Russians are living in a frightening, distorted reality

REUTERS/Yulia Morozova
A worker cleans snow next to the statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin during snowfall at the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (VDNKh) in Moscow, Russia December 18, 2022.

PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER 5, Moscow – Among the most stressful aspects of Russian prison life is exposure to government propaganda. Every cell I’ve been in has a television that is constantly turned on – and, with brief respites such as soccer matches during the recent FIFA World Cup, most of the airtime across all major networks is taken up by relentless pro-regime and pro-war messaging not dissimilar to the “Two Minutes Hate” from George Orwell’s “1984.” Except that in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, televised hate goes on for hours.

Propaganda is not limited to news bulletins and talk shows – it also permeates documentaries, cultural programs and even sports coverage. New Year’s Eve, when millions of Russians tune in to listen to popular songs and watch favorite movies, was also filled with propaganda messages.

The leitmotifs are always the same: Russia is surrounded by enemies. The West seeks to humiliate and dismember it. The Soviet Union was a noble and benevolent state – “the empire of good,” as chief TV propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov put it in a film broadcast on New Year’s Eve – that was destroyed by a mischievous scheme of the Reagan administration with help from domestic traitors. The only reason Russia still exists is because Putin is there to protect it. Ukraine is a Western puppet state run by neo-Nazis through which the United States and NATO are trying to attack Russia. And Russian soldiers on the front lines are heroes defending the motherland.

And so on – day after day, for hours on end. This is the distorted reality that millions of Russians have lived in for years – and it is frightening.

It is a reality that Putin took a long time and put in a lot of effort to construct. He began early: Days after his inauguration as president of Russia in May 2000, he sent armed operatives to raid the offices of Media Most, at that time Russia’s largest private media holding. Its flagship outlet was NTV, one of the country’s most popular television channels, known for hard-hitting news coverage, sharp political satire, criticism of the war in Chechnya and exposure of government corruption. Within a year, NTV was seized by the state. Before the end of 2003, the Kremlin had silenced all of Russia’s independent TV networks, establishing a complete monopoly on the airways. From then on, it was a straight road to dismantling what was left of Russia’s democracy – and, ultimately, to where we are today.

Russian society met the destruction of independent media mostly with silence. There were street rallies in support of NTV – but nowhere near the scale merited by the gravity of the situation. Western leaders, the supposed guardians of democratic values, were just as indifferent. A few weeks after the state takeover of NTV, President George W. Bush greeted Putin in Slovenia with famous words about looking into his eyes and getting “a sense of his soul.” In June 2003, days after Putin pulled the plug on Russia’s last independent TV network, he was treated to a pomp-filled state visit to London, with red-carpet greetings, lavish receptions and a horse-carriage ride with Queen Elizabeth II. Not a word about media freedom was uttered by his hosts. As a journalist covering that visit, I could not help but feel somewhat astonished.

Western reluctance to seriously address the malign influence of Kremlin propaganda was still on display years later when, after the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and I urged the U.S. government to impose targeted sanctions on some of the most notorious Kremlin propagandists who incited hatred toward Putin’s opponents. Our calls fell on deaf ears.

It would take Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and a large-scale war in the middle of Europe for Western governments to finally bring sanctions on the Kremlin’s propaganda machine and its chief operators. Only in 2022 did Vladimir Solovyov, one of the faces of Putin’s television propaganda, finally lose access to his two villas on Lake Como in Italy. Western politicians and commentators who blame Russian society for tolerating this regime for such a long time should not forget about their own leaders who did exactly the same.

Despite its intensity, Kremlin propaganda is showing signs of losing its effectiveness. Surveys show that the audiences of all three main television networks are overwhelmingly older; younger Russians prefer to get their news from online sources – and find ways to overcome state-imposed firewalls to do it. Last year, Russia shot up to second place worldwide in the downloads of VPN services that give access to websites blocked by the government; the messaging app Telegram now has a larger audience in Russia than state television. A recently leaked secret poll commissioned by the Kremlin showed that Russians strongly favor a peaceful settlement with Ukraine over continuing the war – hardly a result sought by state propaganda.

Among the most important steps the free world could take to further undermine the Kremlin’s hateful messaging would be to support independent Russian media – such as Echo of Moscow, TV Rain and Novaya Gazeta – that were shut down after Putin’s attack on Ukraine and are now operating from abroad. Nothing weakens official lies as effectively as truthful information. No less important – especially looking ahead – is to pursue accountability for the people who operate Putin’s propaganda machine. Sanctions are merited (and long overdue) – but not enough.

As high-level conversations begin about a future international tribunal over the Putin regime’s war crimes in Ukraine, plans should also be made to bring to account those who incited and enabled them – in the same way Nazi propagandists were tried at Nuremberg, or the operators of Radio Mille Collines at the U.N. criminal tribunal for Rwanda. Speaking recently on one of the television talk shows, Margarita Simonyan, head of the leading Kremlin propaganda outlet RT, warned that in the event of Putin’s failure in Ukraine, “The Hague [the seat of international courts] awaits even the street sweeper behind the Kremlin wall.”

I don’t think anyone would suggest that street sweepers working for the Kremlin should be brought to justice. But the likes of Simonyan, Kiselyov, Solovyov and other Putin regime propagandists certainly should.