The past is a prologue: Russia’s bogus referenda come from the USSR playbooks

Sofi Oksanen, a Finnish-Estonian playwright and an acclaimed author of the novel “Purge”, says that by organising “referenda” in the occupied Ukrainian territories, Russia is following the same tactics used by the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic states.

This is an edited version of Sofi Oksanen’s original Facebook post; published with the kind permission.

About the “referenda” in Ukraine. Many have asked, why would Russia even make the effort to stage the “referenda” that look so fake to any Western country. But let’s go back a bit and look at the Baltic states under the Soviet occupation.

Across the Baltic states, we know this “referendum” play very well: the USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) occupied the Baltic states through performances that bear striking similarities to these “referenda”.

As a result, in my textbooks in Finland, there was no mention of occupation; however, I was told that the Balts happily “joined” the family of the Soviet republics. This is what the Finnish school curriculum taught decade after decade.

It affected the way the country’s public debate formed over the years, often dubbed Finlandisation, a term that means “to become like Finland”, referring to the influence of the Soviet Union on Finland’s policies during the Cold War.

For Russia, it’s crucial to have photos and videos documenting the “referenda”, as this visual material will be used for the Russian media and education now and into the future.

As long as Russia’s constitution is not changed (patriotism!) and there is no free speech, this false narrative remains dominant.

In the Baltic states under the Soviet occupation, the school curriculum followed the Soviet narrative.

The Soviet media and education industries in the occupied territories used documentary material from staged elections decade after decade. Brainwashing was supposed to create the Homo Sovieticus – a pejorative term for a conformist individual in the Soviet Union and other countries across the Eastern Bloc. The term was popularised by Soviet writer and sociologist Aleksandr Zinovyev, who wrote a book of the same name.

Now the same kind of material from Ukraine is actively being used to create a new generation of the Homo Putinicus.

Even though the Russian propaganda is generally unsuccessful in the Western countries, for now, please remember that two-thirds of the world are much more receptive to the Russian disinformation.

The “evidence” about “referendums” offers excellent material to spread the Kremlin narrative. In the Russia-friendly countries, the Kremlin’s narrative dominates, again, decade after decade.

The staged propaganda material from the USSR was successful in the West and it did affect how former Soviet countries were seen even after the collapse of the USSR.

The fake elections and referenda suggested a narrative supporting the idea that countries “happily joined” the Soviet family, which was much more palatable to the Western leaders than the reality of the occupation and the crimes committed by the USSR.

The “happy” narrative gave a perfect excuse to trade with the occupier, shake hands with the occupier and greet them with kisses. Good optics!

In the West, the “happy” narrative created by the USSR played a role in making the idea of “Russia’s natural spheres of influence” seem more natural, more justified. This is the message that will now permeate two-thirds of the world.

When asked why they are fighting, Russian service members have said to the Ukrainians: “We want you to be with us.” This sentiment reflects what they have been taught at school and through the media, decade after decade, about “countries happily joining the USSR”.

If you have not heard about the reality of the occupation, the fake story of a “happy reunion” will be unwittingly accepted, and this is why Russia needs fake material from the fake referenda.

The most obvious reason for the “referenda” is to legitimise the occupation, according to Russia’s legal system. When a territory is under Russian law, Ukrainians liberating their territory from the Russian occupation can legally be said to be attacking Russian soil.

But this post is about the long-term consequences that false narrative material on the “referenda” are offering to Russia.

The opinions in this article are those of the author.

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