Vladimir Putin’s dystopian mega-rally in Moscow is a whole new level of madness
A Moscow stadium was packed for an event marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on Friday. The crowd, believed to number around 200,000, cheered as Russian President Vladimir Putin took the stage, accompanied by some of his most popular propagandists. “We haven’t had such unity for a long time,” Putin said. claims.
There were patriotic songs, a sea of Russian flags and slogans that read: “For a world without Nazism” and “For Russia”. Revealing the rally’s underlying theme, the first letters of the word “for” on these slogans were written in Latin, not Cyrillic: the now famous letter “Z” which serves as a symbol in Russia’s war against Ukraine .
As Putin’s troops continue to sow blood and devastation in the war against Ukraine, the boon of flags seemed muted and frightening. At its core, it symbolized Putin’s apparent desire to superimpose near-universal national approval of his illegal annexation of Crimea on the ongoing bloody war against a once brotherly nation.
While Russian polls reflect relatively high approval of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin refuses to call by its proper name, the reality is far more complicated. Even staunch pro-Putin pundits on state television have expressed doubts about the path chosen in Ukraine, and in particular the economic repercussions that followed. The anti-war protest by Marina Ovsyannikova, editor-in-chief of the influential state television Channel One, exposed other cracks within the propaganda apparatus used to drum up support for the unjust war. Even the propagandists themselves do not seem to accept the justification for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Ordinary Russian citizens are also skeptical of official polls, some affirming that according to their own anecdotal polls, most people they know do not support the war, with the exception of those over 60. Friday’s rally seemed to be hand-crafted to fill that gap, appealing to young Russians using common social media similes and phrases. Instead of trying to whitewash the invasion, which is more difficult to deal with the media-savvy generation, some chose not to even talk about it.
Journalist and influencer Tina Kandelaki referred to overwhelming western sanctions only as “hardship” and claimed, “They’re trying to wipe out an entire nation as a social media account. As if they had forgotten that a war was raging nearby in Ukraine, Kandelaki absurdly claimed that the only reason Russians are singled out is “because we speak Russian.” She even claimed that Russia lost its ability to compete in the Olympics under its own name and flag solely because of its language, not doping. Notably, the same fallacy was used to justify the annexation of Crimea and the rampant invasion of Donbass that began in 2014.
Putin’s propagandist Margarita Simonyan, the director of RT and Sputnik, also spoke at the rally. She proudly reminded the participants that she was one of the main agitators of Russia’s absorption of Ukraine’s Donbass region, repeat once again: “Mother Russia, bring the Donbass home.” Simonyan claimed that in Ukraine, Russian soldiers fight “against the impure”, using the word commonly describing imps and evil spirits in Russian fairy tales. She did not mention her own pre-invasion predictions that there would be no significant sanctions if Russia invaded Ukraine, or her earlier claims that Ukrainians would welcome their Russian “liberators.” None of Simonyan’s predictions held true, but the crowd cheered after his speech, as they have every speaker.
Despite an elaborate display designed to illustrate popular patriotic zeal, it seemed like another example of smoke and mirrors, produced by propaganda’s skilled puppeteers. Like official polls, rally footage doesn’t tell the whole story. BBC News producer Will Vernon, reporting from Moscow, tweeted that after speaking to dozens of people who attended the rally, he learned that many of them worked in the public sector and had been pressured to attend by their employers. One attendee told Vernon, “I think most people here don’t support the war. I do not.”