As Russia and the rest of the world move ever closer to a cold war footing over Vladimir Putin’s ill-advised Crimean invasion, an important dimension of this conflict has received scant coverage, in both Western and Russian media: how do Russian citizens feel about this escalating conflict?
In this, the third of a series of articles on the situation in Ukraine, I’m honoured to collaborate with Russian photojournalist Ilya Varlamov to bring readers the faces of war and peace on Moscow streets.
Putin’s Russia: The muzzled press
“Once there is no freedom, there is no man.” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
Since coming to power in 1999, Vladimir Putin — who spent the first 16 years of his career as KGB officer working in counter-intelligence, monitoring foreigners and consular officials, and in illegal intelligence gathering, in the Soviet Union and East Germany where he was a KGB liaison to the Stasi — he steadily been tightening his control over the Russian media. Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 148th out of 179 countries in its Press Freedom Index, a dismal position slightly behind the Democratic Republic of Congo (142), and only marginally better than Iraq (150) and Burma (151).
In 2009 Human Rights Watch reported that:
“The [Russian] government continues tightening control over civil society through selective implementation of the law on NGOs, restriction and censure of protected expression and the media, and harassment of activists and human right’s defenders. These actions form an unmistakable part of the Russian government’s efforts to weaken — in some cases beyond recognition — the checks and balances needed for an accountable government.”
And since then the situation has grown steadily worse.
All three major television networks — Channel One, Rossiya, and NTV — are owned and controlled by the government and resolutely broadcast content supportive of Putin and the government. Channel One was once owned by the now deceased (and formerly exiled) oligarch and Putin opponent, Boris Berezovsky, before Putin forced Berezovsky to sell his shares to the state. NTV was also once independent, owned by media-magnate and oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky before he, too, ran afoul of Putin and was forced to sell the company to the state-owned gas company, Gazprom.
REN TV (owned by the National Media Group) is one of the few remaining television stations in Russia that interviews members of the political opposition, and broadcasts “liberal” and “socialist” content. Dozhd TV (meaning “rain” in Russian), Russia’s last independent television station, is currently under heavy attack by the Kremlin after offending Putin when it questioned Soviet-era tactics during the siege of Leningrad (seriously). Putin snapped fingers and pulled strings to get Russian cable and satellite operators to drop the station so that overnight Dozhd lost half its audience and is consequently losing much of its advertising revenues. Whether it will survive this onslaught is impossible to know.
At the lunatic end of this spectrum are abject Kremlin mouthpieces such as RT – Russia Today a media outlet that, as analyst Oliver Bullough (author of the acclaimed book, The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation) reported on the CBC’s Day 6, “has given up any pretense of telling the truth,” broadcasting, “relentless falsehoods that are verifiably untrue.” Funded annually by the Kremlin to the tune of $300 million a year (with financing guaranteed by Putin himself) RT is (in Bullough’s characterization) “the in-house television station for the world’s crazies” (of the “911-was-an-inside-job” variety) combining extreme libertarian ideas with the emerging neo-Soviet ideology of Vladimir Putin.
Although radio is an important and growing segment of Russian media, most radio stations avoid any political content. Of the few that do, the two largest, Mayak and Radio Rossiya are government owned and obediently tow the party line. Ekho Moskvy, while also owned by Gazprom still, according to media analyst Olga Khvostunova, “allows for members of opposition to participate in some its programs and to voice criticisms of the regime.” Even so, the recent appointment of the pro-Kremlin Yekaterina Pavlova as CEO of the station has been viewed by media analysts as a move to eliminate Ekho Moskvy’s critical coverage of the government.
Most of the print media in Russia that carry political content are owned by the government or by companies controlled by oligarchs who support Vladimir Putin. Kommersant is owned by Elisher Usmanov, the richest businessman in Russia, and an open supporter of Putin. According to Khvostunova, “Kommersant’s coverage of politically sensitive issues can be managed by application of the so-called ‘administrative resource,’ a.k.a. pressure from the Kremlin.” Izvestiya’s editor-in-chief Aram Gabrelyano says, “his newspaper has three forbidden topics: the president, the prime minister, and the patriarch.” Expert is owned Oleg Deripaska, another oligarch who openly supports Putin.
A few print publications retain some degree of editorial independence. Moskovsky Komsomolets, owned by its editor-in-chief Pavel Gusev, sometimes publishes pointed political commentary of an independent frame of mind. Novaya Gazeta, owned by the members of its editorial board, is, according to Khvostunova, “one of the very few newspapers on the market that produces high standard pieces of investigative journalism.”
Amongst electronic media, Lenta.ru, arguably the best remaining news site in Russia, according to the New Republic’s senior editor, Julia Ioffe, came under similar attack. According to Oleg Sukhov’s article for the Moscow Times, “Amid Ukraine Crisis, Russia Puts the Squeeze on Independent Media“, it’s editor-in-chief for the last decade, Galina Timchenko, was abruptly fired and “replaced by Alexei Goreslavsky, the former editor of Kremlin-friendly online publication, Vzglyad.ru.” More than 35 of their journalists resigned in protest of the firing of Timchenko, which was linked to Lenta.ru’s critical coverage of the Russian invasion of Crimea. “Now independent journalists are believed to be enemies, ‘the fifth column,'” said Ilya Azar one of Lenta.ru’s most prominent correspondents, one of those who resigned in protest.
Putin’s squeeze on dissenting voices is intensifying. In the past several days Russian authorities have restricted Kasparov.ru (run by chess champion, democracy activist, and Putin critic, Gary Kasparov), Grani.ru, and Ej.ru, all of whom have carried content critical of the government and of its invasion of Crimea. Also blocked is the blog of Alexei Navalny, a leading anti-corruption crusader and opponent of Vladimir Putin, now under house arrest in Moscow, forbidden to communicate with anyone (save for his family) about anything. The Kremlin is tightening the screws with ferocity.
Russia is not Vladimir Putin
“Those are the men,” added Bolkonsky with a sigh which he could not suppress, as they went out of the palace, “those are the men who decide the fate of nations.” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
What’s important to understand is that Russia is not Vladimir Putin.
While 15 years of ever-tightening control over the media has produced an ever more insidious onslaught of pro-government, pro-Putin propaganda, many Russians understand this game. Seventy years of relentless Soviet propaganda helped develop a degree of skepticism and an ability to read between the lines that is probably unparalleled in the world. Having survived Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Andropov, many Russians understand with great alacrity the corrosive power of the lie. Many may never have had the opportunity to read George Orwell’s 1984 (banned during the Soviet era) but they nonetheless know from personal experience that the Ministry of Truth oversees lying, propaganda and historical revisionism.
That said, as Abraham Lincoln observed, you can fool some of the people all of the time. If virtually all of the media channels relentlessly broadcast the same message, many ordinary people, unable to hear alternative voices, or not having the wherewithal to access them or the time to pursue such endeavors, come to believe the lies, distortions, half-truths, deliberate misrepresentations, red herrings, logical lacunae, concocted information, misleading data, doctored statistics and other devices of state-propagated disinformation.
Despite fifteen years of relentless assaults on civil society, a choke-hold on the media, the subjugation of the political opposition, putting oligarchs on a tight leash, cowing the courts and judiciary, persecuting a new generation of dissidents (for example, the members of Pussy Riot who regard Putin as a dictator)… Russia has not become Vladimir Putin. There are many courageous citizens who refuse to wear the shackles they are offered. Who expect more of their government than recycled Soviet nationalism and 19th century imperialism. Who want to live peaceably with their neighbours. Who reject military jingoism and saber rattling. Who want to build a civil society based on law and order, not an autocracy or an authoritarian regime.
The faces of war and peace
“Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west slaying their fellows.” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
Russian photojournalist Ilya Varlamov has documented these two faces of Russia — those seeking peace and those clamoring for war. His photos capture the human dimensions within the political tensions seeking to define the soul of Russia. On Saturday March 15, 2014 two large marches took place in Moscow.
The March for War
“To us, it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg was wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have the with the actual fact of slaughter and violence. Why? Because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow, and were killed by them.” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
Although officially billed as the “March of brotherhood and civil resistance,” its participants called it the “March for War” (seriously). According to Varlamov, many participants believe that Ukraine has been seized by “fascists” and that only Putin has the power to save the people. For these young women, wrapping themselves in patriotic colours is a literal and figurative act.
These students stayed up all night writing placards such as this one that says: “I am proud of my country.”
This young woman, clearly convinced that the Euromaidan movement of Ukraine is a fascist plot, writes: “We will not permit a Maidan in Moscow.”
These students march proudly, carrying Russian flags behind an enormous banner that says: “We believe in Putin!” In the centre a man carries a placard that says: “We are for the self determination of Crimea!”
A clear indication of where the “March for War” would like to go was manifest in the participation of the “Kurginyan Army.” This is the “army” of Sergei Kurginyan, a historian, geologist, playwright and politician who is the founder of a “patriotic” movement called “Essence of Time.” This is a communist (although not strictly Marxist) “movement” to construct a grand new historical project for Russian called USSR 2.0 (or CCCP 2.0 in Cyrillic characters).
It seeks to unite socialists and communists along with “patriots” (i.e., Russian nationalist) and adherents of Orthodox Christianity to create a new communist synthesis. USSR 2.0 would be an improved version of USSR 1.0 that somehow “takes into account” the mistakes of the latter (One parenthetically wonders what this could possibly lead to: Trotskyite rather than Stalinist? Menshevik rather than Bolshevik?). It would result in a new “red” state of nations, at the core of would be Russia and Russian values. Seriously.
The “Kurginian Army” is organized into “magazines” (like those in an AK-47) under the control of a commander, and strict military discipline is observed. Participants marched, stood at attention and sang war songs as if taking part in a war parade.
“It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power — the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns — should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals…” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
Here the “Kurginian Army” marches (without irony) with placards that say: “Ukraine and Russia, together against fascism.” Also “Navalny and Tyahnibok — Made in the USA.” “Navalny is Alexei Navalny, a leading anti-corruption crusader and opponent of Vladimir Putin (see above). “Tyahnibok” is Oleh Tyahnibok the leader of the nationalist Svobda party. Tyahnibok is a fervently anti-Russian, ultra-nationalist Ukrainian politician who has been accused of being anti-Semitic (indeed he was expelled from the “Our Ukraine” political bloc for referring to the “Moscow-Jewish mafia”). This is a transparent disinformation ploy to equate Navalny with Tyahnibok and imply that they are both American stooges. They have no political commonalities at all, and neither has any connection to the U.S. In the background is a placard that reads: “The road to hell is paved with… democracy.”
These ordinary Russians “Believe in Putin!” and sing patriotic songs.
“Crimea don’t fear: We are with you!” says one of the placards.
Flexing Russian muscle to impress the chicks.
Attending the rally, Sergei Kurginian vowed that in Russia a “Maidan” (i.e., Euromaidan) movement will not be allowed and that his “Army” will ensure that this is so.
There is a fantastic irony here, seemingly unobservable to participants. While convinced by Russian state media that Ukraine has been taken over by fascists, these citizens live in a Russia, which under the Vladimir Putin in whom they so fervently “believe,” has moved very far along the path of fascism. Paramilitary militias like the “Kurginian Army” march the streets vowing to keep at bay the tainted Western values that have been allowed to flourish in Ukraine where a corrupt politician was deposed by a popular uprising. Little wonder that Putin loves these people — and they love him.
“War is not a polite recreation, but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to realize this and not make a game of it… as it stands now it’s the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous.” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
The March for Peace
“Every reform by violence is to be deprecated, because it does little to correct the evil while men remain as they are, and because wisdom has no need of violence.” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
At the same time on Pushkin Street in Moscow, the “March for Peace” was taking place. Opponents laughed at participants and called it the “March of the Traitors.”
These marchers (possibly anarchists? Note the black flags…) marched under the banner of “Freedom to the People! Death to Imperialism!” a slogan of the former Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) movement of the 19th century who assassinated Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881.
These protesters are marching under the banner of the anti-fascist Maximalist-Communists — a contemporary anti-capitalist, anti-fascist reincarnation of the turn of the nineteenth century “Maximalist” wing of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. They were called “maximalists” because they agitated for a “maximal” implementation of socialism. Their placards (so far as I can see them) say: “No to Intervention! Yes to Revolution!” and “We are against Fascism and Liberalism!”
The collective banner which united all these opposition groups, and behind which they marched reads: “The Occupation of Crimea is a Disgrace (Shame) of Russia!”
Partway through the march they replaced this with a second unifying banner that reads: “Hands off of Ukraine.” A sea of Ukrainian and Russian flags parade together along the Moscow streets.
The March for Peace brought together a very large number of people. Estimates put it at 50,000. Varlamov said it was one of the largest rallies he had ever seen.
Russian and Ukrainian flags fly together.
“A deed once done becomes irrevocable, and any action comes together over time with millions of actions performed by other people to create historical significance.” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
A wreath of flowers around her head; the peace symbol on her lapel.
With what looks like distress in her eyes, this woman says to the world, “We are Russia: Putin is not.”
Behind the banner of “One Second of War” marchers carried images of the pain and desolation caused by wars; each image capturing only one second, in one place, of the suffering, death and devastation caused by armed conflicts, wherever they occur.
This is the contemporary dialectic of war and peace as seen through the faces of people on the streets of Moscow. These are only a few frames of a few seconds, yet how much they tell us. Of the care, compassion, solidarity, and concern of these thousands of Muscovites who took to the streets to march for peace. To reject imperialism; to repudiate propaganda; to oppose war mongering; to support tolerance; to embrace their neighbours.
“What a terrible thing war is, what a terrible thing!” — Lev Tolstoy, War and Peace
This is Part III of a series on the political situation of Ukraine. Part II is Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and useful idiots. Part IV is Fallen aircraft and smoking guns: The deadly consequences of Russian insurgency in Ukraine.
Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.