CounterPropaganda · Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

From Suslov to Surkov – How does the Kremlin’s expert propaganda work?

Katerina received a doctorate and master’s degree in history at the Central European University in Budapest, a Master’s degree in European Union law at the University of the Reding in the UK and a bachelor of humanities from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.


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(Translation from Ukrainian by my Chrome browser)

Katerina Smagliy

November 9, 2018 – 12:22

Continuation. Start by reading “Days” No. 199-199 on November 2-3, 2018.

For most of the twentieth century, think tanks (also known as think tanks or think tanks) were predominantly a Western phenomenon. Founded by governments or private donors to provide alternative policy advice and decision-making on important issues, think tanks have traditionally been working on the principles of freedom of conscience and research. In general, they help promote social and political values, and also seek to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of various political, social or economic issues.


Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in Russia there was no tradition of independent think tanks. The Soviet regime did not allow alternatives to the dominant communist ideology and had zero tolerance for free political thinking. Expert and analytical functions were performed by various state-funded and Communist-controlled party research institutes or units operating within party committees, the Soviet bureaucracy, the KGB or the State Planning Committee (Gosplan).

The first independent think tanks appeared in Russia during the years of restructuring and shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. The most famous of them included Levada Center (founded in 1987), the Gorbachev Foundation (created in 1992) and the Egor Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy (established in 1990). During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, Western governments and private donors actively supported the development of independent think tanks and nonprofit organizations in Russia, trying to promote the process of democratization of the country. These efforts were seriously undermined when Vladimir Putin came to power. The Foreign Agents Act, adopted in 2012, inflicted a powerful blow on Russian civil society and the community of think tanks.

By strengthening control over independent think tanks and nonprofit organizations, the Kremlin simultaneously created new opportunities for specialists working in Russian state research institutions. The decree of President Dmitry Medvedev from March 2011 changed the status of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISD) and passed it under the jurisdiction of the presidential administration. In 2016, President Putin appointed Mikhail Fradkov, former Russian prime minister (2004-2007) and ex-director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (2007-2016), director of RISD. Similarly, in August 2015, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ISEMW) was renamed the Federal State Budget Research Institute “Institute of World Economy and International Relations named after E.M.

Large-scale opposition protests after rigged parliamentary elections in 2011 and presidential elections in 2012 in Russia have convinced Putin’s regime to intensify its advocacy efforts to prevent the very possibility of a “color revolution” in Russia. The Kremlin seems to have devoted significant funds to these efforts to create new, less academic and more propagandist-oriented think tanks, which were supposed to produce research materials, articles and messages in the media in support of the new ideological doctrine of the Russian state.

The regime also used numerous experts, journalists, and representatives of the creative intelligentsia as their spokespersons and legitimate people. This marked the beginning of the gradual curbing of the Russian think tanks by the Kremlin and their forced conversion into the horns of the regime.


Putin’s “ideologists” are Vladislav Surkov (Putin’s personal assistant), Vyacheslav Volodin (now the speaker of the Russian Duma, former deputy head of the presidential administration), and Dmitry Peskov (Putin’s spokesman and deputy head of the presidential administration) – are modern, relaxed versions of Mikhail Suslov , a former communist secretary of ideology, who spent thirty-four years in the Kremlin as head of Soviet propaganda campaigns.

Continuing the tradition of the Suslovian concept of “developed socialism” (which used thousands of empty words to explain why communism did not come even fifty years after the revolution of 1917), the Putin Camarilla today is inventing its own “alternative reality” and looking for any plausible arguments to justify the “unique historical mission of Russia.” Instead of asking what needs to be done to turn Russia into a healthy democracy and help the country overcome the persistent social injustice, Moscow propagandists are busy searching for answers to the question of what makes Russia so unusually unsuitable for independent courts, free elections, government, free from corruption, and peace with neighbors.


The Kremlin’s answer to this riddle has taken the form of a new ideological doctrine of “sovereign democracy” (democracy without the rule of law, democratic values ​​or separation of powers), which later turned into a Russian “doctrine of neo-conservatism” characterized by the following elements:

• 1) promoting the idea of ​​the superiority of the Russians and the Russian state towards other peoples and glorifying Russia as the world’s leading defender of “true” Christianity, morality, family, and other conservative values;

• 2) revision of the persistent views on Russian / Soviet history and embellishment of Soviet leaders, in particular, Joseph Stalin; denial of Moscow’s responsibility for mass crimes committed against Russians, as well as other peoples of the USSR and other countries, in particular genocide committed in 1932-1933 against Ukrainians; the glorification of Russia’s role in the victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War and the silencing of the role of other countries in this success;

• 3) denial of Russia’s responsibility for acts of international aggression, including the 2008 war in Georgia and the subsequent occupation of parts of its territory, the de facto Russian occupation of part of the territory of Moldova and the current undeclared war against Ukraine, which until now led to the illegal accession of Crimea and military occupation of eastern regions of Ukraine;

• 4) dehumanization of Ukrainians; crippling Ukrainian culture and language; the spread of narratives about the revival of fascism and anti-Semitism in Ukraine; distorted representation of the current Ukrainian authorities as a puppet of the West, adhering to neo-Nazi ideologies; the discrediting of reforms taking place in Ukraine after EuroMaydan as incompetent; the image of Ukraine as an “insolvent” and “corrupt” state that does not deserve Western support;

• Western prosecution for the Cold War and the image of Western sanctions against Russia as a return to the “morally downtrodden” and “unfair” mentality of the Cold War;

• 6) criticism of the West for “loss of moral standards” and “degeneration”; ridicule from Western ideas of human rights and democracy; Western accusation in double standards;

• 7) excessive focus on the economic and political problems of the West, which are distorted to be regarded as indisputable diseases of the society; support for anti-elite groups and radical right and left ideologies in Europe and North America, which are often distorted to appear as legitimate voices speaking on behalf of societies as a whole;

• 8) criticism of Western institutions for their failure to respond to new global challenges, such as international terrorism and migration, to undermine their positions and authority;

• 9) obstruction of European integration; the revival of ethnic, cultural, religious and historical lines of division in Europe; support for separatism in the Western powers, which are becoming targets for attacks.


The United Russia Party played a leading role in the development of the Kremlin doctrine of “neoconservatism.” In 2012, she opened two think-tanks – the Center for Social-Conservative Politics (CICC) and the Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (ISDEP) – to produce the necessary analytical and ideological basis for the Putin regime. The latter was headed by Dmytro Badovsky, who previously worked as the Deputy Head of the Department of Internal Policy of the Presidential Administration.

On the eve of the Duma elections in 2016, ISEPD opened the Rethinking Russia (RR) Assistant Analytical Center to bring political propaganda of the United Russia to the international audience. Reports delivered by RR have a wide range of readers and are specially targeted to Western experts and journalists. For example, the report “The Russian Political System Between Electoral Campaigns of the State Duma in 2011 and 2016” was directed to 6,000 Western journalists and experts. This analytical center even seemed to have an office in Brussels.

Jan Vasslavsky, a graduate of the MDMA and, most likely, a protégé of Vyacheslav Volodin, was his director until 2016. Vlaslavsky became the head of the analytical department of the secretariat of the Duma shortly after Volodin left the post of chairman of the presidential administration and was appointed speaker of the Russian Duma. Alexander Konkov, a former advisor to the executive director of the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund, replaced Vaslavsky with Rethinking Russia.

The foreign policy agenda of the Kremlin was mostly developed and supported by the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, the Russian Foreign Affairs Council (RRMS), the Foreign Policy Analytical Center and Eurasian Strategies. All foreign-policy think tanks connected with the Kremlin have close ties with Russian secret services and thus carry out both analytical and intelligence functions for the Kremlin and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

The Foreign and Defense Policy Council was set up in the early 1990s by Vitaliy Shlykov, a Chief Intelligence Directorate (HRU) and Boris Yeltsin, Deputy Defense Minister. Today, the Chairman of the Board is headed by Sergey Karaganov and Executive Director Fedor Lukyanov, who is the editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Politics and the academic director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Karaganov is the dean of the elite Moscow Higher School of Economics and the advisor to the administration of President Vladimir Putin. He is the author of the so-called Karaganov doctrine, that is, the Kremlin’s strategy is based on Russian-speaking residents in the so-called close foreign countries (former Soviet republics) as the main guarantors of the political and economic influence of Moscow on their neighbors. Karaganov answers the question “how to win the cold war?” So: “Russia should increase its propaganda power.”

The Council closely cooperates with the administration of the president, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, the Ministry of Defense and other relevant government bodies. In 2017, she received personal praise from Vladimir Putin, and Foreign Minister Lavrov emphasized her ability to “generate new ideas and ensure their reflection in the public opinion that it [the Council] itself forms to some extent.”

Its supervisory board includes a number of businessmen and civil servants associated with the Kremlin. Among them are Andriy Bezrukov, retired Russian intelligence officer and advisor to Rosneft president Igor Sechin; Andriy Bagrov – Deputy General Director of Norilsk Nickel (headed by Vladimir Potanin, member of Putin’s close circle); Sergei Brilov – Deputy Director of the State TV Channel “Russia”; Vyacheslav Nikonov – Executive Director of the Russian World Foundation; Yuri Kabaladze is a former KGB officer and deputy dean of the International Media Department of the MDMA; and vice-rector of MDIMO Eugene Kozhokin.

The Council on International Affairs (RRMS) was established in 2010 by the decree of President Dmitry Medvedev on the basis of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. Its director, Andriy Kortunov, is a former deputy director of the Institute

USA and Canada. The Supervisory Board of the RRMS includes several senior Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, executive director of the Gorchakov Foundation Leonid Drachevsky, assistant to President Putin Andrei Fursenko, rector of MGIMO Anatoly Torkunov and president of Sberbank, German Gref. The Presidium of the Council is headed by oligarch Peter Aven, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, Deputy Foreign Minister Dmitry Morgulov and Fedor Lukyanov.

The Kremlin’s foreign policy doctrine is also supported by several think tanks within the framework of MDMOs. An analytical center for foreign policy was created by the associate professor of MIMO Andriy Sushentsov. In 2017, he received a “mega-grant” from the Russian government to work on large-scale research projects in foreign policy. In the same year, Sushentsov and the rector of MDII, Anatoly Torkunov, opened another Eurasian strategy analytical center to advise the Russian government and enterprises. The Advisory Board of Eurasian Strategies includes the already mentioned Yana Vaslavsky and the journalist Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson of the late Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who also meets in the advisory board of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council headed by Sergei Karaganov.

Although the number of think tanks in contemporary Russia may create an illusion of competition between views and alternative visions, a deeper study shows that they consist of a rather narrow circle of propagandist narratives that have different titles as “experts”, “executive directors” or “board members” in different organizations. related to the Kremlin. As Table 1 shows, Lukyanov meets in four seemingly unrelated institutions, and the rector of MDVI Torcunov appears in six organizations.

Interestingly, many Kremlin experts and foreign policy officials are invited to cooperate with the West as representatives of the “liberal”, “prudent” or even “democratic” Russia and as informal channels for communicating with the Kremlin. However, the main difference between Russian and Western intellectual communities lies in the fact that the former operates under authoritarian rules and by its very nature includes fewer independent voices. It is not justified to expect honest or reliable information from people living under the control of the Kremlin and whose main task is to promote the Kremlin agenda.

The Kremlin experts, like the Russian state media, are mercenaries in the Kremlin propaganda war against the West. They will never be able to really influence the regime, or indeed seriously criticize the system, since their main duty is to serve the interests of the regime. Variants of professional activity available to Russian specialists at the moment are limited to three: 1) to serve the regime and to prosper; 2) Be slaves obedient, silent and unknown; 3) say what you think and face repression.

Therefore, the dilemma facing the Western educational community lies in the following: how to “study Russia without contacts and exchanges that could ultimately compromise [North American and] European loyalty to democratic norms and legitimize Kremlin discourses that are formulated elegantly and purposefully to the western consumer “.

Katerina Smagley

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