It’s no secret that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin suffers from bouts of nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s imperialist greatness. The itch is evident when he invades a region of the Caucasus, or announces grandiose plans for the emergence of a new global power bloc with Russia at the helm. But these episodic and highly visible swipes of might are only part of the story. A modern, soft-power strategy to infiltrate the world’s media with messages from the Kremlin is brewing under our noses.

Fairfax readers may have been intrigued (perhaps disturbed) last Wednesday to see The Age take its old designation of the “Spencer Street Soviet” to a new level by running a 16-page supplement entitled “Russia beyond the Headlines”. It appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald too. It’s a publication that aims to promote an alternative view of Russia, featuring different stories to those in the Western media,which often focus on state corruption and clampdowns on freedom.

But why is it in our papers? Is the Kremlin trying to target the Australian public with Russian propaganda (not to mention the “inadvertent” mislabelling of deadly mushrooms)?

Russia Beyond the Headlines is a project launched by the Russian government in 2007 and produced through leading government-owned newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. The segment appears as a monthly supplement in some of the world’s most reputable papers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph. The Kremlin also has its tentacles in a bunch of non-English speaking dailies, with the supplement published in over 10 languages in publications like Italy’s La Repubblica, France’s Le Figaro and The South China Morning Post. In Australia The Age and The SMH have been distributing it since November last year; last Wednesday’s edition was the fourth for the Australian market and there are four more to come this year.

According to its website, RBTH’s “mission is to bring original stories about Russian culture, business, politics and science to foreign readers; facilitate media engagement between Russia and foreign countries; and regularly update the international community on the economic, geopolitical and cultural potential of Russia”.

Crikey rang RBTH’s office in Moscow and spoke to Gleb Fedorov, the editor for the Asia Pacific region. Fedorov, who previously worked for the BBC World Service, says his newsroom is a serious, journalistic operation. “We are not independent in terms of funding but we are independent in terms of journalism,” he told Crikey.

“My goal is to speak about things happening in Russia and talk about modern culture, and to make it more understandable to Australians.”

According to the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications, Rossiyskaya Gazeta plays an important role “in strengthening the image of the Russian Federation in the international arena”. Improving Russia’s international image has been one of Putin’s main foreign policy objectives since 2000, when he was handed the reigns to a collapsed economy and an outside reputation influenced in part by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s drunken television appearances. From this angle, the RBTH’s agenda could be seen more as a desperate attempt at damage control than world domination.

The Institute of Modern Russia, an independent think tank run out of the US, reported (in its analysis of “The Propaganda of the Putin Era”) that the Kremlin injected $156 million in 2013 to Rossiyskaya Gazeta for the particular purpose of strengthening Russia’s global image. The English language channel RT, and radio station Voice of Russia, are part and parcel of a similar media engagement strategy.

Fedorov says that RBTH is government policy, but defends its independence. “In terms of editorial, we are very different from Rossiyskaya Gazetta,” he tells Crikey. “We are working for seven years and started with the US supplements … they were afraid we would put propaganda in these supplements. Then they realised that was not the case. And you can understand, if we were 100% pro-Russian government, we would not have good relations with our partners …”.

Fedorov says foreign papers are happy to include the supplement because “they get good content”. Crikey wondered whether falling advertising revenues had more to do with it. Fairfax did not return our calls.

“We don’t pay to be published, in terms of advertisements,” he said. “We pay for the paper, and for subediting. In every country and every region, we have a regional team in Moscow, which selects topics to write. Their [the foreign country’s] editors help us to localise the contact … we pay for the printing.”

He continues:

“When you advertise something, you say we are only talking about good thing. We try to make an objective view on what’s going. Well balanced. I worked for the BBC Russian service before I came here. I’m free to follow the same guidelines as I followed at the BBC.”

Fedorov’s defence checks out. In last week’s Australian supplement, the two stories on the politics page aren’t too kind to the paper’s benefactor; the first reports on the growing intolerance of public service corruption and the second offers a similarly grim public view of Putin’s United Russia Party.

But the rest of the articles, which seem to promote the country’s modernising economy, growing car industry, the Ural Tourism initiative and the Bolshoi Ballet’s visit to Brisbane, tip the scales towards a more glowing overall image. Within “Russia Beyond the Headlines”, Russia presents as a modern, stable European country with a powerful history, a rich culture and the odd political scandal.

Perhaps it’s not all that bad over there?

Peter Fray

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