Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s debut trailer—which has already attracted controversy—gives a lot of airtime to Soviet defector Yuri Bezmenov and his views. Views which have, in recent years, become a dangerous rallying cry for far-right conspiracy theories and the people who peddle them.
The teaser, which was released last week to hype up the more recent reveal, intersperses stock footage of major world events with a 1984 interview of Bezmenov, who claimed to have been an informant for the KGB before defecting to the United States. During the interview, he describes the Soviet Union’s alleged use of “active measures” that, in theory, are meant to destabilize opponents without direct military conflict by way of changing a society’s power structure and economy. In short, Bezmenov’s suggestion in the full interview is that extending equality to the United States’ non-white, non-male population made it ripe for Soviet invasion.
The official Call of Duty trailer refers to Bezmenov’s claims as a “chilling warning,” and implores viewers to “know your history,” which sure feels like a tacit endorsement of the man’s deeply flawed ideology.
The person interviewing Bezmenov in the footage is far-right conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin, who has since made a name for himself in HIV/AIDS denialism and alt-right recruitment. As a member of the John Birch Society, a famously anti-Communist organization focused on establishing a more conservative government in the United States, it makes sense that Griffin would peddle Bezmenov’s claims about Soviet interference by way of social progress without any critical analysis. In the Call of Duty trailer, Activision presents Bezmenov’s words bereft of this important context.
As the name suggests, Black Ops Cold War deals with the decades-long struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, which engaged in various forms of political and proxy warfare as the globe’s prevailing superpowers after World War II. While Bezmenov’s warnings seem like obvious fodder for amping up that conflict in the game, his appearance in the game’s advertisement has functioned as a sort of dog whistle to legions of reactionaries who consider attempts at establishing social equity to be proof of a far-right conspiracy theory known as “Cultural Marxism.”
Cultural Marxism is a modern spin on the notion of “Cultural Bolshevism,” which was a tactic used by the early Nazi party in Germany to discredit supposed dissidents—usually among the Jewish population, as was its wont—as dangers to so-called “traditional values.” In this way, diversity and societal growth away from prejudice were treated as divisive and insidious, clearing a path for the country’s eventual acceptance of Nazism. The falsehood of Cultural Marxism has been used ever since to embolden a growing white nationalist movement in blaming society’s ills on the fictitious boogeymen of marginalized populations, rather than the people in power who actually exploit the world and its most vulnerable inhabitants.
“White nationalism is a variegated movement, but most groups see the future of white America as threatened by the liberalizing forces of Cultural Marxism,” write Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, and Kevin Hicks, professor of English at Alabama State University, in Hate Crimes, Volume 1. “Ultimately, this [...] has come to embody [...] feminists, homosexuals, secular humanists, multiculturalists, sex educators, environmentalists, immigrants, and black nationalists.”
The term more recently gained popularity in gaming circles thanks to (what else) GamerGate. The specter of Cultural Marxism is routinely conjured to decry anything that doesn’t adhere to the straight, white, cis male perspective that has dominated the video game industry for decades, such as the introduction of playable female characters in Battlefield V and LGBTQ+ representation in The Last of Us Part II. Seeing Bezmenov promoted by Call of Duty in such an uncritical way feels like a winking acknowledgement of those bullshit complaints.
While never invoking Cultural Marxism by name, Bezmenov’s warnings ran parallel to its core tenets. In his various lectures and interviews, Bezmenov said that any attempt to establish social equity for women, for Black folks, or for the LGBTQ+ community in the United States was merely a Soviet ploy to weaken American society from within. He frequently criticized leftists, feminists, and those involved in the equal rights and anti-war movements as “useful idiots,” or pawns whose demands were an opening for the Soviet Union to destabilize the United States. That term was used in the very same interview from which Activision pulled footage for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War but, again, the trailer glosses over that part of the discussion.
While everyone has been happy to share the Black Ops Cold War video far and wide purely as a piece of marketing, the implications of Bezmenov’s appearance haven’t been lost on far-right figures like Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin, a popular anti-feminist YouTuber who, during his failed attempt at getting elected to the parliament of the European Union, joked about raping a British politician. In an August 20 video entitled, “The New Call of Duty Game Mainstreams Yuri Bezmenov,” Benjamin is absolutely giddy about the prospect of impressionable viewers being taken in by Bezmenov’s Cultural Marxism-adjacent ideology.
“This is the overall plan that Yuri Bezmenov gives us for ideological subversion,” Benjamin says while ranting about anti-police brutality demonstrations and worker unions. “Really, there is no such thing as equality, as Yuri points out in his lectures. Equality is [...] a ridiculous goal.”
“We actually have to thank the makers of Call of Duty for popularizing Yuri Bezmenov to the normies,” Benjamin adds later. “This is wonderful. It’s important to have people listen to the things he’s saying.”
It’s not clear what role, if any, Bezmenov plays in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. The ideology he espouses in the trailer might actually serve as the game’s antagonistic force. Who knows! Whatever the case may be, it’s irresponsible for the developers to disseminate his ideas without context, especially by way of a game that is already popular among impressionable adolescents and disaffected men with far-right tendencies like Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who murdered 77 people, many of them children, to “save Norway [...] from Cultural Marxism.”
That’s not to say that Call of Duty publisher Activision is free of these kinds of gaffes, intentional or not. This is the same series that, for example, hired Oliver North as an advisor on 2012’s Black Ops II. North, formerly a Fox News host and president of the National Rifle Association, is a controversial figure in American politics. He earned the national spotlight in 1986 as a key figure in the Iran-Contra affair, which saw the United States covertly sell weapons to Iran in order to fund right-wing death squads in Nicaragua as a way of destabilizing that country’s elected socialist government. North also made a cameo appearance in the game itself. When interviewed by Kotaku in 2012, Black Ops II’s developers hand-waved away concerns about North’s involvement.
More recently, 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare courted controversy by attributing its fictionalized version of the very real “Highway of Death” massacre—during which an American-lead coalition bombed a convoy of retreating soldiers and civilian refugees in 1991’s first Gulf War—to the game’s Russian antagonists. These instances show that Call of Duty is no stranger to flirting with far-right sentiments and even papering over American war crimes in an effort to present the United States as an idealized “good guy.” Black Ops Cold War and its promotion of the Cultural Marxism farce is just the latest in a string of decisions that are questionable at best and actively dangerous at worst.
There is no Jewish plot to destabilize America by burning bras or marching for equal rights. Our society won’t crumble because kids are told it’s okay to be gay. But in publicizing Bezmenov this way, with little criticism or scrutiny of the far-right sensibilities his nonsensical world view invigorates, Activision has given its fans a direct path to his philosophy while also leaving out crucial contextual details that explain its origins and the dangerous effects it has already had on the modern world.
At the time of writing, Benjamin’s video has over 146,000 views. His right-wing commenters, not to mention reactionaries who already understood the history behind the footage the Call of Duty trailer utilizes, are quite happy with the way in which Activision’s choice to uncritically feature Bezmenov in its advertising campaign has the potential to greatly expand the reach of both the Soviet defector’s ideology and the conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism.
“People who’ve never seen Yuri’s interview before thinks [sic] this is just a game,” one popular comment under IGN’s upload of the trailer reads. “But everything he said was an actual warning for what is happening now.”
Activision did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment.