In his quest to understand how Russia got from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the aggressive, chauvinist state of Russian under Putin in 2015, the Russian-born author takes us back to Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s repression in 1956, paving the way for Gorbachev’s formal launch of “Perestroika” or restructuring from 1985.
Ostrovsky focuses on the media’s key role in both assisting and obstructing change. In the 1960s, newspapers and television were dominated by intellectuals bent on “cleansing” Communism of the distortions Stalin had imposed. They had not yet progressed to demanding economic freedom. It took leading journalists like Alexander Yakovlev years to realise that “the Bolshevik religion was false” and that “socialism with a human face” might not be feasible under communism. Following the crushing of the 1968 “Prague Spring”, journalists like “Yegor” (also a Yakovlev, but “no relation”), felt alienated by the use of Soviet tanks, but continued to compromise, not speaking the truth in the belief that they could achieve more “from the inside”, not to mention their concerns for self-preservation.
Yet the irony was that eventually, “words rather than tanks” meant that the generation which had intended to vindicate the ideals of fathers purged by Stalin ended by unintentionally destroying socialism. “Glasnost” and the opening up of minds through the media proved more important in effecting change than “altering the means of production”. Unrest grew as the media helped people to perceive their relative lack of consumer goods, or the failure of the Afghan War. When Gorbachev dithered over economic liberalism, “Moscow News” had the confidence to urge him to act decisively or resign.
Under his successor Yeltsin, there was a generational shift from men like Yegor to his son Vladimir who founded the magazine Kommersant to promote capitalism of a primitive kind, operating in a moral vacuum. The “oligarchs” who benefitted from the “loans for shares” scheme saw the influence to be gained from owning TV channels: Gusinsky took over the TV channel NTV which established a reputation for honesty in, for instance, its reporting on the Chechnyan war. When his oligarch acquaintances urged him to sell the station that was putting their business at risk, or make it non-political, his journalist Malashenko resisted, pointing out that NTV had the strength to survive under a weak and dysfunctional state. The truth was of course that freedom of speech was fragile, dependent on Yeltsin’s goodwill.
This became clear after Putin’s appointment as a decisive and authoritative heir to the ailing Yeltsin. Gusinsky was ordered to sell NTV to Gazprom, after “the last straw” of parodying Putin on the Russian equivalent of the political satire “Spitting Image”. By 2004, the state-controlled “Channel One” was reduced to showing mainly soap operas during the Chechnyan crisis in Beslan, playing down the number of casualties, pretending hostages were safe when more than 300 were dead, and showing scenes from military dramas of terrorists being beaten.
Ostrovsky claims that by 2014, the Russian media had become not just a metaphorical but a real weapon causing genuine destruction, not just distorting reality but inventing it “using fake footage” to report on conflict in, for instance, Ukraine, even using actors: “sometimes the same actor would impersonate both the victim and the aggressor on different channels.” Nemtsov, the charismatic politician who warned against the use of TV to produce “patriotic hallucinations” was himself murdered outside the Kremlin shortly afterwards. For Russians, violent newsreels have become a form of entertainment: “the vast majority of Russians now contemplate the possibility of a nuclear war …..and 40 per cent of the younger ones believe that Russia can win, as though it were a video game”. The once brash Vladimir Yakovlev now warns that people live in a crazy illusion tha the country is surrounded by enemies… The information war is first and foremost destroying ourselves”.
The subject matter is fascinating and the bibliography impressive, but some clear and striking analysis is buried in the at times frenetic journalese which makes for hard reading, along with the large cast of characters with unpronounceable names, for a non-Russian reader. I was also surprised to find so little mention of the economic hardship I believe to have been endured by many ordinary Russians post 1991.