In Their Own Words, Russian Propagandists' Hopes for America

Timothy Snyder / Substack
In Their Own Words, Russian Propagandists' Hopes for America Moscow, Russia. (photo: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

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Russian propagandists' hopes for America

Dear Friends, from time to time I will use this space to discuss a new book. My essay today serves as a foreword to Julia Davis's new book on Russian television propagandists, In Their Own Words, which I heartily recommend to you.

Russian propaganda is in the shadow of America. Whereas the America only covers Russia when there is something to cover, and usually not even then, Russian propaganda television starts every night from the premise that whatever has happened that day is America's doing and America's fault. This does not reflect reality -- or a typical American's experience of reality.

It does reflect the problem that Russian propaganda is meant to solve. Since Vladimir Putin is the boss of bosses in an oligarchical regime where domestic policy is impossible, the propagandists must direct attention to the world beyond Russia in a way that makes Russia's leadership seem righteous.

Russian propagandists do this in the confidence that no one beyond Russia is watching. But Julia Davis has been, to the great benefit of us all. Thanks to her new book, In Their Own Words, we can understand the propagandists' job description, but also the tensions they feel when the outside world causes them problems.

Their basic posture is that America is in a constant war with the Russian Federation. Because Russia cannot fight and cannot win any actual war of that description, the propagandists are most comfortable when America is turned against itself. They talk almost never about Russian domestic politics, but obsess over every piece of evidence of American domestic weakness.

Donald Trump is their favorite weapon against America. Trump is described as a friend and ally, "our Trumpushka" and "Donald Fredovych." Out of office, he is described as Russia's great hope. He is "sorely missed"; Russia is "ready to elect you again". Russia propagandists had no trouble predicting that Trump would try a coup when he lost in 2020, because that is a familiar sort of behavior to them. They rejoiced when he did , because they thought that this could lead to a civil war in the United States. Their coverage of Trump's coup attempt was at first highly positive. When it failed, a very awkward pivot was made to the position that it had all been some sort of provocation by the Democrats.

One of the things that Russian propagandists expect not to be noticed, but which is brought home in the book, is that they believe that Trump is an idiot. Of course, it's hard to see, from their perspective, how they can believe anything else (except, perhaps, that he is a traitor, as is also sometimes hinted). In their public worldview, destroying the United States is the main aim, and here is an American who follows their talking points.

The same goes for Tucker Carlson. He is celebrated on Russian television, of course, and his clips replayed. But Russian propagandists naturally think anyone beyond Russia who is on their side must not be very bright, and they cannot quite stop themselves from saying so. It is the one point on which they are completely sincere.

It is important to note, and Julia Davis gives us all the details, the hypocrisy of the anti-American pose. A leading Russian propagandist sent his girlfriend to America to give birth so that his child would have American citizenship. Propagandists are clearly personally hurt by sanctions that separate them from their property in the European Union or make it harder for them to travel abroad. They send their children to study and work in the West, They don't have any real animus towards the West. This is, I think, one more reason why they can't resist thinking of Americans on their side as idiots.

When Putin ordered a full-scale war on Ukraine, the propagandists suddenly had a problem. Before the attack, as we are reminded in this book, there was great confidence among Russian propagandists that Ukraine would fall to Russia in "two days" or even "ten minutes." But when Russia actually did undertake a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it set off a chain of events that the propagandists found hard to master.

For one thing, they had been cut out of the loop. The invasion was meant to be its own propaganda, a "special military operation" that overthrew the Ukrainian government in three days, followed by a victory parade and a warm welcome by the Ukrainian masses. This did not happen, and was based upon a worldview (Putin's) that was both obviously wrong and impossible to criticize. Russian propagandists switched immediately to the comfortable idea that the war was really against America, and that America had initiated. Rereading Julia Davis's essays, I was struck by how quickly this happened -- within a few days.

The Ukrainians themselves had to be dehumanized. This was a direct consequence of the senselessness of the war. Russians had to be made to feel that they were somehow superior, and that war had some kind of logic. Its premise, as Putin had made clear, was that there was not really a Ukrainian state or nation; this was all a conspiracy, and would collapse immediately. If, as it emerged, more Ukrainians defended themselves than expected, that did not mean that Ukraine was real; it just meant that logic of the special military operation, killing the elites, had to be extended ever further downward into the population.

As Julia Davis shows, Russian propagandists use openly genocidal language over and over again, urging the extermination of vermin, worms, demons, zombies, etc. Putin's grotesque "denazification" framing of the war is genocidal. If all Ukrainians are defined as Nazis by nature, then it is right to kill them all. The "Nazi" claim has never had anything to do with political reality (the actual fascists, the ones in Russia, are calling for genocide), and always had everything to do with justifying that murderous project. After the Hamas attack on Israel, there was split in the Russian media elite between Russia's non-Nazi fascists and the Nazi ones. This too is chronicled here.

When reading Julia Davis's essays carefully, it becomes clear that America is not just needed as a propaganda target, but as a de facto ally, called in by the propagandists to correct the (unmentionable) mistakes made by their own (supposedly infallible) dictator. Russia needs Trump because it cannot manage on its own. Trump allows them to claim that everything is America's fault and that this is confirmed by America's own leadership. And then everything can go on in Russia as before.

Russia needs America to bail it out of its war with Ukraine. When you read Julia Davis's summaries of Russian propaganda day after day, it is abundantly clear that the propagandists themselves (despite all of the bluster) are aware that the war did not go according to plan, and indeed is going very badly. Again and again they are put in impossible positions: when Ukraine takes territory; when Russia fails to take territory; when more Russians have to be mobilized; when Yevgeny Prigozhin tries and coup. They cannot criticize Putin, and they know that Putin cannot win unaided: and so they root for his allies abroad.

This itself is worth emphasizing, at a time when many Europeans and Americans seem to be asking how Ukraine can win. The answer is simple. Ukraine can win if Europeans and Americans believe it can, and continue to help. Ironically, that emerges quite clearly from these pages. Russia's propagandists know this. They are relying entirely on their own domain, that of discourse. The war is not going well for Russia on the actual battlefield. The Europeans and the Americans are bearing essentially no costs. But if they can somehow decide that they are weary, Russia can win.

Russia can't win its own war, is the propagandists' evident conclusion -- but America can win Russia's war for it. America is of course not all-powerful, as the Russian propagandists claim to believe, but on this point they are right. As we near the U.S. elections, their discussions of Ukraine, like their discussions of Russia and everything else, focus entirely on what is happening inside the United States. The regime they serve, and the senseless and genocidal war it began, can be bought some time, if and only if the United States fails to support Ukraine. And so the heroes of Russia's war, in Russia's own propaganda, become the Americans who support it.

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