STORIES

Russia's Other Election Hack: 1970s Punk Rock

By Charlie Tetiyevsky on May 25, 2017

There’s hardly any agreement on who started punk music. Opinions run the gamut for any number of bands from all over the globe, and as with any movement, no single group can really lay claim to having kickstarted the whole thing. But one place that people probably don’t look to as the source of punk rock is the Soviet Union. The World News Daily Report published a story in 2015 “reporting” that an ex-KGB agent—one “Alexandrei Varennikovic Voloshin”—went on Russian TV to lay claim to the USSR’s having “[created] the 1970s punk scene and financed major punk bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones.” 

Voloshin, the WNDR writes, said that the USSR “spent ‘hundreds of millions of rubles’ on [a] covert operation designed to ‘create utter chaos’ and ‘pervert the Western youth to nihilist, anti-establishment and anti-American ideologies.’ […] Famous punk songs […] were even scripted by a team of psychologists and war propagandists of the USSR […] to unleash a wave of cynicism towards authorities.”

This isn’t the first time that claims of a Russian psychological operation on American culture have emerged, obviously. Throughout the Red Scare and into the later parts of the Cold War, reports of statewide programs to disillusion and break apart the fabric of America spread, and exist today, although in a rather different context. Obviously propaganda and conspiracy differ in that one is confirmable, visible and readable, while the other is just a whisper or rumor or strange post on the internet—and so there’s really no comparison between a verifiable attempt by a foreign government to proliferate questionable information and the suggestion that the KGB sparked punk music to destabilize the West. There is, however, clearly a certain cosmic irony in the situation that something so tinfoil and right-wing as Soviet conspiracy theories have somehow been echoed in modern politics.

None of this was lost on the writer of the concocted World News Daily Report article, who made his own joke in the story when he named the “KGB agent” something that translates to Son of Pierogis. The tabloid, which has a disclaimer warning that everything on the site is “satirical” and “fictional [in] nature,” published its, um, piece in mid-2015, almost exactly a month to the day before Trump was inaugurated. The whole thing lives in the perfect place for a conspiracy theory, the uncanny valley where it is adjacent to both the truth and the past theories that give it credence and context.

In 1984 Soviet defector and ex-KGB agent Yuri Bezmenov was interviewed by “far-right conspiracy theorist,” 9/11 truther and AIDS and cancer denialist G. Edward Griffin. Bezmenov warned of an open system of influence on American culture by Soviet “Marxist-Leninist propaganda” via a “process which we call […] psychological warfare. [The goal is] to change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite the abundance of information no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community and their country. It’s a great brainwashing process which goes very [slowly].” If this has echoes in our modern history, from within the country as much as outside of it, it’s because this is the process of quashing any sort of dissent in a group of people—not necessarily something you need to have been in the KGB to know.

Bezmenov argues that once people have gone through this process—like the oh-so-rebellious Baby Boomers, he says—“you are stuck with them […] they are contaminated, they are programmed to think and react to certain stimuli […] you cannot change their mind even if you expose them to authentic information.”

And yet, one of those little Boomers—from the Soviet psyop punk frontlines, no less—seems to have flipped his opinion to Bezmenov and Griffin’s side despite having been a brainwashed machine mobilized by the USSR. 

John Lydon, Sex Pistols lead singer and person who will not let go of being called Johnny Rotten at the over-ripe age of 61, has been tossing around his fair share of unstable opinions for years, most recently championing Brexit and Nigel Farage as well as something a little closer to home. Though he’s supposedly had some change of his mercurial, yelling heart in the last couple of months, as recently as March, Lydon was going on about supporting Donald Trump, telling Virgin Radio that “America now has a new president, and whether you like him or not, you have to support him or you will destroy the country. You got to make things work. […] The attitudes that are being pulled on him are stupid and wrong. […] To be smearing him as a racist, this isn’t right, there’s no evidence or proof to that and until there is, I’ll stand up and say that I think that’s wrong.”

He told NPR in March that he sees himself as “a natural-born anarchist,” that he’s “never in [his] life supported any government anywhere, and [he] never will.”

Lydon, who seems to have been asleep since 2015 if he hasn’t seen “evidence or proof” of POTUS’ racist policies (and the Steve-Bannon-Jeff-Sessions machine’s entire existence), decries a “terrible attitude in left-wing politics,” saying that “they just feel they have the pomposity and the right to just throw these accusations [of racism] out without any evidence—well don’t, because my world requires facts. […] For the next week and a half […] the media is going to be calling me a racist. […] That’s going to be damn upsetting all over again to my grandkids, isn’t it?” (Apparently, telling Bloc Party member Kele Okereke “your problem is your black attitude” before getting into a drag-out fight is not the sort of thing Lydon finds to be most embarrassing to his grandkids.)

All of these bits of facts or half-truths or untruths all swirl together to create the perfect primordial soup for doubt. That’s the thing about conspiracy theories, “fake news,” disinformation, whatever you want to call it—that if you know a little bit about the theories, or a little bit about the truth, or a little bit about something you heard somewhere, if you’re gullible enough, anything truth-adjacent could spin into being something you really believe—or at least post on Facebook. 

Photo credit: nnm.me.

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