Russians Unconvinced By TV Coverage of Economic Crisis

Russian state-run television has painted a rosy picture of the economic crisis, even as more ordinary Russians feel the effects of layoffs and uncertainty. Journalist Kirill Rogov writes that the propaganda approach is failing, and suggests that authorities “need to either put politics back on television or take it off the streets.”

The article first ran in the liberal Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

“The End of Television: The Propaganda Machine Created by the Kremlin Turned Out To Be Useless When it Attempted to Persuade People That They Had Not Taken to the Streets. Now OMON Will Explain the Authorities’ Position.”
Novaya Gazeta
December 23, 2008

In recent years the Russian population has, on the whole, demonstrated very high levels of trust in the central television channels and very high levels of complaisance in embracing the world view offered by these channels.

In general terms, this view has consisted of three main elements. In one part appeared marginalized liberals, American imperialists, British spies, Georgian militarists, Islamic terrorists and other vermin hostile to the average Russian’s prosperity. Shown in another part were signs of the steady improvement in this very same Russian’s prosperity and the universal indications of Russia’s rebirth as a whole. The third part was devoted to portraying the life and toils of Vladimir Putin, who was protecting those who belonged to the second part from the persons of the first, who were threatening their peace and future well-being.

The image of the light side of the moon convinced those citizens whose affairs went well during this period that their personal successes were not accidental or transient, but part of the common future outlined by the man at the helm. The image of the dark side of the moon convinced those whose affairs were not going so well that the world is even worse and more dangerous than the dark, dreary corners and eternal smoke of their native Uryupinsk’s heating plants, a backwater from which there was no escape.

However, this whole construction, ostensibly so harmonious and stable, quickly begins to creak and wobble as soon as Maritime Krai’s [also known as Primorsky Krai, home to Vladivostok] excited inhabitants discover that they and their protests have no place in it. It transpires that they were not hooked on their daily serving of propaganda, that they did not love it more than all other dishes on Earth, but simply swallowed it down before dinner by force of habit, while there was dinner. It turns out that, unlike, for example, the Soviet philistines of the mid-1980s, they still consider themselves to be inhabitants of a more or less democratic country, where the authorities do not have the right to disconnect them from the world grid at the television censor’s discretion.

The attempt to correct this state of affairs by showing an alternative view of the world from the television screen — showing protests in support of increasing tariffs — turned out to be sufficiently absurd and short-sighted. Firstly, this doubly offended the opponents of increasing tariffs: Their protests “against” were not shown, and attempts were made to block them, but protests “in support” were organized and shown with relish. Secondly, in seeking to present the tariff problem as a clash of just two public lobby groups, the producers evidently forgot how many Russians drive second-hand foreign cars, and that the effective curtailment of credit closes off the option of purchasing a new foreign car, even for those who could afford this earlier.

However, the problem facing the authorities with regard to the motorists’ protests is much more complicated and broader than the issue of foreign brands. The problem is that if protests — the number of which will only grow — are not shown on television, then this, in crisis conditions, will lead to a pretty rapid loss of faith in the broadcast image per se; but if they are shown, this could destroy the clearly constructed world view that this image has helped to create.

As the experience of recent months demonstrates, the efficiency of the information machine built by the Kremlin dwindles rapidly as soon as peoples’ real interests become involved. And it transpires that the very same people, who only yesterday apparently swallowed so willingly the story of the rock that representatives of a non-profit organization allegedly used to communicate with MI6 through the fence of the British embassy, are not so easily conned on issues that relate to them personally. Thus, having heard in October the premier’s explanation (whom they all, to a man, believe) that the crisis was raging in America but not here, people set off in an organized manner to withdraw their deposits from the banks and purchase dollars.

In essence, the authorities are now facing a tough choice: They need to either put politics back on television or take it off the streets. The political construction of soft oil authoritarianism is not capable of shouldering the coming crisis, and there is clearly not sufficient money (as seemed possible as late as October) to plug all the holes that have appeared. Mobilization or liberalization? For the time being the authorities are preparing for both scenarios. Such a measure as the abolition of jury trials for participants in riots is a small step in the direction of the first scenario, and such a gesture as appointing Mr Belykh as Kirov governor is a hint at the possibility of the second. However, supporters of the first route are currently clearly stronger, more organized and, most importantly, more decisive than supporters of the second. And the chances of a decision to that effect can probably be estimated as two to one. However, a final choice has most probably been postponed for the New Year holidays.