The Light of the Tower

A voyage into the Russian Media Matrix
 
George Bandy

 

In a country that comprises nine time zones and 11% of the world’s land mass, it can sometimes be difficult to feel akin to your fellow countrymen. How can one connect with another that is over 5,600 miles away? Russian television has been used as one solution, though maybe not for the best cause.

Introducing – Vladislav Surkov. A multi-functioning civil servant whose portfolio included “ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernisation, innovation, foreign affairs and modern art.” Until recently, he was Vladimir Putin’s personal advisor.

Surkov is credited as being the “author” of modern Kremlin. From curating the new press, fostering pro-governing youth groups (notably the Nashi), to overseeing Russian foreign policy, Surkov has been the silver thread piecing through each layer of the developing Russian ethos. His ideological baby, self-entitled ‘Sovereign Democracy’, has been one of the leading political doctrines of modern Russia since 2006. Ever flirtatious with democratic values, yet ever remaining only a tease for true liberals, Surkov appears as devious as he is theatrical. Or perhaps those terms go hand in hand.

“Lights, Camera…”

On 20 February 2014, the Russian Armed Forces seized the Crimea Peninsula. This date is no longer disputed by the Russians (the Russian Ministry of Defence even commissioned a medal entitled “For the return of Crimea” to commemorate the date.) What has still not so whole-heartedly been declared are the months of so-called “hybrid warfare” that the Russians had undertaken to succeed on this day. The use of proxy fighters, undisclosed funding of rebel groups, the spread of disinformation, and ranks on ranks of unmarked uniforms. As soldiers came to occupy government buildings and surround Ukrainian military bases at the start of March, Putin held a news conference to say, in short, they are not our guys.

To add insult to injury, he further noted that anything Russia might have done in Ukraine was part of a “humanitarian mission” to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea.

“…And cut.” A smoke screen played out on the global stage, so that Ukrainian forces, and other world powers, were left, figuratively speaking caught in their dressing gowns when Putin’s force came knocking. In the director’s chair steering the production was of course, Surkov. The way the annexation of Crimea has played out is a subtle yet compelling analogy for the world of Russian television.

In the northern district of Moscow stands the Ostankino, a 540-metre-tall relic of 1960s Russia. Over its 120 floors it houses the country’s largest television and radio stations. From here, the decisions are made on what the majority of Russia will watch this week. Browsing the listing for the news? Try Russia 1 (Floor 96). Football fan? Well, Match TV of course (Floor 80) or maybe catch up on the latest reality TV, then there’s no better than the ever-so-colourful TNT (Floor 63).

At the summit, floor 120, you will find the executive board gathered around in the conference room. One journalist, Peter Pomerantsev, who was starting a career in this world, recalled a smoke-filled room, a deep humming in the air from the heavy breath of all-male cohort of ad executives and politicos – all slowly sweating together. In this all-together unappealing work environment, they would discuss what the people of Russia should see, and how they should feel seeing it.

This gargantuan building is nothing but perfectly apt as a secret lair for the country’s propaganda agents and – even more fitting their style – it is visible for all to see. Television was one of the first things to be seized when Putin came to power in 2000. It was Surkov’s philosophy that through television, the new Russian persona could be carefully sculpted and disseminated into each corner and crevice of the country.

 

“It was Surkov’s philosophy that through television, the new Russian persona could be carefully sculpted and disseminated into each corner and crevice of the country.”

Surkov would invite TV execs on a weekly basis to confer with him in his Kremlin office. The upcoming program themes would be discussed and planned out. The TV schedule reflects a well-balanced, diversified, and holistic approach (all sounds nice so far) to create the perfect mirage. Political debates are broadcast, there are liberal channels popping up, investigative journalism is given something of a go ahead, and an abundance of reports are commissioned.

From the outside it can appear like the balance of powers is in place. “If it looks like a dog, and barks like a dog…”. Alas, it calls for a Turning Test tuned for democratic and liberal states.

The new breed of authoritarian rule. Out with the outdated trend of simple censorship and ousting the rebels. The new style is to get entwined with the opposition, to climb inside each movement and ideology and feed it just enough so that it stays visible but not enough that it can rise up.

 

“The new style is to get entwined with the opposition, to climb inside each movement and ideology and feed it just enough so that it stays visible but not enough that it can rise up.”

Vladislav Surkov and President Vladimir Putin

The aforementioned Journalist, Peter Pomerantsev, ended up at recently new media channel (interestingly) named SNOB. Its goal is to foster a new type of “global Russian”, one that advocates liberal, notably western, values. As may be expected, he questions whether his role there really does further the liberal causes, or if it’s all playing into those all-encompassing hands of the Kremlin. Its owner and financier is Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs. Interestingly Prokhorov founded the Russian political group Civil Platform in 2012. This is after his first venture into politics in 2011 with the group Right Cause, which ended sourly. Prokhorov later condemned the party as a ‘puppet Kremlin party micromanaged by the “puppet master”, […] Vladislav Y. Surkov’. Civil Platform appeared to be an attempt at redemption. It preached the rights to democratic determination and freedom of the press. At some point it appears that the powers that be saw it crossing a line and stepped in to pull some strings. Prokhorov promptly quit his own party when tensions arose after multiple members of his party were found at a pro-Putin rally in Moscow in 2015. In the 2018 election, the new leader of Civil Platform stated that the party will continue to support President Putin.

It is hard to work out where someone like Prokhorov stands in all this. Whether he is simply a front man who ducks out before any lasting reputable damage is made, or really the shiny knight of the democratic values he preaches. Whatever side he is on, in the end, in this game of smoke screens and crooked rules, you’re never really sure who is getting played. 

 

 

 

 

 

First published Online, November 2020. Volume 16, Issue 1. Photo: Ostankino (Wikimedia)