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Repurposing the Human Brain: Lessons in Russian- and our own- reality reversal

Repurposing the Human Brain: Lessons in Russian- and our own- reality reversal

     At the “Valdai Discussion Club” in February 2012, Putin accused the West of employing “a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence . . . to develop and provoke extremist, separatist and nationalistic attitudes, to manipulate the public.”  He was inventorying his own toolbox,  summarizing his work product last year in The World Order–2018: “The American system is demonstrating its inefficiency and cannibalizing itself.”

     What does any of this have to do with the arrest of a Ukrainian villager on November 7, 1937?  

     I’m holding the victim’s arrest and interrogation file. Fifty five documents and 92 pages, laborious in their repetitive detail.  Why the documents?  Why a faux trial?  Why wasn’t the victim simply shot on the doorstep? Millions were. The NKVD (read, “KGB”) couldn’t arrest anyone without a warrant first signed by the prosecutor, and then within a deadline.  But each NKVD agent had a pad of blank, pre-signed, undated warrant forms. Why the charade?

     The victim is tortured, not to confess to the truth but to confess to a mind-bending lie, such as, “Yes, I’m from Mars.”  The File doesn’t detail the torture methodology–rubber aprons were issued to the interrogators for a reason. Too often after the confession the victim was shot anyway. Why the charade if the confession has a life of 30 minutes? If the purpose is to reprogram the mind of the persecutor, how can it be unyoked from the manifest, empirical reality imposed by that very persecutor? 

    I ask and simultaneously answer my own questions. This was not mere reality denial, or even alternative reality.  It was hyperbolic reality reversal, a 24/7 war against a person’s cognitive senses.    It was Stalin’s infamous “We live happily today and will be even happier tomorrow.”  It was the billboard greeting the output end of the corkscrew feeder into the Gulag –“Lead Humanity to Happiness.” Orwellian doublespeak carried to transcendental heights. It was everywhere, every day.  And it worked.

     Such has been Moscovy’s anthropology as it expanded into the largest empire in history.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky was clear enough: “All people should become Russian and Russian above all else, because the Russian national idea is universal.”  How do you re-spool other nations’ DNA? Collapse them from within by shattering the sequence of fact–information–knowledge–understanding–judgement–decision–action/inaction. The tools: provokatsia, kompromat, dezinformatsia, agitatsia, maskirovka.  The rules: deny, dismiss, distort, distract, dismay, divide, demoralize, disorient, incapacitate. Above all, accuse and attack.  The result: an altered consciousness and consequent surrender of reality control. The task would seem to be a grandiose fatuity when targeting individuals. But the superbity is anchored in a perversely brilliant history of having subverted entire nations, occupying their psychosphere as much as their territory, and then maintaining that control . . . for centuries.

     With 85 percent of KGB resources dedicated to “active measures”, it was easy for the USSR to exploit its genome against the West. “Ban the Bomb” was reality reversal when the Kremlin diverted attention from its own openly declared intentions and welded global angst onto a uranium stuffed steel drum,  with America targeted as the real threat to world peace.

     It was reality reversal when Moscow erased its own genocide of the Muslim nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia while incubating “Arab nationalism” in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and then releasing it against the U.S.  It was a remarkable success–for an atheistic state, no less.

     It was also reality reversal when “detente” enraptured Western capitals, allowing Moscow to lasso almost a dozen nations between 1974 and 1980. And yet again, when Moscow sold itself as the vanguard of anti-colonialism, a marketing campaign championed by so many (still unrepentant) in the West.  And reality reversal ruled–and rules–in Putin’s vituperation of the truthtellers as “Nazis,” Moscow having marched with Hitler in triggering WWII.

   Yet the West, too, creates chimeras, but for Russia’s advantage and use against the West. The springboard was our reverse engineering of the multi-national empire into a unitary state: the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” was equated with  “Russia”.  Not even Stalin made that leap. The self-imposed equivalence monopolized the West since the 1920’s–in politics, academe, media, business, sports.  It also was strategic aphasia. Astonishingly, a generation after the disintegration of the USSR, too many Western cognoscenti perpetuate that same Russia/Soviet Union equation.At the end, we feed Putin’s drive to reconstitute “Russia.”  In his message to the Federal Assembly last March: “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, which in the Soviet era was called the Soviet Union – that’s what it was called abroad – Soviet Russia – if we talk about our national borders, lost 23.8 percent of the territory . . . . ”  He made a similar point even earlier: In 1991, Russia voluntarily abandoned part of its territories.”

     The conclusions then flow inexorably. Reality was that Russians colonized the fourteen non-Russian Soviet Republics as both executioners and beneficiaries of Moscow’s ethnic cleansing. However, with the implosion of the USSR, Putin complains that they are now “stranded”. In Ukraine, they, their progeny and fellow-travellers are “separatists, “rebels” who Russia only supports in a “civil war”. Russian “led” is scarcely better, as it subsumes a necessary dichotomy between Russia and its fifth column, diluting notions of control. At the end, a nebulous  “conflict,” a curio, but not an invasion, annexation and occupation shattering the world order. Putin assures in his 2017 Oliver Stone interviews“We have to stick to certain rules. Otherwise international relations cannot be built.” 

     At times our reality reversal is short of 180 degrees, but effective nonetheless because of its subtlety.  At a conference in Washington last Fall, Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine, described having been shown a map of Ukraine before his first departure, with “NGCA” (“Non-Government Controlled Area”) designating Crimea and other Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia.  “Why”, Ambassador Volker asked the obvious question, “do we shirk calling it as it is–‘Russian Controlled Area'”?  Consider the thought process of the person who had settled on “NGCA”, and multiply that by thousands of instances and thousands of people– and that’s on our side.

     A variation of our own obfuscation is, “both sides are at fault”.  After a day in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently concluded about Russia’s invasion, “All sides must contribute to the de-escalation of the conflict.”  Not an obligation that would have been thrust upon Germany’s victims in WWII. 

     Even more unpardonable is when such an august publication as Foreign Affairs lends its imprimatur for an article by a Konstantin Skorkin, identified as “a freelance journalist based in Russia”: “Unfortunately, both Moscow and Kiev [sic] have pursued policies since 2014 that have encouraged each public to blame the opposite side for all sins. Until the two countries reconcile, they will continue to find sources of conflict all around them, whether in elections to parliament or in the Sea of Azov.”  Subtle, subliminal.

     Whether the issue is Ukraine, NATO, Nord Stream 2, Syria, nuclear disarmament or, now, Venezuela, we too often catatonically repeat (read legitimize) Russia’s drumbeat of “security concerns”, “hurt pride,” “disorientation,” “needing a buffer”, “legitimate interests”, “historic claims”, or “fear of encirclement.” Our substitution of victim and perpetrator for one another is the very acme of reality reversal, proximately undercutting our own security, globally  It’s the victims who have security concerns,  legitimate interests and need a buffer.  In outsourcing Orwell’s “reality control” to Moscow, we prove Yurij Andropov right. The former KGB (then Communist Party) head lectured years ago, “Disinformation is like cocaine–sniff once or twice, it may not change our life. If you use it every day though, it will make you an addict–a different man.”  

     There is no excuse for our denial of Russia’s predatory DNA. The denial erases lessons we should have long absorbed about the Kremlin’s attendant weaponization of information, leveraged by Western naivete. And there should be no doubt of the sturdiness of both denial and naivete.

     President Roosevelt was certain: “[Stalin] won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”

     Astonishingly, so was George Kennan, author of our “containment” policy adopted precisely because FDR’s certainty was fatuously wrong.  He wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning Memoirs, “The Russians don’t want to invade anyone. It’s not in their tradition.” That was in 1967, the year before Moscow’s second invasion of Czechoslovakia.  At the time, British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewartwas also categorical:“The Russians will not invade Czechoslovakia.  They have changed too much since Hungary in 1956.”

    Eleven years later, on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a State Department cable concluded: “A Soviet invasion would probably redound to the  disadvantage of global strategic interests. It would deal a severe blow to detente with the West.” In a White House briefing for members of Congress, President Carter was puzzled:  “It’s difficult to understand why the Soviets took this action [invade Afghanistan]. I think they probably underestimated the adverse reaction from around the world.”

     Twenty four years later, following a meeting called by Putin with Western journalists and think tank representatives, Fiona Hill, today’s Russia expert on the National Security Council, wrote in a September 4, 2004 New York Times Op-Ed, “Stop Blaming Putin and Start Helping Him”. (This was  already seven years into the blueprint for Russia’s assault against America.)

     After Putin invaded Georgia in August 2008, another Russia expert, Condoleezza Rice, in a December 12, 2008 New York Times interview assured:  “Everybody is now questioning Russia’s worthiness as a partner. They’ve come out of this badly. And I think it could help deter them from trying something like that again.”  In February, 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine.

     On January 17, 2017, Samantha Power (President Obama’s UN Ambassador) though criticizing Russia nonetheless lauded Russia’s “proud history of standing up to imperialist powers.”

     The tenacity of our denial, erasing awareness of Russia’s attendant prowess in rewiring the synapses of a nation’s brain, has come home. Catalyzed by Western fecklessness in Ukraine, Russia’s accelerated war against Western society was preordained.  With the KGB apparat today controlling Russia as it never controlled the USSR, its full frontal assault against cognitive, empirical reality penetrates ever deeper into our senses.  The 19th century Russian writer Alexander Herzen feared a “Genghis Khan with a telegraph.”  Today, social media means big data mining and advertising  . . . for us.  For Putin, it’s private sector espionage and mind control.  A highway to a hologram supplanting reality is a bargain for the toll that Moscow paid to Facebook ten years ago.

     Putin advisor, Vladislav Surkov, wrote this February that Americans should forget about Russia’s election  interference and understand that democratic choice on how they’re governed is an illusion. Further, “Foreign politicians ascribe to Russia interference in elections and referendums across the globe. In fact, the matter is even more serious – Russia interferes in their brains, and they do not know what to do with their own altered consciousness. . . European and American experts begin to err in their forecasts more and more often. . . . Everyone, including the Americans themselves, is dissatisfied with America.” 

     This is not admission, but jubilation. Not arrogance, but febrile contempt. Confidence rockets to conviction, perception of risk shrivels, and caution is defenestrated. We’re feeding a looming catastrophe. Thomas Hobbes was right–“Hell is truth seen too late.”

   *                                         *                                         *

     I set the File aside for the moment, and focus on the faded photograph on the wall. The young man, in his late 20’s, returns my gaze. I visualize the rubber apron. It’s not a long arc from the moment of my grandfather’s murder to Moscovy’s slaughter of the Western mind today. It’s a straight line.

Victor Rud

Chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs,

Ukrainian American Bar Association