20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia is launching a series of publications that will be focused upon the operation of the propaganda machine within the system of power constructed by Vladimir Putin. In this first installment, IMR experts analyze the layout, content, and efficacy of propaganda geared toward “domestic consumption”—that is, toward sustaining the popularity of the regime and its leader among Russian voters.


Vladislav Surkov (right) and Vyacheslav Volodin (left) use different tactics to pursue the same goal: maintaining a positive image of Vladimir Putin and his regime.


On Saturday, October 20, 2012, amid the usual paucity of weekend news, the Presidential Press Office announced the creation of a special directorate within the Presidential Administration to manage “social projects.” Officially, the new entity will be in charge of “patriotic education” of Russian citizens; unofficially, it will oversee propaganda-related projects in the cultural sphere, which includes cinema, music, and so on.

The processes of formation and promotion of a propagandistic agenda within the country are becoming increasingly complex and tightly controlled. Thus, propaganda is being designed to deal with more and more aspects of society.


The Center in the Kremlin

The Presidential Administration is the central locus where propaganda strategies and concepts are produced. Within these headquarters, there are several competing centers of influence. The dominant position among them, which has general oversight of all the groups, is occupied by Vyacheslav Volodin, the President’s First Deputy Chief of Staff. His mindset is that of a regional-level party hack (tellingly, he maintained considerable influence in his bailiwick, Saratov Region, even after having made a career in federal government). Volodin emerged on the political stage at a time when the Kremlin was busy destroying its chief opponent in the 1999 parliamentary elections, the Fatherland-All Russia (FAR) Alliance, led by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. This highly assertive coalition of regional elites and moderated leftists was countered with the hastily cobbled Unity Bloc. Government-controlled national TV worked hard to pump up Unity’s image while at the same time pursuing a strategy of character assassination against Luzhkov. Volodin was actually in the ranks of the FAR prior to the elections, but after its defeat and subsequent incorporation into the Unity bloc (renamed the United Russia), he promptly switched to the winner’s side.

For Volodin, the knack for identifying “the right” political allies became one of the prime determinants of his political longevity and meteoric career. Having distanced himself from Luzhkov, Volodin built working relations with then-Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov (the principal ideologue of the Kremlin’s “sovereign democracy”), and by 2008 became one of the most influential apparatchiks of the ruling party. Yet as Surkov began to lose Putin’s confidence (due, among other things, to his rapprochement with new President Dmitry Medvedev), Volodin’s relations with the Kremlin’s eminence grise began to sour and eventually became adversarial. The final “divorce” between the two became official in 2010 with Volodin’s appointment as then–Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Chief of Staff. After that, Putin’s Cabinet became the locus of formation of a political management center that rivaled Medvedev’s Kremlin and functioned until Putin’s return to the presidency. Volodin was behind the idea of forming the All-Russian People’s Front that served as the cornerstone of Putin’s election campaign at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012.

In December 2011, twelve days after a 100,000-strong opposition rally on Bolotnaya Square – and four days before his departure from the Presidential Administration – Surkov made a curious comment: in an interview with Izvestiya, he stated that “certain influential people” were blocking the path of democratization of Russia’s political life. In the same interview, he noted that some in Russia’s government count on opposition activities petering out and the possibility of slowing down reforms: “Some may think that nothing needs to be done, that there was no reason to worry. That the problem again miraculously solved itself. And again they start procrastinating, postponing reforms until better times, as it was done before, or emasculating them.” Surkov’s words were likely a hint at Volodin, who would soon replace him as the Kremlin’s First Deputy Chief of Staff.

The Presidential Administration is the central locus where propaganda strategies and concepts are produced.

Surkov’s forecast proved completely true: unlike his predecessor, Volodin was not accustomed to building complex coalitions and multistep strategies in implementing propagandistic scenarios. Instead, he simply appoints his own people wherever he is allowed to—first and foremost, at the Domestic Policy Directorate in the Presidential Administration and within the “party of power.” And yet Volodin is not immune to competition: in recent times, his rivals in the Kremlin have started gaining clout, engaging in bureaucratic turf wars and accruing one victory after another. As a result, Volodin’s closest ally, Dmitry Badovsky, was forced to leave his job as deputy chief of the Domestic Policy Directorate. He now works at the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, which was set up for the purpose of producing the All-Russian People’s Front program for the parliamentary and presidential elections, but failed to achieve this aim (as a result, United Russia’s campaign was managed from the Kremlin, while the election program was written by Putin’s public relations specialists—Volodin and Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov).

The establishment of the Directorate for Social Projects in the Presidential Administration turned out to be yet another of Volodin’s bureaucratic failures. The Directorate’s task was to work on “the strengthening of the moral foundations of Russian society, perfecting government policy in the area of patriotic education, development and implementation of significant societal projects in this realm.” The post of Directorate chief went to Pavel Zenkovich, previously deputy chief of the Domestic Policy Directorate. This appointment was intriguing: as recently as a few months ago, Zenkovich was profiled by Gazeta.Ru as an alleged critic of the hardline approach to suppressing the opposition—the approach that many see Volodin as personifying. In voicing this critique, Zenkovich relied upon his ideological alliance with Surkov, who is now Deputy Prime Minister in Medvedev’s Cabinet.

Gazeta.Ru’s anonymous sources identified Surkov as the leader of the “moderate” faction in the establishment. They also portrayed him as clearly a more efficient manager than Volodin. One inside source close to the Presidential Administration forecast that Surkov “took time out, but the game isn’t over yet. They are waiting until the strategy chosen by the Administration will drive it into a blind alley. This may take another year.” These kinds of rumors and leaks suggest that the Kremlin’s excessively hardline policy with regard to dissenters is viewed with skepticism in the Cabinet. Moreover, there is some evidence of the launch of a careful information offensive by the Surkov group against Volodin—a move that could hardly have happened without the Prime Minister’s approval. It is in this context that the issue of a possible replacement of the Medvedev government before the end of 2012 has been actively debated in the Russian establishment.

Surkov "took time out, but the game isn’t over yet".

The clout of Volodin’s ideological opponents is growing: according to Gazeta.Ru, this movement is being orchestrated by Peskov, who heads yet another center of influence within the Administration that enjoys autonomy vis-à-vis Volodin. Where precisely the Peskov-Zenkovich combination will lead may be too early to judge, especially given that the creation of the new Directorate corresponds to Volodin’s strategy of suppressing the opposition and moving the regime in a more hardline direction. As well-informed sources have noted, the Directorate for Social Projects will take over the functions of the former Department of Humanitarian Policies and Public Relations; this department was previously headed by Ivan Demidov and was eliminated after Surkov’s departure from the Administration. According to Gazeta.Ru’s source, “If the Domestic Policy Directorate will remain in charge of working with political parties and elections at all levels, then Zenkovich’s Directorate will be in charge of working with the media and public opinion, as well as the implementation of its own projects in this area.” Another Gazeta.Ru source close to the Administration speculated that the new unit was going to develop its own system of grant-making to replace the support offered by USAID before its recent expulsion from Russia.

Volodin’s right hand is Oleg Morozov, chief of the Domestic Policy Directorate, who took this job in May 2012 after leaving the position of Deputy Speaker of the Duma. Morozov cannot be considered an ideologist; rather, he is a skilled bureaucrat with no record of conflicts, capable of finding common ground with every influence group. After Morozov’s appointment, a Kremlin-connected source emphasized that this decision implied a transitioning of the Administration from direct involvement in public politics to a policy of “modeling”: “This is a reflection of the return of our politics to openness.” According to this source, Morozov “is an experienced politician with an extensive record of public politics, strong ties to the regions, and an excellent grasp of inter-ethnic relations.” This comment may be viewed as an attempt by the Volodin camp to rebuke the accusations of curtailing public politics and reducing transparency in the work of the Presidential Administration. However, after half a year of Morozov’s work in the Administration, the situation in regard to transparency and public debate has only deteriorated.


Institutions, Ideologists, and Talking Heads

The mass media and, to a lesser extent, the Internet serve as the primary institutions of the Kremlin’s propaganda. First and foremost, the Kremlin aims to control the largest mass media—national TV channels that are managed either directly by the state (e.g. VGTRK and Channel One), through government-owned corporations (e.g. NTV, which is owned by Gazprom-Media), or through government-friendly companies (e.g. REN-TV, owned by the National Media Group, which is controlled by “Putin’s friend” Yury Kovalchuk). Kovalchuk is widely described as the manager of Putin’s personal “wallet”—Bank Rossiya. The same National Media Group also controls 25 percent of the shares of Channel One, Russia’s main TV station; the other 75 percent is owned by the government. Virtually all the wide-distribution newspapers—including Komsomolskaya Pravda, Argumenty i fakty, and Izvestiya—are loyal to the Kremlin and toe one and the same line: they provide positive coverage of the authorities and avoid disseminating negative information.

The so-called “gag orders” for the media are put together at weekly meetings in the Kremlin held at the level of First Deputy Chief of the Staff. A phone call “from above” makes particular stories appear or suddenly disappear from TV news coverage. The general policy line of a particular channel is developed at the level of chief editors, who often remove potentially controversial stories from the news, often without even consulting the Administration—just to stay out of trouble.

The degree of freedom for a specific media company is determined not by the official controlling shareholder, but by the Kremlin.

The NTV channel and Izvestiya deserve special mention as two outlets that have stood out on the propaganda front over the past year. In this regard, much depends on the stance of the chief executive: thus, while both NTV and Radio Echo Moskvy are owned by Gazprom-Media, their information policies could not be more different from each other. While NTV became notorious as the instrument of the Kremlin’s tabloid-style campaigns of defaming the opposition, Echo Moskvy became one of the main venues for the opposition and offered it access to a relatively broad audience. NTV and Echo Moskvy chief executives, Vladimir Kulistikov and Alexey Venediktov, even quarreled with each other in public over the scandalous anti-opposition film Anatomy Of Protest–2.

The degree of freedom for a specific media company is thus determined not by the official controlling shareholder (in this case, Gazprom-Media), but by the Kremlin. From the point of view of the authorities, NTV and Echo Moskvy are fundamentally different: while the former has a daily audience of about 16 million, the latter is listened to by 2.9 million people daily, of which 1 million reside in Moscow. In other words, the Kremlin is prepared to allow some degree of freedom to media outlets that have no access to a mass audience and appeal to the educated urban public. In the case of Echo Moskvy, the personality factor is also important: Vladimir Putin does not dare to infringe upon the reputation of Alexey Venediktov, whom the Russian media views as a symbol not just of the freedom of speech, but also of the capacity to defend this freedom under tight political control.


Following the takeover of NTV and the closure of TV-6 and TVS (respectively, in 2001, 2002, and 2003), the Kremlin has acquired an information monopoly on Russian television.


Another outlet that fits into the rubric of the Kremlin’s negative campaigns against the opposition is Lifenews. This online outlet publishes derogatory information about opposition leaders, including transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations and recordings made by hidden cameras. It is steered by Aram Gabrelyanov, one of the managers of Kovalchuk’s National Media Group. The same group also controls Izvestiya, which until recently was not as notorious as Lifenews (although it was clearly a pro-Kremlin newspaper). By now, Izvestiya has become yet another tool of blatant propaganda: this summer, its chief editor, Aleksandr Malyutin, left the paper after disagreeing with Gabrelyanov’s plan to merge its editorial board with that of Lifenews. Gabrelyanov is not shy about his pro-Putin views, vehemently objecting to accusations of corruption leveled against Putin and extolling the historic “mission” of the president to his readers. He does not conceal his hostility toward the white ribbon–carrying opposition supporters, asserting that they are being used by “Americans” to break up Russia. Thus, in one of his interviews, Gabrelyanov said: “Putin is very good at managing the country. These are 20 years of quiet development. We are in the midst of an election campaign, and as a publisher I think that Putin is good for Russia. Of course, as a publisher, I am entitled to impose my opinion. I have the right to do it, period. Just as [Rupert] Murdoch believes that Barack Obama is bad for America, and all of the media controlled by Murdoch are opposed to Barack Obama”.

"Putin is good for Russia. As a publisher, I am entitled to impose my opinion".

In recent months, the firing of chief editors who did not fully toe the “party line” became a regular occurrence. Thus, after the December parliamentary elections, Kommersant-Vlast magazine lost its chief editor Maksim Kovalsky, who was dismissed after having published a photo of an election ballot with the inscription “F… Putin!” This summer, the same fate befell Demyan Kudryavtsev, director general of the Kommersant holding company—Kommersant’s controlling stockholder, Alisher Usmanov, was angered by the coverage of the new antidemocratic public rallies law. (Usmanov is a vintage oligarch of the 1990s who adapted to the Putin-era rules of the game and made a number of politically consequential investments, which included the purchase of Kommersant stock.)  Another person to leave the company was Dmitry Solopov, chief editor of Kommersant-FM Radio, an outlet that over the previous six months had made frequent critical comments on government policies, thus joining the company of TV Rain (Dozhd) and Echo Moskvy. This list was augmented by the departure of Filipp Dzyadko from the position of chief editor of Bolshoi Gorod magazine. In his farewell column, Dzyadko, a TV Rain anchor and a vocal critic of the authorities, wrote the following: “We see so many changes around us. Some of them are very minor: for example, our Constitution has been abolished. The unelected members in the unelected State Duma spent their entire working day spitting at Article 31 of the Constitution [that guarantees the freedom of assembly], as well as a dozen of human and, forgive the expression, civic rights and freedoms. They did a show of it, while watched with admiration on the TV by ten thousand speechless viewers.” He also noted that “as the first summer month of Putin’s third term begins, independent information sources are being purged in plain view of the public” and summed up the situation by stating: “Cowardice, stupidity and shortsightedness are the best friends of the managers of the twilight of the Putin era.”

The stable of talking heads who serve the authorities’ interests are working alongside the media institutions and in close collaboration with them. These are the ideologists, pro-Kremlin journalists, writers, and “political scientists.” This may be the most toxic element of the propaganda machine, because it relies on people who are willing to sacrifice their own reputations for the interests of the authorities.

The pro-Kremlin talking heads are well known: they include Sergey Markov, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Maksim Kononenko, Maksim Shevchenko, Vladimir Solovyev, Sergey Minaev, Vladimir Burmatov, and many others. Of these, Vladimir Solovyev is a TV host, well-known for crafting “suitable interpretations” of the political duels that are conducted live on his show on the Rossiya channel; Sergey Minaev is a writer who produces his own online show while also actively working through social networks; and Vladimir Burmatov is known for urging the authorities to prosecute Ilya Ponomarev, a Duma Member from the Fair Russia Party, for allegedly using foreign funds to orchestrate upheaval in Russia.

This list can be expanded to include those ideologists of the “party of power” who have recently advanced their own initiatives or actively supported certain bills in the media. These include, for example, Sergey Zheleznyak and Aleksandr Sidyakin. Zheleznyak has initiated a number of antidemocratic bills, the latest of which envisions assigning administrative as well as criminal responsibility to violations “that involve the use of the Internet.” Sidyakin is the author of a bill that gives NGOs the status of “foreign agents”; he also distinguished himself by staging the public show of trampling upon the white ribbon, the symbol of the protest movement, at the October 26, 2012, Duma session, in which he also labeled its bearers the traitors of the nation. Naturally, all this was broadcast live on Russian TV.

In recent years, anonymous sources have become the main providers of the most important political commentary.

Kremlin support for special propaganda-manufacturing centers is yet another approach, although it is arguably much less effective. As a rule, this support ends up with the expenditure of public funds on occasional reports or “studies” that lack credibility among experts in the field. The list of such centers includes the aforementioned Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, as well as the recently created Civil Society Development Foundation. The latter is headed by Konstantin Kostin, ex-chief of the Domestic Policy Directorate in the Presidential Administration; Kostin enjoys the patronage of Surkov and is known as one of the key prosecution witnesses in the Yukos Case. After the establishment of this foundation, RIA-Novosti reported, via an anonymous Kremlin source, that it was going to work on issues of civil society development, allocate grants for public initiatives, and conduct sociological and political science research. However, in the course of its operation, Kostin’s foundation published just a single report—on the growing influence of the Internet upon future election campaigns. The report was lambasted by peers in the field as an attempt “to reinvent the bicycle.”

The practice of leaking information through anonymous Kremlin sources is an important aspect of the functioning of the domestic propaganda machine. As a rule, the anonymous information is geared toward the community of experts and journalists (the latter are usually aware of the actual source) rather than toward the mass audience. The motivations behind the leaks vary, but these individuals share the general reluctance of government officials to take public responsibility for endorsing (or refusing to endorse) specific projects. In recent years, anonymous sources have become the main providers of the most important political commentary in Russia. As a result, independent experts and the media may have a hard time differentiating an orchestrated spread of information, a canard, from authentic news. Nevertheless, these leaks sometimes enable observers to gauge the probability of a specific political scenario.

Yet another tool of government propaganda is the support provided to public organizations that live off government grants. The winners of the 2012 contest for federal budget grants were mostly the so-called “patriotic” and religious projects, as well as member organizations of the All-Russian People’s Front. Many of these organizations are represented in the Public Chamber, an entity whose role is, on the one hand, to provide an imitation of civil society, and, on the other, to offset the decay of Russia’s tradition of parliamentarism. In truth, unlike the Duma (which former Speaker Boris Gryzlov once insisted was “not a place for discussion”), the Public Chamber is an institution to which members of extra-systemic opposition, human rights advocates, and other dissenters still have access, even if in a rather odd fashion. Thus, one of the sessions of the Chamber was devoted to a discussion of the Anatomy of Protest–2, the incendiary anti-opposition film used as a source of “evidence” in the criminal case against Sergey Udaltsov, one of the leaders of the protest movement. The discussion was conducted in the best traditions of “Soviet democracy”: the fervently pro-Putin and moderately pro-Putin participants controlled most of the debate, while critics of the Kremlin invited to the session had limited opportunity to express their opinions. Ksenia Sobchak, a participant in this event, later wrote that it left the impression of being transported back into the Soviet era.

The Kremlin admitted that members of the Public Chamber sustained damage to their reputations by signing the so-called “Letter of the 55” directed against Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The Public Chamber is thus yet another vehicle that serves the domestic propaganda machine. This reality was clearly demonstrated by a document published by Novaya Gazeta in May. As noted in the editorial that accompanied its publication, “This voluminous document with tables and a revealing text shows that the Public Chamber is tightly controlled by the authorities and has nothing to do with civil society”. The publication of this document revealed the ways in which members of this body are selected and evaluated by the authorities. The Kremlin promotes and supports those members of the Chamber who fit four criteria: dynamism, loyalty (not just to the authorities in general, but specifically to the Domestic Policy Directorate of the Presidential Administration), reputation (primarily in professional circles), and media visibility. In other words, membership in the Public Chamber depends on how effective the candidates are in spinning the Kremlin’s agenda. The document evaluated 55 out of 126 members of the Chamber as “dynamic” and “loyal”; these included Tina Kandelaki, Olga Kosterina, Leo Bokeria, and Alla Gerber, among others. Almost all of these candidates can be considered spin doctors on active duty, even though not all of them were recommended for reappointment by the Domestic Policy Directorate: three members of the Chamber were evaluated as having a weak reputation. These included Boris Yakemenko, brother of Vasily Yakemenko, the founder of the pro-Kremlin “Nashi” (“Ours”) movement; Irina Pleshcheeva, a former “commissar” of this movement; and Dmitry Galochkin, head of the union of nongovernmental security officers. It is worth noting that the Directorate admitted in this document that some of the members of the Chamber sustained considerable damage to their reputations by signing the so-called “Letter of the 55” directed against Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Youth organizations are of special concern to the authorities because of the ruling establishment’s fear that Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution may be repeated in Russia. Since 2005, almost every political party, including United Russia, has acquired a youth organization of its own. The Nashi movement became the primary anti-Orange force in the streets; today, after the departure of its patron Vladislav Surkov from the Presidential Administration, the movement is cash-starved and in a state of decay. Vasily Yakemenko, who used to be in charge of this movement, is also seen as a spent force: as the head of the Federal Agency on Youth Affairs, he frequently became entangled in controversies, the largest of which concerned the beating of journalist Oleg Kashin. Kashin identified Yakemenko as the chief player in the organization of this assault.

At this point, the authorities have switched their tactics: instead of pro-Kremlin movements, the Administration has pinned its hopes upon the staging of pro-Putin rallies. The largest of these, an “anti-Orange” rally at the Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow, took place in February 2012.


Сontent and Messaging

The content of the Kremlin’s information and propaganda strategy is based on the promotion of an image of Vladimir Putin that would appeal to voters. This image consists of three elements. The first is the creation of a “heroic” halo, achieved through such stunts as flights on combat airplanes, firefighting in the woods, scuba-diving in search of amphoras, rescuing endangered tigers, and, finally, the latest move—flying in a hang-glider at the head of a pack of cranes. It’s worth noting that the president’s press office is not embarrassed to admit that all these actions are part of a carefully staged show. The end result looks like a political personality split: on state-run TV channels, Vladimir Putin descends in his wetsuit to the bottom of the Taman Gulf and pulls out sixth-century amphorae; meanwhile, his press officer, Dmitry Peskov, goes on the opposition-minded TV Rain and tells all about how this stunt was staged.

Putin’s personality cult is the cornerstone of information policy. Instead of presenting program documents on budgetary, fiscal, or social policies, his 2012 election campaign consisted of broadcasting documentaries and even sequels about “candidate number one.” Overall, this “Putin-Fest” consumed over 24 hours of national airtime, and, as calculated by Kommersant, over 23.5 million viewers aged 18 years or older (that is, about 20 percent of voters) spent at least five minutes watching these films.

Putin’s image in this propaganda is that of a missionary, fearless hero with superb physical and psychological health; a patriot; and, even more importantly, a leader who brings good fortune to his country. That all of Russia’s achievements in sports are presented as the president’s accomplishments is fully in line with this message.


Flying with cranes (left) and diving for ancient amphorae were just some of the propaganda stunts used by Vladimir Putin.


The second element of Putin’s image crafted by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine focuses on his affinity with “ordinary people”: workers, teachers, pensioners. The tools for developing this image include the use of mannerisms, jargon, and proverbial expressions, and such gestures as drinking tea with retired old ladies, giving gifts to newlyweds, and kissing children. “He is one of us,” “He is down to earth,” “He is the guy next door”—this is how Putin wants to be seen by voters. This policy was innocuous, up to a point—but Putin crossed a line when he appointed Igor Kholmansky, a floor manager from the Uralvagonzavod train car factory, as his representative in the Ural Federal District. Now “a simple worker” tries to impose his will upon governors, regional law enforcement officers, and the largest industrial factories in the country.

The third element of Putin’s image concerns the impression that he possesses a thorough knowledge of any subject matter—that whatever it is that Putin speaks about, he will always know the answer, juggling numbers and industry specifics and delving into details at the level of narrow specialists (a strategy reminiscent of Stalin, with his article about linguistics).

All these “assets” are aggressively showcased in government-controlled media and through “direct lines” with ordinary people. And in order to create an impression of being close to the average man, Putin has offices operating on his behalf all over the country. These offices become particularly active during election campaigns.


The Kremlin’s Propaganda Partners

The authorities’ partners in the operation of the propaganda machine are embedded in vast networks of cultural, media, educational, and religious connections. Cultural figures are the key partners. Filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin, well-known to Soviet-era viewers, headed Putin’s election campaign. Another filmmaker, Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar winner who made several films extolling Russian authorities, has engaged unabashedly in the propaganda business for many years. And this list goes on. Russia’s cultural elite has split into two opposite camps: those for and those against Putin, with pop star performances becoming increasingly politicized. At some of these concerts, the performers (who are not infrequently booed by the audience in response) sing praise to United Russia and “the national leader” for having “rescued the country”; at others, celebrities on stage attack the authorities and demand changes in the country.

Russia’s cultural elite has split into two opposite camps: those for and those against Putin.

The top hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church is an important partner of the authorities. Patriarch Kirill criticized participants of the mass rallies protesting fraud during the Duma election; before the presidential election, he all but endorsed Putin. A political alliance between the authorities and the Church is shaping up; within its framework, the Kremlin defends the Church’s interests through actions such as promoting the fundamentals of Christian Orthodox culture in school curricula and inflicting harsh punishment on the participants of the Pussy Riot band; while the Church puts its high standing in society in the service of the authorities. During the election campaign, congregants of Orthodox churches frequently complained about blatant political agitation during services. In this context, one should not forget the film produced in 2008 by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov (who is rumored to be to be Putin’s confessor) under the title The Fall of Empire: Lesson of Byzantium. This film is a piece of propaganda extolling “Putin’s mission”, with all the accompanying inferences about “destructive” Westernization versus Russia’s “special path.”

The education bureaucracy, particularly in schools, is another reliable ally of the authorities. The government’s political influence in education works in several directions: through the rewriting of history textbooks (in a number of regions, local publishers produce textbooks and notebooks that include verses about Putin); unabashed agitation among students and their parents; the organization of “patriotic” lineups before classes; the extension of United Russia membership to school principals; the handing out of gifts with symbols of the “party of power” to students; and so on. One of the most intense controversies was created by the publication of a questionnaire for the parents of students at the Gymnasium No. 67 in Nizhny Novgorod. Two of the items in this questionnaire were phrased as follows: “Are subversive spying activities of Americans capable of . . . destroying the integrity of the country?” and “Does Russia have a national leader, capable of resisting all of the destabilizing developments?” This “survey” was commissioned by the regional administration. It is important to add that many members of the precinct- and district-level electoral commissions are recruited from among schoolteachers (who are often under pressure from their superiors.) And this is precisely the level where most of the election fraud occurs.

In the institutions of higher learning, the Kremlin has a harder time achieving its goals: traditionally, college students tend to be more liberal than the general population. But the government interferes politically even in college life; thus, many media outlets reported that orders were issued to compel students to attend rallies in support of Putin and United Russia. There were also reports of professors and deans threatening students with expulsion or failing grades on exams if they did not show up at the pro-Kremlin rallies.


Summing Up: Ineffectiveness, Inertia, Lack of Professionalism

The propaganda machine of Vladimir Putin’s age has major systemic flaws, which are also the flaws of the entire system of governance in general. They include ineffectiveness, bad reputation, corruption, lack of professionalism, and inertia, all of which are related to the “manual guiding” principle of the management of the country’s affairs. Today’s Russia does not have a tightly organized system of censorship of the media, films, music, and book production like the one that existed in the Soviet Union, but its absence is compensated by the mindset of subservience to higher-ups and the sycophancy of bureaucrats driven by fear and personal ambition.

Yet the authorities fail to understand that their “popularity” does not indicate the success of their propaganda. Rather, their poll standings result from paternalistic social policies, flirtations with “patriotism” and ambitions of imperial grandeur, as well as the flow of petrodollars capable of neutralizing social protest—for the time being. When this flow begins to dry up, the propaganda machine will fall on its face, together with all the other components of Putin’s “vertical of power.”