As the war drags on, new narratives are emerging.
ByFrancis Scarr 30 April 2022 •
Nine years ago, when I began learning Russian at university, I’d not heard of either Vladimir Solovyov or Olga Skabeyeva, whose TV talk shows now dominate my working life as a media monitor.
In a studio with enormous screens showing images of purportedly fallen Ukrainian soldiers, guests stand in a circle. An enormous Z – the letter that now symbolises Russia’s invasion – is emblazoned on the floor.
Skabeyeva addresses the camera with relish:
“The Ukrainians are crumbling in front of us! Everything our Western partners are telling us, the stories about how they’re winning the war, is an entirely pathetic attempt to support the Ukrainian army!”
Every day, for hours on end across Russia’s three main channels, Skabeyeva and her colleagues tell me that the conflict is going “according to plan” and that its objectives of “demilitarising and de-Nazifying” Ukraine will be “fully achieved”.
But the longer Putin’s “special military operation” drags on, the more often I hear excuses. This was meant to be a blitzkrieg lasting days. We’re now in the conflict’s third month.
Russians are told that their troops exercise restraint, with Ukraine repeatedly accused of using civilians as human shields.
“In such conditions we naturally have to act quite carefully, and that is indeed extending the length of the campaign,” Vyacheslav Nikonov, an MP for the Kremlin-backed United Russia party, told viewers of his own talk show, The Great Game.
Nikonov, whose grandfather was Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, claimed that Russian forces were acting with “nobility”, something that “simply does not exist in the West”.
One justification for the lack of a swift victory now pervades every show – Russia is no longer fighting just Ukraine. Instead, it is defending itself from a much more formidable enemy in the guise of NATO.
“When we see the difficult events now unfolding, and our losses, we need to realise that we’re no longer fighting Ukraine!” Simonyan cries, appearing on Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. “We’re fighting Nato, an enormous armed opponent!”
Margarita Simonyan, the head of the international state broadcaster RT, who often appears as a guest on these programmes, has gone further, saying that it was likely the conflict would spiral into a nuclear “World War Three.”
“The most incredible outcome, that all this will end with a nuclear strike, seems more probable to me than the other course of events,” she told millions of viewers this week. Both Simonyan and Skabeyeva have been sanctioned by the EU for their role in undermining the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine.
Since Putin rose to power, the Kremlin has encouraged the public to ignore what the government is up to and focus instead on their own lives.
Apathy has long been most Russians’ default attitude towards their rulers’ actions. Whenever Moscow stood accused of malign activity – shooting down Flight MH17 in 2014, the Salisbury poisonings of 2018, or recent atrocities in the town of Bucha – state TV bombarded them with disinformation and conspiracy theories. They were not presented with a single counter-argument around which to rally but encouraged to question the very existence of an objective truth.
That’s now changing. State TV is mobilising the population in a way not seen before under Putin. Russians are told they face an existential threat from a West out to destroy their country.
TV urges Russians to back their president, or as he is now more frequently known, the “supreme commander-in-chief”.
Celebrities opposing the war are decried as “traitors”.
Viewers are desensitised to the violence committed by their sons, brothers and husbands in Ukraine, but such a process does not happen overnight.
While claims of Ukrainians being Nazis are new to most outside Russia, for the 70 per cent or so of Russians said by pollsters to turn to state TV as their main source of news, it’s a well-established fact.
Ever since Ukraine’s pro-European revolution in 2014 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, state TV has gradually conditioned people to see Ukrainians as inferior. I’ve seen this play out with people I hold dear.
I recently received a call from a Russian friend. As part of my degree I spent a year in the city of Yekaterinburg, a two-hour flight east of Moscow.
There I met Viktor, in his fifties, who welcomed me into his family. I spent many a weekend at his dacha honing my colloquial Russian and grew to love his simpler way of life, chopping firewood and foraging for mushrooms in the nearby forest.
We always steered clear of politics, but now he inevitably asks me how I’m finding my job.
I try to answer with a curt “all right, thanks”, but he persists. “We’re glued to our TV. Our boys are fighting the Nazis in Ukraine. But things are fine here. We’re not feeling your sanctions yet,” he chuckles.
How do I feel at the end of a day spent watching such vitriol? It’s chastening to hear nuclear war mentioned almost daily. But when listening to such bellicose rhetoric I retreat into a state of emotional detachment.
Only when I step away from my screen am I confronted with the horror of the suffering in Ukraine.
I recently acted as an interpreter for a BBC radio interview with a wedding photographer who had successfully escaped the besieged city of Mariupol.
He spoke of people drinking from puddles and of rotting bodies that went unburied because of the shelling.
This is a war being waged with bullets and artillery. But it began years ago, on Russian TV.
Francis Scarr is a journalist with BBC Monitoring, which reports and analyses news from media around the world.