The Evolution of the Post-Soviet Russian Media: An Interview with Vasily Gatov

Vasily Gatov (@vassgatovis a Russian media researcher, author, and a visiting fellow at USC’s Annenberg Center of Communication Leadership and Policy. Gatov’s experience includes reporting on such important events in Russia’s history as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the 1991 failed coup d’état, Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, and the first Chechen war (1994-1997). He later served as an executive and strategist for several Russian media companies, including RenTV network, Media3 (Russia’s largest print conglomerate in 2007-2012), and RIA Novosti, a national multimedia news agency. While working for RIA Novosti (2011-2013), Gatov founded Novosti Media Lab, a research and development company, fostering innovation in communication and the social impact of media.

Public Diplomacy Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Bret Schafer, spoke with Gatov about the transformation of the post-Soviet independent media in Russia, the influence of Russia’s international broadcasting efforts in the United States, America’s public diplomacy strategy towards Russia, and the prospects of improved U.S.-Russian relations under President Donald Trump.

Despite the political and social turmoil in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one could argue that the 1990s were a decade when independent journalism was relatively strong in Russia, especially during the first Chechen War. When did things begin to change?

Vasily Gatov: Things started to change during and immediately after the presidential elections in 1996. One of the original things with the Russian media is that it complied with the Yeltsin electoral headquarters’ request to join the fight against communism in the elections, in order not to allow a communist party resurgence and return to power. Generally, this was sort of a political price-fixing. Most mass media organizations agreed to be at least neutral towards Yeltsin’s candidacy, and skewer communists for everything that was attributable to them—although by this time the communist party was barely a shadow [of its former self], and ideologically was kind of in-between European socialism and a relic of Trotskyism. There was clearly not an existential danger of Stalin’s return to power in the modern Russia. But that was the starting point of this malignant transformation that happened in post-Soviet Russia. It took about four years—between 1996 and 2000—for state television to move towards self-censorship on most topics and persistent positivism about government actions. In 2000, when Putin was elected president, it took him two years to subdue two independent TV channels and move to “controllable democracy.”

At what point did the modern Russian propaganda machine coalesce and come into form?

I would say the first working blueprints started to emerge between 2003 and 2005. In 2003, after another explosion of terrorist violence at the end of the Chechen War, the Kremlin, and Putin personally, started to feel that the free media in general and incoherent opinions in Russia were damaging both [Russia’s] international reputation and clearly complicating the electoral process for both presidential elections and for the Duma. Around 2003 the late-Minister of Communications Mikhail Lesin—the guy who died in Washington, D.C., under strange circumstances a couple years ago—and the First Deputy of the Presidential Administration Alexey Gromov started to consolidate state assets in media, not only who controls them in terms of property but also how they are directed in terms of agenda—silencing some things and pushing others. In 2003, they replaced most of the editors of state-owned media with the people who were considered to be personally loyal to Putin and [Lesin and Gromov]. At about the same time they installed a closed-circuit phone system, which you may remember from old movies when the Big Boss has a huge telephone with massive buttons that directly connects him to different departments and deputies and so on. This device was installed in the Kremlin in the office of Alexey Gromov and it connected him with all these editors who [submitted] to the Kremlin’s agenda and narrative. That immediately allowed [Gromov] to make recommendations or offers that people didn’t reject. This system was completed by 2005, and I think from that moment the Russian media system was considered unfree.

Would you say this was also when coverage of the United States took a turn as well?  Because this was right around the time of the decision to invade Iraq and the expulsion of Open Society.1

Well, I would say the coverage of the United States had become critical in tone and dismissive of the goals of American policy around the time of the bombings of Belgrade in 1999. It never really recovered from this because for some strange reason Russians had felt very offended about this decision by Bill Clinton. And then in the wake of 9/11 and the immediate aftermath that married the tragedy of American people with the tragedies of Russian people who had suffered other terrorist attacks with mass victims, I think the anti-American stance of the Russian media [declined]. But it started to rise again, not with Iraq but with the expansion of NATO. And actually what had happened with the expansion of NATO was cleverly and skillfully exploited by state propaganda to build a support base for generally anti-Western and, later, particularly anti-American attitudes.

In Soviet times, there was a very clear ideological message that the Kremlin pushed through the media. What is the ideological message in Putin’s Russia?

I have recently published an article on that,2 and I argue that this is a non-message. It is not an ideology—it is anti-ideology. It is an ideology of negation. When the main tool you use is not to say, “These are my ideas, believe them,” but to say, “Nobody has ideas, so nobody should believe anyone.” Unlike Soviet leaders, Putin himself is not a very ideological person. He is an officer of action. When we speak about Putin’s ideology, we must understand that there are no deep convictions that he carries as a human and especially as a politician. So current Russian ideology is “everyone lies, nobody is better better than us”—not in terms of “we” are extremely good, we recognize we may do some things wrong—but [in terms of] other people have done much worse things.

That’s a nice segue to RT [formerly Russia Today]. Margarita Simonyan [the Editor-in-Chief of RT] has made similar comments about the lack of objectivity in news reporting, essentially saying that RT is merely a counterweight to Western broadcasts.3 But is RT really a viable competitor to CNN and the BBC? They claim to reach over 700 million people in 100 countries. Are those figures accurate?

No, those figures are absolutely misleading. When Margarita Simonyan claimed that RT America has a daily audience of 2 million people, it means that either she has never looked into the channel rankings of cable channels or she knowingly lied. Because two million—regardless of whether it’s a weekly or daily audience—puts RT next to Fox News [Channel]. Just remember how much advertising you have on Fox News. And just imagine that American advertisers would [ignore] a channel with a similar or comparable audience. It’s just impossible. Regardless of whether or not this channel shows blatant anti-American propaganda, if it has an audience that audience should be appropriated. This is a main tool of business. So when [Simonyan] speaks about RT not participating in commercial rankings because of the commercial makeup [of the rankings] and that RT doesn’t want to turn commercial, this is also bullshit.

But what about their online presence? RT’s YouTube channel has 2 billion views. Are they reaching their audience through other mediums?

Let me start with an even scarier figure. They have over 120 million monthly views of their website under the domain. But the most interesting part of it is that the American audience is less than 13 percent of that figure, which puts it in the 10 million zone. When you assume that visits don’t mean users, in order to understand how many unique users reach RT’s site you have to divide [that number] by at least two and usually six. So maybe 5 million people in America read one story on RT a month, which is not a small number, but it is nothing compared to monsters like Drudge Report, CNN, or even Fox News.

I’ve also noticed if you look at RT’s YouTube channel, that if you rank their top 50 videos, almost all of them are disaster videos or –

They have nothing to do with Russia. They have nothing to do with Russia. Of the 100 most-popular clips on RT’s YouTube channel, there are only two [featuring] Russians: One that presents some Russian tanks, which Russians are very skilled at making and is a legitimate thing to have interest in, and the second is Putin signing “Blueberry Hill.”

I’ve described RT’s outcomes very simply: as a broadcast network, as television, RT is a failure. The Russian government has spent about $2.2 billion in the last 12 years to maintain and distribute RT content. This is an astonishing amount of money, which is absolutely comparable to BBC World, Al Jazeera, and others.

But as far as public relations are concerned, RT is a moderate success. Because what they’ve done is create an image of someone that participates in the discourse or [someone that] can affect the opinions of others, can affect the behavior of other media, and can become a media story itself—even though every correct media analysis shows that they are definitely not a popular media outlet and not even a topic starter.

Is it your sense, having lived in America for a while, that average Americans are even aware that RT exists?

I think the brand recognition of RT is extremely low. People may have come across RT within the massive distribution networks of alt-right news, where RT fits very comfortably and participates in many of the campaigns. But RT is not the prime member of this network nor is it really influential. The purpose it serves is primarily a kind of legitimation of someone’s claims or of fake news by a reportedly “legitimate” mass media outlet. I can say that about year ago when I was once again puzzled by RT’s real influence over American audiences, I asked every one of my neighbors whether they heard, watched, or accessed RT online. Of the probably 50 people I asked in very liberal Massachusetts, there was only one who said he knows what it is, he’s seen something online, and he’s read several stories. Although this is definitely not a representative poll, it very much reflects the general figures we can calculate based on the knowledge of the web composition of RT’s audience.

Given the fact that RT is not influencing the general American public, why is Washington so concerned about it? 

Well, I think that this is a kind of phantom pain that has affected American attitudes—American government attitudes, in particular—towards Russia going back to the 1919 “Red Scare,” 1945 nuclear espionage, and so on. This is a scourge of America’s very own propaganda campaign that continues to generate an immediate desire to demonstrate Russian activity on this side of the pond.

Besides the obvious geopolitical differences, what’s been the biggest issue in the breakdown of U.S.-Russia relations over the past decade? 

I’m pretty sure that the biggest issue between America and Russia—Putin’s Russia—is that Russia always wants to be treated as a nostalgic power. America has not granted Russia this small gratitude, which would probably satisfy Putin completely and make him a good friend of every next president. In a way, he’s a little bit similar in his reactions to an African dictator who declares a national celebration when a clerk from the State Department pays him a regular visit. But [Putin] just has the scale and the power to demand respect to himself and his country from the leader of the free world. I think one of the biggest problems that affected Russian and American relations was Obama’s arrogance towards Putin himself and Russia as a country when he used demeaning terms like “regional power” to explain sanctions and the general change in policy after the Ukrainian breakdown.

Just to shift the conversation a little bit, I want to talk about the U.S. response to RT. America has recently invested a lot of money into broadcasts aimed at Russian speakers in the “near-abroad.” How would you judge their performance so far?

My opinion, as often happens with American public diplomacy, is that it’s too late and too shallow. America’s [Russian language programming] suffers from two major flaws.

The big problem—problem number one—is that American broadcasts are trying to serve all Russian speakers at the same time regardless of where they live—in Russia, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Moldova, and so on. Russians who live in Ukraine—80 percent of them—are Ukrainian patriots who view Russia as an enemy in the war. Russians living in Russia, by the same proportion, think that Ukrainians are the enemy. You can’t offer them similar content. That’s an unusual strategy for any media company.

The second flaw that I saw and have criticized is that they maintain a “serious-face” news media that tries to compete with the Fox News-style infotainment that Russian television broadcasts in the Russian language. It’s like NPR trying to compete with Fox News. And that’s not only a budget constraint but a concept constraint. If you think that a straight-faced, Edward Murrow-like presentation will touch the hearts of the modern viewer—no, it won’t. The key to win back or to keep protected the brains of the supposedly targeted Russian speakers in the near-abroad of Russia is entertainment, and entertainment only. And news is nothing more than a spice that you can add to that, but it is definitely not the main product.

Edward Murrow, when explaining the goals of the U.S. Information Agency, said, “Broadcasts are easy in public diplomacy. We know how to do this. The most difficult part is the last three feet.” The problem is that modern television only does its job in terms of the last three feet when it attracts audiences.

Do you think there would be any appetite in Russia for American news programs that are targeted at Americans that are then dubbed or subtitled for a Russian audience, as opposed to creating content exclusively for a Russian audience?

I would say that there always has been such an appetite, and there are some American shows that are followed by Russians in unusual numbers. When Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show,” he was extremely popular in Russia, extremely. People were translating every episode and they were watched hundreds of thousands of times. Jon Stewart was not fixated on Russia—he liked to mock Putin, but it wasn’t the only subject he cracked about.

Russians really like American crime and law series.The way law enforcement works in America has always puzzled Russians: How do you really deal with independent courts and attorneys? From “Miami Vice” to “CSI” to “Boston Legal” and “The Good Wife”—they all were and are extremely popular. And Russians are very much attracted to Hollywood and American television’s creativity in terms of great story telling—I’m not speaking only of things like “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards”—but a lot of American series are popular and people watch them even with all the territorial restrictions that exist between the two nations.

So coming back to America’s global broadcasting, there’s one important part of this story. Communications should be positive. You can’t achieve a better image of your country, or your company, or yourself unless you speak to people about positive issues—about things that make them happier rather than poorer and more concerned. And I think that one of the strategic mistakes that BBG as an institution has made, especially since the Ukrainian conflict, has been an extremely critical tone towards everything in Russia. Critical and melodramatic. This is one of the biggest problems with American foreign broadcasts, and not only in Russia. I can see the same problems with the Arabic service. The people who work primarily out of America overestimate the harshness of what happens in the country or countries where they broadcast. They kind of make life in Russia worse than it really is for people there. And they try to report this to them. And people come to the street and say, “Well, sorry, you know, don’t bullshit me, there is no blood, there is no blood around me. Don’t speak of a bloody Putin regime. I don’t know anyone, personally, who has been killed by Putin.”

I think that in order to move forward with the modern Russian regime or the modern Iranian regime or even the Chinese, there is a big need for something much more sophisticated than the Truman or Eisenhower Doctrines that still form the foundation of American foreign policy in regards to projecting [America’s] image abroad.

On the surface, President Trump has been very positive towards Russia and, in reverse, Putin more positive towards America.  Have you seen a shift in tone in how the media in Russia is covering current events in America?

That’s funny. Before Trump’s victory, Russian state-controlled media was preparing for Clinton’s victory and a massive counterattack [claiming] that the elections were rigged, that Clinton won illegitimately because of the dirty tricks of the Democratic club, whatever. That was just about to start. And when news of Trump’s victory came, the Russian state media was thrilled, I mean really thrilled. They celebrated. They cheered news about Trump’s [margin of victory]. In the State Duma they were clapping, a sort of standing ovation. I mean, I’m not joking. That’s true. But I think that was mostly emotional rather than rational.

Unlike in America where foreign policy is pretty much indoctrinated and flexibility is limited because of numerous arrangements that America has with its partners, I think that Russian diplomacy and Russian foreign policy attitudes are extremely flexible and could be changed overnight, especially if Putin wants to [change them]. I don’t think that Putin and Trump will get along. I really don’t think so. Trump is everything that Putin hates in people. Putin, although he is probably one of the richest people in the world, publicly displays modesty in his presentation as a person. And the only thing he allows himself to entertain are expensive watches, but that is a very tiny sign of his richness or his capacity to demonstrate his wealth or power. He is much more careful about his image than Trump. The two men are very different in terms of their responsiveness. Trump is sort of flashy—he jumps out in situations where he expresses his desires or praise. He immediately reacts. Putin is a trained philosopher who definitely doesn’t make such demonstrations and he doesn’t like people who do.

So are you not optimistic that these good feelings are going to last?

I think first these good feelings will be tested by their personal meeting. It was clear that Putin would not get along well with Obama because they were extremely different people. Although they are both lawyers by training, their values are opposite. In the situation with Trump, there are some similarities. They are people of trade. They are flexible. They are people who use deception and are duplicitous. So, in this particular case I think they could find some common ground.

But I would be very careful. I’ve studied how Trump developed. And I think that one important difference between Putin and Trump may make their “bromance” questionable. Regardless of his kind words about Putin or his promises about Putin, Trump is very nationalistic. I would say jingoistic about America. That would be relatively difficult for Putin to contemplate. Putin really dislikes nationalism in any form. He sometimes himself exercises nationalism, but you can see in his face that he’s doing it because he has to. He’s a Soviet man. He does not believe in nations as a concept and he kind of hates people who do. And I think that is why it will be difficult for him to deal with Trump.

Some other small things that may make a difference: Trump is even taller than Obama. And Putin is really short. And he really, really has problems dealing with people who are taller than him. That’s not a joke. It’s the Napoleonic complex that every short man suffers from in some form. Tillerson, who is roughly the same height as Putin, would be a much better companion. Sorry about this biological approach to international relations, but sometimes it’s important. It’s extremely humiliating for a short man. And especially when the person on the other side is ignorant of this issue. It’s a small detail.

So, to wrap this up, I don’t see any real hope for a significant upgrade in U.S.-Russia relations in the wake of Trump’s victory. It could become much more pragmatic, it could become much less emotional—especially if Trump assigns Russian policy to the State Department instead of keeping it in his hands—but I don’t see it getting much better.


1 Editor’s note: In 2003, the George Soros-funded Open Society Institute closed its offices in Moscow. In 2015, the Russian government declared Open Society to be “undesirable” and banned them from operating in Russia. 

2 Gatov, Vasily V. “Contagious Tales of Russian Origin and Putin’s Evolution,” Society, vol. 53, no. 6, 2016, pp. 619-624. Print.

3 Simonyan, Margarita. Interview by Benjamin Bidder. Spiegel Online. 13 Aug. 2013. Web.