An unexpected Zoom call reveals the assault on truth and reality by Putin’s propaganda machine, as ordinary friends and family become ‘zombies’, immune to rational argument.
A sobering Zoom call
Recently I had a social Zoom call with two friends. For different reasons, the last year has been tough for us all, and we look forward to catching up and giving each other some moral support.
One of my friends, John, is married to Galina, who is Russian. On our last call, he asked whether it would be alright if Galina spoke to us – she had asked to do so. Usually Galina will say a quick hello at most, so I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see and hear.
I’ve met Galina before and was rather shocked by her appearance. The strain on her face was clear. The smile and quiet confidence were gone, replaced by something else entirely.
The Russian propaganda machine
Galina then spoke for an hour and I was transfixed the entire time. She spoke about her friends and family in Russia and how completely transformed they are by the State’s propaganda.
We all know about how effectively the Nazis used propaganda in the 1930s. But let’s be honest, we all like to believe that we wouldn’t have been the ones falling for it. However, listening to Galina, I doubt many of us would have seen through the fake news if we were Russian living in Russia today.
Galina explained that ordinary Russian people are immersed in the messages that Putin wants them to believe. Most internet access is via pay-as-you-go and is thus unaffordable for most people. If they use the internet to pay bills, they dial in, pay the bills and dial out. Surfing the internet is just not the done thing, so it’s not a source of news.
Even if they could afford to use the internet, most Russians only speak Russian, so news stories, YouTube videos etc. in English are meaningless to them. In addition, certain content is restricted.
Just ‘zombies’ now
This all means that the vast majority of Russians have no idea what is really happening. It was heart-breaking to hear Galina talk about the people she knew and loved becoming zombies that believe everything Putin is telling them. Any attempt to persuade them differently is dismissed as fake news. They believe that only they know the truth and it is the rest of us who are being lied to. They believe that the invasion of Ukraine is a just war and that Putin is protecting Russia and her people from Nazis.
When the pandemic started, I worried about my family and friends, in particular my elderly parents. I tried not to think about losing them and how lost I would feel without them. Listening to Galina it became clear that she has lost her family and friends. They are still alive but they are changed beyond recognition. She describes them as zombies, not the people she knew and loved.
To me, it feels as if Galina is a casualty of war, too.
Breaking through the propaganda wall
Many of us have experienced similar with family and friends after the 2016 referendum. My parents even asked me how they should vote, because the debate and misinformation had confused them so much. Now we are starting to see positive signs that people are beginning to see behind the Brexit curtain.
But how do we reach a population like Russia, which is so completely insulated against outside influences? How do we turn the tide of Russian propaganda?
The only thing I can think of is to translate as much as possible into Russian, so that at least the language isn’t a barrier.
Truth: the first casualty of war
According to Galina, before the invasion of Ukraine, her friends and family had a healthy attitude towards Putin. They criticised how little he was doing to improve the lives of the elderly and those with low incomes. Now he’s a saviour and they will not have a word said against him.
When she tried to tell them that innocent people are dying in Ukraine, the response shocked her; they believe those deaths are a good thing because the people dying are Nazis and killing them protects everyone else.
Listening to Galina made a lasting impression on me. I got tearful listening to her and seeing her desperation. She’s become an activist – something she never thought would happen. But she cannot sit by and do nothing while Putin is effectively destroying her family.
I feel even more helpless than Galina. How do you compete with Putin’s propaganda machine? How do you reach people who’ve been so conditioned that they don’t want to listen to what you say?
As hopeless as it feels, we have to try, just like Sophie and Hans Scholl tried in the 1940s in Munich. Galina could have decided to do nothing, close her eyes to what is going on and just enjoy her life. Instead she is out campaigning every weekend in Southend-on-Sea, raising money for the Red Cross for Ukrainian refugees and networking with other Russians living in the UK.
You can help, too, by amplifying Galina’s story so that more and more people become aware of the ‘zombies’ Putin is creating. We cannot expect pressure to be brought to bear from a controlled and docile populace.
The Russian people need to know the truth.
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