The Cinema of Russian Propaganda: How Kremlin Narratives “Go West”

A screenshot from Ukraine: The Everlasting Present

In November 2021, the Russia Today Documentary channel presented the pseudo-American propaganda movie Ukraine: The Everlasting Present, which positions itself as a “unique documentary” aimed to analyze the modern history of Ukraine. However,  it is far from an unbiased analysis since the leitmotivs of external governance and dependence from the USA run through the whole plot. 

The Scandalous Team

The director, Igor Lopatonok, is famous for pro-Putin propaganda, such as Revealing Ukraine, produced by Oliver Stone, and Ukraine on fire (which was meant to be an alternative interpretation of Ukraine’s Euromaidan). 

The movie also involved Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos, wife of George Papadopoulos, a former adviser to the Trump campaign, who was under investigation for lying to the FBI about his attempts to arrange a meeting between the campaign and Russian officials. According to her Twitter, this was her debut as a lead interviewer. The “documentary” was promoted in the USA with the help of typical articles in online media — but without success. By way of compensation, Lopatonok’s work provoked vigorous discussions in the Russian segment of YouTube after the premiere on Russia Today’s official channel.

Odious speakers 

Given that, no wonder the Everlasting Present was far closer to the cinematography of Soviet propaganda than to the actual history of Ukraine. Using the interviews with former Ukrainian politicians (mostly pro-Russian), such as Andriy Derkach, who was accused of being a Russian agent in an attempt to interfere in U.S. elections, Renat Kuzmin, an MP of pro-Russian party Opposition platform – For life, and pro-Kremlin Ukrainian blogger Anatoliy Shariy, and Donald Trump’s ally Rudi Giuliani.

Unexpectedly, Ukraine’s ex-president Victor Yushchenko, known for his anti-Kremlin rhetoric, also took part in the movie. Being put into the context of Soviet nostalgia and anti-EU/anti-NATO sentiments, his reflections on the history of Ukraine and its role in global politics were used to portray pro-democratic Ukrainian officials as infantile dreamers detached from political reality. 

The words of Yushchenko about the importance of Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership were used as another “proof” of the state’s “dependence” on the western puppet masters. However, according to BBC News Ukraine, the ex-president’s commentaries were obtained by fraud since he was unaware of the full list of speakers, the team working on the movie, and the platforms it would be presented on. 

The Classic Propaganda

In another attempt to portray Ukraine as a failed state, pro-Kremlin propaganda respects no limits, using fraud and manipulations to portray Ukraine as a state without sovereignty. Predictably, these attempts were not without pursuing classic Moscow’s narratives, such as:

  1. Since the late 1980s, the US intelligence services have been systematically destabilizing the situation in the Soviet Union, supporting Ukrainian “far-right nationalists” in their fight for independence.
  2. All Ukraine’s anti-government revolutions (such as the Orange revolution in 2004–2005 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014) were West-backed coup d’états
  3. Hungarian-born US billionaire and philanthropist George Soros (the Kremlin’s common symbol of the demonic West), uses his NGOs, grants, and scholarships as a network of soft influence to interfere in politics not only in Ukraine but also in entire Eastern Europe.
  4. The US authorities are consistently promoting corruption and economic crimes to manipulate Ukrainian officials so that Ukraine may lose its administrative identity. 

Silent justifying

Strikingly, almost at the same time, Ilya Varlamov, a Russian blogger, and activist, who positions himself as a “liberal” and “opposition figure” also presented a movie about Ukraine, promoting the same narratives. According to Varlamov, among all the former Soviet republics, Ukraine is “one of the most hostile states to Russia” with citizens who “think that they are having a war with Russia”. 

The narrator carefully avoids mentioning Russian aggression in Ukraine, portraying it as an infantile state that chose to get rid of the Soviet monuments created by talented sculptors instead of working with its postcolonial traumas. The common political decisions for the belligerent state, such as Ukraine prohibiting the entry into the country to Russian citizens who visited the occupied Crimea, are pictured as “aggressive” and “illogical”.

Using the manipulative statistics about the “30% of Ukrainians who consider Russian as their native language”, Varlamov regrets that the Russian language lost its official status in Ukraine, forgetting to mention that the scandalous “Kivalov-Kolesnichenko law” which guaranteed that status, was ruled unconstitutional. 

Also, the video deals with the classic “censorship narrative” pursued by the Kremlin and questions the freedom of speech in Ukraine. Mentioning the ban of 3 pro-Russian TV channels (”NEWSONE”, “ZIK”, “112”), other blogger chooses not to mention that all of them were promoting Ukrainophobia and pro-Kremlin messages, being financed by odious Ukrainian opposition politician and oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk. 

An alternative history of Ukraine 

Both movies are aimed to create an image of Ukraine as a “young and naïve” state, using different methods and approaches. Varlamov demonstrates some perverted vision of history — and so does Lopatonok. Promoting the idea that Ukraine owes the Soviet Union its sovereignty since “both western and eastern part of Ukraine were united into one country by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939”, Varlamov’s video exploits the soviet nostalgia built on the myth of “the greatest country in the world”. However, the Unification Act signed by the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1919 was never mentioned.  

While the map of Ukraine was multiple times portrayed without Crimea, the Russo-Ukrainian war called the “conflict”, which “worsens periodically”. Undoubtedly, Russian censorship has the exclusive freedom to choose the most “appropriate” version of liberalism, however, demonizing Ukrainian as the reason for the state’s economic decline and blaming Ukrainian authorities for “hatred” towards the Russian language and culture looks suspiciously harmonious with the official Kremlin discourse. 

At the same time, it strikes a discordant note given Varlamov’s previous works. For example, almost a year ago, he covered the history of the Ukrainian Revolution of dignity as a nation’s fight for freedom and democracy, and three years ago he criticized the catastrophic situation in occupied Crimea. Such a sudden change of mind gives the impression that the mechanisms of Russian propaganda are always ready to embrace a “liberal” target audience and the regime prefers to seek the support of the opposition instead of confronting it. 

Two faces of Russian propaganda

While the main mission of the Russian film industry is to inspire national pride with imperialistic ambitions and distract the citizens’ attention from the pressing political and economical problems, Russian Youtube positions itself as an alternative and “oppositional”. However, when it comes to Russian information space, the question remains whether it can exist without propaganda and distorted reality remains open.

Glorifying Russia’s Aggressive Greatness

In some way, Varlamov’s “alternative view” reminds the “documentary” film “The Untold History of Ukraine” made by scandalous American director Oliver Stone, who is also known as an admirer of Vladimir Putin. The movie portrays Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who is now under investigation for treason, as a “great savior” of the nation, and justifies the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Based on the interviews with Medvedchuk and his wife Oksana Marchenko, Vladimir Putin, and some foreign experts, the movie pretends to be the “independent western view” on Russia’s politics towards Ukraine. Instead, it simply translates the “orthodox” Russian narratives about Euromaidan, the occupation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas. The fact that Stone himself admits in the film that he learned a lot of information about Ukraine from Putin, says a lot about the documentary’s accuracy. 

The Art of Justifying Military Aggression

However, this was not only Russia’s attempt to legitimize its aggression both in Russia and in the global community. In October 2008, during the conference of Russian film producers, Vladimir Putin emphasized on the “potential of cinema as the most important tool of upbringing, education, and formation of values in society remains underutilized”, revitalizing the common principle of Soviet ideology: “of all the arts, cinema is the most important” since it gives wide access to the collective consciousness — and such tactics remains very common in modern Russia.

Thus, in 2016, during the Russian Film Festival in Athens, the organizers intended to present a propaganda movie by Russian journalist Andrei Kondrashov “Crimea. The way home” including the interview with Vladimir Putin. The film was financed by VGTRK, Russia’s state-owned broadcaster giant, and dedicated to the first anniversary of the “reintegration” of Crimea with the Russian Federation. 

At the same time, Russia never gives up producing classic examples of propaganda movies, such as “Opolchenochka” (”Female militant”, 2019), inspired by “Rossotrudnichestvo”, the Kremlin’s soft power institution, or the film “Crimean Bridge. Made with love!” (2018). The script of the latter was written by Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of propagandistic TV channel Russia Today, and directed by her husband Tigran Keosayan while the movie itself was portraying the construction of the Kerch Strait as a metaphor of two lovers who finally reunite after the years of separation — and so did Russia and Crimean peninsula.

All in all, unveiled Russian propaganda does not even try to hide its ideological mission, compensating lack of objectivity with resentment and spreading of hatred. Continuing the tradition of the ideological Soviet film industry, it openly demonizes Ukraine, justifies Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine Donbas, and therefore, it is easy to detect and counter. At the same time, Russia’s state-sponsored propaganda in the West, as well as “liberal” Russian discourse promote the same ideological optics with the instruments of “soft power” — no matter which masks it uses.