Discover more from Diane Francis
September 18, 2023
The phrase “Potemkin village” refers to a series of fake town facades built in 1783 by Catherine the Great’s lover, Grigory Potemkin, to impress Her Highness as she toured newly-acquired territory. The structures were dismantled after she passed, then re-assembled farther along Her route to be inspected again. Potemkin was a nobleman, but there was nothing noble about his scheme. It was devious and now the phrase represents any dishonest effort that attempts to hide reality or the truth. Ironically, historians disbelieve this gambit ever took place which means that the story itself was also concocted. This is hardly surprising. After all, dishonesty has been industrialized by Russia for decades, and remains the bedrock of its state policy. Today, as in the past, Russia produces and exports more disinformation and propaganda than petroleum. And its government also fabricates falsehoods at home and even legally enforces lies. Just say “war” in Red Square, instead of “special military operation”, and you will quickly earn a one-way ticket to a Gulag.
Russia’s dishonesty knows no bounds. Following its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022, bogus narratives proliferate based on two Big Lies:
1. Russia was a great and good empire. This is a complete myth, trotted out recently by Pope Francis to a group of Russian schoolchildren. The Pope told them they should be very proud of Russia’s Czars and history even though its imperialism was nothing more than the blood-soaked capture of dozens of ethnic groups over hundreds of years. Russia’s conquests in Eurasia have been as rapacious and violent as were the colonizations perpetrated by the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish.
2. The current Russian Federation is composed of 142 million devoted and patriotic citizens, Ukraine is an “invented” country and “puppet” of America, and the West [NATO] intends to destabilize, and eventually invade, Russia. This is why Vladimir Putin had to invade Ukraine. The narrative is totally false.
Fraudulent sub-narratives flow from the Big Lies and are spread globally: Russia is a victim of NATO, the West, Ukraine, and the dollar. Ukraine has made up claims about Russian abuse. There was no Holodomor, a recognized genocide committed by Josef Stalin who killed millions. And there was never any other form of oppression or exploitation by Russia toward Ukrainians. And besides, Ukraine is a complete fiction, run by Nazis, and the invasion is simply about Russia reclaiming its own territories.
Russia’s omissions are as egregious as are its numerous commissions. For example, Russia has erased from its history books the fact that Stalin signed a “non-aggression pact” in 1939 with Nazi Germany. It was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and started World War II. It aimed to divide the Baltics and Poland between the two giants. But Hitler double-crossed Stalin, attacked his army then spent years and millions of lives trying to drive the Russians back to Moscow and conquer the rest of Russia. That world war was caused by two treacherous leaders who signed their deal in order to enslave or eliminate millions of people who lived in between them. Then they ended up destroying one another.
This dreadful fact scarred Russia’s image for decades which is why, in 2020, Putin published his own fabricated version of the start of World War II, downplaying the Soviet role and shifting blame for the war to other countries. Anyone who disagreed was deemed to be a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, notably Ukrainians. Now Putin attempts to justify his current war as a righteous one waged by an innocent, victimized Russia. Likewise, his screeds about the impending collapse of Western civilization due to homosexuality and decadence and the Americans, are designed to make his country appear heroic and its violence necessary.
Russia’s disinformation varies. There’s an industry inside Russia dedicated to tailoring messages to suit biases, regions, religions, and politics. Latin America, for example, has been a focus for decades and Moscow has financed insurgencies and fomented instability there successfully — in Cuba and Venezuela. Naturally, the Kremlin has continued to target the Latin American media since its Ukraine invasion and emphasizes the myths that the West is to blame and the West is threatening to use nuclear weapons. Another narrative pushed onto Hispanic airwaves is that a truce must be declared to stop the war (which Ukraine opposes because it would create another frozen conflict). Such brainwashing is also designed to distract attention from Russian war crimes and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and civilians.
Another technique is to publish or offer experts and written opinions that undermine Ukraine’s military efforts or that question America’s and NATO’s involvement. “Useful idiots” have been recruited to spread falsehoods far and wide, a practice that dates back to Stalin and the Holodomor. This is highly effective. Latest examples include Pope Francis’ talk to Russian students about the greatness of Russia’s terrible history and Czars, along with statements by former President Donald Trump that “Putin is a great man” and his invasion of Ukraine is “savvy” and “genius”.
Perhaps the most horrendous example of disinformation involved Pulitzer-Prize winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times, the late Walter Duranty. He was its Moscow bureau chief for 14 years, between 1922 and 1936, and was wined and dined by Stalin in order to prevent him from relating to the world that mass starvation was underway in Ukraine and other grain-growing regions. Eastern Ukraine was fenced off like a gigantic concentration camp and its people starved. Their harvests and livestock were confiscated to help defray Stalin’s costly industrialization. This manmade famine was also imposed to force Ukrainians on to communal farms as well as to destroy their leadership and efforts to obtain independence.
Diplomatically, the Duranty subterfuge worked. In 1934, Stalin was admitted into the League of Nations despite his genocide. In recent years, attempts have been made to have Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize posthumously removed, but without success. The only reporter to disclose the tragedy was Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who sneaked into Ukraine to expose the truth and was later murdered in China, likely by Soviet agents.
Ever since the Second World War ended, the whoppers have continued to spill out of the Kremlin. A recent perfidious boast, made by the assassinated head of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary army, was that his organization was active throughout the Dark Continent to “liberate” African nations. In fact, they were working to overthrow democracies for autocrats in return for Kremlin cash and resource wealth. More recently, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov postured, at a recent BRICS conference, that Moscow had, like other members, also overcome imperialism and European colonization. The truth is that the Soviet Union was not anti-colonial but the opposite: The Russian Federation is the last remaining European empire. In fact, Putin’s war against Ukraine is aimed at preventing the independence of its most important former colony.
The only truism about Russia is that nothing is ever as it seems. In 1939, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill once famously said, after Germany and Russia invaded Poland: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”