Inside Putin’s Information War

Inside Putin’s Information War

I spent years working for Russian channels. What I saw would terrify the West.

By PETER POMERANTSEV

January 04, 2015
There were more than 20 of us sitting around the long conference table: tanned broadcasters in white silk shirts, politics professors with sweaty beards and heavy breath, ad execs in trainers—and me. There were no women. Everyone was smoking. There was so much smoke it made my skin itch.

It was 2002, and I was just out of university, living in Moscow and working at a think tank meant to be promoting Russian-U.S. political ties. A friendly Russian publisher who wanted me to work for him had invited me to what would be my first meeting in Moscow. And that’s how I ended up surrounded by Russian media gurus tucked away on the top floor of Ostankino, the Soviet-era television center that is the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda—home to the studios of the country’s biggest channels. Here, Moscow’s flashiest minds gathered for a weekly brainstorming session to decide what Ostankino would broadcast.

At one end of the table sat one of the country’s most famous political TV presenters. He was small and spoke fast, with a smoky voice: “We all know there will be no real politics,” he said. “But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained.”

“So what should we play with?” he asked. “Shall we attack oligarchs? Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like a movie!”

More than a decade later, that movie is increasingly dark and disturbing. The first thing Russian militias do when they take a town in East Ukraine is seize the television towers and switch them over to Kremlin channels. Soon after, the locals begin to rant about fascists in Kyiv and dark U.S. plots to purge Russian speakers from East Ukraine. It’s not just what they say but how they say it that is so disturbing: irrational spirals of paranoia, theories so elaborate and illogical one can’t possibly argue with them.

This is even before the bombs start falling on them: “Information war is now the main type of war,” says the Kremlin’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kieselev, “preparing the way for military action.” And Putin’s Russia is very good at it, having combined the dirtiest mechanisms of PR, brainwashing techniques pioneered in cults and a rich KGB tradition of psy-ops into a sort of television Frankenstein with which it controls its own population, conquers neighboring countries and attacks the West.

It poses new dangers. And I know, because I saw it grow.

***

During the Soviet era television was an insipid affair. There were five channels, though many regions received only two—“one that shows endless partly leader speeches,” went a common joke, “another that shows endless ballet.” In the anti-Perestroika coup of 1991, when Communist hardliners tried to seize power back from the reformers in a dramatic prelude to the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the channels showed Swan Lake on an endless loop. But in the new, cut-throat democracy of the 1990s, which became nicknamed ‘dermocracy’ or ‘shitocracy’ by Russian critics, TV moved to the center of politics, as oligarchs gained control of the major channels to play kingmaker in an age when elections, popularity and image suddenly mattered.

As soon as Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency in 2000, he seized control of television, arresting and exiling the oligarchs who stood in his way. In a country covering nine time zones and one-sixth of the world’s land mass, stretching from the Pacific to the Baltic, from the Arctic to the Central Asian deserts, from near-medieval villages where people still draw water from wooden wells by hand, through single-factory towns and back to the blue glass and steel skyscrapers of the new Moscow—TV is the only force that can unify, rule and bind the people.

It is television through which the Kremlin declares which politicians it will “allow” as its puppet opposition, what the country’s history and fears and consciousness should be. At the center of the great show is President Putin himself, nothing more than a set of colored pixels on a screen, morphing as rapidly as a performance artist among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, business man, spy, tsar, superman. “The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions, make him the president,” TV producers and spin-doctors liked to say to me. In that smoky room, I had the sense that reality was somehow malleable, that I was sitting in a group of Prosperos who could project any existence they wanted onto post-Soviet Russia.

The 21st century Kremlin might be controlling the media just as it did in the Soviet era, but there’s one mistake today’s Russian will never repeat: It will never let television become dull. In fact, the goal is to synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment—and for that it needs the help of Western producers whom.

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