Freedom of Expression and Genuine Intellectual Debate on Russian Television

On these pages, I have frequently made reference to the country’s premier political talk show, Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, and to its premier news and analysis show Sixty Minutes for their indicating the thinking of Russia’s political and social elites and thereby demarcating the limits within which the Kremlin can exercise its power domestically and in foreign policy. I have also at times suggested that the hosts of these shows were acting on behalf of the Kremlin to send unofficial but authoritative messages to the West.

All the while, I have been well aware that major U.S. and British media regularly denounce the hosts of these programs as pernicious propagandists.  Solovyov has been declared persona non grata in Italy for reportedly being a close confidant of Vladimir Putin, an allegation that is quite exaggerated, with the consequence that his villa there was confiscated by agents of the Italian government. Meanwhile, it also is to be noted that a little more than a month ago Solovyov was re-elected as president of the Russian Union of Journalists, which is a better indicator of why he is under sanctions.

I disagree entirely with the designation of Solovyov or Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeny Popov as ‘propagandists’ and will in this essay introduce several pieces of evidence to substantiate my position. What I will concede is that these television hosts are decidedly ‘hard liners’ with respect to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Their most recent programs harshly condemn the notion of negotiating peace terms with Kiev until a complete victory has been achieved on the field of battle.  They highlight the atrocities committed by the Zelensky regime, including in the past week the cold-blooded murder of Russian prisoners of war as filmed, distributed in social media and recognized to be authentic by The New York Times. They argue that the ongoing destruction of the electricity infrastructure in Ukraine finally is giving Kiev, Lviv and other Ukrainian cities pay-back for the nine years that they have used artillery bombardment to attack all civil infrastructure of their own citizens in the Donbas who happen to be ethnically Russian so that, for example, the city of Donetsk has long ago regularly experienced blackouts and even today has no running water, while the civilian population was living for years in basements for safety. Their expert panelists from the Donbas remind us that the Ukrainians’ indiscriminate bombardments of cities and villages in the Donbas even today are resulting in more deaths and injuries to civilians than are the massive Russian missile strikes on the Ukrainian power infrastructure that have so captured the attention of Western media.

Propaganda is a word that is bandied about a lot these days, and generally is being used to characterize any information source that contradicts the press releases issued in Washington that are uniformly disseminated by U.S. and European media as God’s honest truth about the state of the war in Ukraine. I have a rather different approach to the concept of propaganda:  that it is by definition one-sided and excludes entirely other points of view. In this sense, virtually all programming on the BBC, for example, virtually all news on the war in The Financial Times is pure propaganda and must not be confused with journalism.

By this measure, Sixty Minutes is true journalism, not propaganda. Although there are expert panelists in the studio and the hosts have their own script to guide the show, a large part of the time, often measuring half or more, is given over to extensive video segments taken from Western media and setting out U.S., British and other unfriendly coverage of the news. I emphasize that these are not ‘sound bites’ but sufficiently long segments for the enemy’s views to be made perfectly clear.  In this sense, I see today on these programs the same kind of editorial direction that I experienced as a panelist on all the major Russian talk shows in 2016. Only back then, in the time before Covid lockdowns and before the travel restrictions on Russia imposed in February of this year, there were U.S. and other Western guests who were given the microphone long enough to set out the CIA view of things so that it might be shown up by the superior logic of Russian positions. That is to say that today, just as in the past, the producers of Russian television have little doubt that viewers will draw the proper conclusions in a reasonably fair clash of views.

Now for Mr. Solovyov, I can present a more detailed justification for calling the show good journalism and not propaganda by pointing to some details of the proceedings in last evening’s edition.

Once again, I will focus attention on the little speech delivered by the panelist Karen Shakhnazarov, director of Mosfilm, whom I have characterized in my previous reports on the Solovyov show as someone drawn from the creative intelligentsia, as opposed to the political scientists and Duma deputies who otherwise are the talking heads on these shows.

There were several remarkable points in Shakhnazarov’s remarks.  They were partly prepared in advance, but also partly directly in response to what others were saying before his turn to speak came.

In that last category was his comment on Russia’s relations with the former Soviet republics in the CIS, which political scientist Sergei Mikheev had just criticized for their being parasitical and ungrateful for Russian assistance.  Said Shakhnazarov, the idea of cutting the satellites off from Russia was broadly accepted in Moscow society in 1991 when Yeltsin made it a key part of his political agenda. They were resented for siphoning off Russia’s wealth and for having a higher standard of living than Russia itself. However, Shakhnazarov said that little countries behave this way most everywhere; it is the way of the world. And if you don’t pay them off, someone else will. Moreover, these republics speak of Russia as the former colonial power and expect these forms of compensation. Yes, as we know, when Russia wants some favor in return, they respond that now they are independent and are looking at ‘other vectors.’ The last term was used a couple of days ago by the president of Kazakhstan Tokaev in his press briefing following re-election.

Shakhnazarov’s overriding point is that Russians must be realistic.  The war has not been not going well. At the outset, they had listened even to Western military experts who predicted it would be over in a week. Instead, Russians learned that their army was not what they expected and needs restructuring. They learned that this will be a long and tough fight.  And foreigners also learned from what has happened and this has shaken somewhat the views about Russia among its friends. There is nothing to do about this at the moment but to face up to the facts.  America and the West may be run by rabid feminists and queers, but they are doing well: they have money and armed forces in abundance to keep their allies in line.  This is the way the world works. In the meantime we must fight on to victory, because there is no alternative.

Then Shakhnazarov touched on some still more unexpected and tantalizing themes organized around the question of ideology: we don’t think we have an ideology, but indeed we do – it is the ideology of the liberal bourgeoisie. In that sense we are much closer to our enemies, and especially to America’s Republican Party, than we are to those countries who are now our friends: socialist India, Communist China and Vietnam and North Korea.  Our friends are all on the Left, while our enemies are conservatives like ourselves. He went on to say that our friends are sticking by us though all of them remember how we betrayed them in 1991 when Yeltsin completely severed ties with Cuba, for example. And even today we continue to observe sanctions on North Korea though doing so looks foolish.

I will stop there. My point is very simple: everything Shakhnazarov was saying on air on Russian state television, was as free and critical of his own society and its government as one could hope for in a state respecting freedom of the press and freedom of speech.