How Does Russia Use Propaganda?

russian propaganda machine benefits extremist media from china, United States

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Propaganda dates back to at least the 6th century BCE. Since then, interest groups have used media to further their own interests and campaigns. Why is propaganda being used in Russia?

Surveillance camera with Russian Government building in background
The use of propaganda has deep roots in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. Photo by happy_contributors / Shutterstock

Led by Vladimir Lenin, leftist revolutionaries, called the Bolsheviks, seized control of Russia during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, reclaiming most of the land of Russia and its surrounding territories. They were then faced with the daunting task of reconstruction. In 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known as the Soviet Union, was established. As the Soviet Union’s first leader, Lenin planned to make widespread use of propaganda to achieve his goals.

Russian propaganda continues to this day: If you’ve read the news lately, you may have seen that Russian state TV is now broadcasting extremist American media and Chinese media to spin the narrative on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his video series Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, identifies the early Soviet roots of modern Russian propaganda.

How Did the Soviet Union Start Using Propaganda?

“The regime’s innovative new plans would propagate [Soviet power] with the modern use of media,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Posters of remarkably modern form, cinema with experimental forms, used for the first time, as well as other forms of art now were put to the uses of the Bolshevik ideology. Lenin and his associates were very clear on the importance that cinema and film would have.”

Lenin thought of film as the political art form of the 20th century, since it had such emotional power and could even reach populations with low literacy rates. The Soviet Union knew it could harness that power to achieve its goals. Film wasn’t the only medium, though. Russia had already shown its love of trains through Trotsky’s advocacy of armored trains, and the regime planned to take things a step further with “agitprop trains.”

“This was one of those bureaucratic acronyms, meaning ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda,'” Dr. Liulevicius said. “They were pushed together as two separate words into a new art form. Agitprop represented a new form of political propaganda, in that it was to be sent out into the country on trains which had film theaters installed in them, sent out into the countryside to spread the innovative new cultural and artistic message.”

Who Enforced the Soviet Will?

Dr. Liulevicius pointed out that at the time, artists must have felt as though they were creating a new civilization: the international, Russian-led group of republics boldly charging into a new age. They saw in their films and posters a “bright, initial period of experimentation,” to use his words. However, there’s always another side of the coin.

“Meanwhile, the secret police—the Cheka—continued to operate,” he said. “They were headed, oddly enough, by a former Polish aristocrat-turned-Communist named Felix Dzerzhinsky. Under a succession of later names, as it underwent institutional transformation again and again, the secret police, known first as the Cheka; later became the GPU; the OGPU; later the NKVD; and, in our time, the KGB, remained a permanent fixture of Soviet life, using terror to enact the regime’s demands.”

The KGB has ended, but its successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), is responsible for feeding Russia’s propaganda networks news stories from American and Chinese media to spin the narrative on the war in Ukraine.

Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily