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Russia’s Media Is Now Totally in Putin’s Hands

The destruction of independent outlets is rooted in post-Soviet problems.

By , an assistant professor in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU.
Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov
Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov
2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, meets with reporters outside the newspaper's office in Moscow on Oct. 8, 2021. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

On March 28, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s oldest independent newspapers, announced it was suspending operations until the conclusion of the war in Ukraine. It had just received a second warning for alleged violations of the country’s foreign agent law from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal media censor, which could potentially result in a full shutdown. Since the start of the war, the Russian government has blocked or shut down all remaining independent sources of information in Russia, including the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, the television channel TV Rain, and the bilingual news website Meduza.

Not content with targeting individual outlets, the Russian government has also blocked Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The latter is a somewhat surprising move, because—unlike Facebook and Twitter, which are used by only around 7 million and 3 million Russians, respectively—Instagram has a following of 38 million (as of last October), many of whom make their living on the platform. Though the platforms remain accessible via virtual private network for now, and the Russian courts have clarified that individuals won’t be liable for simply using them, the designation of Facebook parent company Meta as an “extremist organization” suggests precisely the opposite. Meanwhile, the Meta-owned WhatsApp, which boasts 84 million Russian users, has been neither blocked nor marked with any special designation. Per Roskomnadzor, it was spared because it serves not to “disseminate information,” but only to “communicate.”

The disappearance of Novaya and other outlets from the discursive scene today further hampers Russians’ ability to resist the powerful propaganda machine Russian President Vladimir Putin has been building since he first came to power. Initially focused on bringing television and major print outlets to heel, Putin’s media suppression apparatus became much more wide-ranging after the mass protests of 2011-2013, which triggered a spate of internet censorship laws.

On March 28, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s oldest independent newspapers, announced it was suspending operations until the conclusion of the war in Ukraine. It had just received a second warning for alleged violations of the country’s foreign agent law from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal media censor, which could potentially result in a full shutdown. Since the start of the war, the Russian government has blocked or shut down all remaining independent sources of information in Russia, including the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, the television channel TV Rain, and the bilingual news website Meduza.

Not content with targeting individual outlets, the Russian government has also blocked Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The latter is a somewhat surprising move, because—unlike Facebook and Twitter, which are used by only around 7 million and 3 million Russians, respectively—Instagram has a following of 38 million (as of last October), many of whom make their living on the platform. Though the platforms remain accessible via virtual private network for now, and the Russian courts have clarified that individuals won’t be liable for simply using them, the designation of Facebook parent company Meta as an “extremist organization” suggests precisely the opposite. Meanwhile, the Meta-owned WhatsApp, which boasts 84 million Russian users, has been neither blocked nor marked with any special designation. Per Roskomnadzor, it was spared because it serves not to “disseminate information,” but only to “communicate.”

The disappearance of Novaya and other outlets from the discursive scene today further hampers Russians’ ability to resist the powerful propaganda machine Russian President Vladimir Putin has been building since he first came to power. Initially focused on bringing television and major print outlets to heel, Putin’s media suppression apparatus became much more wide-ranging after the mass protests of 2011-2013, which triggered a spate of internet censorship laws.

Ukrainians, many of whom have relatives in Russia, have reported that “the TV is winning,” with relatives across the border refusing to believe loved ones’ eyewitness accounts of bombings. With few alternatives to state propaganda channels and heavy penalties for truth-telling in the public sphere, many Russians—particularly the older segments of the population who rely on television for their news—may not know what atrocities are being committed in their names until it is too late.

The persecution of truth-tellers in Russia is certainly nothing new, but the past 30 years have seen many innovations in the techniques authorities use to harass, intimidate, and silence. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the stifling of dissent was still relatively decentralized. Witness the assassinations of individual journalists such as Vladislav Listyev, whose 1995 murder was rumored to have been ordered by the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, or the intrepid Novaya reporter Anna Politkovskaya, whose 2006 killing remains unsolved to this day. In recent years, repressions have not only accelerated but also lost some of their earlier anonymity—a feature of Putin’s increasingly personalist style of rule.

The last time the Russian state attempted a wholesale shutdown of independent media was during the August 1991 putsch, in which anti-Mikhail Gorbachev hard-liners calling themselves the “State Committee on the State of Emergency” attempted to seize power in a crumbling but rapidly liberalizing Soviet Union. As Alexei Venediktov, formerly the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy, recalled in his Telegram social media channel last month, one of the putschists’ first decrees, dated Aug. 20, 1991, ordered the suspension of “the activities of Russian television and radio, as well as the Ekho Moskvy radio station, since these do not contribute to the process of stabilizing the situation in the country.”

Venediktov’s invocation of the early 1990s is telling. The Russian government’s current media crackdown is the product of two parallel processes, both of which entered a crucial new phase in the first post-Soviet decade. The first is 1990s-era economic upheaval and the attendant rise of the Russian oligarchs, who commodified and consolidated television and print media. The second is the perennial Russian cultural tendency to remember the country’s own difficult past, which is generally followed by a backlash that seeks to force memory back underground, often by force. Apparently unrelated, these two processes are in fact complementary. As the bizarre historical lecture Putin gave immediately before the invasion attests, controlling memory is just as important as controlling the media in Russia today. It is no coincidence that, beyond suppressing individual outlets like Novaya and banning entire platforms like Meta, Putin has also prioritized “liquidating” Russia’s most important human rights organization, Memorial, established in 1989 to document and commemorate the crimes of the Stalin era.

The scene for the winnowing of media and memory culture that has taken place since 2000, and especially after 2012, was set before Putin ever took office. For many journalists and international commentators, the early 1990s were an unprecedented time of cooperation between media and government, a kind of golden age of the Russian press. Gorbachev’s glasnost had opened the door to muckraking in the name of reform—after all, if problems cannot be named and openly discussed, how can they be solved?

The last years before the Soviet collapse saw the rise of a new media that sought to critique, investigate, and, above all, tell the truth. A watershed moment was the 1988 release of Marina Goldovskaya’s Solovki Power, a documentary about one of the oldest and most notorious Soviet gulags. Distributed to 300 movie theaters simultaneously, it became the second-most-popular film of 1989, a true “glastnost-era memory vehicle.”

During this period, filmmakers and journalists understood that documenting the present-day ills of Soviet society was not enough, because their roots lay deep in the troubled Russian past. At the same time, youth-oriented shows like Vzglyad (“Viewpoint”) attracted enormous audiences by seamlessly blending entertainment with reportage. In marked contrast to the stodginess and mendacity of Soviet television, Vzglyad offered a fresh, youthful perspective on the news, alternating music videos with hard-hitting coverage of difficult topics like consumer goods shortages or urban drug use.

The show’s subsequent fate is a microcosm of larger post-Soviet media developments. The original version of Vzglyad ceased to exist after 1991, but its hosts, reporting style, and aesthetic sensibility lived on in various spinoff programs. In 1994, Vzglyad returned to mainstream Russian television on the channel ORT (Russian Public Television). In the wake of the 1993 constitutional crisis, which culminated in Boris Yeltsin’s bombing of the Russian parliament and the adoption of a new constitution that granted extraordinary powers to the executive, ORT had come under government control. In late 1994, a presidential decree transformed the channel into a closed joint-stock company with state agencies holding a 51 percent stake. In early 1995, popular Vzglyad host and new ORT director Vladislav Listyev was murdered by unknown culprits—one of many high-profile killings of journalists in post-Soviet Russia. By the late 1990s, Vzglyad had started airing late at night rather than at prime time, and its ratings fell. It was finally canceled in 2001, and the following year, ORT became Channel One Russia, now the Putin regime’s main propaganda outlet.

From the perspective of even nominally liberal leaders like Yeltsin, a truly independent media was too volatile to tolerate, and post-Soviet outlets faced financial challenges as well as political ones. The economic turmoil unleashed in the rigged privatization drives of the early 1990s, from “shock therapy” to “voucherization” to “loans for shares,” immiserated millions of Russians while enriching a tiny minority: the future oligarchs. For the media, newfound freedom from state control also meant freedom from state funding, forcing companies into desperate financial straits from which they could only emerge by compromising with state and private interests.

The case of Izvestia is illustrative. Along with Pravda, Izvestia, which means simply “news,” was an official mouthpiece of the Soviet state between 1917 and 1991. Its reputation for propaganda was distilled in the ironic late-Soviet dictum “There’s no truth in News [Izvestia], and no news in Truth [Pravda].” During the 1992 economic crisis, a direct product of forced marketization, financial difficulties caused several important papers, including Izvestia, to cease publishing for several days.

To ameliorate their situation, Yeltsin signed a decree stipulating subsidies to publications with especially large readerships. When the daily was privatized in November 1992, a dominant stake fell to Vladimir Potanin, an oligarch with close ties to the government. In 2005, Izvestia was sold to the Russian state energy company Gazprom, which also holds a 66 percent stake in Ekho Moskvy. Finally, in 2011, Gazprom sold it to the National Media Group, a vast private media holding chaired by the president of Gazprombank, of which Gazprom Media is a subsidiary.

As the oligarchs amassed money and power, they also developed political ambitions and acquired media holdings to help pursue them. Business interests entering the media marketplace in the early 1990s had no interest in journalism per se but saw great potential for promoting favored products, manipulating public opinion, and—increasingly—destroying political and commercial rivals. Two oligarchs deserve special mention here: Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky. Gusinsky, who made his money by snapping up metal-mining companies in the first wave of privatization, in 1993 founded the Media-Most holding company that controlled NTV, one of Russia’s most popular and influential television channels. (Since 2001, it has also been controlled by Gazprom.) Berezovsky, meanwhile, first made a fortune selling cars, then became a media magnate, taking over ORT in 1994.

By the middle of the decade, media outlets were controlled by big money, a situation the oligarchs exploited to its full potential during Yeltsin’s reelection campaign in 1996. At the start of the campaign, Yeltsin was extremely unpopular, while his opponent, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, seemed likely to win. Western and Russian elites regarded a Zyuganov victory as an unacceptable outcome when it came to of preserving Russia’s fledgling market democracy—and continuing the upward transfer of wealth. During the 1996 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Gusinsky and Berezovsky aligned with other oligarchs, forming a pact that would collectively orchestrate Yeltsin’s reelection.

The 1996 Yeltsin campaign was a highly mediatized affair, with the oligarchs deploying their vast holdings to unleash a full-scale information war fueled by “black PR.” Yeltsin won reelection, but for both participants and observers, the accompanying backroom deals marked the end of substance and integrity in Russian news. As oligarch-cum-political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote in 2005, the Yeltsin reelection campaign showed that, in post-Soviet as in Soviet and Imperial Russia, “the ends justify the means.”

Once lackeys of the Communist Party, journalists now served their capitalist overlords, with formerly independent public institutions transforming into the loudspeakers of sponsors. By 2000, print and especially television media had been bought and paid for by a combination of state and private interests, setting the scene for the further consolidation—and, eventually, persecution shading into overt repression—the Putin era would bring.

A creature of the Cold War, Putin took early control of television but was slow to recognize the mobilizational potential of the internet. It was only after the social media-fueled protests of 2011-2013 that he began bringing Russia’s formerly anarchic online world to heel. Yet even in the years surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the state’s dominion over cyberspace was not yet total. Instead, Putin promoted the Russification of the country’s internet, pushing users to rely on Russian-made platforms and applications such as Yandex (Russia’s Google equivalent) and VKontakte (Russia’s Facebook equivalent).

The mission to create a “sovereign internet” was inseparable from—and indeed fueled by—the same imperial ambitions that underpin Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Today, with most sources of information firmly in the state’s hands, Putin can falsely claim that Ukraine lacks a history, or allege that the U.S. president’s son Hunter Biden’s is developing (nonexistent) Ukrainian bioweapons, with no possibility for informational competition. On Russian television, and increasingly online, it’s Putin’s world; the rest of us are just living in it.

Maya Vinokour is an assistant professor in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU.

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