How the TV Producers Transformed into the Producers of the Country

Book review: The Invention of Russia.From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War. by Arkady Ostrovsky

In recent years, a number of books was published to give an account of the disintegration of Soviet Union and its aftermath. Various factors have been put under scrutiny in attempt to uncover the mechanism of collapse and the following transformation. Chris Miller in his book The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR focused on the role of economic policy choices made by the Soviet leadership comparing it to the China’s way; Serhii Plokhy in his The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union discussed the importance of personal rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, an incompatibility of the Soviet Union institutional design with the electoral democracy as well as with the rising alternative centers of power in national republics that together contributed to the institutional collapse of the USSR. The book by Arkady Ostrovsky The invention of Russia. From Gorbachev’s freedom to Putin’s War proposes yet another lens—the realm of mass media—for exploring the end of the Soviet Union and further development of the Russian state.

One can hardly imagine that one factor could have been solely responsible for the end of the Soviet project. Yet following the Ostrovsky’s narration one can come to believe that it was the world of mass media—newspapers and television—that played central role both in the dismantling of the Soviet system and in the forming of ideological design of new Russia. Moreover, Ostrovsky reveals paradoxical similarity between the late Soviet years, Yeltsin’s 1990s, and contemporary Putin’s rule. Driven by different political aspirations, each of these periods he sees as a product of the media invention game.

“The Soviet Union expired not because it ran out of money—but because it ran out of words.”

In the story of the Soviet collapse and the development of new propaganda regime in Putin’s Russia narrated by Ostrovsky, media are not anonymous tools used by abstract state apparatus. For him, media are what they are made by peers, creator, and, after the system changes, the owners. Alongside the history of newspapers, journals, and TV channels, Ostrovsky provides insights in the individual stories of those who stood behind media. Such personification of the mass media policies at the turning points of Russian political evolution discloses complex navigation between Kremlin and media usually hidden from the public eye.

Ostrovsky puts those who were in charge of media in the center of the narration on perestroika. They were responsible for providing the public with corresponding ideological plot that would help Soviet citizens to make sense of the system change. Ostrovsky takes us to the backstage of the political and media scene to uncover their choices of explanatory narratives. Soviet system was dismantled by those who benefitted the most from its functioning, because the ruling elite no longer saw any reason to defend the system which constrained their personal enrichment and comforts. Paradoxically, the dismantling of propaganda was not the result of some spontaneous and accidental
process. As Otto Latsis, a prominent economics journalist of the time and one of Moscow News’s regular authors, wrote in his memoirs, it was “a meticulously planned suicide.”

One of the central threads of the Ostrovsky story is an interconnectedness of the past and the present at every turning point in the political evolution of Russia. Thaw generation, men of 1960s that preserved the elements of liberal thinking throughout the Brezhnev and post-Brezhnev decades, was behind the perestroika. It formed two distinct groups in the Soviet society—the “strayers and stayers.” The former became dissidents that contested the Soviet project till the very end, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky, Vladimir Budovsky; the latter converted into a liberal-minded state elites that secretly cherished the idea of Soviet liberalization until the moment when this became possible, like Yegor Yakovlev, Otto Latsis, Aleksander Bovin. They were also a product of 1970s, the golden era for soviet intelligentsia, the period of accumulation of knowledge and cultural experience that produced “a cultural layer that sustained a nation for years to come.” Gorbachev is thus portrayed by Ostrovsky not as an exceptional figure among the Soviet officials, but as one among others, a man of his generation and milieu. His glasnost campaign just as the whole perestroika project aimed initially at repairing, not deconstructing, the Soviet system. It was driven by liberals’ desire “to reinvigorate the genuine socialist ideas,” but the result they achieved was beyond their bravest anticipation.

A Dispute About the Scenarios of Preserving the USSR

Whether the collapse of the Soviet state and socialist system was the only possible outcome of the perestroika remains a disputed issue in the literature. Stephen Kotkin in his book Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse (2001) showed that there were multiple scenarios of preserving Soviet state that Gorbachev could employ, but for various reasons they remained unused. Chris Miller in his book on economic policy choices also revealed strategies of repairing socialism that could potentially preserve the Soviet Union on the foundation of reformed economy. In Ostrovsky’s account, however, no other possible outcomes were possible once the perestroika began. “Biggest mistake was to think of perestroika as a new beginning not as the ending that it actually was” and his major argument rests on what can be named “media determinism:” it was press and television that ultimately undermined the Soviet ideological system. It created an alternative new world in which the old order became utterly irrelevant.

“Print as the main medium of perestroika”

The end of media censorship resulted in the breaking up of the Soviet Union, but not in the way we could think it did. Ostrovsky shows that the break was not the result of shocking exposé of the dark sides of the Soviet life that were previously hidden from public eyes. The end of media censorship resulted in the removal of limits to the creativity of media stakeholders—journalists and ideologists—in inventing new reality. Yegor Yakovlev was appointed editor of Moscow News, once a Soviet propaganda tool, and he transformed it into a bonfire of perestroika. At that time, the role of media in public life has been spectacularly different from the one in sustained democracies. Political events were not happening in the real life, they were happening in media first. Every Moscow News issue and any news program on TV channels was a political event and they invented new logic and style of making politics. There was a historical parallel between the perestroika teamsters and the Bolshevik’s coming to rule in post-tsarist Russia: they, too, won the minds not only by swords but also by words and images. Ironically, Ostrovsky comments, the system which emerged “by the word” also vanished by the word.

In the 1990s, the Soviet television and main newspapers were in the hand of pro-Western liberals who set out to project and invent a new reality. The newspaper Kommersant ran by the son of Yegor Yakovlev, Vladimir, was set to be the newspaper for the class of new, Western-like businessmen who did not exist in Russia at all. Creating the media reality for imagined business people not only prepared the ground for the formation of “readership,” it invented or rather injected the imagined businesses in the public mind. The idea of the return to the origins—to the mythical Russia’s past, served once again as a source of new inspiration. For the generation of 1960s it was the idea of return to Bolsheviks’ revolutionary ideals of 1920s that helped to sustain their moves; after the fall of the Soviet project the return went further back to the pre-revolutionary beginning of twentieth century. This past was associated with newly invented Russian conservatism that the Kommersant newspaper represented. “If Russia was to have a proper market, it had to have a proper business newspaper first.” This was also the moment of the ultimate split between Homo soveticus, “grey and menacing mass of Soviet-bred mass men and women” and forward looking liberals of various types. Newspaper praised the values “the majority of the society had little affinity with,” because they had nothing in common with the ideas of soft paternalism and equality. In Ostrovsky’s book, however, the public and the society are rarely get into the focus of his narrative, remaining mostly passive recipients of the media’s symbolic investments and creations.

TV Producers Transformed into Producers of the Country

Ostrovsky follows the history of struggle for power at the major decisive points in Russia’s post-Soviet development: in 1991 when it ended with the defeat of Gorbachev and victory for Yeltsin, and in 1993 when Yeltsin repeated his success and outplayed the camp of nationalists and imperialists. The ideas that were embodied in their political claims, however, had never been totally extinguished but were covered up in the hope they will die by themselves. Twenty years later the Putin’s venture to re-claim the great role for Russia manifested the showy return of those claims in a new variation. There were different foreshadows of future transformation of Russia under Putin rule that Ostrovsky traces back in 1990s. He uncovers paradoxical link between the media techniques used by liberal media players to secure the Yeltsin victory when he was clearly unfit to run for presidency and those employed by media to make little-known and trivial figure of Putin a national leader.

Those who ruled the country in the 1990s were hugely responsible for misusing the unprecedented power they had in 1990s—both symbolically, via media, and real, via the oligarchs linked to government.

The Absence of a Broader Democratic Coalition

The problem of Russia in the middle of 1990s, as Ostrovsky shows, is that those who defeated communists in 1996 did not represent a broader coalition of democratic forces and parties, but a narrow alliance of oligarchs and media managers. Yeltsin’s victory was not a triumph for democratic institutions, for the rule of law and property rights. It was triumph of those who invested in and stood to benefit most from it—the tycoons and media chiefs. This victory ultimately transformed journalists and media personae into “elites,” well paid for their service to oligarchs. It was at that time when Russian journalists gave up objectivity and “European correctness,” providing propaganda-style coverage for Yeltsin. They had too much too lose in case of the return of the communists and the victory of A. Korzhakov’s clan which would most probably bring the end to free journalism and its special status in Yeltsin Russia. They were biased and it might have seemed well-justified at that time. The Yeltsin’s victory was about saving the country, saving the freedom and liberalism. But ultimately, journalists demonstrated their ability and power of inventing and manipulating reality in rather ruthless and arrogant way. That experience convinced both oligarchs and media stakeholders that the trick performed with the help of TV could be repeated without Yeltsin and that any candidate could be turned into a successor given the right technology. This was the moment when the likelihood of Putin as a future media invention was conceived.

Meanwhile, ideologically, the defeat of communists in 1996 revealed the lack of further purpose that would be shared by new elites—oligarchs, political and economic reformers, and media stakeholders. There was no clear sense of direction, true identity, or history for the country’s development. Lack of any raison d’être was not so surprising after all. Oligarchic rule in its contemporary sense of “rule by the few” has no distinct interest in any specific unifying idea. Liberalism and democracy were not synonyms for those running the Russia of 1990s. Besides, in 1996, the interests of media ultimately diverted from the society that wanted stability and normalization of life. Stability was the last thing that television needed. It was instability that allowed media to exercise influence and keep the audience entertained, even if at the cost of their audience’s normal life. There was a principal difference between the perestroika generation and the new liberal elites: if the former had certain values and plan to repair socialism—however deficient and unsuccessful—the latter had none.

Media magnates and oligarchs did not have their own candidate for the political successor of Yeltsin. Owning the country’s most important and influential media they considered themselves to be the power to be reckoned with, whoever the president. The whole political life in Russia was transformed into a spectacle made by media. Surely, the plot of the media shows had radically changed once Putin consolidated his grip on power. Yet the sense of reality repeatedly invented and manipulated remained paradoxically constant. Media in general and television in particular played crucial role in consolidating the nation around the spectacular TV projects. Media shows succeeded in creating experiences based on a narrative of the state and removing any need for doubt, reflection, or repentance. TV producers became the producers of the country, while TV channels started to stage shows that are part of much bigger geopolitical game.

The idea of media determinism in developing Putin’s Russia appears to be well sustained in Ostrovsky’s book. The shine and the poverty of liberalism in Russia’s new history turns out to be just one of the media’s numerous creations, replaced by others. In current conditions of post-truth politics, however, the book has a wider appeal. It shows how easily the invented domain realm can come to dominate reality and how proposing deceptive solutions to real problems can give bogus political actors real power.

Nelly Bekus

Associate Research Fellow, University of Exeter

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