Russia’s apparent mastery of misinformation has become an obsession of media in the UK and the US. I referred previously to The Times’ recent front-page lead, which reported a “secret propaganda assault” masterminded by Vladimir Putin, based on a new Sputnik news agency bureau opening in Edinburgh and some Kremlin-sponsored Russian language programmes starting in British universities.
The Russian government is supposed to be waging “hybrid war” on the West through an army of pro-Moscow TV commentators, state-backed football hooligans and internet trolls. The word ‘weaponised’ is bandied about with illiberal abandon in countless long-form magazine articles, promoted by brooding, sinister cover images of Putin or Soviet tanks.
You don’t have to be a raging Russophile to appreciate the irony.
Two of the more recent English language books about Russia have harnessed this mood by looking at the country and its recent history through the lens of its media. Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia won this year’s Orwell Prize, with its patchy examination of Russia “from Gorbachev’s freedom to Putin’s war”. Meanwhile, Peter Pomerantsev is a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, describing in lurid style his experiences as a producer for Russian state TV, in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
Ostrovsky’s book gives an arresting account of the late Soviet era and the 1990s, focusing on the influence of journals, newspapers and television, to illustrate how ideas and images changed moral and social attitudes during the period. The author portrays a state whose course was determined by an elite — ideologues, academics, media moguls and journalists — who told the story of Russia to its people.
According to Ostrovsky, the USSR fell, not mainly because of ideological contradictions, ethnic tensions or a collapsing economy, but rather because Mikhail Gorbachev allowed press freedom to challenge the official version of life in the Soviet Union. During the 1990s and beyond, the direction of politics was determined decisively, not at the ballot box, but rather by who controlled the media and what they chose to broadcast or publish.
Ostrovsky tells a good story himself, returning regularly to a ‘dramatis personae’ of influential figures, through whom he looks at intellectual and generational debates taking place within the Russian intelligentsia. He pays particular attention to the Yakovlevs, Alexander, Yegor and Vladimir.
Alexander, born in 1923, made the journey from convinced Stalinist to an ‘architect of Glasnost’, becoming head of propaganda in Gorbachev’s Politburo. Like his journalist namesake, Yegor, (no relation), Alexander’s liberalising instincts were awakened during the Prague Spring of 1968, which Ostrovsky says persuaded a generation that the Soviet system could be reformed successfully to incorporate greater freedoms.
It’s in that period, and the subsequent suppression of ‘socialism with a human face’, that the author locates the intellectual roots of Glasnost and Perestroika. However, it’s clear that his sympathies lie, not with the people who tried to reform the USSR, but rather with those who hurriedly tore it down. That group is represented in the book by Yegor’s son, Vladimir, who founded Russia’s first daily business newspaper, Kommersant.
And it’s when Ostrovsky’s story reaches the 1990s that it encounters serious problems. While the opening chapters avoid moralising, he has to work his narrative round to condemn the unique “hatred and aggression” of the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin, as it is portrayed. For this reason, he must treat leniently corruption, economic chaos and authoritarianism in Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
Ostrovsky claims that popular television programmes later exaggerated extreme poverty and rampant criminality during the nineties. The use of state ‘loans’ to ensure that Russia’s oligarchs put their media assets at Yeltsin’s disposal during the 1997 presidential election campaign is excused. The threat of Communists winning back power, under Gennady Zyuganov, he implies, justified subverting democracy. The President’s use of force to crush opposition by the Russian parliament is similarly sympathetically described.
Where an author like Richard Sakwa sees threads of continuity which link the Yeltsin and Putin eras, Ostrovsky is keen to play down these connections. Putin is an aggressive, greedy, authoritarian leader, whereas Yeltsin was essentially well-meaning, his liberal intentions undermined by events and political pressures. The writer’s antipathy to the current president guides his judgements about Russia’s past as well as its present and his working assumption is that anyone who wants freer markets must also, instinctively, support political freedoms. It’s an unsurprising starting point for a journalist who has worked for the FT and The Economist.
The book concludes with a clichéd canter through the Putin years and a series of unsupported assertions, particularly around the wars in Georgia and Ukraine. It’s a version of events that has been told countless times. It feels hurried and there are few new or original insights, although comparing the president to popular figures from fiction, like TV spy Stierlitz or Danila, lead character from the film Brat (Brother), rather than 20th century dictators, is a novel twist.
No doubt it’s the modern material which attracts publishers and sells books, but it undermines some of the more thoughtful content and an interesting history of Russian media and political ideas from the 1960s through to today.
Where Ostrovsky threatens to be insightful, but disappoints the reader, Pomerantsev promises him titillation and delivers. This is yet another book about those crazy, bewildering Russians; their appetite for excess, their corruptibility and their showy displays of wealth. It’s entertaining enough in tawdry fashion, but it’s part of a growing genre of similar books, portraying Russia as an exotic, intemperate and unaccountable place. The novelty here is that Pomerantsev worked for the TV channel, TNT, which brought western style reality shows to Russia.
So we find a cast of provincial ‘gold-diggers’, Dagestani prostitutes and suicidal supermodels, hanging out at the fringes of the oligarchs’ world of armour-plated cars and exclusive night-clubs. We have the range of cults and sects which flourish in Russia, so much more thoughtfully examined in Daniel Kalder’s Strange Telescopes. We have Siberian towns where the figures who command most respect are mafia bosses. And we have trashy television channels, guided by state ideology, but free to devise hugely overblown entertainment shows, so long as they aren’t critical of the President.
This version of Russian exotica feels particularly exploitative, because Pomerantsev was part of the media machine he now caricatures. While there may be some truth to the clichés, they’ve been explored more penetratingly by other authors. There are countless other options for readers who want to wallow in the seamier side of Russia.
In modern societies, information is a powerful force, and inevitably controlling it plays an important role in shaping politics. Russia is a centralised state, where the media’s message is influenced heavily by politicians in the Kremlin, but that doesn’t mean that it has a monopoly on propaganda, as illustrated by the way it is commonly depicted in the west.
These two books both serve the western appetite for representing Russia as sinister and threatening, mysterious and exotic. The Invention of Russia, though, when it steers clear of anti-Putin bombast, also contains a worthwhile examination of the power of ideas and the written word in Russian culture.