COMMENTARY: How The Kremlin And The Media Ended Up In Bed Together

Editor’s note: This is the longest text ever published by The Moscow Times. We’ve decided to publish it because it describes in detail a key Russian narrative, of how the Kremlin rules the country with the help of the controlled media. It is a bitter story of how the Russian media, with very few exceptions, have abandoned, sometimes through coercion, but mostly voluntarily and even eagerly, their mission of informing the public and have turned into creators of the Matrix-like artificial reality where imaginary heroes and villains battle tooth and nail in Russia’s Armageddon.

After enjoying a brief interval of freedom, it seems that Russian media are now returning to the conditions of the late 1980s when editors stood outside the door of the censorship office waiting for approval to go to press.

However, the “new censorship” that has emerged in Russia is not merely a tool for controlling the media from the outside. The new censorship is like a cancerous tumor that attacks the not-so-healthy body of the media from the inside and supplants everything of value or vitality with diseased tissue.

Like communist propaganda, the principles of this new censorship draw on the Orwellian concept of “doublethink,” form the basis of state policy and, by definition, completely reject the idea of democracy.  

The president and senior officials now use the media as a tool for forming public opinion, forcing citizens to accept a false agenda in place of the real one.

The degradation of Russian media is evidenced by the fact that they implicitly agree to compromise themselves in this way. Many corporate or private media entities simply agree to these terms as a matter of survival, but a surprising number not only agree to the state’s manipulations but go one step further by offering creative ideas for advancing the Kremlin’s official line.

The new censorship significantly expands on the classic, encyclopedic definition of the term by permeating not only news and information services, but since the mid-2000s, actively interfering in the arts and academia as well.

Another important feature of Russian censorship is that it is not all-embracing, but permits alternative points of view and even criticisms of itself. However, any journalist or media outlet taking advantage of that opportunity is walking on a minefield.

The Censorship Toolkit

The most important tool of the new censorship is the state budget as a resource for determining which media thrive or survive.

Access to federal budgetary funds remains a key tool for creating a system whereby the authorities can manage media content and media outlets themselves. Those publications and individual journalists for whom survival or personal enrichment is of primary importance are vulnerable to manipulation by the granting or denial of state subsidies, benefits, increases or decreases in financing for state-controlled media and access to capital provided by oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin and Putin.

Managing the agenda. These practices include both “political briefings” in which chief editors of various media are called into the presidential administration, and telephone “hotlines” that directly connect the chief editors of key media outlets with the Kremlin. The presidential administration can make use of such methods as directly substituting material produced by its own staff for journalistic reports and manipulating the underlying fears of the masses or otherwise manipulating the emotions of media consumers.

The effective (for the media or their owners) building of a pseudo-reality. Whoever fashions the news agenda also receives the profit, financial or political.

The introduction of “plants” or “observers” from media outlet owners and directly from the presidential administration and other key government structures such as the FSB, the Investigative Committee, and even the Federal Drug Control Service. A degradation of editorial integrity is the inevitable byproduct of this practice.

The effective use of networks of staff informers. At the heart of the new censorship is a network of paid and voluntary informants. This “new” network — that arose on the basis of the new, post-party loyalty of key editors and journalists — is maintained with access to illicit money connected with journalism for bribes. Without exception, all of these “cooperative” (from the viewpoint of the Kremlin) editors and journalists involved in the scandalous practice of publishing outside material as their own editorial comments have, at the very least, aroused the suspicions of their colleagues.

Turning all news into a show. Those who understood the creation and reporting of news as “one more ratings-based entertainment product” played a role in creating and disseminating the government’s “false agenda,” and those who contributed most to its “artificial” content received rewards and encouragement.

In this way, leaders ensure that the Russian audience sees and hears — down to the smallest detail — only the picture of the world that the Kremlin wants it to see and hear.

The real issues have not disappeared, but it is forbidden to show that reality to the Russian people.

Centrality of Putin

The essence of the new censorship can be described as follows:

Russia — as Putin and his loyal (for now) lieutenants understand it — does not need an agenda based on real information.

To the contrary, the only necessary tool for managing Russia’s imperfect society is an artificially constructed agenda that is “imprinted” on society by television channels that are fully controlled by the state. Not only news and analytical programs serve as tools for applying this pressure, but also broadcasts of the arts and even entertainment.

A key element in this artificial agenda is an exaggerated role for the central character in Russia’s information milieu — the president of the Russian Federation.

For example, when Putin was once again experiencing strained relations with Moscow protestors in late May 2013, the main weekly program on Channel One, “Vremya,” ran 11 pieces on Putin’s various activities and only two covering other recent events. What’s more, every mention or depiction of Putin was not only positive but slavishly complimentary.

The new censorship does not only exclude real events from the agenda but replaces them with false messages designed to make viewers feel dependent on the main hero of the stories — Vladimir Putin.

That model did not change during the Ukrainian crisis.

Those broadcasts focused on the idea of “fascist Banderovite” Ukrainians and how they were teaming up with those who had “spawned” them in order to attack Russia or its interests. In any case, the propaganda had to assert that such a war had already almost begun.

This manufactured agenda reached a peak in early summer when Russia’s state-controlled television channels began portraying pro-Russian separatist leader Igor Girkin (aka Igor Strelkov) as “the savior of the Donbass Russians” and falsely reported that Ukrainian forces had crucified a young boy in Slavyansk.

These distortions of reality were no mere improvisations by presidential administration staff who were instructed to manage the news on Channel One or the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK). Senior officials undoubtedly issued clear instructions in this regard and much of the text broadcast on the Vesti television channel and “Vremya” news show and their websites have been introduced from above without any input from editors.

The primary characteristic of the new censorship is that it motivates so-called “journalists” to not only serve the Kremlin agenda but to creatively advance it.

The “crucified boy in Slavyansk” is just the most superficial example of that. A far more insidious and potentially dangerous phenomenon is the frequent and barely perceptible distortions to reports from previously neutral programs and writers.

For example, by simply inserting promo shorts for the forthcoming “Vremya” news show during the vastly popular primetime women’s talk show “Pust govoryat” (“Let Them Speak”), viewers without intention to watch the newscast are gradually infected and become carriers of the virus of lies and aggressiveness.

In this way, masses of television viewers become not only victims of deliberate manipulation, but also strong supporters of a policy of hatred directed toward Ukrainians whom they know only through state-controlled television reports.

This is a world that has been constructed especially for their consumption. It contains enemies and the one person who can effectively oppose them: Vladimir Putin. The greater their hatred for the enemy, the deeper is their love for Putin, and vice versa.

With this false agenda filling the airwaves so thoroughly and constantly, the average Russian cannot but respond to surveys with the conviction that Putin is the mainstay of his life.

That Bittersweet Word  — Freedom

Soviet media was first freed from censorship in August 1990 when printing houses stopped requiring publishers to present a stamp of approval from the Main Administration for Safeguarding State Secrets in the Press.

That launched a brief period in which the media enjoyed nearly total freedom. Society began a sober examination of its ideological heritage, retrieved important documents previously classified by the authorities and resurrected episodes from Russian history that censors had previously either ignored or eliminated.

The relative ease of the transition from a totalitarian media model to the new Russian model is due to the fact that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost” greatly undermined the status and capabilities of the Communist Party Central Committee with regard to political and ideological censorship.

In addition, Alexander Yakovlev, one of the architects of perestroika, headed the ideological department of the central committee for several years, and it was his support that made possible the appearance of the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper with its more progressive civil and political reporting.

Party leadership of the media practically ceased in 1991, and it was the disappearance of that control during the final months of the Soviet Union — first in the Baltic states and later in the Caucasus — that made it possible for the republics to rapidly separate and form their own political class.

The journalistic community was caught up in the euphoria of freedom of the press, the freedom to express political views and the freedom to criticize the ruling authorities.

Because the number of “free” media outlets was continually growing, the leaders of the anti-democratic putsch of Aug. 19, 1991, suspended the publication of all newspapers and effectively instituted a wartime censorship regime on television and radio.

However, the ban did not work: A number of printers released the “Obshchaya Gazeta” on Aug. 21, and by the morning of Aug. 23 when the putsch collapsed, both formal and informal structures of party control over the media no longer existed.

When they were first freed from party control, most media had no idea how to view themselves as separate entities with the duty of reporting the truth to the people and earning money at the same time.

The events of August 1991 were probably not only the final chord in the activities of the Communist Party as a political organization but also the final stage in the existence of the Soviet media in their classical form.

Most editors and journalists had no market understanding of the economics of the media. The situation was easier for television and radio as both received funding from the Finance Ministry.

The economic problems of the transition period affected the entire system of Soviet media: Newspapers and other print publications faced runaway inflation — the money collected in early 1991 from subscriptions ran out long before those subscriptions had ended.

Retail sales were very high, but Soyuzpechat, the state’s monopolistic distributor of newspapers and magazines, began suffering from problems caused by inflation and failed to make timely payments for the publications it delivered to its vast network of newsstands.

At that time, no advertising or sales professionals existed.

Many publications declared their “independence” in the belief that they could earn a great deal of money in the emerging market economy.

However, that turned out to be an illusion. The deregulation of prices and the flourishing barter economy, along with the freeing up of foreign trade from state controls led to an acute shortage of money and newsprint.

Faced with economic hardship, the former Soviet newspapers rushed to ask for help from President Boris Yeltsin and the government that they had been mercilessly criticizing — some for its lack of radical reforms, and others for its infatuation with liberal policies.

As the “stewards of perestroika,” Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Trud, Argumenty i Fakty and other publications argued that the state had “an obligation to support freedom of speech,” they also demanded that leaders “pay for the support” those publications had given them during the dramatic events of those years.

Many of those editors, along with a number of their journalists, were State Duma deputies, and the Yeltsin administration agreed to extend assistance to them, in some case by providing free premises for their publications.

Those premises were not only a lifesaver during the economic turmoil of the early 1990s, but also a source of rental income in later periods, as well as a reason that some oligarchs considered the publications attractive investment opportunities.

And despite the market-oriented reforms the state was adopting, in 1993 it decided to subsidize postal fees for Russia’s press and provide tax breaks for media.

The state also funded television. The federal budget paid, albeit only modestly, to transform the Soviet Union’s State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting into several separate companies — primarily Ostankino, that later became Channel One, and to establish and develop VGTRK. The management of those new channels also made use of the spacious, Soviet-era buildings housing their operations to rent out retail space and to engage in free, often unregulated business activities.

Another significant event deserves attention here. The election of the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989 — that opened the last stage of the Soviet Union — brought a large number of editors and journalists into the ranks of first the legislative, and later the executive branches of government.

That process was fast but short-lived: As early as 1993, not a single prominent media name remained among Duma deputies, and only the rare controversial figure appeared on party lists — individuals such as Alexander Nevzorov from St. Petersburg television, or later, Alexander Khinshtein from the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.

However, that initial “integration” into the halls of power established ongoing back room ties between a number of media outlets and Yeltsin-era government institutions.

Those connections will play a significant role later in this story, but for now, it is enough to point out that the groundwork for the future adverse changes in the Russian media was already laid during the early years of “free Russia.”

The state subsidies for media and their “long working relationship” with government agencies that began during the very first years of the modern Russian state subsequently became one of the cornerstones of the new censorship.

A Loud Bell Opens the First Act

The winter of 1995 was a very difficult time for the Russian authorities. The main problem was the extremely low voter approval ratings held by the aging Yeltsin.

The unrestrained political debate in the media was also damaging for Yeltsin and his government: Newspapers and television channels criticized the country’s leadership for everything they did or did not do, sometimes for no reason at all.

Newspapers and television stations managed to somehow adapt to life under free market conditions. Advertising appeared, and the barter economy was replaced by first illicit and later ordinary contracts.

Bankers and the country’s few industrialists took an interest in the media. They saw their ability to influence newspapers as an opportunity to help friendly government officials or to intimidate competitors. Despite the fact that by 1991, media outlets that published criticisms were no longer subjected to organized repression and criminal charges as they had been under the Soviet system, the fear of publicly expressing criticism continued.

It is important to understand that once the Russian media broke free from their organizational, economic and political fetters in the 1990s, they set out to become independent players in the public sphere — that is, to occupy the same position as media do in democratic and liberal societies. Russian editors and journalists learned from their Western colleagues.

The Chechen War from 1994-96 began with journalists enjoying almost complete freedom. As someone who covered the storming of Grozny in the winter of 1994-95 and many other events of those years, I saw that the only problems journalists and film crews faced were actually reaching the conflict zone and trying to stay alive once they were there. But by the fall of 1995, the army brass, and especially the Federal Security Service units attached to the military forces, began to actively oppose the independent activities of the journalists in Chechnya and the surrounding area.

Russian television channels were divided between those assigned to “ride on an armor” with military units (primarily RTR, and occasionally Channel One and ORT), and those that preferred to work independently of the military (NTV, TV-6 and others).

Journalists unwittingly played a significant role in one of the first major terrorist attacks in modern Russia: the seizure of a hospital in Budyonnovsk in 1995 by Chechen commander Shamil Basayev.

As Basayev and his militants left the hospital, they replaced hostages with journalists, taking them onto the buses that they used to escape the scene as live shields. It was those journalists who witnessed firsthand how badly the Russian special forces performed and how Basayev and his men managed to escape with minimal losses.

However, that situation changed when it was decided to help Yeltsin win re-election in 1996.

When the most powerful Russian oligarchs supported the idea of a second term for Yeltsin, it meant that not only would NTV, owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, and ORT, controlled by Boris Berezovsky, come on board, but that a whole group of publications receiving funding in one way or another from these and other oligarchs would have to get involved in the campaign.

Although the goal of keeping power in the hands of Yeltsin’s inner circle was originally an organizational and political task, it now shifted into the hands of the media. It was decided to actively use informational pressure, manipulation of the agenda and informational priming to convince the Russian people to re-elect their first president.

Thus, the presidential administration held “media planning meetings” every Friday starting in the summer of 1996.

As former Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration Sergei Zverev recalls, they were “political meetings where we discussed the agenda for the coming week and developed proposals on how to cover those topics in the media, primarily on television.”

Following those meetings, either the chief of the administration or authorized deputies would deliver “assignments from the authorities” to the heads of the main television channels.

It was during those months that government public relations people began playing a direct role in how information was presented to the public. Television channel editors and chiefs were generally willing to play their part. For example, TV-6 founder and VGTRK head Eduard Sagalayev was even a member of Yeltsin’s campaign staff.

Longtime Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky claims that his Foundation for Effective Politics first proposed the concept of “media management” back in 1996, and not as a short-term measure to help win the elections, but as a permanent policy model of the presidential administration.

After those elections, spin doctors became regular participants in formulating and implementing the government’s “official line.”

Dollar, the Censor

A handful of financial and industrial groups controlled most of Russia’s mass media in the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most, with NTV at its center, also held popular newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and film companies.

Boris Berezovsky controlled not only ORT (Channel One), but also owned a number of primarily “independent” newspapers through a complex ownership structure.

Other major players such as Lukoil, the Unified Energy System of Russia (RAO UES), Vladimir Potanin’s Interros and Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Menatap all had their own media holdings as well.

For its part, Gazprom lent money for the Media-Most project.

After the election miracle of 1996, when the concerted use of political and media resources helped reinstate the unpopular Yeltsin, it became clear to the major financial and political players in Russia that the creation of a pseudo-reality for the public’s consumption does yield fruit.

Those who build the media construct reap the profits — whether commercial or political.

It was in the period from 1996 to 2000 that the second element formed that would later transform into the new censorship under the rule of President Vladimir Putin.

One of the features of the current model of media and media communications in Russia is that the manner and extent to which editorial boards are controlled depends on who owns the particular media outlet, their ties to this or that political group and whether the government has levers by which it can directly influence those owners.

Despite the fact that some media were relatively successful commercially, almost no one viewed the media as a business per se. What made certain media assets attractive was their ability to influence politics and the state’s regulatory stance toward specific sectors, as well as their usefulness as a tool for defending against competitors or taking action against them.

Media owners preferred to appoint obedient and servile chief editors whom they could easily circumvent whenever they needed to take matters into their own hands.

The oligarchs who owned various media were the first to install “plants” on their staffs, individuals who had the “authority” from the owner to not only control the editorial process but also to influence overall content.

These “plants” were originally charged with security-related tasks such as ensuring that “articles for hire” did not embarrass the owner and his business partners or, conversely, to explain the best methods for targeted mud-slinging on behalf of the owner. However, later, their job duties became heavily politicized.

Even the Kremlin loyalist publisher Aram Gabrelyanov has had to deal with such “plants.” In the following interview from in May 2012, he describes such an incident at Izvestia.

“A man was standing there when I arrived at the newspaper office. I will not give his name because he happens to be sick now. He approached me holding out a business card and said: ‘I was appointed here by the presidential administration. Aram Ashotovich, after you have read the material submitted for publication, you will give it to me.’ I said, ‘You must be joking — or crazy.’ He said, ‘Have you looked at the business card?’ I said, ‘You’re fired, dismissed.’ He told me, ‘Do you even understand who appointed me to this job?’ I said, ‘I don’t give a damn who appointed you.’ I really did fire him.”

Interestingly, some of the “old” media that changed ownership between the late Yeltsin and early Putin years, had at that time already begun to show signs of readiness for their owners to censor the publications for political and thematic content.

For example, the Argumenty i Fakty newspaper gained it’s unprecedented, Guinness Book of World Records-breaking circulation of 33.5 million copies in 1990 after emerging from the perestroika process as an ultra-liberal and progressive publication headed by its founder and chief editor Vladislav Starkov.

After Starkov sold his controlling stake to the PromSvyazKapital group, Argumenty i Fakty began conforming to the views of its new owners, the Ananyev brothers. Alexei and Dmitry Ananyev are Russian Orthodox and openly declare it, but they do not require the same from the editors of the media they own.

However, within only a few months after the change of ownership, editors at the newspaper — who had previously been strictly atheistic and critical of the Church — became pro-Orthodox and began inviting writers whom the owners found “pleasing,” including the influential priest Tikhon Shevkunov, often referred to as Vladimir Putin’s spiritual father.

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