Vladimir Putin has brutally muzzled Russian media

T HE LAST thing viewers saw on March 3rd was a Soviet-era black-and-white recording of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “Swan Lake”. A few minutes later TV Rain, Russia’s only remaining independent internet television channel, went dark.

It had branded itself the “optimistic channel” when it first came on air in 2010. Its young, liberal journalists had hoped for their country to be part of an open, civilised world. This week they walked out of their studio live on air. Many of them have now left the country.

So have many other liberal or middle-class Russians. Over the past few days they have piled on to the few remaining flights out, to places like Baku, Dubai, Tbilisi or Yerevan; EU and American airspace is closed to Russian planes. The exodus of Russia’s brightest is probably the fastest in the country’s history.

The choice of “Swan Lake” was symbolic. It is what Soviet television channels showed on August 19th 1991, as the KGB and the army attempted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and declared a state of emergency in Russia. It was at that time that Ekho Moskvy, Russia’s main liberal radio station, was briefly taken off air and newspaper printing presses were stopped. Since then, Ekho Moskvy has been a staple of life for millions of Russians, who have tuned in for news, discussions and talk shows.

Today there is no Ekho Moskvy either. Its editor, Alexei Venediktov, is still in Russia, and is continuing to report via his Telegram messenger channel. Online media outlets, such as Mediazona, have been shut down. The BBC and Radio Liberty are blocked. So are Facebook and Twitter. YouTube may be next, since it hosts broadcasts by the team of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s jailed opposition leader, which has long been outside Russia. However, YouTube also carries Russian propaganda, so it may be spared.

Vladimir Putin, who invaded Ukraine on February 24th, is also waging a kind of war on his own people. He has imposed military-style censorship without formally declaring a state of emergency. A law passed on March 4th bans dissemination of any information about the war other than the official version, and threatens a prison sentence of up to 15 years for those who flout it. The mere mention of the word “war” is prohibited. The state has aped George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”: Russia’s shelling of Ukrainian civilians is an act of liberation. War is Peace and Ignorance is Strength.

Russian talk shows are getting longer and angrier. Mr Putin sets the agenda. The main news programme on March 6th on the Russia Channel led with the president’s bizarre meeting with Aeroflot stewardesses. Mr Putin was shown trying to preserve an air of normality while, oddly enough, not observing his usual extreme social distancing. This is not an emergency, he said; there will be no martial law; the military operation is going according to plan; only military targets are being struck with precision weapons; all other damage is caused by Ukrainian Nazis who have already killed 13,000 people in Donbas over the past eight years and are now shelling their own cities and killing Ukrainian soldiers; Russia is de-Nazifying a brotherly country and will soon complete this difficult and noble task.

For the following three hours of this “news and current affairs” programme, the propagandists hammered out Mr Putin’s message, filling it with more lies, music, historic flashbacks, and stories of Russian volunteers heroically sacrificing their lives in their fight against fascism, just as they did during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Contradictions are drowned out by sheer volume. Russian television makes full use of the same footage that is seen around the world: shelled cities, destroyed houses, dead civilians, bleeding children, burning refineries. But it blames it all on those Ukrainian Nazis.

The scale of the lies, the intensity of the propaganda and its thudding repetitiveness are all designed to overwhelm the audience, leaving no space for questions, let alone doubt. But although Mr Putin controls Russian television and has muzzled alternative sources of information, reality continues to break through. Accurate news seeps into Russia via the internet, via social media and even via phone calls from relatives in Ukraine. When their loved ones in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, say the city is being bombarded by Mr Putin, some Russians stop their ears and believe Russian television instead. But many do not.

In the days since the war began, Russian public opinion has shifted drastically, according to internet-based polling conducted by Mr Navalny’s team in Moscow, where 80% of people have access to the internet.

On February 25th, the second day of the war, only 29% of those polled described Russia’s role as that of an aggressor, while 31% saw it as a liberator and 25% as a peacekeeper, with the remaining 15% undecided. By March 3rd the share who saw Russia as an aggressor had nearly doubled, to 53%, while the share who saw Russia as a peacekeeper or who were undecided had fallen by half. The share of those who still thought Russia was a liberator remained roughly steady, falling by three percentage points, to 28%.

Similarly, whereas at the start of the war only 14% blamed Russia for the fighting and 39% blamed the West, a week later 36% blamed Russia and only 34% blamed the West. The proportion who blamed the Ukrainians fell from 15% to 7%.

Internet polls like this one should be taken with a pinch of salt—they are often less accurate than telephone polls, though at least the data set is consistent, as the same group has been sampled four times. Nonetheless, in a country where those who dispute the official line on the war face possible jail, the results are startling. People have every incentive to say they swallow Mr Putin’s lies. Yet a large and increasing number refuse to.

Another reality that is hard to disguise is the economic consequences of Mr Putin’s “special operation”. As sanctions bite, Russian supermarkets have started to ration food sales, the rouble has depreciated by half and most international travel has become impossible. The disruption in supply chains is bringing some factories to a halt. A boycott by Boeing and Airbus is threatening to ground the entire Russian air fleet for lack of maintenance or spare parts.

As global brands such as Adidas and Apple pull out, Russia has become visibly more isolated. The closure of IKEA symbolises the end of a certain way of life. When it opened in 2000, people took it as a sign that Russia was becoming gloriously normal. Now it plainly is not.

Even before the war, some 43% of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 said they wanted to leave the country for good. Since the war began, more Russians have been asking Google “how to leave Russia”. In the past few days 25,000 Russians have entered Georgia alone.

Those who are staying are downloading VPN or privacy apps to their smartphones and continuing to protest and resist. Many young Russians decry the war despite the increasing thuggishness of the Russian security services, now openly waging a Belarus-style campaign of terror against protesters. Anti-war rallies on March 6th ended in 5,000 detentions, half of them in Moscow. The number of detentions was double that of the previous Sunday, not because there are more protests, but because there are several times more police. “It felt as if thousands and thousands of troops were brought to Moscow. They were everywhere—in courtyards, on the main squares,” one witness said.

It is not just the number of goons on the streets, but also their tactics that terrorise. Young women speak of being humiliated and beaten in police cells. In one such recording published by Novaya Gazeta, the only independent newspaper left in the country, the officers are heard telling a woman who is repeatedly struck and sexually humiliated: “Fucking marginal. What do you think we’re going to get for this? Putin told us to fucking kill them. That’s it! Putin is on our side! You’re the enemies of Russia, you’re the enemies of the people. We’ll also get a bonus for this.”

Like the rest of the Russian media, Novaya Gazeta is not allowed to report on the war itself, so it is reporting instead on its consequences, in both Russia and Ukraine. In an editorial note it said: “We will no longer be able to report truthfully on the fighting in Ukraine. We will have to temporarily forget [about reporting] the shelling in the cities of the brotherly country. But military censorship does not extend to the fact that the war is going on inside [Russia].” That war may grow in intensity, to the sound of “Swan Lake”. ■