On Russian TV Ahead of the Election, There’s Only One Program: Putin’s

by Braxton Taylor

LONDON — Thousands of Russians braved the cold for hours earlier this month to honor the opposition politician Alexei Navalny after his funeral. They chanted anti-war slogans and covered his gravesite with so many flowers that it disappeared from view.

It was one of the largest displays of defiance against President Vladimir Putin since he invaded Ukraine, and happened just weeks before an election he is all but assured to win. But Russians watching television saw none of it.

A leading state television channel opened with its host railing against the West and NATO. Another channel led with a segment extolling the virtues of domestically built streetcars. And there was the usual deferential coverage of Putin.

Since coming to power almost 25 years ago, Putin has eliminated nearly all independent media and opposition voices in Russia — a process he ramped up after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s control over media is now absolute.

State television channels cheer every battlefield victory, twist the pain of economic sanctions into positive stories, and ignore that tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine.

Some Russians seek news from abroad or on social media using tools to circumvent state restrictions. But most still rely on state television, which floods them with the Kremlin’s view of the world. Over time, the effect is to whittle away their desire to question it.

“Propaganda is a kind of drug and I don’t mind taking it,” said Victoria, 50, from Russian-occupied Crimea. She refused to give her last name because of concerns about her safety.

“If I get up in the morning and hear that things are going badly in our country, how will I feel? How will millions of people feel? … Propaganda is needed to sustain people’s spirit,” she said.

Putin’s broken promises

When Putin first addressed Russians as their new president on the last day of 1999, he promised a bright path after the chaotic years that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“The state will stand firm to protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of mass media,” he said.

Yet just over a year later, he broke that promise: The Kremlin neutered its main media critic, the independent TV channel NTV, and went after the media tycoons who controlled it.

In the following decades, multiple Russian journalists, including investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, were killed or jailed, and the Russian parliament passed laws curbing press freedoms.

The crackdown intensified two years ago after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

New laws made it a crime to discredit the Russian military, and anyone spreading “false information” about the war faced up to 15 years in prison. Almost overnight, nearly all independent media outlets suspended operations or left the country. The Kremlin blocked access to independent media and some social media sites, and Russian courts jailed two journalists with U.S. citizenship, Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva.

“The Putin regime is based on propaganda and fear. And propaganda plays the most important role because people live in an information bubble,” said Marina Ovsyannikova, a former state television journalist who quit her job at a leading Russian state television channel in an on-air protest against the war.

The Kremlin media diet

The Kremlin regularly meets with the heads of TV stations to give “special instructions on what can be said on air,” said Ovsyannikova.

Every day, TV stations serve up a mix of bluster, threats and half-truths — telling viewers the West wants to destroy their country, that sanctions make them stronger and that Russia is winning the war.

The Kremlin’s goal is to squeeze out any opposition so that citizens “remain inert and compliant,” said Sam Greene, a director at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

The strength of the Kremlin’s grip on the media means that while Navalny’s death in an Arctic penal colony was major news in the West, many Russians didn’t know about it.

One out of five Russians said they had not heard about his death, according to the independent Russian pollster Levada Center. Half said they only had vague knowledge of it.

The most memorable event for Russians in February, the polling found, was the Russian military’s capture of the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka.

By trumpeting military victories, the Kremlin is focused on creating a “happy feeling,” ahead of the elections, said Jade McGlynn, an expert on Russian propaganda at King’s College London.

Anti-war candidates are banned from the ballot, and there is no significant challenger to Putin. State television broadcasts dull debates between representatives of Putin’s opponents.

Putin is not openly campaigning but is frequently shown touring the country — admiring remote tomato farms or visiting weapons factories.

The idea that Russia is thriving under Putin is a potent message for people who have seen their living standards fall since the war — and sanctions — began, driving up prices for food and other staples.

The war has also pushed Russia’s defense industry into overdrive, and people like Victoria from Crimea have noticed.

“If they tell me that new jobs have appeared, should I be happy or sad? Is this propaganda or truth?” she asked.

Granules of truth

Russian propaganda is “sophisticated and multifaceted,” said Francis Scarr, a journalist who analyzes Russian television for BBC Monitoring.

There is some “outright lying,” he said, but often Russian state media “takes a granule of truth and massively over-amplifies it.”

For example, while unemployment in Russia is at a record low, news reports don’t explain it’s partly because tens of thousands of Russians have been sent to fight in Ukraine or have fled the country.

Many Russians know this, yet the idea that Russia is prospering – even if it contradicts what they see with their own eyes – is still attractive.

“The greatness of Russia tends to be measured throughout history in the greatness of the state and not in the greatness of the quality of life for its people,” said McGlynn of King’s College London.

Ahead of the election, state TV is ramping up that nationalistic theme, telling viewers it is their patriotic duty to vote. The Kremlin, experts say, is worried Russians may not come out in large numbers.

Videos released on social media – but not directly linked to the Kremlin – are aimed at combating apathy, especially among younger voters.

In one, a woman berates her husband for not voting. “What difference does it make? Will he not get elected without us,” the husband asks, indirectly referring to Putin. To which his wife warns him: inaction could leave their child without maternity payments.

The Kremlin wants high voter turnout, experts say, to lend an aura of legitimacy to Putin, whose reelection would keep him in power through at least 2030.

Independent Russian media

People can bypass government restrictions by using special links to foreign websites or accessing the Internet over private networks.

But it’s questionable whether many Russians — especially those living in Putin’s conservative heartland — even want to hear news conveyed in the language of the liberal West.

To “break through to the people who are not putting flowers on Navalny’s grave, they’re going to have to meet those viewers where they are and speak to them in a language that they understand,” said Greene. That means striking a balance between criticism of Putin’s regime and pride in the nation.

Even those soothed by the Kremlin’s propaganda also could long for a real choice at the polls.

“I don’t see any opposition in modern Russia,” said Victoria, pointing out that the candidates running alongside Putin all have the Kremlin’s approval.

“I don’t plan to vote in the elections,” she added.

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