When we talk about Russia’s propaganda machine we often imagine it as a perfectly functioning system in which some operator presses a button and moves attached figures towards them. Yet what is it really like? How does Russia’s intricate propaganda mechanism run? What makes it different and is it similar to the way Soviet propaganda operated?
President V Putin on a Russian TV
© RIA/Scanpix

For that only the totalitarian Soviet or Nazi regimes plainly had dedicated institutions – the Ministry Of Propaganda in Nazi Germany and the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the USSR. In today’s Russia however responsibility is shared among different institutes and so in seeking to fully understand the Kremlin’s propaganda operations, uncovering Russia’s propaganda dissemination structure merits an attempt.

In Russia the vertically functioning integrated political system follows the same course of coordination of propaganda that the Kremlin sets. This is affirmed in the “Reform of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation” documents made known in 2000 in the newspaper Kommersant and which highlighted the principles of this structure after Vladimir Putin came to power. They are reinforced by a centralization of power: the president through his administration must gain leverage to effectively “create” a “necessary” political situation and govern social and political processes in the Russian Federation and near abroad.

Katri Pynnoniemi and Andras Racz, academics at the Finnish Institute for International Relations who have researched the principles of dissemination and structure of propaganda of the USSR and of Putin’s Russia note that today’s propaganda machine has not only adopted most of the methods of Soviet propaganda but has also reinstated a similar structure. In their opinion the propaganda coordination centre is in the Presidential Administration and that today the actual propaganda threshold is no longer the “Iron Curtain” as it was during the Cold War but the Russian language. This means that Russian-language speakers and the people of Russia fall constitute one audience while the propaganda directed overseas (at foreign-language speakers) constitutes another.

Information dissemination is coordinated on a presidential administration level whereas it’s the government along with the responsible ministries that perform the technical and operational work. A distinction is made between Russian- speakers and foreign-language speakers, a distinction that also determines the different dissemination channels. Russian-speakers using Russian news sources get the same news feed wherever they may actually be.

There are in the meantime different channels for foreign audiences and which are currently made available by way of mass media (such as RT or Sputnik) as well as by subsidized productions, public relations agencies and charter articles. News media, non-government organisations and social network “trolls” created and maintained by the Kremlin also contribute to the dissemination of propaganda.

In the USSR, Nazi Germany and in countries with harsh totalitarian regimes, government structures that prepare and disseminate propaganda operate. At this point in time Russian propaganda is intitutionalised however it is no longer the objective of one institute. When assessing Russian policy as propaganda, we have to take into account that information actions that become propaganda messages and an information war phenomenon are operated by various state institutions. Information dissemination (propaganda) policy is coordinated on a Presidential Administration level.
Various sources indicate that it is the responsibility of the Presidential Administration’s two first deputies and close partners of Vladmir Putin – Aleksei Gromov and Vyacheslav Volodin. The Presidential Administration is the place where ideas of information policy are born. Mr. Gromov is in constant contact with the heads of the big Russian channels and continuously gives then strict instructions as to which topics to focus on and which to speak carefully about. In this way Russia’s big news channels must broadcast the news the way the Kremlin commands.

The technical and operational work carried out in the government is possibly supervised by the deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich. The immediate performers of these functions can perhaps be called the Ministries of Cultural, Educational and Scientific, Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of Defense and to some extent the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Since 2012 the Ministry of Culture has been run by the historian Vladimir Medinsky who for twelve years prior to that worked at a commission against the falsification of history. Mr. Medinski denies the occupation of the Baltic States and the crimes of the GULAG and along with this historical narrative spreads his other political aim, that being his fight against “Russiaphobia both abroad and in Russia”.

The Ministry of Culture subsidises Russian cinema and television productions (especially those that encourage “patriotic sentiments and a moral and social renaissance”) which are common not only on Russian-controlled television but also because of its low cost on commercial Lithuanian television.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs coordinates one of the most important instruments of “soft force” – the federal agency “Rossotrudnichestvo” the chief aim of which is to unite Russians living inside and outside of Russia and to spread the Russian language and culture in the world and form a positive image of Russia.

By 2020 the agency seeks to have its network in 104 countries (this year it has 76) and start operating on the Western structure principle that the British Council and USAID do. This would mean going from a from a more cultural support to one of development projects that strengthen Russia’s influence over countries. Also among the chief aims of “Rossotrudnichestvo’s” function abroad (such as spreading education in the Russian language, giving support to Russian schools, organising youth tours to Russia, creating a network of scientific centres) is “coordinating propaganda activity”.

Along with the “Russian World” fund that was created by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Education and Science, they conduct various language and cultural support propagation in Lithuania.

Responsible for use of the media for propaganda and one of the most influential people in Russia’s political system is the minister of defense, Sergey Shoigu. In 2015 the Ministry of Defense started organising the Russian journalist awards “Media-Ace” the aim of which is to improve the image of Russia’s armed forces. During the awards, Mr. Shoigu described the modern media as one of the most important forms of war: “The time came when we realised that words, the camera, the photograph, the Internet and information in general is yet another weapon, yet another armed force”.

And when Russia started its hybrid military activities in Ukraine, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and its subordinate structures obtained information about likely agents and resources in eastern Ukraine Russian from friendly agents in similar Ukrainian institutions to help then with their actions.
This overview has shown that at some time or other in today’s Russia a responsible institution is not operating specifically for the purposes of propaganda. Mr. Putin’s power vertical creates a rather clear and strict hierarchy using existing conditions. Nevertheless, the system is somewhat more complex than in the USSR because while wanting to retrace the origin of tangible propaganda messages one needs to observe where the wider net of institutes are.

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