Russian State Television and the Information War

In the rapidly evolving New Cold War, not all Russian responses to the psychological warfare coming from America are healthy. Their mass media and, in particular, state television, show a steadily rising level of propaganda, pushing aside entertainment or news reporting to save the nation’s soul from the falsehoods being disseminated by both Western and home-grown enemies. Read on….




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                  Russian State Television and the Information War


                                              by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



In my essay “Cool Under Fire” published two days ago, I noted a positive consequence of the wave of black PR directed against Sochi, Russia and Putin in the past month by US and European media: some of the best American experts on Russia have dropped their guarded silence and joined the fray, countering the distortions point for point in new writings that invite open discussion.

Regrettably, not all responses to the psychological warfare coming from America are healthy. Russian mass media and, in particular, state television, show a steadily rising level of propaganda, pushing aside entertainment or news reporting to save the nation’s soul from the falsehoods being disseminated by both Western and home-grown enemies.

While the likes of CNN have decided to schedule one segment of their re-launched 1998 documentary about the Cold War on 15-16 February, in the midst of the Sochi Olympic Games, lest their viewers take too much pleasure in Russia-hosted sports, Moscow’s Channel 1 has returned the favor, dampening the high spirits of its viewers with a tedious documentary of its own – The Biochemistry of Treason – which it trumpeted for several days leading up to its airing on 17 February by releasing trailers and an interview with project author Konstantin Semin.

Biochemistry is now available for viewing on YouTube and I can recommend it as a vivid demonstration of why propaganda is precisely the last weapon Russia needs in its armory to prevail over its detractors.

In his pre-release interview, the author tells us he had 4 months to research his documentary and it is evident from the end product that he used a generous expense allowance to travel the world.  But you don’t send a boy to do a man’s work. This pastiche of archival video materials, testimonials by boastful contemporary traitors and commentary by loyal defenders of the Kremlin wanders all over the waterfront, following the logic that if you cannot convince, then confuse. The only glue holding it together is the memory of General Vlasov and his army of turncoats who fought the USSR in league with the Wehrmacht.

The Vlasov betrayal is stretched every which way in time to serve the author’s purposes of arguing for the timeless nature of Russia’s fifth column in the pay of foreign puppet masters. In normal discourse on Russian history of the 20th century, this would lead to analysis of the October 1917 Revolution, the German Revolutionierungspolitik and the sealed train which brought Vladimir Lenin back to Russia to perform his regime change on German money.

In what is an eye-popping change of historical emphasis, Semin puts the blame for the 1917 regime change on the British and Americans, working through the Russian Liberals (Kadets) to achieve the February Revolution. After all, the anti-Bolshevik Vlasovtsy movement, which is the central anti-hero of this documentary, and more broadly the White Emigration, hoped to return Russia to where it stood politically after the February 1917 Revolution as a newly proclaimed democratic republic which let go its non-Russian borderlands and was led by a progressive coalition of parties.

Having spared Old Communists the ignominy of the German connection, Biochemistry says the Ur-betrayal was committed by those who forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and whom he denounced at the time for their treachery. Specifically, Semin lays the blame on Pavel Milyukov, leader of the Kadets in the State Duma, whom he tells us was widely known as ‘the American’ by his colleagues. By implication, the mud reaches to today’s self-described ‘liberal opposition’ to the Kremlin.

This propaganda point does not stand up to scrutiny. To be sure, the notion that the February Revolution was more fateful precisely because it opened the way for October has had serious defenders among professional historians of Russia. I think firstly of Oxford University professor George Katkov’s classic study Russia 1917: The February Revolution. However, Katkov showed conclusively that the overthrow of the monarchy was made possible by a considerably broader slice of Russia’s elites than Milyukov’s party. He traced the quasi-masonic connections which were woven in the Voluntary Organizations (today we would call them ‘civil society’) and particularly in the War Industrial Committees. And he highlighted the culpability of the once loyal conservatives as well as liberals when he described the political maneuvering of Octobrist leader Alexander Guchkov.

At the other end of the time line, Semin has pulled the blanket of Vlasov-ism all the way to the Pussy Riot. The trailer of Biochemistry shows a brief sequence from the band’s notorious performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Church. The far-fetched link to Vlasov in the documentary is via one of their defense attorneys, Mark Feygin, whose oddball political career in his native Samara and in the State Duma during the 1990s included membership in a White émigré association that acted in concert with Vlasov in the 1940s.  The fact that Feygin was fired by the punk defendants for abusing their trust and taking their cause célèbre for self-promotion is overlooked by Semin in his rush to do the same for the sake of his documentary.

Looking beyond this one-off piece of cheap propaganda, it is troubling to see how Russia’s most watched news program, the Sunday night round-up of the week on Vesti nedeli is also being weighed down by overly aggressive commentary against those who are getting on the Kremlin’s nerves. This is all the more unfortunate given that the show’s presenter, Dmitry Kiselyov, is now also Putin’s key news manager in his capacity as general director of Rossiya Segodnya.

In particular, this past Sunday Kiselyov permitted himself a 10 minute denunciation of the pundit and writer Viktor Shenderovich whose odious blog published a few days earlier on the site of opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy was so outrageous that it should self-destruct when read by any Russian of sound mind.  Shenderovich had compared the ongoing Sochi Olympics with Hitler’s Berlin Olympics of 1936 and likened the sweetheart of Russian sports fans, 15-year old figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya, to the shot putter Hans Woellke, who symbolized the Hitler youth, later served with the Waffen SS and died in Belarus.  

One minute reporting on the scandal surrounding Shenderovich should have sufficed.  Ten minutes gave the scoundrel undeserved celebrity. And though Kiselyov has a first-rate mind, he unwisely chose to forego subtlety this time. Instead he reminded viewers that Shenderovich would not have had the pleasure of observing the Berlin 1936 games because he would have been interned in a camp or otherwise slated for extermination.  Kiselyov also delivered lesser swipes at the two leading anti-Kremlin media outlets, Dozhd and Ekho, reminding both that they exist only at the liberal sufferance of the Kremlin.

Clearly the boys are over doing it, which can only be counterproductive. Of course, the Russians have no monopoly on this type of excess.  I recoil at the character assassination of Edward Snowden which leading American politicians engaged in for weeks following his arrival in Moscow, not to mention the murder threats against Snowden which the American media obligingly disseminated. 

There are no winners in a shouting match, only the distortion of truth and amplification of cynicism. It behooves all sides to show greater dignity and self-restraint, to wind down the propaganda component of broadcasting.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014




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  G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.