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Russian Propaganda’s Western Enablers

The Finnish author Sofi Oksanen once observed that Russia’s information warfare works because its targets are often willing participants. As noxious as the Kremlin’s information warfare may seem to democratic voters, Western governments often exhibit little interest in or ability to affect the status quo.

TALLINN – Every day seems to bring a new revelation about Russia’s political meddling in Western countries. From Twitter trolls sowing discord among voters, to the Kremlin’s alleged support for extremist groups, Russian propaganda is undermining trust in democratic governance. And although Western politicians may talk tough in response to the Kremlin’s efforts to upend the status quo, their actions often betray a weaker hand. Russia’s ability to influence journalism and literature is a case in point.

The Finnish author Sofi Oksanen once observed that Russia’s information warfare works because its targets are often willing participants. During the Cold War, for example, Finland’s economic dependence on raw materials and technology from Russia left its leaders loath to antagonize the Kremlin. This phenomenon – “Finlandization” – helps explain why, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was translated into Finnish in 1974, the first edition was printed in neighboring Sweden.

Even Britain has succumbed to this calculus. In 1944, the British establishment tried to prevent publication of George Orwell’s Animal Farm; then-editor T.S. Eliot argued that the book’s anti-Soviet “point of view” was “not convincing.” No one, it seemed, wanted to anger Stalin, who was then an ally of Great Britain.

This type of indirect pressure continues to claim victims today. In the Baltic states, people are increasingly worried that geopolitical competition over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany will affect writers’ freedom of speech to opine on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

I don’t blame them. I am acutely aware of how dangerous it can be to run afoul of Russian interests. In 2009, I edited a series of essays with Oksanen documenting official practices in Estonia when it was part of the Soviet Union. Our book Fear Was Behind Everythingdetailed the terror that gripped Estonia under the Soviet system. For a half-century, any book that was critical of the communist regime was banned in the Baltic states and was not published in Finland, either. Our volume marked a turning point. Or so we thought.

The idea for our book was inspired by an incident in 2007, when the statue of a Soviet soldier, the symbol of occupation forces in Estonia, was relocated from central Tallinn to a military cemetery elsewhere in the city. Russia protested the move, and deadly riots erupted amid rumors that the government was denying Estonian Russians the right to mourn their war dead.

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The next year, Johan Bäckman, a docent at Helsinki University, published a book about the incident, The Bronze Soldier, in which he called Estonia an “apartheid state” led by incompetent leaders whose citizens were incapable of coming to terms with their own history. His publisher was an Estonian-born journalist and former KGB officer, Vladimir Ilyasevich, who had worked in Finland and in other Nordic countries during the Cold War.

Bäckman then trained his pro-Russian vitriol on me. First, he attacked a book I had written about my mother’s trauma in a Soviet gulag, and then he helped organized protests against the release of Fear Was Behind Everything.

Because of these threats, we requested armed police protection on the day of the book’s launch in 2009. And, while Bäckman has since left his teaching job and directs most of his attention to spouting other pro-Putin falsehoods, the Russian-backed propaganda war he helped wage continues to affect my sense of security. Simply put, the old Soviet system of fear continues to wreak havoc on the truth and punish those who defend it on the page.

While Russia’s propaganda efforts may be aimed at influencing governments, it is individuals who suffer the consequences. As the chief executive of the Estonian International Center for Defense and Security, Dmitri Teperik, recently argued, information wars are most dangerous for “civil activists” – like journalists, writers, and authors – because we are the ones on the front lines.

Nearly three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia maintains its Soviet-era proclivity to prey on peoples’ fears and insecurities. Its operatives are happiest when their opponents cease their activities – when writers stop writing, or publishers stop publishing. Unfortunately, Russia succeeds more than it fails because it is easy to misinform; as Noam Chomsky once said, people don’t know what they don’t know.

The best chance truth has is if writers and authors persist in presenting readers with facts; every now and then, we are rewarded for these efforts. Earlier this year, the Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro took Bäckman to court, after having become a target of his malice since 2014, when she started exposing the Kremlin’s social media “troll” factory.

The outcome of that case is pending. But, with any luck, Bäckman will be punished for his harassment and baseless attacks. His trial could even mark a definitive moment in the history of efforts to counter Russian propaganda, giving beleaguered writers and journalists the courage they need to stand up to Russia in ways that governments rarely have.

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