Russia doesn’t have the highest standard of living or the best democratic institutions, to say the least, but many believe it is a world leader in one field – propaganda.
Since President Vladimir Putin began consolidating the country’s news media under his control in 2000, the Kremlin’s indoctrination machine has not stopped growing.
While previously it was more subtle and nuanced, Russian propaganda has become more outrageous and in-your-face since Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22, and the Kremlin’s March annexation of Crimea. Now it resembles Josef Stalin-era rhetoric as the last independent media are being squashed.
The pursuit of truth is not on the agenda. Demonization of Ukraine is now the main focus of the Kremlin’s propaganda, with Ukrainian events accounting for the bulk of news coverage.
While previously a key task of state-controlled Russian television was to vilify the opposition, now a major goal is to label major Ukrainian politicians as “fascists,” without pointing out the relatively low support for far-right groups among the Ukrainian population or the presence of neo-Nazis among Russian-backed insurgents.
Kremlin propagandists have also tried to present the war in eastern Ukraine as being orchestrated by the United States while ignoring Russia’s direct involvement in support of separatists.
The intensification of propaganda has coincided with an economic slowdown in Russia. To boost support for the regime during the slump, Putin is now trying to create an “alternative reality” in a fashion similar to the Soviet period, Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin says.
“Soviet people got used to living in two parallel realities. They were poor in objective reality but, in a virtual reality, they felt powerful,” he said. “The worse the objective reality, the better the reality created by propaganda.”
Creators of that reality have been very flexible in their ethics and principles, with the only constant being their loyalty to the powers that be.
“These people don’t have any views,” Russian journalist and writer Viktor Shenderovich told the Kyiv Post. “They read their views in their bosses’ eyes. If the Dalai Lama comes to power, they’ll become Buddhists.”
Propagandists might even genuinely believe that whoever infringes on their material interests – such as the opposition, for example – are enemies of the country, Oreshkin said.
“For them, the country is a cash cow. They don’t see a difference between the homeland and this cash cow,” he said.
One of the major pro-Kremlin journalists, Dmitry Kiselyov, first dabbled in propaganda when he worked on Soviet television in the late 1970s to 1980s.
But in the early 1990s, when freedom of speech was introduced, he became an opponent of censorship and was fired after refusing to present a censored report on the clashes between the Soviet army and protesters in Lithuania in January 1991.
“Often people seen on television screens can’t be called journalists,” he said in one of his shows in 1999. “Often they are just propagandists. A journalist’s task is to show the true proportions of the world, the whole picture.”
Shenderovich said he had met Kiselyov in 1995, when he appeared to be a stylish Westernized man and enjoyed flaunting his foreign wife.
However, in the 2000s, Kiselyov became the Kremlin’s propagandist par excellence.
He moved to Ukraine in 2000 and became the host of a talk show and chief editor of the news department on Ukrainian television channel ICTV, which was controlled by Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of pro-Russian President Leonid Kuchma.
Kiselyov was then accused of whitewashing Kuchma amid a major scandal in which the president was suspected of ordering the Sept. 16, 2000 killing of journalist Georgy Gongadze. He was fired in 2003 after the channel’s staff met with ICTV chief executive Alexander Bogutsky and accused him of distorting facts.
Kiselyov then moved back to Russia and started working at Rossiya-1, a state TV channel. He has been the anchor of the Vesti Nedeli news program since 2012 and chief executive of the state-owned Rossiya Segodnya news agency since 2013.
In 2013 to 2014, Kiselyov spearheaded a media campaign to demonize the Ukrainian revolution and post-revolution authorities. In his shows, separatists in eastern Ukraine have been invariably presented as noble “freedom fighters,” while the Ukrainian government is consistently labeled as the “junta” and “punitive squads.”
Kiselyov has often been accused of factual distortions or direct lies about Ukraine. In early December 2013, he reversed the chronology of events in Kyiv, saying that the clashes between police and protesters on Bankovaya Street on Dec. 1 preceded the crackdown on Maidan Nezalezhnosti on Nov. 30.
But his masterstroke piece of propaganda came out in March, when he told his audience: “Russia is capable of turning the USA into nuclear dust.”
Kiselyov was not available by phone or e-mail for comment.
Unlike Kiselyov, who has called himself a “liberal,” Mamontov, another Rossiya-1 host, has positioned himself as a conservative and an advocate of Russia’s military might.
In 2012, he went to great lengths to depict the Pussy Riot punk band, which was jailed for singing an anti-Putin song at the Christ the Savior Cathedral, as a lethal threat to Orthodox Christianity, routinely calling them “blasphemers” and “possessed.” Citing John Chrysostom, a Constantinople bishop, he said in one of his shows that, “once you see a blasphemer, you should beat him.”
Mamontov also claimed that Pussy Riot was being financed and orchestrated by exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and the U.S.
Mamontov has been accused of ignoring the argument that Pussy Riot never insulted God in their song and only criticized Putin. Nor has he ever covered the wealth and alleged corruption of Orthodox clergy, including Patriarch Kirill, amid major scandals linked to his Breguet watch and luxury apartment in central Moscow.
Vladimir Solovyov, also a host on Rossiya-1 television, is subtler than hardline propagandists Kiselyov and Mamontov.
From time to time, he has criticized some of the government’s policies but only to a certain extent. He still mostly toes the party line and is viewed by analysts as the more liberal pillar of the Kremlin propaganda machine.
Initially his shows tended to present two opinions – the pro-Kremlin one and that of moderately opposition-leaning people. Criticism of the Kremlin was toned down, however, and popular opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny were banned from the shows.
However, as Kremlin propaganda became more virulent after the Ukrainian revolution and the annexation of Crimea, the space reserved for opposition viewpoints drastically shrank, and now Solovyov’s show mostly presents pro-Kremlin views.
Solovyov denied, however, that he was a propagandist, saying that only those who had not listened to his radio and television shows can label him as one.
“Who cares what fools say?” he said by phone.
Solovyov added that it did not make sense to accuse him of propaganda after Valery Boyev, an official of the presidential administration, filed a libel lawsuit against him in 2008.
While the trio of Mamontov, Kiselyov and Solovyov target the domestic audience, Margarita Simonyan is in charge of the Kremlin propaganda machine’s foreign façade. She has been the editor-in-chief of English-language television channel Russia Today since 2005, and the chief editor of the Rossiya Segodnya news agency since 2013.
Simonyan, a fluent English speaker whose task is to send Putin’s message to the outside world, is more sophisticated than those catering to locals.
She has denied that the government dictated content to RT, but earlier this year she presided over an exodus of foreign journalists who left the channel because of what they saw as extremely biased coverage of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian site Stopfake.org, which specializes in debunking Russian propaganda, said that some of the most blatant cases of lies and manipulations came in reports about the crash of Malaysia Airlines’ MH17 flight. RT accused the Ukrainian army of shooting down the airliner, saying the rocket was aimed at Putin’s plane, for example.
Simonyan was not available for comment by e-mail or phone.
Stephen Cohen, a scholar of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, is also spreading the Kremlin’s message abroad.
Cohen might be described as “an agent of influence” – a KGB term used to describe opinion leaders in the West who lobbied the Soviet Union’s interests, Oreshkin said. Some of them were paid for that, while others were motivated by ideological reasons, he added.
Cohen represents the part of the American left that used to admire some aspects of the Soviet Union and transferred their allegiance to Putin, who has increasingly appealed to the Soviet legacy. While Cohen criticized some Soviet policies, he was an ardent fan of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and a vehement critic of anti-communist President Boris Yeltsin.
In 2008, Cohen asserted that Putin “ended Russia’s collapse at home and re-asserted its independence abroad.” He has paid little attention to problems with free speech, freedom of assembly, rule of law and separation of powers in Russia, as well as to pervasive corruption that has only worsened since Putin came to power.
Cohen has also accused Ukrainian authorities of “war crimes” while ignoring numerous reports on kidnappings, torture, rape and murder by pro-Russian insurgents.
Another admirer of the Soviet Union is Sergei Kurginyan, a theater director and political activist.
He was an informal advisor to the Politburo, the Communist Party’s management body, in the late 1980s. Kurginyan subsequently supported a pro-Soviet coup attempt in 1991, and backed the parliament, controlled by communists, in its violent standoff with Yeltsin in 1993.
This, however, did not prevent him from throwing his support behind Yeltsin before the 1996 presidential election and authoring the “Letter of 13,” an address by Russia’s most powerful tycoons in support of the president.
Kurginyan experienced another U-turn in the 2000s, when he became a vehement critic of Yeltsin and the tycoons. From 2011 to 2013, Kurginyan organized numerous rallies in support of Putin, describing Russia’s anti-Kremlin protest movement as an attempt by the West to organize “an Orange Revolution” in Russia similar to the Ukrainian revolution of 2004.
In the past few months Kurginyan was caught on video visiting with rebels in eastern Ukraine to consult them on strategy and coordinate supplies and aid from Russia.
A spokeswoman for Kurginyan said he was not available because he was on a business trip.
While Kurginyan looks to the Soviet empire as the “golden age,” Alexander Dugin is an Orthodox Christian monarchist who idealizes the times of the Russian Empire.
Dugin’s extreme version of Russian Orthodox conservatism has been widely ridiculed.
In 2010, he became a target of jokes after publishing a video in which he says that shaved men represent a “purely hellish sodomite type” and that shaving is effectively tantamount to castration.
“Whoever puts a razor to his beard shall be damned and shall burn in hell,” he said. “Love for beards can even lead a person to heaven… For modern Orthodox conservatives, a man without a beard is no man.”
In 1980, he joined a neo-Nazi group called “the Black SS Order,” according to Russian news agency Stringer. This did not prevent him from claiming recently that he supported a pro-Russian anti-fascist movement fighting against Ukrainian Nazis.
In 2003, he became the leader of the International Eurasian Movement, which aims to integrate Russia with former Soviet republics into a superpower called the Eurasian Union.
Dugin has advocated Russia’s territorial expansion and the resurrection of the Russian Empire, saying that an independent Ukraine was a key obstacle to this.
“Ukraine’s sovereignty is such a negative phenomenon for Russian geopolitics that it can easily provoke a military conflict,” he wrote in the Foundations of Geopolitics, first published in 1997. “Ukraine as a sovereign state with such territorial ambitions is a great threat for the whole of Eurasia… Strategically, Ukraine must become Moscow’s southeastern projection.”
Since the war in eastern Ukraine began in April, he has repeatedly called for killing Ukrainians.
“Idiots should be purged from Ukraine,” he wrote on Facebook in August. “A genocide of cretins is the obvious solution… I don’t believe that these are Ukrainians. It’s just some bastard race that emerged from sewer manholes.”
In an interview with Abkhazia’s Anna News in May, he said he was ashamed of his own Ukrainian blood and wanted it to be “purged by the blood of scum – of the Kyiv junta.”
“As long as the scum is in Kyiv, Russian people… can’t exist peacefully. Either (Kyiv) should be destroyed and built anew, or people should come to their senses,” Dugin said. “Kill, kill and kill! There should be no talk anymore!”
A spokeswoman for Dugin told the Kyiv Post by phone that he did not talk to Ukrainian media and that he was abroad.
Writer Alexander Prokhanov, one of Russia’s most prominent Stalinists, is also an advocate of reviving the Russian Empire. He espouses a kind of mysticism based on Russian cosmism, a philosophical and cultural movement of the early 20th century.
Even when Putin pursued largely liberal economic policies, lambasted by many leftists, Prokhanov abstained from harshly criticizing the president, believing the ruler’s authority to be sacred.
In 2002, Prokhanov wrote a book called Mr. Hexogen, in which the ‘Chosen One,’ a character based on Putin, is presented as a sacred image of power and turns into a rainbow.
The novel is rife with Soviet and religious symbolism, with Lenin’s corpse in the mausoleum guarding the Kremlin from the subterranean Serpent.
Prokhanov is also well known for his pompous and flamboyant oratory.
“Militiamen who had just come from Novorossiya ascended the top of the hill and scattered earth from Savur-Mohyla, which had just been freed from cruel punitive squads,” he wrote earlier this month in his Zavtra newspaper. “The people sang praises and rejoiced, seeing that the sacred land of martyrs is being united with the Russian land.”
While routinely accusing Ukrainian authorities of terrible atrocities, Prokhanov has consistently praised the regime of Joseph Stalin, whose death toll is estimated at millions of people.
Speaking with the Kyiv Post by phone, Prokhanov agreed that he was an “apologist for the Kremlin.”
“I’m definitely not an apologist for the Supreme Rada or (Ukrainian President Petro) Poroshenko,” he said.
Addressing accusations that he supported Stalin’s repressions, he said, “other people say I’m the most merciful person, and a child’s tear is more important for me than any ideological differences.”
Dmitry Tsorionov, aka Enteo
Like Prokhanov, Orthodox activist Dmitry Tsorionov, also known as Enteo, believes Putin’s power to be sacred on religious grounds.
He has participated in numerous attacks on Pussy Riot’s supporters, LGBT protests and contemporary art venues as part of the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent.
Enteo, a Christian fundamentalist and a vehement supporter of Patriarch Kirill, the leader of Moscow Patriarchate, believes that “all authority comes from God.”
He told the Kyiv Post that he respected Putin but denied that he was an apologist for the Kremlin. He said, however, that any government, including Putin’s, was sacred if blessed by the church.
On Sept. 7, he delivered a lecture that addressed the following questions: “Is Vladimir Putin God by nature or only by grace? Can one worship Vladimir Vladimirovich as God on earth?”
In Russia, it seems, there is no shortage of those who already do.