Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet Space and Georgia - Interview with Ilya Yablokov

Memory and Disinformation Studies | Publications | Blog Post 5 June 2024


Dr. Ilya Yablokov represents the School of Journalism, Media, and Communication at the University of Sheffield. He is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism and Disinformation. Ilya’s most recent monograph Russia Today and Conspiracy Theories: People, Power, Politics on RT (with Precious Chatterje-Doody) explores how Russian international broadcaster uses traditional and new media environments to spread disinformation on subnational, national, and international levels. This work was spawned by Ilya’s previous research into conspiracy theories in Russia. His monograph Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the post-Soviet World (Polity 2018) studied how political elites in post-Soviet Russia use conspiracy theories for political purposes and to boost social cohesion under Vladimir Putin.



The current situation in Georgia


After Russia started its invasion of Ukraine, the term - Global War Party was coined in Georgia. If we google in any language, we will only find news related to Georgia. That is, this concept is self-created, we did not borrow it from anywhere. According to the authorities, the Global War Party is trying to drag us into war and open a second front here, sacrificing tens of thousands of citizens of an already small country… I know you're keeping a close eye on events here. Could you explain what the Global War Party is?


- I don’t think this is an original invention of the Georgian political establishment. They likely borrowed it from the Soviet past because it’s a cliché—the military-industrial bloc of NATO countries. This cliché was widely used during the Cold War and was eventually reformatted to fit the realities of global market economies. Now, it is used as a global narrative.


What’s important is the meaning they attach to this term: they envision a global center that starts or supports wars around the world, pushes governments toward conflict, and then sells them weapons. This idea resonates with reality to some extent because there are indeed huge companies in the arms industry, which provide many jobs and are significant to the economies of countries like the US, Israel, and France. However, the notion that there is a single entity orchestrating wars and supplying ammunition is misleading.


For example, some countries buy weapons to wage war, even when they have strained relations with the selling country. The Georgian ruling party uses the concept of the Global War Party to appeal to their local electorate, making people in Georgia believe there is a dangerous entity outside the country capable of pushing Russia to start a war in Georgia and then supplying weapons. The only reality in this conspiracy is that countries do buy weapons from other countries, and this money goes to private companies. Everything else is a spin and a myth.


However, it simplifies the picture of reality and aligns with the rest of the news outputs that state media disseminates to the population. The Global War Party is a stereotype and cliché, but it falls on fertile ground and can have a significant influence.

You’ve read an interview featuring an MP who claimed that Freemasons influence everything, including politics. Frankly, I hadn't heard a serious discussion of Freemasons since the 90s. Yet, here's a person who holds impressive credentials as a Donald Rumsfeld fellow and possesses diplomas and certificates from prestigious institutions like Georgetown University, Charles University, and Heidelberg University. Additionally, she's a recipient of a DAAD scholarship. Can you shed some light on what we're dealing with here?


- It seems like we're dealing with someone who's trying to activate very old conspiratorial stereotypes, like the Freemasons. Although intellectuals might make fun of the fears of Freemasonry, it resonates with millions of people around the world. The idea that Rothschilds, Rockefellers, and other wealthy individuals could have relations with Freemasons is something people believe in. Not too long ago, during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a massive belief in such conspiracies.


This person is at the center of power, part of a clear political elite, and their clear task is to polarize Georgian society. They achieve this by making outrageous claims. When these claims are repeated by them and others with credentials or reputations, they start to appear like truths. Their words become viral, echoed by pro-government blogs and disseminated through multiple channels. These outrageous statements then become reality for a certain part of society, which tends to simplify reality. Moreover, anyone who protests against their vision is often portrayed as an ally to the Freemasons. This is pure manipulation and propaganda.

Separation of Russia from the West, sovereign democracy, and looking to the East (although the question is, is it worth for example China to get even closer to Russia and thus lose its Western partners?) is one of the concepts of recent years. You mention the article in the book - Stronghold Russia: Concept for President («Крепость Россия: концепция для президента»). to what extent can Georgia become a Stronghold and a sovereign democracy? Or does that mean joining Russia by default in any form?


- Georgia's geographical position is indeed challenging, being squeezed between several highly authoritarian states like Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Despite this, having a European perspective is a strong objective for building a truly democratic Georgia. However, the notion of the West or Europe has been damaged by corruption scandals and other issues.


Considering the benefits of good relations with neighboring countries, such as economic opportunities with Russia, may seem appealing at first glance. However, the reality is that it would primarily benefit a select few, increase corruption, and worsen social and economic polarization. It would also delay Georgia's path to joining the EU and developing a robust system of checks and balances.


Building such a system would require the efforts of several generations, including creating constitutional and political legislation and protecting the media as pillars of democracy. This system must be designed to withstand attempts by politicians in power to dismantle it. Unfortunately, the current Georgian ruling elite seems focused on using economic benefits from Russia's isolation while dismantling existing checks and balances, scapegoating individuals through laws like the Foreign Agents Law.


This law, along with potential criminal offenses for non-compliance, marks a crucial crossroads for Georgia. Conspiracy theories about global threats and religion are being used to justify such legislation, despite these arguments having little to do with the actual intent of the law. It's a troubling situation where populism is being used to mobilize support for laws that undermine democratic principles.

And finally: how do you see the future of Georgia and its people in this struggle?


- My only wish is for you not to return home, not to stop protesting. You will be able to unite. The Russian opposition has one chance - economic collapse and the efficiency of sanctions. In Georgia, you still have a chance to take to the streets, to protest, to unite forces. The other side is highly corrupt and highly immoral, and they know what is at stake: billions of dollars and all the possible benefits that uncontrolled power in the country, plus the international system of offshores, would bring to them. They want to stay in power forever. The lives of generations of Georgians will be ruined. You, citizens, will be there like in Azerbaijan, Iran, or Russia... With all my love for Georgia - I don’t want that.

Russian culture of conspiracy theories


Ilya, as the author of "Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet Space," what inspired you to write this book? What observations led you to this idea?


- When I started this research many years ago, my initial idea was to write my Ph.D. thesis in Russia. However, the faculty of history opposed this plan. They told me I would never be able to defend the dissertation because there would be many in the audience who would oppose it. The dean recommended that I find a different topic, so I offered to write about the US. He said, "Yes! America is fine!" So, I did my Ph.D. on American conspiracy theories, but I always wanted to research the Russian ones.


I began working on my Ph.D. in 2007, and you could gradually observe how the situation became nastier. Comparing 2009 to 2024, it’s incomparable in many ways: the skills, the consequences, and the damage conspiracy theories do to people. I finished my Ph.D. and started working on Russian conspiracy theories. I received a scholarship from Manchester University, which allowed me to start my research, leading to the publication of my book, "Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet Space.”


I thought that was enough and I would move on to another topic. However, in 2022, when the war in Ukraine started, I looked at Putin’s speech and his infamous article about Russian and Ukrainian unity from 2021. I realized that things had gotten really bad. Every piece of research I had conducted about Russian conspiracy theories was reflected in his speech. 

How did the general public receive your book? Has it become popular in certain circles? I also wonder if the book has been discussed by propagandists, now referred to as the Z-public.


- Surprisingly, the English edition was absolutely fine and had no issues. A large Russian publishing house, not related to the Kremlin, bought the rights and published the book in Russian. They printed additional copies twice, selling three editions in total, and I gave numerous interviews. I was even invited to appear on Channel 1 on Sobchak’s show during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I refused as it was beyond my ethical standards. Eventually, when the war started, the publisher decided to withdraw all the books from sale. So now, no one sells them on their websites or other booksellers in Russia. Essentially, it's under (self) censorship now.


The book was not discussed by the Z-propaganda or seen at all. The only evidence I have that my book was somehow featured in Kremlin reports was in 2020, when the person responsible for media in the Presidential Administration at the time (Aleksey Goreslavskiy) included me in reports during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with Sasha Arkhipova and others.

In the very first chapter, you write that the main trigger for people to believe in conspiracy theories can be described with the phrase: "Ordinary people like us started to live worse, or why did another misfortune happen precisely to us?" Do you still think this is relevant? Is it the purpose of the authorities to promote the spread of these theories to divert attention from the main problems caused by their unprofessionalism, corruption, indifference, etc.?


- Of course! It's always the case, no matter how well-off a society is. There will always be people who think they live worse than others, and conspiracy theories often drive political and social polarization. Take any case, for example, the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack—there was immediately a Ukrainian version of the attack, which we understand is rubbish, but it's quite appealing to many people. Those who believe in this theory likely do not enjoy a good life in Russia and probably suffer from inequality, etc.


In general, conspiracy theories exist in every society and every mind. We always have a conspiratorial vision of the present, and during times of crisis, this vision becomes more mainstream. It's difficult for people to maintain their sanity and balance during crises, leading them to believe in conspiratorial versions. Life has never been equal or wonderful for the majority of people, especially in the post-Soviet space. So yes, I still think this is the reason.

In your book, you note that there are certainly undisclosed agreements among governments and politicians. How can we distinguish between a conspiracy theory and a legitimate agreement that's meant to be confidential?


- This is a good question. It is precisely the blurred line between a real conspiracy and a myth that makes people believe in conspiracy theories. In general, a conspiracy theory is an interpretation, not reality. It can be a correct interpretation of reality in which several actors secretly agree on certain things, but it remains an interpretation. You should keep in mind that it’s just a version of reality, an option. People might interpret it based on their historical and social experiences. We speculate with a certain amount of evidence. Some people need more evidence, some less, but both are speculations. This is where the transition from speculation to perceived reality occurs, turning an interpretation into a conspiracy theory.

The collapse of the USSR is the central element of the Russian conspiracy culture and, if you like, the main conspiracy theory of the post-Soviet period. Who contributed to the collapse of the huge state in a few months? - This was a question that people were asking frequently and to this day. Is this phenomenon observed only in Russia or in other post-Soviet countries as well?

- This is called nostalgia, and it's a common way to perceive the collapse of a large empire, which is always a highly complex set of events. There are dozens of books written about the collapse of the Soviet Empire, including the breakdown of its economic system, social structure, identity, and ideology. It’s never just one thing. The belief that the Soviet Union collapsed solely due to the actions of one person, Gorbachev, amplified by the actions of Boris Yeltsin, is a simplification of the event. There is a perspective from social sciences, and then there is the reality from the lives of particular individuals or families who lived in the Soviet Union and then struggled to survive in the ashes of the Empire.


Every post-Soviet family went through this. Assessing all these factors for an ordinary citizen trying to survive is very hard. What they saw on TV was Gorbachev, then the events in Tbilisi on April 9, 1989, when people were beaten and killed by soldiers, and then they saw Sobchak. People try to construct their version of reality in which all the facts known to historians and social scientists might not be present, but they have their own biases and living experiences, and they construct the picture of their world.


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it went downhill quickly from the August Putsch to its dissolution in December, followed by economic reforms. All these developments were not only tragic and painful but also made ordinary people suspicious. They wondered how such a large country could collapse so quickly. This is the Russian perspective. The perspective from the republics was completely different—it was the beginning of independence, the start of their own story, identity, and freedom. For the 14 republics of the Soviet Union, it was the beginning of something new, but for the 15th (Russia), it was the end. This is the starting point for conspiracy theories to emerge.

You wrote that by the end of the 2010s, the idea of a pervasive conspiracy had become part of Russians' everyday interpretation of political reality. What was the development path of this phenomenon, and where does it stand today?


- I am far from thinking that the Kremlin intended to implement the scenario we live in today back in the mid-2000s. For the last 20 years, up until the war in Ukraine, conspiracy theories were used as a peculiar political tool developed in the Kremlin for national mobilization during critical moments. Anti-Western and pro-Soviet conspiracy theories always existed but were largely confined to the margins of Russian society. Only the radical left or radical right believed these theories. However, the Kremlin took bits and pieces from different stories from both sides and made them mainstream. They did this to ensure a smooth transfer of power from Vladimir Putin to his successor.


They cultivated a culture that portrayed Russia as being against the West, in constant competition, under siege, and with enemies within. This culture was activated during critical moments such as elections, rallies against electoral fraud, Crimea in 2014, or anti-corruption protests led by Navalny in the 2010s. During these moments, conspiracy theories were massively injected into the public space by the Kremlin, the media, and public intellectuals. This created an atmosphere of crisis and potential catastrophe, which was quite convincing to people. It made it easy to believe that Navalny could be a CIA agent working to destroy Russia or the next Gorbachev. This was a convenient way of managing society.


When the crises passed, things returned to normal, but with one significant difference: once the paranoid search for internal enemies began, it was hard to stop. Not only were TV shows, books, and articles designed for this but also the legislation—like the "Foreign Agents Law" we will discuss today. Cases of looking for spies and revealing espionage and treachery started during that time.

You wrote that conspiracy theories were an important part of the creation of marginal groups and certain opposition politicians. However, the conspiracy interpretation remained just one scenario among part of the population. But in the 2000s, Surkov and other near-Kremlin politicians and intellectuals gradually moved conspiracy theories from the fringes of political discourse to its center and the mastermind in this process was the First Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration, Vladislav Surkov. Could you explain this process? Did they find fertile ground to ripen their fruit?


- Yes, I would compare it to another form of agriculture—these are the grapes of wrath. Certainly, Surkov was not the only one, but he was talented enough to be one of the main architects. He injected into the Russian public sphere—through Kremlin-controlled media and state-sponsored intellectual movements—the idea that the West is Russia’s competitor. The funny thing is that we never clearly defined who the West is. Is it Romania, which is west of Russia, or the US?


In 2005, when this idea emerged, Russia was part of the world: culturally, and politically, and even hosted the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in 2006. But domestic needs required the implementation of the anti-Western agenda. For the outside world, the Kremlin didn’t want this image because they enjoyed lavish lives—living in Russia, making money there, and buying property in Europe or elsewhere. What they did, and what Surkov did in particular, was frame the West and the US as competitors, not enemies. It's a market competition for audiences: Russia has a product for sale, and the US has a product for sale.


For example, we compete for Georgia: we offer them the idea of a sovereign state versus a globalized world ruled by the Americans, and if Georgians buy Russia’s product, that’s great. This framing of the West as a competitor allowed Surkov to push conspiracy theories from the margins to the center because competitors pursue their interests and try to undermine other competitors. This approach worked for many years until 2022, because after the war started, the margins became the mainstream and the Kremlin’s discourse shifted back to the Cold War boundaries.

What role do bloggers, writers, philosophers, popular YouTubers, podcasters, and high-ranking clerics play in spreading conspiracy theories? How does information flow within this network: does it primarily originate from the center (its mastermind Surkov) and disseminate downward, or does it flow in the opposite direction?


- Russian conspiracy culture is very much top-down. It’s not only the Kremlin; it has multiple affiliates such as think tanks, intellectuals, report writers, and more. It’s a dynamic culture, but it’s always top-down. At the same time, it would be wrong to say that various intellectuals like Dugin don't have their ideas and are not independent in their views.


What is very important to keep in mind is that Russian propaganda has several grand narratives that have not changed over time—from the 19th century, through the 20th century, and into the 21st century. It’s not important who is sitting in the Kremlin; these intellectuals write or say something that always resonates with this grand strategy.

What is the role of conspiracy theories regarding the war in Ukraine? Have you also researched this issue? You mention in the book that Russia believed in its invincibility, the weakness of the West after the Crimean consensus, that the fate of the American elections was decided by Russian troll bots and hackers, etc… In your opinion, could this also have decided Russia to start the biggest war in Europe since World War II?


- The war in Ukraine became unavoidable after it all began in 2014, and some might argue even as early as 2004. The Kremlin needed a bogeyman—a dangerous and negative example of what Russia could become. Thanks to political spin doctors like Surkov and Gleb Pavlovsky, this narrative of “Russophobia” took shape and became a reality. It was just a matter of time. This narrative was partially implemented after 2014 and fully realized in 2022.


The war became inevitable because the Kremlin chose to manipulate the image of Ukraine for political purposes, to legitimize themselves, and to reformat the regime. Putin initiated the war, and the regime will likely collapse when the war ends because it now operates solely based on the war.







This material has been financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. Responsibility for the content rests entirely with the creator. Sida does not necessarily share the expressed views and interpretations.


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