When Russians stopped believing in the Western media Journalist Oleg Kashin says American journalism has lost his compatriots' faith (op-ed)
Earlier this month, leaked documents known as the Paradise Papers revealed new details about how the Russian investor Yuri Milner once poured millions of dollars into Facebook and Twitter, where America’s “Russia investigation” has raised questions about Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A headline published by The New York Times read “Kremlin Cash Behind Billionaire’s Twitter and Facebook Investments”; a story by the Guardian began, “Two Russian state institutions with close ties to Vladimir Putin funded substantial stakes in Twitter and Facebook”; and according to the LA Times, Milner’s investments “had Kremlin ties.” Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, perhaps best known in the West for surviving a near fatal assault by thugs in November 2010, is a prolific columnist whose work has appeared repeatedly in The New York Times and the Russian edition of Deutsche Welle. On November 8, in an op-ed at the news site Republic, Kashin responded to the Western media’s coverage of Russia over the past year and a half. With permission, Meduza is making Kashin’s text available in English.
The Western press has learned that businesses close to the Kremlin were buying up shares in Facebook and Twitter (obviously, with far-reaching political aims). If it were just five years ago, it doesn’t seem so crazy to assume that this story would have become a sensation in Russia. At the very least, we would have discussed it seriously, like we once discussed Alexander Mamut’s purchase of LiveJournal.
Today, years later, the political significance of that deal seems indisputable: it was precisely under Mamut’s influence that LiveJournal ceased to be a space for free expression, transforming into one of the lesser parts of Mamut’s unequivocally loyalist media empire. When Mamut bought LiveJournal, the only people who worried publicly that the Kremlin would put the blogosphere under its control were Russia’s most alarmist ultra-oppositionists, but clearly it’s these individuals who turned out to be right. Maybe five years ago, this experience could have mattered, if the Western press had then accused the Kremlin of buying up social networks. Five years ago, it would have at least been taken seriously.
Today, that’s not possible.
The problem isn’t even that it’s rather difficult to call Yuri Milner a businessman who’s “close to the Kremlin.” The man has lived in the public eye for many years, and even the most radical conspiracy theorists and investigators trained in finding the secret “pocketbooks” of Russia’s highest-ranking officials have never tied Milner to any of these people.
The problem isn’t that a loan from VTB Bank or the word “Gazprom” in the name of Alisher Usmanov’s “Gazprominvestholding” doesn’t prove in the slightest that this was all some political machination.
The problem isn’t that the Kremlin — between 2009 and 2011, when Milner bought the shares — was in the era of Dmitry Medvedev, who was captivated not only by a “reset” with the United States, but also all sorts of young people’s trends, including various gadgets and social networks. Back then, it wasn’t the Kremlin that influenced Twitter and Facebook, but the other way around: these networks influenced Russia’s young president, who took to social media like an excited teenager, not some Dr. Evil.
And the problem isn’t that Russian businessmen’s investments in Western companies (at least since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea) have been seen not as the Kremlin’s expansion, but — on the contrary — as the desire of the wealthy to invest in places where the Kremlin can’t climb into their pockets. Throughout the 2000s, almost every Russian state official — no one louder than Vladimir Putin — railed against the irresponsibility of the nation’s elites and their unwillingness to invest their money in Russia.
All this is important, of course, but it’s nothing compared to the main reason today’s allegations against Milner can’t be taken seriously. There’s no name for this reason, and it’s considerably hard to articulate the logic without slipping into the same rhetoric that someone like RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan and many others have used to build their careers. In Russia, we’ve repeated too often and for too long that the Western mainstream media is wrong most of the time. When it comes to this subject, it’s become difficult to find the right words, without becoming a voluntary accomplice to Russia’s propagandists and counter-propagandists.
And yet the main problem with the allegations against Milner are his very accusers. Those writing that the Kremlin acted through him are the same outlets and individuals that have already demonstrated convincingly that anything they publish about Russia is, as a general rule, total garbage. The image of Putin’s Russia constructed by Western and, above all, American media outlets over the past 18 months shocks even the most anti-Putin reader in Russia.
Maybe separately all the stories about Russia wouldn’t trigger this response, but it’s different when looking at the coverage combined: Moscow suburban “power broker” Natalia Veselniktskaya playing the part of Putin’s agent, Dr. Rodchenkov’s tales of test tubes for doped urine, singer Emin Agalarov acting in the Kremlin’s interests, and Russian ads on social media — bought for pennies compared to the millions spent by the Clinton and Trump campaigns — that supposedly influenced American voters. There’s more, of course, and in this context the claims that Milner was working on behalf of the Kremlin become a joke by default — where there’s no need to refute or dispute anything, and the only thing Russians can do is laugh.
But what we ought to do is cry, of course, because for Russians everything that’s happening is a serious tragedy that has nothing to do with Yuri Milner or the other stars of Western investigative reporting, much less with America’s political infighting, which strictly speaking isn’t any of our business. Something else that’s important here is that Russia, compared to the United States, is a backward, small, and young country. Our political culture isn’t yet 30 years old, and what we’ve got is trampled by years of authoritarianism. Someday, someone will have to create it again.
It’s the same story with our media culture, which emerged on the ruins of Soviet propaganda. It’s endured so many mutations and external influences that there aren’t any pleasant words to describe its current state. It’s not even a crisis, but something worse, and someone at some point will have to deal with the consequences. Generally speaking, we’re nobody to scold the Americans for what’s happening to them now, and this is just another one of our problems, because what’s happening in the U.S. is important for Russians, too.
You don’t have to watch CNN or read The New York Times to have them constantly in mind as an achievable or unachievable standard in journalistic professionalism, responsibility, and influence. Every time a Russian television network or pro-Kremlin newspaper reaches a new low, it was once commonplace among independent thinkers to say that the Western media giants never allowed themselves such mistakes. Throughout Russian journalism’s post-Soviet history, faith in CNN as a kind of celestial constellation has been an essential factor. The archetype has been necessary as a model to strive toward or turn away from, and it will remain a key element in Russian journalism’s coordinate system.
There’s a thoroughly naive misperception that the people working for propaganda outlets are all hard-nose cynics ready to say that black is white just so they can make their mortgage payments. In fact, anyone who’s talked with just one of these people knows that any cynicism that might guide them is something entirely different: it’s not “I lie because of my mortgage,” but “I say what serves the state’s interests because that’s how it works everywhere — we serve Russia, CNN serves the U.S., and the BBC is itself a state organization.”
Hearing this kind of talk, Russians from the independent media of course always laughed, but time has shown that the ones who said “it’s like this everywhere” were right. At the very least, over the past year and a half, the Western press with its highest standards has gifted us too many outrageous stories to ignore. When Russian network television aired a story about the public crucifixion of a three-year-old boy by Ukrainian soldiers, it was clearly nonsense from the start and no one actually believed it.
When it comes to the wild conspiracy theories about Russia now circulated by the Western media, Russians are also able to grasp that it’s all drivel, but their understanding has no effect on the irreproachable reputation of these newspapers and TV stations, whose standing remains unchanged no matter how many Russians stop believing in them. And we truly have no right, moral or otherwise, to criticize the Western news giants. We are too small, provincial, and backward, and this isn’t a case where someone needs to hand back a corrected celestial map. Instead, it’s probably time to treat the map like a fake, and to realize that nobody really knows what the hell is up there in the sky.
All this sounds a bit like “there are no hipsters in America,” but if they’re really aren’t any hipsters then it would be important news for us. The Western press has already reported so many inaccurate, exaggerated, knowingly untrue things about Russia that today the Russian reader who seriously starts talking about Yuri Milner as an agent of the Kremlin is either a very naive person or a cynical hypocrite. Until now, this characterization has applied mainly to the audience of Russia’s state television networks. Today, it also works with those who look for truth about Russia in the Western media. It’s probably still too soon to call this a tectonic shift, but it’s nonetheless important to note this potentially important factor: the crisis of faith (the faith of us provincial Russians) in the Western news media will inevitably affect Russia’s public atmosphere.