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Channel One new agency building, Moscow

‘You don’t cover up disfigured corpses by saying something positive’ The Kremlin’s written instructions to propagandists tell a story of desperation, failure, and frictions with the media

Source: Meduza
Channel One new agency building, Moscow
Channel One new agency building, Moscow
Oleg Yakovlev / TASS

The Russian President’s Office regularly sends detailed written instructions to state-controlled media, telling them exactly how to cover daily events in the country. Over the past six months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s publicity efforts were increasingly criticized by people who supposedly take their cues from those memos — the propagandists themselves. The Russian media are, of course, prohibited from calling the war a “war” and must instead always minimize it as merely a “special military operation.” But there is a lot more to how the Kremlin strives to limit and shape the information that reaches mass audiences. Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Pertsev has pored over six months’ worth of the close-to-daily instructions — the so-called “metodichkas” — sent by the Kremlin to propagandist journalists, editors, and bloggers. It turned out that these documents speak volumes about current events — and Vladimir Putin’s attempts to maintain a grip on public opinion.

Early in October, a trove of 10 documents — all of them Kremlin-issued instructions to propagandists — was obtained by Meduza. When asked about their authenticity, a source close to the Kremlin confirmed that these were, in fact, real guidelines prepared by the President’s Office for the state-controlled media and pro-Kremlin bloggers. Another source, employed in one of the mainstream propaganda outlets, confirmed that he had seen those memos at work.

The documents are all structured in a similar way. Each of them specifies a “main event” to be broadcast to the nation. For example, earlier this month, one such memo focused on a VCIOM opinion poll, according to which 75 percent of Russians approved of the annexation of Ukrainian territories. (VCIOM — the Russian Public Opinion Research Center — is notorious for manipulating the public opinion, both in surveying it and in transmitting it back to mass audiences.) According to the same poll, 83 percent of Russians believe that their country “must defend the interests of residents, even if this complicates relations with other countries.”

The slant proposed for talking about the poll was that “Russia’s citizens are confident in the correct and legitimate choice made by the citizens of the DNR, LNR, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions.”

The memos also list the rhetorical key-lines, along which presenters and journalists should shape their message on any given day. On October 4, for example, the key themes were “Russia’s strengthening,” “the image of victory in the special military operation,” and “the new world order.” Let’s glance at each of them in turn.

“Russia’s strengthening” was the prescribed spin on the news of Russia “officially gaining four new regions.” The same memo explained what should be said about mobilization: “the majority of conscripts understand the aims of their participation in defending the Motherland.” Mobilization, the memo said, should be described in this way:

Men bond into tight-knit groups, where everyone is ready to help another, to learn new military skills, and absorb new information. New, effective mechanisms are being developed to remove any obstacles for those who wish to fulfill their duty to Motherland. Since opening online registration for volunteer conscripts, Gosuslugi [the federal electronic paperwork website] has already received over 70,000 applications. Some regions have already met their mobilization quotas — partly thanks to the volunteers.

The section on “the image of victory” addressed the situation at the front. Although the Russian army had been retreating for weeks, the memo suggested highlighting its “successes,” like the numbers of Ukrainian armored vehicles “already destroyed” by the Russian forces.

In addition, the media were expected to constantly highlight the idea that any resistance from Ukraine will only speed its “self-destruction.”

In the section on “the new world order,” propagandists were told to convey one simple idea: countries that once belonged to the USSR should “learn a lesson from what happened to Ukraine,” and stay on Russia’s good side. Moldova and its President Maia Sandu should remind everyone what bad behavior looks like.

(It’s true that Moldova has repeatedly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has also increased border security. In recent weeks, Russians have often complained of being denied entry into the country.)

Another talking point related to “the new world order” was Russia’s 18 percent increase in oil exports to India in September 2022, as compared to August. This datapoint, the memo said, should serve as an example of Russia’s ongoing “cooperation with countries interested in a just and equitable world order.”

Apart from the thematic outlines, the Kremlin memos also suggest what “feelings, sentiments, and emotions” propaganda workers should try to elicit among the public. In all the documents, this segment is headlined as the “Emotional Basis.” The annexation of Ukrainian territories, for example, was expected to awaken “solidarity” and “unity” among the masses. “Unification” was also the desired effect of coverage dealing with the Crimean bridge explosion. In that instance, the memo did not mention either “confidence” or “pride.” Instead, by early October — given the successful, and ongoing, Ukrainian counter-offensive — the “Emotional Basis” came to include “hope.”

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It would be natural to wonder who writes these instructions to the media. According to a source close to the Kremlin, they’re written in the department for public projects of the President’s Administration. This segment of the Kremlin communicates with Telegram channels, bloggers, a number of news outlets, and other media. The person in charge of propaganda policy is probably Alexey Zharich. Although he did not reply to our queries, he was known, a decade ago, as the director of Uralvagonzavod, a machine industry company located in the Sverdovsk region. This connection is not merely incidental. 

The factory in Nizhny Tagil produces not only the train cars mentioned in its name, but also armored vehicles. In 2011, at the time of massive protests on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, one of the Ural factory managers proposed, on a direct call with the President, that opposition could be countered by “bringing out our guys to stand up for stability.” This performance of “public support” was, in fact, organized. It is believed that none other than Alexey Zharich did it. As for Igor Kholmanskikh, the manager who came up with the idea, he soon became a presidential envoy to the Ural region.

“This is why, in principle, all propaganda looks like Uralvagonzavod,” said one of our sources in the Kremlin-controlled media. Since the start of the war, he said, nothing new has been invented by the Kremlin in terms of publicity and strategic communication. In trying to address the war, they rely on the same methods they once used to publicize elections and other domestic events.

“They’re really having a hard time,” our source said about the Kremlin’s wartime publicity. “We cannot stand up to the Ukrainian media. You don’t cover up disfigured corpses of Russian soldiers by ‘saying something positive.’”

Meduza’s other sources also doubt the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s publicity directives. One of them, a political consultant who worked with the President’s Office in the past, says that only loyalists could possibly be persuaded by such arguments. Anyone taking the slightest interest in alternative news sources would be immediately suspicious of the kind of rhetoric that the Kremlin recommends to the media. “The journalists who work there,” he said about the state-controlled outlets, “are often people who cannot write anything on their own, without an instruction.” “The Internet, too,” he added, “has a loyal auditory — but those who are not part of it will never be persuaded by such methods.”

A source close to the United Russia party leadership has remarked to Meduza that churning out publicity instructions is simply a “going concern”:

The mass media and the bloggers are one huge machine that is daily greased by multimillion budgets. The machine must work and produce, simply in virtue of its being there, because that’s how its employees make a living. To stop it, or even to pause it, would be too costly.

More on the Kremlin’s ‘thinking machine’

‘A chance for revenge’ The rise and fall of ‘methodology,’ the school of thought that produced the idea of the ‘Russian world’

More on the Kremlin’s ‘thinking machine’

‘A chance for revenge’ The rise and fall of ‘methodology,’ the school of thought that produced the idea of the ‘Russian world’

Article by Andrey Pertsev. Translated by Anna Razumnaya.

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