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Opinion: Who are you calling ‘propaganda’? Why the mechanics of Russian television aren't what you think they are

Source: Vedomosti
Photo: Mikhail Metsel / TASS

Kremlin-controlled television networks are often treated as one of the central pillars of Vladimir Putin's presidency and Russia's soaring patriotic fervor today. Is today's Russian TV a sexed-up, polished form of the propaganda that ultimately lost its luster in the Soviet Union? In an opinion piece for the newspaper Vedomosti, Inliberty chief editor Andrei Babitsky says things aren't so simple, arguing that Russian TV is better understood as an open market for patriotic trash than a factory for propaganda. Meduza translates that text here.

It's commonly said that Russian television's raison d'être is propaganda. If this hypothesis is correct, there should be ways to test it. For instance, television stations should strive to be credible, their effectiveness should grow with the size of their audiences, and they should react to all the important political issues of the day, not merely "pretending that nothing happened."

Obviously, network television in Russia doesn't meet all these conditions. The quality of the rhetoric on TV doesn't measure up to any standard, even compared to the very worst Moscow's broadcasters have to offer. Russian television's audience hasn't been growing for several years already (the average share of Channel One's audience, for example, has fallen from 18.4 percent to 14.5 percent over the past five years). At the same time, all available indicators show that support for the Kremlin is at best growing, and at worst fluctuating in ways unrelated to ratings on television. Finally, the TV networks ignore the same social issues that state propaganda gladly addresses on the Internet. 

But if Channel One isn't an instrument of propaganda, what is it? The answer to this question, unfortunately, is older than television. The Kremlin's TV performs an organizational, not propagandistic, function. National television creates something like a stock exchange, where different persons and businesses can sell timely patriotic content to the state. This was particularly noticeable after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian bomber at the Syrian border.

It works like this. The state can't know all its own extra-legal resources available for harassing the Turks, and neither the ministers nor the generals (except for the most zealous ones) are going to go around calling up their subordinates, demanding some half-baked retaliation. They're too lazy for that, and it leaves a trail. But the lower-level market players—the border guards, police officers, and office heads—know exactly what resources are at their disposal, and they're more than ready to sell them to the highest bidder. That's how, one fine day, hundreds of people and organizations in different regions across the country are able to start a small war—all without an explicit order.

Politicians most likely forgot long ago that there was a Russian-Turkish Scientific Center at Moscow's All-Russia Library for Foreign Literature. But the recently appointed director, yet to distinguish himself, hadn't forgotten, and he promptly shut the center down.

The system is perfectly liberal in its contours: it's not central planning, but a stock exchange open to anyone to come sell their goods and earn a paycheck. It's thanks to this market that an absolute nobody like Igor Kholmanskikh went from Uralvagonzavod assembly shop manager to Putin's plenipotentiary envoy to the Urals Federal District, and it's how a group of bikers, the "Night Wolves," managed in the span of a couple of years to become something approaching a national political force.

It's undeniable that this market's structure, despite the high price, has many advantages. The buying and selling all happens in one place, you don't have to pay for anything before it's ready, and most importantly you don't need to try all that hard. Because Russian television deals in price tags, not placards.