A couple of weeks ago, on the train between Vladivostok and Ulan-Ude, I befriended a 28-year-old army officer who was celebrating the end of his 10-year commission and heading back from Khabarovsk to his wife and child in the capital of Buryatia. Having read somewhere that it was the right thing to do, I proceeded to get him very drunk, only realising the next morning, as he stumbled about looking like death, that his posting probably meant that he hadn’t enjoyed a drink in a while. This didn’t seem to concern him during the drinking itself, however, and, after a few shots of Russian Standard, talk turned, inevitably, to politics.
The soldier couldn’t do anything but roll his eyes when Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to win this weekend’s presidential election, was mentioned. Pointing to the cask of wine that he had contributed to the evening’s festivities, and then at the plastic cup sitting next to it, he proceeded to switch their positions on the table, once, twice, endlessly. Prime Minister Putin’s decision to swap positions with President Dmitry Medvedev kicked off this winter of discontent nearly six months ago and, more than the fraudulent parliamentary election, more than the televised attacks on the opposition protests that followed it, the blatant, anti-democratic cynicism of the swap was what continued to infuriate the solider the most. “March,” he said in disgust. “That’s March.” The wine, it goes without saying, was undrinkable.
Some nine thousand kilometres and a continent away, in the opposition heartland of the capital, the wine is better. The television, however, is still unwatchable. Indeed, when it comes to the media in general, travelling across the country has been brutal. And I say this as someone whose knowledge of the language is limited enough to be able to tune out at will. On the trains, it’s all war movies and bad comedies. In the hotels, Rossiya 1, the main state-controlled channel, propagates its propaganda unchallenged. TV Rain, an independent liberal channel, only broadcasts online and on cable.
Upon discovering that our Moscow apartment had access to CNN International, I was prepared to finally get up to date, but the unsettling presence of Anna Coren on that channel led me to abandon it pretty quickly. It came to pass that I found myself watching Russia’s government-funded English-language channel, RT, instead. And once I’d had a taste of this conspiracy-minded paranoiac of a station, I couldn’t turn away.
Formerly known as a Russia Today, RT is not merely pro-Putin. It also staunchly pro-Assad, pro-Iranian nuclear program, and, by it’s presenters’ own admission, more than slightly obsessed with the United States. One recent conversation on the channel went essentially as follows: “Americans don’t seem to talk about Russia at all. Are Russian perhaps overly concerned with America?” “Yes, I think so.” “I think so, too. Shall we discuss how evil it so some more?” “Yes, I think so.” “I think so, too.” Early this month, NIA Novisti’s Fyodor Lukyanov attacked such sentiments.
“Washington should cherish Russian anti-Americanism,” Lukyanov wrote, “as Russia is probably the last important country in the world to sincerely believe in America’s omnipotence. […] Russia […] is not interested in the facts. On the Russian internet and in other public domains, Americans are behind everything.” When it comes to not being interested in facts, especially where the US in concerned, RT is the country’s flagship channel. Julian Assange is going to fit right in.
With the exception of independent newspapers like Novaya Gazeta and the English-language Moscow Times, the country’s press is not much better. Kommersant made a show of running objective-seeming analyses of each of the five presidential candidates over the course of the past month, each accompanied by a big-headed caricature of the candidate in question, including a rather telling one of Putin clasping an imperial orb in one hand a petrol pump in the other. But that same article was almost entirely uncritical of the candidate’s comments and statements throughout the campaign and staunchly insisted that he would win the election in the first round.
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The profile of Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets whose campaign and liberal-democratic platform is distrusted by a great many oppositionists, paid a great deal of attention to the candidate’s insistence that his candidacy is not a one-time thing and that he aims to stay in politics. But it did so with the sole purpose of calling that insistence into doubt. In any case, like the other four profiles, this one was surrounded by articles about Putin and his magnanimity. On the one hand, a big question mark over the oligarch. On the other, Putin visiting a children’s hospital.
Kommersant is one of seven newspapers that have published articles by the prime minister in the lead-up to election, scoring the one about the country’s democratic development, in which he admitted that “we need to renew our democratic mechanisms”. The three articles that preceded this one — the prime minister wrote about challenges facing the country for Izvestia, ethnicity for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, and the economy for Vedomosti — were all published before February 4, the first day that presidential candidates were officially allowed to campaign. The Central Election Commission answered complaints about the articles by saying that they were not a part of Putin’s campaign but rather a beneficial source of information for citizens that he was providing to them in his role as prime minister.
As a friend in Arkhangelsk recently suggested to me, there’s no reason to suspect that these papers wouldn’t have run a manifesto by the Communist Party’s Gennady Zyuganov or the Liberal Democratic Party’s Vladimir Zhironovsky, both of whom are running for president, had either of them approach the papers’ editors with one. Nor is there any reason to suspect that Novaya Gazeta or The Moscow Times wouldn’t have run one by Putin had he approached them with a chapter of the book he appears to have written. Nevertheless, the point remains moot, because we’re two days out from the polls and none of these hypotheticals have come to pass.
My feelings abut Moscow-based Western correspondents are already on the record. One of my favourites is The Guardian’s Miriam Elder, who keeps her cheerleading for the opposition to a minimum and who this week posted a video from Segezha in the Republic of Karelia admitting what far too many correspondents have been rather too unwilling to admit: that the optimism of the capital is not widespread and is very cautious indeed where it exists in the regions at all.
After pretending for most of last year that there was real uncertainty about who would run for president at the beginning of this one, Western correspondents are now pretending that it’s 1917 or, at least, 1991 all over again. Yes, Saturday’s Garden Ring road protest was heady and intoxicating. I was handed one of the protesters’ white ribbons and have even tied it around my bedhead. But to compare the 30,000 people who reportedly showed up — or even the 100,000 people who are said to have protested earlier this month — to the 500,000 who took to the streets 21 years ago is a wild exaggeration and a disservice to one’s readers. Sometimes I almost think I prefer to listen to the whack-jobs on RT.