How the Kremlin’s Propaganda Machine Works

June 20, 2024
  • Ilya Yablokov
    University of Sheffield

Russian journalism specialist Ilya Yablokov describes how the Kremlin has molded the media into a reliable and effective tool

for advancing its political aims.

For a long time, the regime in Russia could be called a “spin dictatorship” – a term proposed by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman to describe modern authoritarian regimes that rely on manipulation and propaganda rather than mass repression.

The key role in these dictatorships is played by the media. Journalists shape the image of the regime, the news agenda and discredit the regime’s opponents. Moreover, unlike the dictatorships of the 20th century, the new dictators ensure the cooperation of journalists not so much with sticks as with carrots.

The media as a tool of state control

Before the war in Ukraine, Putin’s Russia provided a stark illustration of how, in the hands of the ruling regime, journalists had become an instrument of control over society – an instrument that accompanies and sometimes gets ahead of Kremlin repressive campaigns.

Several factors can be identified that contributed to the transformation of Russian journalists into cogs in the state propaganda machine:

  • the state’s drive to control news agenda;
  • the benefits of informal links between media owners and managers, on the one hand, and government officials, on the other;
  • the tabloid style of news and ratings being the top priority;
  • the need of media outlets to make money in a market economy;
  • the lack of professional standards;
  • atomization and the lack of solidarity among journalists.
Alexei Gromov, a first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration since 2012. Source: Wiki Commons
In the 1990s, the presence of numerous stakeholders in Russian politics and business served as an obstacle to Kremlin control of the media agenda. But with the coming of Putin, this situation changed dramatically.

In 2000, Kommersant published a document called “Revision Number Six,” allegedly prepared by the Presidential Administration. It called for influencing the media by any means to achieve the political goals of the authorities.

Although Kommersant did not confirm the authenticity of the document, those who worked in the media industry at the time believed it to be very real. Moreover, after President Yeltsin was reelected for a second term in 1996, regular meetings between the Presidential Administration and the chief editors of the press became commonplace.Thus, the foundation was laid for the relationship between editorial offices and the Presidential Administration whereby the Kremlin can dictate its agenda to journalists.

From the first half of the 2000s to the present day, relations with journalists have been handled by Presidential Administration First Deputy Head Alexei Gromov, whom Proekt called “the man behind the Kremlin’s control of the Russian media.”
Konstantin Ernst, the CEO of Channel One Russia, receiving a state award from president Putin. June 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
When asked about the point of the meetings between the Presidential Administration and chief editors (back when it was still possible to ask such questions), figures like Konstantin Ernst, the head of Channel One Russia, brushed aside concerns, saying that the meetings were “technical,” for planning the travel schedule of news crews with the president, for example.

However, it was through these regular meetings that the state imposed its agenda and controlled the media, while media managers were able to strengthen their authority in the Russian system.
Informal links are the most important element of relationships within the Russian elite, with laws and rules replaced by informal and gray understandings, which is clearly seen in the example of the media elite.
‘Intuitively understood’ rules

Before the start of the war in Ukraine, at the weekly meetings held by the Presidential Administration, as well as at regular meetings with Putin, one could run into both the editor-in-chief of the openly propagandistic Komsomolskaya Pravda, Vladimir Sungorkin, and his opposite, the editor-in-chief of the oppositional Novaya Gazeta, Dmitri Muratov.

Based on published information about these meetings and your author’s interviews with attendees, we can conclude that at least for some of the media managers, the conversations with government officials were an important part of their job.

Asking a question to the president or his retinue on the side, making the “right” contacts and using them at the right time, gauging the atmosphere among the Kremlin elite so as to not run into problems with the siloviki or to air the necessary exclusive story was an essential means of survival in a dangerous political environment.

The most successful members of the Russian media elite have the keenest intuitive understanding of the “rules of the game” and can even anticipate where the “general line” of the Kremlin might move. All this reinforced the dependence of the media on the regime. Meanwhile, attempts to independently cover the Kremlin created serious problems for both owners and management.

A striking example is the decision made in 2014 by the owner of the popular online publication lenta.ru to fire its editor-in-chief, Galina Timochenko (Timchenko, one of the best Russian media managers, is today the publisher and CEO of Meduza). Another example from that time is the dismissal of Svetlana Mironyuk, who was a highly regarded and successful editor-in-chief and head of the state news agency RIA Novosti.

For those editorial offices that covered the news, it was extremely important to adhere to the intuitively understood rules of the game. In a collaborative article, Elizabeth Schimpfossl and I proposed the term “adekvatnost’” (literally “adequacy” but better translated as “appropriateness”) to intuitively follow the unwritten rules of the media whereby such self-censorship is perceived as a sign of professionalism and as a creative way to produce products that are popular among viewers/subscribers.

Because of this, the authorities no longer need to draw up “black lists” of guests or speakers. It is enough to ban one for editorial offices to begin – intuitively – to pick guests so as not to create trouble for themselves. Media workers choose loyalty directly to the state or to the owner who has his own interests and is an intermediary between the media and the state. Thus, the media agenda is “organically” harmonized with the Kremlin’s line.

The profit factor

The history of the Russian media in the 21st century demonstrates that amid state pressure, the natural reaction of many media organizations is “tabloidization.” Media outlets choose a news style, sometimes infotainment, that allows them to avoid sensitive political topics and accordingly conflicts with those who represent the state.

Besides being a way to avoid conflicts with the regime, turning a news outlet into a tabloid boosts profits. In the conditions of the persisting market economy, the media that are impeccably loyal to the authorities desperately battle for ratings and viewers; meanwhile, non-state media (while they still continued to operate in Russia before the war) were deprived by the state of the money they needed to exist, with advertisers intimidated so they would not place ads with disloyal media.
This is the fundamental difference between modern Russian media propaganda and its Soviet predecessor: the time spent by the consumer in front of a television screen or on a media platform is monetized, making media owners and journalists good money.
In “spin dictatorships,” the phenomenon of “agitainment” – entertainment content with a political component woven into it – emerges. Thus, a journalist must create material that is popular with the viewer, i.e., that brings in ads and generates clicks, while staying politically loyal so as to avoid problems and prohibitions.

The fear of being fired, coupled with the desire for success and material well-being, turns out to be an effective incentive, pushing journalists to abandon professional and ethical principles.

Long before the full-scale war in Ukraine, in our research we recorded that most major Russian media had abandoned professional standards. The only exceptions were privately owned quality outlets like the newspaper Vedomosti or the Russian version of Forbes.

Adherence to editorial standards risked negative consequences from the owner or the state. Taking the place of standards was adekvatnost’ – a sober analysis of the real situation and the balance of political forces.

Why take the risk of writing an honest story if you could get away with, and also be rewarded for, adekvatny – and often simply false – material? Will clickbait headlines not create a lot of views and a loyal audience, ensuring monetization?

Degradation of the media profession

Working under a “spin dictatorship,” journalists quickly learned how to make news and how to build a career.

These processes of degradation of the journalistic community, which, as our research has showed, began back in the 1990s, allow us to understand why, when the war in Ukraine started, only a very few journalists from the state media chose to quit and leave Russia. The rest continue to work, directly participating in the production of propaganda and completely ignoring any rules of professional journalism.
Marina Ovsyannikova in March 2022 interrupted a broadcast of the Vremya news program on Channel One to protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Source: VK
Marina Ovsyannikova, who boldly expressed her opposition to the war on live TV in March 2022, said in an interview that at the beginning of the war, all her colleagues, with the exception of a single person, continued to go to work and do everything that was demanded of them. According to her, the boss told her and her news agency coworkers to sit quietly, since “in the war environment, the Kremlin will only support the siloviki, the army and propagandists.” Ovsyannikova’s protest was not openly supported by anyone else who still worked in the Russian media.

The war in Ukraine has transformed the Russian regime from a “spin dictatorship” to a “fear dictatorship,” in Guriev and Treisman’s terminology, where any manifestation of disloyalty, including professional work as a journalist, is considered a crime.

Dmitry Muratov and Alexei Venediktov, the most prominent heads of non-state media – Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow, respectively – who were previously able to carry out the editorial policy they wanted thanks to a system of informal contacts, have been declared “foreign agents” and have lost their media.

Though Russia still has a market economy, today there is only state money or the money of ultra-loyal oligarchs in the media market. Media outlets, either belonging to the state or owned by those oligarchs, fiercely compete for the money to be had. Federal television channels, of course, are not limited to broadcasting pure state propaganda, but even their entertainment content is propagandistic in nature.
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