‘Old fashioned nationalism in neo-Stalinist garb has become the most powerful force in Russian society,’ writes The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky in his new book The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, adding that ‘In this book I have sought an answer to the question of how Russia got here.’
Ostrovsky’s answer is to blame ‘Russian propaganda’. This he does by means of a survey of the Russian media from the 1970s through to the current day. He focuses on those whom he regards as the key media figures who shaped modern Russia. As he says, ‘My main characters are not politicians or economists but those who generated the “meaning” of the country, who composed the storyline and broadcast it … ideologists, journalists editors, television executives: people in charge of the message and the media.’ Readers meet characters such as Gorbachev’s ideology chief Alexander Yakovlev; prominent newspaper editor Yegor Yakovlev and his son Vladimir, founder of Kommersant newspaper; television journalist Evgeny Kisilev; NTV general director Igor Malashenko; and Channel One TV chief Konstantin Ernst. The general story Ostrovsky describes is fairly well known, but the depictions of these characters are lively, and the book is an easy read and on occasion quite revealing.
Ostrovsky is very much a member of Russia’s liberal ‘creative classes’, as becomes clear at the start of the book, when he remarks that, ‘As a drama student in Moscow at the time [of the collapse of communism], I remember that feeling of hope. It was one of the happiest periods of my life. … For me, the shortages of food in the shops were fully compensated by this exhilarating new sense of possibility.’ Later he quotes Yegor Yakovlev saying, ‘Yegor’s heart swelled with pride and hope. “I am certain that Soviet workers value democracy over goods”.’ And later still, he claims that, ‘The people who sold bread and butter on the street [in the 1990s] did so not because they were broke but because they were allowed to trade.’ I can’t prove that Ostrovsky is wrong on that, but when I bought bread from little old ladies outside Moscow metro stations in the mid-90s, they looked pretty broke to me.
Running through Ostrovsky’s book is a strong sense of the superiority of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia over the bulk of Russia’s more primitive people. Eastern Ukrainian rebels, for instance, are described as a ‘ragtag army of thugs, opportunists and the unemployed.’ ‘Russian television’, says Ostrovsky, ‘exploited their weaknesses and lured them into a fight. … Russia’s “hybrid war” lifted them from their miserable, anonymous and hopeless existence.’
Rather than pandering to the masses’ basest instincts and trying to entertain them, Ostrovsky seems to feel that the media should be educating them in liberalism. Consequently, he treats liberal media bias far more forgivingly than bias in favour of the current Russian state. In the early stages of the book, Ostrovsky describes the efforts by liberal, pro-Western journalists who came of age in the 1960s to make communism more humane. Yegor Yakovlev, for instance, founded the magazine ‘Zhurnalist’ which ‘caught the attention of the urban intelligentsia who dreamed of the West, idealized it.’ He and other members of the 60s generation ‘came to vindicate their fathers’ ideas and uphold a purer version of socialism.’ Gorbachev then gave them an opportunity to advance their ideas. As Ostrovsky describes it, glasnost’ was not meant to destroy communism. Rather, ‘limited license [was] issued to a select few who could target the social groups that were most receptive to perestroika – students, young professionals and the urban intelligentsia.’ In short, glasnost’ was a plaything for the Soviet Union’s relatively small band of liberal intellectuals, who imagined that it was possible to build ‘communism with a human face’. As Ostrovsky points out, this belief was naïve, and it brought both communism and the Union tumbling down.
Moving forward in time, Ostrovsky then notes that ‘in the 1990s television and newspapers were in the hands of pro-Western liberals who set out to project a new reality by means of the media.’ The media elites exploited their position to discredit the opposition to President Boris Yeltsin in his fight against the Russian Supreme Soviet in 1993, and then again to ensure Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996. Ostrovsky notes that ‘Television played a crucial role in mobilizing people to support Yeltsin. It ran a relentless campaign. … There was no distance or etiquette between the Kremlin and the liberal journalists at the time.’ The head of NTV, Igor Malashenko, was actually a member of Yeltsin’s campaign team. When Yeltsin had a heart attack shortly before the election, Malashenko helped to cover it up. When it became necessary to finally put the extremely sick Yeltsin in front of the cameras, ‘The tape had to be heavily doctored, retouched and edited to make Yeltsin look less wooden and sick.’ When Yeltsin was filmed voting, ‘The two doctors in white coats behind him were edited out of the picture.’ Ostrovsky notes that, ‘Malashenko had a low opinion of the masses. Liberalism and democracy were not synonyms to him but antonyms.’
Ostrovsky does a good job in showing just how one-sided the Russian media was in the Yeltsin era. But he is very forgiving of this. He writes: ‘What gave Malashenko and his journalists confidence was the knowledge that they were on the right side of history. They were clever, skillful and Westernized. They held out the promise of a normal life that most people craved.’ ‘The Yeltsin coverage was clearly biased,’ says Ostrovsky, ‘Yet by the standards of Russian television in the late 2000s, it was an example of restraint and moderation.’ It lobbied ‘not just for Yeltsin per se but for a Yeltsin who would end the war in Chechnya, carry on with reforms and bring Russia closer to the West.’ The ends, it seems, justified the means.
The year after Yeltsin’s re-election, a bitter dispute broke out between oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of NTV, and the Russian government, after Gusinsky failed to win a privatization auction to buy shares in the communications firm Sviazinvest. Ostrovsky describes the ‘media war’ which then erupted as Gusinsky turned NTV against the government, while another oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, used Channel One, which he controlled, to attack Gusinsky. Russian television channels had by this stage clearly become pawns for oligarchic interests. Yet, having made that point very clear, Ostrovsky remarks that, ‘The idea that the national channel had been hijacked by Berezovsky and turned into a tool of personal influence was nonsense.’
With Putin’s arrival in 1999, things changed very rapidly. The state reasserted control over the media, and drove out the oligarchs. Putin defended his actions in a speech on 27 October 2000, saying, ‘During the revolutionary period of the 90s, two or three people managed somehow to get control of the national mass media. They turned these mass media into means of promoting their own influence. … Can one still talk of a free press?’ Ostrovsky views things very differently. He argues that the restoration of state control of the media was a turning point which allowed Putin to manipulate the Russian people in favour of aggressive, nationalistic policies designed to deflect attention from domestic failures. The media became little more than outlets of Kremlin propaganda, spreading a virulent anti-Western message. This reached its culmination in the wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, which Ostrovsky describes in one-sided terms, saying for instance that, ‘The Ukrainian fascists were a phantom created by Russian television. Even though nobody saw them in reality.’
Ostrovsky notes that some of those who worked for NTV in the 1990s, when the television station had a reputation for independence and critical commentary, have become among the most vigorous defenders of Putin’s policies. How is that Putin managed to get Russian journalists to change their attitude? Ostrovsky’s answer is careerism. ’ ‘Those who produce Russian propaganda … act not out of conviction but out of cynicism,’ he writes, saying also that, ‘The attraction of highly paid jobs, celebrity status and influence turned out to be stronger than the desire for free expression.’
Yet there are hints in Ostrovsky’s book that there is more to it than that. Charting the rise of Soviet nostalgia on Russian television in the 1990s, he makes it clear that this responded to a genuine public demand. Similarly, he cites journalist Oleg Dobrodeev saying, ‘public opinion was against NATO’s airstrikes [in Yugoslavia] and we had to reflect that change or be left behind.’ Discussing Channel One chief Konstantin Ernst, Ostrovsky writes, ‘Ernst mostly made his own decisions. “Nobody calls me and orders me to do anything”.’ All this suggests that the new tone of the Russian media is not the result of Kremlin manipulation but of changing social attitudes. Simply put, the media has adapted to the market, and finding that liberal ideas no longer sell has switched to alternatives that do. To return to Ostrovsky’s question ‘How did Russia get here?’, perhaps the answer is that Russians grew disenchanted with the pro-Western cause he holds so dear because their experiences with it were often negative, not because they were manipulated by ‘Russian propaganda’.