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Derangement in Moscow

Russia’s virtual reality.

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By CATHY YOUNG
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The derangement extends beyond current events. EJ.ru’s media watch columnist Igor Yakovenko notes that TV commentary on the World War I anniversary was so heavy on rhetoric blaming the war on American machinations that the uninformed viewer could easily assume that the United States was Russia’s main adversary in that conflict. TV-1 also aired a “documentary” exploring the “alternative” theory that Archduke Ferdinand was actually killed by a British sniper acting at the behest of an international conspiracy of Freemasons bent on world domination, which later also engineered the Russian Revolution to prevent Russia from emerging as one of the war’s victors.

In this toxic climate, the free media live on as small and embattled enclaves. Chief among these is the radio station Ekho Moskvy, which remains an outlet for dissenting viewpoints and censored news despite being owned by Gazprom Media, an arm of the state-controlled natural gas giant. In case Ekho’s editors were not aware of their precarious position, they got a recent reminder from Gazprom Media chairman Mikhail Lesin. In an interview with the Russian edition of Forbes, Lesin complained about the “rude” and “snarky” tone of Ekho’s liberal commentators but allowed that, at least for now, he did not regard the station as a “problem asset.” If that changed, he concluded, “it would be overhauled tomorrow, and there would be a music station called Ekho Moskvy. They’d sing, and that’s it—what’s the problem?” 

Open calls to shut down the Russia-haters are now part of the mainstream. In early August, Izvestia columnist Sergey Roganov wrote that Russia was getting fed up with “all the empty chatter in the social networks and the mass media” and generously offered to sacrifice his own freedom of speech for a strong hand that would put an end to this “Russophobic babble.” The very next day, the paper ran a guest column by writer Vladimir Lowenthal, who opined that Russia’s “Maidan-type” dissenters were clearly impervious to reason and should therefore be treated like sick people or members of dangerous cults—that is, stopped from preaching or spreading the virus to others.

So far, the Kremlin hasn’t acted on these threats; but while Ekho and other islands of dissent are allowed to exist, they are regularly and openly assailed as traitors. In late June, a news program on the NTV channel aired an interview with a masked, armed insurgent in Donetsk who said that the insurgency was setting up a “chapter” in Moscow in order to fight the “fifth column,” particularly Ekho Moskvy, which was spreading “lies” about eastern Ukraine. In comments liberally peppered with bleeps and accompanied by menacing gestures, the insurgent told Ekho’s staffers that their days were numbered and that they would soon be looking death in the face. More recently, NTV aired a program titled 13 Friends of the Junta, in which prominent Kremlin critics including novelist Dmitry Bykov, satirist Victor Shenderovich, and singer Andrei Makarevich were depicted as Judases ready to sell their souls for Ukrainian or American money. 

From such rhetoric, it is a short step to physical intimidation. In late August, an Ekho Moskvy reporter was assaulted while covering a pro-Ukraine rally in St. Petersburg; a few days later, journalists from Novaya Gazeta and the struggling independent news channel TV Rain were attacked and threatened while covering the funeral of two Russian soldiers apparently killed in Ukraine. 

Today, polls by the independent Levada Center find that 70 percent of the Russian population gets all of its news from television and trusts the official media. Vladimir Putin’s approval rating, meanwhile, stands at 84 percent. Will this change if Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions start causing real pain to the population—and if more Russian draftees start dying in mysterious accidents? Or will the “zombie box,” as Russian dissenters call state television, persuade them to blame the perfidious West and the domestic “fifth column”? 

While many dissenters cautiously hope that Putin’s support is not as widespread or as deep as the polls suggest, one would be hardpressed to find optimists among them. In a verse commentary in Novaya Gazeta inspired by Berezin’s interview, Bykov wondered with bitter sarcasm if the post-Communist “Russian spring” had ever been real. For Russians who greeted the fall of the Soviet Union almost a quarter-century ago, the free country they welcomed is now gone, replaced by a bizarre would-be hybrid of a smaller Soviet Union and the czarist Russian empire. Virtual reality, indeed.

Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday and Real Clear Politics and a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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