Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 17 January 2023

Russians are living in a frightening, distorted reality

Opinion by Vladimir Kara-Murza

January 17, 2023 at 20:00 Japan Time

PRETRIAL DETENTION CENTER 5, Moscow — Among the most stressful aspects of Russian prison life is exposure to government propaganda. Every cell I’ve been in has a television that is constantly turned on — and, with brief respites such as soccer matches during the recent FIFA World Cup, most of the airtime across all major networks is taken up by relentless pro-regime and pro-war messaging not dissimilar to the “Two Minutes Hate” from George Orwell’s 1984. Except that, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, televised hate goes on for hours.

Propaganda is not limited to news bulletins and talk shows — it also permeates documentaries, cultural programs and even sports coverage. New Year’s Eve, when millions of Russians tune in to listen to popular songs and watch favorite movies, was also filled with propaganda messages.

The leitmotifs are always the same: Russia is surrounded by enemies. The West seeks to humiliate and dismember it. The Soviet Union was a noble and benevolent state — “the empire of good,” as chief TV propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov put it in a film broadcast on New Year’s Eve — that was destroyed by a mischievous scheme of the Reagan administration with help from domestic traitors. The only reason Russia still exists is because Putin is there to protect it. Ukraine is a Western puppet state run by neo-Nazis through which the United States and NATO are trying to attack Russia. And Russian soldiers on the front lines are heroes defending the motherland.

And so on — day after day, for hours on end. This is the distorted reality that millions of Russians have lived in for years — and it is frightening.

Despite its intensity, Kremlin propaganda is showing signs of losing its effectiveness. Surveys show that the audiences of all three main television networks are overwhelmingly older; younger Russians prefer to get their news from online sources — and find ways to overcome state-imposed firewalls to do it. Last year, Russia shot up to second place worldwide in the downloads of VPN services that give access to websites blocked by the government; the messaging app Telegram now has a larger audience in Russia than state television. A recently leaked secret poll commissioned by the Kremlin showed that Russians strongly favor a peaceful settlement with Ukraine over continuing the war — hardly a result sought by state propaganda.

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