In her master’s thesis, CU grad student highlights how the current Russian regime is making use of Soviet narratives and symbols to justify its war with Ukraine
For Daria Molchanova, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine feels very personal.
“First of all, because I’m Russian, I’m literally a part of it,” she says. “My family was in Russia when it (the invasion) all started, I have a lot of friends in Ukraine, and I have been to Ukraine many, many times.”
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that when Molchanova was completing her master’s degree in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Colorado Boulder, she decided to write her thesis on how the current regime in Moscow has co-opted propaganda and symbols from the Soviet era to justify its armed conflict with Ukraine.
“I have taken it (the invasion) very harshly, so I guess writing about it was one way to maybe have some personal input, and maybe (expressing) just a little bit of the feeling of guilt for what my country was doing,” she says.
Also, while earning a PhD in Russian history from Moscow State University in 2016, she wrote her dissertation on Russian propaganda in the country’s war with Japan and “instantly noticed a lot of similarities in terms of how some symbols were used and how some of the linguistic aspects are basically the same.”
Observing Russia’s initial propaganda efforts related to its invasion of Ukraine in 2020, Molchanova says she first noticed how chaotic and ineffective those efforts were.
“The propaganda was not effective from the beginning, because the main function of propaganda is to explain things,” she says, adding that the government failed to make a convincing case justifying an invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin and others in his government were confident the conflict would be over in almost no time, she says, so comprehensive propaganda efforts were not formulated in the beginning.
“I guess that by now it’s obvious that nobody was prepared that this so-called ‘special military operation’ would last for years,” she says. Instead, the government likely hoped it could achieve its goals quickly, like it did in its 2008 military campaign against the former Soviet republic of Georgia. That conflict lasted a matter of days and resulted in a defeat for Georgia and the loss of some of its territories.
As the war with Ukraine has dragged on, however, Russian propagandists have had more time to shape their narratives—some have fallen flat, but others have taken hold with at least part of the Russian populace.
Recently, Molchanova talked about the Russian government’s propaganda efforts and how some borrow symbols and terminology from the former Soviet Union, especially those relating to War II narratives. Her responses were lightly edited for style and clarity.
Question: When Russian propagandists talk about Ukrainian leaders being Nazis and fascists, is there more charged meaning to those words than the average American might understand?
Molchanova: Specifically using this Nazi card, it all comes from the biggest trauma of—not just Russian people, but from Slavic people, in general—because the losses Russia had during World War II were just unheard of, more than 20 million people. And if you talk to any Russian family, they had someone who either died in World War II or was severely injured.
So, I think it’s just very hard for some (in the West) to understand on the personal level. Imagine speaking to every American family and they would say, ‘We lost that person in that war’ or ‘We lost five people in that war.’ In Russia, every family had this sacrifice.
So, of course, the word Nazi for Russians, it’s something we grew up hearing about non-stop … because for Russians it’s much more personal than I think it is for most people. That’s why it’s so effective. And that’s why, unfortunately, modern propaganda is trying falsely to use this.
Question: It seems part of the recent propaganda efforts are focused on making the Russian soldiers seem very heroic?
Molchanova: They have this whole section in the news every day, showing how some brave Russian soldiers saved a family, or children, or a dog and her puppies. So, it’s always some emotional story of some soldier savior. That’s what they’re showing—and they’re completely denying every single accusation that comes from Ukraine.
If you go to any Russian news source … it’s like the opposite (of what Ukraine says happened), no matter what happened. For example, this church was destroyed in Odessa. The western side, of course, said Russian missiles hit the church. The Russian version said a Ukrainian rocket hit the church (because) Ukrainians can’t use their air defense system. They destroyed the church. So, it’s never, never admitted that Russians did anything wrong—complete opposite representation.
Question: One example of propaganda from a few years back that you highlighted in your thesis was a story of Ukrainian soldiers supposedly crucifying a young boy in a Ukrainian eastern province. Do average Russians really believe a story like that?
Molchanova: I think it’s one of the most successful propaganda stories, about the crucified boy back in 2014 in Slovansk (in eastern Ukraine). This young woman, a mother, was sharing this super emotional story (on Russian TV) about how Ukrainian Nazis crucified the boy and how he bled to death.
But when (independent journalists) tried to find any witnesses—it’s a very small town, and obviously someone would have seen, and she said the crowd was on the square, so everybody was there to witness it—they couldn’t find a single witness there at all. Never, ever was there any proof of this happening, and I think the dates that she was talking about, the Ukrainian army was not even there in those days. So, it’s a completely made-up story.
But the problem with propaganda is that once something so strong is thrown into the public, unfortunately, nobody is coming back (to check) if that story in 2014 was actually true. …
A lot of Russians sitting somewhere far away in the countryside in the evening were watching the news. They’re not interested in doing some further research or anything. No, it’s just the fact for them. So yeah, even today, a lot of people still think that it happened. Nobody wants to double-check, unfortunately.
Question: In your thesis, you note that there was a deliberate decision in Russia to play up Great Patriotic War mythology in recent years—even before the invasion of Ukraine. How have things changed, specifically?
Molchanova: Yeah, it (the May 9 holiday celebrating victory over Nazi Germany) was not as strong in the Soviet Union—especially in the first two decades after the victory. Even in the 1990s, it was a very quiet holiday. I remember it in my childhood, there were no festivities, there were no fireworks, no military parades, nothing like that. We would just buy some flowers and we went to the local memorial, where we laid the flowers. That was it.
But later, when I was starting at the university, I noticed every single year how it was just changing. I don’t even know what to compare it with—almost like cosplay. People were dressing their babies in the Red Army uniforms.
And it looks fun at first, but when you start thinking about it, the main phrase that every single Russian veteran from World War II says was, ‘Never again. The only important thing is there is no war.’
Now, there is no sense of how terrible the war is. They replaced the idea of ‘never again’ with, ‘How amazing we are; how heroic we are; how we do this and that from one of the latest movies.’ On Amazon, there’s a movie called T-34 about tanks, and Russian media were presenting it as, basically, Fast and Furious with tanks. So, that’s how they’re portraying the most horrifying war in history. Now, there is no trace of how horrible war is; it’s only beautiful stuff and heroism.
Question: Are there other things you think it’s important to mention about Russian propaganda or the state of Russia today?
Molchanova: I think it’s important, especially for Western people, to understand that it (war propaganda) is not something unique to Russia. War propaganda has happened every single time in every single war, including in the United States. If you look for it, American propaganda has all the same patterns, the same rules, the same symbolics. So, there’s nothing new here. …
There is a massive brainwashing campaign in Russia now. There is this term ‘zombification’ right now, and it does work successfully on some groups of people. But a lot of Russians don’t support this war. And the proof is that millions of Russians had to leave the country.
There were Russian protests against the war. … Unfortunately, there is very little news from Russia of Russians being against the war. I think that should be shown more, because I don’t know a single person who supports it. Not one.
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