The Return of Soviet Media
The speed and domestic impunity with which the dictator Vladimir Putin is sovietizing the Russian media is truly breathtaking. Last week it seemed as if Russians woke up in a whole new country, but one which they recognized only too well: the USSR. With every day that passes, ordinary Russians are more and more cut off from basic facts about the world, just as they were in Soviet times. And more and more an international laughingstock.
First there was the reporting by Russian television on the crisis in Ukraine. All of the major broadcast TV networks are state-controlled in Russia, and the lies they told about the massive protests were amazingly bold. The Kremlin strongly opposes Ukraine joining the European Union, preferring to keep Ukraine firmly under its thumb, and has been putting extreme pressure on the Ukrainian government to spurn Europe. But hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians prefer association with the much more potent economy of Europe and access to the far larger European market. And they've shown their commitment with gigantic, earth-shaking public demonstrations. They've seized total control over the capital city's main square and occupied many of the government's buildings. And the momentum is clearly with them.
But you wouldn't know about them if you got your news from Russian mainstream TV, which grossly distorted the facts to an unrecognizable and neo-Soviet extent. At one point, one of the Ukrainian reporters confronted one of the Russian state TV broadcasters while he was live on the air, and presented him with a special Oscar figurine for his network's "performance." Instead of reporting that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians had gathered in Kiev, as was the case, Russian TV told its viewers there were just a few hundred. Again and again, with no proof at all, Russian TV reported that the demonstrators had been bought and paid for by Russia's enemies in the West.
If Ted Koppel were a KKK bigwig and "Nightline" were government-operated, Dmitry Kiselyov would be Russia's Koppel. Kiselyov reported that the two main opposition leaders in Ukraine, including champion boxer Vitali Klitschko, were homosexuals. He claimed the protesters "ate nothing but warm lard" and he accused Sweden, which supported the protesters along with the rest of Europe, of teaching its kids to have sex at the age of nine.
Kiselyov was rewarded by watching the state-controlled newswire service RIA Novosti, the last vestige of somewhat moderate journalism within the Kremlin's umbrella, shut down and combined with the Kremlin's Voice of Russia propaganda service in a new political enterprise to be called Rossiya Segodnya and headed by Kiselyov himself. The Kremlin's message, that RIA had failed to sufficiently toe its line and spent too much time telling the truth, was unmistakable.
As the Economist puts it, Russian state TV, which Kiselyov charging at the lead and looking like "a caricature of a Soviet propagandist," has been "churning out propaganda" lately to an extent that "would have made Soviet predecessors blush." The magazine shows how Kiselyov "reversed and twisted the order of events" in Ukraine, lying to and deluding his fellow citizens to keep them mired in neo-Soviet darkness.
Anna Kachkayeva, dean of media and communications at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, called Kiselyov's appointment "odious" and warned it signals a return to the "Soviet and propagandistic past."
Other examples of neo-Sovietization are coming fast and furious.
In what may turn out to be a clear sign of the coming Russian apocalypse, Putin appointed a man named Oleg Plokhoi as Russia's new corruption czar. Not only does Plokhoi's last name mean "bad" in Russian, within hours it was being reported that Plokhoi, like Putin himself, had shamelessly plagiarized his master's thesis.
If you tune in to Russia Today, the Kremlin's English-language propaganda TV network, you see exactly the same kind of America-bashing that you saw from the USSR. American companies like Walmart are trashed, American values are smeared, and those who work against the American way of life are glorified.
Just as in Soviet times, the outside world was immediately convulsed with alternating fits of laughter and horror watching this barbaric pseudo-journalism play out. Twitter overflowed with simultaneous refutations, jeering and mocking as the demonstrators took total control of downtown Kiev, blockading the central square and all the government buildings connected to it. But in Russia, the Internet offers no such counterbalance.
In the first place, half the country lacks Internet access due to poverty and poor infrastructure. In the second, Putin is engaged in a furious crackdown on the Internet.
Columnist Victor Davidoff reports how the Kremlin is claiming the crackdown is necessary to protect innocent children, and the appalling lengths it is prepared to go to: "Schoolchildren in the city of Krasnodar will not be able to watch a puppet theater performance of Mozart's opera 'The Magic Flute' this year. Bureaucrats at the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service put an 18+ label on the show. The reason: In the opera, one of the heroines wants to kill herself." There are also operas were a hero dreams of freedom. Perhaps these will be the next to be banned by Putin.
In one of its last reports, RIA Novosti revealed the Kremlin's plans to censor other major pieces of world culture, such as Michelangelo's David and the Venus de Milo. Using this pretext, the Kremlin has authorized itself to ban "offensive" websites at will. And already, Davidoff notes, opposition political party material is being swept up in the Kremlin's net: "Among the banned blogs is a site that has a flyer written by [leading opposition leader] Alexei Navalny calling the United Russia party 'the party of crooks and thieves.' The worsening relations with Ukraine also found reflection on the list. A number of books and historical sites documenting Ukrainians' battle for independence from Russia are now banned."
For a vivid example of what can happen when a nation is cut off from real information, look at Kazakhstan, one of the few countries willing to join a Russian trade alliance rather than the EU. The daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev recently announced that she believes disabled children are born because their parents engaged in "premature sex." She said that normal children should be taken to see disabled children as if to a zoo and warned what will happen to them if they have sex too early.
Or look at Putin. He recently announced with a straight face, as if he was sure the world would believe him, that Russia isn't a superpower because it doesn't want to be one, it thinks seeking that kind of influence in the world would be immoral. The Georgians who faced Russian tanks and the Ukrainians who faced freezing homes due to Russia cutting of their heating oil and the Estonians who faced Russian cyber attacks will likely find this comment pretty dumbfounding. As will Americans who watch Russia massively increasing military spending in a Soviet manner and providing all manner of aid and comfort to American foes from Cuba to Hizb'allah.
The inevitable cold war in response to these outrageous efforts to turn the clock back in Russia has already begun, and Germany has taken a leading role.
The President of Germany announced that he would boycott the Winter Olympics next year in Sochi, Russia, because of Putin's litany of human rights violations. Simultaneously, a German-made documentary exposing the egregious corruption, human rights abuses, and environmental harm being caused by the Sochi build-out was released around the world and even leveraged into a few Russian theaters. German opposition is particularly bitter for Putin, since he spent so much time courting Germans while serving as KGB staffer in East Berlin.
Many leaders of EU nations have rallied to the demonstrators' cause in Ukraine, directly warning Russia not to support a crackdown by the Ukrainian regime, forcing Russia to back down and the regime to seek the bargaining table. And even the Obama administration has gotten into the act, spurning Russian pressure to abandon the U.S. missile shield plans in Eastern Europe in light of the purported deal with Iran on nuclear weapons capability.
Late on the evening of December 10th, when many protesters had gone to bed for the night, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich sent legions of storm troopers into Maidan with instructions to sweep it clean. They failed miserably, as thousands of patriots rushed back to the square and repulsed the invaders. As the sun rose, Yanukovich's goons were licking their wounds and retreating; the demonstrators still held the square and the key administrative buildings and were energetically reconstructing what the regime had damaged under cover of darkness. After that, Yanukovich tried to produce his own demonstration of support, mostly by paying for demonstrators, but this soon fell flat as well.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and European Commission Vice President Catherine Ashton both appeared in Maidan to support the demonstrators (Nuland handed out sandwiches) and to warn Yanukovich (and Putin) not to resort to thuggish violence against them. It was almost as if a new Ukrainian Republic were winning diplomatic recognition from the leading powers of the world right under Yanukovich's nose, and he was utterly powerless to stop it. They were followed by a rousing visit from Senator John McCain.
But the hapless citizens of Russia remained in the dark even as the beacon light of hope glowed brightly in Ukraine. Just as in Soviet times, the Russians languished in state-imposed ignorance, oblivious of events in the outside world and equally oblivious of their own government's missteps and failures. Russians are watching their government send a clear and unmistakable signal to Europe and the U.S. that Russia will pursue the politics of a new cold war, yet they are even more ill-equipped to prevail than they were in Soviet times.