Chess players are familiar with an opening known as Petrov’s Defense, or the Russian Game/Defense. This is a symmetrical defense that allows for quite a bit of attack opportunities on both sides. The defense copies white’s first two moves (D4, D5, NC3, NC6). White’s third move takes the black pawn (NxD5) which black cannot taken in direct response. Instead, the books tell us that the best move is to break out the Queen (QD7) the big gun, and instead of merely threatening, black now has initiative. That initial capture by white is a mistake. In order to preserve the advantage, white has to play conservatively while black’s position develops into a tactical and strategic advantage. In the world outside of boards and pieces, the Russian game is similar, but it is not what most people think.
When we think of Russian history, for many of us our common knowledge is pretty limited. Most of us are aware of the Soviet Union in WWII and Afghanistan. Fewer people know about the Russian role in WWI and the lead up to the revolution. What most know about Tsarist Russia usually concerns how it ended. Common knowledge usually ends with Catherine the Great’s sexual proclivities, Peter the Great’s modernisations, and the name Ivan “the Terrible”. We are obviously learning more and more about Russian-Ukrainian history because of the current war. For example, I bet a larger amount of people know what the Holodomor was than ever before.
The great Russian army has a fearsome reputation stemming from their defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Armée and the Wehrmacht. Yet, where the Russian efforts against the West have been most successful of late has not been on the battlefield, but in an information war that they have been winning in a silent victory.
This effort has been fought through the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Effects of which, we have been experiencing through the last century. The most devious and important part of their victory is that we, on the receiving end, have been barely aware of their effort at all. I am going to discuss four popular and influential conspiracy theories used by various Russian governments over the last century that we still feel the effects of today.
Exploiting a Prejudice
The first effort that the Russians engaged in was not specifically created by Russian leadership. Toward the end of the Tsarist Russia, it was clear that the peasantry was beginning to become aware that their government, the last imperial government in Europe, was failing them. What the imperial court needed was a way to assign blame for their most recent setbacks: their loss to the Japanese, a first for a European country in the modernised era. There was a brewing famine coupled with an economic crisis – Tsarist Russia was in trouble.
The Tsar’s response to protests and organised complaints was to send in troops to quiet rabble-rousers. This method doesn’t solve the problem, it merely silences the complaints. In situations like famine, shooting a bunch of protestors doesn’t grow more grain. By the end of the 19th century, the Russian people were becoming increasingly educated and making demands for a Parliament-style branch of government (which would be “the Duma”). Tsar Nicholas II, initially, approved of this in 1905, but issued a proclamation that it would hold no power and that he could dissolve it at any point – which he did after three months of its first formation. This move would ignite feelings of national resentment that would boil over in the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union.
While the Duma was being argued over, the Imperial government began looking for someone to blame the unrest on. They were sure that it could not be rampant famine, unemployment, economic collapse, their loss in the Russo-Japanese (Nichiro senso), or the dissolution of any kind of democratic reforms. After all the Tsar was appointed by god and had been in charge of Russia since the 15th century. Coincidentally a tract began appearing in Russia that blamed a small ethnic group located in Western Russia for all the ills of current regime. The tract’s target, of course, was the Jewish ethnic minority. This work is the infamous, “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” or simply, “The Protocols.”
I want to be absolutely clear that I do not have evidence that the book was commissioned at the behest of the Russian government. With that said, the fact that the book was published and distributed in Russia without the Okhrana (the Tsar’s Secret Police) shutting it down is tacit endorsement at the least. The initial group that spread the work were affiliated with the Okhrana in Paris. The work was used after the failed 1905 Russian Revolution to justify the motive for the Revolution by Tsarist loyalists.
What the work did was take the nebulous antisemitism that is baked in Christian Europe and crystalise it into tangible claims. Every antisemitic conspiracy theory going forward from this point owes an intellectual debt to the Protocols. The Protocols are not merely a forgery, they are a plagiarism of an earlier work satirising the reign of Napolean III. The work has been investigated over and over again, each time concluding that it is a work of abject fiction. Yet it persists despite that evaluation. The Protocols were used to blame the Bolshevik Revolution on the Jews, citing Lenin’s Jewish heritage as both previse and conclusion. The fall of the Kaiser, the British Fascist movements, the interwar period; European antisemitism had its textbook. In the 1920s it gained purchase in the United States as “The International Jew: the World’s Problem” by Henry Ford.
By 1921 Times reporter Philip Graves exposed them as the plagiarism that they were. Yet the damage was done. The Protocols were global. In the 1930s a trial was conducted in Bern, Switzerland regarding the authenticity of the Protocols. The trial concluded that they were an obvious forgery and would very likely cause individuals to commit crimes against a minority group. This conspiracy theory, tolerated by the Russian Imperial government has caused untold damage. Anti-Jewish policies and programs have used the Protocols as their justification.
It would be false to claim that without this book antisemitism in Europe would have faded away, yet the book’s writing has been highly influential. Conspiracist heavy hitters like Bill Cooper and his highly impactful “Behold a Pale Horse” reprints them in total in chapter 15 of that book. This chapter is preceded with:
Author’s Note: This is an exact reprint of the original text. This has been written intentionally to deceive people. For clear understanding the world “Zion” should be “Sion;” any reference to “Jews” should be replaced with the word “Illuminati”; and the word “goyim” should be replaced with “cattle.”
Similarly, David Icke quotes The Protocols extensively, but again thinks that renaming it to “Protocols of the Illuminati” frees him of the antisemitism in the work. The book’s conspiracy persists because for many people this justifies their own antisemitism.
Perhaps the Russian government could have stopped in the first decade of the 20th century. They did not stop it because of the antisemitic attitudes in the Russian government at the time. Whether it was ambivalence toward the plight of the Russian Jewish minority is irrelevant to the immorality of their allowance of the conspiracy theory to harden in this form. It is the model of every super conspiracy citing the Jews. Ownership of the book was illegal in the USSR, meaning that, at the very least, Russia was entirely capable of banning the book had it wanted to.
In November of 1963, US president John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (because US assassins get three names), was an odd duck. A former US Marine with high rifle marks (despite what Oliver Stone’s “JFK” claims), he seems to be a person who needed a place in the world and never found it. At a certain point, Oswald moved to the Soviet Union in 1959, only to return to the US in 1961 having been disillusioned with life in the USSR.
The assassination of Kennedy presented a problem for the Soviet Union. While they had nothing to do with the death, it sure seemed like they would. The Kennedy administration had stared them down during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and despite Soviet Premiere Kruschev’s liking for Kennedy the two were still rivals in the deadliest of games. The American population could not be trusted to restrain themselves if some Soviet plot was to blame for the death of Kennedy. Even if the assassin was not a Russian agent, but someone that could be tied to Russia, this might be enough to start a war. This is quite generous to the USSR, but it also created a secondary effect of eroding trust between the US population and the government. The Russian efforts also included efforts to discredit the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and Martin Luther King directly.
It may seem obvious today, but distrusting the US government wasn’t the norm back in the 1960s. The Soviet Union was planting seeds in a field that was quickly becoming crowded itself. The Mitrokhin Files point to a forged letter from Oswald to Howard Hunt (future Watergate burglar and suspect in many JFK Assassination theories) that is supposed to implicate the US government in the assassination. The letter was judged to be a forgery by the House Committee on Assassinations—but of course they would say that.
Let’s just concentrate on the Russian efforts surrounding Martin Luther King to see the goal they were working toward. One on hand, they sought to undermine King’s credibility by planting news articles in Africa calling him a sellout who would not direct his attacks against the Johnson administration. After King’s assassination, they began pushing stories that the US government was involved. Oleg Kalugin, former director of the KGB, claimed in his book “Spymaster: My 32 Years in Intelligence” that the aim was to cause trouble amongst minority groups. The point was never to make the population believe that the CIA murdered Kennedy, or that the Johnson administration had Martin Luther King assassinated—the point was to sow chaos. It never mattered if the theories were true, it only mattered if they could seem true.
As the USSR was in its final days in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis was ripping through the world. As we are unfortunately familiar, the early days of a pandemic mean that there is a lot we don’t know. With AIDS it was no different. Until 1982 we were still calling AIDS GRID – “Gay Related Immune Deficiency.” This was based on the perception that the earliest populations dying of the disease being members of the homosexual community. We know better now that a virus cannot target people based on their sexual orientation. Seeing an opportunity, the USSR took a propaganda swing with “Operation Infektion.” In 1983, an article appeared in India’s “The Patriot”, titled “AIDS May Invade India.” The article, written by a “well-known American scientist and anthropologist” explains that AIDS was believed to be a Pentagon experiment that had gotten out of control. It claimed that Pakistan would be the next proving ground, and if this were the case, India was next due to the shared border between the countries.
The article is full of red flags. The anonymous author being one, the lack of reference to any kind of evidence is another, but the most important is the language used. The article is peppered throughout with weasel words and phrases such as “is believed to be,” “some American experts believe,” and “may soon.”
More articles appeared throughout the world. Each article claimed a similar story: AIDS was a product of American bio-weapon research. The stories followed a similar pattern that we would recognise today as an “echo chamber.” Whether by design or accident, the articles published by the Stasi (East German secret police) would reference the Indian article as an independent source. Then internal Soviet newspapers and magazines would reference the Stasi planted articles. This created the illusion of independent research all coming to a similar conclusion.
The stories eventually claimed that AIDS was purposefully designed to infect homosexual and black Americans—exploiting two demographics that had been hit hard by the epidemic. Why would the USSR do this during a crisis that surely affected their own people as well? The motive seems to be to sow distrust and alienation between the US and the world community. It did not matter that any expert looking into the virus itself would quickly dismiss such an allegation. Even the USSR’s own researchers didn’t buy (pp. 40-42) the story. The point, as it was in the earlier efforts concerning the assassinations, was that it seemed like it could have been true.
From within the US, the idea that the government would inflict a disease upon its own citizens is not an alien one. From the perspective of an African American who would remember the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or a homosexual person with knowledge of the US role in the history of Eugenics and forced sterilisation, the theory would at least appear to be true. The US government position toward homosexual and African Americans has not been a charitable one. What the conspiracy theory is alleging would not seem incredible to members of these communities.
A homosexual man in Reagan’s America would certainly not think that the US government had a favourable view toward their existence. Government inaction while the AIDS crisis was in its infancy lasted until approximately 1984. C. Everett Coop, the US Surgeon General, claimed that he was prevented from speaking about AIDS until 1986. The dominant view of the Reagan administration was that drug users and homosexuals brought the disease upon themselves. When the Soviet Propaganda hit the US, nothing could have made more sense to such a marginalised group. Though, again, this did not matter to the Soviet Union – what mattered to them is that the message caused division.
US research scientists had to essentially boycott sharing their AIDS research with their Russian counterparts because of what was happening. The Russian position essentially hamstrung their own efforts at combating the disease when it hit the USSR. Eventually the Soviets repudiated their own claims, but by then there was no unsaying the conspiracy theory. It had spread to too many eyes and ears, and to this day the suspicion that this could be the real story persists. A 2005 study found that as many as one in seven African Americans believed this conspiracy theory, and the effect of this is that public health is severely hampered. It continues to affect any effort by the US government to engage with this population. So successful was the Russian effort that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, they looked for another health crisis to target.
A Vaxx To Encourage
There is a more obvious place to end this article, but it’s a story that we all know: as an American it would be easy to point the Russian “endorsement” of extreme candidates in the US presidential election: Donald Trump on one end, and Bernie Sanders on the other. It points to the theme of this article that the Russian effort isn’t about who wins, it’s about sowing discord. In the case of the 2016 election, the goal may have been simply to prevent Clinton – who had foreign policy experience in dealing with Russia – from winning. Similarly, the probable influence on the Brexit vote: the Russian government has little stake in whether or not the UK stayed in the EU; only that the UK leaving would cause such a disruption that it made that result more desirable to Russia. While those two events (three counting the 2020 US election, four counting their abortive attempts at influencing the Scottish referendum) are very important political events, they are not within my expertise.
Instead what I would like to close this article on is the anti-vaccination movement: not the current one pushed by the White Rose and the conservative movement in the United States. I mean the previous one helmed by the disgraced Andrew Wakefield and actor Jenny McCarthy.
Remember that anti-vaccination movement? It concerned all vaccines, but most notably the childhood MMR vaccine and its utterly debunked link to autism. It was an important movement for me, because as its influence in the US was peaking around 2008, my fiancé and I were expecting our first child. I was asked to investigate the claims, and then stumbled into the skeptic movement.
I am not going to claim that the Russian government created the anti-vaccination movement. That would be quite a feat given that there have been anti-vaccination movements for as long as we have had vaccination. The involvement here was simply to amplify the debate. If we think back, how did a conspiracy theory about vaccination get so popular? McCarthy makes these claims on the American shows Oprah, Larry King Live, and The View; but Hollywood types believe all kinds of weird things that don’t grab the general population’s attention. Especially not from someone who was barely a household name outside of fans of Playboy and the 90s MTV Dating Show “Singled Out.” While we rightly decry those like Gwyneth Paltrow and her GOOP line, it’s particularly effective because she’s a far more popular and skilled actor.
The claims that the McCarthy anti-vaccination movement made came at a time when social media was becoming ubiquitous. Obviously, social media had been around; we saw the rise and fall of Friendster, Myspace, Google Wave, Google Buzz. What made this movement different was not something intrinsic to the nature of Facebook or Twitter, but that those sites were now in our pocket. For myself, I didn’t have a smart phone until 2011. While I cannot speak as to how the trajectory of the anti-vaccination debate would have proceeded, what we do know is that an army of bots set loose on the social media site increased the debate on both sides of the issue.
Let me say that last part one more time: they worked both sides of the issue. As Oleg Kalugin confessed, from his autobiography cited above, their goal was simply to cause trouble in the West. The entire effort is to find out weak point and exploit it. In the above cases the weak point is not in military capability or infrastructure; it’s us, the citizens.
No Russian troll farm or cyberwarfare division hacked an election. Instead, they hacked us. They found a willing population that could be encouraged to make political issues out of non-political topics. As I wrote in a previous article: being vaccinated is a political issue now. The reason it is a political issue is because it appeared as though being anti-vaccination was a large movement, and to most people that suggests there must be something to it. Yet, that’s not only the ad populum fallacy, it’s also false – those numbers were being inflated by constellations of bots and inauthentic accounts that had been injected into the social media world in a manner similar to how the AIDS conspiracy theory had been deliberately spread. The problem of the anti-vaccination movement was too important to ignore, they caused vaccination rates in the US and the UK to drop, bringing back diseases like Measles and Mumps for a comeback tour – but not only should that have never happened, the very concept should never have gained a foothold either.
The current Russian government’s game is to divide us against ourselves. We should consider this the next time we see someone claiming that country X should abandon treaty Y, or that NATO should be dissolved because of Z reasons. Being aware that the sudden frequency we see one of these theories could be the work of foreign actors at the behest of Moscow.
The social media companies could reign this in, but the profit motive is too strong for us to trust them. The solution is of course more skepticism. Even if the population sees reposts of conspiracy theories up and down their feeds, if they know the theory is unsubstantiated it will not matter. It, like most ads we see, will just be something we scroll past while looking for funny puppy videos.