Propaganda in the Putin era

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Propaganda in contemporary Russia

Under the regime of President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (°1952), the propaganda and censorship techniques flourish again in Russia. The principles are the same as in the Stalin era, but the methods used are adapted to modern times. Almost all Russian media are controlled by the Kremlin and are often no more than repeating the news items issued by the Kremlin, so that many Russians don't know what's really going on in the world, or even in their own country. The reasoning is reminiscent of the propaganda as it flourished in the time of Bulgakov: the monopoly on information is held by the Kremlin to ensure maximum information security.

The only completely free newspaper in Russia is Новая Газета [Novaya Gazeta] or The New Gazette, for which worked the murdered journalist Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya (1958-2006). Former president Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachov (°1931) helped to set up the newspaper with the money he had earned with his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. Other free media are the radio station Эхо Москвы [Echo Moskvy] or The Moscow Echo and the TV station Телеканал Дождь [Telekanal Dozhd] or The Rain Channel.

The English-language newspaper The Moscow Times, which is distributed for free in Moscow, and owned by the Finnish media company Sanoma, is also fully independent of the Kremlin, but it reaches almost exclusively English-speaking expats and tourists.


Perhaps one of the first major milestones in the control over the Russian media under Putin was the raid of the Kremlin on the TV station NTV. This station was founded by Vladimir Aleksandrovich Gusinsky (°1952) in 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and from the beginning it attracted the best and most distinguished journalists. The station introduced high professional standards in the Russian television and brought sharp analysis of current events. It became a leader of news coverage in the newly created Russian Federation. In the tradition of a free press, the station was also critical towards Vladimir Putin, who was often shown in the weekly satirical show Куклы [Kukly] or Puppets.

Initially, this critical approach was tolerated, but after an episode of Kukly in February 2000, Lyudmila Alekseevna Verbitskaya (°1958), the rector of the Saint Petersburg State University, called to sue the makers of the show. On May 11, 2000, the offices of NTV were attacked by the tax authorities, accompanied by members of the secret police FSB. As happened with other critics of the regime, Gusinsky was arrested and charged with fraud. One year later, on April 14, 2001, NTV was acquired under force by the state energy company Gazprom. Oil tycoon Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky (°1963) had tried to keep the station independent by offering an investment of 200 million, but it didn't help. The acquisition by Gazprom was the end of the station's independency. NTV became one of the many media controlled by the Kremlin and General Manager Vladimir Mikhailovich Kulistikov (°1952) began to systematically exclude any critical coverage of the Kremlin.

Facts and fictions of the Friday briefings

After the acquisition by Gazprom, NTV started attending the so-called Friday briefings, which are formal weekly meetings with the press at the Kremlin, led by Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov (°1964), deputy head of the presidential staff from 1999 to 2011, on which the press is told what can be published and how it should be formulated.

Some striking examples of orchestrated reports in the Russian media can be found in the coverage of the war in Ukraine. When, on July 17, 2014, the Malaysia Airlines plane with flight number MH17 crashed in the eastern Ukrainian village Hrabove in the Donetsk oblast, the Russian newspapers initially didn't mention this tragedy. Afterwards, when it could no longer be ignored, the blame for the crash was put on the Ukrainian government. The most extreme fiction was delivered by the TV channel Russia Today (RT), which quoted a Spaniard who supposedly worked at the air traffic control in Kiev. He would have personally seen that the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter. Fearing the Ukrainian secret service, he would have fled to Spain. The tweets with his «revelations», however, were found to come from London, not from Spain.

Russian soldiers die in Ukraine

As for the war itself, the Kremlin, and therefore also the Russian press, denies that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine. However, for some Russians this war is very real, because every day Russian soldiers are killed in this «non-existing» conflict. Their bodies are transported back to Russia in trucks labelled Груз 200 [Groez 200] of Load 200. Load 200 is a term well known by all Russians, since it is the code widely used for the repatriation of dead bodies from the battlefield. The returned bodies are secretly buried and the families may not communicate about it. Journalists who dare to report the Load 200 activities are often threatened and beaten.

The Russian citizens' movement Открытая Россия [Otkrytaya Rossiya] or Open Russia, created by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, published a detailed list of Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine.

Click here to see the list of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine

On Friday, February 27, 2015, opposition leader Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov (1959-2015) was shot down in Moscow shortly after he had announced that he would publish a detailed report about the Russian involvement in Ukraine under the title Путин. Война. [Putin. Voyna] or Putin. War. After Nemtsov's death, some of his colleagues completed his report and published it on the Internet.

Here you can download Boris Mentsov's report [ru]

On May 28, 2015, Vladimir Putin added a new twist to his formula of deception by decreeing that the deaths or wounds of Russian soldiers in «special operations» can be classified as military secrets, even in peacetime. The decree could lead to the arrest of journalists and human rights activists who gather and publish information about the deaths.

On a personal level, the decree makes it more difficult for relatives to obtain the facts about their soldiers’ deaths or injuriess. Government critics charge that Russia’s refusal to acknowledge that its soldiers are in combat denies them disability payments and their relatives death benefits and other awards.

Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Sergeevich Peskov (°1967), said that the amendment was not tied to Ukraine, but was just «a routine improvement in the law in the area of state secrets».

Version number 6

In April 2000, the Russian newspaper Kommersant was still a more or less independent medium. In that time, journalist Veronika Iosifovna Kutsyllo (°1967), the head of the political editing staff of the weekend supplement Vlast, had got a document entitled Structure of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, which later would get known as Редакция N 6 [Redaktsiya No . 6] or Version number 6, referring to Ward number 6, a popular story from 1892 by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) about a lunatic asylum where a constructed reality collides with real life. The document turned out to be a strategic memorandum circulating in the Kremlin on, among other things, how to deal with the press. Gleb Olegovich Pavlovsky (°1951), an adviser at the staff of Vladimir Putin at the time, did not remember who exactly has written the document, but did confirm its existence. The document stated that the Kremlin had to follow two tracks: an open policy and a secret policy. It explained how leaders need to show «a strictly liberal, law-abiding and constitutional approach» to the outside world, but that their policies also must have a secret component which has to be used «to retain and consolidate power».

The document describes specifically that the Kremlin should control the activities of the media at the federal, regional and local level by «the collection and use of information about the commercial and political activities of all media, about their staff and management, and about their financial, economic, material and technical resources». Furthermore, information has to be collected on the «commercial and political activities of professional journalists, their sources of funding, their places of work, etc.» According to the authors, the information obtained «should be thrown back into society,» but «in the right perspective». The authors also suggested to «collect compromising information about the opposition and the media who sympathize with it», and to «put them in financial difficulties by revoking their licenses and their certificates and by creating conditions in which their activities can't be continued». NTV lost its independence in the time this note was drawn up.

Here you can download the text of Version number 6

Everything under control

Besides the control over the coverage of the news, the Kremlin has also been working on setting prohibitive rules for the information provided by others. More specifically, the social network Facebook, the Google search engine and the message network Twitter were put under fire. According to Maksim Ksenzov, deputy head of Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, these sites are to be considered as «news providers», and must therefore register as such. «These platforms are dangerous for the people», he said, «through these sources, the Russians could get a wrong view on the world». The registration requirement to which he refers applies to all blogs having more than 3,000 visitors per day. They must be registered as «mass media» at Roskomnadzor, with the same duties as newspapers and TV stations, but without journalistic rights.

By the absence of journalistic rights, Roskomnadzor may block access to blogs like those of Garry Kimovich Kasparov (°1963), former chess world champion, and Aleksey Anatolievich Navalny (°1976), a well known dissident who often publishes examples of corruption in Russia. He collects and publishes information on the many proven malpractices carried out by the members of Putin's United Russia party, but his blogs are often not accessible by the Russian public.

Not only writers of blogs are monitored though. More and more readers are followed as well. Since the summer of 2014, it is no longer possible to use wifi anonymously in some public areas. Those who want to access the Internet, need to provide an identification.

«Russification of the media»

In October 2014, President Putin signed a law which stipulated that foreign companies may not have an interest of more than 20 % in Russian media. The law will take effect on January 1, 2016. The main justification was «the desire to provide maximum information security to the Russian people». «When foreigners own the mass media of a country, they have access to people's minds and they can shape the public opinion», said Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky (°1946), born Eidelstein, leader of the LDPR or the Liberal Democrats, a political party founded by the KGB in 1989. And he continued: «We need to draw a clear line: do those foreigners just want to do business or do they want to impose their opinions and change the situation in the country?»

The final piece - so far - in the building of the propaganda machine in today's Russia was the creation of the news agency Sputnik. In December 2013, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree to liquidate the Russian news agency РИА Новости [RIA Novosti] together with the state-run radio station Голос России [Golos Rossii] or The Voice of Russia and merging them into Спутник [Sputnik]. RIA Novosti controls the aforementioned channel Russia Today (RT), which broadcasts news from Russia all over the world in English, German, French, Arabic and Spanish. On April 17, 2012, RT surprised the world by starting the talk show World Tomorrow, hosted by Julian Assange (°1971), the editor-in-chief of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks. The first guest was Hassan Nasrallah (°1960), the leader of the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah.

In line with this media concentration, the search engine Sputnik was launched in 2014. It does not only function as a classic search engine, but also as an Internet portal. The interface is intuitive and shows only the «right» news. It has been calibrated to show the «true nature» of things.

Russia's image abroad

In the preparation of the G8 which Vladimir Putin was organising in 2006 in Saint Petersburg, he started working with the American public relations agency Ketchum, a division of the marketing giant Omnicom. Led by the Director of Corporate and Public Affairs Kathy Jeavons, Ketchum tries to polish the image of Russia abroad. For example, she managed to get Vladimir Putin shown as Person of the Year on the cover of Time in 2007, and to publish a remarkable opinion piece, A Plea for Caution From Russia in The New York Times on September 11, 2013. It was written by Vladimir Putin who could, with this contribution, address directly the American people to clarify his stance on the conflict in Syria. Between 2006 and 2014, Ketchum received 29.5 million dollar from the Russian government and another 32 million dollar from the state-owned company Gazprom. The latter contract has been stopped though in 2014. Ketchum also administered the website, later renamed into Those who rely solely on this website to be informed about Russia, would see a very peaceful ideal country . In March 2014, for example, the headline of this website was not the annexation of the Crimea or the deployment of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, but the opening of a Russian pancake house in New York.

On March 12, 2015 Ketchum announced that they were no longer able to cope with the «information war» by Western media against Russia, and that therefore they would stop their contract with the Russian government. The activities would be further done by their European partner GPlus, a company operating from Brussels, Belgium. GPlus also took over the management of as one can read on the landing page of the site: it contains «Materials disseminated by gplus europe on behalf of the Russian Federation».

However, the Kremlin does not only work with professionals. Just as in the Stalin period, ordinary citizens are used and paid to support the goals of the regime. More and more so-called trolls are used to spread the word on social networks. Trolls are people who, on behalf of the Russian state, post positive comments about the work of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government on Facebook, Twitter, various discussion platforms and other spots on the Internet. They do it on Russian sites, but also on international ones in order to influence the English speaking public opinion. De trolls are working for the Агентство интернет Исследований [Agentsvo internet Issledovany] or Internet Research Agency, operating from an office building at the ulitsa Savushkina no. 55 in Saint-Petersburg.

Click here to read more on the work of the trolls

Brainwashing Camps

Companies like Internet Research Agency often recruit their - mostly young - employees at the so-called Seliger Camp. That's an annual gathering of young people at Lake Seliger, about 350 km from Moscow, with a strong brainwashing character.

Just as the Communist Party at the time of Lenin and Stalin, the people behind Vladimir Putin have understood that an early indoctrination yields loyal and cheap supporters. It started in May 2000, with the creation of Идущие вместе [Idushchiye vmyestye] or Walking Together by the then 29-year-old Vasily Grigoryevich Yakemenko (°1971), an employee of the administration of Vladimir Putin. This youth movement wielded strict rules and strong indoctrination methods reminiscent of the Komsomol in the Soviet era. The members were especially noticed by their actions against the contemporary Russian writer Vladimir Georgievich Sorokin (°1955) and the rock band Leningrad. The symbols and internal practices gave the group quickly the nickname Putinjugend. The activism of the members was promoted with rewards like «stars» and t-shirts with the image of Putin. A member who had earned his first «star», had to find 50 new members. In 2004, Walking Together got into a crisis. One of the group members had become involved in the distribution of pornographic videos, and there were discussions between the financial department in Saint Petersburg and the headquarters in Moscow. It was the signal for the Kremlin to create a new movement on March 1, 2005

The new movement was called Наши [Nashi] or Ours. It had been founded as a reaction to the Orange Revolution in the neighboring Ukraine a year earlier, where protests led by young demonstrators had helped in the election of the pro-Western President Viktor Andriyovych Yuschenko (°1954). Nashi sought to prevent or even break mass demonstrations in Russia by occupying squares before the opposition got the chance to gather there. Again, it was led by Vasily Jakemenko, the man who also was behind Walking Together. According to his own statements, the group received money from the Kremlin. In 2010, it would have been 200 million rubles - at that time worth 5.4 million euros. The aforementioned Vladislav Surkov, the man of the Friday Meetings with the press, is generally regarded as one of the initiators. He dreamed of a paramilitary group that could threaten and attack critics of Putin as «enemies of the state».

On a political training event in 2006, the aforementioned Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky said that, according to him, the Nashi members did not show sufficient brutality: «you must be prepared to break down demonstrations and to use force against any attempt to attack the constitution». Nashi regularly take actions against foreign embassies. In 2006, the movement has been stalking the British Ambassador in Moscow Anthony Brenton (°1950) and his family for four months, seven days a week. The action was organised because Brenton had attended a meeting of the opposition. The group also distributes brochures in which never made statements of politicians fallen from grace such as former Prime Minister Mikhail Mikhailovich Kasyanov (°1957) are presented as actual quotes, or in which the Soviet Union is displayed as a period of material prosperity and abundance. Several members of Nashi have testified that they have received money to take part in demonstrations or counter-demonstrations. A typical fee is 500 rubles. Nashi also provides the public for other projects to glorify the Russian leaders such as, among others, the pretty Medvedev Girls. This group of girls was established on August 4, 2011 and sometimes goes topless to support the policy of Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev (°1965).

In order to broaden the basis to increase the number of young people to join Nashi, the movement Мишки [Mishki] or The Little Bears was founded on December 6, 2007, as a pro-Putin youth movement for the children from 8 to 15 years. Just as Nashi can be compared to the Komsomol, this childrens' movement founded by Yulia Konstantinovna Zimova (°1987) has got strong similarities with the Pioneers from the Soviet period. From a young age, children are already brainwashed to show unconditional love for the person of Vladimir Putin, and they also were mobilized for demonstrations like, among others, the infamous 2012 elections.

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