Vienna, October 22 – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s insistence that there is no economic crisis in Russia and that Russian television must not use that word in talking about the situation there is the latest example of the re-imposition of some aspects of Soviet-style censorship there and one of the reasons Russia now ranks so low in terms of media freedom.
Not surprisingly, this imposition of such censorship is yielding some Soviet-style results, including among other things the acceptance of the government’s version of reality by many, the belief among others that the government’s effort to hide the facts means that the situation is even worse than it is, and the re-appearance of Soviet-style anecdotes to discuss what is going on.
But the existence of greater freedom in some print media outlets and on the Internet not only means that many Russians continue to have access to information the government is trying to restrict but also that some of them are raising pointed questions about what is going on, actions that are is eroding still further the regime’s standing among these groups.
Russians who rely on government television channels for news about their country and the world, Anton Orekh pointed out in “Yezhednevniy zhurnal” this week, would know something about the financial crisis spreading around the world, but they would not know that it has also hit their own country hard (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=8494).
Following Putin’s insistence that the Russian government is in control of the situation and instructions from the authorities not to use the word “crisis’ in discussing it, Russians who live in this virtual world who believe, as apparently do some in the Kremlin, that “only what is on television” really exists, thus have one picture of the world.
But those who use the Internet, read some of the more independent newspapers, or even take the time to look around are very much aware that the international financial crisis has hit Russia very hard, be it from the collapse of the stock market, the falling price of oil, or the decline in the ruble exchange rate.
(Fontanka.ru on Tuesday offered an hour by hour comparison of what has been on Russian central television and what appeared on the Internet about the crisis. According to the first, Russia has no problems but the United States is to blame. According to the latter, the situation affects Russia and is much more complicated (www.fontanka.ru/2008/10/21/115/).)
That St. Petersburg-based Internet news agency noted that the government channels, in their efforts to prevent any panic or alternatively to boost their own standing had reformed either only good things “or nothing at all,” a pattern Fontanka.ru said closely resembled the way in which the Soviet media often behaved (www.fontanka.ru/2008/10/21/118/).
The news agency asked a variety of Russians to comment on this new-old situation. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the outspoken leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, said that neither his family nor his friends had suffered from the crisis. “Only the oligarchs have lost money,” and so the Russian media’s approach is fine with him.
Television journalist Mikhail Leontyev agreed. Television could not give the Russian people, he said, the full truth, because “a remarkable part of the population lacks the ability to understand not only economics but also politics.” Indeed, he said, if Moscow said the US had dropped an atomic bomb on Moscow, Russians would respond by buying dollars.
But others were less enthusiastic about what the Russian government and the stations under its control have been doing. Lev Lurye, a historian and television host said he could understand the desire to avoid panic, but he added that the failure to tell the population the whole story may make the situation worse not better.
Russians will learn what is really going on one way or another, he said, and consequently, “if experts on the television screens talked about the real situation and about the crisis and its projected course of development, then society would carry on more calmly.” By not doing so, television may lead many to draw apocalyptic conclusions.
Roman Mogilevsky, a sociologist who studies information policy, agreed that anyone who wants to learn the truth can. But the way Russian television has been behaving lately, he said, has “a certain similarity with ‘Swan Lake’ in 1991,” a reference to the playing of classical music when the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev was taking place.
And Aleksandr Nevrozov, a journalist, told Fontanka.ru that he was still uncertain as to what was really going on, but he said that he was “waiting for the moment when the president and premier will stand on the [Lenin] mausoleum [on Red Square] and in front of them financiers and stockbrokers will march by and shout; ‘We are ready for the crisis!’”
In its assessment of the media scene in Russia now, the international media watchdog organization Reporters sans Frontiers ranked Russia 141st out of more than 170 countries around the world in terms of media freedom, down from a high of 121st in 2002, thus continuing a disturbing backward trend (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1045557).
But in all this, there has been one more positive or at least amusing development. If Russians are not learning the truth from TV, they are putting their own interpretations on what is going on by telling anecdotes, yet another way in which the current situation is both similar (official control of the media) to and different (more alternative sources) from the Soviet past.
“Komsomolskaya Pravda” has assembled some of the latest anecdotes about the crisis Putin says does not exist. One of the best goes as follows: “A peasant goes to a bank and says ‘I want to open a small business. What should I do?’ [The banker replies:] Buy a big business and wait a little bit (kp.ru/daily/24185/393435/).