Dispatch

Putin’s No-Spin Zone

Russian political talk shows have become circuses of angry pensioners, cornered liberals, and camo-clad Ukrainian rebels. And they’re more popular than ever.

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MOSCOW — It’s a Sunday evening in early February, three days before European leaders are scheduled to meet in Minsk for fresh talks to end fighting in Ukraine’s east. On TV screens across the city, Muscovites have tuned in for the weekly political talk show, Norkin’s List.

As the lights dim, the bespectacled, gray-haired host, Andrei Norkin, turns to the camera.

Will America lead the world into another war? How do we prevent the impending catastrophe? Those are the most popular questions of the past week, and perhaps only a few hours remain to find answers. Good evening, this is Norkin’s List.”

Norkin brings on his first two guests — pro-Kremlin public figure Sergey Kurginyan and Ksenya Sobchak, a socialite and journalist at the embattled opposition TV channel Rain.

From the outset, Norkin gives Kurginyan — a theater director and leader of an ultranationalist neo-Soviet movement — the upper hand: “Is it true Merkel and Hollande are simply scared America will unleash a new war in Europe and then sit it out in typical fashion across the ocean?” he asks. Kurginyan has a ready answer: “If rebel forces continue advancing despite American arms shipments to Ukraine, then the next step is to bring in NATO forces,” he responds. “That’s the path to world war. Considering it’s a war in Europe, Hollande and Merkel are worried. And I don’t blame them.”

A round of applause rings out from the audience; sitting among them are rebel fighters clad in camouflage and refugees from Ukraine’s east.

Norkin then turns to Sobchak, who stares the two men down through wide-rimmed navy glasses from across the brightly lit platform. She’s asked to speak — and quickly becomes a target.

“Mr. Kurginyan talks of the success of ‘our militia,’” she says. “I don’t see war and the spilling of blood as success. For someone like me, who watches international, independent TV reports by real, professional journalists, it’s clear Russian armed forces are there, in Donetsk.”

The statement causes an uproar. Pro-Kremlin commentators sitting in the front row of the audience are called on to attack Sobchak’s claim, while a producer initiates applause after each statement. Sobchak demands a chance to counter the onslaught, but Norkin instead gives the word to a Ukrainian woman in the audience.

“What’s happening on our land cannot be described in words,” the woman says, her voice drowning out Sobchak’s ongoing protests. “We’ve been invaded. Americans and Poles are fighting us. Fascists are destroying our homes and killing our children!”

Sobchak begins to respond, only to be cut short again by another audience member claiming to be a Donetsk native. “Planes were flying overhead, my 3-year-old son and I didn’t know where to hide,” she cries. “Americans came, then Poles. They don’t even speak Russian. Go and see with your own eyes and then talk! You have no shame!” she screams at Sobchak.

Feeling sidelined, Sobchak threatens to leave, but now Norkin turns on her. “Now listen to me!” he shouts. “When I was a guest on Rain, and you didn’t give me a chance to speak, I didn’t leave. Now I’m the boss of the program, so let’s cut the provocations.”

The onslaught continues: A Ukrainian politician says the U.S.-backed government in Kiev exists on war. An analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies cites a White House document identifying Russia as the United States’ No. 1 threat.

Toward the end of the show, an audience member is introduced as a representative of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic’s Defense Ministry. His camouflage jacket decorated with war medals, he claims American arms have long been used on Ukrainian front lines.

“The cause of this war is the threat to the United States. Not from the Donbass, which has risen against the junta that has seized power in Kiev, but from Russia’s national leader Vladimir Putin. He is the target of this war,” he says.

A round of applause rings out. Sobchak sighs.

* * *

Halfway along Pravdy Street, in north Moscow, stands a neoclassical building from the 1930s. In its Soviet heyday, this Stalinist structure served as the House of Culture for employees of Pravda (“Truth”), the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, whose imposing former headquarters across the street now house the bulk of Russia’s state-owned press. Today the building has lost most of its grandeur: Time has chipped chunks off the relief of cheerful workers draped above the four pillars that adorn its façade, and the small square leading up to its entrance is filled with cracks. But inside its crumbling walls, along a corridor to the left, stands a door marked “viewers’ hall.” Several dozen pensioners stand patiently here every Sunday afternoon, waiting to be called into the brightly lit set where slickly produced U.S.-style talk shows like Norkin’s List are filmed. The 300 rubles ($5) they get for attending just about covers the commute and any lunch expenses, and many profess a strong interest in current events. Most dress specially for the occasion — women in heavy make up, men in their best suits. Taking their seats on benches that line the perimeter of the set, they wait patiently for the spectacle to begin.

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis in early 2014, news-related talk shows have proliferated on Russia’s major TV channels, all of which are state-owned. Today’s shows are a far cry from their predecessors. In the 1990s, drab studio discussions like We and Press Club would attract audiences eager to air nostalgic views about the Soviet Union and decry the stark wealth divisions that emerged with its collapse. In the boom years after 2000, shows like The Big Wash and For Men Only catered to the new Russian middle class, with discussions on lifestyle subjects from fashion to mid-life crises.

In early 2012, limits were put in place for Russia’s talk shows. That February, following major anti-government protests across the country, Russian daily Izvestiya reported that political programs would be temporarily suspended on the major channels. Dmitry Kiselev, then-deputy head of All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, the main federal media holding, told the newspaper that the decision was taken to prevent “the risk of false interpretations” during the election campaign. After Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term as Russia’s president, interest in balanced discussion disappeared, and emotions and aggressive proselytization became the norm, said Anna Kachkaeva, professor of media and communications at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

A recent spike in official rhetoric against the United States also changed the tone of Russian TV programming. Since Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and the resulting standoff with the West, anti-American sentiment has markedly risen. Political talk shows have closely conformed to the incendiary tone of news coverage, reflecting an increased focus on international events.

By the middle of last year, these talk shows, together with extended news reports, dominated national TV screens with almost nonstop coverage of the conflict in Ukraine. According to Kachkaeva, news reports would repeat four times between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Channel One and Russia 1, the country’s two main channels. The schedule would be regularly interrupted with additional 60-second newsreels titled News of the Hour, featuring reports from the frontline of the separatist insurgency.

Evening prime time was taken up by one hour to 90-minute news shows like Time and News, filling viewers in on the latest atrocities allegedly committed by the Ukrainian army against Russian speakers in that country’s east, and after 10 p.m. these would transition directly to political shows like Politics on the Channel One or Evening With Vladimir Solovyov on Russia 1. In September, a new daily talk show, Time Will Tell, replaced other typical daytime programming — detective series, family shows, and soap operas — on Channel One. That same month, Russia’s third-most popular channel NTV launched daily news show Anatomy of the Day and Norkin’s List.

Since Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria began last September, some of the focus has shifted from Ukraine to the “anti-terrorist operation” and the recent standoff with Turkey over its downing of a Russian fighter jet. Each time a major international news story surfaces, channels air extended “special editions” of talk shows like Evening With Vladimir Solovyov.

In blurring the line between news and entertainment, the shows have supplied the Kremlin with a convenient — and cheap — platform for official propaganda, experts say: According to Vasily Gatov, former head of development at Russian state news agency RIA Novosti and a visiting fellow at the USC Annenberg Center in California, the average cost per episode rarely exceeds $15,000, where other daytime programming usually costs four to five times more. Political talk shows are also time-flexible, running as long as the channel needs to fill gaps in its programming — episodes of Evening With Vladimir Solovyov and Special Correspondent regularly run over two and a half hours.

More than a dozen political talk shows air regularly on Russia’s three main channels, and they’re capitalizing on a clear upward trend in the popularity of TV as a news source among Russians. According to data from media research firm TNS, the time Russians spend watching TV rose in 2014 for the first time in over five years, with 72 percent tuning in to federal channels daily. News and analytical programs received a 9 percent boost in popularity — by far the largest across the 10 categories surveyed. The average audience per episode for Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov, Russia’s most popular show, rose from 1.87 million in 2013 to 3.3 million in 2015, according to TNS. Between 2013 and 2014, Politics saw its viewing figures more than double from 1.1 million to 2.3 million.

* * *

Nationalist Kremlin supporters have become an ever-larger part of studio audiences in recent years, and they are routinely directed by production assistants, who support the dominant narrative with applause. Meanwhile, most participants now undergo careful screening. Representatives of ethnic minorities or religions are often invited as guests, but usually only if their perspective aligns with the government’s preferred narrative. One frequent participant is Avigdor Eskin, a Russian-Israeli whom a 2015 report by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress described as an “infamous pro-Russian spin doctor.” In a June 10 talk show appearance on Special Correspondent, he claimed the Kiev regime is leading a revival of Nazism in Europe and equated Russian speakers in Ukraine’s east to Jews murdered by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust.

Then there are the dissenting voices, like Sobchak. Where in years past the shows would occasionally invite opposition politicians like the recently murdered Boris Nemtsov, now they tend to feature what Kachkaeva describes as “approved liberals” who are unlikely to gain viewers’ support. These Western journalists, supporters of Kiev’s government, or Turkish journalists brought on to “explain” Ankara’s actions, serve as foils, and often punching bags, for the other participants and the studio audiences.

One such commentator is Valery Semenenko, who heads the diaspora group Ukrainians of Moscow and advances what he deems Kiev’s perspective on relations with Russia. Semenenko is in high demand. He first started receiving invitations to appear on Russia’s talk-shows after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, but said the bias and level of aggression has markedly risen in the past two years. He generally receives no money for attending, although he claimed producers have offered up to 5,000 rubles ($75) on occasions when he declined. “I shouldn’t go, really,” he said. But I’m trying to use the smallest opportunities to be heard.” Last October, when he suggested Russia is militarily supplying the rebel insurgency in east Ukraine during one appearance, Semenenko was quickly shouted down and called a provocateur paid by the U.S. government to spread lies. A fellow guest on the show told Semenenko he’d be glad if the Ukrainian was shot on his next visit home.

The discussions may appear to be one-sided, but they are not pre-scripted. Most shows go out live to Russia’s Far East, which is eight hours ahead of the Moscow studio audience, and repeat at intervals across the country’s 11 time zones. Producers are keen to give at least the impression of open debate, and many participants — especially those invited to voice the official narrative — insist the debate is impartial.

Veteran TV personality Maksim Shevchenko launched Point in September, a program that combines news reports with in-studio discussion. He is adamant that editorial policies on Russian TV are no more restrictive than those in Ukraine. Shevchenko cited his appearance on the Ukrainian talk show Shuster Live in February with right-wing Ukrainian populist Oleh Lyashko. The resulting clash, during which Lyashko called Shevchenko a Russian propagandist and Shevchenko responded by branding Lyashko a murderer who will soon answer before a war tribunal for his support of Kiev’s military operation, caused a scandal which led to the temporary suspension of that show’s TV run.

“Every country has its own editorial policy, and so do we,” he said. “In the past year the discussion has been relatively open and free, and the Ukrainian point of view, wherever possible, is presented. But Ukrainian politicians rarely want to appear,” he said. He claims Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko declined his invitation to appear on Point.

“I see every talk show as a sort of performance, with real people instead of actors,” he said. Shevchenko simply serves as the director, he added, asking one to chime in here or prompting another to comment there. And participants, including critical ones, are rarely hard to come by.

Many are aware of the odds stacked against them. Among them is American Michael Bohm, a long-time Moscow resident and former opinion editor at English-language publication the Moscow Times. A fluent Russian speaker, Bohm has been a permanent fixture on Russia’s talk show scene since 2013.

By his own estimates, Bohm attends on average three shows a week, and more when breaking news happens. The week of the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, 2015, he was a guest on five talk shows. He insisted he doesn’t accept all offers to attend, and was not willing to disclose whether he gets paid to appear.

Bohm is hardly an audience favorite. In November 2013, after he called Russia’s attitude to gays “primitive” on an episode of Special Correspondent, he was physically threatened by a fellow participant and showered with boos, whistles, and shouts from the crowd. The Russian-language Internet is filled with video clips of “the American puppet” and “the U.S.’s new clown,” showing Bohm being ridiculed by fellow talk show guests. A clip of him clashing with host Vladimir Solovyov on talk show Duel on Oct. 8, 2015, has been watched over 1 million times.

Bohm still believes his voice is being heard. His principle, he said, is that those who oppose the Kremlin’s narrative should exploit every opportunity to express their views. As long as federal channels offer them a chance to voice their opinions, they should take advantage — notwithstanding the slanted and unfair rules of the game.

“Yes, the deck is stacked against us. We’re outnumbered, and the host gives preference to the pro-Kremlin side. But there’s no censorship. I can say whatever I want, as long as I’m not interrupted and my words aren’t twisted by my opponents…. There are cases when my position is heard, and I get messages from viewers who support it. Even if I reach people 20 percent of the time, I still consider it a victory — if I did not participate the percentage would be zero,” he said.

Many of Bohm’s friends in the opposition disagree. Alexander Shumilin, at Moscow’s Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, used to appear alongside Bohm on talk shows but said he stopped when he realized the danger of continuing. He believes Bohm and others like him are being exploited — in part out of a craving for the spotlight.

“Michael is useful as he can be presented as an ignorant carrier of the U.S. mentality. He doesn’t dig deep; he’s not able to shout. He’s an idealist who speaks the truth, truth that can easily be shaped. That’s why he loses. I told him, ‘Drop your Western tolerance, you’re at a circus,’ but he hasn’t changed,” he said.

Shumilin believes the climate of opinion in Russia is becoming increasingly dangerous, and those who publicly voice views unacceptable to the majority are being painted as enemies of Russia, an image that spreads across the country with the help of TV. The solution, he thinks, is to refuse to engage.

“I’ve decided to stop walking this minefield,” he said. “With time, it’s becoming more dangerous. There’s now a category of people infected by TV, people ready to use aggression. The aim of people like me should be to break people’s addiction to TV, to show the malignancy of such programs. And that can only be done by boycotting them.”

* * *

In the aftermath of her appearance on Norkin’s List, Sobchak would do just that. She took to her million-plus followers on Twitter and declared that she was “shaking.”

“Such a massive dose of lies is dangerous for your health,” she wrote. “Poor, poor people.” She added later that she’ll never again appear as a guest on Russia’s federal channels.

Since that episode, Norkin’s List has been cut from NTV’s schedule. The Sobchak episode provoked widespread controversy, with articles in the national press accusing her of creating hysterics on the show and deliberately causing a scandal to gain attention. In a radio interview, popular talk show host Vladimir Solovyov ridiculed NTV’s decision to invite Sobchak, comparing it to having a fashion designer or pop singer at a political debate. “I could understand if you were discussing the hard life of transvestites or something,” he said. “But when you have a serious political program — you invite that?”

But it was poor ratings, rather than controversial tactics, that proved the downfall for Norkin’s List. In the meantime, guests on Russia’s political talk shows rotate, and new shows like Shevchenko’s Point spring up to fill the gap.

The topics also move with the times. Stalemate in the Donbass region has relegated Ukraine to the periphery, shifting the spotlight to Russia’s latest successes in Syria. The threat from terrorism and radical Islam has replaced talk of “fascism” and “genocide.” But international topics — and chief among them the alleged American threat — continue to monopolize debate.

Inside the glittering talk show studios on Pravdy Street, Bohm and others continue to play the game. And many, like Semenenko, admit the spotlight is hard to leave. “I say no,” he said. “But they persuade me anyway.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Matthew Luxmoore is a journalist focused on Eastern Europe who has written for Al Jazeera, The Times, the New Republic and other publications.

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