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How conspiracies work in Russia

Conspiracy theories like CIA spies infiltrating democratic revolutions play a particular role in Russian politics. We sat down with author Scott Radnitz to talk about why politicians lean into these narratives

On a cold night in November 2013, Ukrainians gathered in Kyiv’s Independence Square to voice their frustration with the government’s decision to reject an agreement that would bring the country closer to the European Union. Over the next few months, scores of pro-democracy Ukrainians kept returning to the streets to demand the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s preferred strongman. This revolution, known as Euromaidan, was met with a violent crackdown.

Meanwhile, a narrative began to take shape in pro-Kremlin Russian media. The Ukrainians on the streets weren’t actually pro-democracy. They were neo-Nazis and members of an ultra-nationalist group called Right Sector. And also they were sponsored by the CIA. The conspiracy theory spread like wildfire on Russian television. The film director Oliver Stone repeated the claim. 

Figuring the CIA in a multi-actor conspiracy theory wasn’t a new tactic for that part of the world, but it proved to be particularly noxious this time around in fomenting opinions in Russia about Euromaidan. 

Scott Radnitz is a professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of Revealing Schemes: the Politics of Conspiracy in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region. We sat down with him to talk about the role of conspiracy theories in modern politics.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Conspiracy theories are in vogue. Why are they such a useful political tool?

The reason that a lot of politicians use conspiracy theories is number one: many people believe them. They find that kind of rhetoric attractive because they see the world in conspiratorial ways. Or they are attracted to rhetoric that makes them feel like they’re on the inside with the people who know what’s going on and feel solidarity in the fact that everybody recognizes that they have a common enemy. In some ways, conspiracy theories are just a different, maybe more extreme form of what politicians typically do in their rhetoric anyway, which is to try to create coalitions to attract enough votes so they can win elections. Creating in-groups and out-groups, stoking emotion and fear — these are age old political tactics.

Your book largely focuses on Russia and the post-Soviet space. What are the main themes in political conspiracy theories in the region?

A conspiracy theory that is most prominent in Russia claims that the West or America wants to weaken, destroy or dismantle Russia as part of a broader geopolitical game. There are variations on how the U.S.,the West, the CIA or NATO accomplishes that. That’s one very large set of conspiracy claims, which should not come as news to anybody who’s been following Russian politics for the last 20 years. 

Another theme is at the domestic level. It has to do with jockeying among politicians. That’s mostly about creating narratives that make my political opponents look as bad as possible. It’s a form of demonization and character assassination.

Then there are the fifth column claims where there’s a domestic element and a foreign element. The conspiracy theory is that an insider is secretly working with outsiders in nefarious ways to overthrow the government, undermine the regime or destroy the nation. 

What stands out to you as the most important conspiracy theory in Putin’s Russia? Is it that narrative about Western infiltration? 

Examples of the first kind happen on a daily basis if you just follow the narratives that come from the Kremlin. That is the overarching theme of the Putin era. And I think a subset of those claims is important for Russian politics and the decline of Russian democracy, which is that Russian insiders — opposition figures, activists, non-governmental organizations, liberals — they’re playing a role as a fifth column, somehow working with outsiders to bring in alien values or to work with the U.S., either as spies or infiltrators, to overthrow the government. Fifth column claims have paralleled and facilitated crackdowns on opposition to a greater or lesser degree throughout at least the second half of the Putin era. 

I always thought of these conspiracies about Western infiltration as a tool for stirring up nationalism and creating an outside enemy to coalesce against. But you also talk about how conspiracy theories can create in-groups and out-groups domestically, too. 

One thing I show in my book is that it’s not simply a matter of the leaders of a country positioning themselves against other countries in order to control the nation. Often it’s about politicians within a country competing against their domestic opponents. Conspiracy theories are a way of distinguishing oneself from one’s political adversary and creating coalitions within the country. So domestic politics has a lot to do with it. There’s been an assumption that the most notorious conspiracists are dictators who are already in control of a country and use conspiracy theories in order to maintain iron fisted rule by propagating these narratives to keep the entire population subdued. Political competition also produces incentives for conspiracy theories within the domestic political arena. 

In your book, you say conspiracy theories can be used as a sword and as a shield. What do you mean by that?

 Often, the people in power who are making conspiracy theories are feeling threatened at the moment. They’re playing defense,and they feel a need to restore control. One of the ways in which they do that is rhetorically. When leaders are fighting a rearguard action, that’s when they’re using conspiracy theories as a shield to fend off these challenges. 

And conspiracy theories’ use as a sword is most visible when there’s no imminent, prominent threat. But you still see conspiracy theories put out every day as a drumbeat on state media. It’s used offensively, where there’s no clear threat, but the regime feels the need to keep laying the groundwork, probably because they assume that will come in handy. 

What are some examples that come to mind?

The same theory can be used for offensive and defensive purposes. What matters here is who is making the claim and the position they find themselves in when they’re doing that. So what I’m doing in my book is situating this rhetoric in the broader view of what’s happening politically in the country. 

Take the example of the fifth column narrative that the West is working with insiders to weaken Russia. On Russian political talk shows, this is just something that’s assumed to be true. Some of the more prominent pundits who appear on Russian TV like Vladimir Zhirinovsky often claim it as common sense. That’s using the conspiracy theory as a sword. And that might not get a lot of attention because it fades into the background noise eventually. Zhirinovsky saying something crazy isn’t news just like Trump by his second year saying something crazy or ridiculous or making a bald faced lie wasn’t news. 

And then a defensive variant of that would occur during a heightened political drama like in the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine. Now, say, the head of the FSB [intelligence agency] in Russia or some adviser to former president Viktor Yanukovych would say that these protesters in the Euromaidan are not authentic. They’re paid by the Obama administration or they’re working with John McCain. Using what has been established as common sense now defensively or tactically in the moment to explain what’s going on and to demonstrate that the people who are making these claims actually have more control than you might assume.  

Is there a difference between propaganda and conspiracy theories?  

Yes. They’re not the same thing. Propaganda is usually understood as political rhetoric, not necessarily anchored to the truth that’s intended to push emotional buttons in order to change minds or persuade people to believe something. But that can come in many flavors. It can be conspiratorial. It could be simply false, but not a conspiracy theory. It could be positive, but false. Or positive, but highly exaggerated. The kind of rhetoric that you might see in North Korean state propaganda that Kim Jong Un wrestles bears and shoots down missiles with his pistol— it’s propaganda, but that’s not conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories can also be used for purposes other than for propaganda. As we know, a lot of conspiracy theories don’t come from the top. They come from regular people surmising what’s happening in the world, reading Twitter, sharing ideas about vaccines. This doesn’t become propaganda until the state starts appropriating it and then feeding it back out to the citizenry.

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