Robert Coalson looks at how Russian television depicts everything from the crisis in Ukraine to the war in Syria.
Have you heard about the nefarious Polish general who made Napoleon invade Russia? No? You must not have been watching Rossia-1 television on March 31.
According to a documentary aired on Russia’s main state-run channel, General Michal Sokolnicki’s goal was the dismembering of the Russian Empire and the establishment of a Greater Poland extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea, buffered from a rump Russia by a series of garrison states.
“From the report of General Sokolnicki: ‘Cut back thus to its natural limits, cut off from the shores of the Baltic and the Black Sea, separated from the Great Empire [eds: Napoleonic France], watched over by buffer states, and constantly in the sights of an army that is always ready to give a decisive response to aggression, Russia will be forced to give up greedy plans and any temptation to try any kind of usurpation forever.'”
The text of Sokolnicki’s report, which Rossia’s investigators visited in a military archive near Paris, scrolls over a graphic of Europe in flames as the narrator reads it. The documentary, called The War of 1812: The First Information War, notes that part of the Polish design against the Russian Empire was to stir up ethnic conflicts, including with the Crimean Tatars and the peoples of the Caucasus.
Oasis From Europe’s Fascism
March 31 was a relatively staid day on Rossia-1. None of Russia’s most aggressive spokesmen, Dmitry Kiselyov, Aleksei Pushkov, Aleksandr Dugin, for example, were anywhere to be seen. Even President Vladimir Putin was only fleetingly present. Nonetheless, certain themes and moods ran through the entire day: Russia is an oasis of calm good governance in a world of chaos. Fascism is on the march in the world and Russia must be vigilant. The motif of ‘Europe in flames’ played out repeatedly through the day.
In the early evening, there was an hour-long, non-journalistic talk show called ‘On Air Live,’ devoted to events in Ukraine. A range of guests representing positions from the rabidly anti-Maidan to the extremely rabidly anti-Maidan argued on the theme of “the morals of the new Ukrainian elite” while behind them large screens played loops of the burning tires of the Kyiv demonstrations last month.
In passing we learn such “facts” as that former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko finds domestic and foreign enemies “no worse than Stalin did.” That the radical nationalist Right Sector activists are “her storm troopers.” That “hundreds were killed, thousands were crippled, and downtown Kyiv was destroyed” by the Maidan protests.
At one point a man introduced as a psychologist connects Tymoshenko with the figurehead of the White Brotherhood, a bizarre cult that began in Donetsk and swept through the newly independent countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The psychologist says he “noticed” from his research that people who were involved in this sect went on to become “national socialists.”
Toward the end, Sergei Khizhnyak, identified as the head of the NGO Stop Maidan, tells how he had to flee the Kyiv suburb of Boryspil and how his apartment was allegedly looted in this exchange with program moderator Boris Korchevnikov.
Korchevnikov: “What happened to your apartment?”
Khizhnyak: “I came here, evacuating my family. My neighbors called me and said that some people came in masks with guns. They cut down the door and the apartment was completely looted. Everything was removed.”
Korchevnikov: “How can this be in this day and age in the center of Europe?”
The program ends with a priest denouncing the Femen protest movement as “devilish” and saying that Maidan actually began on 17 August 2012, when a topless Femen leader Inna Shevchenko took a chainsaw to an Orthodox cross in support of the Russian performance-art group Pussy Riot.
What Is Not Said
In many ways, the 8 p.m. news broadcast brought the themes of the day together. It was a masterwork of mentioning controversial points as if they were indisputable facts. What was unsaid is as important as what was said: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry spent four hours discussing “the federalisation of Ukraine” in Paris. President Vladimir Putin criticised the “economic blockade” of Moldova’s Transdniester region. The United States “firmly backs terrorists” in Syria.
What was not said was that Kerry told Lavrov there would be no discussion of Ukraine’s domestic affairs without the participation of Ukraine; that Moldova, Ukraine, and the EU deny there are any problems or delays on Transdniester’s borders; and that Russia politically and militarily supports the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has killed tens of thousands of its own citizens over the last three years.
It showed Putin and Sberbank head German Gref discussing the creation of a new Russian electronic-payments system in the next six months. What was not said was that the move is necessary because US sanctions over Crimea prevent Visa and MasterCard from working with Russian banks.
Don’t Look Too Close
Ukraine, of course, was the center of attention and the newsreader betrayed obvious distress when introducing the segment by highlighting the alleged unfair application of justice in southern Ukraine.
“A major scandal in Odesa. Supporters of the new government held a public demonstration in the center of the city. The press secretary of the local office of [Vitali Klitschko’s] UDAR party brazenly burned several St. George ribbons in the eternal flame. And she was not punished. At the same time in Odesa, and also in Kharkiv and Donetsk were reported more detentions and criminal investigations of local residents who liberated government buildings from Nazi groups and who disarmed the outsider Banderites.” Russian sources often refer to Ukrainian activists as followers of World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera.
‘Vesti’ even skirts delicate issues that could evoke unpleasant comparisons with Russia if viewers stopped to think. In one segment, Ihor Massalov, head of an NGO called Honor and Dignity in Kharkiv, complains of harassment from police and security forces, about bias and propaganda in the media, and about the “right” of Ukrainian citizens to hold unauthorized mass demonstrations against the authorities. “People come here to learn the truth and to express their views,” he says. “That is their constitutional right.”
‘Vesti’s’ coverage of elections in France again evokes the theme of “Europe in flames” and a looming fascist threat to Russia even beyond Ukraine’s horizon. The coverage emphasised the showing of the rightist National Front and says Europe’s right-wing parties are poised to make a big showing in the next European Parliament elections. The successes of rightist forces across Europe was attributed to the social tolerance of Western governments, including the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
That segment provides an excellent segue to allow the day’s broadcasting to end where it began, in Napoleonic Europe. 31 March, we are told, is the 200th anniversary of the Russian Army’s triumphal entry into Paris after chasing Napoleon back all the way from Moscow.
“Today in Russia we are marking the 200th anniversary of the entry of the Russian Army into Paris. On March 31, 1814, the Russian Empire brought an end the epoch of the bloody Napoleonic wars and became the leading military and political power on the continent. The events that took place in the capital of France laid the foundation for many years of peaceful development in Europe.”
After that, the dulcet tones of the theme song to ‘Good Night, Little Ones’ were played, followed by a short, animated bedtime story. Then an evening mix of Russian-made serials, an episode of ‘Law And Order,’ and a documentary about the effort to extend human life.
It was a long, exhausting day. But the flames of the outer world did not not breach Russia’s stronghold. And in six months, Rossia-1 says, the Motherland will even have its own credit card.
Robert Coalson is a Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty correspondent, covering Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Balkans and the South Caucasus. This article was first published on Radio Free Europe. It was republished with permission.