For Russian state media, chaos and tensions in the U.S. are a propaganda goldmine.
As I pointed out in a recent coauthored piece at U.S. News and World Report on the role Russian English-language media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, play in the U.S. media sphere, the purpose of far from simply asserting the Russian “position.” Indeed, “instead of simply making the Russian position known, the Kremlin’s soft-power approach has relied heavily on ‘dezinformatsiya,’ an old Soviet strategy that aims at disrupting the opinion-making process,” we noted. These outlets seek to confuse, not clarify.
Historically, this critical discourse has some precedent. The U.S.’ tumultuous relationship with race has had blowback on its foreign policy in the past, especially from Russian leadership. The tensions between the U.S.’ democracy promotion through example (the “shining city on a hill”) narrative and its propensity toward systematic, institutionalized racism were exploited by the Soviets early on as a way of highlighting U.S. hypocrisy.
Stalin, in particular, made use of the U.S.’ troubled history with race. The Soviets “created something called Communist International…[and] gave the order to organize black Americans with a hope to create a radical cadre of black people,” said Jelani Cobb of the University of Connecticut in the Washington Post. Under Stalin, groups like the Harlem branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union — founded in 1932 by civil rights advocate Louise Patterson — provided that “radical cadre” and the means to mobilize scores of oppressed black Americans. The Soviet policy of internationalism —which demanded a worldwide struggle against capitalism, as the latter was a truly “global” threat—encouraged solidarity across racial lines. Russian propaganda depicted proletarian internationalism, at least in its ideal form, as racially inclusive.
“The anti-imperialist and anticolonial ideas are dear to [to the Russians],” as Russian Afro-American professor and activist Lily Golden noted in her book, Africans in Russia, “Living under the conditions of internationalism and the friendship of nations, they sympathize with their brothers and sisters in the USA and the colonial countries who are still victims of all the vileness of race discrimination and savage racism.”
By the 1950s, the State Department estimated nearly half of Soviet propaganda revolved around the race issue.
Indeed, Truman’s own President’s Committee on Civil Rights asserted the importance of civil rights action for the U.S.’ reputation on the world stage. “Our position in the postwar world is so vital to the future that our smallest actions have far-reaching effects,” noted the Committee. “The United States is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record.”
Russian media interests today
Unlike the Soviet Republic of yore, Russian media’s treatment of race is disconnected from a wider neo-Marxist anti-imperialism narrative. Indeed, what the Russian position on the current state of U.S. race relations is unclear, and chances are there isn’t one.
If Stalin’s Russia used race relations within the U.S. as a mechanism to empower and embolden a revolutionary ideology into the hearts of black Americans and Africans, Putin’s Russia uses race relations as purely disruptive force — one meant to demean American morale on the world stage. The Soviets sought disruption as a means to an end, for the sake of a “new (‘red’) beginning.” But for the Kremlin and its cronies, Ferguson is nothing more than a means to an end, and ostensibly “critical” coverage of the events in Ferguson is a means of pointing out failures in U.S. leadership, both at home and abroad.
English-language and Russian-language outlets have depicted the events in Ferguson as exemplifying American double standards. “So the U.S. government, when talking about their own country, forgets about democracy, human rights, protection of ‘peaceful protesters’ and people’s right to protest,” noted one article posted by the Russia media outlet Pravda.ru on Tuesday, Nov. 25. “As they say, the United States — it’s a completely different matter.”
To some Russian commentators, Ferguson was the U.S.’ Maidan. Others, such as Lenta.ru, referred to the events as the U.S.’ “color revolution,” referring to a series of nonviolent revolutions in the Balkans in the 2000s. What that means is unclear, given that English-language Russian media outlet Sputnik dubbed color revolutions as “a new form of indirect warfare against geostrategic states and resistant leaders.”
English-language coverage has offered a slightly different spin on the events. Russian-state media has made use of outspoken, albeit controversial, celebrity figures like Russell Brand and Dennis Rodman, who was interviewed by RT during a recent trip to Moscow. Rodman told reporters the protests were “blown out of proportion”; Brand’s YouTube show was recently featured on the RT site.
Interviews on RT’s Op-Edge page framed the conflict as evidence that racism in America is institutionalized—certainly not an unwarranted critique but one it presented almost a little too giddily. In one with Eric Draitser, who runs the website StopImperialism.org, we’re told that “the media spins the image of the US around the world, not the reality.” A few months earlier he argued the conflict in Ukraine was over “the question of Ukrainian fascism and whether it is to be supported or rejected” — precisely the party line that the Kremlin spent millions to broadcast to the world. The line that the Kremlin wants to be drawn is one connecting Ukraine to Ferguson; it directly calls out the Western media’s alleged failure to speak truth to power in both cases. The only issue is one of those narratives is patently false.
If anything, RT’s contrarian presence in the American media ecosystem is a bit of a backhanded compliment: It means the Kremlin still cares about manipulating our opinions. (Congrats!) But the U.S.’ dubious distinction as the Kremlin’s favorite punching bag does raise the question: Does it matter for those of us in the United States?
The answer is probably not. RT’s veritable cornucopia of “alternative” commentators can only go so far, especially if it wishes to carve out its own niche as moderately popular alternative media outlet in the English-speaking world. There are a number of alternative media outlets getting the message out already — they may not have oodles of funding, but they’ve got the chops. And they’re not itching to co-opt a real-life struggle for their own geopolitical interests.