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The Boston Globe


Soviet-style propaganda in media fueling crisis

NEW YORK — One of the fixtures of Cold War propaganda was a map flashed across television screens depicting menacing arrows moving toward the borders of an endangered homeland. The cutaway would be to newsreel footage of missiles being fired, marching soldiers, or scenes of devastation from past wars.

In the past week, as the crisis in Crimea deepened, similar images have been running on Russia’s state-run television. Even for the Kremlin’s master propagandists, it is a tenuous stretch — but that’s of no matter. The enemy has been identified: It is the West, allied with “fascist mercenaries” in Ukraine.

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The scale of Russia’s propaganda effort in the current crisis has been breathtaking, even by Soviet standards.

Facts have been twisted, images doctored (Ukrainians shown as fleeing to Russia were actually crossing the border to Poland), and epithets (“neo-Nazis’’) hurled at the demonstrators in Kiev.

Representatives of opposing media have reported being attacked during the conflict. As Russian forces have broken up pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Crimea, some Ukrainian journalists have been beaten and Ukrainian television channels there have been replaced with Russian ones before next Sunday’s referendum about whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia belatedly acknowledged that the Ukrainian demonstrators had legitimate gripes against the corrupt and failed government that was driven from power in Kiev. If he were not the boss, though, such an open contradiction of the official line, made at a televised news conference, might have been censored.

Like so much about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the massive propaganda onslaught seems strangely anachronistic in a time when access to the Internet was supposed to undercut the influence of state-controlled media.

It is all the more puzzling since Russia boasts one of the world’s most active and creative blogospheres, not to mention a thriving community of independent hackers drawn from the same top math schools that feed the ranks of the modern-day successor to the KGB.

According to a government-sponsored survey conducted last year, almost half of Russia’s adult population uses the Internet; for those younger than 34, it is the most used medium.

Internet penetration in Russia is proportionately lower than in Europe: The same survey found that 38 percent of small towns had no Internet access. Still, Russia now ranks among the top six countries in the world for Internet use.

And yet the propaganda campaign seems to be working. Russian public opinion has been whipped into a nationalist fervor over the fate of Crimea, which most Russians regard as rightfully theirs, even after its administrative transfer to Ukraine in 1954.

A poll taken on March 1 and 2 by the state-sponsored VCIOM agency showed that 71 percent of respondents believe that it is necessary to protect Russian-language speakers in Crimea more vigorously.

The primary vehicle for the government’s message is still the main television news, loyally watched in areas at the core of Putin’s electorate.

Nor is the government ignoring the Internet: Access to 13 Ukrainian websites was blocked this week on VKontakte, Russia’s popular social network. Russia’s top opposition blogger, Alexei A. Navalny, now under house arrest, has been ordered not to use the Internet for two months.

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