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Tactics and tools How Russian propaganda uses the cult of personality tactics

A “cult of personality” occurs when a person uses the mass media to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through undeniable flattery and praise. Usually these are the authorities in authoritarian and totalitarian states and religious leaders. To form a cult of their own personality and propagate their ideas, they use such methods as censorship and oppression of freedom of speech, playing with symbols, rewriting history, creating the idea that only one person controls the state, etc.

As one example of the personality cult and its use in state propaganda, one can mention the King of France, Louis XIV, who ruled in the 17th-18th centuries. It was this ruler who called himself the “Sun King”, and he is also credited with the famous phrase “The state is me”. He concentrated extraordinary power in his hands and is considered one of the founders of the absolute monarchy as a form of government. Despite the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte was an army general of Revolutionary France and, in fact, a political opponent of the Bourbon dynasty and absolute monarchy, in 1804 he proclaimed himself Emperor of France and established his own cult of personality, although he was very different in entourage, he was analogue of the image of Louis XIV.

The 20th century gave the world such mass murderers and war criminals as Adolf Hitler, Volodymyr Lenin, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin. They all had their own personality cults and powerful propaganda systems that justified the atrocities. Moreover, the cult of Lenin was perhaps most developed during the reign of Stalin, who thus wanted to exalt himself as if he were the closest ally and follower of Lenin, although this was not true.

Modern Russian propaganda does not lag behind Soviet predecessors. So, the British edition of BBC News back in 2001 wrote about the beginning of the development of the personality cult of Volodymyr Putin. Only a year had passed since Putin was officially elected to office and two years had passed since the beginning of his actual reign. The personality cult of the President of Russia developed rapidly due to the fact that the collapse of the USSR and the partial loss of imperial greatness became a tangible psychological blow to Russian society. The 90s of the XX century became a difficult test for the Russians: the economic crisis, the rise of corruption, the inability of law enforcement agencies to cope with rampant crime, and the army with the freedom fighters of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The late ex-president Borys Yeltsyn had the image of a relative democrat and could not overcome these problems. He often got into comical situations related to alcohol abuse, which did not give Russia as a whole respect in the international arena, but personally - within Russia.

Against the background of the old and sick Yeltsyn, Putin had many competitive advantages: young, intelligent, educated, with a strong character, an athlete, a native of law enforcement agencies. Such a person ideally met the needs of the then Russian society. This allowed him to gradually clean up the political space in Russia, become a dictator and establish a totalitarian regime in the country.

The fact that Putin’s personality cult is only growing and strengthening is eloquently evidenced by the conflict that arose in the Russian authorities in 2023 with a potential new leader, whose authority in Russia “grew up” in the bloody war against Ukraine – Yevhenii Pryhozhyn, who was defeated during his rebellion. Moreover, Putin could not even tolerate such a nonentity who does not pose any threat to him, like the ex-leader of the terrorists of the so-called DNR Ihor Hirkin (Strielkov), who was imprisoned.

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