20 years under Putin: a timeline

Journalists and political experts from Russia and America recently gathered at the Harriman Institute in order to discuss how each country portrays the other in their respective media. Surprisingly, according to many of the speakers, little has changed since the end of the Cold War.


Left to right: Luke Harding, a political correspondent for the Guardian, and the author of a new book on Russia tellingly titled Mafia State, and Professor Stephen Cohen from the Slavic studies departments of New York University and Princeton


The conference, entitled Is the Cold War Over? Russian and U.S. Media From Perestroika to the 2012 Elections, focused on a key player in U.S.-Russian relations: the media. Although the Cold War officially ended more than 20 years ago, its legacy permeates the discourse among politicians, in the press, and consequently, for the public at large in both countries. Participants explored why this was the case.

According to Professor Stephen Cohen, who works in the Slavic studies departments of New York University and Princeton, the relationship between Russia and the United States is rife with the Cold War mentality. Dr. Cohen said that on the American side, this is perpetuated by the media and policymakers alike.

“Since 1992, the coverage of Russian affairs in the U.S. media has become worse. It’s less objective, less factual, less accurate, less open to alternative perspectives, more prone to stereotyping, and more conservative,” he said. According to Cohen, the press tends to say what the public (and politicians) want to hear. He characterized the existing coverage of Russia as a “sick narrative that is recycled by the media who in turn, have become cheerleaders for the policies coming out of Washington.” In particular, he criticized the American media’s un-nuanced portrayal of Vladimir Putin, which continues in the vein of antagonistic rhetoric from the time when Russia was America’s greatest enemy. This kind of rhetoric is reductive; it fails to present the complexities of the contemporary political situation in Russia, said Cohen. Furthermore, it perpetuates the public’s misperceptions about Russia.

Prominent American economist and Nobel Prize Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz spoke about various models of political dissent. He reminded the audience that the oligarch system in Russia was created during the privatization of the mid-1990s, which was, to an extent, engineered by American economists from the so-called Harvard group. Despite this fact, Stiglitz pointed to the lack of a “sense of culpability for undermining Russian economic reforms” among Americans. Summarizing his impressions of a number of protest movements beginning with the anti-globalists of the 1990s, up to the Arab Spring revolutions, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the recent demonstrations in Russia, Stiglitz concluded that all of these movements reflected disillusionment in political systems that fail to react to economic problems. “In a country where the economy functions well, you don’t see protests, even if it’s a dictatorship,” he said.

Journalists also took part in the discussion. Luke Harding, a political correspondent for the Guardian, and the author of a new book on Russia tellingly titled Mafia State, told the story of being expelled from Russia for political reasons. In February 2011, Harding was denied an entry visa, thus becoming the first foreign correspondent to be expelled from the country since the Cold War. He believed that this happened as a consequence of his unflattering coverage of Russia, which entailed speculations about Vladimir Putin’s wealth and how much Putin knew about the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in London in 2006. According to Harding, being a political correspondent in Russia requires a lot of courage, especially if you are Russian. He also argued that Stephen Cohen unrightfully blamed the media for their unnuanced coverage of Putin, citing his administration’s opaqueness and unwillingness to speak to the press. He said that under Putin’s rule, the government’s relationship with the media had regressed from where it had been during Yeltsin’s time, and the current state resembled Cold War conditions.

Clifford Levy, a former Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, also replied to Professor Cohen’s criticisms. Levy brought up the American perception that there was severe censorship in Russia, which he said was only partially true. According to Levy, the more prominent mechanism in the Russian media (and society) is self-censorship, a phenomenon that can even be observed in the independent media outlets. The pressure to follow the party line may have been lessened recently, he added, since the authorities had allowed three state-owned television networks to show opposition leaders on the news. “When we first saw it in December, we almost fell out of our chairs. It could be a sign that the situation is about to change,” he said.

Jill Dogherty, the long-time Moscow Bureau Chief for CNN had more to say about Russian television and the way it portrays America. “It’s more like a dumb reality show than straightforward state-controlled programming,” she said. “The prevailing idea among Russians is that America may overtake Russia and that it aims to take control of Russia’s wealth of natural resources,” she continued. “There is no paradigm to take the place of the Cold War mentality. Part of the problem is that Russians no longer care about ideology. For them, money and personal success now come first.”

The deteriorating state of the Russian media was illustrated with some very recent and very ugly examples, presented by Nina Ognianova from the Committee to Protect Journalists. She spoke of Maksim Kovalsky being fired from Kommersant Vlast; Aleksei Venedictov and Vladimir Varfolomeev being removed from the board of directors of the Ekho Moskvy radio station; and the recently-initiated investigation of the TV Rain internet channel on the pretext that they received foreign funding for their coverage of the protest movement. All three of the organizations involved are part of the small handful of independent media outlets in Russia today. Ognianova mentioned the recently broadcast documentary The Anatomy of Protest, which claims that the protest movement is sponsored by the U.S. State Department. It aired on NTV, a government-controlled TV-channel. According to Ognianova, it is a typical set-piece on the bleak Russian media landscape that reflects the fault lines in the political system.

With Vladimir Putin back in office for his third presidential term, the picture may grow even bleaker. As a result, the anti-American Cold War rhetoric in Russia is bound to grow harsher. Oleg Kashin, a correspondent for Kommersant who was severely beaten up by members of the pro-Putin youth group Nashi in 2010 predicted that the first step that Putin would take after his inauguration in May would be taking revenge on independent journalists. “Even though the Cold War is officially over, it goes on in many people’s minds. Most of all, in Putin’s,” he concluded.