Peter Pomerantsev worked in Russian media as a journalist and TV producer for a decade in the 2000s. He's now based at the London School of Economics, writing about propaganda and media.
When Peter arrived in Moscow in 2001, a year after Putin came to power, the mood in the media industry was souring. The new-found freedom many journalists experienced in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union was coming to an end.
Pomerantsev says, “There was already this current of thinking which basically viewed the whole of history as a series of information battles. So it was almost a philosophy that saw information as being essentially a weapon or a tool. The content didn’t matter, it only had a certain effect.”
This militaristic way of thinking about information started gaining mainstream traction after the fall of the USSR. In 1999, Marshal Igor Sergeev, then minister of defense, proposed that Russia, unable to compete militarily with the West, would engage in what he referred to as “asymmetrical directions” — in other words, information warfare. One educational military text from 2011 describes information warfare as “an invisible radiation”.
“So it was a very broad definition of information warfare, not just in the sort of narrow way that Western military people refer to it as part of a war, but extending that to the whole of society,” says Pomerantsev — “a permanent thing that’s happening all the time. And the difficulty that it poses is that it blurs the lines between peace and war.”
When Putin became president, this idea was co-opted by senior figures in media and politics. Vasily Gatov, who worked in Russia as a media executive for several of the biggest media companies in the 90s and 2000s, saw first-hand how Putin’s media strategy was developed by, primarily, two men: Mikhail Lesin, then minister of press, and Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s chief aides and idealogues.
Gatov explains: “Initially, they just wanted messaging negative to Putin to be significantly diminished. But soon they realized that if they only tried to silence criticism, they cannot produce as much news events that are needed. They started to develop the agenda that they thought would comfortably support Putin’s leadership.”
Kremlin clerks would send out requests to news editors: what news to cover, what news not to cover.
“No special organization was appointed to create this agenda. It’s not a formal organization, it’s not a bunker underneath the Kremlin where a group of coke-enabled geniuses write Russian fakes — it doesn’t look like that,” says Gatov. “It’s very dull clerks in Kremlin who write their necessities on paper and distribute it to media. ‘We need to underline that America does something wrong. Do it.’ So it’s like a self-winding machine, that knows Kremlin request, enthusiastically runs to fulfill it and claim their own achievement even though Kremlin initiated this request. It’s a new propaganda — it’s making things that other people will replicate and it very much relies on self-censorship.”
The Kremlin’s editorial direction is very broad. Former Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky described it as “a free jazz orchestra.”
The mantra of Margarita Simonyan, who heads RT, Russia’s state-run international news channel, is: “There is no such thing as objective reporting.” The channel is funded by the Kremlin, with an estimated budget of $230 million per year, and services in English, German, Spanish and Arabic. RT provides a platform for nationalists, Brexiteers, whoever needs it, broadcasting messages that are divisive in the West.
“What’s funny is that they are using the language of diversity of opinion and freedom of speech. It’s interesting on the strategy they have alighted on, which is essentially: alternative opinions, what’s wrong with alternative opinions? More free speech? What’s wrong with free speech? That’s kind of the language they’ve adopted, which is our language,” says Pomerantsev. “They push it to its logical absurdity: there’s no difference between a fact and a conspiracy theory, or between an academic expert and some nutcase they found off the street."