The Putin Show

The Economist, 17.05.2022

How the war in Ukraine appears to Russians

When Vladimir Putin was first elected president of Russia in 2000, he changed little in the office he inherited from Boris Yeltsin. Yet in place of a pen on the desk, Mr Putin put a television remote control, one visitor noted. The new president would obsess over the media, spending the end of his days watching coverage of himself. One of his first moves was to bring under Kremlin control the country’s television networks, including ntv, an independent oligarch-owned channel, which had needled the new president with unflattering depictions of him as a dwarf in a satirical show called Kukly, or Puppets.

After more than two decades in power, today Mr Putin is the puppet master. The state controls the country’s television channels, newspapers and radio stations. The Kremlin gives editors and producers metodichki, or guidance on what to cover and how. As young audiences shift online, the Kremlin seeks to control the conversation there, leaning on social networks and news aggregators, blocking or undermining unco-operative digital media and flooding popular platforms, such as the messaging app Telegram, with state-approved content. Propaganda has long propped up Mr Putin's regime. Now it fuels his war machine.

Since the president announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24th, control over information has become even tighter. Censorship laws bar reporting that cites unofficial sources. Calling the war a “war” is a crime. Protesters are detained for holding signs that contain eight asterisks, the number of letters in the Russian for “no to war”. Many Western social networks and platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, have been banned or blocked. The last remaining influential independent media bastions have been pushed off air. Dozhd, an online tv station, has suspended its streams; Novaya Gazeta, a liberal newspaper whose editor recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, has halted publication; Echo Moskvy, a popular liberal radio station, no longer broadcasts from its longtime Moscow home on 91.2FM.

As Mr Putin’s regime shifts from a relatively open authoritarianism towards a more closed dictatorship, its propaganda is changing, too. Television hosts and guests present the “special military operation” as part of a grander conflict in defence of Russia. State media have long intoned about the West’s supposed intention to undermine Russia and Mr Putin’s efforts to protect the motherland. But where propaganda once sought mostly to breed passivity, cast doubt on reality and discourage political participation, it increasingly seeks to mobilise popular support for Mr Putin’s war, by convincing people that Russia is under attack and victory is the only way out. “The old rules of authoritarian life are breaking down, active participation is being demanded,” says Greg Yudin, a sociologist.

As in any country, the exact picture depends on the media you consume. For Russians with the desire and a bit of tech-savvy, unofficial information is still accessible. But those who follow the official news, as The Economist did on May 11th, see a world solely of the Kremlin’s making.

Here is a day in the life of a follower of The Putin Show :

8:00AM.- You wake in your flat in a new high-rise on the outskirts of Moscow. It is a grey day, overcast and chilly. Your ageing mother has left a copy of Izvestia, a popular conservative daily, on the kitchen table. Scanning the front page, you encounter familiar storylines: Ukrainian Nazis, Western machinations, Russian heroism.

11:30AM.- You scan your phone while at work at a medical clinic. The trending news tab on vk, Russia’s most popular social network, points you to a channel on the “situation around Ukraine”.

Soviet television news of the 1970s and 1980s was dull. Anchors read monotone khroniki (newsreels) from static studios. While Communist Party officials hoped to harness the medium to mobilise the people, the result was a sedative. Early in Mr Putin's reign, Russian television created a world where, as the author Peter Pomerantsev has described it, “nothing is true and everything is possible.” Such propaganda had a psychedelic effect, making viewers doubt they could ever be sure that anything they heard was true. Many dropped out of political life. The new wartime propaganda increasingly serves as a stimulant. “Now they need mobilisation, powerful support for an undertaking of this scale,” says Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think-tank.

State media had derided Western warnings of an impending invasion, and initially seemed stunned to learn of Mr Putin’s order. “Many thought it would all remain within the bounds of information warfare,” says Maria Borzunova, who hosted a show about official media on Dozhd, the online television station. Some journalists made dramatic exits, such as Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer from Channel One, Russia’s main television network, whose on-air protest made headlines in the West. Most kept the machine running, whether out of allegiance to the system, to colleagues or to loved ones. “I was disgusted,” says a journalist at a state-news agency. “In the days after [February] 24th, I constantly thought, ‘I need to leave’...but I have a family, a child and a mortgage.”

Early in the war reporting was triumphalist. Journalists implied the “special operation” would be concluded within days or weeks. Commentators questioned Ukraine’s statehood, warned of Nazis, accused the West of cultivating said Nazis and insisted the Ukrainian people were awaiting liberation. Many repeated one of Mr Putin’s first explanations for the invasion: if Russia had not made a preventive strike, it would have been attacked.

As the conflict has dragged on, the tone has become increasingly hysterical. While the fighting in Ukraine is still a “special military operation”, it is portrayed as but one front in a war with the West. Sanctions are proof of the West’s intention to bring down Russia. The memory of past traumas is evoked as evidence that Russia will weather any difficulties. Mr Putin is often referred to as supreme commander-in-chief, rather than his peacetime title of president. “They talk a lot about how they’re building the new world order, how this is their moment in history to end us hegemony,” says Francis Scarr, who tracks Russian media for the bbc monitoring service.

Atrocities occur, but as a mirror of what Western audiences see. Civilians in Bucha, a town north of Kyiv, were not massacred by Russian forces who briefly occupied the area, but by Ukrainian soldiers. Western secret services arranged the bodies on the roads for journalists to find. “Sometimes I have the sensation that we live on two different planets with the same objects,” says Zhanna Agalakova, a former correspondent for Channel One who quit in response to the war. Russian media “tell about a Mariupol where Russian tanks are met with flowers”. Western media “tell about a destroyed city and about people who walk streets filled with chunks of human bodies”.

Audiences are told that Russian troops have taken extra care to avoid civilian casualties, which is difficult because Ukrainian Nazis tend to hide in apartment blocks. Russian television uses this purported caution to explain why the operation is taking so long. If acknowledged at all, casualties are portrayed as heroes. The sinking of Russia's flagship Moskva cruiser on the Black Sea was explained as an accident unrelated to combat. It received only brief mentions in the official news.

In 2014 similar claims were used to try to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its initial invasion of eastern Ukraine. Yet at the time, “Nazism” was merely a threat to Russian-speakers in Ukraine. The current telling focuses on the threat to Russia itself. Russia’s existence as a nation, Russian history, Russian culture and the right to be Russian are under assault. Parallels with the Great Patriotic War tap into the memory of a righteous existential struggle against Nazism. Internal traitors are treated with contempt. Official media speak of cleansing the country, harking back to language employed during Stalin’s terror in the 1930s or during the campaign against “cosmopolitans” (read “Jews”) after the second world war. The rhetoric is laced with a new religiosity. Hosts evoke the idea of a holy war, telling viewers that God is on Russia’s side against the evil Western forces that encircle it.

6:00PM.- As you drive home, stuck in traffic along the Third Ring Road, you catch the news on the radio. As usual since February 24th, the special operation in Ukraine dominates.

9:00PM.- After dinner, you lounge in front of the television. You flip channels and land on a talk-show hosted by Vladimir Solovyov.

His monologue, delivered from a sleek studio, has a clear set of messages. The West seeks nothing less than Russia’s complete destruction, Mr Putin has the trust of the Russian people and it is time for you to show your support. You rise, but only to grab a beer from the fridge.

Mikhail Katsurin, a restaurant owner in Kyiv, woke to the sound of explosions on February 24th. A few days later, he called his father, who lives in a small town in Russia. “I called and said, ‘Dad, they started to bomb us, Russia invaded Ukraine,’” Mr Katsurin remembers. “He said, ‘No Misha, that’s all Ukrainian propaganda—in fact it’s a peaceful operation and Russian heroes are saving you from Nazism.”

Many Ukrainians and anti-war Russians have had similar experiences when talking to friends and family in Russia. Russians are watching more television news since the war began. Of the top ten most watched programmes in the first week of May, nine were news and current-events commentary, compared with just five a year earlier. Before the war, television viewing tended to correlate with higher ratings for Mr Putin.

Channel One has replaced entertainment with extra current events. News and political talk shows roll uninterrupted from morning to evening, save for a brief mid-morning health series. In place of daytime shows are programmes like “Anti-Fake”, where panellists dismantle Western “disinformation”. Popular state television hosts, such as Vladimir Solovyov, a noxious hawk, preside over mini multimedia empires that extend through social media and radio.

Opinion polls show widespread support for the special military operation, as high as 80%. But the numbers are suspect. “Public opinion presupposes the existence of a public sphere, but that has been destroyed in Russia,” argues Mr Yudin, the sociologist. Rather than being tools to measure preferences, polls have become a means of control. Open discussion of the war is all but impossible. “There is the sense that something is happening that we can’t talk about, because we need to hang onto our sense of normality,” says Mr Yudin. “It’s as if a dead man is lying there, but we can’t talk about it.”

Despite the propaganda machine’s efforts, Russians are not ready to sacrifice themselves en masse. There have been reports of soldiers refusing to go to the front; two teenagers were arrested earlier this month for throwing Molotov cocktails at a military recruitment office, one of nine such incidents since the war began, according to Novaya Gazeta Europe, a reconstituted version of the storied Russian paper that was forced to shut. The Kremlin has so far refrained from declaring the war a war and calling for full-scale mobilisation and a draft—officials know it would be unpopular. “They say, ‘For Russia, for victory’—but what is victory?” asks Mr Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Russians can still access unofficial information. YouTube has not been banned. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team draws large audiences there; many hosts from Echo Moskvy, the popular liberal radio station, now broadcast on the site. Telegram has channels of every political stripe. Even banned sites can be accessed with the help of virtual private networks (vpn). Russian downloads of the ten most popular surged to 700,000 a day in the month after the war began, compared with an average of 16,000 a day before, according to Appfigures, a data firm. “Modern people with gadgets have the ability to watch and read anything,” says Mr Kolesnikov.

Yet the bans have had an effect. Before the war, around 30% of Russians used Instagram each day. The share had fallen to just 10% by late April, according to Mediascope, a research firm. Before the war, Echo Moskvy had a national audience of 3m. Its reincarnation on YouTube has just 550,000 followers. Many Russians, especially older ones, do not have the means or skills to use vpns, and Western sanctions have made paying for them tricky, too. Plenty more consume official information by choice.

Misinformation, and not only Mr Putin's, exploits quirks of the human mind. People tend to believe stories that reinforce their existing beliefs, a process known as ‘motivated reasoning’. Mere repetition can also make information seem more believable. In today's Russia, those mechanisms are reinforced by violence and repression. Challenging or questioning the official narrative moves you out of your comfort zone and into jeopardy. “People don't want to watch [unofficial media], and if they watch it, they don't want to believe it,” says Mr Kolesnikov. “It is a psychological defence mechanism.”

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