In the 1980s, something called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) emerged. A sexually transmitted disease that eventually developed into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) bringing down the body’s natural barriers to infection and cancer. As with Covid, there were wild guesses about its origin at the outset. And into this uncertainty, the Soviet Union’s disinformation efforts exploited fear and ignorance with disastrous consequences.
HIV/AIDS came to public prominence initially because of its impact on LGBT communities in the west. But this 1980s pandemic also ripped through Africa infecting millions of heterosexual men and women. In developing countries, as with Covid, conspiracy theories flourished pointing an accusing finger at rich western countries. Soviet intelligence stoked the flames of fear and suspicion.
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The Soviet Union developed an information warfare tool in the 1950s it termed ‘active measures‘. We would now call this disinformation or fake news. This involved pushing the story that HIV had escaped from a US military laboratory in Maryland. The KGB and the Stasi – the East German secret police – collaborated to seed this story among journalists using the Soviet press agency, Novosti, and a network of useful idiots and media outlets – sometimes secretly owned by the Russians.
This kind of tactic is still employed by Putin’s Russia today. Conspiracy theories are often floated as an alternative or radical or counter-cultural way of looking at things. What Lenin called ‘useful idiots’ – anti-establishment critics hungry for material – are fed narratives that sow disillusionment or mistrust in western institutions including democracy itself. These useful idiots are frequently sourced in academia or among the Twitterati.
The Soviet AIDS theory diverted attention away from animal infection in Africa to American military activity. This found a willing audience among some who felt Africa was being blamed for AIDS. And the Soviets played up on this anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist sentiment. Even more toxic, Soviets pushed the line that the virus had been developed by the US military to deliberately infect minority populations – including within the United States.
Documents now available since the collapse of the Soviet Union are shocking. In one message from the KGB to their Bulgarian secret service counterparts, the objective of the campaign is made very clear:
“We are carrying out a complex of [active] measures in connection with the appearance in recent years of a new dangerous disease in the USA, “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome—AIDS”… and its subsequent, rampant spread to other countries, including Western Europe. The goal of the measures is to create a favorable opinion for us abroad—namely, that this disease is the result of secret experiments by the USA’s secret services and the Pentagon with new types of biological weapons that have spun out of control.“
This cynical disinformation campaign by the Soviet Union around HIV and AIDS was only stopped when the virus began to impact people in the USSR. Realising they needed scientific expertise from the west, the Kremlin pulled the plug on the campaign. But it was too late. Infections were already rising rapidly. Even today, Russia has a high rate of HIV infection and while I don’t want to use the word ‘karma’, there is a sad irony that the country which originated so much misinformation – and still does on other topics – is hoist on its own petard, so to speak.
It’s worth noting that Russian disinformation pre-dates the Soviet Union. It was the Tsarist secret police that forged the notorious anti-Semitic document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written around 1903. This purported to be a manifesto from Jewish leaders outlining their intent to take over the world. It was plagiarised from a number of sources including Machiavelli and was circulated by the Black Hundreds, a violent, pro-tsarist and ultra-nationalist body of thugs. It was also given an extensive print run in the United States courtesy of a useful idiot by the name of Henry Ford (yep – that Henry Ford!). The document was completely bogus – but is still widely believed today.