Russia: Kremlin propaganda and the free press #ijf15

by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski

(photo via Flickr)

A phone call from Moscow

A phone call from Moscow, a few months ago, NTV channel calling. Perhaps you would be willing to come to Moscow and take part in our political talk show next Sunday. I wanted to know who would be the host and what would be the subject of our discussion. President Putin was not invited to Poland to attend the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. We want to discuss it, how they are trying to rewrite history in the West in order to diminish Russia’s role in World War II.

I knew at once it was risky to accept. The host of the show was to be Andrei Norkin, a well-known Kremlin propagandist. The NTV channel’s reputation was even worse: it has produced a number of propaganda films targeting the the Russian opposition and describing it as a fifth column and national traitors.

But I agreed. I thought I had a chance. The show was to be shown live, my Russian was good and I believed in the power of my arguments. I was totally wrong. In the studio I was confronted with a hostile audience and a handful of well-known Kremlin propagandists. They did not speak, they all shouted. I was the first one to answer the presenter’s question. Yes, I said, we have the right to look at history from different points of view, our interpretation of history changes, we learn new facts, we see them in a new light. In 1945 the Red Army liberated Poland and Eastern Europe from the Nazis, but at the same time it used its power to introduce the new communist system in the region. According to the Yalta agreements between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt several Eastern European countries were recognised as the within the USSR zone of influence. The Poles did not want it and this led to new bloodshed and the loss of thousands of lives.

The audience went mad, my opponents threw as much dirt at me as they could. The Red Army saved you. You do not appreciate it. We paid for it in blood. You in the West keep trying to hit the Russian heart with an axe. They did not want to hear anything about the post-war Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the 1956 Budapest uprising, the 1968 Prague spring, or the Solidarnosc rebellion in Poland in 1980. I tried to answer, and tell them that even Soviet soldiers during the Stalinist times were victims of his mad repression machine. Each time I tried to open my mouth I was totally ignored by the presenter and heard the audience throwing insults at me. I became enemy number one.

Brainwashing the audience

The prime time NTV show is usually watched by millions of viewers. They all had a chance to see how I tried to “distort” World War II history for the sake of current Western political interests. And how real Russian patriots were fighting for its true and authentic version. As for me, I had a chance to feel the power of the Kremlin propaganda machine.

All Russian mainstream media, especially national television channels, work like this. They listen to instructions from the Kremlin. They blacklist anybody who has been seen sympathizing with the opposition. In order to support and justify the Kremlin’s Ukrainian policy they have created an alternative reality which has little to do with real life. On Russian television screens or in tabloid newspapers such as Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kyiv is now being controlled by a Nazi junta and the Donbass separatists are fighting for their legitimate rights, freedom and justice. As a result, according to numerous opinion polls, more than 80% of Russians declare their support for president Vladimir Putin and his policy. Kremlin opponents, democratic activists, NGOs, and the small group of independent media are presented as traitors helping Russia’s enemies to achieve their objectives.

The hard life of independent media

Putin’s Russia is not a country which encourages free media and independent journalism.

Galina Timchenko developed, Russia’s most popular Internet news service. Her team worked round the clock according to the highest professional standards, they would never censor any reports in order to please the authorities. The Kremlin was most angered by the coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. In order to discipline the defiant service it told its owner, billionaire Alexander Mamut, to sack Timchenko. Most of her team left too in a gesture of solidarity. has not disappeared from the web, but is now only a shadow of what it used to be in the past.

Founded in 1993, the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazyeta has never had an easy life. It paid the highest price for its independent reporting on Chechen wars, corruption and political repression. Three well known Novaya Gazyeta journalists (Anna Politkovskaya, Yuri Shtchekotchikhin and Igor Domnikov) were shot dead in revenge for their independent reporting. The newspaper’s recent reports told the truth about regular Russian army units taking part in the Ukrainian conflict. Novaya‘s coverage of the Boris Nemtsov murder disclosed sensational details of political infighting between rival factions of the Putin regime. The Kremlin did not wait too long to strike back. Suddenly the rental price of Novaya’s office increased 700%. Billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who has bankrolled the newspaper for years, has announced he would be no longer able to continue as the authorities in revenge destroyed his business operations. And as a result editor-in-chief Dmitri Muratov warned in mid-March that the newspaper may wrap up its printed version already in May. According to Muratov the future of its website also remains uncertain.

The story of the independent channel TV RAIN is equally disturbing (editor-in-chief Mikhail Zygar and his deputy Tikhon Dzyadko took part as speakers in the 2014 festival). The five-year-old station has been under permanent pressure from the Kremlin hardliners. Two years ago the authorities told Russian cable networks to remove TV RAIN from their viewing lists and the station lost millions of viewers. When this turned out not to be enough to destroy the station, Kremlin operatives warned the owners of the TV RAIN studio not to extend the rental agreement. Alternative studios have been also warned about serious problems if they signed a contract with the embattled station. The homeless TV RAIN moved into the private apartment of its founder and CEO Natalya Sindeeva (she appeared via Skype at 2013 Perugia festival). The provisional studio was too small to invite guests for interviews. They had to be filmed outside. But the station has remained alive thanks to the support from thousands of viewers watching on the internet and willing to pay a subscription fee.

In today’s Russia there is hardly a media outlet which has shown a degree of independence which has not been confronted with obstacles created by the authorities. At the end of 2014 the popular Moscow radiostation Ekho of Moscow was targeted; it survived thanks to the diplomatic skills of its editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov. Svetlana Mironyuk, liberal CEO of the giant state information agency RIA NOVOSTI was replaced. A few weeks ago pro-Kremlin demonstrators gathered in front of the Moscow office of the American funded Svoboda (Liberty) radio. They came there to say how much they despised anti-Russian American-funded propaganda. But Svoboda together with the Russian service of the BBC and Voice of America has many fans; during the communist period they all had huge audiences listening to them on short wave. Now Svoboda is present mostly in the web, but the Kremlin doesn’t like its independent news reporting and coverage of the activities of the democratic opposition. Additionally, the Russian parliament passed new laws allowing censorship of the Internet. Blogs and websites (such as the site of popular opposition activist Alexei Navalny or, the internet magazine funded by former world chess champion and opposition politician Garri Kasparov) can be now blocked by the state agency ROSKOMNADZOR if they are found to have promoted extremist views or to have offended the religious feelings of the faithful. It is up to the authorities to decide what is extremist and what is not.

They go on regardless

But even in these extremely difficult circumstances Russia can boast a number of great independent media outlets. We have already mentioned some of them, TV RAIN and Novaya Gazyeta. A few other titles have to be mentioned too, notably The New Times weekly headed by Yevgeniya Albats, the political and economic portal, Russia’s Financial Times Vedomosti daily newspaper, covering culture and politics and from Yekaterinburg focusing on regional and national politics. Arkadi Babchenko, Andrei Malgin, Rustem Adagamov, Alfred Kokh (some of them blogging from abroad, Malgin from Italy) are running hugely popular Facebook sites or live journal blogs.

There has been also a number of new media projects and initiatives. Having left Galina Timchenko and Ivan Kolpakov founded, the news and features website. It was an instant success. Its journalists and correspondents work in Russia, but the headquarters have been set up in Riga, Latvia, far away from Kremlin jurisdiction. officially says it is more than a media project, it is a political platform funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky for those who want to change Russia’s political trajectory. But it produces great text and video content focusing mostly on human rights and protest movements. Mediazone is a web project launched by Pussy Riot stars Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina covering the Russian penal system.

Festival events

The 2015 International Journalism Festival will focus on Russian independent media. Their biggest success last year was unbiased reporting on the Ukrainian crisis. Their reports helped a lot of international media to tell the truth about events in Ukraine. Festival attendees will be able to meet Timur Olevsky of TV RAIN, Pavel Kanygin of Novaya Gazyeta, Marina Akhmedova of the Russkiy Reportyor weekly and Mumin Shakirov of Svoboda radio, in “The war in Ukraine in the eyes of Russian independent media“. They reported from the battlefield, they risked their lives in order to send their dispatches on the most dangerous episodes of the Ukrainian war or the annexation of Crimea. Their narrative was totally different from that of Russia’s official media. We regret we could not invite some others, but at least their names deserve a mention; Yelena Kostyuchenko (Novaya Gazyeta), Ilya Barabanov (Kommersant daily), Ilya Azar (,, Ilya Vasyunin (Russkaya Planyeta) helped Russia and the world to understand the nature of the Ukrainian crisis.

The second Russian event at the festival, “Russian independent media: how to function under Putin’s regime“, will focus on strategies of independent Russian media, how to stay alive and to expand their audience. Veronika Koutsyllo (editor-in-chief of, Maria Makeeva (1st deputy editor-in-chief of TV RAIN), Ivan Kolpakov (deputy editor-in-chief of and Oleg Kashin via Skype ( website) will share their experiences. Are they afraid of possible repression? Is there a risk of greater censorship in Russia and of the Kremlin using even stronger methods in its war with the independent media? What are the most efficient methods of coping with Kremlin propaganda? What about new projects? Is it better to develop them in Russia or abroad?

And last but not least, if I get another phone call from the Moscow-based NTV channel I now know I should say no. For sure, it is better to avoid the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.