“Putin believes in conspiracy theories”

Ilya Yablokov, researcher specializing in conspiracy theories, on how Russia has become a conspiracy theorist of a country


In his appeals to the nation, President Putin provided a number of explanations why the war against Ukraine was necessary, referring to neo-Nazis who had allegedly seized power in Ukraine and the need to oppose the West and NATO. Holod spoke to Ilya Yablokov, lecturer at the University of Sheffield, in the hope to find out where these constructs in Russian political rhetoric had come from.

Holod: Christo Grozev, head of Bellingcat, published photographed pages from some kind of “Russian Soldier's Code of Honor”. One of its maxims states the following: “Russia and the Russian Army are the last bastion against the ‘satanic new world order.’” Where does this come from and what does it really mean?

Ilya Yablokov: I was quite surprised to see such a document. Unless it’s fake, it is an interesting element of what Russia has on its ideological agenda today.

Generally speaking, the “new world order” conspiracy theory first emerged in the US in the 1970s. Initially it was promoted by radical Protestant fundamentalists (so the whole business of Russian ideologues promoting American Protestants’ ideas sounds absurd from the very beginning). Later the theory was picked up by the far-right, not necessarily religious but radical opponents of the US federal government. They saw all reforms and novelties as pursued by the devilish hand of the Kabbalah, the superrich, politicians, or people like George Soros.

In Russia, in the 1990s and 2000s, the “new world order” conspiracy theory has gained a distinctly anti-Western and anti-US flavor. In a weird way, the idea of opposing the US government in the US was transplanted onto Russian soil. In essence, the “new world order” theory was squeezed dry of its US filling, stuffed with all today’s anti-Western sentiments and served to Russian officers and soldiers going to the frontlines in Ukraine.

How exactly did these ideas take hold in Russia?

It all started with the fall of the Soviet Union and the institutionalization of anti-Western sentiments. In the early 1990s, Alexander Dugin was publishing his Elements magazine, and when the Yugoslav war broke out he published a lot on how the Americans were destroying all independent forces around the world and planning to gut Yugoslavia, our Serbian Orthodox brethren, and so forth. Back then he did debate the “new world order”, which had destroyed the foundations of the Soviet Union: the Atlantic world won, this Atlantic world is the new world order, and it will soon annihilate all of Eurasia.

Year after year, this idea has been steaming in Dugin’s and his comrades’ writings. When anti-Western attitudes became a mainstream phenomenon in Russia, the “new world order” began absorbing all things “Western” one could only think of: LGBT agenda, feminism, GMO food, WTO accession. All these things were put in the same box, anything Western became a manifestation of the “new world order.”

How did this make its way from Dugin into Vladimir Putin’s speeches?

Let me first say that, as scholars, we cannot draw a direct line between Dugin’s ideas and what the official party line is. We can only speculate about who influenced whom, who read whose article, who was commissioned to write a research paper, and so forth.

What do we know for sure? We know that back in the 1990s Dugin was loitering at the Military Academy of the Russian General Staff, lecturing on geopolitics and probably speaking a lot about the “new world order.” We can hypothesize that whatever he was saying sank into the brains of some Russian officers, who then decided to use it at some point.

How has modern Russia become a country whose president is channeling out conspiracy theories? How has Russia become a conspiracy theorist of a country?

Let’s look at these two things separately, the president and the country. The whole country has not become entangled in conspiracy theories, although the society is indeed prone to them. There are several reasons for that. 

One is the trauma of 1991, which is haunting us all now. The way the Soviet Union had collapsed brought about many questions and traumatic experiences. Some of these we see now in Ukraine. The huge, great, and influential power went bankrupt, first economically and then politically, and then broke into 15 republics in about six months. This did shock a great many people. At first, these people lived in their natural nostalgia, and later it was artificially fueled in the 2000s. First playful, this nostalgia has gradually become chauvinistic and foul-smelling. 

This trauma has an impact on both Putin and the society, but what was particularly frightening is that younger people, of a more cynical type, began worshiping the cult of power connected with the Soviet Union and imperialistic aspirations, saying “we’ll show you” or “we can do it again.” This resulted in a perverse perception of Soviet history as a series of endless victories, combined with an artificially fueled anti-Western conspiracy theory, which at first was nothing but a political tool used during election campaigns in 2004–2011. But when the regime entered a crisis in 2012, this theory began transforming into something bigger. Gradually, it has been creeping into the minds of a part of the ruling class as an explanatory apparatus for interpreting the reality.

Another part of the establishment, represented by such people as Vladislav Surkov, have been extremely cynical and used conspiracy theories for the purposes of social mobilization, through media, books, and so forth. As a result, the sincere conspiracy theorists in collaboration with the cynical hypocrites have gradually made our society extremely suspicious. For the last five years, it has been constantly pumped up with all kinds of conspiracy theories about everything—biolabs, the Internet, gay prides, etc.

Eventually, and I am sorry but I have to say it, the ruling class, including its very top tier and Vladimir Putin in particular, came to believe in these theories themselves and began including their fictional fears in their rational political analysis.

So you think that they genuinely believe in all that?

Now I am convinced that Putin believes in conspiracy theories. If you asked me a year ago, I would have said that he, just like ordinary folks, discusses conspiracy theories with his friends in his kitchen but does not use them as a tool for turning the political agenda in the country and the world upside down. I would have definitely told you so and provided a dozen arguments.

Today I can’t be certain that Putin does not believe in conspiracy theories, and I am convinced that he is driven by his struggle against the international Western plot aimed at Russia. Look at what he is doing in Ukraine and his rhetoric—how in just two first days of the “special military operation” the “denazification” narrative receded into the background, replaced by Russia’s war against the West waged in Ukraine. This was openly said by [the Defense Minister] Sergei Shoigu, and if this is something openly said and formulated as a task—Russia’s victory over the West on Ukrainian soil—then it is not just a tool anymore, it’s a political order. Let’s stop for a moment. If this is a war between the West and Russia, which is what, let’s say, 50% of the Russian population believes, then what is Russia’s victory? Which KPI? When do we say that the victory is ours? When there are no gay prides in Ukraine? When Medvedchuk (pro-Russian Ukrainian politician affiliated with Vladimir Putin.—ed. Holod) is the Ukrainian president?

This is something you cannot calculate or assess. It is more of a phantasm. If phantasms determine political action, this action is not rational, I’m afraid.

How did the narrative about Ukrainian neo-Nazis and denazification evolve and become implemented in our public politics?

First we need to get the terms “nationalism” and “Nazism” straight. The problem is that the Russian government, especially at its top level, which seems to dislike Ukraine a lot, does not understand what nationalism is. It operates the Soviet clichés about nationalism and does not realize that nationalism is a pretty natural political and civic concept of the 20th century. Nazism was a radical manifestation of nationalism, but the latter was common among most national communities, starting in the 18th century in Europe and culminating in the 20th century with its massive emergence of sovereign nation-states.

There is nothing wrong with nationalism. Ukraine is a nation-state, a separate nation, although the concept is controversial: people argue about the concept of the nation, about what it is, who belongs to the nation and who doesn’t. In the case of Ukraine there are discussions about whether it is a civic or ethnic nation: how do you define your national identity, for example, whether you share the culture, speak the language, read the literature, how you define yourself. President Zelensky is a Ukrainian Jew, not an ethnic Ukrainian, but he became the president of the country.

There are these scares in Russia: that the Euromaidan was staged by the far-right, that the extreme Stepan Bandera worshippers are planning to come to Crimea to kill all Russians. These scares were first used to mobilize popular support during the annexation of Crimea. After it was annexed, the narrative about Ukrainian Nazis seemed to live on and regularly featured on state-run TV channels. And then, after so many years, it suddenly becomes the justification for the open military aggression. All of a sudden the whole country and its ruling class are Nazis! 

This myth is possible because of a pure lack of understanding what nationalism is, and incapability or unwillingness to see Ukraine as a political actor and a different nation, similar to Russians in some ways but different in others. Ukraine is entitled to develop according to its own laws and interests. It needs no liberation, they will figure everything out on their own. The Nazi scare is no different than someone trying to convince me that Russia is ruled by the Jewish Kabbalah.

“Nazis ruling Ukraine” is a creed that can easily explain everything and, most importantly, lets its confessors off the leash. There is a common finding in the studies of nationalist and far-right movements: as soon as you label someone a “Nazi” in a public argument, you automatically deprive this person of any legitimacy in representing a political movement. What you are essentially saying is: “You are a Nazi, you are beyond political legitimacy, it is impossible to discuss anything with you as your goals are terrifying, so we won’t talk to you, we will isolate and destroy you.”

Why is a country led by a conspiracy theorist dangerous?

My answer to this question will be very short. Go watch some news and you will see what this leads to. In their radical manifestations, conspiracy theories are intolerant. Any conspiracy theorist stops assessing the world rationally and starts acting irrationally, inflicting a great deal of harm. What we see today is politics based on conspiracy theorizing in its purest form. These politics, unfortunately, are killing people in both nations.

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