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Kremlin false disinfo narrative: Russia 'liberated' states it oppressed

Author(s):
Lukas Andriukaitis

Lukas Andriukaitis is Associate Analyst at Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis and a Digital Forensic Research Associate at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

A variety of similar posts portraying Russia as a liberator rather than occupier of Europe have been appearing on Russian social media site VK (VKontakte) for years. Analysis of these posts revealed a wider Kremlin narrative and VK users’ interest in it.

The story is founded on distorted facts about Russia giving ‘freedom’ to a number of European countries, starting with Finland in 1802 and ending with the unification of Germany in 1990. The whole tale is based on emotion rather than facts and portrays Russia as misunderstood and hated for no reason. The narrative appears similar to the infamous video "I am a Russian Occupier", launched in 2015.

Interesting patterns have been observed as the same story was posted, reposted and rewritten incorporating different backgrounds and adding staged interviews to make the story seem more appealing.

These stories appeared to be primarily effective in Russian and mostly on the Russian social media platform VK. As the available social media listening tools lack access to VK, the research was carried out by manually analyzing available posts. The findings suggested that these stories were most likely tailored for Russian domestic use. What is more, the same regurgitated stories appeared to receive hundreds of likes from VK users for months and months in a row.

The premise of the narrative

Most of the propaganda stories coming from the Kremlin can be classified into two main categories: aimed at domestic or foreign audiences. The narrative that we analyze in this report is a classic example of the domestic category. Narratives aimed at the Russian population are usually based on strong emotions, while the facts are distorted, misinterpreted or not presented at all. In this case, Russia is portrayed as a generous superpower, which helped countries towards their aspirations for freedom and ended up misunderstood and hated. This seems to be accepted unquestioningly by VK users.

The narrative is an inversion of the historical facts, painting the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as liberators rather than occupiers. The posts sarcastically include phrases ‘crimes against the civilized world’ in quotes to portray them as absurd. Let’s take a look at some of the details.

1. 1802 и 1918гг. — вероломно наградили суверенитетом Финляндию, or Russia “treacherously” gave independence to Finland in 1802 and 1918. This line of argument does not hold water as Finland became part of the Russian Empire after the Finnish War with Sweden. Finland indeed stayed an autonomous region at the beginning but was quickly targeted by harsh Russification policies. The declaration of Finnish independence was due to the fall of Russian Empire and their inability to hold the territories. Similarly in the period of 1918-1920, the Baltic states and Poland had to fight their way to independence against the roaming Red Army. The story also conveniently failed to mention the Winter War in 1939, when the Soviet Union failed to annex Finland once again. 

2. 1918г. — подло и коварно подарили государственность латышам и эстонцам, которой у них никогда не было, or in 1918 Russia evilly and insidiously gifted the Latvians and Estonians the independence they never had before. This argument does not correspond to reality either as both Latvia and Estonia fought for their freedom against Bolshevik Russia. The same argument is applied to the third argument on the list: Литва восстановила государственность в 1918 г. тоже благодаря России, or, Lithuania restored its statehood in 1918 also thanks to Russia. In reality, the opposite happened – Lithuania fought the Red Army until the Soviet–Lithuanian Peace Treaty was signed in 1920.

The story starts with Finland in 1802, conveniently forgetting to discuss the story of the Russian Empire’s creation. There is nomention of Russian annexation of Siberia and the Caucasus region, Russian territorial expansion into the Middle East, incorporation of Ukrainian lands and three partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. In short, no mention of Russian imperialism and territorial expansion, of horrendous Russification policies, or Soviet crimes against humanity are ever mentioned. 

We will not provide further fact checking in this article as you can easily find out with a simple Google search or a skim through a history book. This is a classic example of Russia’s second D of disinformation – Distort, as described by DFRLab’s Information Defense Fellow Ben Nimmo. All Russian territorial losses, mainly due to various military defeats, the Russian Revolution or the fall of the Soviet Union, have been distorted into Russia willingly giving these territories away. The many VK users enthusiastically supporting this version of history are either ignorant of history or unwilling to look deeper.

Different types of post

These stories were identified on VK in daily narrative monitoring from the time they started appearing in 2015. Surprisingly, the reach of the story has only increased continuously with time. Many Kremlin propaganda narratives appear and disappear quite quickly (although they may be revived for a different country or audience at a later date).

We found several main reoccurring types of post, four of which stand as most often posted and reposted. The text of these posts was only minimally altered and the same dates were used in all of these stories. These dates served as the best keywords in tracking down these reappearing posts:

Types of post painting Russia as a liberator

Different variations of the same story. Image Sources: 1. VK; 2 VK; 3; VK; 4. VK.

We also looked at these stories using Buzzsumo and Sysomos with both English and Russian keywords. Sysomos provided no significant results with different keywords - only 200-300 results. Meanwhile, Buzzsumo provided only a few dozen units of media content, most of them being niche media outlets and blogs. Due to low numbers in various platforms in both Russian and English languages, our research was focused on VK, where this story was the most prominent.

As most of the social media tools used by our researchers have limited access to VK data, we took a more manual approach. Searching for the same dates that were used in all posts gave an opportunity to calculate and approximate the reach of this narrative. With various keywords, the number of VK posts varied from 7,100 to 7,800 posts spread over three years.

Results of different keyword searches

An example of searches on VK with different keywords. Image sources: VK.

When sorted by the amount of likes received, it appeared that some of these posts were unusually well rated. The most liked post received over 9,000 likes, which is exceptionally high for this social platform.

Examples of different reach of the same story

Examples of different reach of the same story. Image Sources: 1. VK; 2 VK; 3; VK.

Some of these stories were based on the previously mentioned video “I am a Russian Occupier”. The video that surfaced a few years ago was based on a similar line of argumentation, presenting twisted claims in a sarcastic tone that after Russia lost control of various countries, their wealth and importance decreased. 

Other posts were based on an article that was claimed to be by a Finnish blogger called Veikko Korhonen from the city of Oulu. ‘Korhonen’ argued that half of Europe and part of Asia got their statehood from Russia. Various media outlets debunked this story, finding open-source evidence that the author did not exist and the photo used in the article is of Atte Korhola, a professor of environmental change at the University of Helsinki. Despite the story being debunked months ago, it is still roaming the VK platform.

Conclusion

The popular narrative presenting Russia as the liberator of Europe continues to be successfully spread by the Kremlin amongst Russians. Despite the narrative originating in 2015, and some of the stories supporting this narrative having been debunked months ago, it continues to circulate on VK. What is more, this narrative appears to be garnering many more likes and comments from VK users than many other promoted narratives. 

This effect shows not only that the Russian domestic population is very open to this kind of manipulation, but also that Kremlin is able to regurgitate exactly the same story for over three years and receive VK users’ attention.   

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