"Maybe it’s all a matrix and we’re all like programs written by somebody else. . . . And none of us really exists, just the matrix. The program works, you live your life and think everything’s fine. Here you are drinking coffee right now. But there is no coffee—it doesn’t exist.” So mused Fyodor Berezin, the middle-aged sci-fi writer turned “deputy defense minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic—the self-proclaimed state of the Russian-speaking insurgents in eastern Ukraine—in an August interview with a reporter for the still-surviving independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
“The matrix,” the concept from the 1999 cult film of the same name in which reality turns out to be an illusion generated by human-enslaving computers, was a recurring theme in Berezin’s conversation with Novaya Gazeta’s Pavel Kanygin. Berezin even deflected queries on the whereabouts of suddenly elusive rebel commander Igor Strelkov-Girkin with the deadpan suggestion that Strelkov-Girkin might not actually exist—though he grew testy when Kanygin countered by asking whether the Donetsk Republic might not exist, either.
This bizarre exchange encapsulates the surreal quality of the war in eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s undeclared involvement is the world’s biggest open secret. Russian soldiers are already getting killed in what official reports describe as accidents during military training. But the local separatist insurgents have been led mostly by Russian citizens—notably a battle-reenactment hobbyist (Strelkov-Girkin) and a political spin doctor (former Donetsk Republic prime minister Alexander Borodai). The theater of the absurd has even spread to Russia itself, where “the matrix” is a rather apt metaphor for the virtual reality propounded by the official media and uncritically absorbed by much of the population.
The Russian media landscape in the last six months has been dominated by nearly wall-to-wall coverage of Ukraine—or, rather, lurid propaganda masquerading as coverage. Writing in the independent online journal EJ.ru, Moscow journalist Anton Orekh noted with amazement that a major subway accident in Moscow in mid-July—a train derailment that killed 24 people and injured dozens more—did not rate a single mention in the weekly news wrap-up on Rossiya, the country’s leading news television channel, just days later: Once again, it was all Ukraine.
The grotesque pseudo-journalism that has become the norm in the official Russian media was starkly illustrated by the sensational story of the crucified boy. On July 12, a week after the previously rebel-controlled city of Slavyansk was taken by Ukrainian troops, Russia’s TV-1 aired an interview with a refugee named Galina Pyshnyak, who told a bloodcurdling tale about the execution of an insurgent’s child before a crowd of Luhansk residents in the city’s main square. “They took a little boy, 3 years old . . . and nailed him to a billboard like Jesus,” Pyshnyak told the reporter; the child’s mother, she said, was forced to watch and listen to his screams until she fainted, then was herself tied to a tank and dragged unconscious around the square. The story was widely ridiculed by Russian bloggers and debunked by Novaya Gazeta reporter Evgeny Feldman, who interviewed Slavyansk locals and found that no one had heard of this horrific deed. Pyshnyak was later identified as the wife of an ex-member of Berkut, the special security squad of the deposed pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. TV-1 never retracted the story.
Even token dissenters are now gone from Russian TV, where the spectrum of opinion ranges from patriotic fervor to patriotic derangement. The latter is reliably represented by member of parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who, in a recent appearance on the popular TV-1 talk show Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, capped a rant about the world’s eternal war on Russia with the declaration that “Hitler only killed Russians.” On another Sunday Evening, Solovyov himself not only lobbed the standard charge of “genocide” at the Ukrainian government but claimed that Ukrain-ian president Petro Poroshenko had “frankly declared that he is under the direct control of the USA.” One of
the guests, political analyst Semyon Bagdasarov, stressed that helping the separatists in Ukraine was a life-and-death priority for Russia: “After all, [Kiev’s] goal is very specific—it’s not just to crush Donbass [the Donetsk region], it’s to destroy the Russian Federation by bringing down its government and dragging us into civil war. That’s what’s at stake!” The other panelists nodded approval, while the studio audience burst into applause.
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.