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Blank Signs

By Charlie Taylor

On 14 March 2022, Marina Osvyannikova, an editor at Channel One News, interrupted a live broadcast of Russian flagship programme Vremya by holding up a sign protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Russian and English, the sign stated: ‘Stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda here, you are being lied to.’ Yet Marina wasn’t charged for protesting the actions of the Kremlin on prime-time television, but for supposedly spreading false information and fake news.

Following the invasion on 24 February, sporadically organised protests took to Russia’s streets. For some, protesting simply took the form of chanting anti-war slogans or laying flowers at war monuments across Russia. In Novosibirsk, following the partial mobilisation of Russian troops, a circle of people gathered outside the town hall calling for peace and an end to the war. In Moscow’s Red Square holding up a blank sign could instigate arrest. Elsewhere others burnt down draft offices.

But what had happened to Russia's dissident media? The spectre of war forced journalists westward towards ever more uncertain times; following the closure of borders to Europe anti-Putin intellectuals, writers, and journalists left for Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, and Istanbul. As journalist Masha Gessen argues, ‘they have left because the Russia they have built and inhabited is disappearing – and the more people who leave, the faster it disappears.’ Fearing much worse was to come, dissenters realised that now was the time to leave. Reductionist logic often characterises how Western outlets have tended to report on or corroborate information about the Kremlin’s methods of controlling the public sphere. Just recently Mark Galeotti for The Times characterised Putins increased domestic control as evidence of Russia slowly becoming like 'North Korea'. Beyond notions of blanket censorship or blown-up reports of state propaganda influence, the Kremlin has much more sophisticated and subtle methods of manipulating public media. The emerging information war is far more complex than it is represented, a game of smoke and mirrors rather than a protracted conflict of discourses. As dissident academic Ilya Budraitski argues, Western media outlets inadvertently continue to perpetrate a narrative which combines stereotypes of a ‘tyrannical government, a loyal patriotic majority that supports it, and a handful of dissidents who struggle against it’. However this view coincides with the official line of Russian propaganda. The Kremlin wants its policies to portray, opposition media as under the control of foreign states subverting Russia’s national interests. It's no surprise that the inostrannogo agenta (foreign agent) law introduced in 2012 to declare any group or organisation accepting financial influence to declare oneself as ‘foreign agents’ has been broadened to close and discredit independent media, humanitarian groups, and NGOs.

The Russian State has maintained an increasingly central role over national media institutions, developing its own tangled web of bureaucratic censors and a nationalised media which seeks to subvert independent journalism and the free press. While its roots date back to the late 2000s, the suppression of dissenting voices significantly ramps up following moments of domestic crisis prompting larger crackdowns. Putin’s presidential bid in 2012 saw allegations of vast vote-rigging and the breaking of the constitution, in response major protests broke out – famously including the Bolotnaya Square riots - Following the crackdowns on protest, in an address to the Federal Assembly in December 2012, Putin moved towards the right, emphasising the need to strengthen ‘spiritual’ and ‘traditional’ values in response to Russia’s ‘demographic and moral crisis.’ Putin continued his own role in managing a depoliticised consensus over a transition to globalised capitalist ‘normality,’ yet now he adopted a new political language to preserve his hegemony over the regime. This was one which focused on a rhetoric of Russia as an underdog fighting against Western social and cultural values.

It was within this new domestic political context that Putin moved against the media. In 2013 during his annual question and answer session (titled 'The Direct Line with Vladimir Putin') he declared that while an independent media should continue to exist, state-funded media must be ‘run by patriots who protect Russia’s national interests.’ This followed on from strategic ideas suggested by Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian army, who saw Western mass media as provoking the Colour Revolutions of the early 2000s in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Without further national control over the media, popular revolts could emerge ‘in a matter of months and even days’. The Kremlin was faced with an ultimatum to quell domestic anger by strengthening its hand over mass media. Within this context Rossiya Segodnya was formed. Owned and operated by the Russian government, it brought what had once been impartial news media networks under the umbrella of the state. RIA Novosti and the Voice of Russia radio network were now in the hands of the supposed patriots, independent media was increasingly being squeezed to the periphery of the public sphere.

Even before the war in Ukraine broke out, the Kremlin had been further extending its control over the media sphere. Its protracted information war escalated following opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s return from exile in Germany in January of 2021. However, the war has ushered in unprecedented new levels of control. Some 7,000 websites, regional agencies, foundations, and independent media outlets have been blocked from public view. Large-scale independent media sources were wiped out almost overnight. Novaya Gazeta, the only remaining daily independent newspaper, ceased publication until the end of the war, while Dozhd (TV Rain) and Echo of Moscow were either blocked or stopped broadcasting in Russia. Like many others, opposition news outlet Meduza evacuated its staff, editors, and journalists into the Baltics to protect their staff fearing the outbreak of martial law and state reprisals. As Ivan Kolpakov, co-founder of Meduza, writes, ‘Russia is apparently losing the war in Ukraine. But it has won the war against its own independent journalists inside the country.’ The information loop has become increasingly contained by the government.

Within Russia the law itself has been changed to tighten state control over media outlets, by re-defining reporting in vague terms. On 4 March Putin signed a new bill criminalising spreading what was termed ‘false information’ about the Russian military, with journalists forced to comply with official descriptions of the conflict (e.g. not describing it as a ‘war’ but a ‘special military operation’). Opponents could face up to ten years in prison for breaking these new terms. So far there has been little logic behind the arrests, with some 3,800 administrative cases for ‘discrediting’ the Russian army, mainly focusing on individuals rather than organisations. Journalists, however, tend to be especially targeted. Andrei Soldatov was put on the federal wanted list after being accused of ‘spreading false information,’ mainly due to critical posts about the war in Ukraine. In one particularly high-profile case, prominent dissident journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, having previously survived two poisoning attempts by the Kremlin, was imprisoned in April for spreading ‘false information’ about the military. This was due to a speech given to Arizona House representatives where he denounced the Russian invasion.

The scale of control and censorship has escalated as the war progresses ever further. Adam Satariano and Paul Mozur’s New York Times investigation into Russia’s surveillance state, based on leaked documents from Bashkorstostan’s office of the Russian regulator Roskommadzor, shows how this process works in practice on a minute level. Officers meet to unmask the faces behind anti-government accounts and accumulate a vast amount of information from social media sites, posts, videos, and comments. Roskommadzor, which emerged in 2008 to regulate radio signals and TV stations, has grown to include having control over blocklists on the Internet and social media. Its remit remains increasingly broad, focusing not only on those linked to opposition movements around Alexei Navalny, but also what it terms ‘destabilising subjects’ such as dissidents who push for social issues like ‘sexual freedoms’ or drug legalisation, and now increasingly dissident or ‘false’ information about the war.

Behind this crackdown is a vague Kremlin ideology, based around some key ideas: namely an anti-Western Russian nationalist position. This ideological basis builds on a broad range of signifiers, ideas such as the nezakonchennoy voyny (unfinished war) which calls back to the memory of Russia’s involvement in WW2 and the post-2014 separatism in the Donbass. The very vagueness of this ideological language allows a broader consensus to emerge, one which is vigorously anti-Western while promoting Russia’s own national course.

Since 2014 ‘national patriotism’ has gained more and more influence among elites, bringing together imperial and intellectual nostalgia for Imperial Russia and the Soviet political-military establishment. Far-right think tank the Izaborsk Club has received increased ideological attention by both the president and the Russian state, receiving both state funding, with increasing influence following Putin’s increasingly conservative during following the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis. Over the summer of 2021 Putin appropriated this discourse, writing an article on the ‘historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ echoing these right-wing groups, he exterpolated an idea of 'Ukranian fascism' justifying Russian interests.

However, while this elite discourse shapes discussions of the war in largely closed circles, ordinary Russians are hardly won over by the discourse of select think-tanks. Instead, social media is far more effective at spreading propaganda. Telegram accounts of military and political figures are particularly influential, reaching millions of followers and hard-line supporters of the war. These channels portray the conflict through individual acts of heroism, spread evidence of Ukrainian corruption, and celebrate Ukranian losses while playing up Russian victories. A post shared by TV presenter Vladimir Solvyov to his 1.2 million Telegram followers claimed foreign mercenaries in Kharkiv were speaking English and helping in the push against Russian forces. Elsewhere on Telegram the war is portrayed as one of a Russian army fighting to stop Zelensky’s apparent intention to impose corrupt Western social and cultural values onto Ukraine. Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chair of the Security Council of Russia, celebrated Unity Day on 4 November, by publishing a piece on Telegram called ‘Why Our Cause is Just’. This casus belli included assertions that a ‘dying world’ consisting of ‘crazy Nazi drug addicts, their stupefied and sacred people’ are waging a combined war against Russia. Those who left the nation in its time of need were ‘greedy defectors’ who would ‘rot in exile’.

Since the Kharkiv counteroffensive on 6 September, resulting in nearly a complete rout of Russian forces, media language has changed. Pro-Kremlin papers now accept and report on Ukrainian advances but downplay either Russian losses or branch out to consider foreign collusion. Once the initial shock of a potential Russian military collapse subsided, military figures called for more extreme measures. Igor Girkin, a Russian leader of Ukrainian separatists, brought forward calls for complete mobilisation of the economy and the imposition of martial law. A debate following the rout on NTV’s political programme, mesto vstrechi (rendezvous point) saw heated discussions, yet even still the media sphere is carefully controlled. An ex-Duma deputy Boris Nadezhdin called into question the special operation, that winning the conflict was impossible ‘I’m suggesting peace talks about stopping the war, and moving on to dealing with political issues,’ the ensuing debate with Sergey Mironov, a State Duma deputy wearing a yellow Z badge, deconstructed his argument – suggesting the only credible response is full one mobilisation and no concessions to be given to ‘Zelensky’s Nazi regime,’ the need for more resources to fight against the ‘NATO Bloc.’

How effective is this protracted information war? Accurate data is hard to come by, yet if anything, the Kremlin’s goal to confuse the public, stopping the opposition from properly articulating its own position, through flooding the public sphere with incoherent talking points. The Kremlin's capacity to induce wider influence is more problematic. Despite the fact that some 62% of Russians get their news from state-controlled sources, polling shows even today most Russians are favourable towards Ukrainians (66%), and the protests particularly on Russia’s periphery following the partial mobilisation suggests the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is less effective than it appears on the surface.

The solution isn’t necessarily clear either. Russian independent media fails to reach out to older generations, largely engaging with a younger generation who read Western media and already oppose Putin. As Ilya Budraitski points out in an interview with Dissident Magazine, New Media organisations still suffer the same problems: ‘They’re talking the same talk’ that ‘Putin is a Soviet zombie who is trying to occupy the world.’ While Russian independent media still survives in the West, its relocation outside of the country is a tacit acknowledgement of its inability to directly affect national change. Smoke and mirrors continue to cloud Russian media, a game of words push the regime further into an age beyond post-truth.

CHARLIE TAYLOR reads History at Christ Church, each morning he wakes in a frenzy due to the inability for any tower in this city to not be constantly ringing.

Art by Eloise Cooke


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