AUTHOR:Dalia Bankauskaitė
08 March 2017

Pirating history

The politics of today's cinema
In January, a Lithuanian film distributor offered school teachers and students special discounts to view the Russian film “Viking”—an epic action movie about 10th century Kievan Rus. Lithuanian history teachers received free tickets to see it, and were also encouraged to hold class discussions after the viewing. At first glance, this represents a noble effort on the company’s part to contribute to the education of students. However, as the old saying goes, there are no free lunches. Partly funded by the Russian government, the film has now reached audiences in 60 countries with a revisionist origin story of Kievan Rus as the birth of the modern Russian state.

Film has long been used for propaganda purposes and the Kremlin has repeatedly falsified or manipulated history as a propaganda technique. Vladimir Lenin once said that “of all the arts, for us [Bolshevik Russia] cinema is the most important” because of its quick, effective way of reaching the public at large. Modern Russia widely exploits film and literature to propagate state ideology and export propaganda worldwide. Viewers beware.

“Viking” tells the story of Prince Vladimir the Great (Volodymyr in Ukrainian), who—with the help of Vikings from Scandinavia—reconquered Kievan Rus from his brother Yaropolk. Yet back in the 10th century, Moscow had not yet been founded. President Vladimir Putin complimented the film, noting that since Prince Vladimir (Volodymyr) was christened in Crimea, the region is important to Russian identity—although Ukrainians and Belarusians also claim Kievan Rus as part of their cultural heritage.

Russian historians as well as film critics have pointed out the movie’s many inaccuracies, yet these don’t concern the Kremlin. Instead, Moscow has utilized this film as a propaganda vehicle to boost national patriotism and to engrave upon the Russian and Western subconscious that there has never been a Ukrainian state. This further foments Kremlin narratives targeting the history and legitimacy of Ukrainian sovereignty post-Crimea.

Few people are indifferent to the history of their country, and movies and documentaries are powerful ways to influence the public on important issues. Propaganda is most effective when it is emotionally charged. Those who are emotionally moved are less critical—and therefore less likely to question—the information they see and hear. That’s why it’s easier to inject a well-targeted message via popular culture consumables—movies, tv and social media— than more traditional information domains.

Most concerning, the Kremlin directly aims to influence public perception of Russian revanchism by exporting propaganda to impressionable youths as seen in the case the Lithuanian distribution and marketing of the film. Movies have a strong impact on children who lack critical thinking skills. If students are repeatedly exposed to the Kremlin presentation of history and culture—especially when it is false— they will become more vulnerable to Kremlin messaging. 
“Viking” is a striking example of a long-term play in Russia’s propaganda toolkit, which is often marked by short-term moves.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: TASS/Artyom Geodakyan