Putin and the Art of Political Fantasy

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Walter Laqueur is a distinguished historian and political commentator. He is the author, most recently, of "After The Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent" (Macmillan).

For some considerable time the element of fantasy in Russian political discourse has been strong (and growing stronger), not only at the popular level but in official statements. It has grown in intensity and quantity since the spring of 2014 with the events in Crimea and Ukraine. How to explain this? Where did it originate and how important is it in the general context of the new "Russian doctrine"? Extreme, even fanatical statements directed against the "enemy" can be found at almost all times in many countries — there is nothing specifically Russian about it. But there are limits even to absurdity and if these limits are disregarded, how to explain it?

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda and an accomplished practitioner in this genre, is a prime example of the deliberate fabrication of falsehoods. The police chief in Berlin in the years just before the Nazi takeover was a Jew named Bernhard Weiss, a former army officer and a career official with moderate views. Goebbels launched an all-out campaign against him, turning him into a demonic figure, highly dangerous, incredibly cunning and devious, aiming to destroy everything in his way. When friends pointed out to Goebbels that Weiss (whom he had nicknamed Isidor) was a perfectly harmless bureaucrat, he laughed and said: "Do you think I am not aware of this?"

This is a typical example of the cynical approach. But not all statements, ideas and theories which are manifestly absurd are deliberately fabricated and cynically exploited as part of a wider propaganda campaign. Some, as in contemporary Russia, are genuinely believed for reasons that have been insufficiently investigated. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were a product of deliberate fabrication and the same is true of the "doctors' plot" in Stalin's final year. But both the Protocols and the story of the Jewish "killer doctors" were believed by many, and the question of why they were so widely believed is not easy to answer.

There is a widespread tendency (again not specifically Russian and not invented there) to believe in occult, hidden forces which are the real shakers and movers in world politics, whereas those about whom we read and hear in the media are merely their puppets. Some Russian ideologues believe (or pretend to believe) that the real struggle in world politics is between two parties — the Rothschild party and the followers of the Rockefellers. Believers in contemporary conspiracy theories generally have only a dim idea of where the real big money is found. According to the more learned followers of Lyndon LaRouche, for instance, it is a bitter fight between factions on a higher philosophical level — the Aristotelians and the Neo-Platonists. But it is not made clear where they keep their money — certainly not in present-day Greece. There has been in recent years a close cooperation between the Russian extreme Right and the LaRouchans; a recent example is Sergei Glazyev's "On Eurofascism" in Executive Intelligence Review, a LaRouche organ. 

This belief in the hidden hand and the forces of evil tends to be particularly strong in times of great upheaval. The Protocols were not really influential during the first two decades of their existence. But after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, events of world historical importance which could not easily be explained, the Protocols were widely read and often believed because they seemed to offer a key to otherwise inexplicable events...

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