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Great Russia” and the Internet

State control of TV could politicize the Internet and bolster print media

by Ivan Zassoursky

Ivan Zassoursky is Director of the Laboratory of Media Culture and Communications at the Department of Journalism, Moscow State University.

The term “media-political system” defines precisely the meaning of “politics” in Russia of the 1990s. Government institutions were unstable and rootless while Boris Yeltsin provoked one political crisis after another; it was really the channels of access to audiences—specifically, television channels—that determined the outcomes of political battles.

When political scientists complained about the lack of a civilized party system in Russia—saying that the Communist Party was the only one with mass membership—they overlooked the fact that the real parties were the TV stations. It was with the help of television that Russia’s political drama was performed and a hierarchy of roles on the political stage established. Later, exactly a year before the elections, these roles became embodied in the brands of the parties and political movements for which the voters cast their votes: Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko—parties of NTV, Unity—the party of ORT, Fatherland—the party of TV-Center and some regional channels.

The real political parties in Russia were the TV stations.

This system was upheld by the government’s tolerance to the presence of powerful, at times even completely independent, players on the media-political landscape. This tolerance was based on history and utility. It was grounded in history because as a politician who acted on intuition, Yeltsin remembered times when only the journalists were on his side and that turned out to be enough. It was utilitarian because the political resources of the owners of media holdings inevitably became Yeltsin’s resources before the singularly important presidential elections in 1996.

During Putin’s election campaign, when it became evident that Chechnya would be an issue, it also became clear to everyone that the media-political system was changing and would not survive the next elections. In the last year the Russian president has already twice demonstrated his ignorance of the way media works, strolling along the Black Sea during the “Kursk” tragedy and giving a presidential address the day of the NTV seizure. It was Yeltsin’s team that made “Election 2000.” Putin is not charismatic—in order to control the symbolic field he has to depend on the bureaucratic system and on direct control of TV broadcasting.


he first sign of change was when TV-Center’s frequency opened up for competition; the second was eliminating Boris Berezovsky’s ability to influence the content of programming on Channel 1. The situation with NTV represents the final step in this transformation, after which the political field will come under the control of the administration to an even greater degree. For Russia, this development will conclude a long path backwards toward tradition. However, from the point of view of traditionalism, in my opinion, the blue license plates of the police cars, the ubiquitous symbol of past terror—all the way back to Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina, Stalin’s NKVD and Brezhnev’s KGB—should be considered even more telling.

The clear intentions of the Kremlin to place under its control the central TV channels that are most important to the political process became clear as much with the help of direct pressure through law enforcement agencies as through the licensing mechanisms of television frequencies. In fact, a television or radio station can have its license revoked for any violation of the law (or even mere accusation of a violation). If the government does not alter this strategy, sooner or later it will attain full control over the federal TV stations, or at least the ability to sway their editorial policies at will. In this case, administration of these key instruments of influence over the media-political system will be consolidated under the aegis of the state; some observers would argue that this is the case already.

At the same time however, the sector of commercial print media that developed in the 1990s cannot be so easily subsumed under centralized control. A newspaper that has been closed down will reappear the next day under a different name with three times the circulation. Being profit-oriented assures the decentralized, more horizontal character of the media’s commercial sector. The appearance of competition from the less controllable electronic media serves as a guarantee that the transformation of the information system on the whole is irreversible.

If television is too harshly controlled, it is possible (although in no way guaranteed) that newspapers will receive specific competitive advantages and, accordingly, the opportunity at least to partially recover their former prestige as well as increase the circulation of their publications because of broad freedom in covering the political life of the country.

There are still other factors—the emergence of the Internet and the development of satellite television—that can with time lead to changes, including decreasing the importance of central television stations. Theoretically, it will take no less than five years for the influence of the Internet and satellite TV to become really noticeable in the information system; however on the whole it is probably not worth counting on the predictability of this transformation. After all, the events surrounding the submarine Kursk showed that by responding to the interests of the audience, the commercial mass media are, at times, capable of creating a real information flood. And, at critical moments the audience can exhibit unexpected flexibility in its choice of media for receiving information if the usual sources are blocked or incapable of feeding the hunger for burning news or, possibly, for analysis and commentary.

It is not impossible that harsh control of the information waves by the government could prompt the formation of something like the half-forgotten corporative solidarity of journalists at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. In certain situations the total weight of the commercial press, Internet media, satellite television and regional TV stations could become an explosive combination rendering any attempts of the government to control the agenda of the day absolutely impossible and at times even dangerously counterproductive.

The results of the current transformation are obvious and also multifarious. In some senses the country is actually going backwards. Newspapers are loaded with dry discourse from the last century that is as impossible to read as it was to read Pravda in 1982. The capital’s leading publicists even managed to turn the dramatic NTV issue into a tedious story. While perhaps some professional publications are continuing to provide information, the majority of newspapers occupy themselves with the banalization of reality, either participating in the introduction of a new national idea or battling the ghost of “Great Russia.” In other words, the country’s press has once again become deeply provincial.

The changes are even more striking in television, especially if you break from habit and actually watch the program Vremya (Time) a few days in a row (this is by no means an intellectual’s choice, mind you). If Gosteleradio (State TV and Radio) had succeeded in depoliticizing television broadcasting owing to game shows, sports, and soap operas, we probably would have come to this state of emasculation and banality in the beginning of the 1990s. Have you ever heard how the broadcasters read the news on Radio Mayak? If not, hurry up and tune in. It is especially impressive at night: in between good jazz an ultra proper voice tells you everything you do not want to know about the trips of the president and other officials here there and everywhere.

This all goes to show that the results of the transformation are obvious. And now about why they are multifarious. Let us begin with an emotional factor: the content of the mass media today reeks of an unbelievable optimism. The media are becoming less and less informative and more and more ceremonial. In some senses this is not bad insofar as it lifts the weight of informational overload and kills off the desire to know, creating a sense of the stability of social reality. After all, even in the 1990s when the mass media seethed with intrigue, it was actually difficult if not impossible to influence the political process. Today, the government is once again taking on the responsibility to free citizens from participation in the political process. Possibly this explains why the government is popular.

Communications research sooner or later will come to the conclusion that the meaningful part of communication consists not in the exchange of new information but in the shielding from it. This is what the work of the mass media consists of today. The closing of the political field makes evident a complementary shift in the interests of mass media consumers to other areas (sports, recreation, film, comedy programs, culture and science). In reality it is difficult to say if it is good or bad when people root not for politicians but for soccer players, watch Morning Mail (Utrennaya Pochta, a music show), You’ve Got Lucky! (O Schastlivchik, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire), OSP (a parody show), or Ivanov’s program Around Laughter (Vokrug Smekha). Maybe this reality, firmly rooted in the dull but safe and calm late seventies/early eighties, is chosen because it is more familiar to us and allows us to relax in the breaks between our real problems that totally burden us between visits to the movie theater and entertaining literature.

In some senses the country is actually going backwards.

But it is important to mention something else. “Great Russia” is nothing more than a virtual reality, one of many, though marketed to a mass audience. In this sense, the true opposition to this reality is found not so much in the political system as much as in our everyday lives and in the medium that transmits this content best: the Internet.

In part (and only in part) this opposition is reminiscent of the contrast between semi-official publications (ofitsioz) and samizdat. Here the contradictions are deeper. If semi-official publications were connected with the construction of Soviet reality, then samizdat, whether political or pornographic, was nourished by the ideas of the West. The Internet differs in that it contains no competing ideologies, rather, an ideology that is not unequivocally expressed or formulated. The contrast between the media-political system and the Internet is one between different modes of social interaction: representation and communication. On the Net, one specific ideology does not stand in opposition to one other, but rather to thousands of others; they all exist simultaneously, expressed not as much in ideological terms as in concrete life projects. In this way, ideology stands in contrast to everydayness in all its variety. There is no truth; there is only reality, represented by individual or group feelings and interpretations. It is likely that, in time, this contradiction will begin to take a political shape. This will be especially apparent precisely if a new administration is actually successful at controlling the whole political field. Then politics will become much more important for the Net than is the case today, because the Net—along with print media—will begin to emulate an alternative information system, thus departing from its current “second-place syndrome,” thanks to the radical contrast between what is said on the Net and what they say on TV—just like in the good old days.


The views expressed by commentators in Russia Watch do not represent the views of the Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or Harvard University.
This issue of Russia Watch was sent to press June 20, 2001.

Russia Watch editorial staff:

Editor, Writer: Ben Dunlap

Production Director: Melissa Carr

Section Editor: Emily Van Buskirk

Researcher: David Rekhviashvili

Researcher: David Pass

Production Assistant: Emily Goodhue

Consultant: Vladimir Boxer

Translators: Allison Gill, Roman Ilto, Tim Nikula

Special thanks to Vladimir Boxer, David Pass, and Seth Jaffe
The Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project works to catalyze support for three great transformations underway in Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union: to sustainable democracies, free market economies, and cooperative international relations. SDI seeks to understand these transformations, interpret them for Western audiences, identify Western stakes, and encourage initiatives that increase the likelihood of success. It provides targeted intellectual and technical assistance to governments, international agencies, private institutions, and individuals seeking to facilitate these three great transformations.




Phone: (617) 496-1565 Fax: (617) 496-8779

Web site:


 Copyright 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

1 This selection does not claim to be representative, nor does it allow for quantitative analysis. The materials were chosen for clarity of journalistic position and for the differences between the regions’ “main” (formerly “regional committee,” now gubernatorial papers, most often “Pravdas” and “Izvestias”) and other newspapers in seven administrative regions of Russia.

2 Informational-political portal “Soviet Russia,” April 12, 2001. See also: The announcement of the union of orthodox citizens: “Orthodox citizens consider NTV the anti-government channel,” April 12, 2001.

3 “Grebneva Again Went Hungry”. Ezhednevnie Novosti [Daily News] (Vladivostok) No. 53, April 13, 2001.

4 Stanislav Kondrashev: “NTV in the Newspaper Style of Open Letters.” Vremya MN (Moscow) No.65, April 13, 2001. Leonid Zhukovitsky, Moscow. Special Report for “NKP”: Talent and KNOPKA Novaya Kamchatskaya Pravda (Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii), No.14, April 12, 2001.

5 Irina Sizova: “NTV Minus.” Ryazanskiye Vedomosti (Ryazan) No.72, April 10, 2001 Evgeny Zhogolev: “Around NTV. And Near.” Samarskiye Izvestia (Samara) No.65, April 10, 2001.

6 Natalia Kopylova: “The Heart of the Matter” Zvezda (Perm’) No.65, April 11, 2001.

7 Alexander Kosyakin: “In Russia There Already was ‘Freedom With Whiskers’.” Lipetskaya Gazeta (Lipetsk) No.69, April 11, 2001.

8 Alexander Ryazanov: “Parliament should address NTV.” Novyi Gorod (Sugurt) April 11, 2001.

9 Alexei Slabov: The President’s April Theses. Vest’ (Kaluga) No.83-85, April 6, 2001.

10 O. Karpenko: The Passions Surrounding NTV. Vpered (Bataisk) No42-43, April 7, 2001.

11 Dmitri Batarin: “Running an Endless Media Racket isn’t Possible for Long. It’s Time to Answer for Your Words.” Ezhenedelnik Monitor (Nizhny Novgorod) No.13, April 9, 2001.

12 Elena Malysheva: “The Caprices of a Paid Prostitute” Pravda Severa (Archangelsk), No.66, April 10, 2001.

13 Natalia Kopylova: “The Heart of the Matter,” Zvezda (Perm’) No.65, April 11, 2001

14 Vladimir Samarin: “Gusinsky’s Shadow on the Flag of ‘Independence’.” Orlovsky Vestnik No.15 April 12, 2001

15 Kirill Rogov: “Between Two Cons,” Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda (Irkutsk) No.68 April 11, 2001

16 Vladimir Serov: “NTV and its ‘Voice of the People’.” Pravda Severa (Archangelsk) No.69 April 2001. In Russia there already was “Freedom with Whiskers” Lipetskaya Gazeta (Lipetsk) No.69, April 4, 2001. Vladimir Samarin: “Gusinsky’s Shadow on the Flag of ‘Independence’”; Stanislav Kondrashev: “NTV in the Newspaper Style of Open Letters”; Andrei Rumyantsev: “Well, The Huge Country is Standing in Defense of NTV!” Elena Malysheva: “The Caprices of the Paid Prostitute.”

17 See Andrei Rumyantsev: “Well, The Huge Country is Standing in Defense of NTV!” Vek No.15 April 13, 2001

18 Andrei Davydov: “Press-Kulbit”. Nashe Vremya (Rostov-na-Donu) No.71-72, April 10, 2001

19 Alexei Jordan: “We Couldn’t Be Jews…” Zavtra (Moskva) No.15 April 12, 2001

20 Vladimir Serov: “NTV and its ‘Voice of the People’.”

21 Internet: WCIOM.RU May 3, 2001

22 “They Want to Return Us to Silence” Pskovskaya Guberniya (Pskov) No.15 April 12, 2001. This address, in the most part to the capital’s intelligentsia, was delivered in a series of regional newspapers of liberal bent, including this publication (Author’s Note)

23 A. Vasilyev: “Are We Only Dreaming of Stagnation?” Volga (Astrakhan’ No.54, April 12, 2001.

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