Over the past couple of years in Russia, there's been a kind of game around any protest or march. Call it “the numbers game.” People gather and almost instantly everyone is wondering how many people showed up this time.
Take last week's March for Peace in Moscow. Police estimated the crowd at 3,000. You would think they would have the best vantage point, with police helicopters hovering overhead.
But a reasonable person could have looked at that same crowd and wondered if there were more like 30 or 40 thousand calling for peace in Ukraine.
You won't hear any speculation about that, though, from Dmitri Kiseleov. He is a news anchor who has emerged as the Kremlin's primary voice on national state television.
In his weekly program, Vesti Nedelya, Kiseleov pours on the conspiracy theories — the protesters were few in number, they were traitors, facists, or a secret “fifth column” working with the US to destroy Russia from within. He has warned that Russia can turn the US into “radioactive ash,” and called for the hearts of gays to be incinerated. He once theorized that Obama's hair went grey out of fear of Putin.
At the protest, a crowd chanted khavit vrat — enough of the lies. Many in the opposition have denounced what they see as a state media campaign aimed at misrepresenting the events in Ukraine and drumming Russia towards war.
One woman here says you can still find some independent news on the BBC and the local Echo of Moscow radio station. And there are websites “where you can get real news.” But, according to journalist Leonid Parfeonov, dissenting or even nuanced views in the Russian media are increasingly hard to come by.
“External events in Ukraine are rippling inside Russia,” Parfeonov says. “Politicians declare war abroad and, inside the country, there's a cleansing of the opposition camps. It's all predictable, unfortunately. The people came [to the march] not only to support Ukraine. They came to support Russia and the shrinking freedoms they have left.
Parfeonov knows what he’s talking about. A decade ago, he was the star anchor at the independent NTV news channel, known for its critical coverage of the government. But NTV quickly came under state control when Putin came to power. Observers regard the demise of the old NTV as a watershed moment in Russia's struggle for a free and independent press.
Since then, the Internet has emerged as the preferred haven for unfettered debate. The web’s “moment” came in December of 2011, when tens of thousands of Russians used social media to organize and protest the results of flawed parliamentary elections.
The Kremlin took notice.
With the recent protests in Ukraine, the Russian government has moved to curb online freedoms at home. It has blocked several websites for airing “extremist views,” including the blogs of leading opposition figures. And it has put pressure on the online Dozhd TV channel for its sympathetic coverage of the Maidan protests in Kiev.
This month, Galina Timchenko, the longtime editor of Lenta.ru, Russia's top online news service, was unexpectedly dismissed for publishing interviews with members of Ukraine's nationalist Right Sector party.
Speaking on Echo of Moscow, Timchenko said the web’s days as a relatively free medium in Russia were numbered, a victim of its growing relevance.
“When there were 20 million people on the web, the government paid little attention to it,” says Timchenko. “But now that every second person in Russia is online, they've finally realized the influence it has, that it's not just a small group of people entertaining themselves, but a means of mass communication with enormous potential. So, I suppose you could say our time has finally come.”
At the Moscow March for Peace, blogger Oleg Kozyrevalso took a pessimistic view. He says hysteria has taken hold in pro-government circles. Those with different views are demonized as enemies of the state, he says, and worse yet, many truly believe it.
“It's really a dangerous situation where the head of the country is surrounded by people who view their fellow citizens with aggression for having different views. They really have a distorted view of the world and what's happening abroad and in Russia,” Kozyrev says. “Not once have the authorities tried to use a method other than force to respond to us.”
As we were talking , Kozyrev pointed out the helicopters hovering overhead, the police dogs to the left and the arrest wagons all around.
“This is a march for peace,” he says. “I mean what is all this?”