How Russia Feeds the Factory of Unthinking
From Ukrainians being mainly Jewish to allegations of black magic, hypnotism and colonising Africa, Oleksiy Pluzhnyk explores the Kremlin’s exploitation of the conspiratorial mindset
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It had been a week since I started talking to Samir (not his real name), a young Syrian man living in Aleppo. As a Ukrainian, I was interested in Syrians’ attitudes towards the recent Russian invasion. Even though we both had a fresh memory of Russian war crimes, our conversations remained mostly prosaic and almost indistinguishable from any other interactions I’d had with Syrians before. That was until I received a spontaneous and rather unexpected message asking: “So, you are Jewish, right?”
I was puzzled. We had not touched upon this in our conversation.
“Anyway, I know that most Ukrainian citizens are Jewish,” he said. When I asked him why he thought this, he messaged: “My professor has told us that. He is from Russia.”
I was curious. I had never heard of such delusion before.
There’s no need to explain the attitude towards Jews in the region, especially in Syria with its history of wars with Israel, the Golan Heights issue, and current highly aggressive relations with the country. But it seemed suspicious how beneficial this was for Russia – for people to believe that Ukraine consists mainly of the group that is arguably one of the most hated by locals, even though there is no basis for this.
Similar thoughts were provoked by Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe’s former Minister of Higher Education, when he tweeted that Ukrainians are “the masters of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism”. This has been echoed by other users of social media in Africa that claim Ukraine is “racist”.
This is despite the fact that Ukraine has not colonised anyone. On the contrary, Ukrainians themselves were colonised by the Russians and had a long and tragic history of serfdom strongly resembling slavery, abolished only in 1861.
But that is not the point. Racism by Africans equates to what Israel represents for Syrians – a highly sensitive issue provoking strong emotions, which tend to overshadow rational thinking, especially when a person doesn’t know much about the object around which the manipulative lie revolves. These blinding emotions leave a person suspicious and prejudiced towards the unknown.
That’s the principle basis on which a conspiratorial mindset is formed. As Peter Pomerantsev – author of This is not Propaganda and Nothing is True and Everything is Possible – has aptly put it several times, conspiracy is used to explain those things which a person doesn’t really understand, to pave a fictional way through an extremely difficult and unknown world.
This kind of propaganda has its roots in circumstances in which trust is dissolved or is absent to begin with, and where suspicion and doubt are high. When people feel lost, they seem to side with those who offer simplistic and emotional explanations. “Of course, then you need Putin, Trump or Bolsonaro to help you with things that you’re failing to grasp,” Pomerantsev observes.
Many of those making such statements about Ukrainians may not even realise that these narratives are profitable to Russia – but they are. Indeed, Russia is the main global provider of these all-answering explanations and conspiracies.
Masters of the Irrational
The Kremlin’s reaction to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 was chaotic. According to Pomerantsev, “the reports that characterised the crash as everything from an assault by Ukrainian fighter jets following US instructions, to an attempted NATO attack on Putin’s private jet… were trying not so much to convince viewers of any one version of events, but rather to leave them confused, paranoid”.
Russia constantly and tirelessly produces largely mystical conspiracy content, filling both the information environment of the country itself and spreading it around the world.
“In the headquarters of the Ukrainian military, we found traces of black magic practices” an article by Russia’s largest state-owned media RIA Novosti has observed.
“The arsonist who put the car of the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces on fire had been kidnapped and hypnotised by Ukrainians”, a popular media outlet Lenta.Ru wrote in August.
In the Middle East and Africa, Russian media narratives around the war in Ukraine consistently contain conspiracies – from the hidden Zionist hand responsible for the war in Syria, to the US firing missiles at Russia, and the West being responsible for the global food crisis.
In the end, some people’s indifference towards the country – about which they will know practically nothing – can transform into a zealous commitment to Russian narratives.
“Some things about Ukrainian history that I had never known about before foreigners ‘enlightened’ me,” wrote a Ukrainian on Twitter reacting to the foreign conspiracy Ukrainians are facing online. “Ukraine colonised Africa; Ukraine occupied Palestine.”
It is difficult to draw conclusions about whether such narratives are that widespread, as well as about the authenticity of their authors, but they definitely reveal the dangers of conspiratorial thinking.
These dangers are wider than just Russian propaganda. In this case, we confront something bigger – the dark side of people’s nature itself.
From Trump incessantly turning to conspiracies during the insurrection at the US Capitol, to the popularity of far-right conspiracist Danny Kollár in Slovakia, to African belief in the Ukrainian empire, and Syrian assuredness about the Jewish majority here, the global system of reason is under attack. What is thought to be unthinkable becomes mainstream. Every society is at risk.
Some people will sincerely hate Ukraine for things it has nothing to do with. This is a great victory for irrational conspiracies, and Russia is one of the biggest factories of unthinking to nourish it. But the tendency to a conspiratorial mindset is truly global – and that is why it is a global threat.