22nd Oct 2016

New pro-Russia campaign comes to EU capital

  • Artwork of Stalin: Not a black and white figure for some (Photo: agitprop)

Russian news agency Ria Novosti is rolling out a new public relations campaign in the political capital of the European Union which, according to sources in the PR industry, aims to justify Russia's great power ambitions and improve the image of Joseph Stalin.

The state-owned news agency has teamed up with a little-known Washington, London and Zurich-based consultancy called RJI Companies and is trying to recruit one of the top 10 PR firms in Brussels to put the project in play.

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The primary contract involves organising a high-level conference about the Arctic to take place in Moscow in late November. The Arctic event is to portray Russia as a good egg on environmental and energy policy and is likely to be followed up by similar conferences in the Middle East and the Far East next year.

Ria Novosti is also offering a second contract to "generally improve the image of Russia abroad," a contact in the campaign team told this website.

An RJI Companies agent in September in Brussels pitched the project to a major PR firm, saying that the aim of the second contract is to help portray Russia as a benign great power entitled to negotiate with the likes of the US, China and the EU on global security and energy issues.

He added that part of the PR effort would be to cast a positive light on the actions of the Soviet Union before and after World War II in order to justify the idea that modern Russia should also impose its influence on neighbouring countries for the good of the world.

A senior executive at the PR firm in question recalled one particular exchange with the RJI Companies envoy: "I asked him 'Do you want us to say that Stalin was not such a bad guy?' And he said 'Well, I know it will be difficult.' I said 'So, you want history to be rewritten?' And he said 'Yes, in a way'."

"Expect to see more articles in European newspapers saying that Stalin had his good points as well," the PR executive said.

When contacted by EUobserver, RJI Companies denied that the second contract has anything to do with Stalin. Ria Novosti denied that a second contract exists at all. "Our business is not to enhance Russia's image. It's to report news," the company's spokesman, Valery Levchenko, said.

Normal in Moscow

Kremlin watchers, such as the Moscow-based paper Novaya Gazeta, the former employer of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, say that a campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of Stalin is already under way inside Russia.

They point to developments such as the recent state-sponsored publication of a school history book which describes Stalin as an "efficient manager" and to secret police seizures of NGO documents on Stalinist-era crimes as aspects of the trend.

At the highest political level, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Poland last month defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a 1939 deal between the USSR and Nazi Germany to carve up Europe. Russian MPs also attacked Polish deputies for "defaming" Stalin after the Poles accused him of genocide in a parliamentary resolution.

Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Valery Shiriaev said that Soviet revisionism is linked to the vanity of Russia's ruling class as much as its geopolitical ambitions.

"It's important to the ex-KGB people, Putin and his friends, to explain why they are repeating the policies of Soviet Russia," he said. "They need to say there were good things in the former Russia, so that they do not see themselves as cannibals. It's important for the psychological health of the Russian elite."

Meanwhile, Russian diplomats say there is no Kremlin programme to rebrand Soviet ideology.

"Nobody in the Russian government is trying to whitewash what was happening then. And of course Stalin was responsible for numerous criminal acts," Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told this website.

The ambassador added that "history should be left to the historians." But he went on to give a less black and white picture of Stalin than is conventional in the West.

"It is of course obscene to put Hitler and Stalin on the same plane," he said. "People can argue endlessly whether the Soviet Union became a great power because of Stalin or in spite of Stalin, his harsh methods of industrialisation."

Words and things

When asked by EUobserver if Stalin, who is estimated to have overseen the deaths of between 9 million and 20 million people, could be called a "mass murderer," Mr Chizhov gave a relativistic answer.

"Stalin committed a lot of crimes, you could definitely say, so did other people. You could [point to], the battle of Mers-el-Kebir in 1940, when the British navy bombarded the French navy, and they were allies, not enemies, and the number of victims was the same as of Americans in Pearl Harbour," he said, referring to two World War II battles.

Apart from RJI Companies, Russian interests also work with PR firms GPlus in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, Ketchum Pleon in London and Washington, Weber Shandwick in London and Brussels and Saylor Company in Washington.

Novaya Gazeta's Mr Shiriaev said the Kremlin's use of PR professionals was pioneered in the final years of the Boris Yeltsin presidency in the late 1990s. The first company it hired was the Moscow-based agency Niccolo M, named after the Renaissance-era thinker Niccolo Machiavelli.

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