Kremlinology 2012

The Kremlin’s Spin Machine … and Me

My adventures on Russia's first televised political debate in a decade.

IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images
IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW — I'd never been in a green room before, especially not one with ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky sucking up all the air in it. Yet there he stood in a blue suit, surrounded by concentric rings of advisors, assistants, and supporters. Producers and hosts ran around with clipboards. Billionaire and budding politician Mikhail Prokhorov sat nervously on a couch as his publicist prattled on next to him. Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russia Today network, was getting her make-up done; the leader of the ousted liberal party Yabloko stalked about gloomily. Two higher-ups from the ruling United Russia party checked their watches; the deputy head of the Communists sparkled in a shiny suit and a flawless coiffure. And then there was me, lightly dusted with powder, standing a careful few feet away from the refreshments table with its sweating cold cuts, unpeeled banana halves, and Hennessy.

Earlier that week, the hosts of the political talk show "NTV-shniki" (or "NTV-ers") had invited me to appear along with the leaders of Russia's main political parties and some Russian journalists to kick off the political season by asking the politicians some questions. Given the degree of state control over Russian television -- "NTV-shniki" appears on the Gazprom-owned NTV channel -- I was wary of participating: Would I be edited out of the final show unless I asked softball questions? Would I be, as one Russian friend warned me, "legitimizing their charade"? "Don't be shy," one of the producers told me a couple of days before the show. "Be provocative!" She added that Simonyan wanted to prod Prokhorov on his alleged dalliances.

In the end, I agreed. There hadn't been anything like this for a while. It promised to be, at the very least, interesting. "Today, on our show, we have something we haven't had in about 10 years," Anton Khrekov, the main host, intoned when the cameras started rolling. "The leaders of the biggest registered parties will meet in one place to participate in an open political discussion." What, I wondered, would that look like in Putin's Russia, where TV politics are drab and dully loyal? Would they pull it off?

MOSCOW — I’d never been in a green room before, especially not one with ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky sucking up all the air in it. Yet there he stood in a blue suit, surrounded by concentric rings of advisors, assistants, and supporters. Producers and hosts ran around with clipboards. Billionaire and budding politician Mikhail Prokhorov sat nervously on a couch as his publicist prattled on next to him. Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russia Today network, was getting her make-up done; the leader of the ousted liberal party Yabloko stalked about gloomily. Two higher-ups from the ruling United Russia party checked their watches; the deputy head of the Communists sparkled in a shiny suit and a flawless coiffure. And then there was me, lightly dusted with powder, standing a careful few feet away from the refreshments table with its sweating cold cuts, unpeeled banana halves, and Hennessy.

Earlier that week, the hosts of the political talk show "NTV-shniki" (or "NTV-ers") had invited me to appear along with the leaders of Russia’s main political parties and some Russian journalists to kick off the political season by asking the politicians some questions. Given the degree of state control over Russian television — "NTV-shniki" appears on the Gazprom-owned NTV channel — I was wary of participating: Would I be edited out of the final show unless I asked softball questions? Would I be, as one Russian friend warned me, "legitimizing their charade"? "Don’t be shy," one of the producers told me a couple of days before the show. "Be provocative!" She added that Simonyan wanted to prod Prokhorov on his alleged dalliances.

In the end, I agreed. There hadn’t been anything like this for a while. It promised to be, at the very least, interesting. "Today, on our show, we have something we haven’t had in about 10 years," Anton Khrekov, the main host, intoned when the cameras started rolling. "The leaders of the biggest registered parties will meet in one place to participate in an open political discussion." What, I wondered, would that look like in Putin’s Russia, where TV politics are drab and dully loyal? Would they pull it off?

The first question, from Khrekov, was not one you hear too often on Russian television.

"Why are your parties participating in these elections if the count is dishonest, if the election is dishonest?" he asked. "Aren’t you just aiding those who have orchestrated this buffoonery?"

His colleagues weren’t much gentler. When Vladimir Kashin, the Communist, started alluding to thieves and "corruptioneers," one of the hosts, Anton Krasovsky, started to press Kashin: "Who?" he asked. "Who? Name one name." (Kashin didn’t.) They went after the Communists for glorifying Stalin — "How many people would your leader sacrifice to build the Belomor Canal? 500,000?" — and for being the Kremlin’s lapdog: "Your leader … meets with the president, discusses with him nuances of internal politics," one of the hosts asked. "How come Comrade Lenin didn’t meet with Nicholas II to discuss with him the reform of the country?"

They went after Yabloko for scuttling every liberal coalition, Zhirinovsky for selling his party’s votes in the legislature. (At this, Zhirinovsky stood up and hurled his clip-on mic to the floor. "Enough lying!" he bellowed as it exploded into its separate components.) The hosts even went after United Russia for campaign posters in Novosibirsk that implied that federal funds spent on road repair in the region were a gift from the party. (Andrey Isaev, the bigwig representing United Russia at the debate, did not see a problem with this.)

After the hosts took their shots, it came time for some "famous" callers and their questions. There was a question beamed in from Oleg Kashin, the journalist brutally beaten last fall. He asked why the most common prompt in Russian Google when one searches for "party" is "party of crooks and thieves," a prevalent Internet meme referring to the increasingly unpopular United Russia. Isaev said that it was clear that this was the work of a focused campaign funded by the West. (The hosts laughed him down.) Yevgeny Chichvarkin, a Russian entrepreneur who fled to London when a corporate raid possibly backed by the Internal Ministry threatened to turn him into another Mikhail Khodorkovsky, called in a question from his safe haven: "Should Putin go, yes or no?"

I list the questions because the answers were hard to parse, mostly because there were usually several politicians screaming their responses at the same time, sometimes while grabbing at each other’s arms. Zhirinovsky in particular made sure to interrupt everyone, waving his arms and roaring with the slight slur of the embarrassing uncle who gets a little too drunk at family events. The edited, polished version of the show, which aired on Sunday night, conveyed some of this chaos. But in the studio, it was far, far worse. The only way to shut up the screaming politicians was for the hosts to yell "Applause!" and the crowd — young supporters bused in by the parties — would drown out the brouhaha among their leaders. Prokhorov tried to distance himself from the fray as much as he could, saying, "When I was little, my parents used to take me to the circus. It was a lot like this."

Back when the now exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky built NTV in the 1990s, it was usually the fiercest critic of the Kremlin and of the first war in Chechnya. It hosted the most popular satirical program of the day, Victor Shenderovich’s Puppets. When Putin took control of the channel, in 2001, it marked a watershed moment in the new president’s rise. It was also a body blow to a once thriving and unruly Russian media. (This year, the 10th anniversary of the takeover was a major topic of discussion.) After NTV, the rest of the stations fell like dominoes and the Kremlin came to own television, which has remained the main source of information — really, about anything — for most Russians. Across all channels, political content became staid and formulaic.

But the Kremlin isn’t stupid, and it isn’t always ham-fisted. The rising tide of discontent in Russia’s middle class and urban elite is obvious. It’s what created the need for Prokhorov’s new political party, the first time since Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest that an oligarch has been allowed to participate in politics. It’s why anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny is still not in jail. It’s also why state media has been easing up its strict, self-enforced ban on certain subjects: In the past year, there has been a show about Khodorkovsky — usually persona non grata on television — and one on the death of Sergei Magnitsky. And it’s why NTV was able to hold something resembling a political debate.

"They loosened things up about a year ago," one of the channel’s employees told me after the show. "Because no one was watching TV. It was impossible to watch. I mean, you can’t have sex with a blow-up doll for 10 years and insist that she’s a real, hot woman and that the sex is great."

According to Arina Borodina, the television critic for Kommersant, NTV has always been allowed to get away with more. "They’re trying to attract the audience that stopped voting, that stopped watching TV," she said, noting that the ratings for NTV spiked during the debates, even though they aired at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night. "Eighteen percent of the Moscow audience watched it," she said. "That’s very, very high."

But despite a loosening of the strictures, the most important prohibitions remain. "No one will ever grade Putin versus Medvedev, or Medvedev versus Putin," Borodina explains. "That’s definitely not comme il faut. You can’t talk about Putin jailing Khodorkovsky. You can talk about why he’s in jail, but not who put him there. You can’t talk about things that Putin has publicly taken responsibility for, but has not carried out. You can’t really criticize him. His personal life is off limits."

When it was my turn to ask questions, I asked why no one but the Communists were fielding a presidential candidate, offending the perennial joke candidate, Zhirinovsky — a mistake I’ll chalk up to nervousness. I asked why Putin’s People’s Front has shown such drab results in polls (53 percent of Russians don’t know what it is). More screaming. Then I asked what it says about the Russian political system that the most important politician in the country, Vladimir Putin, is not a member of any party.

Isaev explained — well, screamed — that United Russia has never hidden the fact that it was created to support Putin and that, moreover, Putin himself was more popular than all of United Russia.

I asked why, in that case, United Russia was needed at all.

I don’t have the exact quotes for his answer, because this whole part didn’t make it into the final edit, even though a lengthy sparring match ensued. (That is why Simonyan, the head of RT, hissed: "What is this, a Foreign Policy interview now?") But it also seemed to cross a line: Prior to my question, we had been criticizing parties, not asking whether they should exist. And weirdly, although the hosts ran with the idea and started to badger Isaev, one of them afterward singled United Russia out for a special thank-you on his Facebook page. "In a situation where they should’ve cursed and destroyed us, the [United Russia] guys were watching this bacchanal with an almost Buddhist-like calm," the host, Krasovsky, wrote. "They behaved in a way that would make Americans jerk off with envy."

Later, when a Russian journalist quoted me saying my sharpest questions had been cut, Krasovsky called to yell at me. "Where exactly was your freedom of speech violated?" he pressed. "You think that was a sharp question? It was completely banal!"

I won’t challenge Krasovsky’s editorial decision. But it was striking that Chichvarkin was alone in taking on Putin directly. The nervous laughter that rolled across the studio after his question was also striking — as was everyone else’s seemingly magical ability to stop right before getting to the heart of the matter. People got riled up and said wonderfully angry things about corruption and incompetence. But no one asked: Why does this corruption and incompetence go on when only one seemingly omnipotent person is really in charge? The debaters bemoaned Russia’s descent into irrelevance and disrepair. Yet no one asked: Why, despite countless billions thrown at the problem, is Russia still not a competitive country? And after screaming and shouting about rigged and fraudulent elections, no one asked: Why?

The show’s utter chaos was also revelatory: not of a British-style uproarious political discourse, but of the thinness of Russia’s political culture. Natalia Sindeeva, director of Internet TV channel Rain, asked the debutante, Mikhail Prokhorov, "You’re successful, young, rich. Why did you get yourself involved in this madhouse? Why do you need this?" It was a question deeply indicative of one central rule of Putin’s nearly 12 years in power: The image of Russian politics as a madhouse is extremely useful to keeping the population entirely out of it. Why do you need this, in other words, when we can take care of it for you?

"There is one iron rule of Russian television," says political analyst Masha Lipman. "There is a strong leader who is in charge and anything else would be worse." In other words, NTV is not exactly giving airtime to Putin’s most thoughtful and most dangerous critics (I can’t with a straight face include myself in that group). Allowing racist clowns like Zhirinovsky and ineffective old liberals like Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin to have their time in the spotlight is a shrewd gamble. In one move, the Kremlin permits the illusion of debate and disarms those who say the opposition is banned from television, while always carefully shoring up the perception that, compared to these guys, Putin really is the best man for the job.

"Look, this isn’t Soviet propaganda where you were getting a picture that completely contradicted reality — that we live in the best possible world and that things were terrible in the West," Lipman says. "Even Putin says elections are fraudulent, he talks about corruption. He doesn’t totally contradict what people see in their lives. He’s cynical, they’re cynical. The point is to show that there is no better choice."

In the end, it’s hard to parse what the debate was, exactly. On one hand, it was unprecedented and lively and fun, and the ratings and subsequent discussions in the press confirm this. On the other, it danced carefully around the elephant in the room. It loosened the strictures of federal TV while carefully observing the most important ones. A half-step forward, a quarter-step back? "Wait, what did they allow?" said Oleg Kashin, when I asked him what he thought of the debates we both participated in. "Everyone who regularly visits one office in the Kremlin got together in one TV studio. Am I missing something here?"

Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.

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