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Russia’s War: The need for security is at the core of the battle for the hearts and minds of the Russian people

Jade McGlynn examines the effects of propaganda on Russian attitudes to the war against Ukraine

Damage in the streets of Bucha, Ukraine after Russian soldiers retreated, on April 3rd, 2022. Hours before Russian troops began withdrawing from the suburban town, a Russian soldier left a trail of blood and devastated lives in a last paroxysm of violence. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times
The streets of Bucha, Ukraine, after Russian soldiers retreated on April 3th, 2022. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times
Russia's War
Author: Jade McGlynn
ISBN-13: 978-1509556755
Publisher: Polity
Guideline Price: £50

When Stalin died in March 1953, people poured into the streets to express their grief. One young man, under the influence of Soviet propaganda, wrote: “I am immensely impressed by the death of a great man. I keep thinking of his humanity.” That young man was Andrei Sakharov who would later personify resistance to authoritarian rule in the Soviet Union and be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Intense propaganda yields results but in Sakharov’s case it wore off.

Seventy years later Jade McGlynn, in Russia’s War, examines the effects of propaganda on Russian attitudes to the war against Ukraine. She comes to the conclusion that “Putin doesn’t shape Russians’ views on foreign policy so much as he articulates them. The Kremlin has used smoke and mirrors to encourage Russians to support the “special military operation” – but the Russian people are co-authors of this deception”.

There are, indeed, those who believe what they are told by the Kremlin because that is what they want to believe, but there are others who do not fall into that category and the demonisation of an entire people rings alarm bells.

Many Russians have been courageous enough to risk imprisonment by criticising the euphemistic “special military operation” but McGlynn portrays them as sneering intellectuals from Moscow and St Petersburg who look down on provincial pro-war Russians. She compares their attitude to the way: “North London liberals see everyone who voted for Brexit as an idiot or a racist or the coastal progressives who depict 2016 Trump voters as shills or fascists” and while she’s at it she gets in a dig against President Biden for saying “our quarrel is not with the Russian people”.


She seems in this instance to portray the anti-war Russians as the bad guys. In any event there is strong evidence that many Russians opposed to the “special military operation” do not come from the sneering sector of society to which McGlynn relegates them.

The BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg and my friend and colleague Robyn Dixon, the Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post, have been reporting on arrests and imprisonment of ordinary people in places far from Russia’s two great cities. In Arkhangelsk, in the far north, a 20-year-old student is under house arrest and faces a possible 10 years in prison for posting her views on social media. In the bleak Siberian city of Barnaul a reporter has been given a six-year jail sentence for posting about the deaths of civilians in a theatre in Mariupol.

Down south in Krasnodar, a city with strong historical, cultural and ethnic links to Ukraine, a couple in a restaurant were overheard bemoaning the war. The police were called, the couple were handcuffed and taken away. In the same city an elderly woman on a bus was attacked by fellow passengers when she described Russia as “an empire that sends its men to war in cheap rubber boots”.

In all of these cases the “offenders” were denounced to the authorities or physically attacked by their fellow Russian citizens. There has been a long tradition of denouncing friends and neighbours in the Soviet Union. When I was leaving for home at the end of my term as the Moscow correspondent of this newspaper, a Russian friend gave me a chilling gift. It was a small booklet from the Stalin era which instructed people how to spy on their neighbours, to listen to the songs they sang when in their cups and how to have them sent to prison camps.

The tradition of the 13-year-old Pavlik Morozov lives on. Back in the 1930s he was hero-worshipped as a boy who denounced and was then murdered by his family. It has emerged since that the Pavlik story was an invention designed to encourage children to spy on their parents but the mentality created back then still exists.

This further accentuates the bravery of Russians who speak out against the war. They deserve greater recognition than McGlynn gives them.

But evidence that the large majority of Russians support the war is incontrovertible and comes from Russia’s only independent pollster the Levada Centre. Even in that context the book’s main thrust that the Russian people in their entirety rather than their masters are to blame does not ring true. Levada’s assessment shows that 74 per cent of Russians say they “support the actions of Russian military forces in Ukraine.” These are divided into 42 per cent who say they “definitely support” and 32 per cent who simply say they “support”.

But when asked if they thought it necessary to continue the military actions only 24 per cent say they definitely want to keep the war going, which is what Putin says he wants, while a further 15% say they “rather support” the idea.

McGlynn emphasises these nuances by quoting from a study by Russian sociologists which shows that while some wholeheartedly believe what they are told by the state because that’s what they want to believe and others are Great Russian Nationalists who consider Ukraine to be a wayward Russian province, there are also those who “acquiesce to the war since they don’t really understand what is going on”.

The book is at its best when describing the methods and techniques used by the authorities to wash the brains of its citizens. The human need for security is at the core of the propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the Russian people. The Kremlin’s spindoctors have been using every possible psychological means to convince Russians that they are under threat but will be protected by the regime. They have also closed down all media that might question this official line.

Perhaps the most powerful propaganda weapon being used is to compare Russia’s role in the current conflict with its heroism in the second World War or the Great Patriotic War as it has become known in both Russia and Ukraine. That war plays an immense part in the way Russians think. In the siege of Leningrad alone more people lost their lives than the entire fatalities suffered jointly by the US and UK in the entire war. One of those who died there was Putin’s elder brother.

This is something Russians have been reminded of since their school days and there are inchoate memories of Ukrainians who sided with the Nazis in that conflict. These days Moscow describes Ukrainians as Banderovtsy or followers of the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera who is still lionised in Lviv. In a long footnote McGlynn describes him as a fascist leader who “bears responsibility for unspeakable and terrible crimes”.

She goes on to say that just as few celebrate him for this as people in Britain celebrate Winston Churchill for Tonypandy. The comparison is a bizarre one in that thousands of Jews and Poles were killed by Bandera’s followers whereas Churchill’s intervention in Tonypandy caused the death of just one single Welsh miner.

But Bandera operated in a small section of western Ukraine where Lviv is the main city. This punitive war is taking place way to the east. The apartment buildings being razed to the ground there are inhabited not by the descendants of those who supported Bandera but by people whose grandparents fought side by side with their Russian comrades in the Soviet army.

Russians are being told what they want to hear, McGlynn writes, and they don’t want to hear that democracy is good for them. She looks back on the 1990s as a time of dashed hopes that engendered an anti-democracy outlook in Russia. I lived in Moscow and travelled in Russia in those days and saw what McGlynn describes. Most Russians became impoverished in the mad dash to the market economy while others corruptly amassed great wealth. The very word “democrat” became a term of abuse.

She points out that Yeltsin and his family did well out of those days and bears much of the blame. But in my view he was also indulged by a Western establishment that saw itself as the winner of the Cold War with a consequent right to impose its views on the losers.

From time to time McGlynn slips from professional analysis into the “Four Legs (all Ukrainians) Good- Two Legs (all Russians) Bad” mode. This is evident particularly in her views on atrocities committed by the Kremlin’s forces in Ukraine. These she puts down simply to “Russian soldiers” when there is evidence from German military intelligence that the Wagner mercenary force played a leading role in many barbarities, and that Chechen volunteers under the command of the warlord Ramzan Kadyrov have been involved in unspeakable activities.

“Russian soldiers” in the form of recent conscripts who did not have the cash to escape the draft by fleeing like a million of their compatriots are now being sent into battle there with minimal training and “cheap rubber boots”. The Kremlin is as callous with the lives of its own “Russian soldiers” as it has been towards the lives of Ukrainian civilians.

Seamus Martin is a former Moscow correspondent of The Irish Times and has worked extensively in Ukraine as an observer for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Further reading

East West Street (W&N, 2017) by eminent lawyer Philippe Sands gives a picture of Jewish life and death in the Lviv area under the Nazis. Two central characters Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin are lawyers from that region who devised the concepts of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide. The US has charged Russia with Crimes against Humanity during the war in Ukraine.

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Penguin, 2016) by Serhii Plokhy, is an even-handed history of Ukraine by an eminent Ukrainian historian. He details not only the suffering of his country over the centuries by invaders and occupiers but also Ukrainian complicity in Soviet rule.

In All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin (Public Affairs, 2016), Mikhail Zygar a distinguished anti-Kremlin journalist, uniquely portrays the Kremlin court in the words of its courtiers.