What is happening in Russia?
BY Yako Molhov
Marina Ovsyannikova holding a sign during newscast
Russian media have been operating in a parallel reality for many years, based on state propaganda, fake news and fake “reference points” (a.k.a. “oporki”) and since February 24 this reality has been given a name: “Z”.

While the entire world (except for North Korea, Eritrea, Syria and Belarus) has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine thru a UN resolution which called for the immediate withdrawal of its forces, Russian media have been presenting a narrative dictated by Vladimir Putin, calling the awhose goal is the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine. The “Nazis”, however, are not in Kyiv but in Moscow, judging by the use of propaganda on national TV. Not only the TV air but the entire country has been flooded with fascist-type emblems which signify a militarized society loyal to those in power and their “special operation Z”.

Why “Z” - since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and particularly in the last couple of weeks, the letter Z has become the increasingly ubiquitous symbol of support for the war, for the military, for the Kremlin’s policies, and most of all for President Vladimir Putin. TV hosts are wearing “Z” on their clothes, graphic elements on TV include the symbol, it is all over social networks (those that are not banned in Russia), the state-controlled television network – RT - began selling merchandize emblazoned with the symbol, slogans with the letter Z have been put on billboards, used in concerts, put on the back windows of cars, worn by Russian sportsmen and, in Kazan, terminally ill children were lined up to spell out the letter Z in the snow (something which happened also in Nazi Germany with the swastika)… Perhaps the most puzzling (and perhaps ironic) element in this “adoption” is the fact that ”Z” is a letter from the Roman alphabet and there is no such letter in the Cyrillic script used in Russia - a country that relies on purism and everything anti-Western, especially after February 24…

The letter Z is painted on many of the Russian military vehicles that have invaded Ukraine over the past month. The Russian military has not explained the use of the letter, analysts believe it is used to indicate forces from the Western (Zapadny) Military District. Other vehicles bore different symbols that seemed to refer to the Eastern, Southern, and Central military districts, or even Chechens.

While in the beginning of the war “Z” was exclusively used to show support for the Russian military, its later use has morphed into an unconditional support for Putin. The recent concert on March 18 aired live on TV dedicated to the annexation of Crimea, featured the slogan “Zа Россию” (written with the Roman alphabet Z; its meaning being “For Russia”) seen on the stage behind Putin, while posters “Zа Путина” (“For Putin”) could be seen among the audience. „За Родину, за Сталина!” (“For Motherland, for Stalin!”) was a particularly popular political slogan used by some as a battle cry in the Red Army and Navy during the Second World War. And while “Z” may mean a plethora of things, one thing is certain – it signifies the “staliniZation” of media in Russia, as The Economist wrote, a process which has been slowly but steadily crawling in the past years, with its culmination during the “special military operation” against Ukraine.

In Russia everything is controlled by the state now – including media – and this is not an exaggeration. On March 3 the last independent TV channel – Dozhd (Rain) – went dark. The last thing it aired was a Soviet-era recording of “Swan Lake”. The choice was symbolic. It is what Soviet television channels showed on August 19, 1991, as the KGB and the army attempted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and declared a state of emergency in Russia. It was at that time that Echo Moskvy, Russia’s main liberal radio station, was briefly taken off air and newspaper printing presses were stopped. Today there is no Echo Moskvy either. Additionally, respected international media like BBC News, Deutsche Welle, RFE, Radio Liberty etc. have been blocked and so are Facebook and Instagram (on March 21 a Moscow court ruled that they were “extremist”), Twitter, TikTok. Russia’s internet was not totally free before the invasion. LinkedIn is banned, and TikTok was already censored. But state censorship has escalated with the war, as the Kremlin attempts to hide the fact that the war (its “special military operation”) hasn’t so far gone as planned from Russia’s estimated 122 million internet users.

For many people unfamiliar with the situation in Russia, the latest state censorship may seem extreme and sudden but the reality is that the process has been gradually growing in the past 10 years. At the beginning of Putin’s third term as president in 2012 (he has been in power since 2000) many laws were passed which facilitated censorship and prosecution of independent media. The new legislation also lead to self-censorship and not only in media but in other spheres of culture and arts. In 2019 the Russian government introduced also the so-called “fake news law” which criminalizes publishing “unreliable” information as well as opinions that show “disrespect for society, government, state symbols, the constitution and government institutions”. The government has also been using legislation again “extremism” to to suppress freedom of speech. After Russia took control of Crimea, the Russian parliament also passed a law making it a criminal offense to question Russia’s territorial integrity within what the government considers its borders.

Photo from official site of Kazansky Hospis

What is the current situation with TV in Russia? One word – abysmal, or at least when it comes to democracy and freedom of speech. All but one national TV channel are fully or partially owned by the state. All major nets (save for entertainment and niche channels) have extensive newscasts, “with the focus being special military operation that the Russian armed forces are conducting in Ukraine; live - reports, eyewitness accounts and the latest official data on what is happening in Ukraine”, as the description of one of the marathons reads. Alongside passionate reports from journalists, state TV often uses the same footage that is seen around the world: shelled cities, destroyed houses, dead civilians, bleeding children but it blames it all on the Ukrainian “Nazis”. The newscasts also feature reports from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Lugansk People’s Republic”. While during the beginning of the invasion the focus was on providing round the clock info on Russian army’s “successes”, now the predominant accent is put on showing stories from Luhansk and Donetsk, about the suffering of the Russian population there and also about the humanitarian action of Russia in Ukraine while showing the atrocities of the “Nazis” who are bombing and destroying their own country.

Russian nets also air numerous talkshows which run for hours and feature representatives of government agencies, state organizations and “experts” who are all supporting Putin’s war in one voice. But this voice, one cannot help but notice, gets increasingly angrier. Guests often talk over each other aggressively but not to present their different point of view, they are passionately trying to convince who has the better arguments to support Putin’s agenda. That point of view is accompanied by lies, heroic music, historic flashbacks, and stories of Russian volunteers heroically sacrificing their lives in their fight against fascism, just as they did during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45.

If there are no newscasts or talkshows, major Russian nets air documentaries (which could easily be described as “pseudo” documentaries since the propaganda in them can be seen even by kids and fiction and facts are difficult to be set apart in them) about the heroic past of Russia and the Soviet Union, the savior of Europe who beat the Nazis. Russian nets have also been airing a lot of period dramas lately, focusing on the glorious past of the Soviet Union, the early days of Russia; etc. The Western world is presented as “the enemy”, Russia is not only battling Ukrainian “nationalists” and “Nazis”, it is also bravely standing against the Western powers who threaten its integrity and freedom…

There are news that are missing from the TV reports, however. The regular Russian viewer, relying on TV, won’t learn about the anti-war protests in Moscow and other Russian cities which have resulted in thousands of arrests. Another reality that is hard to disguise is the economic consequences of Putin’s “special operation”. The picture painted on TV is that the state is trying its best to secure the Russian economy against the evil West that has imposed unfair sanctions against the country.

Missing from the newscast is also the number of killed Russian soldiers. Nevertheless, Russian military is strongly present in newscasts – both with regular reports about heroism and awarding brave soldiers; regular briefings from generals and officials about the “successes” of the “operation” and video segments with military strikes as well as numerous reports by reporters embedded with Russian military forces – interestingly enough the reports are mainly if not only from Donetsk and Luhansk…

The intensity of the propaganda and its presence on all channels, genres, are all designed to overwhelm the audience, without any room for questions and doubt. All who dare to question the state policy are deemed traitors. A simple example – the so called main “newscast” on Perviy (Channel One) on March 20 featured a total of 5 segments with Putin 4 of which were aired in the first 20 minutes of the newscast, occupying roughly one third of it. It is also worth noting that the newscasts are not newscasts at all – those are propaganda reels, with music, selective information, paid journalists and people with dubious past presented as “experts”, without differentiating between facts and opinions.

Despite all these efforts, some cracks in state TV propaganda have been observed. On March 14, a woman holding an anti-war sign ran on to the set of Perviy’s main newscast Vremya (Times). The sign, clearly visible behind the presenter, read: “No war, stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here.” The woman was later identified as Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at the channel. Her voice could be heard during the broadcast saying, “No to war! Stop the war!” before the director of the newscast cut early to a recorded news report. Before the protest she recorded a video in which she called events in Ukraine a “crime” and said she was ashamed to work for what she called Kremlin propaganda. In its main newscast on March 20, roughly around one hour after its start, Perviy made an interesting statement on the case, thru its head of news who stood next to the host and called the editor “a traitor”, making reference to the biblical “thirty pieces of silver” and signing off by wishing health to all, without exceptions, even to traitors who have to live with their guilt.

Putin concert For Russia

Earlier, on March 10, viewers heard a part of the truth regarding the war in Ukraine during one of the country’s most-popular state TV programs An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev on Rossiya1 – hosted by one of Russia’s most-popular journalists and “Putin’s propagandist-in-chief” (who is now on the sanctions list of people close to Russia’s president). Semyon Bagdasarov, a MP of the State Duma, called on the Russian president to end the attack, while warning allies like China and India could soon turn their backs on Moscow. “Do we need to get into another Afghanistan, but even worse? There are more people and they’re more advanced in their weapon handling”, he said, “We don’t need that. Enough already.” “This public opinion, with which they’re saturating the entire world, can play out badly for us... Ending this operation will stabilise things within the country.”

On the same show, filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov said: “I have a hard time imagining taking cities such as Kyiv. I can’t imagine how that would look”.

A number of Russian journalists have also started leaving state-controlled Russian TV channels. Lilia Gildeyeva, a well-known host of NTV Russia, who hosted the Segodnya program for many years, quit her job and left Russia. The woman wrote a termination statement from abroad, because she was afraid that she would not be let out of the country.

Is Russian state TV propaganda working and to what extent? Overall, across the series of initial polls, a “silent majority”—about 60% of Russian respondents—indicated that they endorsed the “special military operation” in Ukraine… watching television news positively linked in Russia with trust in Putin and positive perceptions of Russia’s role in the world. By contrast, using the internet and “social media” in Russia produces the reverse pattern, with less trust in Putin and more negative views of Russia’s influence. With radio and newspaper use the patterns are more mixed.”

A more disturbing survey, made by Ukrainian agency Active Group, paints a terrifying picture of Russian society: “86.6% of Russians tolerate and support the potential assault on the territory of the European Union, including: Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and others. 75.5% of Russians approve the idea of a military invasion in the next country and believe that it should be Poland. According to respondents, this is a logical continuation of the so-called “military special operation of the Russian Federation”.

Most likely, state propaganda is not the only thing to blame, and the words of the Belarusian Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich are true: “…a country obsessed with war, a country with a military psyche… The Russian man is not accustomed to a peaceful life. He has always lived in war and in the name of the state - he has never lived for himself. The Russian man has a special attitude to death. And the country itself is deeply incapable of leading a civilian, normal, peaceful life…”
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