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.

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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.

Brave New World – dystopia in literature

NBC/Universal in the US and Sky One in the UK are broadcasting a new dramatisation of the 1932 novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It presents what we call a dystopian view of the future – one that is thoroughly pessimistic. As opposed to a brighter utopia.

Huxley wrote his story at a time when capitalism was reeling from the 1929 stock market crash and the Soviet Union was embarking on a series of bloody purges under its dictator, Stalin.

A few decades earlier, Victorians at the end of the 19th century had imagined that the world could improve and advance with every forward step. Science, technology and reason would lead us to a genuinely brave new world. But the First World War literally shot that optimism to pieces.

Even the hope for a revolution that would liberate humanity from want and deprivation was questioned. The year 1917 saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But after the Bolshevik leader Lenin died, his successor Stalin oversaw the creation of a bureaucratic, nightmarish, totalitarian dystopia.

Writers responded to this new gloom and uncertainty. George Orwell wrote 1984 while Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World. They in turn were inspired by centuries of authors and political thinkers who penned their own visions of the future to make a point.

Brave New World – not a new concept

Great thinkers like the Greek philosopher Plato or the sixteenth century statesman Thomas More imagined perfect societies of the future. They wanted to show their readers what a properly ordered world could look like. It was a description of something More called Utopia.

But – Utopia has a grim opposite: Dystopia.

Dystopian visions of the future depict a very different world. It’s an unpleasant place where human beings are alienated or terrified. The authorities may be dictatorial or even totalitarian. Thoughts might be controlled. Terrible, unspeakable things have been normalised, becoming a part of everyday life.

The 20th century saw dystopian views of the future portrayed more and more. Two world wars, fascism, dictatorship, murder on an industrial scale and the erosion of democracy by faceless forces made the future seem a lot bleaker. The cheery optimism of the Victorian age where every day would be better than the next gave way to growing uncertainty.

1984

Many early 20th century dystopians were deeply disillusioned by the direction Russia took after the 1917 communist revolution. Hopes for the creation of a society under working class control gave way to the reality of Stalin’s bureaucratic hell. George Orwell summed up his gloomy prognosis in 1984. A world where Big Brother is watching you at all times and people indulge in “doublespeak”, never saying what they really mean.

The dystopia of Aldous Huxley

In 1931, the author Aldous Huxley depicted another dystopia where there is no sexual intercourse and people are created through artificial wombs. Humans are bred differently with healthier, taller and intelligent people being graded alpha or beta while those cloned in mass production and consequently dimmer and smaller do menial tasks as gammas, deltas and epsilons. All citizens are kept happy by ingesting a drug called “soma”.

Huxley denied he was influenced by a Russian author called Yevgeny Zamyatin who described a very similar totalitarian state where science had been misused to control humanity in his novel, We.

The Soviet Union provoked visions of dystopia in the 1920s and 1930s but in the 1970s, it was fears of a post-nuclear world where the two superpowers – the United States and USSR – had fried the planet.

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Ape rule as a dystopia

Planet of the Apes ends with the realisation that ape rule has only been possible because human beings have rained nuclear bombs down on their civilisation. Damnation Alley sees the protagonists driving across a post-nuclear America. 

Logan’s Run has people living under sealed domes and subjected to enforced euthanasia at the age of 30 – but believing they are being renewed. All horrific takes on dystopia.

The 1970s embraced dystopia as it grappled with the threat of nuclear war; the end of the Vietnam War; the near impeachment of President Nixon and severe economic crisis. It’s not surprising that in equally turbulent times, we are reaching back to dystopia and forming again a very gloomy and nihilistic view of the future.

Inside the Stasi – the East German secret police!

In 2018, I appeared in the TV documentary series Forbidden History (UKTV, Yesterday) talking about a highly sinister secret police force called the Stasi. This followed a trip I paid to Berlin to see the Stasi prison cells where people were tortured for myself.

Communist East Germany collapsed in 1989. It meant the end of a totalitarian state where the secret police spied on the population using a web of 90,000 paid agents and hundreds of thousands of informers.

I’ve just visited the secret prison of the Ministry for State Security – the Stasi. It’s a grim place where agents physically and psychologically tortured political opponents of the government.

East Germany was created in the image of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was at the end of the Second World War when Hitler’s Germany was carved up between the Soviet Union, France, United Kingdom and United States. Berlin sat in the middle of Soviet run territory and was in turn divided up between the four victorious powers.

In Soviet occupied Germany, there would be no democracy, no dissent and no freedom of organisation. The East German communist government took orders from Moscow and created a Kafka-esque nightmare of a society. Show trials and denunciation were the norm, echoing the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

A culture of informing was encouraged. Neighbours, friends, family members and even husbands and wives would spy on each other. Often with a designated code name, they would ring up the Stasi and snitch on their loved ones. Private scores were settled just by picking up the phone and spilling the beans to a Stasi operator.

Only when Stasi files became public in 1990 did people realise the extent of the secret police activity. One woman, now a German politician, discovered her husband had been reporting on her activity to the Stasi for decades. A punk singer who was seen as a bit of  rebel was in fact a spy. All over the country, listening devices were planted in suspect’s flats or even in bizarre places like nesting boxes, watering cans and even a specially designed bra!!

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The cell inside the supposed delivery van

Once somebody came to the Stasi’s attention, they would be picked up and taken to the prison I visited for interrogation. They might be dragged out of their home or simply accosted in public. The hapless individual was then bundled into what deliberately looked like a delivery van. It could contain up to five very cramped cells.

They were then driven for hours, unable to see out of the window. This would create the impression that the prison was far from their home when in fact, it might have been a mere 20 minute ride. From outside, ordinary people would have just seen a delivery van for groceries trundling past.

They they arrived at the Stasi prison. The van stopped in a holding bay harshly illuminated by strip lighting. The political detainees shielded their eyes and fell to the ground. This was followed by a strip search, an exercise in humiliation. A kind of track suit was then issued with no consideration given to size. If it was ill-fitting – so much the better. Everything was geared to dehumanising the suspect.

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Down in the “submarine”

In the basement of one building is an underground labyrinth of corridors and cells nicknamed the “submarine” – a windowless hell where the first inmates in the late 1940s and 1950s were incarcerated. With no light, prisoners hadn’t any idea whether it was day or night. Twelve or fifteen shared a single cell with one bucket to relieve themselves and a single bed to share on a rota. Many died in that darkness.

Then from the 1950s until 1989, a newer wing was used. The cells there had windows – and bars. Each prisoner had a room to themselves with toilet, bed and sink. But this heralded a new form of degradation.  Physical beatings and summary executions were replaced by sleep deprivation and months of vicious mind games.

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Keep prisoners awake by ratting the cell door

How was sleep deprived? Inmates were ordered to sleep on their back, arms to the sides and staring up a light bulb that flashed on intermittently through the night. If a prisoner fell asleep and turned on to their side, the cell door was rattled until they woke.

Sleep deprivation is a devastatingly effective form of torture. Add to that the horror of solitary confinement for months on end. Prisoners began to relish the sessions with their interrogator who came to be seen as a kind of friend. That was the intention. Bit by bit, it became easier to extract a confession.

It’s incredible to think this all carried on until 1989 and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe. The Moscow-inspired Stalinist system was hated by most of the Left and Right in post-war Europe. But it had – and still has – its admirers. In recent years, a couple of Stasi agents have very publicly crawled out of the woodwork trying to justify what they did back in those days.

If you want to know more about the Stasi, I recommend this movie: The Lives of Others.