Russia’s ‘denazification’ project is only just beginning

5 April 2022

4:55 PM

5 April 2022

4:55 PM

Truth, infamously, is the first casualty of war. But the truth, in modern Russia, was critically wounded before it got anywhere close to the staging grounds, let alone the battlefield. And still the disinformation project limps on.

The most recent and blatant example of the Kremlin’s communications modus operandi is its instant write-off as ‘fake’ of photographs and video from Bucha, a quiet town outside Kyiv, now littered with civilian corpses and the broken machinery of war.

Perhaps the invading troops left in a hurry, or perhaps Bucha was meant as some kind of warning, but the perpetrators didn’t care to clear up their handiwork. Reporters have now recorded and shown us pictures of the dead in the street, with gunshots to the heads, their hands bound behind their backs. You can’t look away.

Reporters have also relayed the words of terrified relatives, who say despite the gunfire they buried their dead in back yards under light topsoil ‘so at least the dogs didn’t eat them’.

It’s a ‘provokatsia!’, some kind of diversionary tactic, spouts the Kremlin info-machine – it must be yet more ‘fake news’. As though some diabolical director had staged the whole nightmare a few hours earlier to give credulous western TV anchors sufficient carnage for a backdrop to the evening news.

And doubtless there will be those in this country who are ready to dispute the mute witness of the bodies on the ground. ‘Question More!’ as the Russia Today tag line puts it.

Putin’s ideological choreographers play on ideas of ‘narrative’, after all. ‘Information is like an unintelligent missile which never finds its target’ declared the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard in the 90s, the high priest of the sort of valueless waffle which is still fashionable in some circles.

Try repeating that idea to the people in Bucha who, days after the event, finally have the chance to honour those who were suddenly felled by rockets and mortars. Or were shot in the head. Tell such people it’s just post-modernism.

Putin and his entourage coolly damn as ridiculous westerners who buy into this equivocating nonsense; which is as it should be. Such folk were described by Lenin as ‘useful idiots’. One might update that epithet, in the light of Bucha, to ‘willing idiots.’ Surely the time has come to repudiate moral slipperiness and declare that sometimes, if obviously not always, we may believe what we see and hear. The howl-round of Russian deceit should be allowed to blow itself out at last.

And yet, amid the Kremlin’s attempts to push us into information meltdown, we must remain careful to distinguish rare isotopes of truthfulness, and study them properly. Because quite often the regime gives fair warning of what it intends.

Russia Today is the foreign-facing sump of the state agency, RIA Novosti. When it was still seen as trivial, a decade back, Margarita Simonyan, the channel’s editor-in-chief, was briefly famous for serving up a recipe for cooking a beaver. (It involved onion, carrot and bay leaves – nothing one couldn’t manage at home, if a beaver were to hand and the mood inexplicably took you.) The post resulted in a pungent but short-lived meme on social media, but was quickly forgotten.

Much more meaningfully, and just a little over a year ago, Simonyan appeared in person in the Donbass and called for Russia to ‘take back home’ eastern Ukraine. Few were paying attention – in the best case, observers noted that ‘she would say that, wouldn’t she?’ Nobody was really listening. Now, a mere 13 months later: open conflict.

However else you might qualify her, Margarita Simonyan is not an idiot. She didn’t have to travel to the Donbass, and she didn’t have to open her mouth when she got there. That she chose to do both of these things should have been taken with greater seriousness than her version of beaver broth.

It’s much too easy, and often fatal, to hope that dictatorships don’t really mean what they say. History suggests that they usually do. Simonyan, the rodent gourmet, wasn’t mincing her words. The high street in Bucha attests to the seriousness of her open call for warfare a year ago.

This is why an article published at the weekend by Simonyan’s mothership and paymaster, RIA Novosti, is something to be heeded. It speaks in detail of how Russia might achieve the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine – the first stated aim of the invasion.

The piece comes just as the Kremlin would have us believe that the goals of the so-called ‘special military operation’ have been recalibrated, and perhaps all will end in some sort of queasy compromise in the east of the country. In case you have fallen for this idea, here’s a quote from the RIA Novosti article in question:

‘Apart from the Ukrainian leadership, a substantial part of the population is also guilty of being passively Nazi, and facilitators of Nazism. They supported the Nazi regime and urged it forward… The further denazification of the population will require re-training through ideological repression and fierce censorship, not only in the political sphere but also in the sphere of culture and education.’

The author goes on to say: ‘History teaches us that Ukraine cannot exist as a nation state’. Note – this was written less than a week ago. He recommends further that Ukrainian school textbooks be confiscated; that the population should be compelled to denounce one another for the greater good; that memorials to Russian soldiers should be erected to commemorate the war against Ukrainian fascism; and that ‘anti-Nazi’ commissions should be established in what remains of the country for at least 25 years.

All of this sounds like quotes from a black and white documentary, recorded a long time ago. But it was published the day before yesterday by a regime that is painstakingly careful to control what emanates from its maw.

The point of a dictator is that he wishes to be heard. That’s the essence of the word – it derives from the notion of a uniquely authoritative speaker. So why do we refuse to listen?

Is it somehow more convenient to pretend that Putin is having us on, and that when push comes to shove, he’s basically a reasonable chap, just like us? Or perhaps in the final analysis the West shoved him in the first place, and that therefore we ourselves are to blame? This is surely not the case. Time and again, Putin’s gang has done exactly as they said they would. Commentators can enjoy puzzling out whether Russia is withdrawing this or that battalion, and what the new military stance might mean.

But experience must compel us to pay attention to what the supreme commander, and his dreadful mouthpieces, are actually saying.

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