Dezinformatsiya and the Cold War

By Colin E. Babb

This political cartoon suggesting the collusion of scientists with the US military appeared in the 31 October 1986 issue of Pravda.


In 1787, as part of what today might be called a disinformation campaign, Grigory Potemkin, commander of all of Russia’s armies and former lover of Catherine II, hosted his empress during her grand tour of southern Ukraine and the Crimea—recently wrestled from the Ottoman Turks—just as a new war with Turkey was brewing. Eager to reassure the tsaritsa that the new lands were filling with Russian settlers, Potemkin had mobile villages built that could be set up quickly as the royal entourage passed through, and then taken down at night and set up farther south as Catherine continued her journey. It is perhaps fitting that this most personal of all attempts at spreading disinformation has itself been questioned by modern historians as likely either an exaggeration (the empress probably knew the villages were fake) or a smear campaign by Potemkin’s enemies.1 The issue of what information is real—and what is not—is a modern problem with a long pedigree.

In the two and a half centuries since, through wars, revolutions, and ideological roller-coaster rides, it would be difficult to disagree with the observation that subsequent Russian regimes have had a certain proclivity for the deliberate spread of false information. (One recent history of disinformation even claims that the Potemkin villages story was the direct inspiration for this seemingly ubiquitous part of Russian statecraft.2) Soviet Russia’s state security organ, the KGB, would officially call this particular type of propaganda “active measures.” In the West, however, it acquired the more forthright label of “disinformation,” a word that came into English as a translation of the Russian word dezinformatsiya (the origin of which is somewhat murky, but it has been in use at least since the 1950s).

In their book Dezinformatsia [sic], authors Richard Shultz and Roy Godson define active measures broadly. “Active measures may be conducted overtly through officially-sponsored foreign propaganda channels, diplomatic relations, and cultural diplomacy,” they write. “Cover political techniques include the use of covert propaganda, oral and written disinformation, agents of influence, clandestine radios, and international front organizations.” They also could include military and paramilitary operations. In Soviet terms, active measures were a continuation of the revolution by other means, in times of “peace” as well as war. The Soviets had a formidable arsenal of communication conduits available to them, from various international front organizations such as the World Peace Council and the World Federation of Trade Unions, to Radio Moscow’s world broadcast in English and dozens of other languages, to traditional print outlets such as Pravda and numerous foreign language journals and newspapers.3 Throughout the Cold War, Soviet disinformation consistently sought to portray US military and political policies as the major cause of world conflict and to isolate the United States from its allies.4

The most notorious Soviet disinformation campaign—codenamed Operation Denver—was the attempt to portray the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s as the work of the Pentagon. Initially appearing in the Soviet weekly publication Literaturnaya Gazeta on 30 October 1985, the story claimed that scientists from the American Centers for Disease Control and the Army’s Fort Detrick in Maryland had created the HIV virus from two known viruses found in Africa and Latin America in an attempt to make a biological weapon. This article sourced a supposed previous letter to the editor in the Indian newspaper Patriot, published in July 1983. (The editor of the Patriot subsequently claimed that no such letter to the editor ever appeared in the paper.) Over the next several years, Soviet media printed numerous stories reiterating and then embellishing their claims (US military personnel, for instance, were supposedly widely infected, and hence vectors for the spread of HIV overseas), many of which were picked up in outlets especially in the Third World. A commonly quoted “expert” was an East German scientist by the name of Jacob Segal, who claimed the virus was man made and originated in a lab in 1977. It turned out, however, there were limits to coordinating messages even in an authoritarian regime such as the Soviet Union: the leading Russian medical expert on AIDS openly and publicly condemned Segal’s claims.5

Operation Denver was clearly focused on changing the perception of the United States (and the West more broadly) within the developing world— where the hottest battlefields of the Cold War took place, and where the information environment was most vulnerable to manipulation. Another purpose may have been to distract from the Soviet Union’s own actual biological weapons program, conducted in violation of a 1972 treaty against such weapons. Other attempts at disinformation—such as the fabrication of the “bomber gap” (as well as the subsequent “missile gap”) in the 1950s— began out of a need to hide or obfuscate military and strategic weaknesses.

The analog disinformation campaigns of the Soviet regime were shackled to analog vulnerabilities. Traditional media—newspapers, books, radio, and television—were (and for the most part still are) driven by editorial hierarchies that tied information to clear authorship and provenance, making the spread of deliberately false information challenging when the outlet was not controlled by the state. Effective Soviet propaganda and disinformation was possible when there were active allies on the ground in the West (or Third World), be it sympathetic authors and publishers or actual Soviet agents. These issues are now fairly irrelevant in the internet age, as information has largely been uncoupled from the requirement to provide evidence of authorship and sources. Who is saying something, and why, and from where, are questions rarely asked of memes, viral videos, or Twitter posts. It is no accident that the current success of internet “fake news” is a result not only of the rise of technology that makes information instantly and globally available, but also the long-term erosion of faith in the processes of traditional media.

In this issue of Future Force, a host of authors looks at the ways in which the dissemination and manipulation of deliberately false information remains a particularly pernicious problem in the Internet Age.


1 Both of Potemkin’s modern biographers, Simon Sebag-Montefiore and Aleksandr Panchenko, find the story problematic.

2 Ion Mahai Pacepa and Ronald J. Rychlak, Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism (Chicago: WND Books, 2013).

3 Richard H. Shultz and Roy Godson, Dezinformatsia: Active Measures in Soviet Strategy (Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1984), 1-49.

4 Shultz and Godson, 40.

5 US Department of State, “Soviet Influence Activities: A Report on Active Measures and Propaganda, 1986-87,” August 1987.

6 Pacepa’s work (cited above) as well as that of Anatoliy Golitsyn (New Lies for Old: The Communist Strategy of Deception and Disinformation [New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984]) have been subjected to notable scrutiny in this regard. Their claims include that Lee Harvey Oswald was a KGB operative (Pacepa) and that Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika was a KGB plot (Golitsyn).

About the author:

Colin Babb is a contractor serving as command historian of the Office of Naval Research and the managing editor of Future Force.

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