Sofi Oksanen: Knowledge is a cheap and universal weapon

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Below is the text of Sofi Oksanen’s remarks at the International Conference on “The Legacy of Totalitarianism Today” in the Parliament of The Czech Republic June 12, 2014: originally published by The European Platform for European Memory and Concience.

During this spring the western media has continuously asked me the same questions, country to country and from interview to interview:

  • What does Putin want?
  • What is the next country that will come under attack? Who is the next one?

These two questions include already the presumption that Russia will never return Crimea to Ukraine. I say this because no journalist has asked me once when the invasion of Crimea will end and it seems to me they don’t ask about it because they already believe it never happens and I’m sure, if everyone is made to believe so, it indeed never happens. They don’t ask about it also because they no longer follow the story of Crimean invasion, their interest in that story disappeared soon after the peninsula was illegally annexed to Russia. Perhaps the traditional dramaturgy of Western news journalism is to be blamed –it follows always the figure who has given their face to the incident, in this case Putin, and that made him the protagonist of the story. And when his focus intentionally turned to other subject matters, the media followed his gaze, leaving Crimea behind. Or did the public eye forgot the peninsula because the buzz was already in the Eastern Ukraine offering more visible action, easy to sell, and by doing so they followed Moscow’s wishes?

Or is the reason for loosing interest the cruel fact that West don’t know Crimean peninsula well enough to care and most of the people have never visited the place? Would the reception be different, if the protogonist of the invasion was no Putin, but a Crimean tatar who was forced to leave his home and flee to other parts of Ukraine? Or if the protagonist was a local high school student who is not allowed to study in his native language anymore?

Or can we simply blame the fact that Russia has made it very hard to get the news coverage from Crimea, at least for Western media? Or it is because Western media didn’t start to follow Crimean events before the situation was already very heated so they actually didn’t get the beginning of the invasion which actually happened a long time go. Russia started to send the agents of influence to the territory a way back and changing the attitude into anti-Ukraine and anti-Western has been under process for years. That is the story Western media missed, but it was a story that should’ve been covered at least later on.

The image of how a country is invaded and what happens in the country before and after that, would provide the readers information about the fact that an occupation is always preceded by psychological campaigns of hatred and after the occupation it’s always accompanied by mental occupation, changing of public values and educational content, sweeping the culture of the native inhabitants off the map.

Unmarked Russian soldiers in Crimea February 28, 2014. Source: VOA/Wikipedia


The news coverage of international crises however always shrinks down to the speeches of presidents and diplomats and the moving of forces. It was easy for Moscow to deduce, how easily the Crimean peninsula would be forgotten abroad since Russia has plenty of experience in forcible annexations as do the former Soviet countries have experience of it.

These recurrent questions about the speculation of Putin’s intentions and next target also tell about something else:  the next target is already there and it is a concrete area or state, we just don’t know which one. This presumption is based on old-fashioned images of warfare. At the same time the West unconsciously repeats the questions that the Moscow- based oligarchs want the West to repeat. They want us to speculate on Putin’s intentions and thus strengthen the Putin myth. They want us to fill our heads with this kind of mulling because this way the West is brought to a state of uncertainty and confusion, just how it is convenient for Russia. The classic “divide and conquer” works always and all the others states are driven to ponder about their own safety, for who would want to be the next. In this situation the reversal of the invasion of Crimea does not hold much importance.

The silent acceptance of the Crimean annexation inevitably raises questions among all the neighboring countries of Russia: is this how the others would react if also a part of our country were to be occupied by Russia? Would it be accepted as quietly, as swiftly? Demonstrations against it would only be held by the nationals living abroad. There would be no international movement to return the stolen land. The invasion would just happen and it would be allowed to happen, because most of the neighboring countries and former Soviet countries are small states that most of the westerners have never visited or are able to place on the map. It is hard to lose sleep for these areas and with the news on Crimea disappearing from local newspapers the issue is accepted by simply forgetting.

The way how other countries react to the invasion of Crimea is a message to us, the citizens of neighboring countries and Eastern Europe.

What is left unasked is, against what or who has Putin’s Russia been at war with since his ascension?
This is the human mind. The western set of values and the western mind. The Putin clique has fought against this for a long time.

Back to militarism

After Putin’s ascension to power, his first actions included giving the ex-president Yeltsin immunity from prosecution, new military doctrine, reintroduction of compulsory weapons training, raising the defense spending by 50 % and a law that allows the concealment of information for certain civil servants. Putin’s first orders did not concern factors that would target strengthening the state’s democracy or improving the living conditions of the population succumbing to poverty. They were targeted to militarize the state. Despite this, the western leaders concentrated on praising Russia’s steps towards democracy. Already during his first two months in the office Putin gave 11 decrees 6 of which concerned the armed forces. Now the Defense Forces receive 25 % of the state budget, in the next two years this number will be 33 %. At least 70 % of the higher officials in Russia are part of the FSB and at least 200 000 people have been known to work for it.

Putin’s rise to power did not just signify a new leader for the country, but a new system of power. This system could be seen already then. Even Stalin who had been banned since his death (1953) was dug up. The rehabilitation of this dictator started with Putin’s elections: one of the future president’s campaign slogans was “Young Stalin”. The next face of Russia was a third generation KGB man who started placing his former KGB friends in key positions.

At a time when Kremlin started pressuring the media, the media houses in the West were facing a crisis. The Western media was closing its offices in Moscow and correspondents were being sent home. The western countries no longer considered Russia important enough to have their own correspondents on the spot and neither did they pay attention to Russia constructing an information front brick by brick, even though being an independent journalist in Russia had become one way of committing suicide.

In 2011 Russia spent 1,3 billion dollars on international propaganda –more than on fighting unemployment.


The budgets of Russian news agencies were tripled at a time when the country was already facing economic stagnation. In 2005 the successful English language TV channel RT, Russia Today, was created. Its broadcasts are watched in a hundred countries and it is found in most hotels’ channel selections in various countries. Western PR offices such as Ketchum, Gplus and Portland PR were recruited to take care of the fact that Kremlin- approved messages were passed in West without mapping their background connections. In addition to PR agencies, media and direct propaganda Moscow networks with the western extreme-right and conservatives. In 2011 Russia spent 1,3 billion dollars on international propaganda –more than on fighting unemployment.

At the moment the citizens of Russia are being fed a set of values and conception of history that is hostile to the West. Russia has been advocating a new history policy for years. In this new policy facts do not matter, only ideas whose purpose is to arouse patriotic feelings and national pride. Russia’s history task force is now preparing a new set of school books and the project is led by the duma’s former speaker Sergei Naryskin, a former KGB officer.

Putin-alphabet

The new Russian kindergarten alphabet – 2014 Putin friendly version.

Recently in Siberia, they introduced a new alphabet charts that is to be spread to schools through the whole country. With these charts children are taught moral values and alphabets at the same time: all positive things are linked to patriotism and Russia, all negative things to the West, Ukraine and Euromaidan. Naturally Wikipedia was already labelled as an invention of the CIA.


All of these operations are forming a picture of a state for who the control of land masses is not enough, but the control also extends to knowledge and values. That is the geopolitics of knowledge and values.

And this is how the people are given a message: only the state offers its citizens reliable and safe information. According to opinion polls most of the citizens accept the state shaping the news in cases of national interest.

Soon the nation will accept even more since after 2011 the education budget was cut down by 30 %. According to the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the Russian budget figures are that of a country preparing for war and repression. “Putin no longer needs the intelligentsia or educated people. Those kind people ask unnecessary questions and they are harder to turn into zombies”, Nemtsov says. The president of Russia seems to love the stupid, those struggling with their health, alcoholics and those with sexually transmitted diseases because even though figures concerning these issues are not beautiful, there have been no raises for education, health care or infrastructure. All the money is being channeled to the army and this is justified by creating images of hostile imaginary enemies from the West.

The silovik clique of Moscow has already understood that it makes no sense for Putin to seek the support of the urban Russians who, being fluent in foreign languages, have seen the world outside Russia. Because of this, the siloviks seek the support of the conservative and older groups of the population in who the state propaganda easily sinks. In the same way the ruling elite has already realized that brainwashing is much cheaper than physically modernizing the army. That is exactly why it makes sense to invest in it, both at home and abroad, and why getting the physical army to a top condition is already of less importance.

All this is made possible by the fact that Russia is for the first time in its history led purely by the intelligence services. When during the Soviet times the party existed above the KGB, now there is not even that. Some Russian scholars think that even though for example Yuri Andropov was a leader of the KGB he would not have even thought of bringing it to the government. The Czar’s Ohrana and KGB were there to protect the government and nation, not to be the government.

Knowledge is a cheap and universal weapon

Whereas scientific communism was being studied in the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is now feeding people scientific patriotism. After Putin’s rise to power propaganda and the information war became an academic discipline. In the past few years numeral related research centers have been established –The scientific and methodological Association of higher education facilities of Russian federation covering Information Security, with 74 research and science institutions was founded following an initiative from the FSB. According to the information safety doctrine established in 2000, the key threats of the state include spreading disinformation about Russia and its officials. Then again, the use of soft power is represented by the Russkiy Mir foundation that was established in 2007 following Putin’s initiative. One year later foreign minister Lavrov announced that Russia’s national politics would be developed through soft power and Russkiy Mir would be one of the forms. Its purpose is to challenge Western values outside of Russia.

President Putin’s campaigns in the recent years have aimed to neutralize the West’s information attack. From the point of view of the Moscow silovik clique, Russia has been under a Western information attack already for years and putting together Russia’s own information front is the answer to this. In order to understand this way of actions and how far reaching it is, one must remember that same as in the Soviet Union, Russia is continuously fighting an information war during both war and peace, not just in crisis situations.

The ideological basis relies heavily on a geopolitical doctrine. According to it, knowledge is a dangerous weapon. It is universal and it does not mind national borders. Knowledge is easily accessible and easy to use. It is also cheap compared to hard weapons. (The goal of psychological warfare is to help states to reach their goals both at home and abroad, it is easy to focus and customize according to the target.)

The current psychological warfare is based on practices and techniques that were developed during Soviet times. These techniques of influencing and leading people have already been tested and found to be effective then. One of the new practices is the use of professional troll army who writes comments in the internet and social media. Professional Russian Actors hardly have time to dry the dye on their hair as they sprint from one Ukrainian city to another to give statements pretending to be concerned locals. In the media there are constant references to concentration camps and the national Socialist Germany. Lately the national TV of Russia showed a perfectly normal construction site in Donetsk and claimed it to be a concentration camp for the Russian speaking community. The reportage was accompanied by ominous music and hazy pictures from the shower room. This reportage by the TV journalist Arkady Marmontov was shown right after a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry (27.4.). Deep concern was raised in connection to construction sites that resemble the Nazi concentration camps.

Russia is fighting this full-on information war on all fronts of the society and the means are clear: provocation, intimidation, projection and propaganda. Divide, confuse and conquer. Even though the modernization of the visible army would not be the most successful area of this crusade against the West, in its information war Russia is highly post-modern and progressive. It knows how to link old effective-proven methods with new tools. The information war is selective, unexpected and both surprising and not surprising at the same time as well as discontinuous and continuous at the same time. The goal is long-lasting and we have no information about its long-lasting effects.

Instead, Moscow knows that even in times of modern media it is possible to wipe out events like Tiananmen massacre from national memory. We know about it, Chinese in their own country do not and despite this China is still a welcome business partner for the West. We, who have personal experiences of the times of Soviet occupation, know that even an occupation can be portrayed to the outside world in a way that appears fully voluntary.

We know that the West was full of people who thought that the collectivization in the Soviet Union was based solely on free will and these people are very surprised when they find that the truth was quite the opposite. We know that the spine, values, memory and history of the nation can be wiped from the map. This is precisely why we don’t laugh when we see the propaganda slogans in Eastern Ukraine that might seem quite ridiculous to the Western eye. During the Soviet occupation our everyday life was full of as ridiculous propaganda slogans from one decade to another.

Moscow’s power clique has already seen how the imitation of democracy was believed in the West. In the same way the Soviet Union was allowed to imitate the friendship between nations and even though many outside the Soviet Union did not believe in this, they still pretended to. Moscow knew that the West believed the play of democracy because the West believes, what is easy and practical for trade relations never mind the facts and blatant evidence. Moscow was certain that the bluff would pass since it had done so before.

At the same time the East-European and Baltic countries had been the targets of different degrees of aggressions for years, not to mention Georgia whose Western orientation did not please Moscow. These countries have continuously had to listen to Moscow declare them as imaginary states, who don’t actually have the right to independence. The denial of the occupation of the Baltic countries has been a self-evident approach. Even before his presidency, Putin helped in organizing a referendum in the Russian speaking area of Narva in Eastern Estonia in 1993. The purpose of the referendum was autonomy.

However, the referendum of Narva did not have the support of Kremlin and it failed as an initiative that was against the Estonian constitution.

In Estonia people have talked about a kind of “information space”, where the Russians and also Estonian Russians live because they follow the Russian media and thus the state propaganda which is their main source for news. The term information space should become a part of the vocabulary in other countries as well. Its consequences were seen for example (24.5.) in Sillamägi in Estonia at a traditional Slavic festival where the

Ukrainian youths of the procession were attacked by Russian speakers. This incident took place in an EU and NATO country. The Russian information space has infiltrated even here and now it is necessary to take action to dismantle it.

Time of identifications

The postmodern time in the West has been a time of different identifications: recognizing depression has been an issue in psychology, gender studies have shed light on recognizing inequality and the identification of racism and anti-Semitism are considered important everywhere. In Finland, identifying bullying at work and at school has been talked about a lot. It has been understood that faults in society can only be addressed if they are made visible and they are openly discussed. Identifying faults and analyzing structures supporting them can be difficult because the dominating truth and conception is always on the side of the one with the power. That party can always make its voice better heard and can define what is “natural”. For example even just a hundred years ago it seemed unnatural women to have a right to vote. Now only few could think of a more natural thing. Taking down myths supporting oppression can take years of hard work.

The decolonization of the Soviet Union was left for the Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries because Russia and the Western countries did not indicate wide interest for this process. That is why there are still images created by the Soviet narration on the loose even in the West and they have characterized the discussion about Ukraine. The actions of Russia are often explained by great power politics and this concept makes it seem almost natural. Naturalizing Russian colonialism strengthens those myths that the Russian propaganda supports. One of these is for example the myth of Ukraine’s “natural” link with Russia even though Kiev existed long before Moscow and Ukraine was not a part of Russia. Rather, in the Ukrainian history being part of Russia is an anomaly.

The countries occupied by the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern Bloc were never subjects in the Soviet Union  and these so called “new Europeans” were not that either for a long time after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union had swept away the history of these countries on the European map and created a world where it was “natural” for these countries to belong to the sphere of Russian influence.

Corresponding naturalization of the colonialism is not allowed to other former empires and it is very hard to imagine that similar arguments could be used to justify the expansive behavior of any other great power. It is utterly impossible to imagine that for example Germany would snatch an area of land belonging to another state and justify if by saying that the area formerly belonged to Germany. How do other states then allow Russia to behave this way if it is not possible for others? How is it any more “natural”? Even though the violation of the integrity of the Ukrainian territory has been widely condemned, because of the Russian speaking population many still think the occupation of Crimea somehow more “natura”l that for example Russia’s hypothetical invasion in an area where there is no Russian speaking population. However, could anyone imagine the response of a Spanish invasion in the Spanish speaking areas of South America?

Russia is allowed the indirect area of influence; a way of thinking that does not belong in the 2000’s, because the West could not recognize Russia’s imperialistic traits. Still in the West we continuously talk about Russia experts who the West is supposed to have a lot of. Especially Finland likes to think of itself as a country with a strong knowledge of Russia. If the West has as many experts on Russia as is says, how is it possible that the invasion of Ukraine came as such a surprise?

This is why we need to ask whether we have to prepare for the West putting on their same sunglasses if Russia steps back to hibernate for a while before getting ready for some new plans, and will we again be surprised when we realize that the West has not learned anything and is still unable to recognize the clearly imperialistic actions when Russia is in question.

Russia is being led by men with KGB training who are professionals of the human mind and experienced in propaganda. They are the experts of psychological warfare. They know how the western mind works; they know what kind of narratives the news use here. They know that Crimea cannot hold the West’s interest for long, whatever happens there. They bet that the West will not learn since it has not done so before either.

The condescending approach to the warnings of the eastern European countries on Russian politics also shows that unconsciously the western countries have joined the old Russified images of Eastern Europe as an area of some kind of lower people and countries of ignorance.

The West thought itself to be right in the case of Russia because the West has always considered its information more valuable. The West, that is, the Old Europe is the subject in Europe, the producer of the dominating truth and the East is the New Europe, an object and area of cheap produce, cheap labor many of the problems which are not thought to arise from the state of post-colonialism. The countries have been described as countries of transition and as post-Soviet, but the context of colonialism has been unfamiliar. However, that is precisely the right context to describe the situation and to help the western countries to picture the situation of these countries better – we do understand in the West that the history of slavery is one of the problems of the modern day Africa.

Now and then the Russian-related warnings of the East-European and Baltic countries have been met as the ramblings of a traumatized patient. The violence, and that is precisely what an occupation is, that has been experienced by the victims is often played down  as if they did not have “real” information about the event but subjective experiences of a history of oppression. However, the hard information comes from countries with no such experiences. At the same time it would be impossible to imagine that if one of the Jewish organizations reacted to the public use of a swastika, their behavior would be treated as “post-holocaustic stress disorder”. That would be downright funny.

The dominating theory of evil in the 20th century had to do with the Gestapo and the National Socialist Germany because we have condemned the National Socialist Germany, seen movies about the holocaust and read several books on the issue. In the 2000’s the dominating theory of evil is that of the Al Qaida and Osama Bin Laden.

In this situation it was easy for the Moscow silovik clique to act in the West. They are white men who do not represent “The Other”. They do not have a turban, their wives don’t wear a scarf but high heels. Thus they did not seem threatening in the 2000’s and they do not look like the menaces of the post-modern world. The Western film industry has depicted the KGB men primarily as funny guys with fur hats at the Red Square, and books about gulags are read less than books about the holocaust. Additionally the occupation lasting fifty years meant that the post-colonial countries had to restructure the past, find information based on facts and to learn a language in which to tell about these issues that had been silenced for fifty years. The Russian leadership has continuously tried to intervene in this reprocessing of the past and tried for years to infiltrate the neighboring countries’ intelligence services not even talking about the closing of archives. All this has made it even more difficult for Eastern Europe to convey information about their recent past to the West.

Provided that the KGB would have been condemned in the same way as the Gestapo or Al Qaida, the Moscow silovik clique would never have made it to power. The former KGB men would not be ruling Russia and neither would the new upper class of Russia be the FSB. Neither would Russia be building its future with the tools of post-modern imperialism that is so hard for the West to recognize, because our schoolbooks never tried to analyze the colonialistic nature of the big neighbor. We never were given the tool box for that.

Let this new cold war be a lesson, why it is so important to remember and condemn the human rights violations of the past as well as recognize them.

By Sofi Oksanen

8 Comments

  • Oakie says:

    Thank you so much for this analysis. It was brilliantly constructed and a tour de force.

    I have been trying to watch carefully video of average citizens in the Donbass and how they express their views. I have been using Vice, http://www.interpretermag.com and ukraineatwar.blogspot.com for a majority of my sourcing. I follow them every day.

    It is incomprehensible to me that they are so shocked that Ukrainian forces would bomb them, even their homes, when at the same time they seem to fully support the military actions of the active pro-Russian militias around them. This is even true although the militias are using the roofs of their own homes to shoot at the Ukrainian forces. They seem to only blame the Ukrainian government for all the problems.

    To me, it seems like such a disconnect. How can they not put 2 and 2 together. Of they are going to be bombed when their actions or inactions allow these militias to operate. I can’t imagine myself not seeing the context.

    But your analysis helps to build a framework to understand how these pawns in Eastern Ukraine behave like they do. I feel so helpless watching the suffering of this European country with such great potential, and the lack of real concern in the west, particularly the behavior of the French and German governments. I had initially thought that the facts of Merkels’ history of growing up not far from that KGB Colonel occupier’s time in the DGR would have ensured that she would not allow her country’s obvious economic concerns to outweigh here sense of justice for another Eastern European people suffering from that same yoke. Unfortunately Colonel Putin’s cynical analysis was much more accurate than my guess. Very sad indeed.

    One question I have is about that incident you mention:

    “In Sillamägi in Estonia at a traditional Slavic festival where the Ukrainian youths of the procession were attacked by Russian speakers.”

    I don’t know what the 24.5 reference should link to, perhaps there is a footnote or other source missing.

    I googled like crazy but can’t find any information about it and I’d like to learn more about what happened.

    Thank you again for your excellent work.

  • Evgenia Albatz published in 1992 in “Mine of slow action” her conclusions that the whole Perestroyka was actually managed by the KGB corporation whose knowledge of the West help them to manipulate the change in order to gain not only the absolute power but also the possession of all assets. I was in Moscow in late 80 – early 90th and our humble driver in Moscow – a very simple older man, told us similar opinion. KGB allowed Perestroyka because they were tired to share power with the communist party, not being able to own everything and to allow their children to inherit these assets.

  • js kelly says:

    You write: “It is utterly impossible to imagine that for example Germany would
    snatch an area of land belonging to another state and justify if by saying
    that the area formerly belonged to Germany” and yet they did an awful lot of that just before and during World War II (fourth division of Poland, Sudetenland, half of France, Austria, etc). In fact, they claimed that ‘everywhere there are German speakers, that is German soil’ — just like Putin is claiming today with Russian speakers.

  • Karsten V. Johansen says:

    Interesting and enlighting view upon the ghost of state capitalism in Russia: the regime of desPutin. In the meantime, let ut not forget that totalitarianism is on the rise not only in Russia, and has long been so.

    http://newleftreview.org/II/33/jean-baudrillard-holy-europe

    It is growing almost everywhere, in my view due to capitalism, because capitalism is a religion trying to change everything to self-expanding abstract value, and does not tolerate any other view of life. In these times it is colliding with the laws of nature, be it the state capitalism/eastern oligarchical finance tyrants or the western oligarchical finance tyrants, so to speak the polite bureau of the US. Both/all of them try harder and harder to ignore the laws of nature, because they believe that nature is there to fulfill their “needs” for limitless powers and profits. The consequences are already here, in the form of climate collapse, extreme weather, ocean acidification, endless pollution, ecosystems collapse and so on and so forth.

    http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v7/n1/full/ngeo2007.html

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/27/new-cold-war-sets-sites-on-green-groups/

    In their grab for limitless powers, the hubris-ridden “leaders” all over the planet are yet again defaming and demonizing every form of critical consciousness as originating from outer enemies, in Russia: from the West, in the West: from Russia etc. etc. But to nature it is of no significance in the name of which state-, nation-, religous or other ideology one is fx. burning oil. The consequences for the global carbon cycle are the same anyway. And they can be imagined from the simple fact that humans have in the last hundred years burned fossil carbon which it took nature hundreds of millions of years to produce. Instead of listening to the scientists who are warning against the consequences of this, “leaders” everywhere are now trying to ignore and in some cases even silence the science.

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