In his short and pointed Quadrant Online essay, Christopher Carr writes of the fear that haunts the Baltic shore, where three successful democracies – Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania – watch Russia’s bloody mischief in Ukraine and wonder if they are the next targets of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing to efforts to re-construct the former Soviet empire. Moscow-supplied materiel, money and intelligence represent the most obvious aspect of this expansionist strategy, but there is another weapon in the Kremlin’s offensive against its neighbours and the West which has gone largely unremarked: the never-ending torrent of propaganda aimed at the Russian diaspora.
The first thing to understand is that, like all emigrant communities, Russians avidly follow news and events from their homeland. The second is that all Russian-speaking TV channels broadcasting overseas are controlled by Moscow and none deviate in the slightest degree from presenting the official and authorised perspective on any and all topics. The amount of propaganda on these channels is so great and well organised that the influence it exerts on their Russian-speaking viewers and listeners is profound. As during the Soviet era, viewers get one view and only one view, the official one.
These TV channels – available via cable in Australia and widely watched — are instrumental in elevating the perception that Russian-speaking communities are oppressed by their host societies, discriminated against, often hounded by local authorities. Predictably, there’s a saviour waiting in the wings and that, of course, is Putin. The closer a country happens to be to Russia and the larger its emigre community, the greater the possibility of sowing division and suspicion, of fostering resentment and, as happened in Ukraine, prompting rebellion and civil war.
Everyone’s a critic, as they say, but as a native Russian speaker and someone who fled the Soviet Union for the wonderful sanctuary of Australia, I am in a better position than most to observe and understand the intention and impact of the propaganda that pours from my TV. It plays quite deliberately to the streak of paranoia, to that inner core of perceived victimhood, which is part and parcel of the Russian character. This illusion is embedded so thoroughly that a recent opinion poll, conducted by the respected Levada Centre, revealed that ordinary Russians see nothing untoward in protecting “oppressed” Russian speakers in other countries. The most obvious current example is Ukraine, but unwitting swallowers of the Moscow line are given to understand that there are many more cauldrons of their exiled compatriots oppression scattered around the globe.
So, where might an “oppressed” Russian-speaking minority need protection? Think here of the US, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Israel. That artfully fostered delusion of an entire world just waiting to grind Russian speakers beneath the heel of intolerance might be laughable were it not freighted with broad and chilling implications for international security.
For those who remember the aggressive and obnoxious behaviour of the Soviet Politburo, with its constant sniping at the sovereignty of other countries and meddling in their internal affairs, the theme of the downtrodden’s alleged oppression will be distressingly familiar, as it was always the pretext for invasion. As soon as the Soviet Army was ready to roll, the masses would clamour on cue for “fraternal” help that, in the best traditions of Marxist doctrine, was always given. Since the USSR billed itself as the motherland of all the world’s workers, Soviet aggression was euphemistically billed as “international solidarity with class brothers moaning under the yoke of bourgeois exploitation”. If you are too young to recognise that Bolshevik boilerplate as the official language of aggression in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan be assured that I kid you not.
Today, the public misrepresentation of Russian aggression and its justification to émigré communities around the world fits the exact same template as the superceded Soviet one, the only difference being that oppressed “class brothers” are now oppressed Russian speakers. Golly gosh, I guess that includes poor, dispossessed me, ever the victim of that infamous Australian intolerance!
This promotion of paranoia is an integral part of Moscow’s information war against the West and it is conducted with the obstinacy of the obsessed. In this regard, Russian TV beamed into the homes of overseas Russian speakers is an effective tool of manipulation. It is calculated to win emigre hearts and minds, to create and bolster enclaves of pro-Moscow sympathisers. It accumulates human capital for future use via emotional appeals to Russian pride and nationalism, plus the adept deployment of lies, distortions and monocular perspectives. The consequence is that Russians become alienated from the very societies that have accepted them and in which they make their homes.
The role of Russian-language TV broadcasts to the diaspora is difficult to overestimate. I am convinced that, in order to blunt Moscow’s manipulations, pro-active measures are needed. The same applies to some other minority-language speakers, including those whose native tongue is Arabic, the lingua franca of jihadi recruitment.
First, in a perfect world, the so-called “ethnic channels” broadcasting in Russian and other languages should be obliged to supply English subtitles, with the veracity of those on-screen captions being made the direct responsibility of license holders. If those broadcasts fail to comply with existing guidelines for fairness and accuracy, the cable and satellite systems that disseminate them should be open to legal sanction. To defend free speech is all very well and good, but the right to broadcast incendiary lies, to incite hatred and inflame resentments, surely does fall under the aegis of that noble cause.
Second, an investment should be made in encouraging emigres to learn and master English, so that their access to news and views is broader than the deep but narrow stream of propaganda pouring out of Moscow. Further – and this should apply to all émigré communities – any effort to stymie the grasp of English, particularly amongst homebound women, needs to be an indictable offence. Isolated at home, the ability to understand what news broadcasts and general programming present in English can be a powerful influence for good around the kitchen table. Here again I stress that it is not just Russian women but those of other ethnic backgrounds who need to be lifted from their cultural isolation.
Further, an Australian Government might find it expedient to oblige taxpayer-funded broadcasters, such as SBS, to counteract the toxic mis-information and manipulation perpetrated by foreign broadcasters. They are already under a moral obligation to provide factual, non-partisan and honestly presented information, so let it also be a legal one.
Within the framework of combating terrorism, Australia should institute the effective monitoring and supervision of foreign-language media, starting with “ethnic” newspapers and extending all the way to clerical sermons, which are widely distributed via outlets such as YouTube. Executive summaries of what is being said and preached need to be readily available to lawmakers, police and security services. You can never fully know your enemy if you do not understand what he is saying. The airwaves are public property. They should not be used to promote public harm.
I am fully aware that by proposing such drastic measures I am acting against the purist reverence for freedom of speech we all so cherish. It is a fair observation to be sure, but I would add that the foundation document of any democracy is a constitution, not a suicide note. The manipulation of information, be it presented with a Russian accent or an Arabic one, is an instrument of totalitarian darkness. For the West’s protection the time has come to turn on the lights.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978