conspiracy theory is obvious. As we see in Voodoo Histories they have been a contributory element in at least two of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century and (combined with the official promotion of Russian nationalism) continue to be an important tool available to the nomenklatura for the control and pacification of their own people, and the sowing of confusion and division abroad.
But the greatest danger of the state promotion of conspiracy theories in this way is that (as we appear to be witnessing in Medvedev’s recent speech) eventually the elite will almost inevitably come to believe in their own lies: Going back to The Mitrokhin Archive, Christopher Andrew notes that many among the KGB senior ranks still fully believed in the existence of Zionist/capitalist plots into the 1960’s and 1970’s. Separately, Andrew recounts how the KGB sought to play to the Kremlin’s (illusory) fears of western invasion in their intelligence reporting in the early 1980’s. This resulted in tensions over the 1983 NATO Able Archer ’83 exercise that may well have brought the possibility of nuclear war closer than it had been at any time since 1962.