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Russian Media in a Revolutionary Period

by Sergei Markov

Sergei Markov is Director of the Institute for Political Research in Moscow.

The NTV case cannot be regarded as an ordinary episode. The fight in connection with NTV took one and a half year and became the most outstanding political event to mark the first two years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Nor is it accidental: NTV graphically reflected the most important tendencies of the contemporary historical period. But first, some history.
Russian media in post-Soviet Russia
The media have played a crucial political role at all stages of modern Russian history. Since the start of the glasnost period in 1987 until the onset of an acute political crisis in 1990, they played a most important political role as the outlet for the public opinion. It was the media that laid out before an amazed public all points of view on problems of any public significance. Their reward was vast popularity. Families subscribed to 10-15 periodicals. An attempt by the authorities to do something to restrict subscription rates (a rise in circulation on that scale proved a serious money drain, what with all media receiving subsidies from the state budget) caused spontaneous protests and the authorities had to give in.


n 1990-1991, a period of confrontation between the democratic movement and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the media were key in mobilizing the masses against the CPSU. All media became the “party press” as it were, catering to a party of resolute supporters of democracy. Going against this party was a small group of opponents of democracy, mostly Russian nationalists; but they also had a party press of some sort.

In the period from 1992-2000, marked by radical economic reforms, the media lost some of the state support they had enjoyed and had to look for financial backing elsewhere. Step by step, all the leading media ended up in the hands of financial and political groups, the so-called oligarchs, which plunged into a fight against each other for more power and property. The media again played a key role, serving as the main political weapon. It was not like Chicago in the early 1900s where oligarchs fired at each other from submachine guns. Rather they used “information and analytical panoramas” and newspaper articles. It was not homespun Al Capones that became the heroes of the day but brutal journalists who got branded as “information killers.” The most striking case in point was television anchor Sergei Dorenko from Boris Berezovsky’s ORT channel. The print media had their most outstanding mercenary writer in Alexander Minkin of the mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Russia witnessed “information wars” flaring up one after another like outbreaks of Intifada in the Middle East. As a result, there was a sharp decline in public trust of the media. Infighting for power and property ended in the collapse of the system of oligarchic capitalism as a consequence of the 1998 economic crisis. The state emerged as the winner and set about restoring its position in the country. It again came to wield the main political instruments in the form of the media, primarily the leading television channels—first RTR, later ORT, and then NTV.
Whence comes the threat to freedom of expression in Russia
The position of the media in Russia is shaped by several financial, political and ideological factors.

  1. Finances. Very roughly, the combined annual budget of Russia’s media amounts to three billion dollars. According to the President of the Association of Advertising Agencies, the aggregate budget of advertisements running in the media stands at close to one billion dollars. Therefore, if they operated within a market framework, two thirds or possibly a bigger share of Russian media outlets would have been dead by now; but they are unwilling to die. This, in turn, means that Russian media draw two thirds of their budget from politically-oriented sources, not from the market. The federal government supplies about $1 billion to federal media outlets, notably the leading television channels. Regional authorities provide about $1 billion for all regional media outlets. Therefore, regional media outlets and federal channels find themselves politically dependent on the authorities. When the oligarchs were calling the tune in Russian politics and when they privatized the state, they also privatized the media as the main political instrument and they covered their costs. Later, as the state continued on the path of revival, it grabbed the media out of their control and committed itself to financing them. The way out of the situation is a growing domestic consumer market, which will result in growing advertising budgets.

  2. Politics. Political parties are very weak in Russia. And in these conditions a most advanced political system of an information society has been built in Russia. Political scientists in other countries would be well advised to study it—the same tendencies will soon make their appearance in their countries too. The media, or to be more exact, informational and political holdings, have intercepted many of the functions of political parties: political socialization, political mobilization. They could, in fact, be described as the latest political parties of the information era. Together with political clans these quasi-parties have become leading players in Russian politics. In other words, Russian media are not so much media per se as political parties. The way out of this situation is the development of normal political parties. That Putin is trying to stimulate their development is a very healthy development.

  3. I
    deology. Journalists have formed a kind of corporation with rigid corporate requirements. One of them reads: “capitalism for all, socialism for us.” In keeping with this slogan the media have managed to secure a situation where equipment intended for them is not subject to customs duty, and newsprint is funded by the state. Another tenet says that, “journalists are first-class people.” The most graphic illustration came soon after the murder of one of the most popular journalists, Vladislav Listyev. The nation was shocked to learn that nobody was protected from murder. Journalists imposed a blackout on programming and asked President Yeltsin to come to Ostankino, which he did. Their speeches were characterized by the theme that all journalists were vulnerable—any one of them could be killed. The episode revealed a difference of opinion between society and journalists. The journalistic community was bedeviled by ‘paid materials’ and their part in information wars—people on the information front got paid through the nose if they agreed to write contract articles. Although paid articles can no longer be funded as they used to be because of a shortage of money, corruption is still a problem. Many journalists naively believe that they can simultaneously be heralds of the nation and write paid articles, palming them off as the truth. These contradictions in the positions of the journalistic corporation have brought about a situation where society no longer regards journalists as exponents of public opinion. If that is the case, if they are not genuine promulgators of the truth but corrupt scribblers making big money, why should society support them? That is how corruption undermines public support of the media. The way out is a change of journalistic ideology—it should move away from eulogizing gain and the cult of money as the only worthwhile value, toward the common good. From corporate solidarity to the idea of serving society. Such changes of ideology are impossible without changes in society. In other words, the country’s moral rebirth is indispensable for freedom of speech. We can see from this example that the problem of values is one of the key problems in present-day Russia. Regrettably, it is grossly underestimated by Russian politicians.

  4. Fifteen years of complete liberty and hyper-pluralism were also years of Russia’s national distress. The country’s disintegration, loss of allies, a continuous crisis in all spheres of society, a downturn in the economy, moral degradation, rampant crime… All other countries were rapidly developing while Russia faced the prospect of becoming a second-rate nation. Rejection of the old policy inevitably entails centralization of authority, property and resources. The controllable democracy concept that is being implemented makes the media a maidservant of politics. The authorities need media support in order to translate into practice socially difficult reforms like the reform of the housing and utilities system and that of the power sector. It will not be easy to separate the necessity of using the media to support painful reforms from the necessity of maintaining media independence for the purpose of advancement of democracy. There are no opponents of democracy in the Kremlin. But people up there are pragmatists who regard this country’s advance as something more important than the principles of freedom of expression. They realize at the same time that in the modern world, development is impossible unless there is freedom and democracy. The media find themselves in the center of this clash of principles.

The Kremlin’s attitude to the media
I am not sure there is any particular plan in this respect. But there is undoubtedly a media policy and its analysis enables us to reconstruct the principles of this policy.

All media are divided into three parts, with the Kremlin people ascribing various ideological precepts to each.

  • The first group includes radio stations and some print media that may be economically profitable. Here the Kremlin people apply the market approach: “If you can be successful in the market, do whatever you want within the law.”

  • The second group includes the leading television channels and radio stations. These are regarded as assisting freedom of propaganda rather than freedom of expression. This political propaganda is commissioned by a group that bankrolls these broadcast media. Within the framework of the ideology of controllable democracy for development, it is implied that large-scale propaganda is permitted only in favor of the government. Calmly neutral propaganda that contains constructive criticism is also permitted.

  • The third group is made up of high-quality press, primarily printed and on-line editions. It is regarded as an important element of the dialogue with society, and as a medium of mass communication between the elites and society and between the elite groups themselves. With respect to these, the Kremlin implements an ideology of encouragement of democracy. For this reason, the quality press, including those openly opposition-minded, not only will not be suppressed but actually will get governmental support if they encounter economic problems. The elimination of Segodnya is an exception rather than the rule. It was down on its luck, becoming a victim of the war between the Kremlin and Vladimir Gusinsky.

Kremlin vs. Gusinsky over NTV
To be sure, the conflict over NTV is not a purely legal feud between two business structures; it is a political conflict between Gusinsky and the Kremlin. For Putin, NTV is not a mass medium, but a political adversary. It is, first, a political party, because it always engaged in political battles. Second, it is a foreign political party, because Vladimir Gusinsky enjoys two nationalities and has a permit for residence in Gibraltar; besides he is a non-resident tax-wise, paying taxes, for the last eight years, anywhere but in Russia, where he spends less than half of his time. Gusinsky has always received unconditional political support from the United States and the policy his media pursued was rarely at odds with the guidelines issuing from the U.S. administration.

NTV is a foreign quasi-party conducting a policy that is directly at variance with the national interests of Russia.


hird, NTV is a foreign quasi-party conducting a policy that is directly at variance with the national interests of Russia. Gusinsky ran his propaganda machine in support of the separatists’ army in Chechnya. His media ran down the Russian army, which was fighting for Russia in the Caucasus, and lauded the separatist leaders. He also repeatedly called for the secession of Chechnya. I am sure that Putin views this as a betrayal of Russia. There is no doubt therefore that he and his team hate Gusinsky and believe he is an enemy of Russia rather than a Russian opposition politician or businessman.

NTV cannot be profitable in Russia today. Gusinsky needed support from the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin, whose political order he was fulfilling. But support was given in the form of credits. Then new leadership came to the Kremlin and changed the political contract, demanding that either the credits be returned or NTV be given up.

The campaign for control over NTV was so long because Putin demanded that everything be in keeping with the law. Under the law it took about a year and a half and cost Putin and Russia an immense loss inflicted by a series of blows to their image. For Putin it was a principled approach: we shall defend Russia’s interests and everything will be done according to the law. NTV went under the control of a corporation loyal to the Kremlin.

Could it have been otherwise? I think the course of events had been predetermined. The ideology of NTV had two lines in it—a radical pro-Western approach and traditional dissident hatred for its own state. The present elite has become convinced, after the arrest of Pavel Borodin and the 1998 crisis, that patriotism is pragmatic and that the elite has an interest in defending its own state. The elite has become patriotic; patriotic pro-Western people have come to power in the Kremlin. For them the history of Russia is not a series of mistakes and crimes, a series of victories and setbacks, tragedies and triumphs of human spirit. The political line of hatred for one’s own state proved politically impossible.

The campaign for control over NTV took so long because Putin demanded that everything be in keeping with the law.

The new NTV will retain its pro-Western tendency, but respect the state. This is normal development. It is hard to imagine that in the U.S. during the war against Nazi Germany a big TV channel whose owner did not conceal his liking for Nazis would function. And, say, if a Vietcong force landed in Texas to “liberate Texans from U.S. slavery, for Texas had been seized by the U.S. in an imperialist war,” could a TV channel function in the U.S. and show Vietcong heroes and corrupt U.S. officers? Russia left Chechnya alone in 1996, but three years later the Chechen army invaded Dagestan, sowing death and destruction, while Gusinsky demanded that the atrocities of the Russian federal army be shown on TV. The wrecking of NTV is retribution for hatred towards one’s own state.

The ideology of NTV journalists was not just liberal—all the money was there, and solidarity was treated as communism. All these years NTV broadcasts came up against tough public criticism; it was accused of trampling morals. When the crisis broke out, the authorities published information about the incomes of leading journalists. As a result, not many people supported NTV. But the NTV journalists could not use even that support. People had come to the rally held in support of NTV to protect their own freedom, but all speeches by NTV stars were about NTV’s freedom. Such egoism could not inspire champions of freedom of expression.

NTV derided public solidarity, extolling egoism and money. As a result, journalists brought up in these false morals did not display solidarity with the leadership, while the majority of them were simply bought by the new NTV leadership. Thus NTV became a victim of its own ideology, a victim of the cult of egoism. The country could watch live dramatic dialogues between those who had gone to struggle for the freedom of expression in the country and those who stayed, demonstrating personal freedom of a choice.

No doubt, NTV was the most professional and modern TV company. Its disintegration was a tragedy for the Russian media. Society is interested in the preservation not of the former NTV—this is impossible—but in preserving the ideology of a radical pro-Western trend.

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