Soviet Active Measures in The
'Post-Cold War' Era 1988-1991

Executive Summary

Active measures is a Soviet term that refers to the manipulative use of slogans, arguments, disinformation, and carefully selected true information, which the Soviets used to try to influence the attitudes and actions of foreign publics and governments. In addition to examining disinformation, this report looks at the Soviet use of conciliatory, alarmist, and derogatory slogans and arguments in order to illustrate the wide variety of manipulative messages and themes used in active measures operations.

Prior to 1988, one type of Soviet active measure message, crude, anti-American disinformation, received the lion's share of attention. During the "post-Cold War" years of 1988 to 1991, the use of this type of Soviet active measure decreased markedly, although it still continued to some extent.

While anti-American disinformation decreased during the late 1980s and early 1990s, another form of derogatory disinformation increased. As the Soviet Communist Party loosened its rigid totalitarian grip within the USSR, it tried to compensate for this by increasing its use of defamatory disinformation against its domestic adversaries, including Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Lithuanian president Vytautas Landsbergis, and other democratic and nationalist opponents of the Soviet Communist Party.

During this period, both at home and abroad, the Soviets placed an increasing reliance on active measures themes that were often very conciliatory, although many also appear to have been disingenuous. For example, in late 1988, the Soviets launched a major active measures campaign designed to create a benign, and false, image of the KGB.

In 1990 and 1991, the Soviets spread alarmist active measures themes energetically, as they attempted to turn to their advantage Western fears about the dangers of a break-up of the USSR. According to a recent defector who circulated active measures for the KGB during this period, the Soviet authorities deliberately sought to influence Western policy by encouraging the belief that if Gorbachev were to lose power or the USSR were to break up, this would lead to the creation of "aggressive republics with uncontrolled access to nuclear weapons."

Also in 1990 and 1991, the Soviet authorities set up an elaborate montage of internal front groups that posed as democratic parties, known as the "Centrist Bloc," led by the so-called Liberal Democratic Party - which was neither liberal nor democratic. In late 1990, the Soviet government floated the idea of forming a coalition government with these bogus parties. They, in turn, formed a National Salvation Committee, called for political parties to be banned, and urged that a state of emergency be imposed in the USSR. This elaborate charade was presumably designed so that the Soviet authorities could appear to be bowing to supposedly popular, "democratic" pressure in imposing a state of emergency. This scheme was partially implemented in the Baltics in January 1991, but soon abandoned. It was resurrected in August 1991 in the form of the abortive hard-line coup, which the Liberal Democratic Party wholeheartedly supported.

But the most pervasive type of active measure during the "post-Cold War" era was exemplified by the conciliatory slogans of "new political thinking." The Soviet "new thinkers" devised 25 to 30 conciliatory slogans with broad, popular appeal, including defense conversion, non-offensive defense, ecological security, the rule of law, a non-nuclear world, eliminating the enemy image, the Common European Home, and a host of others.

The Soviet thinking behind the adoption of "new thinking" was counterintuitive to Westerners. According to the Soviets, Western economic superiority, rearmament, and the specter of a Strategic Defense Initiative with which they could not compete forced them in the mid 1980s to abandon their decades-long effort to gain military superiority over the West. Rather than abandon their ambitious goals in the world arena, however, they made the desperate but audacious decision to try to achieve them by conciliatory, political means rather than the predominately military, confrontational methods of the past. They designed an international strategy based, as Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze put it, on the "force of politics" rather than the "politics of force."

Soviet active measures and propaganda specialists, elevated to new prominence and power within the USSR, creatively devised the supra-Marxist ideology of "new political thinking," which sought to use the worldwide appeal of "all-human" values and concerns as a vehicle for achieving Soviet leadership internationally. The Soviets designed political campaigns centered around "all-human" fears about nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, and the collapse of the world economy, and used the immense resources of the Soviet active measures apparatus to propagate these themes worldwide.

Whereas Marxist "old thinking" was, in many ways, the politics of confrontation and envy, with its central paradigm the struggle of the economically oppressed versus their oppressors, "new thinking" relied much more heavily on both the politics of conciliation and what might be called the politics of hysteria as its motive forces. The old Soviet ideology had spoken powerfully to the "have-nots" of the world; the new ideology sought, in addition, to play on both the highest hopes and the most worrisome concerns of the "haves."

But the dramatically improved image that the embrace of the conciliatory principles of "new thinking" won for the USSR on the international scene came at a fatally high price. By mid 1990, the grand strategy of the "new thinkers" stood in disarray after the communist regimes in Eastern Europe had collapsed and a supposedly "renewed" Soviet Communist Party had failed to gain the sympathies of citizens voting for the first time in free elections in the USSR. Following this fiasco, traditional communist hard-liners regained their ascendancy in the Soviet hierarchy from the fall of 1990 to the spring of 1991. Allied with Gorbachev, they tried to turn the clock back and reimpose old totalitarian methods. Crude, anti-American disinformation made a partial resurgence as the conciliatory slogans of "new thinking" disappeared from the Soviet political scene.

In the spring of 1991, Gorbachev turned back to the policy of "new thinking." The hard-liners then made a last-ditch, abortive attempt to seize power in August 1991, apparently hoping that Gorbachev would join them, as he had one year earlier.

Following the collapse of the August coup and the subsequent disintegration of the USSR, various groups and states contending for power in the Commonwealth of Independent States continue to use active measures and disinformation techniques in their efforts to achieve their political aims. The formidable Soviet active measures and disinformation apparatus, which manipulated world opinion for decades, has disintegrated. The integrity of its system has been shattered, and many formerly hidden pieces now lie revealed for examination. But many large fragments of the Soviet active measures apparatus continue to exist and function, for the most part now under Russian rather than Soviet sponsorship.

The Soviet Communist Party created what was, in all likelihood, the most formidable political influence machine in the modern world. Although the Soviets had the disadvantage of "selling" an enormously unpopular "product," they evolved a great deal of manipulative and deceptive techniques to try to compensate for this disadvantage. A close examination of how they sought to influence foreign publics and governments by orchestrating and spreading carefully selected information, disinformation, and a variety of crude, sophisticated, derogatory, conciliatory, and alarmist arguments and slogans contains important lessons for the future in understanding how other totalitarian and extremist regimes conduct active measures, and how some groups and states within the Commonwealth of Independent States continue to try to achieve political influence using these methods.

Communist countries such as Cuba and North Korea have their own active measures and disinformation apparatuses. States or groups that have been trained by the Soviets, such as Iraq and the Palestine Liberation organization use these techniques in their foreign policy endeavors. Highly ideological, anti-Western regimes such as Iran and Libya have elaborated their own front group structures and actively spread anti-Western disinformation. Various communist parties around the world continue to use these techniques. According to the April 21, 1992 New York Times, a recent Chinese government document speaks of the need for "prudent and active measures ... so that bilateral [U.S.-Chinese) relations develop in a way that will help us."

Finally, this report tries to make it clear that manipulative actions by foreign governments do not have to be overtly anti-American in order to be inimical to U.S. interests. Conciliatory and alarmist themes can be very damaging to the United States, if they cause the U.S. government to take actions that work to its detriment and which it would not otherwise have taken if it had not been the target of distorted or false messages systematically propagated by a foreign government for a political, economic, military or related purpose.

Given the fact that a number of states continue to engage in manipulative active measures campaigns directed at the United States, the United States Information Agency (USIA) continues to monitor, analyze, and counter foreign efforts in this area. USIA continues to flexibly reallocate its resources devoted to this mission in order to meet shifting demands. As long as states and groups interested in manipulating world opinion, limiting U.S. government actions, or generating opposition to U.S. policies and interests continue to use these techniques, there will be a need for the United States Information Agency to systematically monitor, analyze, and counter them.


The Soviet union, or rather the totalitarian communist system that once kept 300 million people in harness and toyed with the maniacal idea of a world revolution, has ceased to exist.

Commentator Yuri Solton
Radio Moscow
December 30, 1991

We are leaving behind a totalitarian regime, the most powerful totalitarian regime in the world, which had relied not only on political tools, exploiting the monopoly position of one party, which was the nucleus of its power, but also on totalitarian domination of state property. You realize what a monster it was!

Mikhail Gorbachev
address at the Sorbonne, Paris
April 22, 1992

Another group of documents make a terrible impression. They're to do with the creators of the new thinking: When you read what they were writing in the papers on one hand, and what kind of secret instructions they were handing on, for example, how to spread propaganda against the Americans, in all types of international dealings, financing of, among others, various terrorist organizations even though we had diplomatic relations with the states in question. These dual standards were obviously an attempt to achieve the impossible.

Rudolf Pikhoya
Russian official in charge of
Soviet Communist Party archives
June 5, 1992


FORWARD Forward to "The Role of Active Measures in Soviet Foreign Policy"
BACK Return to "Soviet Active Measures in the Post-Cold War Era" Table of Contents