01.03 Review

Clash of Narratives: War and pro-war propaganda are contributing to the polarisation of imperial and anti-colonial sentiments in Russia’s regions

In an effort to achieve broad public support for the war in Ukraine, the Russian authorities have employed targeted strategies adapted to suit regional and national specificities. In Russia’s regions, the primary instrument for the historical legitimisation of the war is its presentation as a continuation of the Great Patriotic War. However, surveys reveal that three-quarters of respondents reject this analogy. In the country’s national republics and ethnic regions, the authorities are attempting to fit the glorification of the war within local traditions and religious attitudes. However, the war has become not only the subject of massive propaganda campaigns promoting the imperial myth of a multi-ethnic state united by a common history, but also the source of anti-colonial narratives. This phenomenon has emerged as the source of acute conflict in Bashkortostan, culminating in mass protests in January. The outcome of the war and the success or failure of the propaganda campaign will determine which narrative — imperial or anti-colonial — will prevail in ethnic regions in the future. Thus far, the myth of greatness combined with violence against civilians and mercenarism — the traditional pillars of imperial multi-ethnicity — stands a good chance of success, or at the very least of finding its social base. As recent analysis has shown, the list of regions that have recently seen an explosive — 30-50% - growth in the population's deposits is almost identical to the list of regions with the highest proportional share of military losses — Tuva, Buryatia, Chechnya, Adygea, Altai Krai, and the Altai Republic.

Moscow and regional authorities employ various frameworks and projections to justify and propagandise the war in Ukraine, the group of experts noted in an article for Ponars Eurasia. The most common and standard approach in 'Russian' regions is to draw parallels between the attack on Ukraine and the Great Patriotic War. Using the example of Perm Krai, experts show that this parallel is supported not only by the official speeches of the region's leadership, but also by the ways in which the war is memorialised. In Perm, a public garden has been dedicated to the memory of the 'heroes of the special military operation', and memorials and war monuments have been erected in the region's towns and villages, including in the form of equipment that allegedly took part in combat. Such 'cosplay' of memorials of the Great Patriotic War aims to transfer the traditional Russian reverence for the victims of that war onto those of the current war.

It is worth noting, however, that the parallel imposed by the authorities has a very limited effect. In the 11th wave of the Chronicles project survey, only 29% of respondents said that today 'Russia's role is similar to that of the USSR' during the Great Patriotic War, while 49% said that it was not. Among those from younger age groups (18-39), only 17% see similarities, while more than 60% see dissimilarities. Only among those aged 50 and above do these groups become roughly equal (around 40%).

Nevertheless, in national regions, the authorities are attempting to adapt the promotion of the war to local and national narratives and behavioural stereotypes, the Ponars experts note. For example, the Chechen authorities compare the war in Ukraine to a holy war against the 'satanic West', creating an image of those participating in the ‘special military operation’ as 'jihad warriors'. Both the official authorities and the local clergy are promoting this concept, which is dubious from the point of view of Islam. In another predominantly Muslim region, Tatarstan, stereotypes of masculinity are exploited. In rural areas of Tatarstan, young men of conscription age, who seek to avoid public condemnation, often voluntarily enlist in the army. This does not draw from a jihadist mythology, but a paternalistic model supported by significant material incentives. To enhance the prestige of military service, local authorities meet with soldiers and their families, including those of the deceased. Such meetings are widely covered in local media. However, as in Chechnya, war propaganda in Tatarstan is supported by the clergy. After the start of 'partial' mobilisation in September 2022, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the republic issued a special statement acknowledging that it does not contradict 'Muslim values'. 

Support for the war from religious leaders has played a significant role in Buryatia, along with several other national regions which have a significant share of military casualties, apparently reflecting the scale of the conscripted and enlisted male population in the republic. The head of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha, the largest organisation of the Russian Buddhist community, made a statement that the Buddhists of Buryatia 'are fighting for the Russian world, for the Slavic world, to preserve their Mongolian world'. The idea of the unity of the historical fate of the Russian and Mongolian worlds, including on the battlefields, promoted by the authorities of the republic, sometimes takes on almost comical forms. The State Archive of Buryatia published evidence of Buryat soldiers' participation in the war against Napoleon. The notion of the unity of historical destiny is a crucial component of the concept of Russia as a distinct civilisation historically uniting representatives of different nationalities and religions. However, this 'civilisational' narrative can be traced back to the traditional imperial myth — this is how empires of the past sought to legitimise their existence and integrate national peripheries.

In one way or another, the Buryats have become symbols of 'ethnic participation' in the invasion of Ukraine and the militaristic image of the 'Russian world' promoted by the authorities. The creation of this has been facilitated by the meme of 'Putin's Buryat Warriors', which emerged during the war in Donbas in 2015, and information about the involvement of Buryat natives in war crimes in Bucha. Official propaganda and Vladimir Putin personally have deployed this information to facilitate the creation of a myth about the special courage of Buryat soldiers.

However, alongside the imperial myth of a shared historical destiny and the militaristic sense of community, the war has activated an anti-colonial narrative in ethnic regions, according to independent researcher Vlada Baranova in an article for the analytical portal Russia.Post. According to her assessment, the growth of ethnically influenced protest sentiments began in Russia as early as the mid-2010s. Although the focus was on social issues and problems, these sentiments still had a distinct and well understood anti-colonial overtone. 

After the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, language and ethnic policies in Russia have become even stricter. However, the obvious inequality in the distribution of the war burden at a regional level has become especially crucial. According to the BBC-Mediazona project, which monitors Russian military casualties from open source data, the top five regions in terms of death toll (number of casualties per 10,000 males) are occupied by Tyva (49 deaths), Buryatia (37), Nenets Autonomous Okrug (30), Altai Republic (27) and Zabaykalsky Krai (26). The actual figures are likely to be twice as high, which means that in Tyva one in a hundred men has already died, and in Buryatia one in every 130. In any case, the rate of specific war deaths in these republics is 15-25 times higher than in Moscow and 10-15 times higher than in St Petersburg. This inequality reflects social disparities (a significant proportion of contract soldiers from the republics come from extremely low-income backgrounds), which becomes extremely symbolically powerful.

These sentiments took the form of open conflict during the recent protests in Bashkortostan, where mass protests occurred in January against the sentencing of activist Fail Alsynov. Alsynov wrote, among other things, that a disproportionate number of Bashkirs had been mobilised for the war in Ukraine and called it 'genocide against the Bashkir people'. During the protests in support of Alsynov, police used force and more than 45 people were detained, one of whom was seriously injured and another died in custody.

Experts have long warned that the outcome of the war in Ukraine and the success or failure of the propaganda campaign to justify the conflict will be critical to the question of which of the two narratives — imperial or anti-colonial — will dominate the national republics and ethnic regions in the future. The most negative scenarios of a total crisis of central power envisage a simultaneous upsurge of separatist and anti-colonial protests in many of these regions, which will be a factor in the Moscow authorities' inability to cope with the situation (→ Re: Russia: The Russian Matrix). 

However, for now, substantial payments to volunteer contract soldiers are ‘strengthening’ the imperial myth or, at the very least, creating a social base for its dissemination in these immiserated ethnic regions. As a recent analysis by experts of the Bank of Finland’s Institute for Emerging Economies (BOFIT) has shown, the list of regions that have recently seen an explosive growth (by 30-50%) in the volume of deposits by the population closely mirrors the list of leaders in terms of the proportional share of military losses — Tyva, Buryatia, Chechnya, Adygea, Altai Krai, and the Altai Republic. However, the myth of greatness combined with violence against civilians and mercenarism are traditional pillars of imperial multi-ethnicity.