A Russian Human-Rights Champion on Why Putin’s Soviet Propaganda Is So Dangerous

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Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Second Summit Economic And Humanitarian Forum Russia Africa on July 27, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Credit - Contributor—Getty Images

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To appreciate the power of a myth, let’s take a quick visit to post-Soviet Russia.

In the weeks after Vladimir Putin came to power in early 2000, the new Russian president was enjoying a 77% job approval rating, a definite improvement from his 31% outlook just a few months earlier while he was biding time as then-President Boris Yeltsen’s prime minister inside a fast-unspooling regime. Putin had grand designs for his country, and his new constituents seemed to want to help him build his proverbial temple to Soviet nostalgia. Putin had watched in horror through the 1990s as democratic ideals came in fits and twitches after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He professed to be an agent of change, a steadying hand, a steward of the rebooted nation’s deep history. But Russia was coming out of an inflation tailspin of 85%, unemployment was stuck in the double digits, and the promises of reform were not making life much better. He didn’t have much room for error, and he knew it.

The answer? Putin basically promised to Make Russia Great Again, and launched a concerted effort to invoke the nostalgia of the Soviet empire.

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Putin has made no secret that he sees the end of the Soviet system as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” one that has been an animating tragedy that he’s been trying to undo over almost a quarter century leading that petrostate. To accomplish this, however, he needed to inspire—not his strongest suit as a stiff former KGB spook who famously has little time for pleasantries. But Russia’s grand history? That was something Putin could work with. So over the last two-plus decades, Putin has enmeshed Russia’s glory days, including its cruel Soviet era, with the present. As TIME’s then-editor Richard Stengel explained in an essay announcing Putin as our Person of the Year in 2007: “Russia lives in history—and history lives in Russia.”

The result has been a crude re-Stalinization of sorts, or a systematic rehabilitation of the brutal Soviet figure who led his colossus for 30 years until his death in 1953. The last time Russia’s most respected independent pollsters, Levada, asked about Joseph Stalin, a stunning 51% of respondents had positive views of him. That 2019 survey found just 15% of Russians offering negative views of the man who created the Gulag system that operated until 1987. An eye-popping 70% of Russians said Stalin’s contributions to the country’s history were a net positive. By contrast, Mikail Gorbachev, the first and last President of the Soviet Union who set in motion democratic reforms, enjoyed a 15% positive reaction when Russians were last asked about him in 2017.

Much of that is thanks to Putin’s decades-long propaganda project, which has taken on new geopolitical urgency during the war in Ukraine, and now matters more than ever.

“The majority of Russians still see their glory in the forcible restoration of the Russian Empire,” Oleksandra Matviichuk, who runs a major human rights group in Ukraine, the Center for Civil Liberties, tells TIME. “The success of Ukraine will provide a chance for the democratic future of Russia, because it will provide the push for people to reflect that maybe it’s not OK in the 21st Century to invade other countries and kill people to erode their identity. Maybe it’s better to find our glory in something else.”

Matviichuk visited TIME’s Washington Bureau this week, sitting alongside two other representatives of groups co-honored with a Nobel Peace Prize last year. One was Aleksandr Cherkasov, chairman-in-exile of Russian human rights organization Memorial, which researched Stalin’s systems, organized sites of remembrance for his victims, and documented the sins of the Soviet era as a warning against repetition. It was shut down by the state in 2021, right before the country invaded Ukraine.  Cherkasov says that the lessons he learned from ferreting out the truth should be applied now to try to dismantle Putin’s powerful propaganda effort to help Ukraine win the war. “Right now, we have a tremendous task ahead of us,” he says. “We understand that we need to work on the Soviet past, and it’s a very complex past. But we also have 35 years—which is half of the 70 years of the Soviet period—in the post-Soviet period, which is no less complicated.”

Adds Matviichuk, whose organization has documented 45,000 examples of war crimes Russia has committed in Ukraine—and counting: “Now, we are in the situation where Russia wants to return us to the past. But the future plays against Russia. That is why Russia will lose, sooner or later.”

She is right, at least when it comes to invented legends. Myths are fickle beasts. In a parallel reality of his creation, Putin is a popular and decisive leader determined to restore glory to Russia. In another reality—one closer attuned to the real world—Putin is presiding over a fragile autocracy that survives only because his pact with oligarchs allows them to share the spoils of a kleptocracy. (Oh, and nukes.)

“The propaganda has roots in the imperialistic culture of Russia,” says Matviichuk. “People in Russia still need to provide a reflection of their imperialistic culture.”

Thanks to an unmatched propaganda machine—described in detail by TIME’s Vera Bergengruen here—Putin has mostly prevailed in sparking that invented and often perverted memory, at least at home. (After his invasion of Georgia in 2008 fell flat, Putin learned the lesson of trying to spin on the cheap and he almost tripled the propaganda budget over the three years that followed. RT, a broadcasting effort masquerading as a news station, now spends $300 million annually for Russian-language pro-Kremlin programming.)

But Putin’s war in Ukraine may be testing that perceived glory more than at any time in living memory. New polling from Levada reveals the most pessimistic Russian population in 15 years; 58% believe that “hard times are yet to come,” and another quarter think they’re already there, according to polling released this month. Among the naysayers, almost half point to the invasion of Ukraine and the attenuating death tolls. One independent analysis puts the Russian death toll at almost 50,000.

Still, 76% of Russians in the same poll said they trusted Putin. And when asked if the fighting in Ukraine was heading toward eventually ensnaring NATO, 60% answered in the affirmative last month, up 12 points from a year earlier.

All of which is why the trio of human rights leaders made the trek to Washington to meet with think tanks, administration officials, and journalists to make the case that helping to land a decisive win against Russia could reset not just Ukraine’s future, but could force a rethinking of what Russia looks like after Putin—a question the West is hesitant to reckon with. (TIME’s Brian Bennett has an assessment of the Nobel Laureates’ visit here.)

“Without justice, we have never sustained peace,” Matviichuk told us.

Left unsaid, of course was this: without truth, there can be no meaningful justice. And, at the moment, Soviet-style spin has gummed up the gears of that churn of accurate information to the point of evading accountability. We all think Putin is building a scaffolding to build and defend political power; he may actually be designing a system to evade any comeuppance at all. After all, if no one can agree to the facts of an offense, did the crime even take place? That’s a problem with big stakes not just for Russians, but for the whole Western world seeking stability in the region. As Cherkasov said in our conference room here in D.C.: “Houston, we all have a problem.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.