In the American and French presidential elections in the past year, hackers suspected to be working for the nation of Russia breached sensitive organizational information about the major political parties involved and leaked that information online to influence the electorates. In the case of the French email leaks there were suspected forgeries that attempted to make the leading, pro-EU candidate, Emanuel Macron to look like a criminal or otherwise dishonest person. What people may not know is that this is an old Russian trick with a new twist provided by the internet. Russia has been producing propaganda using forged documents for over 100 years – the first great example of which is an anti-Semitic document known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion released around 1900 in various publications and formats.
Jews in Europe have long faced discrimination and violence. Jewish populations faced expulsion, violence, and oppression in countries throughout Europe as far back as the Middle Ages. Much of that oppression and violence was fomented by libelous and slanderous lies and nefarious motives being ascribed to the population. Russia, which at times encompassed modern-day Poland, had a large Jewish population, especially in what was referred to as the “Pale of Settlement.” The “Pale” was an area Jews were forced to live by the Russian government.
Russia under the Tsars was not a progressive country. Across Russia the serfs (peasants legally bound to the land in a feudal system) were freed over the course of the 1860’s – many years after the rest of Europe under the “liberal” Tsar Alexander II. Many of these policies were reversed by his successor Alexander III who was a deeply conservative and obdurate ruler. One of Alexander III’s favorite tactics for unifying the disparate people of Russia was to organize anti-Jewish riots, known as pogroms, a tactic approved by his successor, the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II.
Tsar Alexander II established a secret police to monitor threats to rule of the regime known as the Okhrana in 1866. It was greatly expanded after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881. From the beginning the Russians used the Okhrana in a ruthless and innovative manner, especially when compared to the spy-craft and law enforcement instruments of other nations. Operatives created and directed organizations, establishing a “controlled opposition” with which the regime could collect and monitor individuals they considered political threats. Part of the operations of the secret police involved producing and disseminating various types of propaganda.
The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a meeting between a group of elite Jewish Rabbis detailing their plots to overthrow the world order and establish Jews as the rulers of every regime and every financial and social institution on Earth.
As a tool of persuasion, The Protocols have a record of success any corporation or political organization would envy. A corrupt and inept government found scapegoating an effective tactic, and no one was smeared with disloyalty, corruption, and conspiracy as effectively as the much-reviled Jewish communities of Russia.
The completed forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was apparently disseminated as early as 1897 privately among members of the French aristocracy and was occasionally published in Russian newspapers in the years after.
Politically and socially active Orthodox Priests (closely allied with the Tsarist regime) published anti-Jewish screeds occasionally, and in 1905, an Orthodox priest named Sergei Nilus published the text in his book. Every new publication precipitated anti-Jewish violence in Russia, and certainly helped to turn attention from the corrupt and incompetent Russian government to “foreign” groups in the midst of the general populace.
A veil hangs between the authors of the document and the investigations of journalists and historians into its origins. Careful and painstaking scholarship has revealed enough about it to confidently say that much of the work was plagiarized and that it was a creation of the Okhrana. Stylistic critiques and information in the previously closed Russian archives points to members of the Okhrana writing and gathering the materials for the work, and then spreading it throughout Russia.
The wild success of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion would prove instructive to future Russian regimes. Matvei Golovinski (the likely author of The Protocols) a propagandist for the Okhrana working in France, worked for the new Bolshevik government after 1917. Continuity between the different organizations of the secret police in Russia, no matter the ideology or the leader of the regime in power, allowed institutional knowledge in disinformation and propaganda to be passed through to the present age. When the Internet opened up the world to the free flow of information Russia understood their opportunity to push conspiracy theories, misinformation, and propaganda onto populations around the world.
Conspiracy theories echo into our time as fears of the “deep state” and “the new world order” proliferates and finds succor in the lofty quarters of state power. In the United States and elsewhere people filled with hate, and crafty actors, such as the Russian state, are expertly spreading paranoia and distrust to persuade the world to serve their purposes.
Even now, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is taken as fact in some corners of the world and is endorsed as truthful by powerful leaders and communicators. Anti-Jewish conspiracy is alive and well and amplified by the Internet. Forgeries, conspiracies, and propaganda are tools wielded effectively by dedicated actors in the Communications Age. The first successful example may be The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.