In the USSR’s final years, Soviet propagandists and analysts routinely attacked the works of Western writers as being those of “bourgeois falsifiers,” arguing that their books and articles were fictitious because the ideas presented were at odds with Marxism-Leninism and Moscow’s position on most subjects. But these attacks backfired in a double sense. On the one hand, many of those so criticized wore it as a badge of honor with one Sovietologist, Australia’s T. H. Rigby, even having his own biopic titled Memoirs of a Bourgeois Falsifier (North Melbourne, 2019). On the other, the Kremlin’s attacks did not have the regime’s intended effects on the Soviet population. In fact, instead of discrediting these works, the assaults instead attracted the attention of Soviet readers to Western conclusions and ideas and often meant that specialists on “bourgeois falsifiers” were the most well-informed in their areas of expertise. That fact played a key role in the restoration of scholarship and the organization of democratic and national movements under the late Mikhail Gorbachev and throughout the 1990s.
Now, the Vladimir Putin regime is reviving this tradition with similar but even more counterproductive results. Having been attacked in August 2022 as “the real father” of the League of Free Nations of Russia and its calls for the decolonization of Russia (Zavtra.ru, August 4; RUTUBE, August 6), as well as now being subject, by order of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to a lifetime ban from staying in Russia (Mid.ru, September 5), I can testify that I take pride in this and have received messages of congratulations from far and near. How could it be otherwise as I received my ban along with distinguished American scholar on Central Asia, S. Frederick Starr.
Overall, this is not a one-off directed toward myself or a few specialists on the non-Russian groups living in Russia—although those who specialize on these groups seem to be of particular concern to Moscow as of late. In truth, other Western writers have also been subject to similar treatment, including two of my Jamestown Foundation colleagues. Margarita Assenova was put on a sanctions list earlier this year, and Janusz Bugajski, author of Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture (The Jamestown Foundation, 2022), has been the target of especially harsh treatment. Indeed, this approach by Moscow calls special attention to these analysts’ work and is sure to backfire again for the Kremlin.
The Russian Defense Ministry’s Zvezda television channel devoted a 30-minute program to Bugajski’s book; it even titled the segment “What is the Strategy for the Dismemberment of Russia?” (RUTUBE, August 6). Most of the program devoted time to attacking Bugajski’s arguments, attempting to discredit his and others’ efforts to help the peoples under Moscow’s control escape Russian rule as nothing but the latest recrudescence of Nazi policies. Yet, this is far more irrelevant than those who ordered this attack apparently think.
First of all, the television program attracted far more attention in Russia to Bugajski’s work than he could have achieved any other way. Now, far more Russians and non-Russians have heard about Failed State and its arguments from this Soviet-style attack than would have had Moscow left it well enough alone.
Second, Russians and non-Russians have extensive experience of reading between the lines, deciphering what is actually important from what Moscow wants them to think. At the end of Soviet times, for example, Moscow released a film titled “The Man From Fifth Avenue” about a homeless man in New York walking past some of the most expensive stores in the world. The Kremlin clearly expected Russians to focus on the plight of the homeless man and to be angered by class distinctions in the United States. But as studies showed, Soviet citizens were struck not by the homeless man but by the remarkable display of wealth that they could never hope to achieve in the USSR.
Third, many who were familiar with Soviet attacks on “bourgeois falsifiers” went on to become leaders of the democratic and national movements that put an end to the Soviet Union. As with scholars who restored the histories of their peoples from Soviet distortions, so too many who are now living under Putin’s thumb are likely to draw sustenance and encouragement from the very people his regime has placed in its crosshairs.
One differing characteristic of the Russian government’s current attacks that has distracted attention from the similarities to the Soviet approach is that Moscow is now lumping its assaults directed toward analysts on Russia with attacks on others. The list that Fred Starr and I are on also includes six US senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties, numerous senior government officials, prominent businesspeople and popular actors Sean Penn and Ben Stiller. But precisely that pattern may mean that the Putin regime’s actions will in fact prove even more counterproductive than what the Soviets pioneered decades ago. As a result, Moscow’s approach will draw far greater attention to the work of these analysts than ever before. For that, too, we should be grateful.