Another day of crisis in Ukraine, another day of Vesti, one of the flagship news programs on Russian state TV. Wednesday’s broadcast led off with a report from the newborn “Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” where, as the voice-over intones, “state institutions are rapidly taking shape.” The new republic’s armed forces and the new border guard service (who are both equipped and uniformed exactly like Russia’s) are getting down to work. All this is happening, apparently, entirely spontaneously—there’s nary a mention of the involvement of Russian troops or officials. All is calm in Crimea, apparently: As the camera pans over tidy buildings and happy passersby in the capital of Simferopol, the commentator is at pains to contrast the scene with the burnt-out buildings and smoldering barricades in Kiev.
Next there’s footage of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Kiev, where, we’re told, “The United States is unreservedly supporting those who came to power through a coup.” After Kerry’s meeting with the leaders of Ukraine’s interim government, we see him shaking hands with leaders of the Euromaidan protest movement; the commentator pointedly notes that Kerry’s encounter with these “ultrarightists” is even “friendlier” than his session with the representatives of the government.
That’s followed by a sequence on demonstrations across Russia in support of the “Russian-speaking population” in Crimea. The demonstrators stand in serried ranks, holding neatly lettered signs proclaiming “We’re against fascism” and “Glory to Berkut” (the notorious Ukrainian riot police who were responsible for much of the violence against the demonstrators in Kiev, where more than 80 protesters were killed). Then the show’s host announces a “breaking story”: An official in Oslo says that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And with that the news comes to an end.
This is a remarkable moment in the evolution of Russia’s post-Soviet media landscape. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of unprecedented press freedom. As was to be expected, that flowering wasn’t always tidy. Corruption among journalists was rife, and many media outlets were controlled by well-connected business tycoons, the “oligarchs,” who often used the reporters in their employ to further their private agendas. Overall, though, pluralism reigned. Competing viewpoints proliferated.
Putin, of course, put an end to all that. He restored state control over much of the media—especially when it came to national television networks, by far the leading source of news for the bulk of the population. One of his first acts as president was to crack down on the last big private TV broadcaster, NTV, chasing its oligarch owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, into exile. Putin’s plans went much further, though, than simply re-establishing the government’s monopoly over the media that mattered. He also had some very specific ideas about the content he wanted to see.
The turmoil in Ukraine is now revealing, more dramatically than any other event in recent memory, the fruits of Putin’s effort to re-engineer the national soul. It’s an odd farrago of Soviet-era memes, nationalist chestnuts, and postmodern meta-narratives, all the disparate elements uneasily suspended in a bubbling broth of paranoia and defensiveness.
Putin’s latest press conference—his first after days of silence—showcased the paradoxes underlying the new Russian worldview. He told reporters that he sympathized with the Ukrainian protesters who brought down Viktor Yanukovych, then hazarded the claim that the killings of demonstrators had been arranged by the protesters themselves as a provocation. He insisted that Yanukovych is still the legitimate leader of Ukraine, then went on to describe him as a man with “no political future.” He refused to acknowledge that the Russian soldiers besieging Ukrainian military bases in Crimea are acting on Russian orders, doggedly maintaining the transparent fiction that the only forces acting in Moscow’s interest on the peninsula are remarkably well-organized local “self-defense committees.” And he cited the independence of Kosovo as a precedent for the establishment of a Russian-dominated republic in Crimea—even though Russia spent years stubbornly rejecting Kosovo’s claims for statehood as a violation of Yugoslavia’s sovereignty.