Russia's President Vladimir Putin waves to photographer as he leaves the Itamaraty Palace after attending the final day of the BRICS Summit in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, July 16, 2014
MOSCOW, Russia — As he considers his next move after the downing of the Malaysian Air flight MH17, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be thinking about the sinking of the Kursk — the nuclear submarine which sunk during a summer as hot as this in 2000, the first year of his presidency.
That was the last time a transport-related tragedy shook his regime. Back then Putin was weak and Russia much freer, and the botched rescue operations along with Putin’s bumbling response played out in agonizing detail on the still-independent television channels owned by uppity oligarchs. They made Putin look like a lame duck President.
After the Kursk disaster, Putin began to build a very 21st century brand of authoritarianism. He arrested and exiled the unruly oligarchs and took control of television.
If 20th century autocracies were based primarily on violence with a certain amount of propaganda, in Putin’s Russia, propaganda is much more important than simple violence, though propaganda is far too soft a term.
Putin TV doesn’t spin — it reinvents reality, it is fictions substituted for fact.
The war in Ukraine has been a high-point. There have been fake documentaries about dreamt-up atrocities against Russians in Ukraine (with actors posing as victims); improvised conspiracy theories about Putin opponents being CIA stooges and talk shows sagely discussing the masonic hand behind the Ukrainian revolution.
Last week there was one story about how the U.S. is encouraging Ukraine to bomb and depopulate the Donbas and thus gain access to its reserves of shale gas.
This week, there was another story, utterly invented, about Ukrainian forces crucifying a Russian childThis week, there was another story, utterly invented, about Ukrainian forces crucifying a Russian child in Donbas.
The unique element in Russia’ covert war in Eastern Ukraine is that it is primarily designed for TV cameras, a gruesome reality show where the border between the media and the secret services has become utterly blurred. Information is the main weapon, with TV cameras summoned by pro-Russia forces at the same time as an attack because the cameras are not there as an afterthought; they are the point of the attack. Instead of the media covering reality, reality is packaged, molded and distorted for the lenses.
Whether people think this Putin reality is really real is perhaps the wrong question to ask. The point of the propaganda machine is to keep people hooked and emotionally involved with a narrative fabricated by the Kremlin. When the Russian Deputy Minister for Communications, Igor Volin, was asked last week whether it mattered that the crucified child story was not true, he answered that he thought it respected journalistic standards- and what mattered were ratings.
Putin's televised Potemkin world leaves the viewer with the feeling that, if the Kremlin is so powerful it can dictate reality, then it is far too powerful to resist.Putin's televised Potemkin world leaves the viewer with the feeling that, if the Kremlin is so powerful it can dictate reality, then it is far too powerful to resist.You watch television not to discover the truth, but to find out what those in power require you to repeat as the truth. It is a way of receiving instructions — an inheritance from Soviet times when the State would communicate its versions of events via Pravda.
Back in 2000, when the Kursk sank, Putin didn’t have the tools to make sure his reality won. In 2014, he does. In a morbid way, the downed Malaysian airliner provides the Ukrainian story with a Hollywood-worthy plot turn.
Russian TV has already kicked into action: one story on the main, blue-chip evening news program argued Ukrainian forces meant to assassinate the President himself but confused the Malaysian plane with Putin’s personal plane.
Another story is that the Ukrainians and the Americans set the plane up by guiding it off course into the war zone. There can be more than one story of course. Best to have lots to entertain the audiences with.
The downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane, to Putin, is not a threat — it’s an opportunity.The downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane, to Putin, is not a threat — it’s an opportunity.
And there’s no one close to him who dares say otherwise
Peter Pomerantsev is a television producer and nonfiction writer. He lives in London.
Tags: CRASH, MALAYSIA AIRLINES, Ukraine, US & World, WORLD