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A Typical Evening on Russian TV

The other night as I was watching Russia’s main TV channel, it occurred to me that westerners who are not in a position to access and comprehend Russian TV might be interested in knowing what are its main themes and takes.

But first, I should explain that while media outlets in Russia are not as controlled as they were in Soviet times, the space open to them for expressing opinions liberally, and critically of the government, has steadily been shrinking. Television is almost totally under Kremlin control. To post regime-critical commentary in the press has become increasingly dangerous. If you want to lead a long life in Russia, don’t be a journalist unless you are prepared to kiss you know whom’s you know what. According to Wikipedia, as many as 152 journalists have been killed in Russia since Putin came to power.

With that as background, what were the main themes on Russia’s first channel the other evening? This happened to be a religious holiday. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch, recalling the thousand-year heritage of Christian Russia, urged his congregation to fight for their country. Can you imagine the Pope in 2015 calling his flock to do battle for a religious cause?

The second item on the news featured the kidnapping of young boy by a known sexual predator. Russia faces the same issues as any modern society does. This episode happily ended well.

The third story focused on Ukraine and the alleged indiscriminate shelling on Donbass by the Ukrainian armed forces. The report featured an interview with the daughter of a woman who was killed when a bomb landed on her house. This is of course terrible but terrible is what happens in war and in this war terrible has happened on both sides – as it invariably does. The reporting suggested that Kiev did not want to resolve the conflict peacefully as the questionably legitimate leaders of the Donbass claim they do. This is post-Soviet speak for forgetting about which side initiated the conflict and for coming to an agreement that would confirm gains made through war.

Then, there was a segment in which Putin was interviewed by the Swiss equivalent of Chris Matthews. The Russian President went to bat for Sepp Blatter, the beleaguered Swiss President of FIFA, the international football association, suggesting that the charges of corruption against him were trumped up as part of a U.S. plot to deny Russia its holding of the 2018 football championship. Oh really?

Note that Putin also used the occasion to make sideways remarks about the inanities of the US political system. He has a point there. But for all its failings, the American voter has a choice, not as good a one as many would like, but a choice all the same: not so, Putin’s Russia.

The next story was about corruption in Ukraine, the spin suggesting that it is a failed state. Corruption in Ukraine certainly exists and notwithstanding current efforts to attack this scourge, it may still bring the state to its knees. That said, no word was lost about corruption in Russia, where it is anything but less rampant. At my last count, Russia had 11 anti-corruption agencies, all ineffectual in the face of the efforts of the men (there are few women in this game) in and around the Kremlin to ensure that they get their cut.

And then there was a segment on Gerald Depardieu, the erstwhile accomplished French actor, who has decided to cast his lot with Putin. There he was in the Donbass, doing a cultural romp with a bunch of locals dressed in traditional customs. Depardieu has become a useful idiot to the Kremlin, a political prostitute.

This TV evening also commemorated the thirty-fifth anniversary of the death of Vladimir Vysotsky. To say that Vysotsky was Russia’s Bob Dylan would understate the changing political mores and rising social unease that his words and his music gave expression to. He was Dylan, Cohen, Mercury and Moustaki all wrapped up into one. He was not a “in-your-face” dissident but he was critical of the Soviet system and a fierce opponent of its status quo. His was the voice of impending change. I suspect that the Putin regime’s effort to appropriate him as a favourite son has had him turning in his grave.

The TV broadcast closed with nothing about the weakening Russian economy, its increasingly dysfunctional health sector, the growing disgruntlement of Russia’s regions, or the some fifty to eighty thousand Russian soldiers deployed in or adjacent to Ukraine’s supposedly rebel regions.

Russia is living in a post-modern equivalent of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland, whereby Putin is its Peter Pan. But unlike Neverland, Putin’s Russia is – sadly for its people but not only for theirs – not a fairy tale.

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