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Invading Ukraine with near impunity isn’t the most impressive feat Russian President Vladimir Putin has pulled off lately. That distinction goes to his skill at keeping Russians in thrall to a virtual reality—one in which NATO is about to invade their homeland, Ukraine has been taken over by neo-Nazis, and U.S. President Barack Obama spends all his waking hours scheming to subvert Moscow. Figuring out how Putin does this is the first step toward the West’s key strategic imperative: formulating an appropriate response.
It isn’t just a question of censorship. Inside Russia, many sources of accurate information survive. True, most of them are now either websites or newspapers—television, the main source of news for most Russians, is controlled by the Kremlin—but the country is significantly more open today than the USSR was 30 years ago. Even so, Putin commands domestic support ratings upward of 80 percent. And even among the 30 million Russians who live abroad and have easier access to television stations not controlled by the Kremlin, many believe in the Kremlin-dictated reality. In Estonia, for example, over half of the Russian population still thinks that the country had volunteered to give up its independence and join the USSR after World War II, according to a 2005 poll.
These kinds of sentiments have fueled a surge of Russian patriotism that has enabled Putin to continue his aggressive geopolitics in the face of Western sanctions—which explains why he takes propaganda very seriously. His first move after coming to power in 2000, before reining in the energy sector and the bureaucracy, was to seize control of television. Since then, he has diligently remade it to suit his purposes. The first thing to note about modern Russian TV is that, unlike the stale Soviet fare, it is highly entertaining. Western consultants have helped Russian producers launch glitzy talent shows, addictive sitcoms, and steamy pop videos—content that draws huge audiences. If in the Cold War part of the West’s appeal was the implicit link between Western entertainment and democracy, Putin’s Russia has undermined this. It’s now possible to love Taylor Swift but hate the United States.
Once the audience’s attention has been grabbed, Russian television sets about reshaping its perception of the world. The process starts with an assault on critical thinking. Russian television is full of conspiracy theories and mysticism, not just about the nefarious CIA agents who stand behind every public protest in Russia or Ukraine but also about countless other threats lurking everywhere. Bizarre pseudoscience programs warn viewers about impending deadly fungi epidemics and introduce them to psychics who can enter their minds. Any sort of rational debate is rendered impossible by a constant stream of false assurances—illogical connections between two associations where two random facts are fused to create a distorted whole.
“A coincidence? I don’t think so!”—that’s the catch phrase of the popular talk-show host Dmitry Kiselev, Russian TV’s propagandist in chief. Kiselev has famously asserted that a Swedish education program that teaches children about bodily functions demonstrated the West’s appalling moral decline. He has also attributed Sweden’s recent criticism of Russia to a historical grudge that he said the Swedes have harbored since suffering a military defeat at the hands of Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. These statements came in December 2013, when Ukraine was racked by antigovernment protests over its previous administration’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union—a deal that European countries, including Sweden, were encouraging.
Having drawn in the viewers and disabled their critical defenses, Russian television reaches deep into the nation’s emotional traumas. Politicians and presenters feed the audience nonstop reminders of the difficult 1990s, when, they argue, the West cheered at the sight of a weakened Russia and of the tremendous human toll of the two world wars. Saying that Russia suppresses its past wouldn’t be quite correct; rather, Russia engages with history in a way that inflames traumas instead of healing them. To take just the most obvious example, Kiselev and other commentators have repeatedly described the leaders of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution as followers of Stepan Bandera, the World War II–era Ukrainian nationalist and one-time Nazi collaborator whom most Russians associate with Nazi atrocities.
These kinds of tricks are not aimed at helping viewers achieve closure—in fact, they serve the opposite purpose. Coming to terms with the past requires that people bring their traumatic experiences into the realm of critical thinking in order to grapple with them—an approach used in psychotherapy. Russian television, by contrast, works more like a cult—heightening the vulnerability of its followers by forcing them to relive bad experiences without ever making peace with them.
Once viewers have been turned into emotional putty, Russian TV makes its final move: lifting them up with tales of glorious victories achieved by national leaders, from Joseph Stalin to Putin, thereby tying the viewers’ emotional uplift to the Kremlin’s heroics. (“Russia is getting up off its knees” is a favored slogan.) The necessary disinformation is added as the icing on the cake—and by that point in time, the audience is ready to swallow almost anything.
It has taken the Kremlin 15 years to perfect its strategic use of television, but until recently the application of this tactic remained mostly domestic. With the crisis in Ukraine, the strategy has taken on international significance. Policymakers in Brussels and Washington are now debating the best ways to counter the Kremlin’s information campaign, including by creating alternative Russian-language content. Such content would, of course, never match domestic Russian television in funding—Channel One, the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda, has a budget of some $850 million—or compete with it in making big talent shows and movies. Still, there are alternative avenues for winning over Russian viewers that are well worth exploring.
For all its power, Russian television does have an Achilles’ heel. Although it is very good at making talent shows and sitcoms, it avoids gritty, true-to-life reality formats and dramas such as the British Benefits Street and the U.S. The Wire—the kind of content that would engage emotionally with the complex social themes the Russian government would rather ignore. The fact that the Kremlin has failed to produce this content, however, doesn’t mean that Russian viewers don’t want it. In fact, they do.
I was able to observe this unmet demand firsthand when I worked in the Russian media world as a producer for an entertainment channel in 2008. At the time, the documentaries I made about teenagers resisting corrupt cops and businesspeople falling victim to the bureaucracy received good ratings. Soon, however, my editors asked us to stop making “social” films. When Channel One took a risk and put out a documentary-style drama about the lives of teenagers at a tough provincial school in 2010, the series became a sensation even though they were screened late at night. But the genre never became mainstream, since it went against the positive patriotism promoted by the Kremlin.
This shortfall leaves an important niche. Filling it with smart, engaging programming could give independent producers an opportunity to counteract Putin’s message. They could take inspiration from British formats that feature engaging subjects while shining a light on thorny social issues. A British documentary program titled Make Bradford British, for example, has grappled with ethnic hatred by putting people of different races in one house (in the style of the U.S. show Big Brother) and forcing them to confront their prejudices. Imagine a Russian-language program that would use a similar tactic to probe an emotionally charged subject—say, the bitterness between Russians and Ukrainians in a place such as Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city lying just outside the separatist-controlled territory.
New programs could also invite Russians to engage with the dark pages of their country’s past through formats such as the popular BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?—a show that follows celebrities as they trace the lives of their ancestors, often by grappling with the horrors of twentieth-century wars and genocide. In the Russian case, these kinds of programs would require their subjects to explore the human cost of the gulag, the holodomor (Ukraine’s enforced famine under Stalin), and the KGB arrests. Some participants would discover their ancestors among the victims; others, among the executioners. In both cases, they would have to reckon with past traumas, a highly emotional and cathartic process.
Such content would allow the audience to move away from the collective historical narratives imposed by the Kremlin, which stress how Russia’s leaders, from Stalin to Putin, led the nation to triumph. Viewers would instead turn to personal narratives that would show how the actions of these very leaders destroyed people’s lives. Any eastern Ukrainian demonstrator who cheers for Stalin at a pro-Russian parade is likely to have a horrific tale about his or her ancestors’ suffering during the famine. Finding a deeper, more intimate connection to history would help viewers cast a more skeptical eye on the mythology promoted by the government in the present.
But telling personal stories is just one aspect of any such media counteroffensive. A far more important challenge is to encourage critical thinking. A way to do this is helping viewers retrace the stages of getting manipulated and to deconstruct the mind tricks at play.
As one potential model, Gogglebox, a popular British show, records the reactions of regular TV viewers as they watch British television. That show cunningly casts its characters to show a picture of national attitudes and its social strata, even though its objective is purely entertainment: the viewers mostly joke around and make amusing chitchat during programming. But imagine a similar Russian-language program that would observe people who consume a diet of Kremlin propaganda and watch them coming under its influence. This footage would be intercut with commentary by psychologists, who would explain the linguistic and emotional tricks used by the producers, helping to build up the audience’s immunity to manipulation.
Such shows would be easy to broadcast to Russian speakers outside of Russia; broadcasters in the Baltics, Ukraine, and beyond would be eager to take on good content. Inside Russia, however, proper distribution would be more difficult, since the government largely controls access to the airwaves. Western donors could look to partner with existing independent channels that continue to broadcast online—the most prominent of which is the news station Dozhd—or explore more innovative forms of online distribution.
A handful of television companies and media outlets around the world already offer examples of how to produce positive change through entertainment. As one case in point, BBC Media Action, the international development arm of the BBC, makes dramas that explore social themes in developing countries, such as human trafficking in the Balkans. Another production company, Layalina, promotes liberal democratic values in the Middle East through reality shows; one of its series profiles young entrepreneurs in Egypt. Public diplomacy initiatives of this kind tap into the so-called Sabido methodology that was initially developed in Mexico in the 1970s and used telenovelas and radio dramas to effect social change. During the 1970s, the Mexican government successfully used this technique to bring down the country’s birthrate. By focusing on story lines that inspired the viewers to think more carefully about pregnancy, producers helped decrease the national birthrate by 34 percent.
These challenges are not confined to the sphere of Russian-language media; the intensity of information warfare is on the rise across the world. China, for one, has developed the concept of a three-front war against the United States, which uses media and psychological warfare to enhance territorial claims on neighboring states. In the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was able to quickly swell its ranks thanks in large part to its effective propaganda. The stakes in future media campaigns are sure to grow further as undemocratic regimes partner up to create international disinformation networks. Russian TV channels, for example, have already been helping to disseminate story lines favorable to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. And the entry of China into the game will only strengthen such informational alliances.
To mount a strong counteroffensive, any alternative media supported by Western donors must be broad in its reach and regular in delivery—priorities that require a significant long-term commitment. Today’s public interest television companies, such as Layalina, barely survive on small grants and commissions. It would take a qualitatively different level of funding to bring larger and more effective outlets on air. But good television is no longer merely about humanitarian values; it’s now a matter of global security.