Z for Zombie: the power of Russia's propaganda machine
Back in the Soviet era anecdotes played the role of memes – they were funny, easy to remember and impossible to trace.
Allow me to share an anecdote with you. A man comes to the Red Square, unfolds an empty poster and holds it in his hands for everyone to see. Police come and arrest him.
They ask: “If you were protesting, why was your poster empty?”
The man replies: “What’s the point of writing on it? Everybody understands it anyway”
Well, the Russian police actually arrested several people with empty posters, and the “protestors” got real fines.
Waking up on February 24th was like waking up into a new deranged reality, where left was right and up was down.
Imagine: you have to get up really early, and you decide to allow yourself just five more minutes in bed while scrolling your feed. The first thing you see is the news that your country has just started a “special operation” on the territory of a bordering state.
You don’t believe it at first – it seems like a sick joke. You keep scrolling and see photos, videos and Putin’s announcement that was uploaded at 04:30 AM Moscow time – the moment the invasion had begun. How do you manage to have a coffee and go to work, knowing you now live in a fascist state?
It is impossible not to think of Ukraine, and even more impossible to finally understand that your motherland and the fascist forces that bomb hospitals and shoot civilians, are not just connected – they are the same thing. It is unbearable to read the news – the actual news, from Telegram - and not be able to even donate to Ukrainian refugees, since every banking operation is being traced.
For the last ten years or so Russian propaganda has kept pushing the idea of the holy sacrifice of our people during WWII. I need to clarify that for the USSR it wasn’t a World War – it was the Great Patriotic War, because our grandfathers and grandmothers fought for their – and our – motherland, and the only other Patriotic War was when Napoleon invaded the Russian Empire in 1812.
Don’t get me wrong: the sacrifice was enormous – 25 million dead with countless wounded and lost over the course of the war. That’s why it is so infuriating to hear Putin spout about the great deed of our people, while he belonged to KGB – the organ that was responsible for shooting the backs of those that didn’t want to leave the trenches and charge – even under open enemy fire. The organ that sustained the repression levels even during wartime. The organ that imprisoned, starved and tortured countless innocent Soviet people – before, during, and after the war.
The thing is that the current Russian government has its roots in the lawless and chaotic nineties, when the Soviet Union fell and there was a vacuum of power for them to seize. The Russian Empire had a founding myth – the Romanovs and their right to rule, given by God. The USSR had one too – the October Revolution and the liberation of all workers from the bourgeoise oppressors.
The Russian Federation had none and was desperate to legitimize itself in the eyes of the people – there was a need to explain why one person rules the country for over ten, fifteen, twenty years. Why people get tortured in police departments and prisons, why independent media gets shut down one by one, and in spite of all that, why there can be no other person to rule.
The people in power who kept stealing taxpayer money needed to make something up to have common ground with those they stole from. Thus came the myth of the Great Victory, which overshadows the crimes of the early Bolsheviks, Stalin’s repressions and the militant politics of the late Soviet Union, which overshadows the poverty of almost half the population.
Germans had a discussion about Hitler, but Russians never had any discussion about Stalin, and many older people still believe he was a great leader. In fact, since not so long ago it was prohibited by law to draw comparison between Nazi Germany and the USSR, even though it’s obvious.
Why? Because our flag was the first to reach the Reichstag, which, in some minds, gives Russia the historical right to do whatever it is Russia wants – and by “Russia” they mean Putin.
In a perverse and ironic way, the Great Victory myth about defeating fascism paved the way for the rise of fascism.
The annexation of Crimea looked a lot like Anschluss, and it was only a matter of time when something would happen again.
Now that it has happened, propaganda has induced people to paint “Z” (Russian military uses “Z” to mark their tanks and vehicles) on their cars and clothes, government officials praise “Z” to show their loyalty to the regime, budget workers paid by the state and students are forcefully dragged into obligatory patriotic rallies with “Z” flags.
Often this half-swastika is painted orange and black like St. George Ribbon, which is a symbol of the Great Victory – and it is everything you need to know about the power of propaganda that’s been poured into Russian ears for more than a decade.
“Why no revolution though?” you might ask. The answer is very simple: the opposition had been forcefully crushed and either imprisoned, like Navalny, or forced out of the country, like many independent media outlets and the rest of Navalny’s team.
Common people do protest – young and old, and within a few weeks around 15,000 people have been arrested, and the counting continues to this day. Protests continue all around the country, but they are not as grand as they were even back in 2021 when Navalny got arrested. New laws put political repression on a conveyer belt, and the punishment is too cruel even for the bravest souls in the opposition – up to 15 years of jail.
Putin understands that the opposition holds any real power only when its forces are united and coordinated by someone like Navalny. Current opposition has representatives, but not leaders. There’s no one to unite the anti-war movement, no one to get it out into the streets.
The new Russian political reality looks like an absurdist play. Allow me to give you just one example. According to the new law, there’s no “war” in Ukraine, there’s only a “special operation”. Therefore, it’s against the law to call it a “war” in any context, and the word “war” even got edited out from a popular children’s cartoon. The police are so strict with it, that even the “F*CK WAR” graffiti had the word “WAR” painted black by the police, but the word “F*CK” was intact.
However, as a Russian proverb says, “there’s no bad without the good”. Those that were passive are now getting actively political, and a lot of young people fight the desperation by protesting and donating to the lawyers that win protestors back from the police.
The divide used to be blurry, but now it’s clear: the enemies of freedom are celebrating the murder of brotherly people. There’s no way to be vocal in current Russia, but there’s also no way to play dumb and pretend everything is fine. Anyone with a sane mind would see the blatant lies and the fascist look of current Russia, which makes some bitter, some cynical, and some hateful towards the regime.
There’s no way to remain calm when families are literally divided by political views: the younger people often try to share the truth with their parents, who only watch TV, and in turn hear that civilian casualties are just Western propaganda, destroyed hospitals and schools are Photoshopped, and videos of unarmed Ukrainians getting killed by Russian military for no reason are doctored. This kind of brainwashing make TV propaganda absorbers look like zombies, with proud “Z” all over them.
While bombing Ukrainian cities, Putin holds the entire Russia hostage to his imperial ambitions. Official surveys say that around 70% of Russians support the war in Ukraine, but, like everything official, such surveys have lost all credibility.
The only ones who support it are the brainwashed pseudo-patriots that scream the loudest, and it seems like they are the majority, but in fact it’s because everybody else is powerless to even say anything, since even words, and words especially, are the fastest way to get jailed in Putin’s Russia.
Despite everything, I believe that Putin has just brought his end, to quote Shakespeare: “These violent delights have violent ends”.
I believe that every post-Soviet country has the same story: a dictator emerges, and sooner or later he is thrown away, and people take their liberty back.
This happened in Ukraine, this happened in Kazakhstan, this almost happened in Belarus. I believe that a new, better world will emerge, and Russians will point to Putin’s portrait in the history book and say:
“He was a very bad man – the total opposite of what we have now.”
Boris Chaikin is a wannabe journalist trying to make a difference in the world. Published in Russia and abroad.
Photographs courtesy of Altrobo, Mathias P.R. Reding and Irina Balasnova on Pexels