Russia’s media ‘mind control’: A brief history
Don’t get too excited by the title. If you’re hoping for a full exposé that includes the schematics for the psychic broadcast station in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky everyone’s talking about — well, prepare to be disappointed.
At the moment there’s much to-do about ‘fake news’ that has somehow corrupted, misled or manipulated millions upon millions of people in the West.
Russia, through her propaganda stations Sputnik and Russia Today, is supposed to be one important source for ‘fake news’. And this in turn is often presented as one column in a grand, ingenious asymmetric information warfare strategy that will leave NATO licking bear paw for decades to come.
I believe this current panic is more about the political forces that lost during the Brexit referendum and US presidential election being unable to make a sober analysis of why they lost.
It’s so much easier for these groups to blame someone else, such as the evil Russkies, than admit the need to reevaluate policies and campaign techniques.
But there’s been a long-standing perception in the West — the English-speaking West at least — that Russia, either through technology or the occult, has an ability over and beyond conventional rhetoric to alter the way people think for political ends.
Today it’s liberal political forces in the West who claim Russia is “polluting our precious bodily fluids” — as General Jack D Ripper put it in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove — but similar claims have been made at different times by anti-liberal organisations, such as the John Birch Society.
The idea that Russia has exceptional propaganda capabilities can be taken up by the left or the right in the West. For the moment it’s liberals who fear Russian mind rape — but politics runs strange tides, and we may yet see the Trumpsters breaking out tin foil caps.
This Russian ‘mind control’ narrative is engrained in the popular consciousness. And once you’re familiar with this narrative it becomes quite easy to identify in popular culture, and wider political discussions about Russia.
And sometimes even in everyday conversations and jokes that reflect common prejudices or stereotypes about Russia.
Russia produces very effective propaganda for her cause — as does the Western world, but the ‘mind control’ narrative goes further.
The narrative implies that Russia isn’t just good at propaganda, she’s preternaturally good. Behind the conceit lies the idea that Russian’s use mysterious techniques not open to the West — either through our ignorance, or because we are too moral to use such dastardly tricks.
I referred to Russia Today and Sputnik as propaganda stations — that may get a few fans ranting, and of course I agree that (Max Keiser notwithstanding) their anchors are much sexier than the BBC offering — but my view is that all media outlets make propaganda for one cause or another, the BBC included.
Propaganda is, at least in part, biased or misleading information to promote a political cause or point of view.
No human institutions exist without bias, and what is perceived as misleading depends very much on the bias already present in the audience.
As Hunter S. Thompson put it:
So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.
When I read the Guardian I expect to read what the dominant ideological forces in Anglo-American left liberalism think. When I read the Daily Telegraph I read the dominant ideological forces of the British right think.
The facts may be more or less facts — or more or less made up, as a reader I cannot ever really check. Inflexion is what the media is consumed for. The press releases from the Conservative Party go in the bin, or are mocked in a liberal media organisation. And the same goes for the Labour Party at a conservative outfit.
A favourite political columnist provides mental pornography to which the reader masturbates.
Liberal columnist emotional effect on reader: “Those Trump supporters. Yes, that’s right. Bastards. Racists. Scum. Scum. Sexists. Don’t care about humanity. Selfish.”
Conservative columnist emotional effect on reader: “Those immigrants. Rapists. Murderers. Liberals don’t do anything. Don’t care about country.”
Goebbels — who was quite good at this sort of thing — understood that the art in propaganda lies in finding views that already exist in the public and amplifying them.
The propagandist cannot create what does not already exist in her audience. But there is a popular conception that this is what propaganda does, which is why it is often said that people are manipulated through “untrue” or “unfactual” information.
The propagandist does not have to convince, inform, mislead, cajole or otherwise manipulate the public — but the propagandist must find a way to meet the people halfway. There must be a view or feeling to work with, even if it is a very weak one.
It is often assumed that a propagandist must lie to do this, but in fact it is not necessary to lie to make good propaganda. William Blake understood this:
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.
Liars make the least effective propaganda.
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf was Minister of Information for Iraq during the 2003 invasion. If he is remembered at all he is remembered by the moniker ‘Comical Ali’ — a mocking allusion to Ali Hassan al-Majid ‘Chemical Ali’, a senior Ba’ath Party official in the 1980s responsible for chemical gas attacks against the Kurds.
Al-Sahhaf’s problem was that his propaganda relied on lies, and was appallingly ineffective. The most ignoble moment in his career came when he denied that US forces had penetrated Baghdad — while US tanks rumbled close by his press conference.
This is why people who are concerned about fact checking, #fakenews, and so on are quite naïve. They believe that their news sources — such as the New York Times and the Guardian, for “fact checking” is an ideological component of liberalism — contain ‘true facts’ whereas, say, Breitbart and Russia Today contain lies and falsehoods.
But this is rarely the case, for Russia Today and Breitbart are effective propaganda operations. What their journalists do is reframe facts and information in ways that liberals disagree with. This is quite different to lying or fabrication.
It is hard to accept that our own viewpoint is ideological. Your opponent is ideological, but you are honest and clear-eyed. In my experience it is common for people to claim that they happen to know ‘the truth’ while their opponents are ‘lying’ — especially in the political sphere.
This is partly because political outlooks rest on assumptions about human nature (that there such a phenomenon as ‘human nature’ is itself an ideological assumption), what humans ‘are’ and what the good life is for human beings — if it exists at all.
But there is no agreement on the starting assumptions people make about human beings, and so views on policies and events that are corollaries to those starting assumptions often appear mendaciously false to the opposing sides.
It is not that your opponent holds a different view on what it is to be human — possibly a mistaken view — your opponent really knows your view is correct, but is being deceitful.
This explains why political discussions can be become very acrimonious, very quickly — if people do not agree with us we often assume this is due to actual wickedness and dishonesty on their part.
This has all been slightly tangential to my main point, which is the idea that over and above the nature of propaganda I just outlined the Russians have a preternatural (perhaps even supernatural) ability with propaganda.
It is not simply that the Russians mislead better, with more verve or more successfully than the West — or that they are better at telling the truth with the must effective emphasis.
Before I throw out my explanation for how this narrative came about I suggest that if you want systematic, in-depth look at how ideas like the ‘mind control’ narrative I’ve outlined emerge read Towards a Science of Belief Systems (2014) by Edmund Griffiths. Belief Systems takes apart the thought processes that underlie conspiracy theories and how we think about politics, with special reference to Russia.
Here’s my best guess as to how the ‘mind control’ narrative emerged.
Russia has had an image in the West for a substantial period of time as a mystical land. Intensely religious writers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky helped cultivate this image in the 19th century, though perhaps the image long predated them. On the occult side, Helena Blavatsky — who promoted religious beliefs that included mediumship, telepathy and the like — became a notable public figure in Victorian society.
Russia’s vast size and reputation for backwardness contributed to the idea that the country was unknowable, contained mysteries and — maybe, just maybe — there was something in all the mystical religious mumbo jumbo. Figures likes Rasputin, George Gurdjieff and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn helped this view of Russia to continue in the 20th century.
Why Rasputin? Rasputin had a special hold over the Tsarina. We have no reason for believing this was anything more than an intense relationship between a devout woman and an especially charismatic religious figure — a figure who claimed to be able to treat her son’s haemophilia. As one would expect there has also been much speculation about a sexual relationship, although there is no evidence for this being the case as far as I know.
But beyond these quotidian explanations for how one human can exert influence over another there is also a market for books, television programs and other media that take Rasputin’s supernatural reputation at face value.
Popular consciousness is alive to the idea that Rasputin really was a magical healer who — why not, if he can cure haemophilia — could also exert occult mental control over the Tsarina, if not the whole Russian court.
Gurdjieff, though a Greek-Armenian mainly active outside the Russia, was recognisably “Russian” to foreigners and trod a similar path to Blavatsky in the 1920s and 1930s. He reached notable writers and journalists in the US, and contributed to keeping the image of an occult Russia current.
Solzhenitsyn is a less sensational figure than Rasputin and Gurdjieff — he was conventional Russian Orthodox Christian, not a dabbler in the occult. In this respect his influence in the West is more akin to Dostoyevsky, as a notable religious novelist. His public stature in the West after his exile helped maintain the image of the religious, mystical “true” Russia that had been despoiled by the revolution.
What these figures project in common is the mystic, faithful Russia. A land of miracles for Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn — a land of simple faith for Tolstoy. And for those prepared to believe what Rasputin, Blavatsky, and Gurdjieff claimed about themselves — even if only for entertainment — she is also a land that produced telepaths, seers and strange means to influence people.
The October Revolution provided a counterpart to this view of Russia. The Bolsheviks adored the scientific, and had a philosophical outlook that was strictly materialist — so at first thought it would seem any ideas about a mystical, supernatural Russia would vanish along with Russia’s churches.
The West would shudder at mighty Red Army, but not at Lenin’s favourite sorcerer (not that he had one).
But the Bolshevik government became associated with mind control and mystery nonetheless. Partly this was because the Soviet Union was a secretive society which was difficult for Westerners to visit.
“Something” was going on, but that “something” was even more mysterious than in the Tsar’s time. It was an experiment in an entirely new type of society.
Marxism itself has a ‘theory of mind control’ — if one cares to think about the Marxist concepts of false consciousness and ideology in that way. These are not psychological theories per se, but reading about these concepts naturally leads — well it leads me, anyway — to psychological speculation.
How does the ruling class ‘control the proletariat’ through ideas? What does that feel like for the individual proletariat? Why could Marx and Engels see through the veil of false consciousness (an Hegelian answer would be that they were world historic individuals)?
Since the Bolsheviks — and Marxists more generally — talked about themselves using this language it would their opponents came to see the Bolsheviks as being skilled in mind control through scientific socialism.
If the anti-Bolsheviks didn’t believe in other aspects of Marxism, the account of ideology and false consciousness could be repurposed to fit their political view. Marxism might be untrue in what it said about capitalism, but it understood very well how people are deceived and misled.
That the Bolsheviks led the field in effectively exploiting new media, such as cinema and radio, amplified the impression that the Bolsheviks had a scientific understanding of mass man’s psychology superior to that in the West.
This carries through to the ‘mind control’ narrative today, which contains the idea that the Russians have ‘weaponised’ new technologies (24-hours news, social media and bots) with devastating results on their opponents.
The physiologist Pavlov and his world famous work on classical conditioning also played a role. Pavlov was not particularly a political figure, but he was active during and after the Bolshevik revolution. He stayed in the Soviet Union. He was a prominent, brilliant scientist who ‘belonged’ to the USSR.
Everyone knows Pavlov trained dogs to salivate on command. The crude application to Bolshevism follows pretty quickly, if one is hostile to Soviet Marxism:
If the Soviets can make dogs salivate on command, well, what else? We don’t know what’s going on over there really. How far have they expanded behaviour modification? Horses? Monkeys? Humans? Can they do it over the radio now?
The Korean War saw a panic over prisoners of war from the United Nations forces (mainly the US and her allies) who had been ‘brainwashed’ by the North Koreans while detained.
A few UN PoWs cooperated beyond the bounds of the Geneva Convention with the Chinese, North Korean and Soviet forces. A few PoWs in any war do so due to mistreatment, desire for better conditions or in the hope that they can get back home more quickly.
Their cooperation was portrayed in the Western press not as a typical wartime event, but as evidence that the Reds could exert a special psychological pressure on individuals.
A great deal has been written about brainwashing, but for our purposes it is enough that the whole affair was another contribution to the idea in the public mind that the Soviets — and the communist world more widely — had a mysterious means to change how people thought.
The KGB’s role in recruiting agents in the West also contributed to the view that the Soviets had mysterious abilities in changing minds. The techniques the KGB used were conventional: blackmail, bribery and ideological persuasion.
But the high-level spy scandals — such as the Cambridge Spies — pushed the creditability of conventional techniques into doubt.
For people who are not particularly motivated by politics it can be hard to understand that a cause can be so persuasive that people in a privileged, elite position would help their country’s enemy for no apparent (i.e. financial) reward.
The betrayal cuts across economic and status interest so starkly that the motivation, so the reasoning goes, cannot be explained simply by a belief in communism — an obviously absurd system to many people, especially in the US and UK where there were no mass communist parties.
This reasoning leads to the conclusion that there must have been means of persuasion over and above the mundane. The KGB’s willingness to use exotic poisons, as with anthrax in the Georgi Markov case, along with the late 70s/80s policy of using psychiatric treatment for political dissidents in the USSR also contributed to an image of the Soviets being willing to use science — the pharmacopeia in this case — for mental manipulation.
Finally, the USSR (and the US) had scientists who investigated psychic and paranormal powers for military purposes. By all accounts I’ve read these experiments came to nothing. These programs have been fodder for popular TV documentaries and books, with Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (first a book in 2004 and then a film in 2009) being the most well known in the genre.
The fact that no psychic program on either side in the Cold War was a success does not prevent the public from thinking that if the experiments were conducted there may be something to psychic power — perhaps, so goes the reasoning, the governments merely concealed the successes.
The formula then:
Russia’s mystical, occult reputation in literature + sensationalised Russian occultists, such as Rasputin + Marxist theories of ideology + a USSR with restricted access to outside visitors + effective Bolshevik propaganda through new technology + Pavlov + Korean War PoWs + KGB manipulation of agents + psychiatry for political purposes in the USSR + actual experiments in psychic powers by the USSR military = A perception in the popular Western consciousness that the Soviet Union (now the Russians) may possess mystical and/or advanced scientific means to control our minds.
This perception that the Russians are at once both scientifically advanced and also powerful in magic and mystery is quite similar to the way anti-semites talk about Jewish people.
In the anti-semitic worldview Jewish people are often portrayed as being avaricious, merciless capitalists and ruthless communists. And anti-semitic ideology goes on to explain why there is no contradiction at all in this apparently contradictory assertion.
I note this similarity not to claim that the ‘mind control’ narrative is morally akin to anti-semitism, but to point out a similarity in thought process connected to how humans identify enemies in politics.
A final caveat. I do not know whether Russia’s adversaries are conscious of the ‘mind control’ narrative I have outlined, and if they are aware I do not know whether it plays into how they produce their propaganda.
But I feel it must play a role — it may well be an unconscious one — because I see no reason Russia’s propaganda should be better or more persuasive than that produced by the Western powers, and why it should be portrayed so.
There is nothing that the controllers at Russia Today know about their work that is not known to Western journalists or marketers. If they are better at their job that is fine — but there is nothing incomprehensible or mysterious about this.
There is an implicit suggestion that Russian propaganda has a more-than-natural edge — a few fringe media outfits make explicit claims as to why this is the case.
Brexit and Trump were partly nationalistic campaigns. Useful nationalist propaganda relies on feelings and sensibilities not easily accessible to foreign propagandists.
And yet Russian propaganda is portrayed being strangely intoxicating, an accusation often accompanied by dark mumblings about Russia’s ‘political technologists’.
The language sounds vaguely scientific, and hints at mysterious psychological capacities — but as far as I can tell ‘political technologist’ is just the Russian word for ‘spin doctor’.
Do the Russian propagandists know that the ‘mind control’ narrative exists in the West? If so, would it not be opportune to take advantage, and further magnify Western concerns about Russia’s innate wiles?
I think not — for even if they are aware, the narrative is not flattering. While it is not morally akin to anti-semitism, the ‘mind control’ narrative is derogatory. The narrative implies that Russians are willing either to delve into occult and unholy religious powers, or conduct scientific experiments on humans that are immoral.
No, the narrative is not flattery — it suggests that Russia herself is sinister, whether in her religion or or her science.
What I’ve described — hopefully reasonably and successfully — is how I think the existence of the ‘mind control’ narrative, and how it helps shape our responses as the general public, both to Russia’s propaganda and our own propaganda.
I think this is a common sense phenomenon about how we live in the world that could not be detected by a crude test, such as an opinion poll.
But I wager that if, as a joke, you say to a friend, “Did you see the latest report? The Russia Today logo includes a hypnotic cue based on MRI brain models to make you find their anchors more sexually attractive. It’s all pseudoscience, of course! Don’t worry!”
Your friend may well reply: “Crazy Russkies! They’re always up to something like that!”
And that would be the Russian ‘mind control’ narrative at work. We don’t take it too seriously — we probably don’t think it’s even scientifically possible — but it’s plausible from how we think about ‘Russia’ to imagine the Russians would try it.
I’ve studded this post with pop culture pictures that reference the ‘mind control’ narrative. But characters in popular culture are often portrayed as recognisably Russian or Soviet, though not overtly so.
These ‘Soviet Ruritanians’ were quite common during the Cold War when it was thought vulgar, provocative and possibly reactionary to have overt Soviet opponents appear in the media.
But the audiences knew from various visual and aesthetic cues that Slavic characters from dictatorial nations were Soviet equivalents — and such characters may well have carried out ‘mind control’ as part of their role as villains.
The Spectre organisation in the James Bond film franchise exemplifies the trend. The villains are recognisably Russian or Warsaw Pact — but the organisation is overtly presented as an ‘international criminal conspiracy’, though it is in fact an analogue for the Soviet counter-spy organisation SMERSH (this is not the case in the novels).
Further, there are works that are entirely allegorical in nature, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), that are widely accepted to have been about Soviet manipulation, though the ‘baddies’ are not even human — let alone Russian.
In short, I’ve missed more than a few. But if it looks like a Russian, quacks like a Russian — well, you know the rest.