A Day Inside Putin’s Surreal Television Empire

Foreign Policy, 28.05.2023
Anastasia Edel, historiadora social y escritora
How the nonstop blare of Russian state media fuels the war effort—and blurs reality.

If there’s one part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic toolkit that has lived up to its prewar hype, it is the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Propaganda is the proverbial carrot in the ocean of sticks that is modern Russia, responsible for co-opting the public into the state’s war agenda. Every day, 82 million Russians tune into a vast web of state-controlled network and cable television channels that feeds them a uniform vision of the world: a hostile, scary place, in which Russia wages a righteous battle against the forces of evil.

Putin didn’t invent propaganda. As a citizen of the now-defunct Soviet Union, I was born into a land of make-believe created for me and millions of other Soviets by the propaganda bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. According to our television sets, my fellow citizens and I lived in the most advanced, peace-loving, and just country in the world, constantly fending off attacks at the hands of imperialist forces. Listening to songs that cried out against the impending nuclear war, or watching broadcasts of U.S. police forces dispersing peace demonstrations with tear gas, I wondered why Americans were so bent on destroying our way of life.

The collapse of the totalitarian state removed these propaganda blinders and revealed the world it had conjured for what it was: a fantasy. But the Soviet-era mechanisms of manipulation—and the Russians’ propensity to fall for it—are even stronger today. In survey after survey, public support for Putin and his war on Ukraine remains high, thanks in part to the consensus manufactured by pro-Kremlin television programming.

Last month, I put on these blinders again and tuned in to experience what an average Russian might consume in just one day. The results were disturbing.

Television, not the internet, remains the dominant news medium in Russia. The average Russian consumes around four hours daily. In absolute terms, these numbers are not unique: Americans watch more. What is unique, even from Soviet times, is that every channel and every program, from news broadcasts to music competitions, transmit the Kremlin’s narrative, 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

The day’s agenda is set by the 5 a.m. newscast. On a Friday morning in April, the main story on Channel One, the Russian Federation’s oldest and most influential channel, is “battling Ukrainian Nazis” near Bakhmut. This is followed by reports on French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Turkey; and the Orthodox holiday of Annunciation. This lineup is repeated, with minor variations, every 30 minutes during the three-hour morning show, with news from the front interspersed with folksy advice on how to extract birch juice or make a mouse trap from household supplies. Even the weather forecast contributes what it can by listing occupied Ukrainian cities as part of Russian territory.

On Channel One, news—and programs discussing the news—amount to roughly eight hours of daytime broadcasting. It should come as no surprise that the lion’s share of this time is dedicated to coverage of Russia’s “special military operation,” the Kremlin’s euphemism for its grisly war on Ukraine.

As the day unfolds, news programs grow longer, adding stories in a crescendo until they reach their 9 p.m. catharsis: Vremya, or “Time.” A relic of my Soviet youth, the show is tasked with presenting domestic and international happenings through an ideologically correct lens.

Any pretenses of objectivity have been abandoned. Each segment tops the previous in its cynicism and bigotry.

Times, however, have changed. Though it remains one of Russia’s most popular news programs, Vremya’s smirking host is a far cry from the solemn-faced Soviet anchors of yesteryear. Any pretenses of objectivity have been abandoned. A segment on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks on the Ukrainian counteroffensive is accompanied by a cartoon image of Uncle Sam pulling the Ukrainian president by puppet strings under the headline “Tamed murderers.” Each segment tops the previous in its cynicism and bigotry. One of the stories is an investigation of crimes against humanity in Mariupol—that is, the host alleges, crimes committed by Ukraine.

Outside of news broadcasts, war is mulled over for the public in a steady flow of political and social talk shows. On the giant studio screens that serve as a backdrop for hosts and their expert guests, war is presented as an endless horror show unleashed by bestial Ukrainians. Blood pours in rivers, women wail, and shell-shocked grandmas thank Russian soldiers in shaky voices, while the anchors and their guests exude righteous anger. Yet, in their words, war is also a “blessed deed.” It’s the “legacy of our grandfathers”—one of many incessant hijackings of Russian memory of World War II for the current war’s ends. For those less attuned to their “sacred duty,” war is portrayed as a job, where tasks of murdering Ukrainians are described as being “finalized,” “advanced,” or “completed.” They frame the violence as inevitable and mundane, absolving the viewers’ minds of any friction or guilt toward the crimes committed in their name.

Elsewhere in the day’s digest, war is sold and humanized through an assortment of recurring characters that fall into one of two camps: “us” or “them.” The “us” (nashi) is led by the “heroes”— Putin’s soldiers. These “heirs to the Red Army warriors” are always tall, often blue-eyed, or at least with beards of light hues. When they aren’t fighting Nazis, they relax in clean, warm barracks and read support letters from Russian schoolchildren. Their health is attended to by beautiful field nurses with curled bangs and meticulously applied makeup, even on the front lines. That might not look believable to anyone who has seen real war, but Russians “have their own way” of doing business, the people on the screen assure. Elsewhere in the day’s lineup, talking heads coo, “We are different.”

Then there are the villains. The word “Ukrainian” is never used on its own, only with appendages like “Nazis,” “satanists,” “terrorists,” “murderers,” “godless,” “fascists,” “radicals.” In this reality, Ukrainians are not even real people—they’re “Russians with broken brains,” worthless creatures with no agency whose puppet strings are pulled by the United States. The Americans merit their own dose of vitriol. No longer the worthy opponents of the Cold War era, Americans—or rather, “Anglo-Saxes”—are “slow-witted,” “hegemonic,” and “chaotic.” In their quest to destroy Russia, they exploit emasculated European leaders, whose main interests are pandering to the gay agenda and enslaving their respective states to the European Union.

The share of foreign coverage in domestic broadcasts is astounding: Romanian farmers protesting Ukrainian grain imports, Parisians burning their president’s favorite restaurant, British parents decrying body positivity lessons taught by naked people. And, if that weren’t enough, U.S. intelligence is allegedly plotting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s overthrow, according to the anchors on the screen. The turmoil is constant and visceral. By painting a terrifying vision of the Western world, these stories lead to the inevitable conclusion that what little good is left must therefore come from the East. Led by its “wise,” “brilliant,” and “mighty” president, Xi Jinping, China is lauded in this coverage for extending Russia a helping hand, as are other “friendly” countries such as Iran, Syria, Burkina Faso, or Belarus. Russia isn’t isolated, the anchors who used to spend their holidays in the hellish France or Switzerland insist. It’s anything but. They also deliver a standing and attractive invitation for other countries to join a new coalition founded on illiberalism, traditionalism, and anti-Americanism, whose twin capitals, Moscow and Beijing, are shaping the now-multipolar world.

Against this foreign focus, domestic stories feel like an afterthought, merely a way to showcase the Russian president’s omniscience. There’s Putin meeting with the minister of health to discuss advances in Russian health care; Putin ordering his government to help returning “special military operation participants” with employment and housing; Putin visiting a Tula railroad plant to discuss successfully replacing Western machinery with superior domestic masterpieces.

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