For Vladimir Putin, the story is the story of Russia, and the rebirth of The Russian Idea — the notion that whenever a would-be world conqueror arises, Russia is there to humble them. The appeal of this narrative to Russians is obvious and well-worn, told in schools, Orthodox churches, in literature, and in song for generations.
The Russian Idea, like all narratives, is crucial for its believers to make sense of the world. A narrative, according to a leading textbook of narratology, is a “representation of a sequence of events, meaningfully connected in a temporal and causal way.” Narratives not only help to make sense of the world and predict what will happen next — what we should expect and what we should approach with skepticism — but also how individuals act their part in the bigger human story.
An effective leader commands a narrative to convince or compel followers to sacrifice for a greater cause. This of course gives narratives themselves immense power, to the point where some wind up leading the leader by closing down his or her options.
This is the third piece in the series exploring a new framework for understanding how authoritarians use information to maintain power. The first dealt with the mathematical theory of communication, which divided the successful transmission of a message from an originator through a channel to the receiver. The second dealt with Iran’s failure to communicate its legitimacy to its religious and linguistic minorities. This article will examine how a message can be crafted so that it is faithfully reproduced by the receiver, and how this compelled Putin to act in Ukraine long before the first tanks crossed the border. It moves beyond transmitter-channel-receiver, to encoding and decoding.
Encoding (that is, pre-transmission preparation) can aim for secrecy, like encryption, or to save data, like when you zip a file. For encoding to work, the receiver must know how to decode. Without a decryption key, or without software to unzip the file, the results are just gibberish. Decoding requires work, and the better the instructions, or simpler the message, the less work is required.
Narratives can be a decoding mechanism, or a means to interpret the world around us. So crucial are narratives to our understanding of the world that a debate rages in narratology as to whether the world is even interpretable without the intermediary of narratives.
A message conforming to the narratives we already know is easily interpreted as a continuation of the narrative’s causal chain of events. Its level of surprise, the work required to decode it, is minimal. When a leader promotes a narrative, they are promoting a means to interpret the world and a set of instructions for decoding.
If — as many Russian propagandists suggest — the world is composed of cynical, power-hungry, and self-interested nations engaged in a zero-sum war, its adherents must, for example, apply significant mental energy and skepticism to interpret American funds for civil society and democracy promotion as altruistic. That, after all, runs counter to the narrative. Its adherents will, however, easily accept that the funds are a fig leaf for regime change.
If your tool for interpreting global events is based on Russia’s messianic mission to counterbalance would-be world conquerors, it’s very easy to accept that the United States will try to subvert Russian interests and very hard to accept that the United States seeks peace and stability.
Political narratives help predict world events, both setting expectations and seeing those expectations being met.
For Putin, this tension between expectations set and met came to a head in December 2021. At that moment, he declared that Ukrainian actions in Donbas “appeared like genocide.” Once that was stated, the disaster of an all-out war to destroy Ukraine’s statehood was set in motion. After all, Putin was the defender of the Russian people at home and abroad and the preordained deliverer of the world from Western domination. How could he retreat? To discard the narratives would be to discard the foundation of Putin’s rule.
The successful promulgation of a leader’s preferred narrative is crucial for his or her maintenance of power. It ensures followers interpret events as the leader does: it provides the same instructions for “decoding” the world. But the ability of narratives to set expectations is only as strong as their delivery. Once the narrative check is written, it must be cashed.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on how states manipulate the web.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.