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Inside Putin’s Propaganda Machine

Six nights a week, Vladimir Solovyov, one of the dominant voices in Russian propaganda, gathers a half-dozen pundits for more than two hours of what appears to be unscripted political crosstalk. Most recent episodes have been devoted to mocking Ukraine and its allies—especially the United States and President Biden—and debating Russia’s options. “Should we just turn the world to dust?” Solovyov asked during his show on April 29th. His guests—seven middle-aged men—laughed heartily. Later, Solovyov grew sombre. “I’d like to remind the West of two statements of historic significance,” he said. “The President of the Russian Federation has asked, ‘What is the point of a world in which there is no Russia?’ ” This is a quote from an interview Solovyov himself conducted with Vladimir Putin, in 2018, in which Putin responded to a question about the possibility of a nuclear war. The second statement Solovyov quoted was also from Putin in 2018: “If they start a nuclear war, we will respond. But we, being righteous people, will go straight to Heaven, while they will just croak.” Solovyov quotes this one a lot, sometimes as a sort of call-and-response with his guests.

All broadcast television in Russia is either owned or controlled by the state. The main evening newscasts on the two main state channels, Channel One and Russia One, cover more or less the same stories, in more or less the same order. On April 30th, for example, Channel One led with a report from a village recently “liberated from the neo-Nazis”; Russia One began its newscast with a general update on the gains made by Russian troops—“Hundreds of neo-Nazis liquidated, tens of airborne targets hit, and several hits against command centers and equipment stockpiles.” Both newscasts reported on atrocities ostensibly committed by Ukrainian troops. “The Ukrainian Army once more bombed civilian targets,” Russia One claimed. Channel One carried a detailed confession supposedly made by a Ukrainian prisoner of war, who said that he had raped a Russian woman and murdered her husband. Both channels carried reports from a military hospital where a group of young men in identical striped pajamas received medals for their heroic roles in “liberating” Ukrainian towns and villages.

Coverage is repetitive not just from day to day, television channel to television channel; nearly identical stories appear in print and online media, too. According to a number of current and former employees at Russian news outlets, there is a simple explanation for this: at weekly meetings with Kremlin officials, editors of state-controlled media, including broadcasters and publishers, coördinate topics and talking points. Five days a week, a state-controlled consultancy issues a more detailed list of topics. (The organization did not respond to a request for comment.) I have not seen these lists myself—individuals with access to them said that they were too scared of being prosecuted under new espionage laws to share them—but they agreed to analyze the lists during the course of a couple of weeks. They said that the lists generally contained six to ten topics a day, which appear designed to supplement the Ministry of Defense’s war updates that constitute mandatory coverage. Those among my sources who have seen these lists work for non-broadcast media, but the talking points they described invariably appeared in the news lineups on Channel One and Russia One.

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Topics fall into four broad categories: economic, revelatory, sentimental, and ironic. Economic stories should show that Western sanctions against Russia have made life harder in Europe than in Russia: people in Britain can’t afford heat, Germans could be forced to ride bikes because gas prices are rising, stock markets are falling, and Western Europe may be facing a food crisis. Revelatory topics focus on misinformation and disinformation in the West. These may include stories about Ukrainian refugees exposing their true criminal selves by shoplifting in a Western European country, or a segment about Austin Tice, an American journalist who was kidnapped in Syria, in 2012, narrated to suggest that he was punished for telling the truth about the United States. Sentimental stories focus on connections between Russians in Russia and in eastern Ukraine: a couple getting married in newly “liberated” Berdyansk, humanitarian aid from Russia arriving in the Donetsk region, and Russian doctors providing medical treatment to children injured in Ukraine. Finally, ironic stories focus on mocking the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and, frequently, Joe Biden’s supposed mental decline. For these, Russian television often uses segments from Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News.

In the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I was in Moscow, watching television, and I was struck by the ways in which channels downplayed the war: the tone was matter-of-fact, the length of newscasts unchanged. I assumed that this was a strategy aimed at making Russians pay little attention to what the Kremlin was calling a “special military operation.” But, according to my sources, what I was observing was not a deliberate strategy but a lack of strategy. At least some of the Kremlin’s media managers hadn’t known that the invasion was coming. Now television is all war all the time; in addition to talk shows and newscasts, there are special reports that claim to debunk Western and Ukrainian propaganda or to expose the roots of so-called Ukrainian fascism, and fictional dramas on the Great Patriotic War, Russia’s term for the Soviet part of the Second World War. In the past, journalists in television and print media would be instructed to pursue specific angles on stories. But people who have seen the lists describe a less prescriptive process today. “It’s this, not that—for example, Mariupol, and not Bucha,” one of my sources said. “And within that space you can even have a discussion.”

Solovyov, whose show airs on Russia One, is a master of orchestrating what sounds like discussion, within the narrow space defined by authorities. On April 26th, he and Margarita Simonyan, who runs both Rossiya Segodnya, a domestic state-news holding, and RT, the international arm of the television-propaganda machine, discussed a purported plot to assassinate them and several other propagandists that had ostensibly been foiled by the secret police a day earlier. Footage of the raid looked like a parody—among the evidence police claimed to have found was a pendant with a swastika on one side and a Ukrainian trident on the other, Molotov cocktails in plastic bottles (not a thing), and three video-game cartridges. Simonyan mused that the assassination was planned on orders from the opposition politician Alexey Navalny, in collaboration with Zelensky, because both are neo-Nazis.

In 2020, Navalny himself survived an assassination attempt that appears to have been carried out by Russia’s security service, the F.S.B.; he has been in prison for more than a year. “Can you even imagine the things he would have done here, if he hadn’t been jailed?” Simonyan said. Before I dived into watching Russian propaganda, Lev Gudkov, an independent sociologist, told me that television rhetoric was based on “ascribing their own traits to the opponent.” It really is that simple. Solovyov and his guests, along with the other news anchors, reporters, and hosts on Channel One and Russia One, sound like aggrieved kids on a playground: “No, you are the Nazi!”; “You are shelling residential neighborhoods!”; “You kill journalists!”; “You rape and kill civilians!”; “You are genocidal!” (I asked Solovyov and Simonyan for interviews; Solovyov didn’t respond, and Simonyan used her Telegram channel, which has about three hundred thousand subscribers, to announce that she would not speak to me.)

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The Yale historian Timothy Snyder has coined the term “schizo-fascism” to describe actual fascists who call their enemies “fascists.” Snyder has said that the tactic follows Hitler’s recommendation to tell a lie so big and outrageous that the psychic cost of resisting it is too high for most people—in the case of Ukraine, an autocrat wages a genocidal war against a democratic nation with a Jewish President, and calls the victims Nazis. The talking heads on Russian television regularly acknowledge the apparent absurdity of the situation they claim to describe. “The world has gone mad,” Dmitry Drobnitsky, a political scientist, said on Solovyov’s show, on April 29th. “Russians are Russophobic, and Jews are the worst anti-Semites.” A few days later, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in an interview on Italian television, repeated the same canard about anti-Semitic Jews, adding that Hitler was part-Jewish. Solovyov, who is Jewish, has referred to Zelensky as “a supposed Jew.”

The culture of state television formed gradually in the course of the past two decades. In 2000, Putin began his first Presidential term by launching a state takeover of the country’s leading privately owned broadcast-television channel; within a few years, all broadcast television, including local stations, was controlled by the state. State television, which had languished in the nineteen-nineties, now received good money from the government, and many of the journalists, editors, and producers who had worked for private channels went to work for the state. In 2004, during Putin’s second Presidential election, I sat down to talk with Evgeny Revenko, a deputy news editor for All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, a holding that includes what is now Russia One. “It’s a simple logical chain,” he told me. “We are state television. Our state is a Presidential republic. Hence, we don’t criticize the President.” Revenko, who had previously worked as a correspondent and news anchor on independent television, went on to head the holding’s news operation.

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Farida Kurbangaleeva, a former daytime news anchor, started working at Russia One in the spring of 2007, when she was twenty-seven. “Those were very mild times,” she told me over Zoom from Prague, where she now lives. “We could start a newscast with a story on the Large Hadron Collider or the death of fashion designer Gianfranco Ferré, those kinds of general-interest stories. It was considered in poor taste to lead with a story on Putin.” By 2013, Kurbangaleeva said, general-interest stories, particularly international ones, were out, and reports on Russian military exercises were in. Kurbangaleeva described the editing process to me. “You are writing your copy in a proprietary program, and my bosses—Revenko and the person who was between me and him—have it open on their screens. The phone is ringing constantly: ‘change this,’ ‘drop that.’ ”

In fall, 2013, she said, she was writing copy for a story on protests that had broken out in Ukraine—in a few months, these would grow into a revolution. “I typed the word ‘protesters,’ and Revenko called me to say, ‘Where do you get off calling them protesters?’ ” He directed Kurbangaleeva to call them Nazi collaborators instead. (Revenko, who is now a member of the Russian parliament and one of the leaders of Putin’s United Russia Party, declined to talk to me for this article.) After Russia occupied Crimea, anchors and reporters were directed to call the act “reunification,” never an “annexation.” Kurbangaleeva told me that she did what she could, for example, by using the term “Ukrainian authorities” even when copy she had received used the word “junta.” But when Russian-backed troops in Eastern Ukraine, using Russian missiles, allegedly shot down a Malaysian airliner in 2014, Kurbangaleeva said on air that the plane had been downed by a Ukrainian fighter jet. Soon after, she quit and left the country.

I talked to several people who had quit. All of them said that they should have left sooner. One former correspondent said that it took him several years of therapy to be able to resign. Another person, who worked as a news writer at Russia One for more than a decade, told me that for years she tried and failed to do something else. “I realize now that I am an ideal state-television worker,” she told me. “I am apolitical, uninterested in politics at all. That is the kind of citizen this regime cultivates.” She quit as soon as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began and is now studying to change her profession.

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