How To Invent A Russian Dissident
Language is perhaps one of the most powerful weapons in the history of mankind, if not the most. When applied in conjunction with the appropriate social conditioning and context, a single word can conjure up a host of images in the minds of one person, or even millions of people. Those words can sway them to turn out in an election, make large charitable contributions, or even take to the streets in an attempt to rectify injustices, or even, in some countries, overthrow a government. All thanks to the specific images and triggers that a single word, or two, can invoke in the human mind.
“Dissident” is one such word, one that conjures a very particular set of images. When used in the context of the Cold War, it conjured up the image of a man (sometimes women, but in that era men morseo) of ironclad principle and integrity, standing up for his beliefs in the face of a soul-crushing, faceless, totalitarian regime. A call to action was needed to help such men in their righteous cause, with that cause for action oftentimes, especially in the 1970s or 1980s, taking the form of massively increased defense spending, proliferation of nuclear weapons, or covert support to unscrupulous forces in order to contain the menace of Communism, regardless of the cost.
That is not to say that there were not genuine dissidents in the Cold War worthy of tremendous admiration. The famed writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was one such, documenting his struggle under Soviet rule in books such as The Gulag Archipelago that entered the canon of modern literature classics, while serving as a monument to what he was willing to sacrifice in order to truly stand up for what he believed in, and he was not the only one who did so in the various samizdat, or underground Soviet dissident networks.
Other examples of dissidents that are still staples of popular culture today have, shall we say, a less savory record on the whole. One of the foremost examples of these was Yuri Bezmenov. Bezmenov is not nearly as famous as Solzhenitsyn, but his impact is still felt on popular culture today, namely when clips of him were used in an ad for the latest iteration of the wildly popular Call of Duty video game series.
The story of Bezmenov that he sold and was sold about him is that he was an agent of the KGB who defected to the West out of a love for their culture and values of freedom, as he expressed in the book entitled Love Letter to America. Bezmenov, who lectured at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, became famous for his talks about KGB propaganda and information techniques, most famously coining the term “active measures.”
The term active measures, as a byword for supposed Soviet (now Russian) manipulation and disinformation, has become one of the most prevalent memes in the zeitgeist in the past few years. It has become fashionable in many conventionally liberal media circles, such as in this Guardian article, to drop the term “active measures,” when referring to alleged collusion between President Donald Trump and “the Russians.” However, Bezmenov’s idea of “active measures” can be just as easily be weaponized by the conservative right against liberals, as one can see in this piece in The American Spectator, which posits Joe Biden as the dupe of a vast left wing conspiracy to instill a cultural Marxist regime in America.
Much of the cachet and supposed credibility of Bezmenov comes from the idea that he saw the deceptive methods of the KGB from the inside, and then courageously exposed them to the free worlds. This is an appealing image, but it is also a lie. The picture that the linked Twitter thread, which cites both declassified Cold War era documents and translated Soviet/Russian sources, shows is that Bezmenov was an undistinguished journalist for a Soviet news service, with no evidence of being the kind of secret agent of the KGB that his public image implied him to be .
Bezmenov may have been an informer, one of many unremarkable Soviet citizens who passed on information about their co-workers and friends to the authorities, but otherwise he had no training or qualification in intelligence. He was not a professional spy, and he was certainly not an insider to secret KGB methods or techniques of any kind. What he did have was a gift for self-promotion and what today might be called “personal branding,” coupled with, perhaps, the sponsorship of the CIA (with its own track record of propaganda and media manipulation), and other powerful Western institutions that saw how his message could be used to serve their own ends.
The irony here is that both the political left and right in America feel free to use Bezmenov-esque narratives to demonize each other, while failing to appreciate just how easily that same style of narrative can be turned against them. Liberals can use it to justify how the election of Donald Trump in 2016 had nothing to do with the failures of Hillary Clinton or what she stood for, while conservatives can use it to dismiss left-wing movements such as Black Lives Matter or the supporters of Bernie Sanders as products of cultural Marxist intrigue.
Both during the Cold War and now, the term “dissident,” and those painted with that brush, can confer instant credibility as an anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy voice of truth, and at times that description has accurately described those given that label. But other times, as is the case with Yuri Bezmenov, it is used to give a serial fabricator credibility and allow powerful forces to use those fabrications for their own ends. Ultimately, what the Bezmenovian narrative, which focuses solely on external subversion, allows proponents of a worldview to do is to dismiss any potential flaws in their thinking as “active measures,” from outside. Bezmenov, if he were alive today, would likely blame the current climate of destructive polarization in America on outside forces such as the KGB, but the truth is the mentality that his way of thinking fostered is far more responsible.