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A new book explores how conspiracy thinking migrated from the margins of Russia’s public sphere to the very core of the country’s political discourse.by Maxim Alyukov 12 September 2018
A review of Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World by Ilya Yablokov. Wiley, 2018. 288 pages.
Ilya Yablokov’s Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World is a solid and illuminating piece of scholarship. Based on the author’s PhD dissertation, this book investigates the role, scope, uses, and implications of conspiracy theories in post-Soviet Russia. Tracing the origins of Russian conspiracy theories back to the Crimean War in 1853-1856, Yablokov investigates the evolution of conspiratorial thinking in Russia’s Imperial and Soviet periods and, finally, turns to his ultimate goal: the uses of conspiracy theories in post-Soviet Russia.
Yablokov shows convincingly that instead of being primarily a grassroots phenomenon as in the case of the United States – the capital of conspiratorial culture – in post-Soviet Russia, conspiracy theories exist in a complex political environment with many participants: grassroots activists, public intellectuals, journalists, and politicians, as well as members of the legislative and executive branches of the government. After Boris Yeltsin came to power in the 1990s, conspiracy theories were widely employed by the opposition to Yeltsin’s regime. The adversaries of an independent Russia’s first president interpreted the collapse of the Soviet Union as a planned action envisioned by the West – and executed by the corrupt Soviet elite and predatory opposition.
However, after Putin’s rise to power, these theories migrated to another layer of political life. Putin’s government turned them into a vital instrument for mobilizing supporters and discrediting opponents. This shift was closely associated with a number of Russian political technologists and politicians, such as Gleb Pavlovsky, chief of the pro-Kremlin Foundation for Effective Politics, and Vladislav Surkov, first deputy chief of the presidential administration, who crafted the conceptual framework underlying the new regime and developed a network of pro-Kremlin public intellectuals, educational programs, and publishing houses. Having moved from the bottom-up to the top-down level, conspiratorial thinking also migrated from the margins of Russia’s public sphere to the very core of the country’s political discourse – especially after the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2013-2014.
Yablokov succeeds in detailing the particular exchanges of conspiracy arguments between elites and the technology of their dissemination. It is common knowledge that conspiracy theories have become an important tool for the Putin regime, but the technology behind their dissemination isn’t.
Here is an example of a specific case Yablokov describes. In December 2006, state-owned newspaper Rossiiskaia Gazeta published an interview with Boris Ratnikov, a former general of Russia’s Federal Guard Service, in which he claimed that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright thought that mankind should distribute Russia’s rich natural resources, under the control of the U.S. In 2007, this particular idea was further developed during a presidential press conference, when a worker from Novosibirsk, Alexander Sibert, asked Putin a question on this topic. Since all questions are planned in advance during these events, it is logical to assume that this reiteration of Ratnikov’s theory was part of the government’s anti-Western propaganda campaign during Russia’s 2007 parliamentary elections. In 2014, the “Ratnikov-Sibert theory” was reiterated by Putin, though both Ratnikov and Sibert denied that Albright had made this statement.
This exchange demonstrates the way the system works: first, pro-regime politicians or intellectuals launch a conspiracy theory in the public sphere. Second, it is mobilized by the regime as a resource to convince supporters and discredit opponents. At the same time, the regime denies its authorship of the theory to avoid responsibility. Rather than referring to anecdotal evidence, Yablokov uses the Ratnikov-Sibert case and many others to build a robust and comprehensive picture of the way the Kremlin’s intellectual and propaganda machinery functions.
Yablokov’s research also shows good ideological analysis. It clearly and vividly depicts how the Kremlin’s intellectual framework has undergone major ideological shifts since the 1990s. From its inability to establish intellectual hegemony in the 1990s to the “Putin majority” of the 2000s; from the clear ideological divide between pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet forces to reconciliation with the Stalinist past; from the Soviet vision of the West as an enemy to Surkov’s vision of the West as a competitor – all these tectonic changes in the regime’s intellectual foundations are carefully analyzed and theorized. Moreover, the elite and pro-Kremlin networks producing and conveying these ideas are not depicted as a monolithic whole. Instead, Yablokov builds a complex picture, identifying tensions, disagreements, and conflicts. Sometimes, the Kremlin authorizes the use of conspiracy theories, but distances itself from them – as in the case of Ratnikov. Sometimes, particular elites and intellectuals, such as Alexander Dugin and Sergey Glazyev, become silenced or ousted because they are “too excessively devoted to conspiracies to be part of the rational and cynical Russian politics.”
Questions Not Answered
The arguments mentioned above demonstrate the strong side of the book – given this analysis, it is a worthy read. However, there are some points that lack empirical confirmation and theoretical clarity that I want to point out. Some of them are shortcomings of the book. In this case, they indicate common theoretical and methodological problems associated with the analysis of post-Soviet reality rather than personal or intellectual flaws of the author. Some are, rather, possible avenues for further research absent in contemporary public and academic debate but still essential.
Despite the book’s informative and illuminating argument, there are still some shortcomings that should be addressed. First of all, Yablokov’s analysis of the uses of conspiracy theories is often based on hypotheses and can hardly be fully confirmed empirically. This problem is related to the limits of the method selected for the analysis and cannot be resolved in the conceptual analysis based on the publicly available sources presented in the book. My comments are therefore a suggestion for further research rather than criticism.
It is not sufficiently clear what the nature of the links between different agents involved in Russia’s conspiracy machine is. For instance, in 2007, the Russian publishing house Evropa, which is associated with political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky, published the book Vragi Putina (Putin’s Enemies) as part of an effort to provide Putin with intellectual support and discredit his opponents. Later that year, Putin addressed his supporters during a mass rally held at the Luzhniki Stadium. Here, he repeated arguments from the book “almost word for word” in Yablokov’s view. The author concludes that “since the book had been published before the rally, these parallels demonstrate a close relationship between Putin’s speechwriters and the ideas elaborated by the pro-Kremlin spin doctors” (p. 148). Similarly, in 2005, Vladislav Surkov gave a speech at a closed association of Russian businessmen in which he prioritized the creation of a “sovereign democracy” in Russia. A few weeks before that, Putin mentioned that the collapse of the Soviet Union is a “major geopolitical disaster.”
On this, Yablokov concludes: “the articulation of these two ideas in such a short space of time demonstrates growing concern among political elites at this time about social cohesion” (p. 7). These conclusions based on indirect evidence, such as proximity in time, are common in the book and are, in nature, educated guesses: they do not guarantee that the link exists. To build a more convincing empirical foundation for the argument, the author would need to triangulate data and draw on a more wide variety of sources, including expert interviews and, in the best case scenario, interviews with people who were or are close to the Russian presidential administration.
This purely external view of the conspiratorial machine narrows the picture and prevents us from analyzing essential and yet unseen mechanisms. Who has the agency in this complicated alliance – the executive branch or Kremlin-affiliated intellectuals? Did people like Pavlovsky or Surkov come up with their ideas because they were asked to, or were the concepts introduced based on their initiative and then taken up by the executive? To what extent did the executive constrain them?
Consider the following example. In 2014, Russian independent magazine Colta published a number of anonymous interviews with employees of Russian TV channels, detailing the way the propaganda machinery works. What was clear from these interviews is that in the beginning of the Ukraine conflict in 2014, Russian TV channels were being managed manually by members of the presidential administration. As one of the interviewees notes, even the use of particular phrases (such as “junta,” “Banderites,” “ukropi”) was coordinated personally by press secretary Dmitry Peskov at weekly meetings. In contrast, anonymous interviews with employees of Russian TV channels published by the independent magazine The Insider in 2017 tells an entirely different story.
In 2017, there was no manual control anymore. There were “curators” who were supposed to control journalists, TV anchors, and managers of TV channels, but employees managed themselves according to implicit, but clear and intuitive “internal rules.” These rules dictated the understanding of what the presidential administration expects them to do – they became a part of the journalistic routine. If this assumption is correct, then we witnessed a tremendous change in the way the Russian propaganda machine, including conspiracy theories and theorists, operates. Instead of being piloted manually, this machine became autonomous. It is clear that the analysis of such issues requires different methods, such as personal interviews, and it is tough and potentially dangerous to find insiders in the administration and TV channels who could and would be willing to provide such details. However, given the topic of Yablokov’s analysis, it would greatly complement the purely external analysis of the way Russia’s conspiratorial/propagandist apparatus functions and would allow building a more stereoscopic, multidimensional picture.
Light on Theory and International Context
An excellent analysis of the uses of conspiracy theories, Yablokov’s research also lacks the depth of a theoretical, empirical, and comparative study of conspiracy theories themselves. Conspiracy theories in the book are rather considered as frames used to mobilize supporters and discredit opponents at particular moments.
In terms of data, the in-depth analysis of conspiracy theories themselves is somewhat limited compared to the circumstances surrounding them. Being stripped of specific conspiracy theories used as examples, the text would still have a coherent argument. It considers the main events in post-Soviet Russian history, as well as the main actors involved, and would be a legitimate example of political history/political science analysis of post-Soviet Russia. Collecting data for his book about conspiracy theories, Eliot Borenstein set up a website, Plots Against Russia. The analysis is yet to be done, but Borenstein’s archive represents a systematic effort to collect conspiracy theories in post-Soviet Russia. Yablokov’s research would also benefit from this kind of systematic basis.
Regarding theory, a few theoretical remarks about conspiracy theories are limited to brief mentions of scholars like Ernesto Laclau, Michael Foucault, and others, and theorize very general features not specific to conspiracy theories, such as the intersection of knowledge and power and Lacan-based linguistic rules of organizing the political subject. The author gives an impression that the argument will not suffer much if it is stripped of the theoretical framework.
Concerning comparative analysis, the author does not put Russia’s conspiracy machine into an international perspective. (In fact, the “Post-Soviet World” mentioned in the title is not discussed in the book at all: the analysis is limited to Russia.) Although Yablokov frequently cites scholars of conspiracy theories in the West, his main conclusion is limited to the fact that conspiracy theories in Russia are initiated from above as compared to the grassroots nature of Western conspiracy theories. This argument is illuminating. Yet the book and our understanding of the subject would benefit from a more fundamental comparison. According to the author, the way “the Russian political and intellectual elites have made use of conspiracy theories in the new millennium show how they can be imported from, and, later, exported to, other countries.” However, the analysis of how they are exported, adjusted, and reinterpreted is limited to a few remarks about the particular conspiracy theory about “the New World Order.”
Perhaps, a more systematic comparison would yield interesting results. For instance, in his book on Russia’s post-colonial identity, Viatcheslav Morozov argues that Russia is a subaltern empire in relationships with the West, and has yet to borrow the Western language of the rule of law and democracy because it does not have its own language of self-description. Other scholars show that Putin’s regime increasingly relies on the Western far-right to build legitimacy in the eyes of both the domestic population and international audiences. Being transported to Russia, do Western conspiracy theories dictate the shape and content of their Russian variations? Or are they instead entirely reshaped to fit local political narratives? The way imported conspiracy theories are reshaped to fit local narratives would give us a better understanding of the local political environment.
Moreover, after the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2013 and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the use of conspiratorial thinking and arguments has become increasingly popular around the world. In the Baltic States, the topic of Russian influence is instrumentalized by domestic elites to achieve political goals. As Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev argues in a 2017 discussion about the effects of Russian propaganda outside Russia, in the Baltic States “more people are reading articles about the danger of Russian propaganda than are reading the propaganda itself.” Vytautas Bruveris, a Lithuanian journalist, continues: “[Russian propaganda] has become a convenient way for Western political elites to discount their own failures, crises, and impotence.” Finally, in this same discussion, journalist and analyst Vladimir Soloviev argues that “rebroadcasting this notorious ‘propaganda’” has become a means to keep audiences engaged and earn money in Moldova.
Similarly, after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the alleged link to Russia has become an important trope used in political debate to deal with dissent in the U.S. “Russia” is a codename for “Donald Trump” for American liberals, as brilliantly noted by Ivan Krastev. These arguments do not belittle the authoritarian nature of Putin’s regime. They demonstrate that conspiracy theories in public discourse have become a common tactic. This pattern should be studied as a whole: putting Russia in the international perspective is essential for understanding the global political process, not only Russian specifics.
There are several inaccuracies and missing events that slightly weaken the book’s argument. First of all, Yablokov is interested in how conspiracy theories are employed and used to legitimize or induce conservative social change. For instance, quoting other scholars, the author argues that “Putin’s remark that the Internet was a ‘CIA project’ served to kickstart the Kremlin’s offensive against the internet industry” (p. 184). Similarly, conspiracy theories were “the starting point for this new round of legislative amendments” intended to repress independent NGOs in 2015 (p. 184). These connections are hypothesized rather than proven: Yablokov did not conduct interviews with people involved in decision-making who would indicate that repressive legislation resulted from conspiracy theories; similarly, there are no publicly available documents indicating that conspiracy theories are the reason for this particular piece of legislation. However, there are other cases not mentioned in this book where this link is clear.
For instance, in 2012, the Russian channel NTV released “The Anatomy of Protest,” a documentary film consisting of pro-government conspiracy theories about the 2011-2012 Russian protests. The film, produced by journalist Arkady Mamontov, provoked wide controversy but did not lead to any action by the government. However, a second “Anatomy of Protest” released later that year directly led to the action taken by the Russian Prosecutor General. Based on conspiracy theories in this film, the Prosecutor General launched an investigation resulting in the criminal charges filed against three important left-wing opposition leaders: Sergey Udaltsov, Konstantin Lebedev, and Leonid Razvozhaev. All three were found guilty. Unlike in the cases of NGOs and the internet, in the Udaltsov-Razvozhaev-Lebedev case, conspiracy theories were directly used as evidence for criminal charges.
Further, Yablokov’s analysis inaccurately depicts the context around the idea of the “Putin majority” in 2011-2012. In one of the chapters, Yablokov analyses the 2011-2012 post-election protests and the regime’s reaction. In particular, he argues that the Kremlin attempted to construct the concept of a “Putin majority,” representing “the majority of the Russian people, who opposed the minority of ‘dissatisfied Muscovites.’ ” (p. 162).
As it follows from Yablokov’s analysis, this conceptual figure of a majority was constructed and promoted by pro-Kremlin media, spin doctors, and regime-affiliated intellectuals only. This is not accurate. As researcher Ilya Matveev shows in his analysis, many prominent intellectuals in the 2011-2012 protest movement, such as Dmitry Olshansky, Andrey Loshak, and others, reproduced this discourse. Matveev concludes that liberal intellectuals “accept the rules of the polemics forced on them by the Kremlin and to treat the image of the ‘people’ created by the Kremlin as an accurate reflection of the ‘people’ they write about themselves. In this culture war, the two sides are fueling each other’s cause.”
This particular inaccuracy is indicative of a more general flaw. In Yablokov’s narrative, there are three distinct forces involved in the process of production, distribution, and consumption of conspiracy theories: the elite, oppositional intellectuals, and the general public. Yablokov gives a nuanced and stereoscopic view of the first group: the executive branch does not coincide with pro-Kremlin intellectuals; they do not always agree, sometimes have conflicts, and the relationships between them are structured in a complicated way. However, the public and the opposition seem to be depicted as monolithic wholes.
As Ilya Mateev demonstrates, the Russian opposition is unevenly structured too. Some of them tend to accept Kremlin narratives depending on their social position, some of them do not. Do they share conspiracy theories? What conspiracy theories do they share and why? This kind of multi-actor analysis of production and dissemination is necessary for building a more realistic argument, and yet it remains absent.
Persuasion, elite discourse, and public opinion
The Russian public also remains the weak link of the book. Yablokov extensively relies on polling data as a self-evident source of evidence and positive conclusions that the conspiracy theories disseminated by the Kremlin and Kremlin-sympathetic networks did or do work. According to the author, conspiracy theories are used by the regime to achieve national cohesion, gather support, and discredit opponents; all these goals are achieved with varying degrees of success depending on particular periods and circumstances. Yet there is no way to establish whether conspiracy theories speak to the Russian public given contemporary Russian circumstances.
The Levada Center data frequently cited by Yablokov as evidence is not credible due to certain methodological and theoretical problems. Indeed, there are problems associated with public opinion research in authoritarian regimes and post-Soviet society. For many Russian citizens, pollsters represent an opportunity to reach the government with their complaints and requests, which biases results. Also, given the dramatically low response rate to surveys in Russia, it is safe to assume that most people who refuse to answer interviewers’ questions are dissatisfied and have political reasons to be so. As a result, they are not detected by pollsters. This phenomenon is also known as “preference falsification” and is extensively studied in political science.
Likewise, there is an authoritative and long-standing theoretical tradition in the field of political communication that questions the idea of asking questions and accepting responses at face value regardless of particular political context. Based on dual theories of cognition backed by solid experimental data, scholars in political communication have found that the opinion formation process is very much dependent on a wide number of factors, such as political knowledge, context, distance of events. For the majority of people not interested in politics, an individual’s opinion and perception of politics is a product of a complicated machinery of tricks used to ease one’s cognitive load and arrive at a conclusion without effort.
U.S. sociologist John Mueller ironically summarizes the difficulty of polling people in the context of fluctuating opinion:
“The respondent, on his doorstep or in his living room, is barraged with a set of questions on a wide variety of subjects … aware that their views are being preserved for the ages, they do not wish to appear unprepared at that moment. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising to find respondents pontificating in a seemingly authoritative, if basically ‘truthful,’ manner on subjects about which they know nothing or to which they have never given any thought whatsoever.”
The analysis of public opinion – in all its complexity, using quantitative data – would require theoretical and methodological resources that Russian pollsters do not possess. When qualitative data is used, the results are very different. For instance, Ellen Mickiewicz shows that instead of being convinced by the state agenda, Russian TV viewers in the 2000s were highly skilled at processing media messages critically and identifying persuasive intent. My research shows a similar picture in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict: when Russian TV viewers are involved in discussion, their opinions are far from being shaped by Kremlin discourse. Also, the intensity and duration of media campaigns are crucially important when trying to understand the effect elite discourse has on the public. After several years of aggressive political propaganda, Russian TV viewers are very tired of negative reporting, which makes them even more critical. These findings go in line with quantitative data indicating the decrease of popularity of TV channels due to their focus on the Ukrainian conflict. Russian viewers’ reactions to TV propaganda today are not the same as their reaction to TV propaganda before the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
All these complexities mean that Yablokov should at least say that the Kremlin attempts to shape public opinion instead of claiming that “the Vesti nedeli reports became a powerful political instrument in shaping domestic public opinion” (p. 179) or “the call to rally round ‘Putin’s flag’ was strong enough to guarantee the success of the ruling party” (p. 180). At best, we need resources and expertise, as well as theoretical and methodological innovation, to build institutions capable of supplying the public and researchers with reliable data about public opinion.
Even if we assume that conspiracy theories have a profound effect on the Russian audience (which, again, is a problematic statement at the very least), it probably won’t be the theories voiced by Vladislav Surkov or Arkady Mamontov. Yablokov’s research is focused on spokespersons of the regime, while he ignores the vast majority of conspiracy theories in culture and entertainment that are in more immediate proximity for most people in Russia. In his chronicle of his work in Russia as a TV producer, Peter Pomerantsev argues that in the early 2000s the Kremlin realized that the main mistake of Soviet TV was that it was “dull.” The task was, then, “to synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment.”
Pomerantsev’s work itself is prone to generalizations about audiences and media that are not always grounded in evidence. However, this point is a reasonable one. Given the fact that entertainment is the primary type of media content consumed by most audiences and the fact that conspiracy theories are produced en masse by popular TV shows such as “Voennaya Taina” (Military Secret) and “Sovershenno Sekretno” (Top Secret) on NTV, it is logical to analyze these theories that are instead a part of entertainment/everyday life rather than official political discourse. If we assume that conspiracy theories have a substantial effect on audiences, these everyday life theories may work as a source of conspiracy theories for the general public or background for amplifying the impact of official political conspiracy theories.
I want to reiterate here: in some cases, I refer to the shortcomings and flaws of the book; yet, in most cases, I instead suggest possible avenues for further research. As such, Yablokov’s book is an interesting, informative, and illuminating read. It presents a complicated and convincing picture of an important phenomenon that is rarely analyzed in public and academic discourse about Russia beyond anecdotal evidence.
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