Better stories

Peter Pomerantsev’s latest in The Atlantic is a great read. The author, a UK TV producer, knows what he’s talking about: he used to sell British TV shows to Russian channels, which rely heavily on these imports. I’ll limit myself to just two excerpts.

During one Russian news broadcast, a woman related how Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a child in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. When Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications, was confronted with the fact that the crucifixion story was a fabrication, he showed no embarrassment, instead suggesting that all that mattered were ratings. “The public likes how our main TV channels present material, the tone of our programs,” he said. “The share of viewers for news programs on Russian TV has doubled over the last two months.”

If I remember correctly, Volin also said the crucifixion report was OK with him because the woman was a legitimate source. Which reminds me of Irina Bergseth, a Russian lady who married a Norwegian, got divorced, lost custody of the children and went clinically insane, not necessarily in that order. Bergseth was on Russian TV saying Norwegians were all pedophiles and her four-year-old son had been gang-raped while dressed up as Putin. She said lots of other, equally believable things, but that’s my all-time favorite, and “Putin suit” enjoyed its 15 minutes as a RuNet meme.

Not surprisingly, Bergseth soon became a “coordinator” of a “patriotic” “movement”, “Russia’s mothers”. To quote from Švejk, “Forensic doctors examined her and wrote in their report that she, although weak of mind, was nonetheless eligible for any government position.”

…Christo Grozev, of the Bulgaria-based Risk Management Lab, found that the majority of the country’s newspapers followed Russian rather than Ukrainian narratives about events such as the downing of Flight MH17. “It’s not merely a case of sympathy or language,” Grozev says. “The Russian media just tell more and better stories, and that’s what gets reprinted.”

So do tabloids, and their concoctions are often reprinted by mainstream publications.


  1. I think it’s been fairly well established that the media reflects and panders to the readership as opposed to the media shaping prevailing opinions. The reason these stories are popular in Russia is because the population wants to believe it; deep down they probably don’t, but as the Soviet era showed us, the Russian population (as a whole) is not the most questioning, skeptical, and enquiring in the world. If authority says X, and that makes the population feel good about themselves, then X is what they will believe.

    In my mind, little has changed in the fundamentals. “Tractor production is up!” has been replaced with “Facists are in Ukraine slaughtering our brothers!” and the population roars in approval. It’s what they want to hear, and Putin – like his forbears – knows it. The difference is Putin has figured out there was never any need to maintain the pretence; all that effort spent on Soviet-era denials was likely wasted insofar as the population is concerned.

    Also: say what you like about the Soviet leaders, they had seem some incredibly tough times as well as plenty of bloodshed. Even Stalin knew you couldn’t treat everyone with utter contempt, because he had seen first-hand powerful men shot down like dogs. By contrast, Putin is more like their spoiled child. He’s never seen tough times, never seen blood flowing in the streets, and got handed his position on a plate having been a favored son in the KGB. As such, he doesn’t quite understand the true nature of power and how easily it can be ripped away. Lacking this experience, Putin is probably overreaching badly as we speak.

    • Not all media merely panders to the readership but tabloids surely do. In the late Soviet period, let’s say the 1970s through the mid-1980s, few people cared about the production of tractors anymore while the system underproduced cheap, popular entertainment. But there were mass crazes from time to time, apolitical and possibly unexpected by the party machine. The UFO craze, for instance.

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