MOSCOW — As the war in Ukraine nears the nine-month mark, Western governments have repeatedly accused Russia of imperialist expansionism, nuclear blackmail, arming for food, energy and winter — and a host of other hostilities that threaten the well-being of millions .
But there is an increasingly common counter-narrative in Moscow that argues that the West intends to subject the masses to misery instead.
Welcome to the “golden billion”.
The Golden Billion, an idea that first emerged in the Soviet Union’s twilight years, is a conspiracy theory that posits that a cabal of 1 billion global elites are trying to hoard the world’s wealth and resources, leaving the rest of the planet suffering and starve.
A fringe theory in Russia for years, the idea is increasingly being championed by President Vladimir Putin and other senior Kremlin officials as a line of attack against the West amid a breakdown in relations over the conflict in Ukraine.
“The model of total domination of the so-called golden billion is unfair. Why should this golden billion earth rule over everyone and impose their own code of conduct?” Putin asked in a speech last July.
Putin went on to describe the alleged conspiracy as “racist and neocolonial in nature” – a way for the West to divide the world into superior and “second-rate” nations.
The Kremlin is dusting off an old conspiracy
Theories – and conspiracies – about economic inequality and cut-throat competition for global wealth and resources are nothing new.
But analysts say the Kremlin has increasingly exploited the golden billion theory to deflect the notion of Russia as isolated and alone amid what Moscow is calling its “military special operation” in Ukraine.
Rather than international condemnation of Russia for its actions in Ukraine, the theory seeks to place Moscow at the center of a global majority resentful of Western liberal values and political and economic dominance. Notwithstanding that Russia considers itself a global superpower and is regularly accused of using its own energy resources as a foreign policy sledgehammer.
“This narrative is very practical,” says Ilya Yablokov, author of Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet Worldin an interview with NPR.
Yablokov says history allows Russia to present itself as the leader of the “counter-elite.”
“It says that we give a voice to the powerless around the world because we fight for them,” he says.
A theory for hard times
The golden billion first appears to have become known to the general public in a 1990 article by publicist Anatoly Tsikunov – writing under the pseudonym A. Kuzmich “Global leadership’s plans to enslave Russia.”
Kuzmich argued that, faced with projections of dwindling global supplies and the demise of the USSR, Western elites were staring hungrily at the Soviet Union’s vast natural resources—its gas, oil, and forests.
The concept of the world’s resources benefiting a select group of a billion people gained further support from conservative Russian writer Sergei Kara-Murza, who used it to explain why post-Soviet Russia under then-President Boris Yeltsin kept playing the global economic game lost.
Referring to traditional anti-Semitic screeds, he wrote in an essay in 1999:
“As for Russia, there are many indications that this part of the global elite, which determines economic and military policy and controls the mass media, will under no circumstances count the people of Russia among those who have a chance of getting into the lifeboat of… Russia to rise the golden billion.”
Yeltsin’s then prime minister, a 48-year-old former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin, took over the presidency after Yeltsin’s resignation later that same year.
Putin checked the golden billion for his name early on
President Putin has long expressed his resentment at the collapse of the Soviet Union and what he sees as the West’s exploitation of Russia’s weakness in the years that followed.
Similarly, many Russians have adopted an oft-repeated Kremlin narrative that Russia under Putin has moved past past humiliations and is finally “rising from its knees.”
But the Russian head of state was also interested in the theory of the golden billion early on.
Speaking at an Asia-Pacific economic summit in 2000, just months into his first term, Putin argued that global development was “roughly divided into North and South, between the so-called golden billion and the rest of humanity.”
Over two decades later, Putin has deepened his acceptance of the theory to stir up anger over sensitive issues like vaccine access and cultural politics.
He’s now broadened that pitch to accuse the West of imposing “abandon culture,” LGBT rights, and gender fluidity on a world raised on “traditional values.”
“If Western elites think they can inculcate in the minds of their people, in their societies, some weird but trendy tendencies like dozens of gay pride marches, then so be it,” Putin said in a foreign policy address last month. “Let them do what they want, but they certainly have no right to demand that others do the same.”
The message: There are more of us than of you.
Even Russia’s recent threats to abandon a United Nations-brokered deal to allow Ukrainian and Russian grain and other agricultural commodities to be exported through the Black Sea fall within this populist framework.
Russia last week agreed to extend the export deal, but Putin and other Russian officials have repeatedly argued that it allows Western nations to hoard Ukrainian grain while preventing Russian agricultural exports from reaching the world’s poorest communities. The UN disagrees that the first shipments were part of trade deals that helped lower global food prices and also worked to ease supplies to those most in need.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior Carnegie Foundation for International Peace Russia fellow, says he doubts Putin’s conspiratorial messages carry too far beyond Kremlin faithful.
But he acknowledges that the golden billion is – at its core – an appeal to new followers, wherever they may be.
“First of all, it is aimed at the internal audience. But it also works with the Global South and Asia, where Putin is trying to recruit supporters,” Kolesnikov told NPR.
“This is how great masses of people are indoctrinated.”