Soviet AIDS

AIDS and the Soviet disinformation campaign

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.

DISCOVER: Inside the Stasi – the East German secret police

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.

Top history movie turkeys

Hollywood has tackled many historical themes over the last hundred years with mixed results. From the Oscar laden 1959 classic Ben Hur to the almost unwatchable Enemy at the Gates. Let’s have a look at the movies that got it terribly wrong – the history movie turkeys!

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Alexander (2004)

Gosh, how can you make the story of a young Greek king who conquered the world utterly tedious? Well, take about US$155m and bore your audience to tears.

The worst thing about this movie was the total lack of empathy that Alexander exuded. I couldn’t give a damn about poor old Colin Farrell and his peroxide-blonde locks charging round the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, this turkey was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards in 2005. The notorious Razzies! Poor Oliver Stone set about a Director’s Cut and a “Final Unrated Cut”. But in the end of the day, when the source material is as unwatchable as this – just stop cutting.

One critic called it an “excruciating disaster for the ages”. Quite!

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Seriously, let the enemy in!

Anything to put this movie out of its misery. I remember going to see this at a west London cinema in 2001 and I was just so furious. The Battle of Stalingrad is truly one of the most gripping and appalling conflicts of World War Two. How can you wrong with this?

The casting for me was the big no-no. Jude Law as Soviet farm worker turned Red Army super-sniper Vasily Zaytsev – I didn’t buy it. And I like Jude Law normally. But this was not his part. Thankfully he went on to showcase his undoubted talent in better movies.

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Braveheart (1995)

OK – here’s the thing. I have to make a confession. When it came out, like most people, I enjoyed this movie. Unlike Alexander or Enemy at the Gates, which I detested from five minutes after the opening credits, Braveheart was a good romp.

But over the years, the varnish has worn off. The historical inaccuracies and the heavy-handed and cartoonish portrayal of the English. And I’m half-Irish (which is part of the reason I did like it to start with). It’s now completely unwatchable.

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: King Arthur (2004)

When I was a teenager, I saw the amazing John Boorman directed movie Excalibur – released in 1981. It was a slightly trippy, hallucinogenic take on the Arthurian legend. But then if you read the medieval tales, they are pretty out there.

Then along clunks this turkey proclaiming that it’s a “realistic” version of the story. I went with nothing except trepidation to view this movie. All my worst fears were realised in a film that plods drearily to a leaden conclusion.

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By the way – King Arthur was a Roman soldier. Yeah – it’s a fact apparently…

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Gone with the Wind (1939)

OK – I’m being a bit provocative now. 1939 has been called the greatest year in Hollywood history. The studios churned out some of the great movies ever that year. And Gone with the Wind was, for many decades, in real terms the biggest grossing movie of all time.

But – it’s overlong, ponderous and a bit racist. It’s based on a book that glorified the Confederacy presenting it as some kind of long lost chivalrous civilisation. And I’m afraid it’s symptomatic of a long Hollywood tradition of getting it wrong on race.

More than anything though – rather like Liz Taylor in the 1963 mega-turkey Cleopatra – it’s just too much and not satisfying enough. I know 99% of you will heartily disagree. But I’ve never been able to sit through this to the bitter end. And I’m a big fan of vintage movies.

Corporate racism in the 1920s

Companies today are at great pains to show they have diversity strategies in place. But not so long ago – corporate racism was rife. Let’s look at a truly appalling example I came across recently.

Corporate racism in the Roaring Twenties

It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!

Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. They may have thought they were benevolent to their staff but more often they were demeaning.

At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. It’s a truly dreadful example of corporate racism.

Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations.

Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.

LEARN MORE: What was the difference between American and Roman slavery?

With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation, supremacist racist attitudes and corporate racism did not.

This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.

Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.

A racist Christmas card from a British company in 1923

Was Jesus blond or not?

I’m being a bit flippant of course. But there are still people who get incredibly upset if you dare to suggest that Jesus might not have been something approaching blond and blue eyed.

The ethnicity of Jesus has been exciting people for two millennia. From very early on in the history of the church, there was a concerted attempt to divorce Jesus from his own Jewish background. To do this meant emphasising his alleged divinity over his human self.

At its most extreme, there was the Third Reich in the 20th century trying to turn the Messiah into a member of the master race. Some Nazi occultists even tried to suggest that he was descended from a special race of humans from the Arctic!!

Before we get going on the whole Jesus being blond or not question – a quick note to say that I’m going for the spelling “blond” and not “blonde”. Largely because I know American readers tend to use “blond” more. Though in Europe they can be more interchangeable and in France it’s blond for a man and blonde for a woman.

Anyway, that’s you grammar obsessives dealt with! Now on with the show…

Jesus – probably not blond

The first thing to state is that there’s nothing much by way of a physical description of Jesus in the four gospels of the New Testament. We’re not told if he was tall, short, dark or fair. Brown-eyed or blue-eyed.

And we’re not informed because it wasn’t deemed to be important to the early faithful. Some Christians even took the view that the human form was something evil that we needed to shake off. So the physical appearance of Jesus was not a thing to dwell on.

Did the Romans turn Jesus blond?

But then Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire – we see a big change. Any lingering reservations about graven images of Jesus fly out the door. He is the new God of the Romans!

Roman depictions of Jesus drew on pagan iconography more than you might like to think. On the Vatican museum website, there is a photo of a statue of Christ as the good shepherd and an acknowledgement that this imagery borrowed heavily from that of Apollo.

Apollo was a God of the sun with a halo and forever at this most youthful and virile – and possibly blond. Jesus also sometimes pops up in Roman Christian art as Apollo’s father – Zeus – enthroned in majesty. He acquires long hair and a beard – though more often dark haired than blond.

Jesus – not blond and with short hair

In the Greco-Roman tradition, philosophers and people of great learning were bearded. But at the time that Jesus was alive, the Roman elite were clean shaven and short-haired. Only after the Emperor Hadrian in the following century do emperors go bearded.

Among Jewish people in Judaea, there’s a suggestion that clean shaven may also have been seen as desirable. In his letters, St Paul doesn’t appear to approve of the hipster look declaring that “long hair was a shame unto a man”. So our long-haired blond Jesus wouldn’t have impressed Paul very much.

And this hang up about long hair continues into the Middle Ages with Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 12th century ranting against the king and his court being too hirsute. Then, according to an account, he took a pair of scissors and cut the king’s hair!

That said, Jesus had already acquired long flowing locks in most images of him – especially on the cross.

America and the blonde Jesus

It’s in the United States, in the 19th century, that we see the greatest angst over the skin and hair colour of Jesus. Especially in the slave-owning southern states where owners spent a surprising amount of time vexing about what kind of Christianity to impose on their slaves.

What they didn’t want was slaves to view Christ as a supreme master of all to whom they could appeal or emulate. After all, Jesus knew the lash of the whip and died humiliated on the cross. That sounded more like a slave’s life than that of a master.

So, there seems to have been a certain impetus among white Americans to ensure that Jesus was depicted very much as a Caucasian European. Even his Jewishness evaporates. And with the rise of the Mormons comes the idea that a fair-skinned Jesus even visited America after his resurrection.

Jesus the blond working for the enemy

In 2010, Aurum Press published my biography of the black British boxer Errol Christie – No Place To Hide. Errol was a good friend and sadly died of cancer in 2017. He often used to remark how his Jamaican mother would invoke the name of Jesus during family rows.

But he would look at the blond, blue-eyed representation on the walls and wonder just whose side the risen Christ was on. He certainly didn’t look like a champion for black rights, Errol used to quip to me.