‘Fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ gets a lot of attention nowadays. But the thing about propaganda is that it’s best when it’s true. Likewise, media bias doesn’t normally consist of publishing identifiably false information. It more normally consists of slanted analysis and a confusion of fact and comment, combined with a highly selective choice of stories – it’s not that the stories are untrue, it’s just that one chooses only to publish those stories which support one’s political line while ignoring others which don’t.
Let’s take the example of the Russian state and its alleged rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin. In June of this year, the Western press seized upon a statement by Vladimir Putin during an interview with film director Oliver Stone in which he said that Russia’s enemies were using ‘excessive demonization’ of Stalin to attack Russia. The Times of London reported this, as did The Washington Post, the New York Times and, it goes without saying, RFE/RL. The story was in many cases combined with coverage of a Russian opinion poll which listed Stalin as the greatest person in Russian history to generate headlines like that of a photoessay in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Russia’s Reembrace of Josef Stalin.’
Now, it is of course true that Putin did tell Oliver Stone what was reported. And it is true that Stalin topped a poll of greatest Russians. But how many reporters covered other stories which pointed in a direction other than ‘Putin and the Russian people are reembracing Stalin’? Take, for instance, Putin’s attendance at the opening of the Sretenskii monastery, which I mentioned in a previous post, and which given the monastery’s dedication to the ‘New Martyrs’ had considerable symbolic significance? How many Western media outlets covered that story? According to Google: the BBC – no; The Guardian – no; The New York Times – no; The Los Angeles Times – no; The Washington Post – no; and RFE/RL – well, do I really need to say?
So what about the big Stalin remembrance story this week? You haven’t heard about it? Don’t be surprised. It didn’t feature in the English-speaking press. On 27 September, a new Garden of Memory opened at the former Butovo firing range to commemorate the 20,000 people executed there during the Great Terror of 1937-1938. There has been a memorial at Butovo since 2007, but it has now been expanded and a wall has been added listing the names of all the 20,000 known victims. But you wouldn’t know about it if you relied on the BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, and all the rest of them, none of whom uttered so much as a word about it as far as I can tell. (Nor for that matter did RT, apparently. Make of that what you will.) The New Times instead chose to publish a long piece about how the people of Crimea were coming to regret their decision to reunite with Russia. For all I know, everything the New York Times chose to say about Crimea is true but, like I said, it’s what stories you choose to publish.
The lack of interest in this story is all the more interesting given that the Western media gave a fair bit of attention to the unveiling of the original memorial at Butovo in 2007, and to a visit to it by one Vladimir Putin. On this occasion, Putin remarked that, ‘We know very well that 1937 was the peak of the purges but this year was well prepared by years of cruelty. … [such tragedies] happen when ostensibly attractive but empty ideas are put above fundamental values, values of human life, of rights and freedom. … Hundreds of thousands, millions of people were killed and sent to camps, shot and tortured.’ But as we know, Putin seeks to downplay the negative side of Stalin’s rule!
The Butovo memorial to Stalin’s victims isn’t the only one appearing in Russia this month, although my favorite punchbag, RFE/RL, would have you believe otherwise. On 5 August, RFE/RL published an article entitled, ‘Great Terror: Russian Government’s Silence Means Stalin’s Victims Honored Only With A #Hashtag.” According to RFE/RL:
On July 30, the Russian government held lavish celebrations to mark the annual Navy Day holiday. But there were no official commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of the July 30, 1937, Soviet government order that formally launched dictator Josef Stalin’s Great Terror that left around 700,000 people dead and millions displaced, orphaned, or crippled. The silence of the government and the Russian Orthodox Church was symptomatic of Russian society’s ambiguous interpretation of the Great Terror and the other crimes committed by the Soviet government against itself and its own people.
RFE/RL’s timing was a little unfortunate, for on the very same day as this article appeared, workers began to assemble what the BBC calls the ‘first ever national memorial to the millions deported, imprisoned and executed in Soviet times.’ This is the so-called ‘Wall of Grief’, ‘a vast bronze sculpture’ by sculptor Georgy Frangulyan, which is being erected in Moscow to commemorate Stalin’s victims. Apart from the BBC, as far as I have been able to find out, no major English-speaking media outlet has reported this story. And so the ‘Russian state rehabilitates Stalin’ meme continues on its merry way.
The order to create a monument to Stalin’s victims was signed in September 2015. The person who signed the order: Vladimir Putin. I heard somewhere, probably when I was in Moscow recently, that Putin will turn up to the official opening of the Wall of Grief at the end of October. If that is true, I wonder how much publicity it will get in the Western press.