From Pravda to NTV: The Anatomy of Kremlin Propaganda Institute of Modern Russia, October 10
The Kremlin is persisting in its attempts to discredit the opposition in the eyes of Russia’s citizens by accusing it of working for “foreign sponsors” and preparing to seize power by force. According to IMR Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza, however, the regime’s propaganda attack could backfire against those who initiated it.
Six months after the airing of the pseudo-documentary The Anatomy of Protest, which asserted that Muscovites participated in opposition rallies for money and “cookies,” the NTV channel has come up with another “news sensation.” The second episode in the propaganda series turned out to be more daring than the first: The Anatomy of Protest II accuses Russia’s opposition leaders of planning a forceful seizure of power, terrorist attacks and sabotage, as well as “high treason.”
The message is not original: Russia’s opposition, the film asserts, is in the pay of its foreign puppeteers. This time, playing the role of “patron” is not the United States, as is traditional, but the Republic of Georgia and, more specifically, Givi Targamadze, the chairman of its parliamentary committee on defense and security who is, according to the narration, “a man with real experience in organizing color coups d’état (sic) in Georgia and Ukraine and preparing mass disturbances in Belarus,” and who had supposedly met with Sergei Udaltsov, one of the leaders of Russia’s Left Front movement.
The 48-minute film accuses the opposition of having links with “fugitive oligarchs” in London; setting up youth camps with Romanian and Lithuanian instructors; planning to use nationalist militants and (at the same time) Chechens to stage provocations (“this may mean organizing a terrorist attack,” grimly warns the narrator); planning to sabotage the Trans-Siberian railroad; and forcefully seize power in Kaliningrad. Viewers have learned that “Georgian handlers” are paying Udaltsov $35,000 a month to “prepare acts of force;” that Garry Kasparov "is a U.S. citizen”; and that Boris Nemtsov flew to Tallinn to meet with the representatives of the “Baltic Center,” which “is controlled by the U.S. Embassy in Estonia and is gathering intelligence on Russia.”
Needless to say, none of these “facts” bears any relation to reality, but for NTV – once a proud symbol of independent journalism which became a “dumping ground” for the security services after the station’s takeover by the state in 2001 – truth doesn't matter. Its viewers will not know that Nemtsov flew to Estonia to meet with Russian entrepreneur Sergei Kolesnikov who had published information about Vladimir Putin’s one billion dollar palace on the Black Sea; that the U.S. authorities had confirmed in 2007 that Kasparov is not and never has been an American citizen; and that Udaltsov did not receive a passport for foreign travel until August, whereas his alleged “meeting” with Targamadze was supposed to have taken place in early summer. Suggesting that the Russian authorities had issued a visa to the chairman of Georgia’s parliamentary committee on defense is beyond the realm of possibility, especially since Targamadze was banned from entering Russia in 2005, even before diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed.
NTV’s latest film ends with the narrator stating: “It is hard for us to judge…whether [Udaltsov’s] actions constitute high treason. We hope that the relevant legal assessment will be made by the appropriate authorities.” Russia’s Investigative Committee has already launched a probe into the allegations. Considering that the Penal Code will soon be amended to widen the definition of “high treason,” the Anatomy may well be a precursor to the arrests of prominent anti-Kremlin activists. According to knowledgeable sources, NTV is already preparing a third episode of the Anatomy of Protest, which will deal with “the way in which Messrs. Nemtsov and Kara-Murza bought lobbying services for the Cardin-Magnitsky list.” It seems the Kremlin propagandists got confused: is it the West “buying” the Russian opposition, or is the Russian opposition “buying” the U.S. Congress?
The reason for the continuing attempts to smear the opposition is clear: contrary to the confident assertions by the regime, protest sentiments among Russians are not subsiding. A September poll by the Levada Center showed that 51 percent of Muscovites and 43 percent of the residents of other large cities support the protest movement. Nineteen and 15 percent, respectively, are prepared to personally take part in protest rallies. (According to studies, the 2004 Orange Revolution saw direct participation by 18 percent of Ukrainians). Fifty-five percent of Muscovites and 54 percent of other urban residents assert that higher penalties and pressure from the authorities will not dissuade them from protesting. According to veteran liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky, decreased turnout at protest rallies “does not mean that the protest has ended and evaporated. Like a fire at a peat bog, it has simply gone inward. When new circumstances arise, when the questions of fate, future, and truth versus lies reappear, people will return. And there will be even more of them than before.”
The defamers are unlikely to achieve their goal of discrediting the opposition. According to Synovate Comcon research group, Russians’ trust in television has reached a historic low of 35 percent (in comparison, 40 percent of Russians trust the Internet). Indeed, something similar has happened before. On September 18, 1989, Pravda – then the country’s main newspaper, with a daily circulation of 10 million – reprinted an article from the left-wing Italian daily La Repubblica about the “details” of the visit by Russian opposition leader Boris Yeltsin to the U.S. “Yeltsin met an astonished ‘honorary professor’…with a slobbering drunken kiss and a half-empty bottle of whisky…. In the five days and five nights that he spent in the United States of America, he slept on average two hours a day, and consumed two bottles of vodka, four bottles of whisky, and an incalculable number of cocktails at official receptions,” Vittorio Zucconi informed his readers, “He bought new clothes and shoes, boxes full of white shirts, videocassettes with Rambo, Alien, Star Wars, and two video systems. He was scurrying around supermarkets with the same energy with which he had entered 1980s Soviet history.” Zucconi quoted a certain Alfred Ross, supposedly an accountant at the firm that had organized Yeltsin’s visit, as saying: “If he continues to spend the way he is, he will only have debts when he leaves America.”
This forgery had the opposite effect from what its organizers had intended. Russians did not trust the Communist press then just as they do not trust Putin’s television today. Yeltsin was so obviously targeted by the regime that he became even more popular with the voters. On September 18, the pavements of Gorky Street were carpeted with the issues of Pravda. Spontaneous protest rallies were held on Pushkin Square, in the suburb of Zelenograd, and at Pravda’s editorial offices. Readers, en masse, began cancelling their subscriptions.
The image of Yeltsin constructed by Party propagandists did not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, he donated all the proceeds from his U.S. lectures (and from his book, Against the Grain, published the following year) for the treatment of Soviet AIDS patients. His U.S. schedule was packed with meetings with political and business leaders, hardly allowing him time for feasting or shopping. “The witness who allegedly saw Yeltsin fall asleep at dinner has disappeared without a trace,” recalled the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, “The accountant who said that Yeltsin’s money intended for USSR citizens infected with AIDS was evaporating in a shopping frenzy, is non-existent.” Zucconi admitted that he never saw Yeltsin during his trip to the U.S. and did not witness a single episode mentioned in his article, and that his sources came from “certain Russian émigrés in the U.S. whose names I must now keep secret.” On September 21, 1989, for the first time in its history, Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, published an editorial retraction.
On March 4, 1990, Boris Yeltsin was elected to the Russian parliament, becoming its speaker on May 29 in spite of opposition from the Soviet leadership. On June 12, 1991, he won Russia’s first-ever presidential election, receiving 57.3 percent of the vote to 16.9 percent for the Kremlin-backed Communist candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov.
Russians have always respected those who are persecuted by the authorities. In this respect, the last two decades have changed nothing.