How Russia is framing the war: Critical race theory, organ harvesting and Nazis

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“Americans are accustomed to walking on scorched earth,” Nikolai Patrushev, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most loyal and most powerful aides inside the Kremlin, said in a jarringly expansive interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta on Tuesday that touched on a variety of cultural and geopolitical grievances.

Using the kind of Soviet-era rhetoric that is more reminiscent of 1982 than 2022, Patrushev aimed his remarks not only at ordinary Russians but also, perhaps, to war dissenters in the West.

At other times, Patrushev seemed to borrow from the attacks that conservative Americans use against what they perceive as excesses in public education. (Russian media regularly amplifies the voices of Fox News host Tucker Carlson and other Biden administration critics seen as useful to the Kremlin’s purposes; Ria Novosti, the state news agency, ran a column this week praising Rod Dreher of the American Conservative for predicting that what he described as “transgender madness” would lead to “the collapse of Western civilization.”)

A couple walk in front of the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower and St. Basil's Cathedral in downtown Moscow.
A couple in front of the Kremlin's Spasskaya Tower and St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

“Long ago, America divided the whole world into vassals and enemies,” he asserted, giving voice to the embittered views of a Kremlin inner circle that finds itself besieged by war losses and international condemnation. “From childhood in the United States they have it hammered into their heads that America is a shining city on a hill, while the rest of humanity is just a proving ground for [military] experiments and resource extraction.”

Patrushev predicted that Ukrainian dreams of unity would come to naught because “nationalist battalions” would sow division and lead Russia’s neighbor to shatter “into several nations.” Regions of eastern Ukraine, as well as the Crimean Peninsula, have been under Russian occupation since 2014, and the only real separatist movement that has threatened Ukrainian unity in recent years is the one backed by Moscow.

If nothing else, the interview offered a view into Putin’s thinking. Even as the invasion that began in late February descends into the kind of protracted confrontation that Russia’s generals promised their leader they could avoid, the official line remains as ambitious and bellicose as ever, rife with historical inaccuracies, lurid nationalist fantasies and arguments intended to fragment a Western coalition whose durability has surprised the Kremlin.

For his influence over the nation’s vast security and military apparatus, Patrushev has been called “the most dangerous man in Russia” by Kremlin analyst Mark Galeotti. He has pushed for an increasingly aggressive foreign policy ever since a KGB psychic was said to have revealed to him that the late U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had dreamed of conquering Russia for its natural resources.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev delivers a speech at the 2021 Moscow Conference on International Security.
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev delivers a speech at the 2021 Moscow Conference on International Security. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Putin also subscribes to the Albright conspiracy theory. A defender of American power, Albright died last week and was laid to rest in Washington on Wednesday.

Paranormal fantasies aside, there was no shortage of conspiratorial fearmongering in Patrushev’s interview. He said Ukrainian refugees would reintroduce “long-forgotten diseases” and revive “the shadow market for the purchase of human organs” while also, in his view, demanding to remain in the countries that have accepted them but refusing to work. (Most of the Ukrainians who have fled west long to return home.)

The xenophobic view of refugees fleeing cities ravaged by the shelling of civilian targets is sharply at odds with the Kremlin’s invocations of Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood. Defending the invasion, Patrushev said it had been necessary to conduct a “de-Nazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine “due to the fact that a weapons-saturated Ukraine poses a threat to Russia, including from the development and use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”

Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal — part of its Soviet legacy — in 1994, as part of what is known as the Budapest memorandum. Fictitious reports that Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and Jewish American philanthropist George Soros are funding bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine are commonplace in Russian media. The State Department has called such reports “total nonsense.”

Ukraine is not known to possess chemical weapons. Russia, meanwhile, helped the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad conceal his own use of chemical weapons.

Syrian President Bashar Assad gestures during an interview with Agence France-Presse in Damascus in 2016.
Syrian President Bashar Assad in an interview with Agence France-Presse in Damascus in 2016. (Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian propaganda often reflects charges made against the country back onto Russia’s adversaries. It also seeks to overwhelm its audience with a relentless procession of lies that are difficult to sort through, especially in a nation where access to information is already tightly restricted.

At one point, the nameless Rossiyskaya Gazeta interviewer tried to goad Patrushev into saying that “Western technology” was used by Nazi Germany for development of Zyklon B, the deadly gas it employed to exterminate Jews during the Holocaust. While the former intelligence chief did not exactly take the bait, he came close, reminding his listeners that it was on IBM’s “calculating machines that the Nazis kept records and planned the processes of extermination of people in concentration camps.”

The Kremlin has argued that the West has repeatedly been caught sleeping on a rise of fascism, most recently in Ukraine. More than eight of 10 Russians back Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, according to the Levada Center. Support is especially strong among older Russians, who are bound to remember the pride at defeating Hitler that sustained the Soviet Union in the postwar decades.

Patrushev appeared to be appealing to these supporters during Tuesday’s interview, as well as to Westerners concerned about the rise of right-wing nationalism, an all-of-the-above approach that is another hallmark of Russian propaganda, which tends to show little interest in coherence. The goal, instead, is to find sympathetic Westerners wherever they can be found, from the antiwar left to the reactionary far right.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin on April 20.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin on April 20. (Mikhail TereshchenkoSputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

The specter of Nazism has featured especially prominently in these efforts when it comes to Ukraine, a country that lost millions of residents during World War II. “Europe is already facing the intensification of officially prohibited manifestations of fascism and neo-Nazism,” Patrushev said, predicting a “revival of Nazi ideas in Europe, to manifestations that not so long ago were considered impossible.”

Ukraine is governed by a Jewish president and does not have any claims to territorial expansion, as Hitler did. Instead, it was Russia that invaded Ukraine first in 2014, then again earlier this year. And it was Putin who helped fund far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s political campaigns, not Ukraine’s Volodomyr Zelensky, who had family members perish in the Holocaust. Others served in the Red Army to defend the Soviet Union.

Few in Moscow are as thoroughly equipped to speak for Putin as Patrushev, who has been by his side for half a century since they served together in the Soviet intelligence services in the early 1970s. Patrushev’s appropriately opaque official title — “secretary of the Security Council” — belies the power he wields inside a cloistered Kremlin.

Galeotti, the Russia analyst and host of the podcast “In Moscow’s Shadows,” has described him as the director of national intelligence, the national security adviser and the chief political strategist all rolled into one. A single person in charge of a portfolio that large in scope would be unthinkable in the West but is not seen as unusual in a country whose flirtation with democracy hardly survived a single decade.

Patrushev is believed to have been involved in the 1999 apartment bombings that were likely ordered by Putin as a pretext for starting the second Chechen war. Early success on the battlefield helped pave the way for Putin to win Russia’s presidency in 2000. After that, the Boris Yeltsin-era experiment with Western-style liberalism was quickly concluded in favor of the autocratic arrangements that remain in place to this day.

General view of an apartment block in the Pechatniki suburb, southeast of Moscow, after an explosion destroyed it in September 1999.
An apartment block in the Pechatniki suburb southeast of Moscow after an explosion destroyed it in 1999. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Patrushev was the face of the official response to the bombings, which blamed Chechen terrorists. He was, at the time, a director of the KGB successor agency FSB, which Putin had also headed, albeit much more briefly. When, in 2006, the dissident Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned in London with a radioactive isotope that had been slipped into his tea, it was almost certainly at Patrushev’s direction, a British investigation would later conclude.

"Patrushev is the most hawkish hawk, thinking the West has been out to get Russia for years," Russian politics expert Ben Noble of University College London told the BBC earlier this year.

At least some of Patrushev’s animosity toward the West appears to be rooted in the paranormal vision of KGB psychic Georgy Rogozin. According to Guardian journalist Oleg Kashin, Rogozin “used a photograph to penetrate Madeleine Albright’s subconscious, where he discovered thoughts about the need to strip Russia of Siberia and the Far East.”

The United States has emerged as the top Russian adversary in the past two months, a replay of the state of international affairs at the time Patrushev and Putin were young KGB officers. In many ways, both men are much more comfortable operating on a Cold War footing than under the rules of 21st century democracy.

On Tuesday, Patrushev even appeared to wade into American culture wars over critical race theory and gender identification, denouncing the “the so-called progressive models of education” that he said had become the norm in the United States and had no place in Russia.

“In the USA, for example, many people already say that in mathematics lessons one should sing and dance, because solving problems and equations depresses and discriminates against someone,” Patrushev said, praising Soviet education as the finest in world history.

He also condemned the internet, which he said can serve as a font of “politicized disinformation.”